MLB Opening Day Preview

The grass is cut. The infield is raked. Opening Day 2015 will officially be here on Sunday, April 5. The tedious month of drills and meaningless games finally are finishing up and America’s Pastime will be in full swing. As you flock to the ballpark or to your couch for opening day, it’s important to make sure you’re up to date with all the shuffling of players and changes that occurred during the long offseason. Here is a quick preview and some storylines you will need to know as the first pitch quickly approaches.

The Atlanta Braves have undergone a major overhaul led by new General Manager Jon Hart after Frank Wren was shown the door after the Braves woefully under-performed in the second half of the season. Gone are fan favorites Justin Upton, Jason Heyward, Evan Gattis and Ervin Santana. Say hello to Shelby Miller, Jonny Gomes and native-son Nick Markakis who starred at Woodstock High School. Another big change is the name of Atlanta’s most despised player, Melvin Upton Jr. B.J. Upton decided to change his name and hopefully change his success at the plate after hitting .208 and taking the brunt of Braves’ fans’ criticism.

All signs point to it being a very long year for Atlanta. Hart has decided to build a farm system which Frank Wren left in shambles. The present day product will suffer greatly, but Hart has an eye towards 2017 and the opening of SunTrust Park. By that time the gamble Hart made by trading away his top players for prospects will need to pay off as the Braves will try to reap the benefits and open up their new park with a bang and a slew of young talented players.

As far as this season goes, expect the Braves to hover around 68-72 wins. Make no bones about it, this is a rebuilding year and fans will need to be patient. The NL East has gotten considerably stronger and the Braves will have to patiently wait for their prospects to develop.

NL East

            The sexy pick to win the division is Washington with its pitching staff headed by the $210-million dollar man, Max Scherzer. He teams up with Jordan Zimmermann, Stephen Strasburg, Gio Gonzalez and Doug Fister to form the deepest rotation in baseball. Behind Washington, the New York Mets and Miami Marlins will push hard to make the playoffs. The Mets have looked great in spring training and hold the best record in the Grapefruit League. Michael Cuddyer has hit extremely well and new hitting coach Kevin Long has already seemingly made an impact on the likes of Curtis Granderson and Juan Lagares who look crisp at the plate. Injuries, which have plagued the Mets for years, have already begun to bite them with Zack Wheeler and Josh Edgin going down with tommy john surgery along with Daniel Murphy, and Vic Black ailing. The Marlins have a young exciting team led by Giancarlo Stanton. If he can receive protection in the lineup and the young pitching staff can produce, Miami should be in the hunt for a wildcard spot.

NL Central

            The Cardinals and Pirates have owned the division lately, but the laughing stock Chicago Cubs may get the last laugh this year. GM Theo Epstein has opened up the checkbook signing Jon Lester and anointing Joe Maddon as manager. The Cubs are oozing with uber-talented young hitters. Kris Bryant smashed nine homers to lead all players in spring training but unceremoniously was sent down along with Javier Baez in order to save another year of control down the line. If those two along with Anthony Rizzo, Jorge Soler and Starling Castro hit like they are capable, the Cubs very well may challenge to make the postseason coming out of a difficult division.

            NL West

The defending World Series champs, the San Francisco Giants, will be without the lovable Kung Fu Panda, Pablo Sandoval. Sandoval was poached by the free spending Boston Red Sox this offseason. It may be difficult to repeat with the Dodgers and the suddenly intriguing Padres in the mix for a playoff berth. New San Diego GM A.J. Preller made waves wheeling and dealing as if the MLB was his personal video game. Though they still play in Petco Park, the additions of Justin Upton, Wil Myers and Matt Kemp make the Padres’ outfield one of the most exciting in baseball. Add in James Shields as an ace, and things look bright in sunny San Diego.

AL East

Baltimore will try to improve upon a 96-win season, but it will be difficult with the improvements of Boston and Toronto. The Red Sox signed Hanley Ramirez away from the Dodgers and will plug him in leftfield for the first time in his career. Pablo Sandoval is the Sox’s top signing this offseason, but they also landed prized Cuban prospect Yoan Moncada, a 19-year-old infielder who will join Boston’s minor league system. The Blue Jays added great veteran leadership in Russell Martin and Josh Donaldson.

