Freak’s College Football in Review: Week 2

Mark Dantonio (left) won the Battle of the Marks over Mark Helfrich Saturday evening.

Results to know (rankings via Associated Press poll): No. 6 Auburn 27, Jacksonville State 20 (OT). … Bowling Green 48, Maryland 27. … No. 9 Notre Dame 34, Virginia 27. … Toledo 16, No. 18 Arkansas 12. … No. 19 Oklahoma 31, No. 23 Tennessee 24 (2 OT). … No. 5 Michigan State 31, No. 7 Oregon 28. … No. 14 LSU 21, No. 25 Mississippi State 19. … BYU 35, No. 20 Boise State 24.

Surprising performance of the weekend, Part I: He walks, talks, and acts like Urban Meyer. Now, if he keeps piling up signature wins like one he acquired on Saturday, Houston coach Tom Herman’s rise to stardom could mirror that of his former boss. Herman, who coordinated Ohio State’s offense from 2012-14, guided the Cougars to a 34-31 upset victory at Louisville Saturday. After averaging 414 yards per game last year, Herman’s system has ramped up Houston’s offensive output to 542 yards per game through two contests this year.

Surprising performance of the weekend, Part II: Auburn deserved to lose at home to Jacksonville State, an FCS outfit, on Saturday, but the Tigers escaped 27-20 in overtime thanks to the Jacksonville State coaches pursuing orthodoxy at the worst possible time late in the game. In the long-term, the real story is Auburn and its offense, which is ranked 98th out of 128 FBS teams through the first two weeks of the season. Most figured — and that includes this sportswriter — that junior quarterback Jeremy Johnson would do a fine job filling in for the departed Nick Marshall, but that simply hasn’t been the case so far. Johnson appears to have difficulty reading defenses, and his five interceptions are tied for the most in the country. It’s not quite panic time yet — especially since the Tigers are breaking in a new No. 1 running back and are adjusting to life without Sammie Coates at wideout — but with Auburn traveling to No. 13 LSU this week, we’ll find out if Gus Malzahn has a real problem on his hands.

Hide yo kids, hide yo wife, hide yo husband moment of the weekend: Given Under Armour’s intentions of making Maryland the Oregon of the East, how long will coach Randy Edsall last? The Terrapins were outclassed 48-27 by visiting Bowling Green on Saturday, with BGSU quarterback Matt Johnson shredding Maryland for 491 yards and five touchdowns through the air. The Terps’ schedule over the next month does Edsall, who is 21-31 at Maryland, no favors: home vs. South Florida (who hung with Florida State for a half on Saturday), at 2-0 West Virginia, home vs. Michigan, and at Ohio State.

Notable play, Part I: Florida State running back Dalvin Cook=hot knife. South Florida’s defense=butter. Cook finished with 266 yards on 30 carries.

Notable play, Part II: How about this nifty fake field goal by Notre Dame?

Notable play, Part III: Look at Braxton Miller, who is coming off two major surgeries to his right shoulder, toss his weight around and lead with his repaired shoulder to throw a block for fellow Buckeye Jalin Marshall that took out a pair of Hawaii defenders.

Notable injuries: A week after I wrote glowingly about Notre Dame quarterback Malik Zaire, the junior broke his right ankle against Virginia and is out for the year. … South Carolina starting quarterback Connor Mitch will miss at least a month with shoulder and hip injuries. The Gamecocks fell 26-22 to visiting Kentucky on Saturday.

They went to play where?: A week after losing to an FCS squad (Portland State), Washington State traveled 2,500 miles east to play at Rutgers and wound up winning late, 37-34. The Bad News Bandwagon rolls on for Rutgers, with wideout Leonte Caroo being suspended indefinitely following a post-game incident on Saturday. The Scarlet Knights recently dismissed a quintet of players who were arrested for assault and burglary charges. That news broke shortly after the school announced coach Kyle Flood was under investigation for possibly engaging impermissible correspondence with a faculty member. … Eastern Michigan topped Wyoming 48-29 after logging over 1,200 miles of airtime in traveling to Laramie. … Who knows why Missouri ever scheduled a home-and-home with Arkansas State, but two years after dismissing the Red Wolves 41-19 at home, the Tigers rallied from a 17-10 halftime deficit to prevail 27-20 at Arkansas State.

Weekly reminder that betting on college football is a dangerous enterprise: Arkansas opened as a 21-point favorite vs. Toledo last week. Naturally, the visiting Rockets stunned Big Mouth Bret Bielema & Co., 16-12, after the Hogs’ vaunted run game managed just 3.3 yards per carry on 31 attempts.

Week 3 opening lines of note: Northern Illinois at Ohio State (-31.5). I have more thoughts on Ohio State below, but suffice to say, they’ll be ready to dish out the pain a week after a dreary performance vs. Hawaii. … Georgia Tech (-1) at Notre Dame. An unsurprising line given Georgia Tech’s hot start and Zaire’s injury. … South Florida at Maryland (-7.5). See my above riff on Maryland.

Post-Week 2 playoff top four: Ohio State, Alabama, Oklahoma, Michigan State.

I have to see how Zaire’s replacement, DeShone Kizer, performs before re-elevating the Irish back into my top four. (The early returns on Kizer are good, though. He was the point man on the fake field goal featured above and threw the game-winning touchdown with time winding down on Saturday.) … Oklahoma’s stunning win at Tennessee only reaffirmed my faith in the Sooners. Oklahoma outscored Tennessee 28-7 in the fourth quarter and overtime. … I threw in Michigan State as my No. 4 team, but that decision was made with a lack of a better option. There is a window for one-loss Michigan State to make the playoff — with the loss presumably coming to unbeaten Ohio State — but that scenario must include what I believe will be self-cannibalization in the ACC and Pac-12. Stay tuned.

Three and Out

Michigan 35, Oregon State 7

Oregon State coach Gary Andersen never faced off against Michigan as Wisconsin’s coach from 2013-14, but the last time a team from the Beaver State played in the Big House, Dennis Dixon and Oregon whipped the Wolverines 39-7 in 2007. (That blowout was a week after Appalachian State stunned Michigan at home.) Saturday, Oregon State started fast, driving 79 yards to the house on their first drive. On the next possession, Michigan quarterback Jake Rudock lost a fumble. However, slowly but surely, the Wolverines asserted control. (With the help of one of the worst long snaps I’ve ever seen.) On the positive side for Michigan, Rudock looked much more comfortable going through his progressions, and we also had our first Harbaugh Freakout!

No. 1 Ohio State 38, Hawaii 0

Games like Saturday offer a clear reminder that this sport is played by 18 to 22-year-olds. And on Saturday, just four days after a physical road game at Virginia Tech and with two days of practice under their belts, the Buckeyes looked like kids, instead of the — forgive the term — grown-ass men we saw in their four previous games opposite Wisconsin, Alabama, Oregon and Virginia Tech. In the long run, games like Saturday provide great teaching/you-guys-need-to-stay-grounded opportunities for coaches.

“It’s probably best we hit this pothole early in the season. It was a reality check for not just me but for the whole offense,” Cardale Jones said post-game. “We’re not where we thought we were.”

