Eagles Flying Under The Radar

In college basketball, everybody knows the prestigious programs of Duke, North Carolina, Kansas, and Kentucky. In the past decade, Mid-Major programs have been all the rage stealing spotlights and headlines with their exceptional play. 2006 gave us George Mason, 2010 gave us Butler, 2011 Virginia Commonwealth, and most recently Wichita State last season. Nothing is better than a Cinderella story, a true David vs Goliath matchup. Last year, Georgia State narrowly missed making it to the big dance after they fell to Elfrid Payton’s Louisiana-Lafayette Ragin’ Cajuns in the Sun Belt title game 82-81 in overtime after a 25 win season. This season Georgia State is humming along under the radar nationally, but is still a favorite to win the Sun Belt this year, but I’m here to talk about another Georgia school that might have something to say about that, the Georgia Southern Eagles.

A notorious powerhouse in football, the Eagles (10-3, 3-1) have quietly put together a very nice season and have designs on thwarting the Panthers’ dreams of making it to the big dance along with every other Sun Belt school. A true dark horse, the Eagles finished 15-19 a season ago and managed just a 6-10 record in the Southern Conference. So far, it seems like the switch from the SoCon to the Sun Belt has benefited the Eagles. Currently they are second in the conference, one game behind 4-0 UL-Lafayette.

All three of Georgia Southern’s losses this season have come by single digits. The Eagles opened their season in Champaign, Illinois against the Fighting Illini. Southern entered the half tied at 31, but eventually fell 80-71. Their other two losses came against UCF by two and to Texas-Arlington by 1; both road losses. Senior Jelani Hewitt makes things click for the Eagles on offense. The playmaking guard leads the team in points (20.2) and assists (3.8) and has been the leader in these two categories since last year as a junior when he averaged over 19 points and 3 assists per game.

A key addition to this year’s team has been former Greater Atlanta Christian state champion, Trent Wiedeman. Now a senior, Wiedeman was named to the SoCon All-Freshman Team and to the Mid-Major Freshman All-American team which was selected by CollegeInsider.com. Wiedeman found great success early on in his career under Head Coach Bobby Cremins, but found his playing time decrease under new coach Doug Wojcik after he could not get healthy after two ankle injuries.

The big man has been a major boon for the Eagles’ low post game as he is currently second in scoring with 13.6 points and leads the team in rebounding with 6.8 per game. Eric Ferguson, who led the team in scoring and rebounding as a sophomore and junior, is now back with the team after facing a suspension with off court issues stemming from drug charges. After missing the first six games of the season, the 6’8 forward has begun to round into shape and is averaging 8.6 points and 4.9 rebounds on 51 percent shooting.

Hewitt, Wiedeman, and Ferguson make up a formidable trio that should be able to give opposing Sun Belt foes issues with their ability to score inside and out. Georgia Southern’s main strength is its ability to control the glass. They rank 16th in the nation with 40.5 rebounds a game and lead the conference. Compare that with conference favorite Georgia State, who ranks 289th with just 32.1 rebounds per game, and the Eagles have the sizable advantage.  Where the Eagles might hurt down the stretch is their inability to block shots, where they average under two a game ranking 257th in the nation.

Though it is still early in conference play, anything can happen. Head Coach Mark Byington now in his second season at Southern, seemingly has the Eagles believing they can play with anyone. They have played a soft schedule with three non-division one schools, but the close loss to Illinois and wins against South Florida and Florida International have Byington and the Eagles hoping this season’s senior ladened team can open some eyes and make some noise in the Sun Belt.

Wake Up Atlanta: Time to Hop on the Hawks Bandwagon

Choo-Choo! All-aboard! This is the sound of the Atlanta Hawks bandwagon about to leave the station. If you haven’t jumped on already and bought into this year’s team, it definitely is time to. Atlanta’s “other” team has emerged as the must see ticket in town. Atlanta is in uncharted territory. The Hawks are 26-8 and off to their best start in franchise history since moving to Atlanta from St. Louis and are showing no signs of slowing down.