AL Central

The Tigers won the division, but the Royals stole the spotlight in the postseason.  Detroit has lost Max Scherzer, but David Price assumes the role as ace in his first full season in the Motor City. Rick Porcello was dealt for slugging Cuban outfielder Yoenis Cespedes who will provide a cannon arm and great pop. The Royals will have plenty of new faces. James Shields is gone from the top of the rotation, and big Billy Butler has departed also. Alex Rios and Edinson Volquez will try to fill in at their respective positions.

AL West

            Moneyball is alive with A’s GM Billy Beane. Questionable trades backfired last season, but the gambling genius has not gotten gun-shy. Ben Zobrist, Brett Lawrie, and Ike Davis have been brought in. Billy Butler will take over the DH role. Seattle is a team ready to make the next step. Nelson Cruz brings his 40+ homerun power and will team up with Robison Cano to provide offense for a strong pitching staff.

The Highs & Lows of March

The first week of the NCAA Tournament is now complete, and I don’t think there is anyone questioning why they call the tournament “March Madness”. My bracket along with 99.9 percent of everyone else’s bracket has been shattered with the likes of Virginia, Villanova, Baylor, Iowa State, and Kansas all failing to advance to the sweet sixteen. The heartbreak has been palpable for some higher seeds, but that means some underdogs got to put on the glass slipper for a moment and steal the spotlight. Atlanta’s own Georgia State was the darling of the tournament with the storyline of an injured head coach with his star player being his son, and of course the return of Kevin Ware to the tournament after a gruesome injury just two seasons ago.

March is a mixture of emotions for fans and players alike. As a fan, if you have a horse in the race that is a high seed, it takes guts to pick against them and it can be heart wrenching to know you need your favorite school to lose to be able to win your bracket pool. With all the crunching of the numbers, at the end of the day the NCAA Tournament is a complete crapshoot. Teams can have poor shooting performances, referees can botch calls (see SMU-UCLA), and injuries can occur but that is what makes the tournament so great. The games aren’t played on paper; they are won and lost on the court. For the high majority of these players that are seniors, this is their final time playing basketball on a big stage. Many will simply graduate and pursue a career in something other than basketball while some will chase the dream overseas and will eventually become a distant memory in a few years.

The passion that these players play with is real. The literal blood, sweat, and tears are real. It is a special feeling knowing that an entire fan base or sometimes an entire nation is behind you and rooting for you to succeed. Georgia State gave us a great story. After a 75-67 loss to Xavier ending the Panthers’ magical season, Coach Ron Hunter’s emotions spilled over in the postgame press conference. “What a great week. Unbelievable week. There’s nothing to be sad about, especially for me,” Hunter said. “We’ll be back. … But it’s not even about that now,” the coach added, turning to his son. “As a coach, best time of my life. But as a father — I love this kid, man. I love you.”

The fact that March Madness is unpredictable is the reason why the first two days of games played are the least productive work days all year. Eyes are glued to unsung heroes and schools that you never knew existed and wouldn’t even fathom trying to find on a map hold your emotions—and sometimes wallets—in their hands. It’s the one time of year where someone can not watch a lick of basketball the entire season, but can confidently say, “this will be the perfect bracket”. As important as it is to study the game and compare and contrast styles, once the ball is tipped everything goes out the window.

It is important to remember to enjoy the tournament and to appreciate student-athletes putting everything out on the line. Don’t get bogged down with the stress of your bracket crumbling (which it always does), or the fact that your favorite team got ousted way too soon. March is a month long celebration of talent, teamwork and togetherness. The tournament brings families and friends alike together to root on their favorite teams or pray for the wildest of finishes. The excitement that the tournament brings makes it unparalleled to any other sport. If your team makes the field of 65, you have a chance no matter what the pundits say. A 16-seed will beat a number one very soon and when that happens, the entire tournament will be turned upside down. Though some argue about the quality of the college game with players leaving early and low scoring, we can all agree that there is nothing quite like March Madness.

