Wednesday, September 06, 2006

2006 NFL Predictions

So very intermittent, I know. Savor what you can get. Here are my 2006 NFL Predictions, a day before the opening game, after having gone through the schedule game-by-game. An asterisk (*) denotes a playoff team:

AFC East

1. Miami Dolphins (11-5)*
2. New England Patriots (9-7)
3. New York Jets (6-10)
4. Buffalo Bills (5-11)

AFC North

1. Cincinnati Bengals (11-5)*
2. Pittsburgh Steelers (10-6)*
3. Cleveland Browns (7-9)
4. Baltimore Ravens (7-9)

AFC South

1. Indianapolis Colts (11-5)*
2. Jacksonville Jaguars (7-9)
3. Tennessee Titans (6-10)
4. Houston Texans (3-13)

AFC West

1. San Diego Chargers (11-5)*
2. Denver Broncos (10-6)*
3. Kansas City Chiefs (9-7)
4. Oakland Raiders (3-13)

AFC Playoffs

Byes: Cincinnati (1), Indianapolis (2)
Denver at Miami
Pittsburgh at San Diego

NFC East

1. Washington Redskins (12-4)*
2. Dallas Cowboys (10-6)*
3. New York Giants (9-7)*
4. Philadelphia Eagles (7-9)

NFC North

1. Chicago Bears (9-7)*
2. Minnesota Vikings (8-8)
3. Green Bay Packers (7-9)
4. Detroit Lions (4-12)

NFC South

1. Carolina Panthers (10-6)*
2. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (9-7)
3. Atlanta Falcons (8-8)
4. New Orleans Saints (7-9)

NFC West

1. Seattle Seahawks (10-6)*
2. St. Louis Rams (9-7)
3. Arizona Cardinals (7-9)
4. San Francisco 49ers (3-13)

NFC Playoffs

Byes: Washington (1), Carolina (2)
New York Giants at Seattle
Dallas at Chicago

Playoff Results

First Round

MIAMI 17, Denver 13
Pittsburgh 24, SAN DIEGO 21

SEATTLE 28, New York Giants 19
Dallas 27, CHICAGO 14

Second Round

CINCINNATI 31, Pittsburgh 20
INDIANAPOLIS 27, Miami 21

WASHINGTON 16, Dallas 10
CAROLINA 34, Seattle 17

Conference Championships

CINCINNATI 38, Indianapolis 28
WASHINGTON 23, Carolina 14

Super Bowl XLI

Cincinnati 27, Washington 17

Sunday, April 02, 2006

The Annual Embarrassment

With a game tonight and Opening Day tomorrow, it's time to unveil my annual baseball predictions. Last year I correctly guessed the record of an astonishing 1 out of 30 teams, and this year I think I could easily double that amazing success. Last year the two World Series participants were both predicted in this space to finish in fourth place. So that's good news for you if you're a fan of Washington, the Chicago Cubs, San Diego, Tampa Bay, Detroit, or Seattle. (Feel free to order ahead for those Nationals-Tigers World Series tickets.)

National League

NL East

1. New York Mets 91-71 -
2. Philadelphia Phillies 88-74 3
3. Atlanta Braves 83-79 8
4. Washington Nationals 72-90 19
5. Florida Marlins 68-94 23

There's no club in the National League that stands out as dominant; every team is flawed in one way or another. But the Mets seem to have the most margin for error in this division. Pedro Martinez is always an injury risk, but not really much more than most ace pitchers, and when he's healthy, he's still the best in the NL (sorry, Peavy fans). The rest of the rotation is somewhat shaky, but their bullpen should be very good and very deep, and their lineup is absolutely stacked. They have a chance to start every game with Jose Reyes, Carlos Beltran, David Wright, Carlos Delgado, and Cliff Floyd, which is probably the best 1-5 combo in the league. Defense is still a concern (especially with the trade of Mike Cameron), but there's nobody out there who's absolutely going to kill them. That's more than I can say for the Phillies and their frightening back end of the rotation. Jon Lieber and Brett Myers form a solid if unspectacular 1-2, and Ryan Madson could develop into a nice #3, but after that it gets scary, especially pitching in that ballpark. The bullpen is equally frightening. Tom Gordon should be fine at closer (assuming his arm doesn't fall off after all that overuse in New York the last few years), but getting the ball to him might be a problem. Of course, that offense is better than New York's or just about anybody else's in the National League, and that will keep them right in the playoff race the whole way. The Braves should be a solid team, but I'm not going to superstitiously pick them to finish first "just because no one's unseated them yet." This might be the year the wheels come off that pitching staff. John Smoltz can still bring it, but Tim Hudson's peripheral numbers have been sliding in the past few years, and after that it gets murky. Jorge Sosa did it with mirrors last season. The bullpen is also a concern, and while their offense is going to be pretty good, it's not in the class of New York and Philly. At the bottom of the barrel are the Nats and Marlins. Washington has a solid front of the rotation but will have trouble scoring runs. (That Alfonso Soriano trade is going to end up looking pretty foolish. Watch his numbers plummet to .230-16-57 or something in that neighborhood.) I like Florida's collection of young hitters, but their rotation after Dontrelle Willis is going to be pretty bad.

NL Central

1. Milwaukee Brewers 90-72 -
2. St. Louis Cardinals 89-73 1
3. Houston Astros 79-83 11
4. Chicago Cubs 77-85 13
5. Pittsburgh Pirates 75-87 15
6. Cincinnati Reds 72-90 18

Everybody's on the Brewer bandwagon all of a sudden, but not many want to ride it as far as I'm willing to go with it. This is a team that was in Wild Card contention into September last year, although nobody noticed, and they really weren't much different talent-wise than teams like Philly, New York, Florida, Atlanta, and Houston. This year they will be better. Even though Ben Sheets starts the year on the DL, he shouldn't be out too long, and I think he's in for his best year yet. He'll anchor an incredibly underrated pitching staff. Doug Davis is a great #2 starter, Chris Capuano is an 18-game winner at #3, and there's depth to round out the rotation with Dave Bush and Tomo Ohka. The bullpen is strong and deep (Dan Kolb notwithstanding) and the entire staff is led by Mike Maddux, one of the best pitching coaches in the game. Still, the improvement over last year will have to come on offense. Three-quarters of the Brewer infield is manned by young, improving stars. Prince Fielder will mash right away and win Rookie of the Year honors. If Rickie Weeks isn't an All-Star this season, he will be for many to come. And after an abysmal first half last year, J.J. Hardy started to figure out major league pitching and crushed the ball in the second half. Throw in Carlos Lee and Geoff Jenkins in the middle of the order and role players like Corey Koskie, Brady Clark, and Bill Hall, and this is a team that should score more runs than a year ago. That will be enough to nudge them past the Cardinals, who are still a good, balanced club, but whose margin for error is getting slimmer. Pujols is still the best hitter in the majors, and the return of Scott Rolen is a good thing, but Jim Edmonds has begun his career decline, and the rest of that offense is pedestrian. The rotation is deep, but after Chris Carpenter, comes with some question marks. Mulder, in particular. His strikeout rates have dipped alarmingly the last couple of seasons, and it's not because he's focused on getting guys to make more contact. He's playing with fire, and I wouldn't be surprised to find out there's some long-term injury issues there. On the whole, they're an aging club that won't challenge for 100 wins again, and might not hit 90. After Milwaukee and St. Louis, the rest of this division is a mess. The Astros still have some stars (Oswalt, Berkman, Lidge) and some solid contributors (Pettitte, Ensberg - who won't hit 36 home runs ever again), but there's no depth at all in the rotation, and the periphery of their lineup is weak and aging. Still, I like them better than the Cubs, whose rotation is a huge question mark. I'm tired of expecting Wood and Prior to combine for 60 starts. Sure, they could, but they both open the year on the disabled list, and there's no reason to expect more than 35 starts between them. They'll effectively fill one spot in the rotation, Zambrano will do well in another, and then it begins to unravel. They spent a lot of money on players that don't deserve it in the offseason (middle relievers, Jacque Jones). After Pierre, Lee, and Ramirez, I don't trust that lineup. Still, it's better than what the Pirates have to offer. Jason Bay is a star, but he's surrounded by... Jeromy Burnitz? Sean Casey? Joe Randa? This is a team with a bright future thanks to their multiple young pitching studs and great new manager, but the present will be rocky as they lose a lot of 3-2 games. The Reds, on the other hand, might be down 3-2 after most first innings. Their lineup will once again be spectacular, but their pitching staff (rotation and pen) will once again be spectacularly awful. More of the same from the last few years.

NL West

1. Los Angeles Dodgers 87-75 -
2. San Francisco Giants 86-76 1
3. Colorado Rockies 74-88 13
4. San Diego Padres 72-90 15
5. Arizona Diamondbacks 70-92 17

Last year this division was historically bad. I'll go ahead and predict a small rebound, just because the Dodgers and Giants should have better health than last year. The Dodgers are my pick to win the division, largely on the strength of their offense. J.D. Drew proved last year that he could hit in a pitcher's park. His injury was more fluke than chronic (though he's had chronic injuries before), and I think he'll be a great cleanup hitter. Jeff Kent can still hit, and Rafael Furcal is a great addition at the top of the order. Nomah has a lot of questions surrounding him, but I don't think they're about his bat. He'll certainly be an upgrade over Hee Seop Choi at first. The outfield depth is a concern (Jose Cruz? Kenny Lofton?) but there is an abundance of young hitting talent in the minors ready to help fill that depth in the second half. As a Dodger fan, I'm practically drooling at the start of the Joel Guzman Era. The rotation won't scare anybody (as somone on ESPN said recently, they have five #3 starters), but with Gagne and Baez at the back end of the bullpen, their pitching can't be as bad as it was a year ago. That should be enough to push them past the Giants, who will be right in the thick of things as long as Barry Bonds is around and able to stand in the batter's box. The offense around him will improve by his mere presence in the lineup (though it might not be reflected in any of their stats, since almost all of them are on the last legs of their careers). It's the pitching rotation which will carry them, though. Jason Schmidt, Noah Lowry, and Matt Cain form the best 1-2-3 punch in the division and maybe the league, and while Matt Morris is something of a schlub, he'll be okay in that park. The bullpen is cover-your-eyes awful, but that's nothing new. It's been that way for years now, and they usually manage to compete. The bottom three in this division might have the three worst records in the NL. At least the Rockies are heading in the right direction. They seem to have a solid nucleus of young hitters, and while their pitching numbers will never be pretty, they have enough live arms to keep them in their many 7-5 games. The Padres have a couple of very good players in Jake Peavy and Brian Giles, but their lineup looks like it came straight out of 1996 (Vinny Castilla? Mike Piazza? Ryan Klesko?), and their rotation is not deep at all. Sure, they fleeced Texas in the Chris Young deal, but that's not going to change the fact that this team will struggle to score runs. Arizona won't necessarily struggle to score (though their offense will take a step back). No, it's the pitching which will doom them. I like Brandon Webb at the front of the staff and Jose Valverde at the back, but in between it's a Reds-esque nightmare. Couple that with an aging lineup and you've got trouble. Expect to see most of their many hitting prospects up in the big leagues getting lots of at-bats by July.

