Tuesday, 29 January 2013

College Basketball update

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Thursday, 17 January 2013

Michigan v Minnesota Preview

Following on from two victories for the underdog in College Basketball - namely Wisconsin Badgers defeating the pre-season #1 ranked Indiana Hoosiers in their home court, and then last night the Maryland Terrapins defeating the North Carolina State Wolfpack.

Whilst both are considered upsets, both have back stories and followed trends.  The Badgers have now won 11 straight versus the Hoosiers, and Indiana Head Coach, Tom Crean has never beaten Bo Ryan's squad during his four years in the job.  And NC State continued their trend of losing the game after they beat either Duke or North Carolina; they easily defeated Duke at home (the Blue Devils themselves had excuses as they were without big forward Ryan Kelly).  The Wolfpack are 1-7 now in the game immediately after they now defeat one of their big ACC rivals.

So whilst on paper the results may be a surprise, they should not necessarily qualify for an upset.

Tonight, we have another one of those maybe games when #5 Michigan travel to #9 Minnesota for another huge Big 10 clash.  The Big Ten has got a huge game every night now, seemingly the strength of the conference is more stronger in Basketball terms than Football at the moment.

Michigan are 16-1 having suffered their first loss of the season at Ohio State on Sunday 56-53, where they shot a season-worst 38.3% from the floor and had 13 turnovers.  Minnesota are 15-2, themselves also coming off a loss to Indiana 88-81, in what many considered the best performance by the Hoosiers all season.  However, Indiana followed that up with a loss at home to Wisconsin as noted above.  Therefore, both sides are in need of getting back into the winning habit.

Where will this game be won? Well expect a lot of physicality from the Golden Gophers, Tubby Smith's side led by Trevor Mbakwe who has 8 rebounds a game, and led by Andre Hollins and Rodney Williams who both hit double digits regularly.  Much like Ohio State did also, was attempt to stifle Trey Burke who shot poorly and struggled to dish out dimes to his team-mate Tim Hardaway Jr.

Also, due to the physicality of the Golden Gophers, the Wolverines have to make sure they do not foul too often as Minnesota average over 20 trips to the foul-line.  If Minnesota can force Burke to look for a pass instead of a shot, they may have half the job done.  When a National Player of the Year is not doing his job of leading from the front then the team ethic of the Gophers may have a chance to shine.

Expect a close contest with winner lucky to hit over 70 points, but if the Gophers win, will it be considered and upset?  Or just another indicator that the Big 10 is the best conference in College Basketball this season?

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Monday, 14 January 2013

Draft outlook: Cierre Wood

Notre Dame Fighting Irish lost the National Championship game last week, and knowing they were losing Theo Riddick who was in his senior year, they were probably hopeful that they could use the other member of the dual running threat, Cierre Wood as their Number 1 running back in the 2013 season.  The most likely hope to maintain some of the form for next season.

Alas, the hope of Brian Kelly - who himself committed to the Irish after flirting with the Philadelphia Eagles - to maintain returning starters much like Alabama do, has diminished as underclassman Wood has declared for the 2013 draft in April.

Wood is currently predicted to be anything from a third to a seventh round draft pick; he hopes to elevate his position based on workouts and interviews.  However, he is currently ranked behind his team-mate Theo Riddick and way behind more renowned backs Montee Ball (Wisconsin) and Eddie Lacy (Alabama).

However, this decision by Wood, part determined by his one-year old daughter and wanting to secure money for her future as well as his own with Notre Dame being popular at the moment and helping the team to a 12-1 season; it could well become a decision that is the wrong one.

Looking over his stats for his three years at the school; 2012 was not even Wood's best season.  This season he garnered 742 rushing yards off of 114 attempts, an average of 6.5 per rush with 3 games of over 100 plus rushing yards.

However, in 2011 he was the sole back and garnered off of 217 carries, 1102 yards at an average of 5.1 yards and 9 touchdowns, in contrast to this season when he only got 4 touchdowns.