The stars are seemingly aligned for Atlanta this year. They are playing in the Eastern Conference, the Cavaliers have flopped, and the Hawks have managed to stay healthy. In Coach Mike Budenholzer’s first year at the helm last season, he took the plucky eighth-seeded Hawks without Al Horford and pushed the number one seed Indiana Pacers to the brink of elimination. Fast forward to this season and Bud has a healthy cast and a much improved bench. Horford may not be the 20 and 10 threat he was in years past, but he is settling in nicely as a third-option behind Paul Millsap and the steady Jeff Teague.

Before this year, Horford was relied upon to be “the man” for the offense and was expected to shoulder much of the load. This season, Coach Budenholzer has the Hawks clicking offensively while sharing the ball. Atlanta is currently ranked third in the NBA with 25.3 assists per game led by Teague’s 7.1. The offense has run smoothly and has managed to keep the turnovers down, with the Hawks boasting the fourth best assist-to-turnover ratio in the league. Kyle Korver is off to the league’s best shooting season in history and is attempting to become the first player ever to record a 50/50/90 shooting line; that is 50 percent from the field, 50 percent from the three-point line, and 90 percent from the foul line.

As great and unselfish as the Hawks have been offensively, Coach Budenholzer will be the first to tell you that it is Atlanta’s defense that has taken the next step into becoming elite. They currently rank fifth in the NBA allowing just 97.6 points per game. During their current stretch of winning 19 out of 21 games, they have allowed over 100 points just eight times. It has been a group effort with four players averaging over a steal a game led by Paul Millsap’s 1.88, which by far is the most by any power forward in the league and is tied for sixth in the NBA.

The main reason for Atlanta’s success is that its players are getting it done on both sides of the court; they are not one dimensional. Millsap is not only leading the team in steals, but he also is second in scoring with 17.2 per game, and averages a team high 8.1 rebounds to go along with 3.1 assists. Teague, who leads the Hawks with 17.4 points per game, also is a thief on defense picking up 1.77 steals per game. This trend continues down the roster. Al Horford is blocking nearly a shot and a half a game and DeMarre Carroll has blossomed into one of the NBA’s premier “3 & D” guys.

A rock solid starting five with players that get it done on both ends of the court is great, but the lack of a bench is something that often separates the pretenders from the contenders. A lot of Atlanta’s success has to be credited to the bench and the added pieces. Mike Scott emerged as one of the East’s best knock-down shooters off the bench last year. He exploded in the Indiana series and has continued his evolution from a post player into a dynamic 3-4 man shooting 38.5 percent from downtown. Scott along with stretch big man Pero Antic, cause matchup issues all over the floor for opponents’ big men who are not accustomed to guarding on the perimeter must step out to contest their three pointers. The newly added Thabo Sefolosha struggled early on to find his shot but has slowly begun to creep out of his slump. Thabo has added a toughness on the wing and an ability to guard other teams’ best scorers when needed. His playoff experience with the Thunder is also invaluable for the Hawks’ bench unit.

The biggest improvement Atlanta has seen has been from second year guard Dennis Schroder. The 17th overall pick in the 2013 draft got limited burn a year ago, but the heralded Rajon Rondo clone has begun to tear things up on the second unit. His scoring is up to 8.2 points per game after just 3.7 last season and has shot well from the floor at a 44.8 percent clip. Though he still plays under 18 minutes per game, the German-born Schroder is second on the team in assists with 3.2 a night. He has come up big late in games including this Monday when he scored all seven of his points in the fourth quarter in a 107-98 win over the Clippers.

Coach Bud has established a winning mindset and a culture change after a rocky offseason with the front office issues. The team has bought into playing with intensity on both ends and Hawks fans have reaped the benefits seeing their team hold first place in the Eastern Conference. It took fans and pundits a while to believe however. Atlanta opened up with a soft schedule and many questioned the merits of its victories. They soon crushed all doubt with their nine game win streak and current 19 of 21 stretch. They have gone 9-2 against Western Conference teams, which is the measuring stick for all Eastern teams.