American League

AL East

1. Boston Red Sox 93-69 -
2. New York Yankees 90-72 3
3. Toronto Blue Jays 83-79 10
4. Tampa Bay Devil Rays 76-86 17
5. Baltimore Orioles 75-87 18

Don't compare the won-lost records across leagues and assume they're equivalent. The Yankees' 90 wins are better than Milwaukee's; Toronto's 83 are worth more than Atlanta's; and Baltimore's 75 are much stronger than Pittsburgh's. But the American League is so stacked, so much better top to bottom than the NL, that the disparity in records exists. Boston is a good, solid club from 1-9 in the lineup, at most every position in the field, with a deep rotation and a bullpen that should be effective if not lights-out. Everyone's writing them off because they replaced Johnny Damon with Coco Crisp (not much downgrade there). Everyone also forgets that Curt Schilling will be healthy this year, Josh Beckett joins the rotation, and there's still the tiny matter of Manny Ramirez and David Ortiz in the middle of the order. They'll be fine. The Yankees will certainly score a ton of runs - most in the majors this year, I think - with a historically great 1-6 in the lineup (Damon, Jeter, Sheffield, ARod, Giambi, Matsui) and a pretty solid 7-8-9 in Posada, Williams, and Cano. The problems for New York will come when the other team is batting. Defensively they're atrocious (only ARod can be considered even a very good defender, and only ARod and Damon can even be considered average), and their starting staff is going to be troublesome. Randy Johnson is the safest bet, and he's 41. Mike Mussina looks like he's only going to get worse from here on in, and if anyone thinks that Chien-Ming Wang and Shawn Chacon can do what they did a year ago, well... bridges for sale and whatnot. Toronto is getting a lot of buzz for their offseason acquisitions, all of which were pretty good, but there's still a talent gap between them and the Axis of Evil. They've certainly distanced themselves from the bottom two in this tough division, but I'm not sure they have enough to catch the Big Two. It might take a couple of offseasons like this one to completely catch up. The Devil Rays will be a nice surprise (how sad is it that 76 wins would be a nice surprise) because they have a lineup that can flat out rake. Their rotation, however, leaves much to be desired after Scott Kazmir. Call it a hunch as to why I have them ranked ahead of the Orioles, who should be better in the rotation thanks to Leo Mazzone's arrival. Ramon Hernandez is a nice addition at catcher, but much of that offense is ever so slightly on the downhill side of their peaks. In the NL they'd be a cinch to finish at .500 and would probably contend for the Wild Card, but here in the AL East, they're fighting for fourth.

AL Central

1. Chicago White Sox 92-70 -
2. Cleveland Indians 85-77 7
3. Minnesota Twins 84-78 8
4. Detroit Tigers 80-82 12
5. Kansas City Royals 63-99 29

Consider me a White Sox believer. Even though they had more than their share of good fortune last year (the rotation stayed remarkably healthy, and just about everyone in the lineup hit the upper end of their ability), I like them to repeat in the division because I think they're going to be much better this year. Adding Jim Thome and Javier Vazquez without losing anyone of significance is a major coup. Both of those guys could be All-Stars this year, and both make the club instantly better. Even with the expected dropoff in production from guys like Jon Garland, Scott Podsednik, and Jermaine Dye, their win total shouldn't suffer too terribly. Playing in a very tough division might be the biggest challenge. The Indians will probably take a small step backwards this year even as their overall trajectory is way, way up. The rotation is solid but they didn't really adequately replace Kevin Millwood, and their bullpen probably pitched a bit "above their heads" last year. Still, the lineup is stocked. Travis Hafner will put up David Ortiz-like numbers this year, and guys like Grady Sizemore and Jhonny Peralta are still improving. The Twins should be better than a year ago - they still have the best pitching in the division from top to bottom - but I still wonder if they'll be able to score enough runs to compete with Chicago and Cleveland. Johan Santana should add a few more Cy Youngs to his stash beginning this year, and Francisco Liriano will soon join him to form a dominant 1-2 punch. The Tigers probably don't have quite that much upside at the top of their rotation, but they'll be close when Jeremy Bonderman and Justin Verlander come of age. That might not be until 2007 or 2008, though, so for now, I'll count Detroit in the "mild surprise but ultimately not in the race" camp. Offense will be the key for them, though they have a good nucleus in Granderson, Shelton, Guillen, and Polanco plus Ordonez in the middle of the order. That leaves the Royals bringing up the rear. They could score a few runs this year with a healthy Mike Sweeney and Reggie Sanders, but their pitching staff is going to be awful, and Dougmark Grudzielkiewicz isn't much of a first-second-baseman.

AL West

1. Oakland A's 96-66 -
2. Anaheim Angels 92-70 4
3. Texas Rangers 77-85 19
4. Seattle Mariners 71-91 25

This should be the best division race in the majors, at least in terms of quality baseball being played. The A's are the best team in the majors this year; they have no weaknesses. They catch the ball better than anyone else in the AL. Their rotation is young, strong, and deep. Their bullpen is probably the second-best in the league. And their lineup (with the exception of Jason Kendall behind the plate) goes 8 deep and then some. Sure, Milton Bradley and Frank Thomas are risky, but their also luxuries. If both of them flame out, they still have a great collection of hitters. I don't think that'll happen, though. I think they'll avoid their characteristic slow start and hold off the hard-charging Angels in the end. Speaking of the Halos, they should once again have the best bullpen in the major leagues - if anything, it will be better this year than it has been thanks to the addition of lefty J.C. Romero to go with K-Rod, Shields, and Donnelly. The rotation should also be improved, believe it or not. John Lackey is ready to become an ace, and I think this is the year Kelvim Escobar breaks out. Even a slight decline from Bartolo Colon won't be enough to derail this staff. The addition of Jeff Weaver was great; he'll thrive for them in the #4 spot. If pitching were the only element in the equation, the Angels might be the best team in the majors. Unfortunately for them, you occasionally have to hit the ball as well. Vlad is Vlad; he'll put up MVP-caliber numbers every year. Chone Figgins is a nice sparkplug. And the rest of the lineup, well... they take the extra base on the rare occasion that their bats do enough to earn them first base. I wouldn't project 92 wins for this offense, no matter how good the pitching was, if not for the fact that I don't believe this will be the offense they end the season with. They have a stable of young hitters who should be ready to contribute by the All-Star break. Howie Kendrick, Brandon Wood, Kendry Morales, and even current starters Jeff Mathis and Casey Kotchman (who might need some time to adjust to big league pitching) should all be getting significant and good at-bats by August 1. They might be a .500 team for the first three months, but the young blood should be enough to get them the Wild Card.

Postseason

NL

Mets over Cardinals
Brewers over Dodgers

Mets over Brewers

AL

A's over White Sox
Angels over Red Sox

A's over Angels

World Series

A's over Mets in 6

Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Baseball Predictions Review

Every year for the last five or six years, I've sent out an email to a handful of friends and fellow baseball fans titled "The Annual Embarrassment." In this email, I break down the upcoming baseball season and predict the exact records of every team, complete with commentary and World Series predictions. Every year, I try to start the email off with a few choice quotes that backfired from the previous year. This year I'll post all that here on my blog for all to see, but I'm breaking it down into two separate posts. Today I'll post a review of how my predictions worked out last year. This weekend (likely Saturday), I'll post my official Annual Embarrassment for 2006. So read on for a look back to April 2, 2005...

Worst Predictions

Here's a few gems that couldn't have been more wrong:

"[The Cardinals] downgraded significantly at shortstop by going from Edgar Renteria to David Eckstein."

"The Astros will slip big."

"Oliver Perez gives Pittsburgh the edge [over Cincinnati] in the standings."

"[The Dodgers] have far and away the best pitching in the division, with the best rotation and, assuming a healthy Gagne for most of the season, the best bullpen in the National League."

"The [Red Sox's] bullpen will be solid again, and the rotation should be fine once they're healthy. Watch for Bronson Arroyo to take the next step."

"[The Twins are] putting together a nice solid lineup, with guys who can hit at every spot in the order."

"Justin Morneau looks like he could be the real thing at first."

"Zack Greinke should be a stud for a long time."

And of course, the grand champion of bad predictions, my unedited writeup on the team that went on to win the World Series, the Chicago White Sox:

"The White Sox will slip back significantly. Ozzie Guillen is my pick for the worst manager in the major leagues, and this organization may be the worst run franchise in baseball. They seem to defiantly reject any performance evaluation that doesn't come straight from their preconceived notions - they're the anti-A's - and as such, they're stuck with players like Scott Podsednik. Might make for a great fantasy baseball team, but in the real world, power and getting on base actually matter for hitters, and walks really do hurt your pitchers. This is a team whose rotation is very shaky, whose bullpen is thin, and whose lineup isn't nearly as good as it was a year ago."

Decent Predictions

In spite of those laughers, I actually did call a few things (though nothing that makes up for the abomination that was my White Sox pick)...

"The big surprise in this division will be the Brewers. This team actually has a lot going for it over the next few years, and they had a great offseason thanks to their steal of Carlos Lee from the White Sox. Their lineup, with Lee, Overbay, and Jenkins in the middle, should be very good. Their rotation, anchored by Ben Sheets and supplemented by the very underrated Doug Davis and Chris Capuano, should be better than average. The big questions for this team will be defense and bullpen, but I think they'll be .500 for the first time since, what, 1982?"

