Each week at Foul Play-by-Play (follow the link to listen to the audio) we will review the week’s cheats, cheap shots and alleged criminals in sports for a sports talk radio show, eventually airing online and on GCNLive radio affiliates. Here are your top law-related sports headlines and cheats of the week for May 11-17, 2018.
The Supreme Court struck down the federal law prohibiting state-sponsored sports betting after almost a six-year legal battle. States can now decide whether to allow or disallow sports gambling, with 20 states having already proposed bills to legalize sports gambling.
New Jersey expects to have its sportsbooks up and running before the start of the NBA Finals, but tribal casinos could theoretically open sportsbooks immediately because they are their own sovereign nations. The 1993 Nation-State Gaming Compact authorizes the Oneida nation of New York to adopt any gaming specification that is permitted without any further approvals by the State. They intend to open a sportsbook as soon as possible.
Tribal casinos in rural America have the most to gain from the Supreme Court’s decision, because sports gambling could actually cut into the profits of urban, tribal casinos by moving money from most profitable gaming machines to less profitable sportsbooks. Setting up a sportsbook is also expensive, especially an online sportsbook, which gamblers will demand. The cautious approach of urban, tribal casinos to open sportsbooks could allow rural, tribal casinos to be first to market in the American online sportsbook industry. But your state, Montana, has long been against sports gambling. It’s one of nine states prohibiting residents from betting on fantasy sports.
While the consensus of casino experts seems to be that the estimated $140 billion per year illegally wagered on sports in the U.S. according to the American Gaming Association (AGA) is overestimated, there’s tons of money to be made by a score of entities outside the gaming industry. NBA Commissioner Adam Silver wants his league to get one percent of all bets made on its games. Local newspapers and radio entities in states with legal sports gambling will now be able to provide content related to sports gambling instead of dancing around the subject. Most importantly, though, most of the billions of dollars Americans have stashed with online bookkeepers overseas will find its way back to the states and stimulate the American economy. I say most because these online bookkeepers overseas have been fraudulent in the past.
Newly hired coach of the Detroit Lions, Matt Patricia, was forced to once again express his innocence when Robert Snell of The Detroit News published a story about sexual assault allegations brought against him that resulted in an indictment but no trial for Patricia 22 years ago. Patricia’s accuser declined to testify citing “stress” as a reason, but Patricia and his attorney vehemently denied the abuse ever occurring.
As a former journalist, I’ll just say that Robert Snell of The Detroit News isn’t starting his work relationship with Patricia and the Detroit Lions on the right foot. I had the difficulty of covering a similar story involving a high school golf coach with an alleged history of sexual harassment of female golfers. But when that teacher/coach was first hired by the district, no story was written about his alleged past because no charges were brought against him and his former district sealed all details of the allegations from the public as part of the terms of his termination.
No charges were brought against the coach the second time, either, but despite that, my employer wanted me to write a story based solely on unsubstantiated allegations that could further undermine that teacher/coach’s career. It ultimately resulted in me submitting my resignation, and I feel I was correct in doing so.
Patricia’s case is entirely different because he was charged and indicted, and while I think Snell might have risked his employer’s work relationship with Patricia and the Detroit Lions, somebody should have and would have brought attention to this 22-year-old story.
Also in the news, Colin Kaepernick and Eric Reid, a couple of capable football players who can’t find jobs because of the expression of their personal views, are working out together with hopes of landing on an NFL roster.
Both players have waged grievances against the league for colluding against them to keep them from making a living in their chosen profession. Reid was asked about his anthem protest plans by the Bengals, according to Mike Florio of Pro Football Talk, and Kaepernick was similarly asked about his plans for the anthem by the Seahawks, who postponed a scheduled workout with the Super Bowl quarterback because Kaepernick reportedly had no plan in place, according to NFL Network’s Ian Rapaport.
But these players aren’t breaking any rules. The NFL owners and players’ association could have collectively bargained for players to be required to stand of the national anthem had they foreseen it as an issue. The NBA did, but the NFL didn’t.
I think my biggest problem with all the haters of these anthem protesters is their attempt at justifying their hate. For once I’d just like to run into someone who says, “You know, I just really like the national anthem as a song, and the protests don’t allow me to enjoy it as much.” I think that’s the only justification for disliking the anthem protests. The whole “honor the military and stand for the flag” argument just doesn’t compute with me because I’ve never seen the flag or the anthem as representative of our military specifically. To me, it’s representative of this nation and the rights of those of us who reside here, especially the right to free speech, which I feel is the First Amendment of the Constitution because it’s most important. Kaepernick even altered his protest, going from sitting to kneeling, acknowledging and accepting the opinion of ex-Green Beret Nate Boyer.
My least favorite justification for hating the anthem protesters is the ‘if I did that at my job I’d be fired’ defense. My old man made that argument just a few days ago, and I wanted to tell him he shouldn’t be mad at Kaepernick for using his workplace as a means to create awareness for a cause for which he’s passionate. He should be mad at himself for not obtaining a job that would allow him to also do so.
The railroad workday is not televised, and they don’t kickoff the railroad workday with what was, for the longest time, a paid advertisement by the United States military exploiting the national anthem to appeal to the patriotic sensibilities of the NFL’s mostly American audience. But imagine every American industry started the workday with the national anthem. Before an attorney tried a case the national anthem would be played in the courtroom. Before I could sit at my desk and read the news, the national anthem would be played over the intercom. Before my dad could fix a locomotive, the national anthem would be played throughout the roundhouse.
Now, assuming the same situation facing the NFL, where players are not contractually obligated to stand for the national anthem, employees of all industries could use the anthem as an opportunity to draw attention to themselves, and, in turn, a cause of their choosing. You might not have the media reporting on a railroad machinist’s decision to kneel for the anthem, but his fellow coworkers would probably ask why he didn’t stand for the anthem.
You might even have employers like NFL owners who dismiss employees for their anthem protests. They’d have good reason if morale or production is effected or damage is done to the employers’ brand. But, I ask you, is it not still illegal for an employer who has terminated an anthem protester to contact all the other employers in his industry and make sure they never hire that employee? It indeed is, and if that’s the case, wouldn’t that employee be due lost wages for the employers colluding to take away his or her right to work? He most certainly would. I don’t understand why so many people insist these guys should be banned from the sport and forced to find a new job. If you were fired from your job for expressing your political views and then colluded against by the employers of your chosen career, would you accept that you were terminated justly and humbly find work at a convenience store?
Honorable mention: Former Texas Rangers’ first baseman Rafael Palmeiro, at 53, got a hit in his second at-bat with the Independent League’s Cleburne Railroaders, his son, Patrick’s team. Patrick also had a hit and made a great play at third base, throwing over to his dad at first to complete it.
ESPN’s Tim Kurkjian said on The Dan LeBatard Show with Stu Gotz there’s no way Palmeiro makes it back to the majors because teams want nothing to do with him after lying under oath about using performance-enhancing drugs.
Bronze medalist: Seattle Mariners All-star second baseman Robinson Cano was suspended 80 games for use of the banned substance Furosemide, a diuretic commonly used to mask performance-enhancing drug use. Cano said in a statement that he was given the substance by licensed doctor in the Dominican Republic to treat a medical condition. Furosemide is used to treat fluid retention in people with congestive heart failure, liver disease, or kidney disorders, as well as high blood pressure, or hypertension. Under MLB's drug policy, a player is not automatically suspended for use of a diuretic unless MLB can prove he intended to use it as a masking agent. Cano reportedly tested positive for the drug prior to the season and appealed the potential suspension, but MLB was apparently able to prove his intent, resulting in Cano dropping his appeal. It will cost him $11,850,000.
Silver medalist: Minnesota Timberwolves assistant Rick Brunson resigned amid allegations of “improper interactions with several women while on the job,” according to The Athletic’s Jon Krawczynski. Brunson is still married despite admitting to an extramarital affair with a massage therapist in June 2014 that resulted in him being charged with attempted criminal sexual assault, criminal sexual abuse, aggravated battery and domestic battery. Brunson was acquitted of the charges.
Gold medalist: New Orleans running back Mark Ingram not only failed a drug test and was suspended four games for a drug “permissible with the proper use exemption from the NFL,” but will also sit out voluntary organized team activities entering a contract year. I probably don’t need to tell you, Mike, but Ingram had one of his best seasons last year, scoring 12 touchdowns and setting a career high in rushing yards.
In Ingram’s case, amphetamine was likely the drug “permissible with the proper use exemption,” a drug that has long been popular amongst athletes, especially baseball players. "'Greenies’" (Dexedrine) were a club house staple for decades beginning just after World War II, when ball players drafted into the military returned to the diamond having been exposed to the stimulant pills, which the armed forces dispensed by the millions. Another incubator of baseball speed-freakery was the winter Caribbean baseball circuit. There, players on seasonal hiatus discovered the two coffee pot system, where each club house had one pot with regular coffee and one with an amphetamine additive."
As of 2009 according to Michael S. Schmidt of The New York Times, “[t]he 106 players who received exemptions for attention deficit disorder represent about 8 percent of the major league players, based on 40-man rosters. The percentage of American adults who have been given a diagnosis of attention deficit disorder is somewhere between 1 and 3.5 percent, according to the National Institute of Mental Health, although some experts believe the actual number is much higher, citing a large number of undiagnosed cases.”
As someone diagnosed with Adult Attention-deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (AADHD), I can tell you it’s very easy to obtain a prescription for amphetamines if you familiarize yourself with the symptoms prior to taking the tests medical professionals administer. I answered the questions as honestly as I could because I long suspected I suffered from ADHD. As early as first grade I would do something, anything, to break the boredom of being seated at my desk in the classroom. It got to the point my teacher had a sticky note attached to my desk with each day of the week, and she would mark the days that I behaved with a smiley face and the days I didn’t with a frowny face, delivering reports to my mother. When I was introduced to pens I clicked them incessantly. Even after being asked to stop, I would revert back to the habit in times of boredom. My teacher’s eventually inherited enough of my pens to never have to visit the school’s materials closet.