Quarterback-wise, Jones and J.T. Barrett were mediocre at best, which could have lent itself to some interesting ‘Who will start?’ storylines this week, but Urban Meyer quashed that narrative Monday when he said Jones will continue to start unless Barrett beats him out.

Something to keep an eye on is the number of snaps Braxton Miller takes in the Wildcat formation, and if that strategy is an impediment to Jones or Barrett staying in the rhythm of the game. Two of Ohio State’s first nine plays on its initial possession Saturday were in the ‘WildBrax’ formation. On the Buckeyes’ next drive, the fifth and six plays of the possession featured Miller in the WildBrax. I’m reserving judgment until further down the line, but this tidbit is something to keep an eye on. (The effectiveness of the WildBrax would be upped if Miller was given a pass option, and on Monday, Meyer hinted that that wrinkle is coming.)

No. 5 Michigan State 31, No. 8 Oregon 28

College football diehards like myself are well-aware that Michigan State’s supposed defensive prowess is a bit overblown when it comes to games against quality opposition, and that truth was reinforced Saturday as the Spartans yielded 432 yards to Oregon’s offense. But, to Michigan State’s credit, it forced the Ducks into a poor performance on third down (4-for-13) came up and registered two interceptions, including this sterling pick by Montae Nicholson.

As for Oregon, but I’ve got some concerns about quarterback Vernon Adams. In the limited time I’ve seen him, it appears as if Adams’ greatest attribute is his ability to freelance. He’s got some Manziel in him. But Adams got himself into trouble Saturday by ducking out of the pocket too soon, and he lacks the arm strength to create big plays in the passing game down the field on his own. Also, a week after giving up 549 yards to Eastern Washington, Oregon’s defense surrendered 389 yards to Michigan State.

Grant Freking is a co-editor for The Ohioan who is also a Cincinnati Magazine contributor and a weekly columnist for Redleg Nation. You can follow him on Twitter at @GrantFreking or email him at

Freak’s College Football in Review: Week 1

Return of the Brax dropped in a big way Monday night.

Results to know (rankings via last week’s Associated Press poll): Utah 24, Michigan 17. … No. 2 TCU 23, Minnesota 17. … No. 22 Arizona 42, Texas San Antonio 32. … Northwestern 16, No. 21 Stanford 6. … Temple 27, Penn State 10. … Texas A&M 38, No. 15 Arizona State 17. … No. 11 Notre Dame 38, Texas 3. … No. 3 Alabama 35, No. 20 Wisconsin 17. … No. 1 Ohio State 42, Virginia Tech 24.

Surprising performance of the weekend: Reading the preseason tea leaves on Notre Dame is difficult each fall because of the constant drivel that surrounds the storied program. But I considered myself a Notre Dame buyer prior to this season because the defense — which wasn’t hurting for talent last year despite its struggles — was healthy after being decimated by injuries in 2014. I also felt that if Brian Kelly (a brilliant offensive mind) knew Malik Zaire was something special if he felt comfortable enough to let an accomplished (but flawed) quarterback like Everett Golson walk. It’s early, but Kelly, now in his sixth season at Notre Dame, may have finally found the perfect quarterback for his spread system. Zaire was sensational Saturday, finishing 19-of-22 for 313 yards, three touchdowns, and zero turnovers. (And look at this throw!)

Puzzling performance of the weekend: Penn State quarterback Christian Hackenberg was sacked 10 times vs. Temple, including one instance in which the Owls only rushed two players and netted a sack against a six-man protection. The Nittany Lions’ schedule is Creampuff City for the next five weeks, so there’s time for coach James Franklin & Co. to sort out their issues, but being outgained 313-180 to Temple — I know the Owls can play, but let’s be real — is embarrassing for Penn State.

Hide Yo Kids, Hide Yo Wife, Hide Yo Husband moment of the weekend: Frankly, I wouldn’t want to tackle 6-3, 240-pound Alabama running back Derrick Henry when he starts churning downhill, either.

Turnovers-cause-ulcers moment of the weekend: Current Michigan quarterback Jake Rudock had five interceptions in 345 attempts at Iowa last year, which seems strange in light of Rudock completing three passes to the wrong team in 43 attempts Thursday night during the Wolverines’ setback in Salt Lake City. Rudock’s initial interception ended Michigan’s first drive of the season deep in Utes’ territory; the second pick resulted in a missed 48-yard field goal for Utah; and the final interception was a pick-six that put Michigan in a 14-point hole with seven minutes and 58 seconds remaining in the game.

Notable play, Part I: Has to be BYU’s game-winning Hail Mary connection from Tanner Mangum to Mitch Mathews to stun Nebaska, right?

Notable play, Part II: Christian Kirk. Mercy. The Texas A&M wideout is a true freshman.

Notable injuries: Scooby Wright, Arizona’s preseason All-America linebacker, underwent a knee procedure Saturday and is out indefinitely. … Mangum was only in the game for BYU Saturday because starter Taysom Hill suffered a Lisfranc fracture in his right foot during the game and will miss the rest of the season. Hill endured season-ending knee injuries in 2012 (after six games) and 2014 (after five games). … Mike Williams, Clemson’s leading receiver in 2014, is out indefinitely with a neck fracture. … Tarean Folston, Notre Dame’s top rusher last season, is out for the year with a torn ACL. … Virginia Tech QB Michael Brewer suffered a broken collarbone on this hit by Ohio State defensive tackle Adolphus Washington. Brewer is expected to miss at least a month.

They went to play where? Playing nearly 1,000 miles from Stillwater, Oklahoma State scored the final 14 points of the game to beat host Central Michigan 24-13. … Over 2,000 miles west of Athens, Ohio topped host Idaho 45-28. (Though who wouldn’t want to play in the Kibbie Dome?)

Weekly reminder that betting on college football is a dangerous enterprise: A final score of Portland State 24, Washington State 17, may not look like that that big of a deal, but when one considers that Portland State, an FCS team, was a 31-point underdog

Week 2 opening lines of note: Oklahoma (-3) at Tennessee. (I’m on the Oklahoma bandwagon). … Oregon at Michigan State (pick‘em). (I don’t think Michigan State can outscore Oregon.) … Washington State at Rutgers (-5). (Neither team is especially good, but Washington State traveling across the country to play a week after losing to a FCS program doesn’t bode well for the Cougars.) … Pittsburgh (-11.5) at Akron. (Pittsburgh’s best player, running back James Conner, was lost for the season last week.) … Toledo at Arkansas (-21). (Arkansas coach Bret Bielema isn’t afraid to run up the score.)

Post-Week 1 Playoff Top Four: Ohio State, Alabama, Oklahoma, Notre Dame. My top four is based more on how I think the rest of the season will play out more than Week 1 results.

Games I watched in full

Utah 24, Michigan 17

One big-time positive for the Wolverines after turnovers submarined any chance of an upset they had in Salt Lake City was that hype regarding Jabrill Peppers, Michigan’s redshirt freshman safety, looks legit. I joked on Twitter that Utah’s wideouts had about as much of a chance of blocking Peppers as I have of landing a date with Rebecca Ferguson, the female lead in Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation. The point was serious, though: the 6-1, 205-pound flip-master looked like the Wolverines’ best player Thursday night after the former five-star recruit missed most of last season with injury.