Most Dangerous Lower Seeds

Here is a rundown of each seed in the tournament and who I think is the most dangerous team at that seed and why:

#16 – North Florida (23-11)

Of course the Ospreys need to beat Robert Morris tonight to officially have a chance to dance, but coming from the A-Sun, these birds know how to play. Six players average over eight points per game so Coach Matthew Driscoll has plenty of options offensively. Sophomore guard Dallas Moore leads the team in scoring at 15.9 per game. He is a lethal three-point shooter who nails nearly two a game at a 39.5 percent clip. He exploded for 36 points in a win over Lipscomb earlier this year. Beau Beech and former Eagles Landing High School standout Chris Davenport play big roles inside while Trent Mackey is the designated sniper from beyond the arc hitting 44 percent of his long balls. North Florida has a tall task with Duke if they get past Robert Morris but remember, the Blue Devils didn’t fare so well last time they played an A-Sun school in the tournament, losing to Mercer in the first round last season.

#15 – Belmont (22-10)

Another low seed with former ties to the A-Sun, the Bruins are one of the nation’s top three-point shooting teams connecting on 10 a game. They will have to catch fire from deep as they face the number one defense in the nation, the Pack-Line defense of Virginia. Belmont struggles defensively allowing over 70 points per game and relies on its offense to beat teams. Head Coach Rick Byrd is a mid-major legend and counts on a trio of guards to carry the Bruin offense. Craig Bradshaw averages 18.1 points while shooting 41.6 percent from downtown. 6-foot-6 Evan Bradds averages 14.3 points and 7.2 rebounds and is a more of an inside presence than shooter. Lastly Taylor Barnette, a Virginia transfer, gets a shot at his old team and enters as the Bruins’ top three-point shooter drilling 83 of them. The combination of a great coach and a team that can get hot from distance could give Virginia fits if the Cavs get off to a slow start.

#14 – Georgia State (24-9)

The Panthers are dancing for the first time since 2001 and have an explosive backcourt to thank. R.J. Hunter (19.8) and Ryan Harrow (18.7) lead the action up front but it has not been as smooth a season as the numbers portray. Hunter has struggled with his shot this season making just 30 percent of his 247 three-point attempts. Harrow has been dynamic and efficient making 50 percent of his total field goal attempts, but he has been hampered with injuries all season, missing or leaving early in eight games. The former Walton Raider missed the Sun Belt championship with a strained hamstring and will try to come back healthy for a meeting with Baylor. If healthy, Harrow and a straight shooting Hunter could power the Panthers over the Bears, but Baylor is the nation’s top rebounding team while Georgia State is one of the nation’s worst total rebounding squads. Markus Crider, T.J. Shipes, and Curtis Washington must hold their own inside against Rico Gathers if the Panthers want a legitimate shot at making some noise.

#13 – Eastern Washington (26-8)

The high-flying Eagles will look to shoot down the Hoyas with their potent scoring attack. Eastern Washington averages over 80 points per game and is powered by an offense that connects on 40 percent of their three-pointers. Sophomore Tyler Harvey leads the nation in scoring at 22.9 a night and bangs home nearly four long balls a game. Venky Jois is a skilled big man that averages 16.6 points, 7.7 rebounds, 2.1 assists, and 2.2 blocks. They have proven they can hang with the big boys registering losses at SMU by nine, Washington by four, and Cal by 11 while picking up a two-point road win at Indiana. Georgetown has had a woeful time in the tournament lately falling to Florida Gulf Coast in 2013. The last time the Hoyas advanced past the second round was back in 2007. They have been hot-and-cold in a Big East conference that didn’t blow the doors off this season, and look like they may be primed for another first round exit.