"The Giants have no chance if Barry Bonds doesn't play 100 games this year. He makes everyone else in the lineup better, because they all see better pitches when he's in there. They had a great offense a year ago, but if he's not in there, I see a significant decline from the San Francisco hitters. As for the pitching... watch out. Jason Schmidt may be the best pitcher in the NL, but the rest of that rotation will struggle. Brett Tomko will not follow up on his breakout of a year ago, and Kirk Rueter is done. Jerome Williams and Noah Lowry just don't strike enough batters out to indicate that they'll have success on this level. And the bullpen, other than Benitez, is cover-your-eyes bad (and Benitez may revert to his old ways at any time). All things considered, I think I'm being generous to them [in predicting 82 wins]."

"This year [the Yankees have] added Carl Pavano and Jaret Wright to replace [Kevin Brown and Javier Vazquez]. They may not punch any walls, but neither of them has had anything close to the kind of season they had a year ago previously in their career. "Contract year," anyone?"

Team-by-Team Review

Overall, how well did I do in forecasting each team's record? There were a couple of obvious failures (picking each World Series participant to finish fourth, for instance), but I did okay in some cases as well. Here's how it worked out for every Major League team:

NL East

1 Philadelphia (finished 2nd)
Predicted: 94-68; Actual: 88-74; Difference: 6 games
2 Atlanta (1)
Predicted: 91-71; Actual: 90-72; Difference: 1 game
3 Florida (T-3)
Predicted: 88-74; Actual: 83-79; Difference: 5 games
4 New York Mets (T-3)
Predicted: 77-85; Actual: 83-79; Difference: 6 games
5 Washington Nationals (5)
Predicted: 72-90; Actual: 81-81; Difference: 9 games

Divisional Error: 27 games

NL Central

1 St. Louis (1)
Predicted: 96-66; Actual: 100-62; Difference: 4 games
2 Chicago Cubs (4)
Predicted: 89-73; Actual: 79-83; Difference: 10 games
3 Milwaukee Brewers (3)
Predicted: 81-81; Actual: 81-81; Difference: 0 games (got one!)
4 Houston Astros (2)
Predicted: 78-84; Actual: 89-73; Difference: 11 games (whoops)
5 Pittsburgh Pirates (6)
Predicted: 72-90; Actual: 67-95; Difference: 5 games
6 Cincinnati Reds (5)
Predicted: 68-94; Actual: 73-89; Difference: 5 games

Divisional Error: 35 games

NL West

1 Los Angeles (4)
Predicted: 89-73; Actual: 71-91; Difference: 18 games
2 San Diego (1)
Predicted: 84-78; Actual: 82-80; Difference: 2 games
3 San Francisco (3)
Predicted: 82-80; Actual: 75-87; Difference: 7 games
4 Arizona (2)
Predicted: 74-88; Actual: 77-85; Difference: 3 games
5 Colorado (5)
Predicted: 62-100; Actual: 67-95; Difference: 5 games

Divisional Error: 35 games

NL Error: 97 games

AL East

1 Boston (T-1)
Predicted: 98-64; Actual: 95-67; Difference: 3 games
2 New York Yankees (T-1)
Predicted: 93-69; Actual: 95-67; Difference: 2 games
3 Baltimore (4)
Predicted: 79-83; Actual: 74-88; Difference: 5 games
4 Toronto (3)
Predicted: 70-92; Actual: 80-82; Difference: 10 games
5 Tampa Bay (5)
Predicted: 64-98; Actual: 67-95; Difference: 3 games

Divisional Error: 23 games

AL CENTRAL (cover your eyes if you're squeamish)

1 Minnesota (3)
Predicted: 96-66; Actual: 83-79; Difference: 13 games
2 Cleveland (2)
Predicted: 83-79; Actual: 93-69; Difference: 10 games
3 Detroit (4)
Predicted: 82-80; Actual: 71-91; Difference: 11 games
4 Chicago White Sox (1)
Predicted: 75-87; Actual: 99-63; Difference: 24 games (gulp)
5 Kansas City (5)
Predicted: 65-97; Actual: 56-106; Difference: 9 games

Divisional Error: 67 games (let's just move on, shall we?)

AL WEST

1 Texas (3)
Predicted: 87-75; Actual: 79-83; Difference: 8 games
2 Oakland (2)
Predicted: 86-76; Actual: 88-74; Difference: 2 games
3 Anaheim (1)
Predicted: 84-78; Actual: 95-67; Difference: 11 games
4 Seattle (4)
Predicted: 72-90; Actual: 69-93; Difference: 3 games

Divisional Error: 24 games

AL Error: 114 games

Total Major League Error: 211 games

So that's the bar I've set for myself in '06. Let's see if I can't get it under 200 this year.

Sunday, March 05, 2006

Big Ten Tournament Predictions

My picks for this week's Big Ten Tournament:

(9) Northwestern 52, (8) Penn State 44
I witnessed, in person, the trouncing that we took at the hands of the Nittany Lions a week ago. Can we turn it around on a neutral court? I'm going to say yes. The loss last weekend was the worst game we played in the Big Ten, and one of Penn State's best. We'll have to scratch and claw, and somebody besides Evan Seacat is going to have to make a shot, but if we defend even half as well as we normally do, they should have a lot of trouble scoring.

(10) Minnesota 73, (7) Michigan 65
The Wolverines have been treading water, and the Gophers (until they ran into the brick wall that is the dominating 'Cats defense) have been playing really well down the stretch. I like the mild upset here.

(6) Michigan State 87, (11) Purdue 70
Something tells me that this is the last game MSU wins this season. Their depth is depleted, which means they have to rely on Paul Davis for all of their interior defense. Okay, calm down. It's not that funny.

Quarterfinals

(1) Ohio State 64, (9) Northwestern 54
Third time won't be the charm in this one. Even though we've played OSU as well or better than anyone else in the Big Ten (they'll certainly be rooting for Penn State to beat us in round one), it's just too hard to come back after a dogfight in round one against a team that's rested and just plain more talented. A nice late-season effort, but it ends here for NU.

(5) Indiana 77, (4) Wisconsin 72
Did you feel that? That's a pulse in Bloomington.

(2) Iowa 70, (10) Minnesota 68
Almost called for the big upset here. Chickened out. Yeah, I know the Gophers beat them last week. I'm not sure they can overcome the advantage of Iowa's day of rest this time.

(3) Illinois 82, (6) Michigan State 56
First Round Up Set! (Clap Clap Clap-Clap-Clap!) First Round Up Set! (Clap Clap Clap-Clap-Clap!) Nice knowing you, Spartans.

Semifinals

(1) Ohio State 79, (5) Indiana 64
Here's where the superior talent takes over.

(3) Illinois 64, (2) Iowa 53
Ditto about the talent.

Championship
(1) Ohio State 69, (3) Illinois 65
I think the Illini can dictate the tempo of the game, but Ohio State has more shooters and really manhandled the Illini the last time they met. I think it'll be close, but I expect OSU (the Big Ten's best team by far this season, and our best shot at a Final Four representative) to close it out.

Thursday, February 09, 2006

Big Ten Basketball - Stretch Run

With 5-7 games left in the Big Ten regular season, here's a snapshot of how I see it shaking out. I have to say, as thrilled as I am that Northwestern proved that we still own Iowa, I'm not too optimistic about our closing stretch. We could realistically lose all six games, and it's tough for me to see us winning more than two. Obviously anything can happen (witness PSU over Illinois at Assembly Hall), but unless somebody steps up and gives Vedran some help, I think getting to .500 overall will be about the best we can hope for. First, the current standings:

1. Iowa 7-3
2. Illinois 6-3
2. Ohio State 6-3
2. Michigan State 6-3
5. Michigan 6-4
5. Wisconsin 6-4
7. Indiana 5-4
8. Northwestern 4-6
9. Penn State 3-7
10. Minnesota 2-7
11. Purdue 2-9

Now, a breakdown of my predicted results for the rest of the year. I've grouped all the weekend games together under Saturday, and all the midweek games together under Wednesday, even though sometimes they'll happen on a Sunday, or a Tuesday or Thursday. Home team in ALL CAPS.

Saturday 2/11

Michigan State over MINNESOTA
OHIO STATE over Illinois
Michigan over PURDUE
Wisconsin over PENN STATE
INDIANA over Iowa
(nonconference) NORTHWESTERN over IP-Fort Wayne

Toughest call in this group is Indiana-Iowa. Both teams played poorly in their last game, and it's entirely plausible that Indiana runs out of steam down the stretch. But fortunes have a way of reversing quickly in the Big Ten, and I don't think Iowa's strong enough to take advantage of a wounded Hoosier squad.

Wednesday 2/15

ILLINOIS over Northwestern
IOWA over Michigan State
MICHIGAN over Minnesota
WISCONSIN over Ohio State
Indiana over PENN STATE

Home court advantage is huge in the Big Ten, hence teams I might consider slightly inferior (Iowa and Wisconsin) winning these games.

Saturday 2/18

ILLINOIS over Indiana
MICHIGAN STATE over Michigan
OHIO STATE over Northwestern
Penn State over PURDUE
MINNESOTA over Iowa

Purdue has rebounded nicely in the middle of the Big Ten season, but I think this week's second half against Michigan State was the death knell for the Boilers. They're just too banged up, and "team spirit" and camaraderie can only carry you so far. In this case, not even far enough to beat Penn State at home.

Wednesday 2/22

MICHIGAN STATE over Ohio State
MICHIGAN over Illinois
Wisconsin over NORTHWESTERN
INDIANA over Penn State
MINNESOTA over Purdue

If we're really going to finish out 3-3, this game against Wisconsin simply has to be one of the three. Depending on whether UW's big win over Indiana was more a reflection of the Badgers' returning from their funk, or the decline of IU, we might have a good shot, or none at all. If the problem with Wisconsin were more than just shots not falling, I'd feel more optimistic. But unless you're Winston Blake in your senior year, you can't stay in that kind of a funk for that long a period of time.

Saturday 2/25

ILLINOIS over Iowa
Michigan State over INDIANA
OHIO STATE over Michigan
WISCONSIN over Minnesota
Northwestern over PENN STATE

I'm nervous about this game, and not just because I'll (barring a blizzard) be there in person. It's not often that we've had to travel two days after a game, much less make the longest trip in the Big Ten. I pick us because while Penn State beats us every year, they never beat us twice, and the rematch usually includes some sort of 28-3 run for NU that ices the game.