Northwestern 16, No. 21 Stanford 6

Two mediocre teams smashing into each other with little faith in their downfield passing game — each starting quarterback averaged 4.4 yards per completion. The lack of faith in the downfield passing game was not surprising for Northwestern, given that quarterback Clayton Thorson was making his first career start. It was surprising to see Stanford signal-caller Kevin Hogan, who owns the most wins (24) among active FBS quarterbacks, handled with kid gloves. The Wildcats probably aren’t going anywhere in the Big Ten West — not with road conference games at Michigan, Nebraska, and Wisconsin — but it would be nice to see a bounce-back season (say, 7-5?) from an outfit coming off back-to-back 5-7 campaigns.

No. 3 Alabama 35, No. 20 Wisconsin 17

The Badgers were doomed defensively as soon as safety Michael Caputo left with a scary head injury. At times, the contest resembled Ohio State’s 59-0 bloodletting of Wisconsin in last year’s Big Ten Championship: well-coached, superior talent overwhelming well-coached, average-to-above-average talent, especially between the tackles. Alabama rushed for 238 yards and gained 6.4 yards per tote; Wisconsin rushed for 40 yards and picked up 1.9 yards per rush. Offensively, unless you spread the Crimson Tide out, it’s fruitless to repeatedly run between the hash marks on them. 

No. 1 Ohio State 42, Virginia Tech 24

I really do think Urban Meyer would’ve preferred to ease Braxton Miller in to his position change. But then the suspensions to Jalin Marshall, Corey Smith, and Dontre Wilson happened. Then Noah Brown’s broken leg happened. And as Ohio State wanted to settle some family business Monday evening in Blacksburg, Meyer had no choice but insert his Michael Corleone into the fight right away. The result for Miller? 140 total yards, 17.5 yards per touch, two touchdowns, two dropped jock straps on a supernatural spin move, and one slick diving catch. Aside from getting the ball in the hands of one of the best players on his team, I believe that in his heart, Meyer feels somewhat of an obligation to get the ball to the guy who carried the water — often times by himself — for the Buckeyes from 2011-13.

Lessons learned for Ohio State? The Buckeyes can survive without Marshall, Smith, Wilson, and defensive end Joey Bosa, but they’re certainly better off with all that experience. As far as the young wideouts go, Parris Campbell showed well in the times I saw the redshirt freshman blocking — Campbell (No. 21 at the top of the forthcoming video), had a nice seal on Ezekiel Elliott’s touchdown run — but he dropped a pair of key passes in the first half, including a potential touchdown on a drive that ended with a missed field goal. Freshman Johnnie Dixon made a nice catch for a 29-yard gain. But, I think part of the reason why Elliott carried the bread only 11 times on offense — other than the Buckeyes’ coaching staff not wanting to just pound him into the teeth of Virginia Tech’s Bear front — was that Ohio State needed Elliott’s physicality on the boundaries (where Brown would normally do damage), in pass protection, and in a lead blocking role for Cardale Jones.

One last thing on this game. It’s difficult to understate how important Ohio State’s culture and the legitimate friendship between Jones and J.T. Barrett is for the team moving forward. The kinship between players — most notably Jones and Barrett — is real, and it makes Meyer’s job so much easier. One thing Meyer won’t have to worry about this year is Barrett side-eyeing him after Jones screws up on the field, because Barrett is constantly supportive of Jones and other members of the team.

Grant Freking is a co-editor for The Ohioan who is also a Cincinnati Magazine contributor and a weekly columnist for Redleg Nation. You can follow him on Twitter or email him at

Ohio State Football: What You Need to Know About ‘Nine Strong’

Urban Meyer's latest motivational technique involves just two words.

Nine Strong.

Nine Strong.

Nine Strong.

Ohio State coach Urban Meyer likely has the two words tattooed somewhere on his body. I’m sure Nike-produced ‘Nine Strong’ T-shirts will be seen in and around Columbus before long. For the uninitiated, the interpretation of Nine Strong is this: back-to-back/repeat/dynasty talk is prohibited among anyone intimately associated with Ohio State football this fall.

With his boundless promotion of Nine Strong, Meyer is attempting to alleviate the absurd amount pressure directed toward his outfit from not only the fervent constituency that is Buckeye Nation, but also from the national audience: the 2015 Buckeyes are the first unanimous No. 1 team in the history of the Associated Press’s preseason poll. (The previous six defending national champions to open at No. 1 the following season failed to repeat, by the way.)

But for a squad that enjoyed Underdog Status post-Virginia Tech in 2014 — Ohio State was a real (or perceived) underdog in its four most important tilts: at Michigan State, and in a trio of neutral field contests vs. Wisconsin, Alabama, and Oregon — is a Nine Strong-brainwashing a highway to establishing an Ohio Stadium-sized elephant in the room when the calendar flips to November?


Nine Strong is not a random football reference. When Meyer spoke at a Mississippi State coaching clinic this past offseason, he explained that at face value, Nine Strong is a reference to what he considers the nine units of his team: quarterbacks, running backs, wide receivers, tight ends, offensive linemen, defensive linemen, linebackers, cornerbacks, and safeties. (No love for the specialists, it appears).

Meyer actually made reference to Nine Strong over a year ago after star quarterback and two-time Big Ten MVP Braxton Miller was lost for the season. Meyer has spoken to leadership summits about Nine Strong. Noted Meyer insider Pete Thamel of Sports Illustrated penned a Nine Strong-themed manifesto on the Buckeyes’ leadership culture. There’s the video of a simmering Meyer professing the virtuousness of Nine Strong during the Ohio State’s recent training camp.


There’s a three-letter methodology behind Nine Strong: do your job. In Meyer’s mind, if his players and position coaches are Nine Strong, his multitalented team will maintain focus and unity, thereby pushing lethargy and selfishness to the periphery.

Nine Strong is designed to prep the defending champs for a hellacious atmosphere in Lane Stadium on Monday. Nine Strong is designed to help players who witnessed a gruesome leg injury to a beloved member of the team cope with the loss and eventually move past the heartbreak. And perhaps most significantly, Nine Strong is designed to prepare the entire program for the result and season-long repercussions of quarterback derby that, in theory, could divide a locker room in spite of the well-publicized bromance between J.T. Barrett and Cardale Jones.

With ‘The Grind’ replacing ‘The Chase’ in both banter and banner, Meyer can emphasize the enormity of what Ohio State is pursuing…without actually specifically emphasizing the enormity of what Ohio State is pursuing.

Nine Strong isn’t a brainwashing as much as it presents the program’s top dog (Meyer) and his caporegimes (assistant coaches, player leaders) with an ironclad, clear message to fall back on in trying moments.

And that’s the true wisdom of Nine Strong.


Grant Freking is a co-editor for The Ohioan who is also a Cincinnati Magazine contributor and a weekly columnist for Redleg Nation. You can follow him on Twitter at @GrantFreking or email him at

Grant & Ahmer’s NBA Chain Email Extravaganza, Vol. II

The MVP is ready for his Finals close-up.