The Highlight Factory has been a nightmare for opposing teams, as Atlanta has gone 14-3 at Philips Arena. The franchise is continuously trying to sell out games and get fans to appreciate the best team in the East. The Pac is back and it is finally time for Atlantans to embrace the team’s success and ride this train all the way into the postseason and possibly to their first division title since 1993-94.

Exposed & Exploited: RIP The SEC

Oh how the mighty have fallen. The dust has settled and the once deemed “best division in college football history” fell flat on its face, with the SEC West limping into 2015 with a 2-5 bowl game record while the much ridiculed SEC East held up its end of the bargain going 5-0 to save the conference from complete and utter embarrassment. The simple fact is that once again, the SEC came into bowl season wildly overrated and once again was exposed. The fall of the SEC began last year with Oklahoma throttling an “uninterested” Alabama team 45-31, and the fall concluded this season with Bama as they saw a Big Ten school with its third string quarterback hammer them into submission with 281 yards rushing and a 42-35 upset. Fans across the nation were stunned with the outcome, but the writing was on the wall and the fact that Alabama would get exposed again on the big stage was as clear as day to me.

Before I begin on Alabama’s demise, let’s start at the beginning. Texas A&M and Arkansas kicked off bowl season for the West going 2-0 and seemingly were just getting things started for another dominating SEC performance. However, the proverbial doo-doo hit the fan when LSU, who beat Ole Miss by three, and lost to Alabama in overtime, got beat by a Notre Dame team who lost four straight and had to bench its senior quarterback. Just one bad 31-28 loss for the SEC, no big deal right? Time for the best of the West to flex its muscle and prove it’s the top conference in football in the New Year’s Six. The vaunted Land Shark defense of the Ole Miss Rebels was ready to pound TCU who got snubbed from the final four, but things went awry as TCU embarrassed Ole Miss 42-3. That would be just the beginning of the writings on the wall starting to show through.

The Orange Bowl featured the ACC, the SEC’s little brother who swept the SEC during rivalry week. Time for some payback right? The Jackets ran the ball right down the Bulldogs’ throat, (sound familiar?) racking up 452 yards rushing and a blowout 49-34 victory, thus raising red flag number two. Maybe the SEC wasn’t that good? Maybe all of Alabama’s “signature” wins were just those over teams that were overhyped. But don’t fret, 2015 rolled in and Auburn had a date with the measly Big Ten and Wisconsin. Once again though, it was an SEC defense getting trounced on the ground. Melvin Gordon ran roughshod through the Tigers defense and racked up 251 yards, three touchdowns and a 34-31 win. Strike three for the SEC. Now all of Alabama’s big wins looked like nothing heading into the final four, not necessarily a settling thought for SEC enthusiasts.

By the time the Sugar Bowl rolled around, there was no reason to think this would be a sure-thing anymore for Alabama. The Tide did get off to a hot start, leading the Buckeyes 21-6, but Urban Meyer was able to cement himself as possibly the best coach in the nation by opening up the playbook and throwing in some razzle-dazzle en route to a 42-35 shocking victory. So what is there to take away from all this, besides the fact that the SEC’s top teams couldn’t matchup with other conferences’ top teams?  My take away is that the run of dominance is completely finished for the SEC. The gap has been completely closed and now that there is a four team playoff, teams who wouldn’t have gotten a shot otherwise now will be able to enter the picture. Without a playoff this year, it would have been Alabama vs Florida State for the title.