Amphetamines streamline your focus, and I imagine it slows down the spin and speed of a MLB fastball ever so slightly. For a running back like Ingram who relies on his vision to find holes in the defense, I’m sure it slows down that part of the game for him to react quicker. He won’t be doing any reacting for the first four games of the Saints’ season, though, and likely won’t be back with the Saints after this year given his free agent status and the abilities of their second-year back Alvin Kamara.
The United States Supreme Court ruled to strike down the Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act (PASPA) by a 6-3 vote. The 1992 law barred state-authorized sports gambling, with Nevada being the sole exception.
The ruling allows states to determine whether they want to allow gambling on sports. While New Jersey expects to have sportsbooks open prior to the start of the NBA Finals, Delaware, Mississippi, New York, Pennsylvania and West Virginia are all prepared to get into legal bookmaking. But Indian nations could beat even those states to market.
Casinos on Indian reservations could theoretically open sportsbooks today because they are sovereign nations. The 1993 Nation-State Gaming Compact authorizes the Oneida nation in New York to adopt any gaming specification that is permitted without any further approvals by the State. They intend to open a sportsbook as soon as possible, but other tribal nations are taking a cautious approach.
The reason behind the cautiousness is the fact sports wagering isn’t all that profitable for casinos. According veteran Nevada sportsbook operator Art Manteris, sportsbetting “generates only a four- to six-percent margin, is labor-intensive and requires a major capital investment,” according to a story by Dave Palermo of Legal Sports Report.
Consider this: “From March 2015 to February 2016 a Nevada Gaming Control Board Gaming Revenue Report shows that the “total gaming win” (the casino’s win) over twelve months from slots was $7,066,306,000 (about 7 billion) total. Meanwhile, the total table games win was $4,094,401,000 (about 4 billion). The implication of this is that, even with sports gaming’s comparatively small return of $19,236,000 (about 19.2 million) considered, no casino game even comes close to slots in terms of revenue for the casino.” That’s according to Fact/Myth.
Palermo reports that “16 percent of the tribal casinos – many in urban areas – generate 71.5 percent of the $31.2 billion industry, according to senior economist Alan Meister of Nathan Associates.” These urban, tribal casinos might not have much reason to venture into sports betting since any dollar spent at the sportsbook instead of in a gaming machine is more likely to result in a loss and will certainly result in smaller margins of return.
But rural, tribal casinos could see sports betting as an opportunity. Places like 4 Bears Casino and Lodge in New Town, N.D. could supplement its revenue used to fund the needs of reservation residents by providing the first online sportsbook for North Dakotans.
While the consensus of casino experts seems to be that the estimated $140 billion per year illegally wagered on sports in the U.S. according to the American Gaming Association (AGA) is overestimated, there’s tons of money to be made by a score of entities outside the gaming industry.
NBA Commissioner Adam Silver wants his league to get one percent of all bets made on its games. Local newspapers and radio entities in states with legal sports gambling will now be able to provide content related to sports gambling instead of dancing around the subject. Most importantly, though, most of the billions of dollars Americans have stashed with online bookkeepers overseas will find its way back to the states and stimulate the American economy. I say most because these online bookkeepers overseas have been fraudulent in the past.
The Supreme Court decision is long overdue given the amount of revenue that could be raised by state and federal governments simply from administering a sin tax on gambling. Twenty states have already proposed bills to legalize sports gambling.
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Before the National Basketball Association (NBA) season began, almost anyone with any awareness of the NBA’s existence felt they knew which teams would be playing in each of the Conference Finals. Kyrie Irving and the Boston Celtics would meet LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers in the Eastern Conference Finals, and Stephen Curry and Kevin Durant of the Golden State Warriors would play the Houston Rockets’ James Harden and Chris Paul in the Western Conference Finals.
That’s exactly how it turned out, minus Irving, who barring injury, would be suiting up against his former teammate in a Conference Final I’d actually watch. Now, I’ll wait to see if Houston can force a Game 7 against Golden State before tuning into the NBA Conference Finals, and it took me betting on Houston to win it all to even have an interest in that series. Basketball’s predictability is the very reason I prefer the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
Giant men wearing armor and wielding weapons in their hands and on their feet skate at immense speeds on an ever-changing playing surface chucking a rubber saucer at speeds even faster than their feet can carry them or baseballs are thrown while their opponents do all they can to get in front of that unpredictable projectile. Hockey is a most unpredictable sport, and that’s what holds my interest. The fact it hardly has any stoppages for commercial breaks, provides coaches with just one timeout, and requires live substitutions are all just big bonuses for the sport with the best postseason -- a postseason that can still be improved.
The NBA is also looking to improve its postseason, thankfully. Commissioner Adam Silver floated the idea of eliminating the conferences for the postseason and simply seeding the top 16 teams based on record. This would result in less chance of a lopsided NBA Finals series. For instance, the series most of us believe to be the actual championship series between Houston and Golden State would actually be played for the championship. Houston and Golden State would be the first- and second-ranked NBA playoff teams, respectively, and would only meet in the NBA Finals under the proposed postseason alteration.
While travel concerns and the fact that the seeding of Eastern Conference teams would be skewed based on them playing half as many games against the more dominant, deeper Western Conference might thwart the NBA’s efforts to improve the postseason. But they shouldn’t. As long as there are no back-to-back games scheduled in the NBA Playoffs, travel shouldn’t be a concern. And the seeding of teams from different conferences could be based on their play against similar opponents. For instance, if an Eastern Conference team finished the regular season with a better record than a Western Conference team but lost both games to that Western Conference team, the Eastern Conference team could be seeded behind the Western Conference team based on its performance in head-to-head matchups.
The dominance and depth of the NBA’s Western Conference is forcing Silver to find a way to remedy the lack of intrigue in his sport’s predictable playoffs. A lack of competitiveness results in a loss of fans, which is exactly what has happened with elections due to partisan gerrymandering. Because elections have become so uncompetitive, fewer people vote, thinking their vote doesn’t matter, which, of course, is the intent of partisan gerrymandering.
The same is true of American capitalism. “Free” markets work for the consumer when there’s competition. But businesses want markets working for them. It’s why six companies own the majority of media in America or the means to deliver media messages. Hollywood called this “vertical integration” until the Supreme Court eventually forced movie studios to divest their interest in theaters.
But it’s happening again, and on a much more massive scale. Not only do media moguls own the media produced but the means of distribution. Comcast owns the “movies” it makes and the “theaters” that distribute them. The theaters are the cable, internet and mobile data arms of Comcast, so not only are they pulling revenue from ad sales of their shows, but they’re making two trips to the bank on just about every customer by being either one of two or the sole provider of cable, internet or wireless data in that customer’s area.
The increasingly deregulated capitalistic markets reward monopolistic businesses at the expense of the consumer. Mergers are great for big business, but they aren’t good for consumers. Sprint merging with T-Mobile would result in one less competitor in the mobile data and mobile phone markets, and with each fallen competitor the price for those services increases.
If you live in rural America you’re probably familiar with the price gouging that occurs because of a lack of competition, especially in the cable, satellite, internet service and mobile data industries. Verizon actually kicked Eastern Montana customers off their data plans because they used too much data. Many of those customers don’t have access to internet otherwise, so Verizon knows they’ll have to come back, and will pay more to do so.
So I don’t watch the NBA Playoffs for the same reason I despise American capitalism: a lack of competitiveness that results from monopolistic mergers, like Durant going to Golden State. Maybe when my Timberwolves actually win a playoff series I’ll give the NBA Playoffs my divided attention. But even with my Minnesota Wild eliminated from the Stanley Cup Playoffs, I have and will continue to watch the NHL postseason, because there’s no telling what could happen.
Had you been living under a rock the last month you’d still somehow know the 2018 NFL Draft’s first round was deep with quarterbacks. The fact five quarterbacks were taken in Thursday’s first round shouldn’t have surprised anyone, but, as always, there were surprises throughout the draft’s first round, starting with the very first pick.
Many “experts,” including ESPN’s Mel Kiper Jr., predicted Cleveland would take quarterback Sam Darnold, but Baker Mayfield is the next potential savior of the Browns franchise. I don’t know if Mayfield is a franchise quarterback. I’m no expert, but even the experts can’t predict who will go where and how good they will be in the NFL. ESPN’s Mel Kiper Jr. had Hall of Fame running back LaDainian Tomlinson as the 25th best player on his big board in 2001 and promised in 2010 to retire if Jimmy Clausen wasn’t a successful NFL quarterback.
The Cleveland Browns struggling to draft the right quarterback since Vinny Testaverde went 16-15 over the 1994 and 1995 seasons shouldn’t be such a surprise. All teams miss more than they hit when it comes to drafting players at any position let alone the most important position. The Browns missed on quarterback Tim Couch with the first overall pick in 1999, but they did worse in the following draft, selecting pass rusher Courtney Brown with the first overall pick. He finished his career with 19 sacks.
The Browns managed to miss in this draft, too, albeit not as badly as they did 1999 or 2000. Baker Mayfield will be better than Tim Couch. I’m almost sure of that, but they might have passed on the best player on the board to fill an immediate need, which is almost always a mistake.
The Browns wasted little time in surprising everyone, as they seem to do annually, selecting Ohio State cornerback Denzel Ward with the fourth overall pick. Cornerback was an immediate need for Cleveland, but they could have traded down to draft Ward if they weren’t interested in the draft’s best pass rusher, Bradley Chubb. The next cornerback selected was Louisville’s Jaire Alexander at 18th overall by Green Bay, who moved up to get him.