GRANT: The last time we did one of these things, we were trading notes about All-Star Game snubs, lamenting what looked to be another boring trade deadline, and addressing the flaws of playoff teams. Time flies when you spend your nights glued to ESPN and TNT, apparently.

In any case, a few months have passed and while injuries robbed us of some truly great postseason basketball, I think the playoffs still managed to be at least mildly entertaining. And now, the final battle is upon us. LeBron and the Cavs swept the Hawks, while MVP Steph Curry and the Warriors polished off the Rockets in five games.

It’s a shame the Cavs are nowhere close to full health. Beyond the Kelly Olynyk-inspired absence of Kevin Love, Kyrie Irving is battling myriad leg injuries that will rob him of being his typical whirling dervish self for the remainder of the season. Much like he did with last year’s Heat team, LeBron looks to be carrying an overmatched squad into a Finals opposite a two-way juggernaut.

With a healthy Love and Irving, a Cavs-Dubs Finals had wonderful potential. Now, I’m not so sure. The Cavs may have the best player, but the Warriors clearly have the better team.


AHMER: We’ve waited since October for this. The NBA Finals. Two rookie coaches. Two of the biggest faces in the league right now — and probably for years to come. I agree, a healthy Love and Irving would have made this series phenomenal to watch, but I think those injuries are too much for the Cavs to overcome. Forget about the fact that Love didn’t play that well this season — he still is one of the most deadly scorers in the NBA. Kyrie may play, but we all know he’s not going to be the same Kyrie we are used to. On top of that, he better hope that coach Blatt doesn’t give him the task of guarding MVP Stephen Curry that much this series.

I still think it will make for an entertaining series. LeBron may be shouldering the brunt of the weight for his team, but boy does he look good doing it. The Cavs made it a point to leave no doubt that they belonged in the Finals. They were certainly the best team in the East, and the fact that they made it to the Finals with no Kevin Love and a hobbling Kyrie Irving says a lot about the East this year. I think the Wizards with a healthy John Wall were the best team the Cavs were going to see before the Finals, but alas.

Cleveland must be pumped right now. LeBron’s first year back and they are already heading to the Finals. But if you think the Cavs are going to handle the Warriors like they have every team in the East, you probably don’t watch much NBA. Golden State has lost three games in Oracle Arena this season, and only one in the playoffs. I haven’t seen anyone effectively shut down Curry on defense all season, and certainly not in the playoffs. He’s had his off-nights, but I wouldn’t be hoping for one of those in his first NBA Finals appearance.

The Cavs are most likely going to give the task to Iman Shumpert to start things off. Shump has been playing exceptionally well this season, and his defense is a big part of it. But how do you guard Steph Curry? Sure, you challenge every shot, you stay on your feet, and you try not to let him break your ankles like every other guy that’s tried to guard him. The kid needs like a foot of separation, and he has a million different ways to create that space. Shump has played solid D, but I don’t think he can get to Curry this series. Then, Blatt (or most likely LeBron) is going to delegate Curry duty to LeBron, which leaves tons of mismatches for guys like Klay Thompson, Draymond Green, Harrison Barnes, and Andre Iguodala to make big plays. LeBron could probably reduce Curry’s production, but Curry would likely still find a way to score 20. The Cavs have to make sure to take care of the rest of the Warriors if they want a shot at a ring this year.

I’m really intrigued by the lineups Steve Kerr has been running this postseason. Festus Ezeli sees the floor more than David Lee — who was an All-Star two seasons ago. Shaun Livingston has been seeing some serious minutes, and we’re even seeing Draymond play some 5. The Warriors are going to have to change their cards up a little with the Cavs’ big men being as effective as they have been so far. I don’t know why Lee isn’t seeing the floor as much as he has been, but I think they’ll need him to close the Cavs out.

The Cavs have played well despite being banged-up — with big numbers coming from J.R. Smith. This is the best ball Smith has played in quite some time, but I think everyone except Cavs fans are waiting for him to come back to Earth. His performance will probably be correlated to the Cavs success this series.

For the Warriors, who guards LeBron? Green, Barnes, and/or Iggy seem to make the most sense. All three have been doing exceptional jobs as role players to this Warriors team, and Draymond probably earned himself a max deal this offseason. Like Curry, nobody can really guard LeBron. The Warriors will need those three to play physical and smart defense to get anywhere.

Either way, I can’t wait. It would really be something to see LeBron carry this team to a championship, but I think realistically, it’s too much for him and that squad this year.

P.S.: I need an insider to tell Delly that dirty shots against the Warriors, and specifically Steph Curry, are off-limits. Maybe Delly’s not a dirty player. Maybe he is. But he’s been involved in far too many suspect altercations for me to not at least question it. Just take it easy on Steph’s ankles.


GRANT: The day after the Cavs clinched the East, I was talking to a friend who follows the Cavs pretty religiously. He not only believes Cleveland will beat Golden State primarily because of LeBron — which was expected and not surprising in the least — but really buys into the lack-of-Finals-experience narrative for the Warriors.

I thought we were past such things with Golden State by now, but the more I think about it, the more “experience” will become one of the chief storylines in the series. Half of me wants to disregard existential stuff like that, but the other half of me knows not to forget that these guys are human beings. Among the Cavs’ rotation players, only LeBron and James Jones possess any Finals experience, but in Kendrick Perkins and Mike Miller — and to a lesser extent, Brendan Haywood, Shawn Marion, and Anderson Varejao — Cleveland does have multiple role players that have been through some crazy-intense Finals games.

When I watched Golden State struggle at times with turnovers and overall carelessness in Game 5 against the Rockets, it did make me wonder. I think there will be multiple adjustment periods for the Warriors to grasp the magnitude of the Finals. I’m not worried at all about Curry being ready, but what about the role players? The caveat is this: is Cleveland good enough to take advantage of it? My answer would be a resounding “Yes” if the Cavs were at full strength. Now, I’m not so sure. Houston probably should’ve stolen Game 2 from the Warriors and were a holy-crap-how-much-worse-can-it-get-for-James-Harden game away from being right there in Game 5. The Rockets also went through stretches of disengagement not only vs. Golden State, but throughout the postseason. Cleveland will be focused the entire series, and it will certainly embrace the underdog narrative.

I think the way the Cavs have reinvented themselves as a “gritty” — for lack of a better adjective — team after the injuries to Love and Kyrie has been admirable, and as a unit, they seem really close and to be functioning as one on defense. (Offense is another story, of course.)

I’d love to delve into the possible adjustments and cross-matches, but frankly, I feel it’s almost pointless until the teams have a few games under their belts. But let’s get down to business. What’s your prediction?


AHMER: I’ll take the Warriors in six.

I agree that Golden State lacks in the experience category, but it hasn’t really seemed to be a problem thus far. I don’t see Cleveland taking more than a game from the Warriors in Oracle. Whoever does a better job of limiting the other team’s superstar will ultimately come out the victor. If the Cavs can figure out a way to make Curry a non-factor, then they legitimately have a chance. The only thing is, I haven’t seen any team/player this season who was able to really take him out of a game. You can say the same thing about LeBron as well, but as we all know about winning a championship, it comes down to the team, not just the superstar.