Wednesday 3/1

Illinois over MINNESOTA
MICHIGAN STATE over Wisconsin
Ohio State over NORTHWESTERN
IOWA over Penn State
Indiana over PURDUE

If Purdue's going to win a game, this could be the one. Minnesota could pull the upset over the Illini as well, if they can keep up their momentum. I'm too chicken to call for either of those upsets, but they could happen.

Saturday 3/4

Illinois over MICHIGAN STATE
OHIO STATE over Purdue
IOWA over Wisconsin
MICHIGAN over Indiana
NORTHWESTERN over Minnesota

With Penn State off and NU taking on Minnesota, six of the Big Seven play each other in the final game. If the standings stay as packed-together as I'm anticipating, that means three great games to close out the season. I'm taking Iowa at home over Wisconsin and Michigan to beat Indiana in the battle of the perennial underachievers and likely bubble teams. The only road team I'll take is Illinois, to go to East Lansing and come away with not only the W, but also the #1 seed in the Big Ten tourney.

So if all that happens, here's how the Big Ten tourney seeds would shake out. I've already run the tiebreakers. The first tiebreaker is head-to-head (and it doesn't matter if the teams involved in a three-way tie have not all played each other the same number of games). In this scenario, there's no need to go to any additional tiebreakers:

1. Illinois (11-5, 25-5 overall)
2. Michigan State (11-5, 23-7)
3. Ohio State (11-5, 22-5)
4. Iowa (10-6, 21-9)
5. Michigan (10-6, 20-7)
6. Wisconsin (10-6, 20-9)
7. Indiana (9-7, 17-10)
8. Northwestern (6-10, 14-14)
9. Minnesota (4-12, 13-14)
10. Penn State (4-12, 12-15)
11. Purdue (2-14, 8-19)

That would create the following tourney matchups:

Opening Round

(8) Northwestern vs. (9) Minnesota
If there's one other constant besides always beating Iowa at home, it's owning Minnesota. I think especially after a regular-season sweep that includes a victory just a few days beforehand, the Gophers (not exactly a "tough" team to begin with) will have packed it in. They defend our offense worse than probably anybody else in the Big Ten (05-06 Purdue notwithstanding). Pick: Northwestern 63, Minnesota 54

(7) Indiana vs. (10) Penn State
IU seems like the clear-cut seventh-best of the Big Seven. Unless Marco Killingsworth finds his second wind or suddenly starts getting a ton of help, I don't see their season lasting very long in the NCAAs (if they even make it that far). But it lasts longer than Penn State's. Pick: Indiana 67, Penn State 51

(6) Wisconsin vs. (11) Purdue
This is the kind of game that the Badgers need to be careful about. Purdue doesn't have the horses to compete day in and day out in the league, but if UW finds themselves in a cold-shooting half, the Boilers could make it interesting. Given the way Purdue plays defense, though, I wouldn't expect Wisconsin to find themselves there very long. Pick: Wisconsin 76, Purdue 60

Quarterfinals

(4) Iowa vs. (5) Michigan
The Hawkeyes absolutely destroyed the Wolverines just last weekend, and both of these teams tend to give pretty inconsistent performances from week to week. If this game came down to who could beat Northwestern more often, Michigan would win twelve times out of eleven. But since NU is not in the picture, I like Iowa to squeak by Michigan's sometimes-leaky perimeter defense. Pick: Iowa 79, Michigan 76

(1) Illinois vs. (8) Northwestern
Seems like it's always either Illinois or MSU waiting for us in round two. Given the choice betwen the two, I'll usually take Illinois. We may not have had much success against either of them in the past two seasons, but at least we haven't looked foolish against U of I. I don't think we'd look foolish in this one, either, but with .500 and an NIT snub locked up, versus a rested Illini squad, I think this is where Vedran's great career ends. Pick: Illinois 61, Northwestern 53

(3) Ohio State vs. (6) Wisconsin
Both of these teams can be dangerous, and if they were both rested, I'd call it nearly a coin flip. But Wisconsin will have had to play Purdue the night before, and OSU will have had plenty of time to prepare for them. I'll take the Buckeyes in a hard-fought game. Pick: Ohio State 68, Wisconsin 64

(2) Michigan State vs. (7) Indiana
I haven't been on the State bandwagon all year. In fact, you can consider me a skeptic throughout the Paul Davis Era. Maybe Drew Neitzel's not been quite as spaztastic this season, and maybe Shannon Brown and Maurice Ager have lived up to the hype, but in the end, that's still a stiff overrated white guy clogging up the middle. I have visions of Marco Killingsworth eating him for breakfast. Score the upset for the Hoosiers. Pick: Indiana 67, Michigan State 59

Semifinals

(1) Illinois vs. (4) Iowa
At the end of the day, there's no one in the Hideous-Yellow-and-Black who can guard Dee Brown. Pick: Illinois 74, Iowa 57

(3) Ohio State vs. (7) Indiana
IU will have done just enough to get off the tourney bubble (they'll be 19-10 with a win over MSU), and might suffer a bit of a letdown. Ohio State is too good to let down against. Pick: Ohio State 83, Indiana 69

Championship Game

(1) Illinois vs. (3) Ohio State
The two best teams in the Big Ten should wind up in the championship against one another. This year, The Ohio State actually has something to play for when they close the season against the Illini. But Illinois might just be playing for a Top-Two seed, and their experience and stellar point guard play from Tourney MVP Dee Brown will be too much for Thad Matta's squad. OSU may end up getting farther in the NCAAs than any other Big Ten team (I wouldn't be surprised), but Illinois owns this tournament. Pick: Illinois 91, Ohio State 80

Monday, January 23, 2006

Top Ten NFL Playoff Games: 1990-Present

10. 2003 NFC Wild Card - GREEN BAY 37, Seattle 31 (OT)
Everyone remembers this one for Matt Hasselbeck's declaration upon winning the overtime coin flip: "We want the ball, and we're going to score!" Hasselbeck did proceed to throw a game-ending touchdown, but since it was to Al Harris (a Packers defender), I don't think he really delivered on his promise. Beyond that hilarious display of pride coming before the fall, this game had the intrigue of Mike Holmgren leading his moribund Seattle franchise in just their second playoff game of the decade, against the team he'd led to a Super Bowl title. Hasselbeck went up against his old mentor, the venerable Brett Favre. And the game ended on a stunning INT returned for a TD in overtime. About as much as you could ask for in a Wild Card contest...

9. 1993 AFC Wild Card - KANSAS CITY 27, Pittsburgh 24 (OT)
... unless you threw in a two-minute drill by Joe Montana, in the twilight of his career, to force overtime and ultimately propel the Chiefs towards the conference title game. Considering the relative preponderance of OT games in the playoffs the last few years (especially in '03), the fact that this game was the last to go extra periods for five years was somewhat remarkable.

8. 2003 NFC Divisional Playoff - Carolina 29, ST. LOUIS 23 (2 OT)
Speaking of overtimes... two of them! In the only NFL playoff game in recent history (ever? I'm too lazy to look anything up before 1990) that would have ended in a tie in the regular season, Mike Martz solidified his reputation as a horrible coach, and Steve Smith gave a glimpse of greatness to come with his game-winning touchdown reception. The fact that these two high-octane offensive clubs could go an entire 15-minute overtime period without scoring just served to heighten the tension.

7. 2001 AFC Divisional Playoff - NEW ENGLAND 16, Oakland 13 (OT)
The Tuck Rule Game. A nail-biter, played in the snow, with more twists and turns than a thing that has a lot of twists and turns. Tom Brady wasn't "Tom Brady" yet, but this game went a long way towards announcing his arrival. The Raiders rebounded the next year to make it to the Super Bowl, while the Pats used this victory to launch a mini-dynasty. A classic.

6. 2002 NFC Wild Card - SAN FRANCISCO 39, New York Giants 38
In terms of lasting impact, this game ought to be ranked lower. But in terms of pure adrenaline and excitement, I'm not sure anything can top it. The Niners, clearly in the last gasps of being a contending team, led by the brash Terrell Owens, against the up-and-coming Giants, led by the brash Jeremy Shockey. The '02 Giants had been absolutely frightening in the second half of the season with their offensive production, and the Niners appeared to be hanging on for dear life. When New York took a three-touchdown lead in the second half, it appeared to be over. But Jeff Garcia carried the Niners on his back and mounted an improbable comeback in a game that was never boring and delivered trash talk to go with its horde of points.

5. 1999 Super Bowl - St. Louis 23, Tennessee 16
The crowning of one of the greatest single-season teams in NFL history, as Kurt Warner's late 77-yard touchdown pass to Isaac Bruce provided the winning margin over a very game Titans team. This game will be forever remembered for one of the greatest game-ending plays in NFL history: Mike Jones' tackle of Kevin Dyson on the one-foot line to preserve the Rams' victory as time expired. Truly a phenomenal football game from start to finish, an all-too-rare phenomenon in the Super Bowl.

4. 1990 NFC Championship - New York Giants 15, SAN FRANCISCO 13
Jeff Hostetler, filling in for an injured Phil Simms, led Bill Parcells' Giants to a victory over Joe Montana's Dynastic Niners in what has to be one of the best games ever played. Certainly a very different kind of game than the other Niners-Giants tilt to make the Top Ten, this one saw five Giants field goals, numerous big defensive stands, and an entire 60 minutes with a palpable sense of watching history unfold. This was the first non-Super Bowl NFL game that I remember watching from start to finish. Needless to say, I picked a good one.

3. 1992 AFC Wild Card - BUFFALO 41, Houston 38 (OT)
The Comeback. The Oilers led 35-3 early in the third quarter, and Jim Kelly was hurt. Frank Reich led the single biggest comeback in NFL history, as Buffalo scored five touchdowns to take a 38-35 lead over Warren Moon's stunned Oilers. Moon somehow led Houston back to tie the game and send it to overtime, but the Bills won on their way to a third consecutive Super Bowl trip.

2. 1990 Super Bowl - New York Giants 20, Buffalo 19
Scott Norwood. Wide Right. A classic.

