Pre-Spring Training NL East Division Preview

Georgia might have just had another scare with potential snow and ice storms, but spring is in our midst and with that Spring Training is right around the corner. Pitchers and Catchers are set to report by the end of this week, while many players have already come to camp early to break off the rust and start getting their bodies back in game shape. Each spring teams enter training camp with optimism and aspirations of winning the World Series. I will be heading down to Florida to check out some Spring Training action for the first time this year. I will be attending Bradenton (Pirates) and Port St. Lucie (Mets), two teams that are primed to make the post season. With that being said, let’s take an early look at the National League East and how I think things will stack up this season.

Washington Nationals

Last year’s porous division now looks to be one of the toughest, with three of the projected top teams all having realistic sights on the playoffs. The Nationals are seemingly the new trendy pick and are 5:1 favorites to win the World Series this year after making moves that brought in Max Scherzer and Yunel Escobar. Washington has a rotation loaded with power arms, but its bullpen will need retooling. Tyler Clippard was shipped off for Escobar and Rafael Soriano is currently a free agent. Drew Storen will likely return as the closer, a full time job he had back in 2011 when he saved 43 games. While they may be the most talented team in the division, I doubt they will completely run away with it.

New York Mets

The Mets have the best young top three pitching trio in the MLB with Matt Harvey-Jacob deGrom-Zack Wheeler. Their pitching staff will be one of the strongest in the league, but questions loom on whether David Wright can ever return to the player he once was. The fences have been moved in yet again and should benefit Curtis Granderson and Lucas Duda who emerged as the Mets’ number one long ball threat last year. If Wright, Granderson, and Michael Cuddyer can produce close to what their career averages are, then the Mets should be battling for the division and wild card all season long.

Miami Marlins

As they seemingly do every offseason, the Marlins have shaken their roster up like a snow globe. Mat Latos and Dan Haren give the Marlins some much needed veteran leadership atop of their young rotation that hopes to get young ace Jose Fernandez back sooner rather than later from Tommy John surgery. The addition of Dee Gordon who had a career year last season will give them speed to burn. Veteran Martin Prado was brought in to do what he always does—hit. Michael Morse should shore up first base if he can find a way to stay healthy. Miami has had strong teams on paper in the past, but they have never been able to create that type of success on the field. Now in his third year as manager, Mike Redmond will try to sneak the fish back into the postseason where they have made magic happen.

Atlanta Braves

No team in the MLB has torn down the walls as much as new GM John Hart has after the Braves decided to clean house. Atlanta has tried to replenish its beleaguered farm system and has done a decent job so far. Craig Kimbrel has been whispered to be the next one on the move. It should be a long painful season as ownership eyes 2017; the good thing for Atlanta is that Philadelphia is in the same division.

Philadelphia Phillies

No franchise has been more mismanaged in the past five years than this one. A blind loyalty to aging stars who no longer produce has crippled the franchise along with a weak farm system. Year-in and year-out, Ruben Amaro has had a chance to flip Cliff Lee and Cole Hamels for young players, but he has sat on his assets and continues to depreciate their value. Unlike the Braves, there is no light at the end of this tunnel just yet.

Hawks Migrating North For All-Star Game

No doubt it has been a magical season for the Atlanta Hawks (43-10). A 19-game winning streak shattered the former franchise record and will ever hold this year’s team in Atlanta lore no matter how the season ends up. The Hawks have been a team oriented group all season long; each player buying into their role and doing whatever it takes to win. Atlanta has shared the ball exceptionally well and rank second in the NBA in assists per game, proving that defenses can’t just key in on one player because they are more than willing to swing the ball to hit the open man. All five starters average double figures and the accolades have been rolling in. Atlanta completed January a perfect 17-0, and in return the NBA rewarded all five starters as the Eastern Conference Players of the Month, the first time in NBA history.

Though the team award was nice, every player and Coach Mike Budenholzer will tell you that as long as the team wins, receiving accolades and awards isn’t important. “We appreciate the recognition of our starters’ play during this past month. It is reflective of all the work our entire team and organization has put in,” said coach Mike Budenholzer. “We place a strong emphasis on having the right approach every day and making daily improvement. Collectively, we know that we have a lot more work to do this season and look forward to continue growing as a team.”