The Browns probably had Ward atop their board and liked him enough to not risk losing him to the Broncos, who actually have a need at corner with Aqib Talib being traded to the Los Angeles Rams. But the Browns’ immediate needs, or any team’s immediate needs for that matter, shouldn’t influence how players are ranked, with quarterbacks being the obvious exception.
KFAN Radio’s Paul Allen made a valid point immediately after Cleveland’s selection of Ward had the crowd at U.S. Bank Stadium gasping in shock during the annual Draft Party, Thursday night. Allen said Chubb could have addressed the Browns’ defensive secondary issues by forcing quarterbacks to get rid of the football faster, in turn, requiring less of defensive backs, who wouldn’t have to lock down receivers in coverage for as long. He’s right, but again, no franchise in all of sports is under more pressure to win than the Cleveland Browns, and new general manager John Dorsey has just four years (or less) to build the Browns into a winner. He’s plugged the two biggest holes thus far. The last quarterback to win a game for the Browns on a Sunday was Johnny Manziel, and Cleveland allowed a league-worst 68.6 completion percentage last season.
Ward will have an immediate impact for the Browns, but will forever be compared to Chubb. He can mitigate the frequency and relevance of those comparisons by helping the Browns win games. And with the additions of wide receiver Jarvis Landry, quarterback Tyrod Taylor and running back Carlos Hyde, the Browns are going to win four or five games this season.
The Broncos didn’t have an immediate need for a pass rusher with the league’s second-best pass rusher according to Pro Football Focus in Vonn Miller. But John Elway did as every general manager should do when given a gift: accept it graciously and unwrap it hastily.
After the draft, Elway said “none” of their mock drafts had Chubb falling to fifth overall, so Elway ought to be elated. His team got a better player than expected, albeit at a position of depth, but Denver’s defense won’t require a cornerback of Ward’s caliber anymore. The average amount of time opposing quarterbacks will have to find an open receiver will be considerably less than it was against last year’s defense with Chubb and Miller rushing the passer, requiring less of the secondary in coverage downfield.
The Buffalo Bills give up way too much to move up and draft who “experts” saw as the least-prepared quarterback with the highest upside and biggest bust potential. And I’m not just talking about the twelfth overall pick and two second-round picks -- numbers 53 and 56 -- Buffalo sent to Tampa Bay to move up five spots and select Wyoming quarterback Josh Allen eighth overall. The trade was lopsided in Tampa’s favor, but the Bills’ buffoonery leading up to the 2018 NFL Draft’s first round is even more disturbing.
Seth Walder with ESPN Analytics reports that according to ESPN's draft pick calculator, the picks Tampa Bay received from the Bills carry an expected Approximate Value (AV) of 12.2, while the picks the Bills received were only worth 7.3 AV. He does add that the calculation is made independent of players’ positions, and since quarterbacks have a higher upside than other positions, “it is probably more justifiable to trade up in this situation if the target is a QB.”
The lopsidedness of the Bills/Bucs trade pales in comparison to, say, the San Diego Chargers trading two first-round picks, a second-round pick, and two players, one of whom was Eric Metcalf, to move up one spot in the 1998 draft. Everyone remembers the storyline the sports media used to sell that year’s draft as dramatic television -- and it was indeed dramatic. Would it be Peyton Manning or Ryan Leaf going first overall?
The “experts” said both quarterbacks would be successful in the NFL. President of the Indianapolis Colts at the time, Bill Polian, still sweats when asked about that draft. Had he picked Leaf, he wouldn’t likely have a job as an ESPN analyst and would be remembered for building teams that failed to win the big one. His Buffalo Bills lost four consecutive Super Bowls, and his Carolina Panthers -- in just their second season, however -- lost the 1996 NFC Championship Game. Manning is why Polian remains employed and relevant, and why I had no idea who Bobby Beathard was until just now.
Beathard was the Chargers’ general manager at the time. Unlike Polian, though, Beathard had already constructed a championship team in Washington, where he won two of his four Super Bowls. Despite giving the Arizona Cardinals so much to move up one spot in the draft, Beathard’s sterling reputation must have mitigated criticism from San Diego sports columnists and NFL analysts because I struggled to find any criticism of the trade after Beathard made it. There had to be someone out there who knew the Chargers had given the Cardinals too much even if the “experts” were right about both Manning and Leaf, but I couldn’t find them on the Internet. Nothing short of a Hall of Fame career and a San Diego Super Bowl win would justify trading five players who would all end up logging at least some time in the NFL to move up a single spot in the draft.
But the Chargers and their fans were desperate for a franchise quarterback they knew they wouldn’t get with their third overall pick. The experts were right about that. There weren’t any Tom Bradys hidden in the 1998 NFL Draft. Matt Hasselbeck was the third-best quarterback drafted and was the second-to-last quarterback selected, going to Green Bay as the 187th overall pick in the second-to-last round.
The one Sports Illustrated column I did find that was critical of Beathard was because prior to the 1998 season, he traded San Diego’s “only proven receiver, Tony Martin, to the Falcons for a second-round draft choice in 1999.” SI’s Michael Silver wasn’t concerned with the two first-round picks, second-round pick, and two players Beathard traded to draft Leaf, nor was he concerned with the Chargers being unable to surround Leaf with help because of all the draft picks Beathard traded away. He wasn’t concerned with Leaf’s athletic ability or even his mental state while transitioning from a small town life and a quaint college in Pullman, Wash. to the life of a millionaire, NFL star quarterback in sunny and seductive Southern California at the age of 22. Silver was concerned that the Chargers’ new franchise quarterback wouldn’t have any open receivers to whom he could throw the football. Silver, like everyone else, was assuming Manning and Leaf were equals because that’s what the “experts” kept saying. The Bills are guilty of applying this same groupthink to the 2018 NFL Draft’s first round.
The Bills believed the first round of this draft would be deep with franchise quarterbacks or they wouldn’t have traded the quarterback who led them to the playoffs for the first time since 1999. Before the first round of the 2018 NFL Draft even started, the Bills had blown it like Beathard did. They subscribed to the “expert” opinion that the 2018 NFL Draft would be a quarterback draft. They adopted that doctrine, and proved their devotion to that dogma by trading the aforementioned Tyrod Taylor, who only threw for nearly 2,800 yards, ran for another 427 yards, including four rushing touchdowns, and finished with 14 passing touchdowns to just four interceptions. All the Bills managed to get for the leader of their playoff team was the 65th pick in this year’s draft -- which they also traded.
The Bills enter the 2018 season with former Cincinnati backup quarterback AJ McCarron expected to start. He’s signed for two years, which gives Allen the time he needs to hone his skills. But is a backup quarterback getting his first opportunity to be the regular starter the best mentor for a project quarterback like Allen? Who knows? Certainly not the “experts.”
All I know is if I were a Bills fan I’d be livid. Buffalo should be building on its 2017 success by using this draft to give Taylor the weapons he needs to make the Bills a contender. He finally got the pass protection that the Bills lacked during Taylor’s early years. The offensive line improved from 11th in 2016 to seventh in 2017, according to Pro Football Focus.
Taylor might have gotten out of Buffalo just in time, though. Four Bills’ offensive linemen will be free agents at the end of this season, according to Sportrac. So not only did Buffalo jettison a quarterback they painstakingly groomed into a capable, playoff-caliber quarterback for a third-round draft pick, but they drafted an even younger, more inexperienced quarterback who, like Taylor in his early years, won’t have the luxury of pass protection. But Allen doesn’t have Taylor’s running ability to avoid hits and extend plays, either.
The Bills were the absolute worst before and during the first round of the 2018 NFL Draft. They’ve consciously decided to go from their first playoff berth in almost 20 years to grooming a quarterback prospect mentored by a man getting his first opportunity to be a starting quarterback in the league. Sorry, Bills fans. It’s going to be a few more years of pain and suffering with nothing but hope to stave off disappointment.
The Cardinals have a good quarterback in Sam Bradford. He’s accurate, has a great arm and will pick defenses apart when given time in the pocket. But he might be the slowest starting quarterback in the game, which doesn’t bode well for him or the Cardinals given his injury history. Bradford will miss games, and Mike Glennon won’t inspire much of anything in his absence. Enter Josh Rosen.
Rosen is ready to start in the NFL and the “experts” say he’s the best pocket passer in the 2018 NFL Draft. He’ll have a great mentor in Bradford, who is almost strictly a pocket passer. Unless Bradford stays upright all season and plays to his potential, Rosen will start for the Cardinals at some point this season. He’s got the competitive mentality to thrive as an NFL starting quarterback, but some “experts” say his mouth will get him into trouble and might be why he wasn’t the first quarterback drafted. I wish all quarterbacks were as outspoken and confident as Rosen. He sounds like a human being instead of an NFL android. After the draft’s first round, he said, “There were nine mistakes made ahead of me, and I will make sure over the next decade or so that they know they made a mistake.” Randy Moss said something like that upon being drafted, and he followed through. I think Rosen will do the same.
Again, I’m no expert, but I only needed to see one highlight of Randy Moss against the University of Montana to know he was the best non-quarterback in the 1998 NFL Draft, which included the only defensive player to ever win the Heisman Trophy, Charles Woodson. Moss leaped over a Montana defender, which was against NCAA rules at the time but not called. I imagine the officials were too awestruck to remember the rule. The best part wasn’t how much clearance he had over the defender, but despite his momentum being slowed while floating through the air, he was at top speed in two steps, pulling away from everyone in pursuit. I’d never seen anything like him and knew he would be a star if he could stay out of trouble. I remember analysts predicting Moss would fall in the draft due to off-field concerns, of which I was aware. In fact, I hoped teams passed on him so he fell to my Vikings.