#12 – Stephen F. Austin (29-4)

The Lumberjacks are back in the tournament as a 12-seed and will look to improve upon a second round exit a year ago. They average 79.5 points and are led by do-everything junior Thomas Walkup. The versatile guard averages 15.7 points, 6.4 rebounds, and 3.7 assists. Jacob Parker is another forward that the offense runs through as he averages 14.1. Parker is also an efficient three-point shooter at 47 percent. The ‘Jacks went 0-2 vs. Top 25 teams this year losing to Baylor and Xavier by 16 and 18, but pushed Northern Iowa to the brink in overtime before bowing out and falling 79-77. Utah has been on the precipice in years past of becoming a traditional west coast power, but things have fallen through. Their last tournament appearance was in 2009 as a 5-seed where they were bounced in the first round by Arizona. The Utes rely on a stingy defense but SFA will not be afraid to let it fly.

#11 – Dayton (25-8)

After soaring to the Elite Eight a year ago as an 11-seed, the Flyers have a chance to do so again if they can beat Boise State in their play-in game. Dayton will be playing home games in the East side of the bracket in Columbus, OH. The Flyers would venture out of Ohio for the first time in the tournament in round three if they make it that far. Home court advantage coupled with the experience of a deep run a year ago makes Dayton an easy pick to have a chance to do so again. Since transferring from Ohio State, Jordan Sibert has blossomed into a go-to scorer as a senior guard. He averages a team-high 16.5 points per game and came up big in last year’s Sweet 16 meeting with Stanford where he scored a team-high 18 points. Dyshawn Pierre and Kendall Pollard are strong forwards while Scoochie Smith provides some New York City toughness at the point. Providence would be Dayton’s first round matchup. The Friars lost to Villanova by two in the Big ast Semifinals.

#10 – Ohio State (23-10)

A 10-seed from a power conference, the Buckeyes matchup with VCU and its Havoc defense.  VCU preys on weak ball-handlers and unsure guards but Ohio State has an extremely sturdy backcourt mixed with youth and experience. Senior Shannon Scott out of Milton has seen the likes of Michigan State and Wisconsin throughout his career and is no stranger to facing tough defenses.  Scott is a sure-handed point guard who leads the Big Ten with 5.9 assists per game and also gets after it defensively ranking third in steals with 1.8. His main job is to distribute the ball while fabulous freshman D’Angelo Russell does it all. At 6-foot-5, Russell finished second in the conference in scoring at 19.3 and also added 5.6 rebounds and 5.1 assists per game. He can beat you in every way possible hitting 76 percent of his free throws while also nailing almost three three-pointers a game at a 41.5 percent clip. If Scott and Russell can handle the Havoc defense and get everyone else involved, the ‘Bucks should be able to pick apart a VCU team without its defensive leader Briante Weber.

#9 – LSU (22-10)

9-8 games are usually a tossup, but LSU has some favorable measurements. Though the Tigers played in the weak SEC, they picked up wins over Arkansas and Georgia while snagging a one-point win over West Virginia in non-conference play and also dropped a heartbreaker to Kentucky by two. The Tigers are strong inside with Jordan Mickey (15.5 pts, 9.8 reb, 3.6 blk) and Jarell Martin (16.9 pts, 9.2 reb). Both big men are only sophomores and give Coach Johnny Jones the best interior one-two punch offensively in the SEC. Tim Quarterman out of Johnson, Savannah has emerged as an all-around player in his sophomore season averaging over 11 points, five rebounds and a tick under four assists per game. The Tigers aren’t a great three-point shooting team (33.9%) but are led by Keith Hornsby who hit 70 this season. While LSU’s power lies inside, NC State counters with strong guards. If the Tigers can control the Wolfpack upfront, they should have a good shot to pound it inside and dominate the paint.

*North Florida lost to Robert Morris in play-in game: 81-77
*Belmont lost to Virginia in first round: 79-67
*Georgia State UPSET Baylor 57-56 before losing to Xavier 75-67
*Eastern Washington lost to Georgetown in first round: 84-74
*Stephen F. Austin lost to Utah in first round: 57-50
*Dayton won play-in game and UPSET Providence 66-53 before losing to Oklahoma 72-66
*Ohio State UPSET VCU 75-72 before losing to Arizona 73-58
*LSU lost to NC State in first round: 66-65

Peach State Players to Watch for During March Madness

The peach state has given the nation some big name players over the years and this season is no different. As we enter March Madness, here are a few key players on their respective teams that played high school ball in Georgia.