1. 1997 Super Bowl - Denver 31, Green Bay 24
John Elway vs. Brett Favre. Two future Hall-of-Famers. One quarterbacking a team coming off its first Super Bowl championship in nearly three decades, hoping to reestablish an NFL dynasty in the Land of Cheese. The other with a window seemingly closing, trying to take advantage of the best supporting cast he'd ever been given, and finally exorcise his demons from all the failures to win the big game throughout his career. The year before, this was the game everyone was anticipating, until Jacksonville shocked the world and eliminated the Broncos in round two. In '97, Denver didn't even win their division, and had to win two road games over Kansas City and Pittsburgh in order to advance to the Big Game against a Packers team that had been the personification of dominance for almost two years. Elway leading a late game-winning drive to pull the mild upset and diving into the end zone to score the decisive touchdown himself put a cap on what was, all things considered, the greatest NFL playoff game of the last 16 years.

I don't see any way Steelers-Seahawks tops this one, but I suppose triple-overtime might do it.

Friday, January 20, 2006

The Best NFL Playoff Games: 1990-Present

Here in Steeler Country, there is talk that last week's Pittsburgh victory over the Colts might just be one of the best playoff games of all time. I wondered... could it really have been? I've watched a lot of NFL playoff games just in the last decade, and seen some good ones. Where would that game rank?

I decided to investigate. Looking at all NFL playoff games from 1990 up until today, I've picked out the Top 25, as well as 28 more that deserved honorable mention. (I picked 1990 because it's the start of a decade, it's when the league expanded to 12 teams in the playoffs, and because it's the earliest I can remember actually watching a non-Super Bowl playoff game.) These rankings are subjective, but generally here's what I was looking for:

* A close game - preferably close throughout, not deceptively close
* Good play by both teams
* All-time great players (especially, quarterbacks)
* Compelling storylines (the rise and fall of a dynasty, clash of Hall of Famers, etc.)
* Late-game comebacks

In other words, was this game fun to watch from start to finish, and/or memorable for how the result came about? For most of these games, but not all, I can remember watching it live. For some, I've had to rely on the internet to remind me. Feel free to debate my selections, propose your own, or reminisce with me in the comments section.

[Key: W - Wild Card Round, D - Divisional Round, C - Championship Round, S - Super Bowl, ALL CAPS - home team]

Honorable Mention (chronological order)

1990
W - MIAMI 17, Kansas City 16 - Dan Marino leads 14-point fourth quarter comeback

1991
D - DENVER 26, Houston 24 - John Elway throws the winning touchdown after a patented two-minute drive

1993
D - Kansas City 28, HOUSTON 20 - Joe Montana leads the Chiefs to victory in a tight game

1994
W - MIAMI 27, Kansas City 17 - Marino vs. Montana for the first time in the postseason since the 1984 Super Bowl
C - San Diego 17, PITTSBURGH 13 - The immortal Stan Humphries pulls the upset and propels the Bolts to the Super Bowl

1995
W - PHILADELPHIA 58, Detroit 37 - The sheer volume of points puts it on the list
C - PITTSBURGH 20, Indianapolis 16 - Just missed the cut of the Top 25; a dropped pass in the end zone is all that kept Jim Harbaugh's underdog Colts from advancing to the Super Bowl as the #6 seed

1996
W - Jacksonville 30, BUFFALO 27 - The second-year Jags shocked the world by winning in Buffalo in their first playoff game. It was their sixth win in a row after starting the season 4-7.
D - Jacksonville 30, DENVER 27 - One week later, Mark Brunell & Co. pull off a monumentally bigger shocker, defeating the mighty Denver Broncos (who had started the season 13-0) at Mile High Stadium and advancing to the AFC title game.
[Note: These were the only two postseason games in 1996 worth watching. No Top 25 games from that year, which has to go down as the most boring postseason in the last 16 years. Favre and the Packers winning the title made everybody, myself included, forget how dreadful the games were that year.]

1997
D - PITTSBURGH 7, New England 6 - The Fog Game.
D - Denver 14, KANSAS CITY 10 - The Chiefs' postseason woes continued. They wouldn't make it back again for six years.

1998
W - Arizona 20, DALLAS 7 - Jake Plummer leads the Cardinals to a playoff victory in Dallas. This actually happened; look it up if you don't believe me.
W - MIAMI 24, Buffalo 17 - A close game throughout, highlighted by the Dolphins putting that pipsqueak Doug Flutie in his place at the end and stomping on a box of Flutie Flakes in the locker room afterwards. Jimmy Johnson, class act.
D - ATLANTA 20, San Francisco 18 - The Dirty Birds won, but I'll always remember this game as the game where Garrison Hearst broke his leg in 406 places. This was the death knell of the Walsh-Siefert-Montana-Young-Etc Niners Dynasty.

1999
D - ST. LOUIS 49, Minnesota 37 - Kurt Warner's first NFL playoff game, and he absolutely annihilated the Vikings. At one point the Rams scored five unanswered touchdowns before Minnesota scored 20 points late to make it look closer than it was. An utter shellacking that makes the Honorable Mention just for how amazing the Rams' offense was.

2000
W - MIAMI 23, Indianapolis 17 (OT) - Not a great game, but an overtime game that included a Mike Vanderjagt missed field goal and a game-winning touchdown.
W - NEW ORLEANS 31, St. Louis 28 - The Saints' only playoff win. Ever.
[Note: I take back what I said about 1996. 2000 was worse. Other than these two games, no other playoff game was closer than 10 points, and the Ravens-Giants Super Bowl matched the worst Super Bowl champs of the last decade against the worst #1-seed runners-up. Ugh.]

2001
C - New England 24, PITTSBURGH 17 - Bledsoe comes back in for an injured Brady and wins in Pittsburgh. Just missed the cut.
C - ST. LOUIS 29, Philadelphia 24 - Nobody thought Philly could hang with the Rams, but Donovan McNabb took a big step and almost pulled a big upset. This was the first of four straight NFC title games for Philly, and the only one they played on the road.
S - New England 20, St. Louis 17 - The Rams' dominance ended almost as suddenly as it began. They haven't been back to the Big One since, and Kurt Warner's never been the same. At the time, no one expected the Pats to win two of the next three Super Bowls. This game had an exciting finish but wasn't all that well-played by either side in the first half.

2002
W - PITTSBURGH 36, Cleveland 33 - This game would rank higher if it weren't a matchup between the expansion Browns in the only season they've been remotely decent, and Tommy Maddox. In retrospect, I'm surprised one of these teams won. (Note: I'm bitter about this whole postseason because Miami at 9-7 was better than any of the AFC's representatives, but managed to choke away a week 17 game against the Pats. Ugh.)
W - Atlanta 27, GREEN BAY 7 - At the time, everyone thought this signaled Michael Vick's arrival. Turns out, it just signaled the beginning of the end for Brett Favre.
D - TENNESSEE 34, Pittsburgh 31 (OT) - Once again, Tommy Maddox. It was games like this that convinced me to draft him as my starting quarterback in fantasy football the next season. I hate Tommy Maddox.

2003
D - NEW ENGLAND 17, Tennessee 14 - Co-MVP Steve McNair put up a valiant effort but fell short in Foxboro, where game-time temperature was 7 Kelvins
D - Indianapolis 38, KANSAS CITY 31 - Peyton Manning in the postseason. Kansas City at home coming off a bye. Something had to give here. Turns out, even Peyton can win in KC in a second-round playoff game. Nice to know there are some constants in this topsy-turvy world.
C - NEW ENGLAND 24, Indianapolis 14 - Peyton gets smacked back in place by Brady & Co.

2004
W - St. Louis 27, SEATTLE 20 - This game would rank higher if both of the teams weren't awful. The Rams were 8-8 but had beaten Seattle twice. The 'Hawks went the whole season starting amputees at wideout, and it finally caught up to them.
D - PITTSBURGH 20, New York Jets 17 (OT) - Meh, it went to overtime, I'll give it an Honorable Mention. Wasn't really a great game, though.

And now, the beginning of the top 25... more to come next week:

25. 1994 AFC Divisional Playoffs - SAN DIEGO 22, Miami 21
A heartbreak for me, as Pete Stoyanovich's potential game-winner missed the mark, and my Dolphins blew a golden opportunity to take advantage of the Steelers' AFC championship home-field curse.

24. 2003 Super Bowl - New England 32, Carolina 29
The first half was pretty boring, but after Justin Timberlake nearly raped Janet Jackson on stage at halftime, both offenses woke up and staged a pretty good second half. If Evil hadn't triumphed over Good in the end, this game might rank even higher.

23. 2004 AFC Wild Card - New York Jets 20, SAN DIEGO 17 (OT)
Marty Schottenheimer proved his mettle as a horrible in-game decision-maker, and carried his KC playoffs curse over to San Diego thanks to his butchering a late drive.

22. 1992 NFC Championship - Dallas 30, SAN FRANCISCO 20
I needed a token representative from the three consecutive Dallas-Frisco NFC title games, and since this was the only one that wasn't over by halftime, it wins. It was also the first, and set the stage for a great postseason rivalry between two teams that no right-thinking American could like.

21. 1995 AFC Wild Card - Indianapolis 10, KANSAS CITY 7
Anyone noticing a Schottenheimer trend? This was probably the most shocking of all his choke jobs, as a nondescript Colts team held them in check all game long. It was ugly.

20. 1995 NFC Championship - DALLAS 38, Green Bay 27
For a few tantalizing moments, it looked like Favre was going to end his Cowboys jinx and propel an interesting team into the Super Bowl. But Aikman & Co. dashed all our hopes and set in motion a chain of events that included Jerry Jones perfecting his "smug" look, Al Davis overpaying for Larry Brown, and Neil O'Donnell's Beard getting its own pilot on NBC.

19. 1999 NFC Championship - ST. LOUIS 11, Tampa Bay 6
All year long, nobody had been able to slow down Warner & The Rams. Their offense that year was truly awe-inspiring. But then Tampa, with Warren Sapp and Derrick Brooks and John Lynch (before they all got overrated) came into St. Louis and smacked them in the mouth. If not for a since-changed rule on a Bert Emanuel catch, this would go down as one of the most shocking postseason upsets in the last two decades. (Of course, it would also have deprived us of one of the only watchable Super Bowls of the last two decades as well, so I can forgive the refs.)

18. 1993 NFC Wild Card - Green Bay 28, DETROIT 24
This game marked the return of playoff football to Green Bay, even though it was played in Detroit. Brett Favre led a game-winning drive with under two minutes to play, as the Packers got their first taste of playoff success since before I was born. The next year, they'd again beat the Lions by four points in the first round. (1993 and 1994 were remarkably similar on the NFC side, as five of the six teams were the same, and all played each other to the same results up until the NFC title game.)