I was shocked 19 NFL teams passed on Moss. Cincinnati did so twice in favor of Takeo Spikes and Brian Simmons. General managers were afraid Moss wouldn’t be able to stay on the field let alone out of prison, which allowed the Minnesota Vikings to give me what remains to this day as my most joyous occasion associated with my Minnesota Vikings fandom. Stefon Diggs’s “Minnesota Miracle” catch to win the 2018 NFC Divisional Playoff Game over New Orleans didn’t even come close to matching the emotions that came over me the moment Randy Moss was drafted 21st overall on Apr. 18, 1998. I ran through my house screaming with joy as tears ran down my face. Sadly, it’s the happiest and proudest the Vikings have ever made me.
Moss didn’t wait long to make me and the Vikings look like geniuses. He just had the best rookie season ever by a wide receiver, catching deep bombs from 35-year-old Randall Cunningham, who set career highs in net yards per pass attempt, touchdown percentage and quarterback rating. In fact, it was the only season Cunningham recorded a quarterback rating over 100.
Moss is the best wide receiver of all time, according to the statistical gurus at FiveThirtyEight, because he made his quarterbacks better than any other receiver in history. Moss remains the sole Hall of Famer from the 1998 NFL Draft class. Manning will be eligible for induction in 2021. I didn’t see anyone in the 2018 NFL Draft who screamed Hall of Famer like Moss did in 1998, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t one out there.
Heisman Trophy winners were selected at the top and bottom of the 2018 NFL Draft’s first round, and if my franchise needed a quarterback, I would have selected the quarterback taken last in the first round over the first quarterback selected.
I would have traded down to draft Lamar Jackson after Mayfield, Sam Darnold and Josh Rosen came off the board. In fact, just before my franchise was on the clock with the 30th pick and Kirk Cousins entrenched at quarterback for the next three years, I publicly hoped Jackson would fall to the Vikings and they would select him. I think he’s a better version of Teddy Bridgewater, and I enjoy watching quarterbacks who can extend plays with their legs.
NFL scouts and general managers don’t like their quarterbacks to be athletes, however. It’s too dangerous outside the pocket, which is probably why Jackson fell all the way to the bottom of the first round -- just like fellow Louisville quarterback Teddy Bridgewater did in 2014. Bridgewater entered his pro day considered by many as the top quarterback available in the draft, but his pro day was a disaster because he decided to do something he never had -- throw without wearing gloves.
While the decision cost Bridgewater in the draft, it worked out pretty well for the Vikings despite the career-threatening injury that resulted in the Vikings losing Bridgewater for almost two full seasons. Minnesota still got a competent starting quarterback who played at an All-Pro level and led his team to the playoffs in just his second NFL season. Despite the injury, Bridgewater ended up being a steal in more than one way.
With Bridgewater dropping on “experts” draft boards because of a hilariously small sample size of errant passes for which there was a reasonable explanation, the Vikings didn’t have to trade up for Bridgewater. They didn’t even have to use their first first-round pick. Instead, Vikings’ general manager Rick Spielman waited for every other team to reach for a quarterback in another draft “experts” called deep with franchise quarterback potential.
Spielman let Jacksonville make the mistake of drafting Blake Bortles third overall. He let the Browns do their thing and trade up for Johnny Manziel at 22nd overall. But when Bridgewater was still on the board as Seattle was on the clock with the last pick in the first round, Spielman pounced, sending the Vikings’ 40th and 108th overall picks to the Seahawks to select Bridgewater, knowing that drafting Bridgewater in the first round instead of the second would allow the Vikings to retain Bridgewater on a rookie contract for five years instead of four.
Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome must have taken notes on Spielman’s moves in 2014, because he made almost the same exact draft day trade as Spielman for yet another Louisville quarterback in the 2018 NFL Draft’s first round. Newsome was even more creative than Spielman was in the first round, though, culminating in Newsome’s best work in his final NFL Draft with Baltimore.
Instead of the Ravens using their first-round pick like the Vikings did selecting linebacker Anthony Barr ninth overall in 2014, Baltimore traded down twice. The Vikings had an immediate need at linebacker, however. The Ravens immediate needs entering the draft’s first round were wide receiver, quarterback and tight end. Four of the five quarterbacks “experts” considered to have franchise potential were already off the board, and the top wide receivers and tight ends weren’t expected to be drafted until around pick 20. So the Ravens didn’t necessarily need to make a selection with their 16th overall pick.
As if on cue, Buffalo came calling with another one of their generous trade proposals to move up and snag the 12th overall draft prospect according to “experts.” Baltimore got Buffalo’s 22nd and 65th overall picks for its 16th and 154th overall picks, turning its pick in the middle of the fifth round into a pick at the top of the third round, where an immediate contributor can still be drafted.
The Ravens weren’t done turning their willingness to wait into valuable draft picks. When they were on the clock at 22, there still hadn’t been a wide receiver drafted. So Newsome flipped that pick and their 215th overall pick in the sixth round for Tennessee’s 25th overall pick and the 125th pick in the fourth round. Newsome turned Baltimore’s late sixth-round pick into a selection in the heart of the fourth round -- just for the willingness to drop three spots in the draft.
Newsome and the Ravens were rewarded for their patience. By the time Baltimore finally made a selection, the top-ranked wide receiver, tight end and fifth-ranked quarterback were still available. D.J. Moore, the second-ranked wide receiver in the 2018 NFL Draft, was selected by Carolina just before Baltimore’s pick at 25, so the Ravens took the top tight end in the draft, Hayden Hurst. Hurst can stretch the middle of the field for Flacco and the Ravens, whose current tight end is more of a blocking specialist than route runner or receiver. Hurst isn’t going to be a game changer, but he’ll have an immediate impact.
Hurst isn’t the Ravens’ pick that’s getting all the attention, but it should be. The value Newsome got in return for trading down to draft Hurst is shocking. For the willingness to wait and drop nine spots in the NFL Draft’s first round, the Ravens were rewarded a pick atop the third round and another in the fourth round, all while sacrificing draft picks that seldom provide value to NFL teams.
According to Kevin Meers of The Harvard Sports Analysis Collective, the 65th overall pick the Ravens got from Buffalo is more than twice as valuable as the 154th overall pick they sent in return -- an increase in value of nearly 108 percent. The 125th pick Baltimore plucked from Tennessee is 1.8 times more valuable than the 215th pick they sent back to the Titans, or an 80-percent increase in value.
Newsome didn’t sacrifice much value by trading down, either. Baltimore’s 16th overall pick was only 1.17 times more valuable than the 25th overall pick -- a 15 percent sacrifice in value. So Newsome’s trades to move down the 2018 NFL Draft’s first round actually increased the overall value of the Ravens’ draft picks by 173 percent.
Newsome thought he was done flipping picks on Day 1 of the draft until the final selection of the first round put Philadelphia on the clock with Jackson still available. Like Spielman, Newsome knew drafting Jackson in the first round would allow the Ravens to retain Jackson on a rookie contract for five years instead of four. So he sent Baltimore’s 52nd and 125th overall picks to Philadelphia for the 32nd and 132nd overall picks.
Newsome might have gotten an even better deal trading up for Jackson than the Vikings got trading up for Bridgewater, and I think they got a better quarterback, too. But the real beauty in Newsome’s work during the 2018 NFL Draft’s first round is all the value he created for Baltimore in the draft’s middle rounds by trading down in the first round to where he expected the players he desired would start coming off the board.
The Vikings’ Spielman made similar moves in the middle rounds of last year’s draft, scoring a starting center in the third round, and another rookie contributor in the fourth round. That’s why I called him the funnest general manager to watch on draft day. So far, Newsome has the Ravens setup for similar success, with a pick in round two and two picks in both the third and fourth rounds. In his final NFL Draft, Newsome has employed his experience and patience to leave a lasting legacy and a competitive Ravens roster for his replacement.
If you like this, you might like these Genesis Communications Network talk shows: View From The Couch
The Minnesota Wild parted ways with general manager Chuck Fletcher on Monday after a nine-season tenure that saw the Wild reach the Stanley Cup Playoffs for six consecutive seasons, but fail to get out of the second round.
Joe Bouley over at Hockey Wilderness tabs Toronto’s Kyle Dubas, Tampa’s Julien Briesbois, Nashville’s Paul Fenton and Pittsburgh’s Bill Guerin as potential replacements. Regardless of who takes the Wild reigns, they’ll inherit quite the mess from Fletcher.
According to Sportrac, the Wild have just over $10 million in cap space to work with next season. Jason Zucker, Matt Dumba, Nick Seeler and Ryan Murphy are all restricted free agents. Zucker made $2 million in 2017-18 and will demand a considerable raise. He was third on his team in relative Fenwick at even strength and fourth on his team in relative Corsi at even strength. Dumba made $2.55 million and will also demand a raise, setting career highs in just about every category. He even matched his career-high plus-minus of 15 set last season.
The new Wild general manager won’t likely let Zucker or Dumba go, and Murphy and Seeler were both positive contributors in 2017-18, too. Murphy’s relative Fenwick at even strength of 1.4 was a career high, and Seeler’s relative Fenwick of .9 was respectable in his first season. Murphy earned $700,000 in 2017-18, and Seeler made $717,500.
So if Fletcher’s replacement signs all four of the Wild’s restricted free agents to contracts, there won’t likely be money to spend on unrestricted free agents, which means trades will have to be made in order for the Wild to improve the roster. Luckily, the Wild have a whole bunch of picks in the 2018 NHL Draft and some trade chips worth something.
The Wild have a first-round pick, three third-round picks, two fifth-round picks, and a sixth- and seventh-round pick in the 2018 NHL Draft. Whether the incoming general manager is of the opinion that it’s time for the Wild to blow it up and rebuild or just a few pieces away from contending for a championship will determine how the Wild’s ammo will be utilized. But it’s hard to blow up a team that’s paying more than $15 million annually to two players who can’t be traded (Ryan Suter and Zach Parise).