The Virginia Cavaliers have dipped into the south and have found themselves some gems from some winning programs. Greater Atlanta Christian has been a feeder school for Tony Bennett lately as he has plucked Malcolm Brogdon and now Isaiah Wilkins. For a second consecutive season, “Uncle Malcolm” has been named to the All-ACC First Team and has helped UVA to a second straight ACC regular season title. Not a lot of flash in his game, it’s Brogdon’s grown man strength that helps him get past defenders and get to the rim at will when he wants to. Wilkins plays sparingly for the Cavs but when he enters he gives the team great energy. Wilkins comes from rich ‘bloodlines’ of stepfather Dominique Wilkins. The athletic forward also has a winning pedigree after finishing his senior season undefeated with a state title at GAC. Evan Nolte has seen more playing time as of late since Justin Anderson went down with a broken finger and an appendectomy. Nolte is a state champion from Milton and provides the Cavaliers with great hustle and streaky three-point shooting.

Atlanta’s own Georgia State Panthers will try to be this year’s Cinderella story and will rely heavily on former Walton Raider Ryan Harrow to do so. The free-scoring guard averages 18.7 points and passed the 1,000 point mark in his career this season while helping lead the Panthers to their first tournament appearance since 2001. Harrow has dealt with numerous injuries this season and did not play in the Sun Belt title game due to a strained hamstring. When healthy, Harrow teams up with R.J. Hunter to form one of the highest scoring backcourts in the entire nation. Another former Walton standout, Karl Cochran, paces the Wofford Terriers.

Cochran started his prep career at Wheeler before finishing across town at Walton. He has averaged double figures his entire career at Wofford and is the Terriers’ leader in all categories including scoring (14.6), rebounding (5.8), assists (2.7), steals (1.8), and blocks (1.1) this season.

The Georgia Bulldogs feature a plethora of in-state talent led by Charles Mann (Milton), Marcus Thornton (Westlake), Kenny Gaines (Whitefield Academy), and J.J. Frazier (Faith Baptist Christian). These players highlight four of UGA’s top five scorers on the season, all averaging over nine points per game. Thornton is the eldest of the bunch and is a senior while Mann and Gaines are juniors and Frazier, just a sophomore. This pack of Dawgs has helped Georgia reach the tournament for the first time since 2011.

Dominant Miller Grove big man Tony Parker won four state titles as a Wolverine before shipping out west to UCLA. It was a slow start to his collegiate career, but Parker has since trimmed up into shape and has turned himself into a major contributor for the Bruins. The big man is averaging 17.2 points over his last five games as UCLA has slowly begun to gain a head of steam heading into the tournament, winning four of its last five games.

Tekele Cotton of Wichita State might not light up the score board but he contributes in many other facets. The senior is one of the toughest defenders on the perimeter for the Shockers. Though he is having a down year shooting the ball (40% down from 45%), Cotton has averaged a career high in assists. The experienced veteran has already made one trip to the Final Four and will lean on that journey to try and get there again in his final season.

Senior Shannon Scott won a state title at Milton but has yet to taste the same team success at the college level with Ohio State. He is the Big Ten leader in assists per game (5.9) and also ranks third in steals (1.8). Scott’s main objective is to run the show on offense and limit turnovers. He has played a key role in the Buckeye’s backcourt for three seasons now.

Tim Quarterman has been a jack of all trades for LSU since graduating from Johnson, Savannah. The sophomore has exploded onto the scene for the Tigers and is a major reason why LSU has made the tournament for the first time since 2009. At 6-foot-6, “Puncho” uses his length to frustrate opponents and score in a multitude of ways. His versatility allows him to guard many positions, and his play making ability is helped out by his vision over smaller defenders. He averages over 11 points, five rebounds and nearly four assists per game.

James Webb III has jumped around from school to school but has found a home in Idaho. He ended up at North Idaho College after starring at Curtis Baptist High School and now calls Boise State home. Webb scores both inside and out as the Broncos’ second leading scorer (11.3) and top rebounder (7.9). Madarious Gibbs out of East Coweta now leads Texas Southern in his final season. Gibbs averaged 26.3 points per game his senior season at East Coweta and now as a senior at Texas Southern, has begun to find his explosive scoring ability leading the Tigers at 14.1 points. Gibbs has struggled from deep this season (25%), but has done damage at the foul line taking 164 attempts. He will hope to leave behind a legacy at Texas Southern and be a part of the first team in school history to win a tournament game.