And the simple truth is, the Warriors are a better team, right now, than the Cavs. Say what you want about K-Love this year, but don’t tell me his presence wouldn’t make you feel a lot better about this Cavs team headed into the Finals. Varejao would have been great to have healthy as well. How healthy is Kyrie? Apparently, he expects to spend some time guarding Curry — something I doubt he’ll be doing for very long. The Warriors meanwhile, are as healthy as ever. They had a little scare with Thompson’s concussion, but we all knew he was going to be ready for Game 1.

Can’t forget about coaching either. Props to Blatt for taking his team this far, but was it really his coaching? LeBron put him in check against the Bulls, and was right to do so. Steve Kerr has built this Warriors team into a 67-game winner as a rookie coach. He’s benched former All-Stars like Iguodala and Lee to develop guys like Barnes and Green, who have both turned into weapons both offensively and defensively (especially Draymond). Every player on that team wants to be there, and they respect Kerr more than I’ve ever seen a team do with a rookie coach. The Cavs have certainly developed a bond of their own, but I don’t think you can really compare them to the Warriors right now in terms of being a team.

So I’m going to be that guy that bets against LeBron this year. I don’t think it’ll be impossible for Cleveland to win the series, I just think their injuries are really going to hurt them now. This Warriors team is deeeeeeep, well-coached (shout out to Alvin Gentry as well — that man earned himself a nice deal as the next head coach of the Pelicans), and well-rounded. Steph Curry & Co. worked harder than any other team in the league this season, and I don’t expect that to change in this last series.

Side note: This will probably be one of the most exciting NBA Finals we have ever witnessed. LeBron is no stranger to the spotlight, and the Warriors will have their work cut out for them in making sure he doesn’t have the opportunities to close out games like we know he can.


GRANT: I’m going to also be the be the guy that bets against LeBron by taking the Warriors in six games.

We all know what the easy narrative spun by the media and Twitterverse will be if the Cavs lose — LeBron will have dropped to 2-4 in Finals; Michael Jordan was 6-0 in Finals. They’ll happily ignore things like supporting casts and quality of Finals opponents. (Whew, needed to get that off my chest. I feel better now.)

Should Cleveland fall, I’ll choose to take the perspective of how incredible it is LeBron has reached five straight Finals. The last time a star player achieved that was Bill Russell, back when the NBA had nine teams.

I’ll also take the perspective that the Cavs are a year ahead of schedule. I picked Cleveland to win the title prior to this season, but by midseason I thought next year was more realistic. If the Cavs bring the band back together mostly intact in 2015-16 with a healthy Irving and Love, then I’ll be surprised if they don’t take home the crown.


Grant Freking is a Co-Editor and founding member of The Ohioan. Freking is also a contributor to Cincinnati Magazine and a columnist for Redleg Nation. Follow him on Twitter.

Ahmer Sheriff is a graduate of the University of Cincinnati and University of Akron School of Law. He currently resides in Philadelphia and works as an Associate Attorney in Southern New Jersey. Sheriff will always have a soft spot for his hometown of Cincinnati, regardless of where life takes him. Follow him on Twitter.

Pre-Final Four Big Ten Basketball Power Rankings

Thanks primarily to the exploits of Frank Kaminsky (left) and Sam Dekker, Wisconsin is all set to face Kentucky in the Final Four for the second straight season.

The Big Ten was “down” this year but still wound up with two teams in the Final Four — an achievement that doesn’t mean the Big Ten was somehow “underrated” this season. As for the rankings, regular-season performance is the heaviest factor, but tournament showings are weighed in, of course. Check back later this spring for a new set of rankings after the NBA’s early-entry deadline passes, transfers destinations are determined and unsigned incoming freshmen select their schools.

1) Wisconsin

Record: 35-3, 16-2 Big Ten. Big Ten regular-season and tournament champions. Beat Arizona 85-78 to reach Final Four.

Reasons for optimism: The Badgers are enjoying an incredible season. They entered the NCAA tournament having swept the Big Ten hardware race. Most recently, they beat Arizona to reach the Final Four for the second year in a row. Frank Kaminsky, the presumptive national player of the year, leads the team in points, rebounds, assists, steals and blocks. Kaminsky was also unstoppable vs. Arizona, scoring 29 points. … Sam Dekker has been a bad ass in the tournament, especially in the Sweet 16 vs. North Carolina (23 points, 10 rebounds) and Elite Eight vs. Arizona (27 points, game-clinching 3-pointer). … Traevon Jackson made his return in the Sweet 16 from a broken foot suffered in January. … It would be hard to fault anyone for penciling in sophomore forward Nigel Hayes as the early favorite to win 2015-16 Big Ten Player of the Year. … Sophomore point guard Bronson Koenig thrived in Jackson’s absence.

Reason for pessimism: Kentucky, which topped Wisconsin in last season’s Final Four without Willie-Cauley Stein, Karl Towns and Tyler Ulis, is waiting for the Badgers once again in the Final Four.

2) Michigan State

Record: 27-11, 12-6. Beat Louisville 76-70 (OT) to reach Final Four.

Reasons for optimism: Michigan State reached its seventh Final Four since 1999 by toppling a No. 10 seed (Georgia), a No. 2 seed (Virginia), a No. 3 seed (Oklahoma) and a No. 4 seed (Louisville). … Let the stats illustrating Tom Izzo’s March dominance rain upon you: his team doesn’t lose close tournament games and the seed of his Final Four-bound squads is irrelevant. … Travis Trice (20 ppg, 4 apg) has been lights-out in the Big Dance. … “Good” Branden Dawson has shown up in the tourney with games (points and rebounds) of 14 & 6; 15 & 9; 6 & 11; and 9 & 11. … Denzel Valentine’s shot selection is still a work in progress but he’s been wonderful down the stretch — and he was particularly awesome vs. Louisville (15 points, 7 rebounds, 6 assists, 2 steals).

Reason for pessimism: Coach K is 8-1 against Tom Izzo, the most recent win an 81-71 triumph (in Indianapolis, coincidentally) over Michigan State in December.

3) Maryland

Melo Trimble, Melo Trimble's Glorious Hair and Melo Trimble's Insane Feel for the Game are coming back for his sophomore season.

Record: 28-7, 14-4. Lost 69-59 to West Virginia in Round of 32.

Reasons for optimism: Point guard Melo Trimble is returning to College Park for his sophomore season, which is pretty damn awesome for the Terps. Trimble could be the best player in the league next year. … Diamond Stone (6-10, 246 pounds), the country’s fifth-rated prospect by, recently committed to the Terps … Georgia Tech transfer Robert Carter (11.4 point, 8.4 rebounds in 2013-14) should be a solid frontcourt addition. … JUCO point guard Jaylen Brantley should provide ball handling relief for Trimble. … Jared Nickens, Dion Wiley and Damonte Dodd were solid role players in 2014-15.