The Wild might have the most valuable trade chip on the table, though, in center Eric Staal. Staal, at 33, finished fourth in goals scored and 26th in the league in points, and he’s owed just $3.5 million next season -- the final year of his deal with the Wild. Staal has said he and his family are comfortable in Minnesota, but a long-term extension is unlikely this offseason given the Wild’s lack of salary cap flexibility. Stall might have to be traded just to remedy the situation.
One of Fletcher’s most recent offseason acquisitions just didn’t pan out. The Wild needed a guy who could deliver hits, sure, but his average time on ice dropped more than four minutes, resulting in 34 percent fewer hits than his monster season last year when he delivered 279 hits for Buffalo. And while his possession metrics were the best they’ve been since 2012-13, left wing has become a position of depth for the Wild with the addition of Jordan Greenway and Parise recovering from back surgery (only to enter another offseason with an injury).
The Columbus Blue Jackets need a third-line left wing with Matt Calvert’s contract coming off the books, and Marcus’s older brother Nick is already the center on the Blue Jackets’ third line. Dumping the $2.875 million the Wild owe Foligno each of the next three seasons would be a good place for the new Wild GM to start cleaning up Fletcher’s salary cap mess. The Wild could always sign free agents Patrick Maroon (+1, 4.2 relative Corsi, 4.1 relative Fenwick) or Jussi Jokinen (+7, 0.8 Corsi, 0.8 Fenwick) to fill the left wing position on the third or fourth lines.
The Blue Jackets have one draft pick in each of the first, second, third, sixth and seventh rounds, but packaging Foligno with, say, Mikko Koivu, could really go far in clearing the cap space necessary to extend Staal.
The Blue Jackets have roughly $17 million in cap space for next season, with only third-line defenseman Ryan Murray a restricted free agent worthy of a contract offer. The Blue Jackets’ fourth-line center Mark Letestu will also be an unrestricted free agent this offseason. Acquiring Koivu would allow the Folignos to move down to the fourth line and second-line center Alexander Wennberg, 23, to skate third-line minutes. The move would transfer $8,375,000 from the Wild’s books to the Blue Jackets’ for the next two years, and Koivu’s $5.5 million in 2019-20 as well.
Coming back to the Wild could be Columbus’s third-line right wing Josh Anderson, controlled through 2019-20 at the modest price of $1.85 million annually. Currently, the Wild have just two healthy right wings on the roster in Mikael Granlund and Nino Niederreiter. Rookie Kyle Rau was playing on the third line with Parise hurt in the playoffs. Anderson, 23, logged an impressive 3.3 relative Corsi and 3.2 relative Fenwick during 986.9 minutes at even strength, and would be a considerable upgrade to unrestricted free agent Daniel Winnik, who posted a relative Corsi and relative Fenwick of -3.1 as the Wild’s fourth-line right winger.
The Wild should also get a high-round draft pick from Columbus in exchange for Koivu, but probably not the first-rounder. The Wild adding a second-round selection in a draft expected to be deep with talent would be an exceptional return for their captain, Koivu. The trade would leave the Wild with $6.525 million in cap space to extend Staal or do something else if they choose to trade Staal.
Staal is coming off his best offensive season in a decade, so he’s going to demand Parise and Suter money to make up for the measly $3.5 million annual salary he was paid this year and last. But at 33, he might be signing his last contract, so much of his salary could be backloaded to give the Wild some salary cap flexibility in these years they are cleaning up Fletcher’s mess and transitioning to a new general manager.
The smart move would be to hold off on trading or extending Staal this offseason and hope he comes back strong in the first half of 2018-19, attracting interest from contending teams prior to the trade deadline. This would give the new Wild general manager at least a little time to evaluate 20-year-old center Luke Kunin, who will likely miss the start of the 2018-19 season recovering from an ACL tear in his left knee.
Even if Kunin shows the potential to be a top-line center right away, it wouldn’t be a bad idea to retain Staal as a mentor. The Wild could still sign Staal as an unrestricted free agent next offseason even after trading him for something at the deadline. Or the Wild could simply retain Staal, work Kunin into the lineup and make the playoffs again. It’s a nice problem to have, and one of the two moves of the Fletcher era that worked to perfection (the other being goalie Devan Dubnyk).
Regardless, the Minnesota Wild general manager job might not be that attractive to potential candidates, but whoever takes over the Wild not only inherits a mess, but an opportunity to contend immediately or the means to blow it all up and rebuild.
The NBA Playoffs tipped off over the weekend, and the results of every Game 1 gives us a glimpse of what we can expect in the first round. Here’s what we learned from every NBA Playoff Game 1.
If Klay Thompson keeps shooting like he did on Saturday, the Warriors won’t need Stephen Curry in the first round. He was 11-for-13 from the floor and hit five of six three-point attempts to lead the Warriors. All the Warriors’ starters had positive plus-minuses, though, so Thompson could have an off day and Golden State would still give San Antonio fits.
Dejounte Murray was the only Spurs’ starter with a positive plus-minus on Saturday. In fact, only two Spurs finished with a positive plus-minus. LaMarcus Aldridge was terrible, going five-for-12 from the field for 14 points, and the age of Manu Ginobili (-15) and Tony Parker (-17) showed, especially on defense.
You don’t need to see it to know it -- Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan’s collective reputation precedes them. They struggle in the playoffs, and they struggled in Game 1, especially in the first half. But Serge Ibaka scored 23 points and grabbed 12 rebounds in support, as the Raptors won a Game 1 for the first time in 11 tries.
These new Raptors can win when Lowry and DeRozan struggle shooting because of their new “all hands” offensive approach. They’re seeking the most open shot, regardless of shooter, which is why DeRozan could finish six-for-17 from the floor with 17 points against the Wizards and the Raptors still won Game 1. DeRozan also had six assists, and Lowry added nine, mostly on open three-pointers. The Raptors hit 16 of their 30 three-point attempts.
Ben Simmons was a rebound away from scoring a triple-double in his first playoff game, and the Heat couldn’t contain JJ Redick or Dario Saric on the perimeter. They both went four-of-six from three-point range. Hassan Whiteside was a non-factor, playing 12 minutes. The Heat couldn’t even contain Marco Belinelli or Ersan Ilyasova, a couple of late-season waiver claims. They scored 42 minutes combined. How the Heat became the most popular pick of analysts to score an upset in Round 1 is mind-boggling.
Anthony Davis has picked up his game in the absence of DeMarcus Cousins. He scored 35 points, grabbed 11 rebounds and scored four blocks, and despite being just +1 on the night, his supporting cast was just good enough for the Pelicans to steal Game 1 in Portland. Nikola Mirotic hit four of his 10 three-point attempts to lead New Orleans in plus-minus (+13), and Jrue Holiday made half of his shots to finish with 21 points (+12).
Meanwhile, the Trail Blazers’ Damian Lillard struggled shooting inside the three-point line, going six-for-23 from the field but four-of-nine from three-point range. CJ McCollum didn’t offer much relief, going seven-for-18 from the field despite shooting four-of-10 from three-point range. Davis defended the rim effectively, and the Pelicans made the Blazers win on the perimeter. They didn’t, shooting under 31 percent from beyond the arc.
Al Horford, Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown were good enough for Boston to beat Milwaukee in Game 1. And they can be enough to carry the underdog Celtics without Kyrie Irving over the East’s seventh-seeded Milwaukee Bucks, who turned the ball over a ton. Horford was huge for Boston in Game 1 and is capable of carrying this team into the Eastern Conference semifinals, but he won’t.
Milwaukee’s defensive adjustments late in Game 1 got them back into the game, and should get them a win in Game 2. They finally started forcing turnovers to make up for the 20 they lost, and although the Bucks lost in overtime, Boston showed its susceptible to losing in front of its home crowd. Once that happens, the Bucks just have to win their home games.
The Indiana Pacers are really good. Victor Oladipo looked like a superstar in Game 1, and Lance Stephenson did what he does when he’s right, holding LeBron James to a -13 plus-minus despite scoring a triple-double with 24 points, 12 assists and 10 rebounds. Every Pacers’ starter had a plus-minus of at least +14 while James was the only Cavalier starter in double figures.
LeBron James lost a Game 1 in Round 1 of the NBA Playoffs for the first time in his career, and it happened on his home court. Even King James might not be able to carry these Cavs into the NBA Finals. Even if it’s not Indiana that eliminates Cleveland, Philadelphia very well could. The Cavs have already lost their home court advantage in Round 1 and won’t likely have one in Round 2.
Paul George scored 36 points and finished the night +3. Russell Westbrook scored 29 points but was -1, and Carmelo Anthony scored 15 points to finish +1. The Thunder pulled away from the Jazz when their bench was on the floor, despite Utah’s bench outscoring the Thunder bench 34-17. Alex Abrines led the Thunder in plus-minus (+14), Jerami Grant was second (+12), Raymond Felton was third (+9), Patrick Patterson was fourth (+6), and Terrance Ferguson tied George for fifth on the team in plus-minus.
Timberwolves head coach Tom Thibodeau might lack an effective offensive strategy, but his defensive strategy against Houston seemed to be “make James Harden beat us.” He did, but it took 44 points and 58-percent shooting, including a seven-of-12 effort from beyond the arc. Harden was simply brilliant, but Houston can’t expect him to keep shooting damn near 60 percent from the floor. Once the Wolves locked down Clint Capela, who had 20 of his 24 points in the first half, the Rockets needed every one of Harden’s points to hold off Minnesota.
Is this the recipe to beat the Rockets? Sunday was the closest the Timberwolves have been to beating Houston all season. They lost all four regular season games against the Rockets -- three by 18 points and the final game by nine points. Harden was +10 in that nine-point victory, scoring 14 of his 34 points from the free throw line. Despite 44 points on Sunday night, the Rockets were just +5 with him on the floor. Had the Wolves gotten anything out of Karl-Anthony Towns, they would have stolen Game 1 in Houston. We’ll see if they can steal Game 2 instead, which would be the biggest surprise of the NBA Playoffs.