17. 1998 NFC Wild Card - SAN FRANCISCO 30, Green Bay 27
The Packers tormented Steve Young's Niners throughout the mid-1990s in the postseason. In the period from 1990-today, no two teams have met more often than these two, with five total meetings. This was the only one that went Frisco's way, and it went there dramatically thanks to a Steve Young touchdown pass to Jerry Rice as time expired. This was the last great moment in "Old Niners" history.

16. 2003 NFC Divisional Playoff - PHILADELPHIA 20, Green Bay 17 (OT)
This one will always be remembered for one down: Fourth and 26. McNabb's conversion on that play propelled the Eagles' game-tying drive in the fourth quarter, and ultimately led to their losing the NFC title game for the third straight year. The Packers overreacted, fired their defensive coordinator, and started a descent which I doubt they'll emerge from any time soon.

15. 1997 NFC Wild Card - Minnesota 23, NEW YORK GIANTS 22
When these two teams get together, something unusual is probably going to happen, but I always come away from Vikes-Giants clashes with a sense that I just watched two really awful teams going at it for sixty minutes. Even in years where they're both good, they seem to bring out the worst in each other. This game was exciting, but in the way that a slow-motion viewing of a car accident is exciting. The Giants turned numerous trips into Vikings' territory into five field goals, and the Randall Cunningham-led Vikes sputtered all game long until the last few minutes, when they scored 10 points to stun the New York crowd (not to mention give the Giants plenty of incentive to destroy them in the NFC title game a few years later).

14. 2005 AFC Divisional Playoff - Pittsburgh 21, INDIANAPOLIS 18
This one we just saw on Sunday, and the last five minutes were riveting. The whole game was a good one, what with Peyton Manning playing the part of Peyton Manning to perfection, and Bill Cowher proving why he's one of the best game-planning coaches in the NFL (as long as it's not the AFC title game and/or a game against the Patriots). The Polamalu Pick-Bettis Fumble-Vanderjagt Shank conclusion elevates it from an Honorable Mention to a Top 15 game. If the Steelers go on to establish a dynasty, or if Peyton Manning is murdered by his offensive line for his postgame comments, I reserve the right to move it higher up the list.

13. 1995 NFC Divisional Playoff - Green Bay 27, SAN FRANCISCO 17
This one was a shocker, and signalled an abrupt changing of the guard in the NFC. No longer would it be Niners-Cowboys and everybody else. Brett Favre had a brilliant game, and even though the Pack couldn't pull off the upset the next week in Dallas, it ushered out the Era of NFC Behemoths in one fell swoop. Not many games were this tide-turning.

12. 1998 NFC Championship - Atlanta 30, MINNESOTA 27 (OT)
A battle of 15-1 Minnesota and 14-2 Atlanta, with a ton of drama, a thrilling finish, and high stakes (winner got to be destroyed by Denver in the Super Bowl). If either of these teams had any staying power, this would be remembered as an all-time classic. As it is, it'll have to be content with its place in Gary Anderson's recurring nightmares. (Anderson missed his only kick of the season when he could have iced the game, keeping the Vikings tied with Buffalo for most Super Bowl losses with four.)

11. 1999 AFC Wild Card - TENNESSEE 22, Buffalo 16
The Music City Miracle. Or, as Chris Berman and my friend Nick say, The Forward Pass. While this game had a memorable finish, it wasn't all that compelling for the first 58 minutes. (Prior to Dyson's touchdown return, the highlight of the game was Rob Johnson forgetting to put both shoes on.) Still, I can't drop it too far, because any time I mention it to Nick, I get at least two full minutes of entertainment. Gotta love Bills fans. (Incidentally, Buffalo hasn't been back to the postseason yet.)

The Top Ten will come on Monday... see if you can guess which games they are...

Tuesday, January 03, 2006

Still Alive! and NFL Predictions Review

I missed you too.

Now that I'm good and married off, I'm slowly returning to some sense of scheduled normalcy. And that includes blogging from work (though, be forewarned, it also includes bloglaziness). What better way to jump back into the interweb than with a review of my preseason NFL predictions? Here's the good, bad, and ugly of what I wrote back in Septiembre:

AFC East

1. *New England Patriots (12-4) - actual record 10-6
2. Miami Dolphins (8-8) - actual record 9-7
3. New York Jets (7-9) - actual record 4-12
4. Buffalo Bills (6-10) - actual record 5-11

Notable Quote: "I'm not sold on the Jets, either. Curtis Martin played way above his head last year, and with Lamont Jordan gone to Oakland, I think they lose a lot of 16-10 games."

Review: Looks like I was mostly right on this one; the Pats had the division locked up in mid-December, the Jets and Bills fell below .500 after solid seasons a year ago, and Miami rebounded on its way back to respectability.

AFC North

1. *Cincinnati Bengals (11-5) - actual record 11-5
2. *Baltimore Ravens (10-6) - actual record 6-10
3. Pittsburgh Steelers (10-6) - actual record 11-5
4. Cleveland Browns (3-13) - actual record 6-10

Notable Quote: "I like the Bengals to put it all together this season as Carson Palmer elevates his game to a Pro Bowl level. They should have one of the best offenses in the league."

Review: Nailed the Bengals prediction, and pretty close on the Steelers, too (though I didn't think Roethlisberger would be as good as he was). Didn't see Baltimore's collapse coming, and Cleveland was a little feistier than I anticipated. Overall, though, a decent job on this division.

AFC South

1. *Indianapolis Colts (12-4) - actual record 14-2
2. *Jacksonville Jaguars (10-6) - actual record 12-4
3. Houston Texans (9-7) - actual record 2-14
4. Tennessee Titans (4-12) - actual record 4-12

Notable Quote: "I like Houston to be knocking on the door but just miss the playoff party; their offensive skill players haven't come close to hitting their ceiling, and they're already pretty good."

Review: Three out of four were pretty close, but yikes, did I whiff on the Texans. What happened to David Carr and Company? That kind of stain dulls the shine of getting the other three close to spot on. Of course, it's nothing like the butchery I did in the...

AFC West

1. *Kansas City Chiefs (10-6) - actual record 10-6
2. San Diego Chargers (10-6) - actual record 9-7
3. Oakland Raiders (7-9) - actual record 4-12
4. Denver Broncos (4-12) - actual record 13-3

Notable Quote: "Denver will take the biggest fall this season; Jake Plummer is not a good quarterback, and none of their running backs seem good enough to carry Terrell Davis' legacy. The defense has some promising players but a horrible line transplanted from Cleveland, and their receiving corps is average at best."

Review: I'm still not sure how they did it, but I guess I have to begrudgingly admit that maybe, just maybe, I was wrong about the Broncos. The rest of the division was close (though I should have known that even 7-9 is optimistic for a team quarterbacked by Kerry Collins).

NFC East

1. *Philadelphia Eagles (13-3) - actual record 6-10
2. *Dallas Cowboys (8-8) - actual record 9-7
3. New York Giants (6-10) - actual record 11-5
4. Washington Redskins (3-13) - actual record 10-6

Notable Quote: "Picking Philly to win their division is about the easiest prediction out there. Only Dallas has enough talent to possibly hang with them, but the presence of Drew Bledsoe under center will be a detriment."

Review: In fairness to me, I doubt anyone forecast Philly's stunning fall from grace. But even with that caveat, I was way off in this division. Mark Brunell? Eli Manning? Tiki Barber? Joe Gibbs? Who knew any of those guys would have the year they've had? Probably some of you out there, but, as the evidence above clearly shows, not me.

NFC North

1. *Minnesota Vikings (11-5) - actual record 9-7
2. *Green Bay Packers (8-8) - actual record 4-12
3. Detroit Lions (8-8) - actual record 5-11
4. Chicago Bears (5-11) - actual record 11-5

Notable Quote: "Chicago has a long way to go, and Kyle Orton to get them there. Could be a while."

Review: Whoops. In fairness, it didn't take me long into the season to turn on Minnesota, Green Bay, and Detroit, so these predictions didn't cost me as many games in my Football Pool as my Denver gaffe probably did. I'm still not sold on Da Bears. I think I'll pick them to go 5-11 again next year, and not just out of spite.

NFC South

1. *Carolina Panthers (13-3) - actual record 11-5
2. Atlanta Falcons (8-8) - actual record 8-8
3. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (7-9) - actual record 11-5
4. New Orleans Saints (3-13) - actual record 3-13

Notable Quote: "Atlanta will take a step back unless Michael Vick learns how to play quarterback."

Review: Well, finally a division in the NFC I didn't completely butcher. I was more or less right about Carolina (though they've been much more inconsistent than I expected), Atlanta, and New Orleans. Tampa improved (I thought they would), but much more and much faster than I expected. Still, compared to the wretched NFC East and NFC North picks, I'm calling this division a success.

NFC West

1. *St. Louis Rams (12-4) - actual record 6-10
2. Seattle Seahawks (8-8) - actual record 13-3
3. Arizona Cardinals (6-10) - actual record 5-11
4. San Francisco 49ers (3-13) - actual record 4-12

Notable Quote: "The Rams are the class of the division and really have only one person that can keep them from dominating the division - Mike Martz. If he doesn't get in the way, if he runs Steven Jackson a lot and rides him to the postseason, then this is a legit Super Bowl contender in spite of their defense."

Review: I was about as wrong about the Rams as somebody can be about a team. Not only were they dreadful (against what was, all things considered, a pretty easy schedule), but they couldn't even blame Mike Martz for at least half of that dreadfulness. Keep in mind that two of their six wins came against a fourth-quarter collapse by the Texans and a Dallas team in week 17 that had just been eliminated from the playoffs. In other division news, I will pat myself on the back for seemingly being the only person who wasn't taken in by Arizona, and I'm not going to beat myself up too hard for the Seattle pick, just because I'm willing to bet the playoffs will prove out their talent level as closer to 8-8 than 13-3.

Playoffs

I got four out of six right in the AFC (Indy, New England, Cincinnati, and Jacksonville), and just one out of six in the NFC (Carolina). However, my Carolina-over-New England Super Bowl prediction could still come true.

Revised Playoff Predictions

I'm looking forward to four very good first-round games, and I expect most of the way through the bracket, it'll be pretty competitive. We might actually get a Super Bowl worth watching this year. As long as the Bears cooperate.