The wealth of talent in Georgia will not be drying up anytime soon as more and more highly touted prospects are coming through the pipelines. Next year we will be treated to the likes of Jaylen Brown, Malik Beasley, and Tookie Brown who will all try to be the missing piece of their school’s puzzle to bring home a national championship.

Let the Madness Begin

It’s time for the madness to ensue and for brackets everywhere to be nearly worn to shreds with the amount of filling in and erasing as the NCAA Tournament has finally arrived. This year’s edition of March Madness has a clear cut favorite that the entire country feels is the team to beat with Kentucky entering undefeated at 34-0. In what has become a rarity; some local schools in Georgia have made the big dance and will try to become the latest Cinderella stories in Georgia and Georgia State. Let’s take a quick preview of both games before setting our sights to the national stage.

No. 14 Georgia State v. No. 3 Baylor

            The Panthers won an ugly rubber match against Georgia Southern 38-36 to win the Sun Belt automatic bid and head to the dance for the first time since 2001. If they want to have any chance at winning, getting healthy would be a good start. Second leading scorer Ryan Harrow did not play in Sunday’s championship after straining his hamstring. Harrow has missed six games and if you count games where he has left early the total is up to eight, but Georgia State is a perfect 8-0 in those injury marred games. Another key injury occurred after the game on Sunday. Head Coach Ron Hunter tore his achilles while celebrating the title and will be wearing a cast for Thursday’s game.

As far as those who will be on the court Thursday, Baylor poses a tough test. The Bears are the best offensive rebounding team in the nation and are led by the burley Rico Gathers who averages 11.6 boards a night. It will be strength vs weakness as the Bears rank 13th in the nation in total rebounding while the Panthers come in at 247th.  Baylor is balanced on offense with six players averaging over seven points per game compared to just four from Georgia State. Junior forward Taurean Prince leads the way scoring 13.8 points on average. The backcourt duo of R.J. Hunter and Ryan Harrow will need to carry the load for the Panthers and do it in an efficient manner. Harrow finished the season shooting over 50 percent, but Hunter struggled at 39 percent. Hunter, Head Coach Ron Hunter’s son, is the school’s all-time leading scorer and has the ability to get hot. Before a 3-of-15 shooting performance in the Sun Belt final, Hunter scored 35 and 32 points in consecutive games. Georgia State will need its role players to shoulder the load in Kevin Ware and Markus Crider. Both schools have played Iowa State this year with Baylor beating them twice while Georgia State lost by 23.

No. 10 Georgia v. No. 7 Michigan State

            Michigan State has had a down year, but still the tough Tom Izzo coached bunch will be a tall task for the Dawgs who enter the tournament for the first time since 2011. Georgia hangs its hat on strong rebounding and balanced scoring. Five players average over nine points per game and give coach Mark Fox reliable options. Senior big men Marcus Thornton and Nemanja Djurisic are tough players inside that also have the ability to hit the open jumper. Junior guards Charles Mann and Kenny Gaines score in different ways. Gaines leads the team in 3-pointers made with 54 and Mann leads the team in free throws made with 141. Sophomore J.J. Frazier can be an x-factor if he gets hot. He dropped 37 in a win over Mississippi State on the road when he went 7-7 from beyond the arc.

The Spartans are an unselfish team that averages 17.1 assists per game, fourth in the nation. MSU had a chance to win the Big Ten tournament but collapsed down the stretch and fell to Wisconsin in overtime. Travis Trice and Denzel Valentine power the Sparty offense. Branden Dawson is a defensive stalwart and leads the team in rebounding at 9.1. Two key stats entering this game is the fact that the Spartans shoot just 63 percent from the line and UGA gives up no easy looks allowing just 39 percent shooting on the season. The Dawgs will have to grind out a physical game if they want to advance to the next round.