If you like this, you might like these Genesis Communications Network talk shows: View From The Couch
I don’t enjoy writing the “fire the coach/GM” letter. I hope no one does. Calling people’s job performance into question publicly isn’t something I long to do. I’m not the current President. Firing people isn’t my thing. But when I feel a change is needed to improve the product for which I and my neighbors pay handsomely, I’m not going to bite my tongue and suffer in silence.
Twice I've written letters calling for sports executives to be fired, and in both instances they were. On Oct. 17, 2011, I called for Minnesota Twins general manager Bill Smith to resign. Less than a month later, he was dismissed. On July 14, 2016, I called for most of the Twins’ front office to be fired, including Smith’s predecessor and replacement, Terry Ryan. Four days later Ryan was fired.
It’s not that I think these “fire the coach/GM” pieces actually instigate change. I doubt they even reach the decision-makers. But they make me feel better and, hopefully, provide you some insight into the thoughts and feelings of a frustrated season ticket holder and the reasons for that frustration.
In the past, I wrote my “fire the coach/GM” letters in reactionary anger. They were fueled mostly by emotion, not logic. With Ryan, it was an inactive trade deadline that set me to punching the keys. With Smith, a slew of bad trades got me started down the same path (JJ Hardy, Johan Santana, Wilson Ramos). Only the Twins’ on-field success kept me from writing. But when Smith traded Delmon Young for Minnesota local, lefty Cole Nelson in A-ball and Lester Oliveros, I had had enough. I didn’t need to know both players’ careers would end three years later to know the trade was no good for the Twins. And while Delmon Young was hardly a hot commodity, he did go on to carry the Detroit Tigers to a World Series, winning ALCS MVP honors the following season -- a year after posting an 1.170 OPS in 21 plate appearances for the Tigers in the 2011 ALDS.
This time I’m taking a different, more reserved approach. I’ve been putting this off for months with hopes of Minnesota Timberwolves head coach and president of basketball operations Tom Thibodeau giving me a reason not to write this. He hasn’t, so I am.
I’ve been a supporter of Thibodeau’s since his first season with the Chicago Bulls. In fact, I hadn’t watched an NBA game since Jordan’s last in 2003 until Thibodeau took over in Chicago and installed an attitude instead of an offense. The Bulls’ physicality on defense was nostalgic in its ferocity, raising memories of Scottie Pippen and Dennis Rodman frustrating the hell out of everyone they guarded. I always liked the idea of figuratively “punching opponents in the mouth” and literally hurting them with physical play on defense.
I enjoyed watching low-scoring games in which baskets were hard to get, and scars and bruises were just the price paid to play in the paint. I loved hard fouls, not because of the violence or the further potential for violence they sometimes instigated, but because I am a firm believer that if you’re the last line of defense between your opponent and the basket, and your opponent gets by you, it’s your job to make sure your opponent doesn’t hit a shot. And if you could put them on their ass in the process of fouling, you did your job, even if your opponent hits the foul shots. Now everything’s a flagrant foul and players on defense are more apt to shy away from contact rather than initiate it.
I so wanted Thibodeau to succeed while much of the league started exploiting the three-point line. I feel like it was the last chance to save basketball as I knew and loved it, and Thibodeau inherited a pretty good team when he left Boston for Chicago. The Bulls finished at .500 the season prior to Thibodeau’s arrival and were 11th in defensive efficiency but 27th in offensive efficiency.
Thibodeau made me look like a genius that first season, as the Bulls finished first in the Central Division at 62-20, 11th in offensive efficiency and first in defensive efficiency. But was it Thibodeau who made me look like a genius or league MVP Derrick Rose? It certainly wasn’t Thibodeau’s offensive schemes, which boiled down to Rose playing in isolation, driving the lane, with or without a screen, and either dishing or finishing.
Not much has changed, except instead of Rose driving and dishing or finishing, it’s Jeff Teague dribbling and dribbling and dribbling until the shot clock expires. Teague can’t finish at the rim like Rose could, so defenders happily trap him under the basket where they know he can’t finish over them and an interior pass is difficult. Teague can’t hit the three, either, so defenders can play him closer to the rim, limiting the effectiveness of Teague’s dribble drive. It’s hard to beat a defender off the dribble when he’s so far away, and if there’s no help needed to defend against the dribble drive, there’s nobody left open to take a shot off Teague’s pass.
Thibodeau has done very little on the offensive end to adapt to the players he has and the skills they possess. It’s still isolation plays in a spread offense with virtually no movement away from the ball except the occasional high pick and roll. He’s not putting his players in a position to find success or even an open shot. Phil Mackey crunched some numbers at NBA.com, and the Wolves take more contested shots than any team in the NBA and take the second fewest wide open shots. A team that struggles shooting like the Wolves needs all the open shots it can get.
Thibodeau has long been known to be a defensive guru, but his offensive schemes leave much to be desired. The Timberwolves didn’t hire him to improve their offense, though. It was already ranked 12th in efficiency before he got there, thanks to an effective facilitator in Ricky Rubio, whom Thibodeau traded for Oklahoma City’s 2018 first round draft pick and cap space to sign Teague. Thibodeau blew up a successful offense to add a score-first point guard on a team with its three top scoring options already established. It seems Thibodeau thought he could just assemble five effective scorers and not have to worry about designing offensive schemes for them. If they can all create their own shot, there’s no need to run a play, right? But this time he didn’t have a 22-year-old Rose to hide his lack of offensive ingenuity behind highlight reel finishes at the rim.
So Thibodeau made the move that sold seats at the newly renovated Target Center and gave Wolves fans reason for hope. He traded for Jimmy Butler -- a trade that already looks like Chicago won despite almost everyone in the sports media agreeing the Wolves had fleeced the Bulls on draft day. Regardless of who won the trade, the Wolves won my money. I became a season ticket holder because Butler was coming to town (and the seats at Target Center were comfortable). He was my favorite player in the league at the time because, again, he plays defense, and does it better than almost anyone. Since he’s been gone, we’ve all seen how truly invaluable he is. Before Butler went down with a torn meniscus, the Wolves had the eighth best net rating in basketball (2.6). Since Butler’s injury, the Wolves are 19th in net rating (-1.0).
Butler was Thibodeau’s way of covering for his weak defenders until they learned how to play defense. Correcting poor footwork takes time. You can’t blame Thibodeau for the poor defense of Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins. Expecting him to turn Towns into the young Joakim Noah (4.2 DBPM in 2010-11) and Wiggins into Ronnie Brewer (3.2 DBPM in 2010-11) in two seasons is unfair. Noah was already an elite defender before Thibodeau arrived (3.3 DBPM in 2009-10, his third season after four years in college), and Brewer was already trending up in his fourth season (1.6 DBPM in 2009-10). Wiggins is also trending up on defense in his fourth season, albeit from a lower starting point. His -1.5 DBPM this season is a vast improvement on the -2.9 and -2.5 DBPM he posted the two previous seasons. Towns’s 1.0 DBPM is better than positional peers Kevin Love (-1.5), Channing Frye (-1.0), Tristan Thompson (-0.7), Tyler Zeller (-0.6) and Robin Lopez (-0.2).
Both Towns and Wiggins have the offensive ability to make up for their subpar defense, though. So if they aren’t scoring -- a lot -- they’re a liability. With Butler gone, they’re the top two scoring options -- just like they were last year. Towns gets the touches on offense to cover for his defensive shortcomings. He had 26 points on 10-of-16 shooting for a +10 rating in Denver, Thursday night.
Wiggins doesn’t get those dedicated touches Towns demands in the paint, however. He has to settle for Teague’s desperation passes when his dribble drive fails to draw a helper on defense, which never leaves Wiggins an open shot and forces him to shake a defender before settling for a contested jump shot at the end of the shot clock. Wiggins is at his best when driving to the basket, but you don’t see too many high pick and roll plays called for him. In fact, it’s as if Thibodeau’s spread offense has gone and made the Wolves’ best athlete into a spot-up shooter, and a bad one at that. Wiggins had nine points on Thursday night on four-of-12 shooting, and the Wolves allowed 13 net points while Wiggins was on the floor. He needed to score 22 to avoid being a liability. If the defense isn’t there yet, the offense must be, or there’s no reason to have Wiggins on the court. The Wolves were 11 net points better with Jamal Crawford and 24 points better with Rose on the court. They scored nine and four points, respectively, but were buoyed by their defensive ability.
Minnesota doesn’t have much time to rebuild their chemistry with Butler, but they’ll immediately be better thanks to Butler guarding the opposition’s best player whenever possible. What’s worrisome is that Butler’s addition doesn’t seem to be showing itself in the numbers. Minnesota’s defense was 27th in efficiency last year, and the Wolves remain the 27th-ranked team in defensive efficiency after adding one of the best two-way players in the game. Butler’s DBPM is just .1 this season, a career low and way down from the 1.1 he posted last year. His defensive rating is also at a career low this season, so Butler is having a down year on defense, and his offensive numbers are understandably down having gone from a team where he was the scoring option to a team with ample scoring options.
All that said, after the season, regardless of outcome, Thibodeau should step down as the Timberwolves head coach. I don’t have much faith in his ability to act as president of basketball operations, either, but he did bring me Jimmy Butler, and for that I am forever grateful. For that, he should remain the president of basketball operations. I don’t even mind him serving as a defensive coordinator on the coaching staff, but the best thing he could do as president of basketball operations is go out and hire the offensive Yin to his defensive Yang. The Timberwolves could have avoided giving Thibodeau so much control and just hired David Blatt like Joseph Gill recommended at SB Nation’s Canis Hoopus back in January of 2016. But Thibodeau can make it up to them by hiring Blatt himself. It would be a classy move and allow Thibodeau to focus on team-building and management, so Minnesotans have a quality basketball team worth watching for years to come.