First Round

CINCINNATI 31, Pittsburgh 28
Should be a great game, and Cincy's late-season swoon doesn't shake my confidence in them (at least, for this game). Could go either way.

NEW ENGLAND 23, Jacksonville 17
I'm not sure that this game won't be even closer than this; the Pats have lost their mystique of invincibility, and the Jags are a dangerous team that nobody seems to be taking too seriously right now. Their defense is good enough to cause trouble for Tom Brady, but in the end, I just don't think they have enough weapons to win in Foxboro.

Washington 24, TAMPA BAY 17
Washington was the better team when these two met earlier in the year, a one-point Tampa victory thanks to a disputed Mike Alstott two-point conversion. Both of these teams are dangerous, but Washington's better-coached.

Carolina 38, NEW YORK GIANTS 35
This could be the best first-round playoff game since the Giants-Niners game a few years back. Both of these teams have the firepower to put up a lot of points and control a game, and the maddening inconsistencies to disappear altogether. If it comes down to a quarterback needing to lead a fourth-quarter drive for the game-winning score, though, I'm picking Delhomme and the Panthers.

SECOND ROUND

INDIANAPOLIS 34, New England 21
Like I said, the aura is gone.

Cincinnati 37, DENVER 28
Allow me just a slight bit of wishful thinking on this one, won't you?

SEATTLE 27, Washington 24 (OT)
Honestly, throw out the records, and doesn't this matchup strike you as an OT thriller won by whichever team's at home?

Carolina 22, CHICAGO 17
Da Bears announced their "arrival" with a 13-3 home victory over Carolina back in the middle of the season. Now Carolina sends them back where they belong and exorcises a few demons in the process.

CONFERENCE CHAMPIONSHIPS

INDIANAPOLIS 42, Cincinnati 26
If this is the matchup in the AFC title game, I don't think anybody outside of New England, Pittsburgh, Denver, or Jacksonville will be disappointed.

Carolina 30, SEATTLE 23
You're going to have to kick me off the Panther bandwagon. Unlike my Cincy-over-Denver pick, I believe this one 100 percent.

SUPER BOWL

Carolina 37, Indianapolis 31
Yeah, that's right. Delhomme, baby.

Thursday, November 10, 2005

2005-06 College Basketball Preview

Hear that? That faint sound, off in the distance? It's March Madness. And it's on its way.

The college basketball season tips off for most teams this week or next, and even though many people don't start paying attention to NCAA hoops until at least the day after the Super Bowl, this blog is not many people. You could make a legitimate case, and I might agree with you, that men's college basketball is the best organized team sport on the landscape. When you combine the experience of going to the game itself, watching it on TV, following it over the course of the season, and, of course, its peerless postseason, you've got a heavyweight. The only thing it doesn't have that the other main contenders for best sport (NFL, MLB) possess is a gripping way to play Fantasy NCAA Hoops during the season. The March Madness brackets are a close alternative, though.

That said, it's time to unveil my preseason preview. Each of the last two years, I've accurately forecast the national champion in November. Two years ago Connecticut seemed like an easy pick (although I chickened out when Okafor got injured and picked them to lose to Stanford when it came bracket time - I know, Stanford! Not doing that again.) Last season I had my best preseason success yet, accurately predicting three of the Final Four (UNC, Louisville, and Illinois) and the national champ. (My fourth predicted Final Four team, Oklahoma State, advanced to the Sweet Sixteen.) So who are my Golden Four this year, and who's my pick to win it all? You'll have to read on to find out.

The conventional wisdom says Duke is the overwhelming favorite this year. Sometimes the conventional wisdom is right, other times it's way off. If you know me, I try hard to be neither conformist nor nonconformist in my picks. Duke is certainly loaded. The other preseason Final Four consensus among the prognosticators I've read seem to be Texas, Michigan State, and Connecticut. I think this year, the consensus is half right. Before I get to my actual picks, though, you'll have to wade through a little discussion about what I'm looking for when I make my selections...

The Goal

The aim here is to predict who the best teams will be at the end of the season - to pick the Sweet Sixteen in the NCAA Tournament, the Elite Eight, the Final Four, and the National Champion. I'm not trying to prognosticate who will look good early on, or who will be the #1 seeds. Because of that, there are some characteristics I'm looking for in a team I'm picking, and some that are just overrated:

Characteristics of a Title Contender

Talent - In spite of what you may hear on ESPN from the likes of Digger Phelps or Dickie V, talent is the single most important ingredient in a successful sports team. And it's probably more important in college hoops than any other sport. Because of the nature of the game of basketball (where one or two players can take over a game) and the sheer quantity of NCAA teams (325+ in Division I), great talent rises to the top. Look at the recent NCAA champions, and you'll find a common denominator: players on those teams were just flat out observably better basketball players than most of their competition. North Carolina last year was as loaded a team as I've seen in a long time, and UConn the year before that was almost as good. Find a team with two or three legit superstars, and you've found a team that could go far.

Diversity - While talent is important, talent alone is not enough to automatically make a team great. Ideally, your talent will be spread around enough so that you can do different things well on the court. If everybody on your team shoots lights-out from three-point range, but you can't defend the post, then you might have a team that can pull off an upset or two in the tourney (depending on how well you match up against your opponent), but you don't have a team built for a deep run against all kinds of teams. Run into a low-post scoring threat, and you're in trouble. Similarly, if all of your talented players are slashers, then an enterprising coach can scheme you right out of the tournament with a well-executed zone defense. Not every team is going to have a dominant center, a lights-out three point shooter, and a brilliant point guard. But you need to have more than one way to win a game if you're going to challenge for the Final Four. If one of your options is taken away (which happens to even the best players), you have to have other arrows in your sling. (There's a reason Cincinnati sucks every year in the tourney... every player they've had since Nick Van Exel left has been a 6'7" 245-pound power forward.)

A point guard - The closest thing to a critical position for a deep tourney run is a good point guard. Occasionally a team can get to the Final Four without one (Michigan State last year comes to mind), but in those cases it's usually because the coach is good enough to scheme his offense very specifically so that weakness is minimized. A great point guard is the glue that holds great teams together, makes the players around him better, and creates the shots that win games for his wingmen. If that point guard is a senior, even better.

Veterans - I used to say "seniors," but with more and more prep players heading straight to the pros (a trend that won't continue starting next season thanks to the NBA's age limit), now sometimes juniors and even sophomores can be considered "veterans" if they've been around longer than their opponents. Now I'm not saying the entire team has to be composed of sixth-year grad students, but a nice mix of a few vets is very important. No, not for silly "intangibles" or "leadership" or "that extra something" or "Billy Packer's Superstitious Way of Looking at the World." But because of the simple fact that most players get better the longer they play, and most teams get better the longer most of their players have played together. Basketball is a game of making split-second decisions and moves, and the more you play alongside the same group of people, the better you're going to get at anticipating each other, helping each other, and bringing out each others' strengths. "Senior leadership" may have some sort of value - I don't know if it does or doesn't - but stability and experience together on the court most certainly do. Show me a team with five senior starters who have played together for four years and improved each year, and I'll show you a legitimate contender.

And a few things that are not that important...

Depth - Depth is nice if you can get it, but hardly a prerequisite for tournament success. I'd rather have two guys capable of scoring 20 points than eight guys capable of putting up five. Depth might help you withstand injuries, suspensions, or inexplicable nonimprovement (Winston Blake) throughout the course of a season, but come March, your team's best five to seven guys are going to be playing most of the minutes anyway. If there's a constant in the NCAA tournament, it's that the benches get shorter as March wears on. Good coaches will play their best players, fatigue be damned. How many times do you remember a team playing essentially six guys in the Final Four? Happens a lot. Remember the last time a coach played a nine-man rotation significant minutes late in the tournament? Me either. Consider depth a bonus, a feature of a team that helps minimize their risk of performing well below expectations. But don't take it into account when you're trying to predict title contenders.

Any single element of the game - A good point guard is the only thing that could be an exception to this rule. Any time an "expert" tells you that you absolutely have to have (pick one: three-point shooting, solid man-to-man defense, a big guy who can rebound, etc.), he's probably just making that up. Truth is, teams can succeed without any one of those elements, assuming they thrive in most of the other areas. A good coach will tailor his system to his strengths and try to minimize his weaknesses. If his players aren't good three-point shooters, but they run the break, score in the post, play good inside-and-out defense, get to the line and make foul shots, and create open looks for each other, then his team is probably going to be fine. Sure, they're not perfect, but few teams are. Every team is going to have an Achilles' Heel, but as long as they don't have two or three of those heels, they should be fine. (This is the flip side of the argument that diversity is important. It's important to do more than one thing well to be a contender, but it's not important that you do any one particular thing well. There are so many ways to play the game of basketball, that having a post man who can pass, for example, just isn't as life-or-death critical as ex-post-0players-turned-analysts-cough-cough-Bill-Walton-cough-cough might seem to believe.)

So with those guidelines in mind, here are my Sweet Sixteen, Elite Eight, Final Four, and National Championship predictions as of November 10. Feel free to dig this post up later if I fall flat on my face. I'm sure I'll bring it to your attention if I achieve similar success as last year.

Sweet Sixteen

(Just missing the cut: Nevada, Kentucky, Northern Iowa, Miami)

16. LSU - Glen "Big Baby" Davis has one of the more puzzling nicknames in college hoops, but his game is for real. He's a load in the low post, and Darrel Mitchell and Tack Minor give LSU solid guard play as well. In the weak, overrated SEC, this is the only team that I can see going to the Sweet Sixteen. There are several teams just good enough to lose on the first weekend (Kentucky, Vandy, Alabama, and maybe Tennessee), but once again, it'll be an SEC March Madness flameout.

15. Stanford - They have many of the pieces of the puzzle for a contender - diversity and experience - in point guard Chris Hernandez, wing man Dan Grunfeld, and big man Matt Haryasz. If not for the name on the front of the jersey, I might pick them higher. But I've been burned too many times by this team before. Until they demonstrate they're tough enough to withstand a March Madness run, I'll keep them here at #15. With the Pac-10 about to get a lot tougher this year (most improved conference in the country, perhaps), this might be even a bit generous.