I heard some of the most blasphemous excuses this past week. “Bowl games don’t matter” or “they aren’t interested in playing if it’s not for the title”. My favorite one is SEC fans reciting the history of their success like a child with an old blanket they can always hold onto when they feel scared or exposed to the world, but hey, guess what? What does you winning a title two years ago have to do with what is happening on the field today? Does that 2012 title automatically roll into the next two seasons and seemingly should be able to make all other conferences fall to their knees and bow to the almighty SEC? Just like ESPN said, lets just have the SEC play its own national title because they are so much better than everyone else? Or maybe is it that they aren’t good enough to beat anyone else anymore? The cannibalization narrative was great for the SEC, but what happens when a bigger, hungry dog or in this case conference wants to come to the dinner table to feed? They pushed the little SEC to the side and did what they wanted to them. So to all the historians, that’s great that you guys USED to be untouchable but not anymore, and if you still think the SEC is the greatest without a doubt, no how, no way; to that, all I have to say is ignorance is bliss. The SEC got rocked and the SEC Network will have a lot of empty air space to fill after the debacle. The SEC Bias was fun while it lasted, with Skip Bayless picking Mississippi State, Alabama, Auburn, and Ole Miss for the final four playoff, but now it’s time to face the facts and face a brave new college football world.

Atlanta New Year’s Resolutions

This Thursday marks the start of a fresh year, 2015. It’s a chance for everyone to start anew and hope for a bigger and even better year. Each year people decide to make New Year’s resolutions because it is the popular thing to do and it gives you a goal to strive for if not in the long run, at least for the first few weeks (like getting in shape). Though many resolutions go to the wayside after the first month or so, I still think it is important to set some goals and resolutions to better ourselves. The resolutions I will put forth will not be for me, but for some Atlanta teams moving forward. Out with the old and in with the new, it’s time for some local teams to make some promises and to bring forth some change in 2015.

Atlanta Falcons

            Black Monday has brought the axing of Mike Smith after seven successful seasons and a 66-46 record in the regular season. The straw that broke the camel’s back was a 34-3 blowout loss at home which sealed the Falcons postseason fate along with Smith’s. Though he was Atlanta’s winningest coach in franchise history, his inability to win in the postseason (1-4) and his 1-14 record against winning teams the past two seasons was enough for Arthur Blank to make the switch. Atlanta’s New Year resolution should be to hire a defensive-minded coach and allow him to rebuild one of the league’s worst defenses.

The Falcons have always had the fire power on offense, but it has been their faulty defense that has done them in. The past two seasons they have finished 27th in the league in points allowed; too much for the offense to overcome. There have been some questionable moves including letting Brent Grimes, Thomas DeCoud, and John Abraham go too soon. The makeshift defense did the best they could but too many holes remained. Bringing in a defensive-minded coach would allow the team to put in better schemes and hopefully bring aboard some high quality players. The trio of Matt Ryan, Julio Jones, and Roddy White seemingly should be able to function with any coach or coordinator. Recently fired Rex Ryan went to back-to-back AFC Conference Championship games with Mark Sanchez as his quarterback – yes, Mark Sanchez. Give Rex the weapons Atlanta has on offense, and allow him to run the defense and the Falcons might be in good shape sooner rather than later.

Atlanta Braves

            My resolution for Atlanta is to keep doing what they are doing and be patient. Continue to build the farm system and look forward to the opening of SunTrust Park in 2017. The NL East has gotten considerably tougher and it is the right move to blow things up and punt on the upcoming seasons. The cupboard was bare when John Hart took over, but he is now starting to add pieces to the farm and hopefully be able to reap the benefits in three to four years. It will be tough for fans to suffer through 70-75 win seasons, but they have to remember that it is a marathon, not a sprint and that good things will come in the future.

Atlanta Hawks

At 22-8, the Hawks are tied for the fourth best record in the NBA. Their resolution should be to make it to the conference finals. Atlanta has made the postseason in seven consecutive seasons and look to be a lock again for this year; however, the Hawks have lost in the first round three straight years before losing in the second round three years in a row before that.  As the story goes for all Atlanta teams, getting over the postseason hump is the most difficult thing to do. This could be Atlanta’s year with the East being watered down and the Cavaliers struggling to become dominant. The Hawks have been Atlanta’s most consistent team this past decade but you would never guess it by the lack of support. It’s time for the Hawks to take ahold of Atlanta and officially become the city’s number one team.

As with all resolutions, only time will tell if they will come to fruition or not. I wish everyone a safe and happy New Years and I will see you next year!

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