Reasons for pessimism: Dez Wells, Maryland’s Mr. Everything (15 ppg, 5 rpg, 3 apg), is out of eligibility. … Heavy contributors Evan Smotrycz and Richaud Pack were also seniors. … Junior swingman Jake Layman, a late first-round/early second-round draft prospect, could be tempted to forego his final year of eligibility.

4) Iowa

Record: 22-12, 12-6. Lost 87-68 to Gonzaga in Round of 32.

Reasons for optimism: The Hawkeyes are coming off back-to-back NCAA tournament appearances, a solid feat considering that before coach Fran McCaffery’s hiring — which was prior the 2010-11 season — Iowa’s last trip to the Big Dance had been in 2006. … McCaffery has proven himself to be a program-builder, gradually increasing the Hawkeyes’ record in the Big Ten from 4-14 in his first season to 12-6 this year. … Jarrod Uthoff, Mike Gesell, Peter Jok and Adam Woodbury give the Hawkeyes a nice group of returnees.

Reasons for pessimism: Aaron White, the second-leading scorer in program history, is out of eligibility. … Gabriel Olaseni, maybe the team’s best inside presence, is done as well. … The Hawkeyes have five incoming freshmen next year, but four are listed as small forwards and the other is a shooting guard. With White and Olaseni leaving, the team needs to add size.

5) Ohio State

Record: 24-11, 11-7. Lost to 73-58 to Arizona in Round of 32.

Reasons for optimism: There’s a top-10 recruiting class coming in, one that seems full of skilled basketball players and not athletes who play basketball (see 2015 seniors). … Jae’Sean Tate and Keita Bates-Diop should be primed for sophomore leaps with a year of conditioning, weight training and skill development under their belts. … Coach Thad Matta should be able to mix and match lineups more often next year. … Incoming freshman center Daniel Giddens should be the best defensive big man to come through Columbus since Greg Oden. … Trevor Thompson and David Bell are interesting big men prospects. … With JaQuan Lyle, A.J. Harris and Mickey Mitchell, OSU should be able to run their offense through multiple channels. … 2016 four-star big Derek Funderburk committed to Ohio State Wednesday, a great (and must-have) get for Matta and what should be a loaded 2016-17 Buckeye squad. Funderburk will likely be a stretch four at OSU.

Reasons for pessimism: 2014-15 was a second straight underachieving season for the Buckeyes. … D’Angelo Russell’s likely departure leaves a massive playmaking void. … Matta has had some young teams in the past, but 2015-16 could be his youngest ever with six freshmen, four sophomores and one junior slated to be on the roster if Russell bolts.

6) Purdue

Record: 21-13, 12-6. Lost 66-65 in OT to Cincinnati in Round of 64.

Reasons for optimism: Even if A.J. Hammons leaves for the NBA, just about everyone else should be coming back for a Boilermaker outfit that wasn’t supposed to be “back” until next season. If Hammons does return, a Big Ten regular-season championship isn’t out of the question. … Purdue returned to relevance this year because Matt Painter went back to the program’s ego-less and defensive roots. … Incoming freshman guard Ryan Cline can really shoot the ball. … Vince Edwards will probably shoulder more of an offensive load next year, and that’s a good thing.

Reasons for pessimism: Will P.J. Thompson and/or incoming freshman Grant Weatherford be ready to handle point guard duties with Jon Octeus out of eligibility and Bryson Scott transferring? … How can a team that struggled to score at times and was one of the league’s worst 3-point shooting teams improve offensively with mostly the same personnel returning? … 2016 three-star point guard C.J. Walker recently decommitted from Purdue. What’s worse is 247sports’ Crystal Ball predicts Walker will end up at Butler.

7) Indiana

Will Tom Crean (left) or Yogi Ferrell return to Bloomington next season?

Record: 20-14, 9-9. Lost 81-76 to Wichita State in Round of 64.

Reasons for optimism: If the Hoosiers avoid the early-entry bug, they should return their top eight scorers. … With another big man to pair with Hanner Mosquera-Perea — whether it be from a current high school senior or in the transfer market — Indiana could be one of the Big Ten’s best teams. … James Blackmon Jr. and Robert Johnson were the best pair of freshmen guards in the league. … The frontcourt could get a boost from 6-7 forward Devin Davis, who was injured in a car accident before the season and never played this winter. … I wasn’t sure where to put this nugget, but with the transfers of Stanford Robinson and Max Hoetzel, IU actually has room (scholarship-wise) for its two incoming freshmen — though it would need to clear one more spot to bring in another big.

Reasons for pessimism: There’s a chance that Crean has gotten so sick of the Indiana fan base the past two seasons that he could leave town. (IU assistant Steve McClain taking Illinois-Chicago job could be interpreted as a move that’s a prelude to a Crean exit.) And if Crean leaves, all-Big Ten point guard Yogi Ferrell could follow him out the door. … If Crean sticks around, it’s almost a no-win situation for him next season anyway. Anything short of a run at the Big Ten crown and to the Sweet 16 would likely be considered a failure. If Crean did fulfill both of those objectives, the fan base’s response would be, “Yeah, but that’s what you were supposed to do.” … Fifteen players have transferred out of Bloomington during Crean’s tenure.

8) Michigan

Record: 16-16, 8-10. No postseason.

Reasons for optimism: Not many teams could survive season-ending injuries to two stars (Caris LeVert, Derrick Walton Jr.) and a rotation player (four-star freshman forward D.J. Wilson) and qualify for the NCAA tournament. … Beilein has a good thing going with player development, with the latest example being the late-season surge of sophomore Zak Irvin and competent play of first-years Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman, Aubrey Dawkins and Ricky Doyle. … Even if LeVert leaves for the NBA, the Wolverines could a top-tier Big Ten team in 2015-16. … Michigan is very much in the running for forward Jaylen Brown, the No. 2-ranked high school senior in the country.

Reasons for pessimism: Should LeVert bolt, it would be the third straight year the Wolverines would lose their leading scorer. Even for a program like Michigan, that’s tough to overcome. … Wilson’s return will add depth to the frontcourt rotation, but the Wolverines still may be shallow on impact big men. … Spike Albrecht may need surgery on both hips, which is never a good thing for a 22-year-old.

9) Illinois

Record: 19-14, 9-9. Lost 79-58 to Alabama in NIT first round.

Reasons for optimism: Losing Tracy Abrams, who led the team in assists and was second in scoring in 2013-14, to a torn ACL in September was a brutal blow. … Sophomores Malcolm Hill and Kendrick Nunn took major steps forward in 2014-15. … Coach John Groce has put together a top-10 recruiting class, which is headlined by two in-state, four-star prospects in forward D.J. Williams and guard Aaron Jordan. Four-star point guard Jalen Coleman-Lands is also coming aboard.

Reasons for pessimism: The stink of losing six of eight to end the season — a collapse that ensured the Illini were booking their second straight trip to the NIT, and not the NCAA tournament — will be hard to shake. … Groce, who has not finished above .500 in Big Ten regular-season play during his three years in Champaign, could start to feel a little heat with similar results next season. … Losing Nnanna Egwu, the school record-holder for blocks, leaves a large void in the frontcourt.