This is due to the system employed by the Irish to use both Wood and senior Theo Riddick as a dual running threat.  This meant sharing the workload and carries, and it can be seen that Riddick being the more senior player got the rub of the green.  Riddick had 76 more carries (190), more yards (175) and one more touchdown; as well as two receiving touchdowns in which Wood was hardly ever used as a receiver; whereas Riddick caught 36 passes for 370 yards (10.1 avg) and 2 touchdowns.

It is quite clear to make the case that Wood, a returning senior is South Bend, would have got the brunt of the work and carries next season.  And for Kelly and the Irish to have one returning star would have been gratifying as Tyler Eifert, the stud tight end has also declared for the NFL.  This means in some respect, the Irish are starting over on offence.

Wood, can be expected to be taken low in the draft, maybe a fifth/sixth round pick-up if his workouts and interviews allow him to improve his status.  However, he did not do himself any favours in the National Championship game where he had four carries for just two yards, with no receptions.  Unlike, Riddick who did score a touchdown in the blowout against Alabama.

Riddick, may well have the more upside coming out of the draft, his ability to catch passes and gain yards make him a useful utility back in the mould of a Danny Woodhead-figure who can gain huge yardage from a variety of positions and schemes.  Wood, can be expected to be drafted, by a team that requires a back-up running back for those short yardage gains.  However, neither can be considered an every down back at this stage in their careers.

Whilst Brian Kelly wishes Wood every luck in the draft, you can imagine him saying this through gritted teeth.

Monday, 7 January 2013

Notre Dame v Alabama Preview

Much like me writing for this preview, for Notre Dame there is no better time than the present.
In Miami tonight, the Fighting Irish take on the Crimson Tide of Alabama - the current National College champions - for all the marbles to be declared the National title winners and the best team in College Football for the year 2012.
Ever since this game was made in December leading to 40 days of anticipation and preparation, there has been much spoken of between the two teams and where the game will be won or lost.
Firstly, this game will not be a high-scoring classic akin to the game between Vince Young's Texas and Reggie Bush's USC when there was 70 plus points, you will probably have a lower scoring game like last year's 21-0 match between Alabama and the LSU Tigers.  Both teams will also score that is certain.
Throughout the season, you have two teams that have committed the fewest turnovers but also teams have converted those turnovers into points and wins.  Notre Dame with the ever-improving Everett Golson under centre have a quarterback who commits few turnovers, maintains control of the ball helped by the dual threat running backs of Theo Riddick and Cierre Wood. Tyler Eifert who can play tight end or wide receiver is a potent threat to any defence.
Alabama have the better quarterback in AJ McCarron - a competent player who is able to make the bigger plays.  That deeper threat may lead to more takeaways, but as he showed in the road win at Baton Rouge - McCarron can handle huge national exposure and pressure.
The defences will probably have more of a say than the offences; Notre Dame has a renowned front seven led by Heisman Trophy finalist Manti Te'o they can stop the run led by senior Eddie Lacy and the younger TJ Yeldon.
Yet watch out for the ND red zone defence which twice this season has goal-line stops to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat.  Alabama are no slouches themselves on defence, yet the inability to create turnovers against Johnny Manziel led to their one defeat at Texas A&M; for the Tide to win they need to pressure the composed Golson.
This may come down to versatility - and like the Seattle Seahawks have shown in recent weeks - there ability to score a lot of points is down to the great field position from punt returns and kick offs.  If Golson has less field to score on, then that will put less pressure on him and allows the defence to make their statement.
Another factor to remember is that this game is being played at night, the body clock of college athletes can be manipulated to perform at the optimum peak level when required.  Notre Dame have played the majority of their games this season late starting at 8pm prime-time.  Alabama have played a lot of mid-afternoon kick offs of 3-4pm; it may not matter but the physiology of young athletes cannot be discounted.
My prediction is that this may well come down to a field goal, the score will be 20-17 to the Irish who will gain their first National Championship since 1988.
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Thursday, 3 January 2013

NFL Wildcard Preview

After 17 weeks of bone-crunching, mouth-whetting amazing football with ups and downs across the boards and after Black Monday when seven coaches were shown the door, we now have 12 teams remaining across two divisions with eight teams (four in each over two games) starting the Wildcard weekend where teams play for the right to go on the road to a higher ranked conference opponent.  There are some great match-ups starting with the Bengals on the road at the Texans.