If Thibodeau fails to win a playoff series, he isn’t going to be on the hot seat. But the Tweeters are rumbling and the word “fire” is being thrown around the Internet. That’s the spark that leads to letters like these being sent to ownership and published online, and then as letters to the editor in newspapers (although getting this down to 700 words will be a challenge).
You have to give Thibodeau some props, though. Despite running his players into the ground under an avalanche of minutes, potentially shortening Derrick Rose’s and Joakim Noah’s careers, and being known for having an abrasive attitude, his former players love and defend him. Without Thibodeau, the Wolves wouldn’t have Jimmy Butler or a shot to make the playoffs, so despite me calling for the end of his head coaching career, I’m just like one of his players. I love Thibodeau for giving me a reason to watch professional basketball again, and I’ll defend his ability to build a winner, but I can’t defend his offensive strategy anymore. 1953 called, Tom. It wants its pace and playbook back.
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The best days of the Minnesota sports year are here, and I’m not just saying that because Target Field opens its gates for baseball on Thursday. The Minnesota Twins are, as of this writing, playing their home opener against the Seattle Mariners on Thursday afternoon.
Even if the foot of snow the Twin Cities received Tuesday doesn’t melt by game time or more rain and snow moves into the area forcing a postponement, at least Minnesota sports fans will have two more games to watch later that night. Both the Minnesota Wild and Minnesota Timberwolves play games that could affect the postseason, and both play at the same time, which is frustrating and frankly, should be illegal.
Thursday is going to be the best day of the Minnesota sports season. That is until Saturday, April 14, when four professional sports teams in Minnesota could all play on the same day for the first time ever. We know the Twins and Minnesota United FC (MNUFC or Loons for short) will be in action. But with the NBA Playoffs set to begin that same day, and the Stanley Cup Playoffs also underway, Minnesota sports fans could watch their home teams for up to 11 consecutive hours on April 14. The Twins host the Chicago White Sox at 1:10 p.m. CDT and MNUFC’s match in Portland kicks off at 9:30 p.m. That leaves plenty of room in the television schedule for both the Wolves and Wild.
These really are the best days of the Minnesota sports year, and they’ll continue for as long as the Wild and Timberwolves allow. Here’s the potential schedule for the best days of the Minnesota sports year. You’ll notice this is not a complete schedule of upcoming sporting events featuring a team from Minnesota. Days during which just one Minnesota sports team plays a game are not included. Each day listed has the potential for at least two games to be played by a team from Minnesota. All times are Central. Asterisks indicate a potential game not yet scheduled. Check back for updates.
The biggest reason for fans of every MLB team to watch Opening Day is that their team is in first place. It’s the only day of the year every team can say that, but fans of every team, even the Miami Marlins, have at least one reason to watch Opening Day baseball.
The defending champions take on their in-state rivals the Texas Rangers on ESPN at 2:30 p.m. CST, and the biggest reason for Astros fans to tune in is to see if 35-year-old Justin Verlander can repeat his stellar 2017 season and carry a staff of mostly question marks.
Dallas Keuchel followed up his Cy Young season in 2015 by posting an ERA+ of just 86 in 2016. He rebounded with an ERA+ of 136 last season, but pitched just 145.2 innings. He’s pitched 200 innings just twice in his six-year career. Verlander has done it in 10 of 13 seasons, which is five more times than the rest of the Astros’ starters combined.
But the Astros are prepared in case their starters fail to eat innings, with Collin McHugh and Brad Peacock available in the bullpen.
Clayton Kershaw takes the mound against San Francisco at 6 p.m. CST on ESPN. That’s all Dodgers fans should need to tune in on Opening Day, because it could be Kershaw’s last season with the Dodgers.
Yankees fans will get their first look at last year’s home run champion Giancarlo Stanton in Toronto on Thursday. Oh, and the runner-up in the home run race, Aaron Judge, will be there in pinstripes, too.
Jon Lester will take on Miami to kick off Opening Day on ESPN at 11:30 a.m. CST. Lester, who has struggled throwing to first base, will feature a new bounced throw he’s been working on in Spring Training. It’ll be interesting to see if his new approach limits the running game of Miami, a team that does have some speed if nothing else.
Indians fans will get their first look at new first baseman Yonder Alonso, who has become the new poster boy for launch angle despite his simple focus of becoming “a tough out.” He’s certainly been that in Spring Training, collecting 21 hits in 56 at-bats and amassing an OPS of 1.284. Defensive metrics have Alonso rated as a downgrade at first base when compared to Cleveland’s former first baseman, Carlos Santana, though.
The Nationals will have to wait until Friday to open the season due to weather in Cincinnati, but it does give Adam Eaton an extra day to recover from the ACL tear that kept him out all of last season. Eaton will most certainly be the biggest addition to a team that sees its championship window closing. Bryce Harper, Daniel Murphy, Gio Gonzalez and Matt Weiters will all be free agents at the end of the season.
J.D. Martinez debuts with Boston on Thursday at Tampa Bay, a much-needed upgrade at designated hitter, where Hanley Ramirez struggled to a .750 OPS last season. Martinez will get time in the corner outfield spots as well, but will mostly steal at-bats from Ramirez and Mitch Moreland, who will serve as a platoon at first base.
Martinez’s awesome power to all fields should play well at Fenway Park, and while he might not hit as many home runs as he did at Chase Field in Arizona, at least he’s not in Arizona this year, where baseballs will be kept in a humidor to limit home runs. Chase Field accounted for the fourth-most home runs in baseball last season. Fenway was 26th, but Martinez is more than just a power hitter. He’s hit over .300 in three of his seven MLB seasons.
The Twins’ new braintrust of Derek Falvey and Thad Levine might have won the offseason, adding reasonably-priced bullpen depth (Addison Reed, Fernando Rodney), undervalued starters (Jake Odorizzi, Lance Lynn) and an undervalued slugger (Logan Morrison). They were the second-best offense of the second half of last season, with Gold Glove center fielder Byron Buxton discovering a swing that has him poised for a breakout in 2018.
Twins fans will get a chance to see all their new additions in action on Thursday in Baltimore, most notably starter Jake Odorizzi, who takes the mound with Ervin Santana recovering from hand surgery.
The Rockies were second in the league in save percentage (77.05 percent) last season despite Greg Holland being abysmal in the second half (6.38 ERA). They added Wade Davis in the offseason, who closed out 32 of his 33 save opportunities in 2017.
The Brewers were surprisingly good last year, and will surprise no one this year. They also got better in the offseason, adding center fielder Lorenzo Cain and left fielder Christian Yelich. Those additions should help them climb out of the bottom third of the league in runs scored.
Marcell Ozuna is coming off a career year in Miami (.924 OPS) and provides added depth to a lineup that already had six players with an OPS+ over 100. The Cardinals were 13th in the league in runs scored last year, but were 20th in runs allowed. The addition of Ozuna allows the Cardinals’ best outfielder, Tommy Pham, to play center field full time instead of splitting time with the less adept Dexter Fowler, who will roam right field instead. The Cardinals are going to score more runs and limit fewer runs in 2018 thanks to Ozuna.
The Mariners’ aging rotation can’t seem to stay healthy, and Felix Hernandez is a shell of his former self, but they have the speedy Dee Gordon roaming center field to back up that aging rotation, which is the best reason for Mariners fans to watch Opening Day baseball. Gordon’s transition from middle infielder to center fielder should be an adventure worth watching, but his prowess at the plate and on the base paths is always worth watching. The addition of Gordon should lift Seattle’s run production substantially, which was 15th in the league last year. Gordon’s 60 stolen bases last season would have put the Mariners at the top of the league in that category.
The Diamondbacks still have Zack Greinke, who will open the season at home against Colorado. Greinke allowed more home runs last year (25) than he had since his rookie year in 2004 (26), but the new baseball humidor in Arizona should make him even better in 2018. It might have an adverse effect on Paul Goldschmidt, though. Still, having a Cy Young contender on the mound is reason enough to watch Opening Day.
Angels fans were probably hoping Shohei Ohtani would be starting Opening Day at Oakland, but he hasn’t pitched well enough in Spring Training to warrant the fourth spot in the rotation let alone the first (27.00 ERA). He hasn’t hit either (4-for-32). The Angels still don’t have the starting rotation to reach the playoffs, but the addition of Ian Kinsler into an already potent lineup featuring the game’s best player, Mike Trout, one of the game’s best hitters of all time, Albert Pujols, and a rejuvenated Justin Upton, should make for an Opening Day featuring plenty of runs scored.
Jake Arrieta won’t toe the rubber on Thursday in Atlanta, but Aaron Nola will, giving Phillies fans reason to watch and reason for hope. The Phillies aren’t as far from contending as some people think thanks to their young talent being quick studies at the MLB level. Nola amassed 184 strikeouts in 168 innings last year, left fielder Rhys Hoskins hit 18 home runs in 170 at-bats, and second baseman César Hernández collected 215 total bases for a second consecutive season.
New addition Randal Grichuk is going to have a career year in Toronto, and Aaron Sanchez seems to have rediscovered himself (3.06 ERA in Spring Training) after struggling last season. The key for Toronto is always health. How many games will Troy Tulowitzki and Curtis Granderson play? Even Josh Donaldson missed considerable time last year. But the starting rotation and lineup are both playoff caliber. The bullpen is the reason they’re pretenders.
Manny Machado is moving to shortstop in the final year of his contract with the Orioles. Adam Jones is also in a contract year, so both will be looking to put up massive numbers to earn big paydays in the offseason. Machado was a premiere third basemen and should make for an above average shortstop, especially given his hitting ability. Watching him at his new position on Opening Day is reason for Orioles fans to watch.