10) Northwestern

Record: 15-17, 6-12. No postseason.

Reasons for optimism: Coach Chris Collins has injected some life into this program, evidenced by the fact that for the second year in a row, the Wildcats will bring in a four-star recruit. Vic Law was that guy last year, and he wound up second on the team in rebounding and fourth in scoring. Next year’s big fish is Aaron Falzon, a 6-7 forward with shooting range. … Northwestern should return its top four scorers and lose only one key piece in guard JerShon Cobb. … Freshman point guard Bryant McIntosh acquitted himself well after being handed the keys to the offense from Day 1.

Reason for pessimism: Northwestern is the only power conference school to have never reached the NCAA tournament, so the odds are consistently stacked against the Wildcats when it comes to sustained success.

11) Minnesota

The 2014-15 season was a step back for the Richard Pitino era at Minnesota.

Record: 18-15, 6-12. No postseason.

Reasons for optimism: Joey King, Nate Mason and Carlos Morris, Minnesota’s top returnees, all showed they can be effective players in the Big Ten. … Reinforcements are arriving in a guard-heavy recruiting class, headlined by four-star point guard Kevin Dorsey. … With a roster mostly constituted of his recruits, coach Richard Pitino can finally put his stamp on the program.

Reasons for pessimism: The Golden Gophers took a step back in 2014-15 after winning the NIT in 2013-14, and stand to lose three really productive seniors in Andre Hollins, Maurice Walker and DeAndre Mathieu. … With the departures of Walker and Elliott Eliason, Minnesota will essentially be breaking in a brand-new frontcourt next year.

12) Penn State

Record: 18-16, 4-14. No postseason.

Reasons for optimism: Guard Shep Garner was the team’s second-leading scorer as a freshman. … Brandon Taylor enjoyed a nice junior season and is a breakout candidate next year. … Forward Mike Watkins and guard Josh Reaves, two incoming freshmen, are the first four-star recruits of coach Pat Chambers’ tenure.

Reasons for pessimism: The record before Big Ten play (12-1) was misleading as the Nittany Lions loaded up on patsies. … Losing D.J. Newbill, the Big Ten’s top scorer, means Chambers will have to reconfigure his entire offense.

13) Nebraska

Record: 13-18, 5-13. No postseason.

Reasons for optimism: The Cornhuskers were beat by double digits in 10 of their 13 league losses, so it can’t get much worse. … Terran Petteway, who led the Big Ten in scoring in 2013-14, has another year of eligibility, as does Shavon Shields, the team’s second-leading scorer. … Coach Tim Miles has inked point guard Glynn Watson and forward Ed Morrow, a pair of four-star prospects from Illinois, in what looks to be Miles’ top recruiting class — as well as the Huskers’ best recruiting class in some time — since taking over prior to the 2012-13 season.

Reasons for pessimism: Walter Pitchford, Nebraska’s third-leading scorer, is giving up his senior year of eligibility but will remain in school. … Petteway, who revealed in February that his mother was battling cancer for the third time, may decide to bolt for the pros in order to support his family. … The Huskers failed to get much production outside of Petteway, Shields and Pitchford, and the incoming recruits may not be enough as Nebraska ranked 284th out of 351 teams in offensive efficiency. … Guard Tarin Smith, who appeared in all 31 games as a freshman, is transferring.

14) Rutgers

Record: 10-22, 2-16. No postseason.

Reasons for optimism: It can’t get much worse than losing 15 straight to end the season. … Incoming four-star freshman guard Corey Sanders could be a program-altering recruit. … Coach Eddie Jordan is a former Scarlet Knight player who was the point guard during the program’s heyday in the mid-1970s when Rutgers reached the 1976 Final Four. That should carry some weight. … The opportunity to play in the Big Ten should be attractive a lot of Mid-Atlantic players who want to stay close to home.

Reasons for pessimism: Rutgers hasn’t made the NCAA tournament since 1991. … Leading scorers Myles Mack and Kadeem Jack are out of eligibility.

Grant Freking is a co-editor for The Ohioan. Freking also contributes to Cincinnati Magazine and Redleg Nation. He can be reached on Twitter or via email at

Can Post-Tommy John Jason Marquis Help The 2015 Reds? Like, is it even possible?

If this were the year 2001, Jason Marquis would be a shoo-in to make the Reds starting rotation.

Can veterans come back from a devastating late-career injury like a torn UCL? The Reds are trying to find out this spring, bringing in formal Cardinal Jason Marquis as a reclamation project. Signed to a minor-league deal, the righty will compete for one of two available jobs in the Reds 2015 rotation.

Bryan Price has indicated there’s a good chance Marquis or lefty Paul Maholm will begin the year in the rotation, especially with Homer Bailey looking more likely to begin the year on the shelf.

Despite his outward confidence, Marquis, 36, last started in the big leagues in July of 2013 for the San Diego Padres. After having Tommy John surgery – often a death knell for pitchers of his age, even ones tough enough to pitch with a broken leg – it’s fair to wonder what the likelihood is he can reclaim his career for any franchise in the coming months. More on this later.

Background, Because Everyone Needs to Know More About Jason Marquis

During three years with the Cardinals (2004-06), the Reds saw a lot of Marquis. But he has actually pitched for eight teams – make it nine if he breaks camp with Cincinnati.

Additional Things You Must Know About Jason Marquis

  • He won 11-plus games from 2004-09, while putting up a 4.84 FIP and making a strong case for the worthlessness of wins as a way of measuring a pitcher’s effectiveness.
  • He has excelled with the bat (for a pitcher) throughout his career, smacking five homers. He has been called upon to pinch hit 26 times in his career.
  • He won the Silver Slugger in 2005, slashing .310/.326/.460 and knocking in 10 runs to go with nine doubles, a triple and a homer.
  • His first call-up to the Braves came in June of 2000 after John Rocker was demoted for threatening a reporter.
  • Pitched in the same rotation as Maddux and Glavine in 2001 and 2002.
  • He has appeared in two World Series – the 1991 Little League World Series and the 2004 MLB World Series. According to Baseball Almanac, there’s only been 11 people to ever do that.

The 6-foot-1 righty actually came up with Atlanta, however, making his MLB debut in 2000. Part of a (in hindsight) lopsided trade in 2003, Marquis was shipped to the Lou with reliever Ray King and some guy named Adam Wainwright for J.D. Drew and Eli Marrero.

Marquis, while not stellar in St. Louis, won 42 games despite a 5.12 FIP over his three seasons. Incredibly, the Redbirds weathered 194.1 innings of 6.02 ERA Marquis in 2006 and won the World Series.