#6 Cincinnati v #3 Houston
Oddly for a 6-3 matchup in the playoffs you have a team that has played with momentum in the last few weeks going on the road to face a team that has lost three of its last four games which saw them fall from the No.1 overall seed to No.3 and no bye week. The Bengals have a quarterback who has won a play off game in Andy Dalton, whilst this is Matt Schaub's first play off game as he missed the play offs last year due to injury.

Dalton is getting help from his offensive weapons, Ben-Jarvus Green Ellis is getting good mileage from RB not Adrian Peterson numbers but 100 yards a game is not bad.  And they have AJ Green who is becoming as potent as Andre Johnson, the Bengal defence is playing with fire aswell.

The Texans need to go back to the drawing board they have done away with Arian Foster touches and instead relying on the deep threat of Johnson, yet if the Bengals can tie up Johnson there are no other weapons of variable ability to throw to.

Prediction: Bengals by 3

#6 Minnesota v #3 Green Bay
One week after the Vikings defeated the Packers to enter the play offs, it is a repeat of the match but this time it is on the hallowed turf of Lambeau field.

Whilst Adrian Peterson has been a freak this year, last week it was Christian Ponder's best game as a pro wiht 200+ yards and 3 touchdowns allowed AP to eat up those holes.  Expect Green Bay to press Ponder when he drops back and shut off the bubbles/screens he usually throws.

This is also a different game, last week the Packers who were probably going 80% due to their play off place being assured, will be pumped for this game and wanting to make amends for the last Lambeau play off game when the Giants came in and shocked them.  Plus the Packers have a decent QB in Aaron Rodgers, you may have heard of him - last week he had 300+ yards and 4 TDs in a losing effort.

Prediction: Packers by 8

#5 Indianapolis v #4 Baltimore
This has all manner of storylines, you have the team that left Baltimore the Colts returning with the prodigal son in Andrew Luck, the continuing recovery of Chuck Pagano the Colts coach from leukeamia and now the Ravens' linebacker Ray Lewis has annouced this is his last ride as he is set to retire once the Ravens' play off run ends either in defeat or victory.

The Ravens much like the Packers were assured of a play off berth and were half-hearted versus the Bengals last week; they have a lot of talent still at their disposal in Joe Flacco and Ray Rice.  If the Ravens can use Rice's dynamism effectively as they should do then expect them to run this game.

The Colts are a different animal on the road away from Lucas Oil Field, and whilst Luck has been amazing at times he has still committed turnovers (24 in total) and this defence with a returning Lewis still has Ed Reed on its roster and can generate enough pressure to confuse and disrupt Luck's rhythm.

Prediction: Ravens by 10

#5 Seattle v #4 Washington
This is the game of the weekend and the toughest one to predict owing to both teams having X factors under centre in Russell Wilson and Robert Griffin III - both rookie quarterbacks who have led teams with low expectations to the play offs.

RG3 is a dynamic player, but has been helped by Alfred Morris his running back whose big numbers have helped open up receivers and led to few turnovers by the Redskins.  The defence has improved significantly under Jim Haslett and they may be able to create pressure.

Seattle is very much similar to Washington, a rookie quarterback helped out by a good running back. The only difference is that Seattle's O-line does allow pressure to get to Wilson, yet their defence has been huge for the team in general.  That makes this game all the more tougher to predict, it will be close but expect the Seahawks defence to get to RG3 whose mobility has not been the same since he sat out a game a few week ago.

Prediction: Seahawks by 3

That would make my Divisional play offs these:
AFC - Bengals @ Broncos and Ravens @ Patriots
NFC - Seahawks @ Falcons and Packers @ 49ers