It’s another even year, and the Giants have added pieces to make another run at a championship. With Madison Bumgarner recovering from a broken hand and out three months, the eyes of Giants fans will gravitate towards Andrew McCutchen on Opening Day. At 31, McCutchen should enjoy hitting in the Giants’ effective lineup, but hate chasing balls in right field behind the Giants’ aging rotation.
Can Cole Hamels return to form after a hiccup in 2017? Rangers fans will get a clue when he takes on the offensive juggernaut Houston on Thursday. If the 34-year-old Hamels has indeed regressed, at least the Rangers now have the 34-year-old Doug Fister to back him up in the rotation.
Eric Hosmer will debut with the Padres on Thursday in San Diego against Milwaukee, giving San Diego the bat it needs to protect Wil Myers. They’re still a long way from contending, but having a guy like Hosmer in the lineup should help make the vast Petco Park look just a little bit smaller. Petco allowed the second-fewest homers last year.
Replacing Hosmer with with Lucas Duda could be a very affordable way for the Royals to get similar offensive production for $140.5 million less than Hosmer got from San Diego. Duda posted an .818 OPS and hit 30 homers playing for the Mets and Rays last year. But Jon Jay (.738 career OPS, +4 total zone/total fielding runs above average per 1,200 innings in center field) is no Lorenzo Cain (.763 career OPS, +11 total zone/total fielding runs above average per 1,200 innings in center field).
All eyes will be on Noah Syndergaard, whose 101-mph fastball has been all the rage in Spring Training. The Mets have playoff potential in their pitching, both starting and relieving, and the addition of Adrian Gonzalez gives them four professional hitters (Jay Bruce, Yoenis Céspedes and Todd Frazier) in the lineup. The Mets are also very old and injury prone, so health will be a key factor in limiting their potential.
Ivan Nova could be the next Pirate traded and will start the season in Detroit taking on Jordan Zimmerman. Nova isn’t a free agent until after next season, but the $9 million and change he’s owed this year and next will make him very attractive to a team in the hunt if he has similar success to last season (4.14 ERA).
Chris Archer has long been the subject of trade rumors, but will start for the Rays on Opening Day for the fourth consecutive season. Archer’s contract is any team’s dream and comes with two club options at just $8.25 million after next season, so if he gets off to a hot start, the Rays could be given an offer they can’t refuse. Rays fans should tune in on Opening Day to see their ace get the season started on the right foot.
Top prospect Robert Acuna Jr. won’t be on the Braves’ Opening Day roster so Atlanta can control the start of his service time and retain his rights longer, but second baseman Ozzie Albies will be worth watching. Albies posted an impressive .810 OPS in 217 at-bats last year and has been raking in Spring Training (20-for-66 with an .843 OPS).
Yoán Moncada found an effective stroke last season, posting a .750 OPS in 199 at-bats. He’s been even better this spring, posting an .833 OPS in 59 at-bats. All eyes will be on Moncada to become the star everyone expected way back when he was still with the Red Sox.
Scott Schebler has been an absolute force in Spring Training, with 19 hits in 46 at-bats and an OPS of 1.151. He’ll be manning right field for the Reds on Opening Day, looking to build on his respectable 2016 season that saw him post a .762 OPS over 257 at-bats.
Miguel Cabrera might not be a piece the Tigers can trade -- this year or ever. But Nick Castellanos has just one more year of arbitration eligibility, and Victor Martinez and José Iglesias are free agents at the end of the season. The Tigers have to move all they can to complete their rebuild, so Tigers fans should be rooting for Cabrera, Castellanos, Martinez and Iglesias to start the season hot on Opening Day.
José Ureña taking on the Cubs should be reason enough for Marlins fans to watch Opening Day. Ureña had a fantastic 2017, going 14-7 with a 3.82 ERA. If he can shut down the Cubs’ lineup, it should give Marlins fans hope that they might have an ace in the making.
California native Matt Chapman will look to stake his claim to third base for the long term in Oakland after posting a respectable .785 OPS over 290 at-bats in 2017. He’s got legitimate power potential, too, hitting 14 home runs and 23 doubles last year.
The number one overall seed in the 2018 NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament fell to the 64th overall seed -- the first time a 16-seed has beaten a one-seed in the history of the Final Four tournament. But that one upset hardly tells the story of the bad beats abound during March Madness.
My friend and I experienced the bad beats abound during March Madness on a blue chip parlay betting the spread -- even though I had planned to not bet the spread beforehand. We placed $20 on Duke, Kentucky and Kansas to cover their respective spreads because the $76 payout on our $20 bet was too attractive to avoid. (We made another $20 parlay bet on the same three teams to win outright to cover our potential loss on the spread parlay.)
Duke doubled the 10.5-point spread against Rhode Island, and Kentucky easily covered the 5.5 points by which they were favored, winning by 20. Kansas just had to win by five over Seton Hall and we would have won almost $150.
With 1:20 left, Kansas led by eight, but then Khadeen Carrington scored seven points in a minute to keep Seton Hall just five points back. After a pair of free throws by Malik Newman, we were good, leading by five. But there was plenty of time for Seton Hall to get off a three, and despite being well defended, Myles Powell knocked down a fade-away three as the buzzer sounded to deliver our money to the house.
We managed to find one of the few bad beats specifically betting the spread. I even went to Vegas with a plan for betting the Final Four that included never betting the spread, but the potential payout for betting the spread was just too attractive for me to avoid.
If you were betting on Texas Tech to cover the 11.5-point spread over Stephen F. Austin, you were disappointed that the Red Raiders didn’t try to score in the final 20 seconds while up 10. If you had your money on Purdue covering the four points by which they were favored, you were ecstatic when Dakota Mathias hit a three-pointer with 17 seconds left to push the Boilermaker lead to five. Even after Kelan Martin hit a layup to cut the Purdue lead to three with three seconds to play, if P.J. Thompson hits the front end of a one-and-one, you at least get your money back. If he hits both free ones you’re a winner. That had to hurt.
You might not have predicted Buffalo upsetting Arizona let alone covering the nine-point spread. But you might have been willing to bet that the two teams would score more than 158 points. The brutal irony in Buffalo’s drubbing of Arizona is that the Bulls actually took their foot off the gas pedal after Wes Clark hit a three to make it 89-64 with 1:17 left. The four points Arizona scored the rest of the way was two points short of 159 and a win for those betting the over.
Eight of the 32 first-round games ended with an underdog on top. University of Maryland-Baltimore County led the charge with its win over top-seed, Virginia. But two 13-seeds (Buffalo and Marshall) also upset two four-seeds (Arizona and Wichita State).
Syracuse, an 11-seed and a team some said didn’t deserve to be in the tournament, upset six-seed Texas Christian University. Another 11-seed, Loyola-Chicago defeated sixth-seeded Miami. Tenth-seeded Butler rounded out the upsets by double-digit seeds with its win over seventh-seeded Arkansas.
Alabama and Florida State both upset eight-seeds Virginia Tech and Missouri, respectively.
Six of the 16 second-round games resulted in upsets. Syracuse went on to upset Michigan State to make the Sweet 16. But Syracuse isn’t the only 11-seed in the Sweet 16. Loyola-Chicago also beat a three-seed in Tennessee to join Syracuse as a Cinderella.
Florida State is the next lowest seed left in the dance, defeating one-seed Xavier. Two seven-seeds also remain, as Texas A&M and Nevada defeated four-seed Auburn and two-seed North Carolina, respectively. Fifth-seeded Clemson beat fourth-seeded Auburn to conclude the second-round upsets.
Duke has the best odds of making the Final Four final and the second-best odds of becoming champion. They’ll face the lowest overall seed remaining in the tournament, Syracuse, whom they beat by 16 back in February. Syracuse’s zone defense was and still is superior to Duke’s, and it didn’t and still won’t matter.
Duke hit just two of 18 three-point attempts against the Orange zone, but the Duke zone sent Syracuse to the free-throw line just six times. The Blue Devils hit 14 of 16 free throws, 14 of which went to big men Marvin Bagley III, Wendell Carter Jr. and Marques Bolden. They hit 12 of those 14, which is well above their season average. Bagley shoots 62 percent from the charity stripe, Carter shoots 74 percent from the line, and Bolden hit 59 percent of free ones this season.
Syracuse will have to put the Duke bigs on the line again and hope they miss more often. It’s really the only chance they have unless they shoot the lights out against a Duke zone that has improved since they last played.
The team with the best odds to become champion is one-seed Villanova. They get a tougher test than Duke to open the Sweet 16, though. Fifth-seeded West Virginia will hope its full-court press can limit Villanova’s league-best scoring efficiency, a tall task for the gritty Mountaineers.
Gonzaga checks in with the third-best odds to reach the final and win it all. Florida State stands between Gonzaga and the Elite 8, where either third-seeded Michigan or seventh-seeded Texas A&M will be waiting.
Second-seeded Purdue has the fourth-best odds to become champion despite having just the sixth-best chance to reach the final. That’s because Purdue has the toughest road to the Final Four, playing three-seed Texas Tech and potentially facing one-seed Villanova.
Fifth-seeded Kentucky has the fifth-best odds to be one of the Final Four and tournament champion and has one of the easiest paths to those ends. Ninth-seeded Kansas State awaits on Thursday, and if Kentucky wins, the Wildcats will either see seventh-seeded Nevada or 11-seed Loyola-Chicago.
Michigan has the sixth-best chance of reaching the final and becoming champ, with Kansas, a one-seed, checking in at seventh. The Jayhawks’ low odds despite their seed likely has to do with how Duke and Clemson have looked in the tournament thus far. Fifth-seeded Clemson smoked fourth-seeded Auburn by 29 in the second round, and Duke won both its games running away.
So if you’re looking to make back some of the money you lost on the bad beats abound during March Madness’s first two rounds, Duke and Villanova are the best bets to reach the Final Four.