This Tuesday marked Atlanta’s biggest accomplishment thus far this season. Kyle Korver will be replacing Dwyane Wade as Atlanta’s fourth player to be joining the Eastern Conference as an All-Star. It is the first time in franchise history that the Hawks will be sending four players and it is also just the eighth time in NBA history that four teammates will be playing together. The last team to feature four all-stars was the 2011 Boston Celtics. Along with the four players, Mike Budenholzer will also be roaming the sidelines. “We would like to thank Commissioner Silver for selecting Kyle as an All-Star. He is an integral part of our team and we are extremely proud that Kyle will be able to join his teammates Al, Paul and Jeff in being recognized this weekend,” said Coach Bud. “This is a positive reflection on all of the work the entire team, coaching staff and organization has put in this season.”

Korver, an 11-year veteran, will be attending his first All-Star game. The Creighton Blue Jay was selected 51st overall by the New Jersey Nets back in 2003 but was subsequently traded to the Sixers. He played sparingly his first season and then his next two seasons he started 100 games. After those two seasons, he was relegated to a bench role as his coaches primarily viewed him as just a three-point specialist. It was not until the 2012-13 season, his first in Atlanta, when he was pegged as a full-time starter, the first time in over six seasons. He continued to shoot extremely well, but this season the entire league has taken notice. Korver is shooting a blistering 51.6 percent from the field, 52.8 from three, and 92 percent from the foul line. If he is able to keep this up he would be the first player in NBA history to slash a line of 50/50/90, giving him the greatest shooting season ever. Korver will have a chance to show his three-point prowess to the entire nation as he headlines the 2015 Foot Locker Three-Point Contest.

Another first time All-Star is Jeff Teague. The Wake Forest product has slowly progressed into the type of player Atlanta envisioned back when they selected him 19th overall in 2009. Teague is averaging career highs in points (17.2), assists (7.5), and steals (1.7). Now in his fourth full year starting, his decision making has improved and he has been a leader on the floor at the point guard position. Teague will showcase his ball handling skills as he returns to participate in the Taco Bell Skills Challenge which he previously competed in back in 2013.

Atlanta’s third All-Star is Paul Millsap. The workhorse out of Louisiana Tech led the NCAA in rebounding all three of his seasons in college, but still slipped to the 47th pick. Millsap began starting full time in Utah in 2011, where he teamed up with Al Jefferson. Though the Jazz had one of the most skilled front courts in the league, they were unable to make noise in the Western Conference. Millsap played strong as a starter for three seasons in Utah, but eventually the Jazz decided they wanted to move forward with Enes Kanter and Derrick Favors. That decision was a blessing for Atlanta. The Hawks pounced at the opportunity to sign the versatile big man to a two-year, $19 million dollar deal which Atlanta has gotten every penny’s worth. Millsap has been an All-Star in his two seasons with Atlanta and was a main reason why the team stayed afloat after Al Horford’s season-ending pectoral injury last year. His versatility on both offense (35% three-point shooting) and on defense (1.8 steals per game) makes him one of the most valuable players in the league.

The veteran of the group, Al Horford, will be making his third All-Star game appearance. His seven years in Atlanta make him the longest tenured Hawk. After a season-ending injury a year ago, Horford has performed admirably while healthy and gives Atlanta one of the most reliable big men in the game. The former Florida Gator has been a rock on the interior and provides 15.5 points and 7.3 rebounds per night. With such a balanced scoring team, Horford no longer has to shoulder the load offensively.

All four Hawks including Coach Mike Budenholzer will be migrating to New York for this weekend’s festivities. It is a great honor for four players to be named All-Stars as Atlanta looks to keep their mojo going and finish strong heading into the playoffs.

Silent but Deadly — The Georgia Bulldogs

Make no joke about it; the SEC is wide open outside of Kentucky. With just two teams ranked in the Top 25, no one has been able to stand out as the clear cut second best team in the conference. The top of the conference is muddled with teams a win away from claiming second place, or falling all the way into a multiway tie in the middle of the pack. Three teams are tied for second at 7-3 in the SEC, while two more are tied for third place at 6-4.

One team to keep an eye on is Mark Fox’s Georgia Bulldogs. Now in his sixth season at UGA, Fox has compiled a respectable 100-84 record. Predecessor Dennis Felton managed just an 84-91 mark in his five-plus seasons before getting fired in 2009. Fox has brought with him a tough nosed mentality that helped him go 123-43 at Nevada before accepting the position at Georgia. The Dawgs haven’t made a trip to the NCAA Tournament since the 2010-11 season, Fox’s second season, but Georgia is off to a strong start and has a chance to sneak back into the big dance.