14. Gonzaga - Adam Morrison has talent; he's emerged as a true superstar in college basketball in just a year, the next Wally Szczerbiak perhaps. (Don't laugh - remember Wally when he was in college at Miami of Ohio? He was a legit superstar. The fact that he turned into a one-dimensional mild disappointment in the pros doesn't tarnish his college legacy.) Ironically, though, for the team that built its legacy on tournament success, the Zags have been early exits the last few years. If Derek Raivio can continue to improve at the point, they may buck that trend this year.

13. Michigan State - And so we see the first point at which I disagree with the consensus top four. Maybe I'm just not seeing what everyone else is seeing in Paul Davis, but I think I'll need to have it explained to me. He's disappeared time and time again in big games. Couple that with the fact that they don't have a very good point guard (though Neitzel has to be better than last year - doesn't he?), and I just don't see them going to the Final Four again. Then again, they took me by surprise last year, too. The biggest offseason question mark seems to be how much they're going to miss Kelvin Torbert's lower lip, which was (I think) the real heart and soul of this team for four years.

12. Louisville - Ah, my darlings of a year ago. From early November on, I cherished this team, defended them when no one else believed, and it was gratifying to watch them make their Final Four run. (The West Virginia game was one of the greatest games I've ever seen, and it was all the sweeter because I followed this team so closely last year as my own personal darkhorse.) But don't confuse my loyalty to the Cards of '04-'05 with a long-term commitment to the Louisville program. Up until last year, they were one of my frequent targets for early-round exits. And while I don't think they'll regress to their days of yore, you don't just replace Francisco Garcia and Ellis Myles overnight. Garcia especially was just a dynamic college player who really carried that team and made it possible for everyone else to fit into their niches. Taquan Dean especially will miss his running mate from a year ago, because even though Dean's 6'3" and Garcia was 6'7", Francisco was the de facto point guard. Now Dean will have to handle the ball a lot more. Still, Juan Palacios will continue to improve, and David Padgett will be a great addition. I like this team to do fairly well this year, and be primed for a big run in '06-'07.

11. Arizona - They lost a lot in Channing Frye and Salim Stoudamire, but they were loaded last year, and a lot of their reserves will step nicely into their shoes. Hassan Adams made a smart decision in coming back for his senior year; he should be their best player on both ends of the court and really improve his pro stock. Ivan Radenovic is also poised for a great year, and even though it's hard to know exactly what you're getting with freshmen, Tayshaun's cousin J.P. Prince should be a great backcourt addition. Lute Olsen may have had a meltdown in the last four minutes against Illinois, but he's a good enough coach to let his players excel and coach to the team's strengths. This team is probably not an upper-echelon squad this year, but they're a very solid three-seed that gives a two-seed all they can handle in a regional semifinal game.

10. Illinois - Yes, they lost a lot. Yes, now we get to find out whether Bruce Weber can actually coach. But I'm putting them here on the strength of Dee Brown. I think he finds a way to get them here. Before last season when everyone fell in love with Deron Williams, Brown was considered the best of the three Illini point guards. He can do just about everything well, and he's a guy who definitely makes his teammates better. James Augustine is a proven commodity at center, and they have enough talent coming in to maintain their high standards. Plus, they don't have Nick Smith anymore, so that's another point in their favor. Much as I'd like to pile on the Illini in a seeming down year (due as to my intense hatred of them), the objective me says they're still the best team in a deep but not dominant Big Ten. Guess we'll see.

9. Texas - They might be everybody's #2 team, but I don't buy it. Yes, they have a very good team. Yes, the Big Twelve should present relatively few obstacles. And yes, Daniel Gibson gives them a great young point guard. But something has always struck me as vulnerable in the Longhorns. Yes, they made a Final Four appearance a few years ago, but other than that, they've been largely unspectacular in the tournament. Rick Barnes needs to do more to prove to me that he can hang with the best coaches in the country. They'll probably get a #1 or 2 seed, but this team screams "third-round upset victim" to me.

Elite Eight

8. Iowa State - Going out on a major limb here, perhaps. They lose Jared Homan, one of the best pudgy white post players nobody knew about last season, and don't really have anybody to replace him. But their backcourt might be the best in the entire country. I'm that sold on Curtis Stinson and Will Blalock. Stinson is a throwback player who does literally everything on the court well. He's 6'3" but plays like he's 6'8" when he needs to, or 6'1" if that's better. He's always hustling, rebounds very well for a two-guard, plays great defense, and makes his teammates better. He's my pick for preseason Player of the Year. I know he won't win, because nobody's heard of him, and Iowa State is getting zero love this offseason. But I think this is the team that shocks the world once or twice come March and makes a deep run as a 4-6 seed.

7. UCLA - Another team with questions up front but answers abounding in the backcourt. Jordan Farmar and Arron Afflalo are an absolutely sick one-two combination at guard, and they're just sophomores. Josh Shipp makes a nice complementary wing player, and oft-maligned ex-prep-superstar Cedric Bozeman returns to provide depth and matchup problems. Michael Fey and Ryan Hollins, the two enigmatic big men, need to keep getting better, but they have the right mix of talent, and a great coach, and I think this is a team that not only wins the Pac-10, but advances to the doorstep of the Final Four.

6. Villanova - A lot of similarities to last year's Carolina team, though on a less-talented scale. They have a lot of very good players who came in together when a once-proud program was at its lowest point in years, stuck together through the challenges, and now present a team that is experienced, talented, and poised for a deep run. Heck, they almost upset UNC in the Sweet Sixteen a year ago. I'd have them even higher if Curtis Sumpter weren't injured and Jason Fraser weren't such a question mark.

5. Oklahoma - With apologies to their Red River Rivals, this is the best team in the Big Twelve. Taj Gray was a revelation last year, and Kevin Bookout is a gamer. Losing Drew Lavender is addition by subtraction; he didn't really fit well as a 5'7" shooting guard in Kevlin Sampson's defense. Terrell Everett plays great defense and can light up the scoreboard. They may have been overseeded as a #3 last year, but this year they'll deserve at least that high.

Adam's Final Four

These are the teams I'll be paying special attention to as the season progresses. Two of them are on most short lists for the best teams in the nation; the other two are cons"dark horses" who didn't even make the NCAA Tournament last year...

4. Maryland - Were you wondering when an ACC team would show up on this list? Well here you go. The Terps have a lot going for them this year, and I was surprised to see how little hype they're getting. I know they missed out on the Field of 65 a year ago, but that was the first time in over a decade that had happened. Their coach, Gary Williams, is one of the best in the game, and they have talent at a lot of different places on the court. Travis Garrison should put it all together this year and be the best player on the team. Nik Caner-Medley, aside from contending for Strangest Name in NCAA Hoops all year long, gives them two legit post presences who can score, rebound, and defend. In fact, with Ekene Ibekwe and James Gist, their frontcourt is among the best and most versatile in the country. Chris McCray is a nice guard who can score but needs to work on his defense. D.J. Strawberry (yes, he's related to Daryl) is back from injury and lends some much needed perimeter defense. After an uncharacteristic down year, it's time to Fear the Turtle again.

3. Duke - That's right, I'm calling for this year's Blue Devils not to win the National Title, in spite of what every single other prognosticator is saying. Yes, they have veterans in Shelden Williams and J.J. Redick. Yes, their recruiting class is absolutely sick with McRoberts, Boateng, and Paulus. Yes, they're going to be a dominant team. But, so help me, I cannot, cannot, cannot bring myself to picture J.J. Redick cutting down the National Championship nets. I just can't see it. He will find a way for them to lose. Mark my words. He will disappear in the last four minutes of the semifinal game, hoist up an ugly three at the buzzer, and the Dukies will lose by two to the eventual national champs. Shades of Trajan Langdon, the Alaskan J.J. Redick.

National Runner-up

2. Memphis - Here's this year's Louisville. Like Louisville last year, I am not particularly fond of their coach. Like Louisville, they're a program that has been consistently overrated for the better part of a decade. Their recruiting has often been more hype than results, as John Calipari has been all too eager to spend his empty gesture budget on guys who end up turning pro straight out of high school. But somehow, in the midst of their overratedness, they managed to put together a great team for 2005-06. I'm unbelievably impressed with Darius Washington Jr., who I believe will be the best true point guard in the nation this season. He improved by leaps and bounds over the course of his freshman year, and even though the lingering image of him missing two free throws that would have sent Memphis to the NCAA tourney last year is what many will think of, I remember how scared I was for Louisville that they had to face him in the first place in the C-USA title game. He'll be a true stud NBA player and I think he can almost singlehandedly carry Memphis through the bracket this year. They should have no problem running away and hiding in the very weak Conference USA this year, but I think Washington and Rodney Carney lead them to heights this program hasn't seen in its history.

And the National Champion will be...

1. Connecticut - It's going to be a good year to be Gay. Rudy Gay, that is. He's already atop some peoples' lists as the best pro prospect in college basketball, and I'm inclined to agree. Aside from the fact that he goes to a school and plays for a coach that never turns out a dud (really, think about all of UConn's pros - haven't they all either lived up to or surpassed their college glory? Why does nobody talk about Calhoun's NBA factory?), he's just flat out an offensive dynamo. Like Ben Gordon two years ago and Rashad McCants last year, Rudy Gay is the dominant offensive scorer that proples me to pick his team to go all the way. Of course, every Ben Gordon needs an Emeka Okafor, and every Rashad McCants needs a Sean May and a Raymond Felton. Gay has a lot of help, too. Start with Rashad Anderson, a guy who I think just turned 34 this offseason. (Seriously, doesn't it seem like he's been around forever? I think he came into school the same time as Vedran Vukusic.) He's a terrific defender, an underrated scorer, and a guy who makes his teammates better. Josh Boone is developing into a dominant big man (he was already better than the more-heralded Charlie Villanueva). Denham Brown, Hilton Armstrong, and Ed Nelson are among the best role players in the game. But UConn's season and their title aspirations could come down to Marcus Williams and A.J. Price. If those guys can return from their suspensions and lead the team from the point guard position, there's no stopping them. If they both contribute next to nothing, then go ahead and hand the title to Memphis or Duke right now. I'm banking on Jim Calhoun, my pick for the best coach in college basketball, to right this ship.

And there you have it. Connecticut. Memphis. Duke. Maryland. My Final Four. Mark it down, remember it, and be sure to give me my props when most or all of it comes true.

Oh, and Go 'Cats! NIT or bust!