The season started inauspiciously when the Bulldogs were stung at Georgia Tech, 80-73 to open up the 2014-15 campaign. Georgia managed to respond well though, finishing 9-3 in non-conference play. Along the way, they were able to pick up nice wins over Colorado, Kansas State, and the emerging Seton Hall Pirates. Losses included a four-point defeat to Minnesota and a hard fought 88-76 loss to top ten Gonzaga.

In conference play, Georgia has also proven to be a tough out. The Dawgs (15-7, 6-4) have already beaten Florida, Ole Miss, and Tennessee. Their losses came to current No. 24 Arkansas by four, LSU in double-overtime by three, and most recently No. 1 Kentucky by 11 at Rupp Arena. The major blemish on Georgia’s record was a 67-50 loss to South Carolina who is just 11-11 overall and 2-8 in the SEC.

Leading scorer and rebounder Marcus Thornton missed the Kentucky and South Carolina games due to an injury. The senior forward has progressed each season and is averaging 13.2 points and 7.1 rebounds per game. He leads a Bulldog team that has five players score in double figures. Kenny Gaines, Charles Mann, and Nemanja Djurisic all average 11 points while J.J. Frazier comes in at 10.8. Frazier, only a sophomore, had the most eye opening game of maybe any SEC player this year when the Dawgs traveled to The Hump to face Mississippi State. The 5-foot-10 guard exploded for 37 points on 12 of 14 shooting and 7 of 7 from beyond the three-point line.

The strength of this Georgia team besides its coaching has been its balanced scoring attack and strong rebounding. With five players averaging double figures, opposing defenses cannot key on just one man. Frazier, Gaines, and Thornton can all get hot on any given night. The Bulldogs also do a good job on the glass averaging nearly 38 rebounds per game. Being able to limit second chance points has been a boon for Coach Fox.

Though they currently sit in fifth place in the standings, Georgia is just a game out of second place. Key matchups loom with Texas A&M, Ole Miss, and Kentucky all on the horizon. If Georgia is able to take care of business and win the games they are supposed to, they should enter the conference tournament flirting with 20 wins. In ESPN’s Joe Lunardi’s most recent Bracketology, he places Georgia as a number eight seed in the West Region. He also has a whopping six teams out of the SEC making the tournament.

The Dawgs look poised to make a run in the SEC tournament and clinch their first March Madness bid in five seasons and if Coach Fox can reach the 22 win plateau, it would be the school’s best record since 2001-02 with Jim Harrick. Coach Fox has methodically built Georgia into a respectable program and has the Dawgs hungry as a silent but deadly dark horse entering March.

Monthly NBA Rookie Update

Rookie Update 2-6
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Now over three full months into the season we are starting to see some separation from the rookies. The draft class got off to a very slow start and still has been hindered by numerous season-ending injuries. Andrew Wiggins has taken the lead dog role with the NBA’s worst team (9-40) but a healthy Kevin Martin has returned and will take the majority of the shots along with a now healthy Nikola Pekovic. Wiggins did a nice job as the primary scorer with Shabazz Muhammad injured and Thaddeus Young having a poor season, but the rookie’s scoring will likely level back off.

Elfrid Payton has lived up to the billing as a Rajon Rondo-clone thus far. He can’t shoot a lick, but his passing and rebounding along his steady minutes allows him to fill up stat sheets for the Magic.

Marcus Smart has benefited greatly from the Rajon Rondo trade and has found himself playing big minutes since getting healthy. With question marks about his three-point prowess, Smart has answered the doubters hitting a respectable 1.3 threes per game at a 35.7% clip.

Zach LaVine has a successful run for a while as Minnesota’s starting point guard, but Mo Williams has since scored 52 points in a game and Ricky Rubio is now back healthy which will cut into the rookie’s playing time significantly.

W2W4: Front Runners & Dark Horses Entering Postseason Play

As region tournament play in high school basketball nears, let’s take a look at some of the favorites and potential dark horses in each classification. It has been another exciting year of action packed basketball and I’ll do my best to shed some light on what has happened this season and what to look forward to as the nets get cut in March.

Class AAAAAA

Georgia’s largest classification has been home to one of the biggest slobber knocker regions in the state. Region 7 has had a must-see slate all season long. Collins Hill (17-6, 7-5) was sitting pretty a few weeks in after new head coach Ty Baumgardner successfully installed his system, but No. 4 Norcross (20-3, 11-1) has roared ahead of the pack and are riding an 11-game win streak. Ricky Madison and Rayshaun Hammonds lead one of the state’s tallest rosters. Duluth (17-6, 8-4) has played exceptionally well and may play the spoiler in the region tourney. In Region 6, Alpharetta (19-4, 16-0) and Lambert (18-5, 13-3) pose threats that could knock off nearly anybody. The Raiders rely on UNC-Wilmington-commit Devontae Cacok and Jaylon Gamble to battle inside while the Longhorns have a plethora of guards who can lead the team in scoring any given night. Wheeler (21-2 14-0), the No. 1 team in the state, resides in Region 5. Shembari Phillips (Tennessee) and No. 2 ranked Jaylen Brown believe the road to state runs through Holt Rd. No. 3 Pebblebrook (17-5, 11-0) is extremely dangerous and has played a monstrous national schedule. Last year’s state champs, No. 2 Tift County (22-1, 6-0) has flown under the radar in south Georgia and are prepared to defend its title.

            Class AAAAA

No. 1 Miller Grove (21-3, 13-0) is the odds on favorite to make it seven straight state titles. Alterique Gilbert is a true leader and a defensive stalwart. No. 2 McIntosh (23-0, 16-0) is the only undefeated left and relies on the versatile Jordan Lyons and Dishon Lowery to wipe out opponents. Head coach Markus Hood once again has No. 3 Allatoona (22-2, 17-0) clicking on all cylinders in Region 5 using a balanced scoring attack. A potential dark horse is Apalachee (17-6, 9-3). Junior guard Kamar Baldwin is a top player in the state averaging over 27 points and 10 rebounds a night. The Wildcats have already knocked off No. 4 Gainesville (20-2, 10-1) and Mississippi State-commit D’Marcus Simonds once this year.

Class AAAA

No. 1 Jonesboro (23-1, 14-0) is as tough as they come and are riding a 22-game winning streak. M.J. Walker is a five-star sophomore that ignites the Cardinals’ offense. No. 2 Johnson (22-0, 6-0) might be small in the frontcourt, but the scoring combo of Rod English (19.6) and Ty Cockfield (29.2) make them one of the most exciting teams to watch. Wins over Class A powers North Cobb Christian (15-8, 10-0), and No. 5 Whitefield Academy (16-8, 8-2) along with signature victories over No. 4 Gainesville, Apalachee, and Buford (13-11, 6-1) have the Knights believing a deep run in state is more probable than possible. No. 5 Carrollton (20-2, 8-0) behind big man Montae Glenn will likely pose issues throughout the tournament. One sleeper who may feel disrespected about not being ranked, is Heritage (21-3, 12-1). The Generals’ 21 wins is the most by a team to not be ranked.

Class AAA

Two schools figure to be a cut above the rest right now as No. 1 Laney (22-1, 10-0) and No. 2 Jenkins (20-3, 11-0) standout as powerhouses. After dropping its first game of the season to Class A’s No. 1 St. Francis (20-3, 10-0) 67-64, Laney has gone undefeated including an 11 point win over Jenkins. Defending champs No. 4 Morgan County (17-7, 11-0) and Tookie Brown have found their groove and look to make another deep run. The Saints of No. 3 Cedar Grove (16-3, 7-1) are dangerous with Jacara Cross leading the team in points and rebounds. Christopher Fredrick and Kenneth Lewis give Coach James Martin a reliable backcourt night in and night out. The Saints have already beaten Gainesville by 19 and fell to Miller Grove by just four.

            Class AA

After rallying to beat No. 3 Holy Innocents’ (19-4, 9-3), No. 1 Pace Academy (21-2, 12-0) continues to look like the team to beat behind Wendell Carter Jr. and Elijah Holifield. Reggie Reid leads No. 7 Harlem (20-3, 9-2) and nearly averages a triple-double, as the Bulldogs will look to put Harlem, GA on the map.

            Class A

No. 2 Greenforest Christian (19-1, 10-0), No. 3 Athens Christian (22-0, 11-0), and No. 6 Treutlen (20-1, 12-0) might have the best chances of dethroning No. 1 St. Francis. No. 5 Whitefield Academy has been the only team to challenge St. Francis thus far this season with losses of eight points and five points.

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