Three things to know about that season and one thing to know about its aftermath:

  1. Marquis’ ERA of 6.02 was not the worst amongst qualified pitchers in 2006. That honor went to Joel Piñeiro of the Mariners and his 6.36 mark.
  2. Marquis was left off the roster for the NLCS and World Series after going unutilized in the NLDS against the Padres. His teammates still voted him a full playoff share, and he earned a ring.
  3. Brandon Claussen, Elizardo Ramirez and Eric Milton made 59 starts for the Reds, so let’s all lay off 2006 Jason Marquis a little bit.
  4. The Cubs signed Marquis as a free agent for three years and $21M. After he led MLB in losses (16), earned runs (130) and homers allowed (35). #CubsGonnaCub

After a couple years on the North Side, Marquis was traded for Luis Vizcaino – a pitcher the Cubs would release after four appearances – and promptly became an All-Star in 2009 with Colorado. Tying a career-high with 15 wins, Marquis finished the season with a 4.04 ERA and pretty solid peripherals. Pitching at post-humidor Coors Field, that summer stands as Marquis’ masterpiece.

Now 36, the Reds’ signing of Marquis harkens images of the old days – when the club brought in guys like Joey Hamilton off the scrap heap and hoped Don Gullett could fix them. That often didn’t work out, as Grant covered in an epic recap of the 2000’s Reds pitching staffs.

Okay, Enough Random Facts About Jason Marquis. What’s The Point?

I’m getting there. With two gaping holes in the rotation for the first time since 2007, it’s fair to ask if Marquis can actually help the cause. Especially after a solid spring opener on Wednesday, in which his sinker and two-seamer both looked pretty good.

Before getting optimistic, I got to being curious about the impact of late-career TJ on pitchers like Marquis. With the help of a fantastic resource compiled in part by Jon Roegele, I took a quick look at 29 different pitchers who had TJ from age 34 and on.

From that sample, the findings are a mixed bag:

  • Of the 29, seven would never pitch in another big league game.
  • Of the 20 who did return, the average time of recovery lasted 15.7 months.
  • 20 did come back to pitch, but seven of those lasted just one season.
  • Jamie Moyer, at 47, was the oldest surgery recipient to make a successful comeback. (He might have posted a 5.70 ERA in 53.2 innings, but pitching in the Major Leagues at 47 after a UCL tear automatically qualifies as a triumph.)
  • The jury remains out on Bronson Arroyo and Rafael Betancourt.
  • No one in the group threw more than 317 innings after TJ.
  • John Tudor made 25 starts after TJ at 34 and was very effective for two seasons, winning a World Series in 1988 with the Dodgers. But the elbow would eventually force him to call it quits.
  • Amazingly, 10 of the 29 spent time with the Reds: Frank Viola, Eddie Guardado, Brendan Donnelly, Jason Isringhausen, Arthur Rhodes, Bronson Arroyo, John Franco, Pete Harnisch, Denny Neagle and Ricky Bones.
  • Eliminating John Tudor, five starting pitchers have thrown 130.2 innings post-surgery.
  • Most of the successful returns were made by relievers. Billy Wagner, Arthur Rhodes and Joe Nathan all had dominant numbers after TJ.
  • Miraculously, Doug Brocail spent four years out of baseball and came back with more innings than anyone else (317).

The full list is included below, but suffice it to say Marquis is staring down long odds. He may prove to have another year or two left in him, but it wouldn’t be wise to bet on it.

Pitchers Undergoing Tommy John At/After Age-34 Season

SP, John Tudor, 34

  • Came back in eight months, played two more seasons: 160.2 IP, 2.47 ERA

RP, Doug Brocail, 35

  • Came back in 36 months, played six more seasons: 317 IP, 4.23 ERA

SP, Frank Viola, 34

  • Came back in 15 months, played two more seasons: 44.1 IP,  7.35 ERA

SP, Andy Ashby, 35

  • Came back in 19 months, played one more season: 2 IP, 0.00 ERA

RP, Al Reyes, 35

  • Came back in 15 months, played two more seasons: 83.1 IP, 4.75 ERA

RP, Eddie Guardado, 35

  • Came back in 11 months, played three more seasons: 108.1 IP, 4.65 ERA

RP, Brendan Donnelly, 35

  • Came back in 12 months, played three more seasons: 69.2 IP, 4.78 ERA

RP, Joe Nathan, 35

  • Came back in 12 months, pitched four seasons since: 231.2 IP, 3.30 ERA

RP, Joe Beimel, 35

  • Came back in 23 months, pitched one more season: 45 IP, 2.20 ERA

SP, Randy Wolf, 35

  • Came back in 18 months, pitched one season since: 25.2 IP, 5.26 ERA

RP, Ricardo Rincon, 36

  • Came back in 28 months, pitched one more season: 4 IP, 4.50 ERA

RP, Billy Wagner, 36

  • Came back in 11 months, pitched two more seasons: 85 IP, 1.48 ERA

RP, Jason Isringhausen, 36

  • Came back in 22 months, pitched two more seasons: 92.1 IP, 4.09 ERA

RP, Chang-Yong Lim

  • Came back in 12 months, made MLB debut and pitched one season: 5 IP, 5.40 ERA

RP, Gary Lavelle, 37

  • Came back in 13 months, pitched one more season: 32 IP, 5.91 ERA

RP, Arthur Rhodes, 37

  • Came back in 13 months, pitched four more seasons: 176.2 IP, 2.75 ERA

SP, Bronson Arroyo, 37

  • Made six starts with a UCL tear before having the surgery last July, still out.

RP, Mike Fetters, 38

  • Came back in nine months, pitched one more season: 18.2 IP, 8.68 ERA

RP, Rafael Betancourt, 38

  • Had surgery last July, still out.

SP/RP, Jose Contreras, 40

  • Came back in 10 months, pitched one more season: 5 IP, 9.00 ERA

RP, John Franco, 41

  • Came back in 11 months, pitched three more seasons: 95.1 IP, 4.63 ERA

SP, Jamie Moyer, 47

  • Came back in 16 months, pitched one more season: 53.2 IP, 5.70 ERA

RP, Peter Moylan, 35: Career Ended

RP, George Sherrill, 35: Career Ended

SP, Pete Harnisch, 35: Career Ended

SP, Denny Neagle, 34: Career Ended

SP, Brian Anderson, 34: Career Ended

SP, Dave Eiland, 34: Career Ended

RP, Ricky Bones, 34: Career Ended

Should the Pacers be in a position to make the postseason? Plus, who the NBA’s worst teams should select with the No. 1 overall pick

Another reason for Paul George to come back as soon as possible: there are surely more wild outfits to be worn on Jimmy Kimmel Live.

Last August I was shooting pool at a bar in Broad Ripple, Indiana, with some pals. Most of the televisions were tuned to ESPN, which was broadcasting Team USA’s Blue-White scrimmage. Jokes were made and horrific pool shots were taken. During a passing glance at one of the TVs, I noticed a cluster of humans congregated around what looked to be an injured player under one of the baskets. I checked Twitter. And then I saw the replay of what had transpired.

When Paul George broke his leg that night, I thought the Indiana Pacers’ 2014-15 season immediately became a lost cause…and there was still nearly three months until the team’s season-opener against the Philadelphia 76ers. At least that’s what I thought.

In the aftermath of George’s horrific injury, Pacers coach Frank Vogel and president of basketball operations Larry Bird presented a strong, united front and vowed to press on. The following quote from Bird is one-third fan-base appeasement, two-thirds truth.

“Have our expectations lowered any?” Bird said. “I don’t think so. I think we’ll compete hard and do our best to make the playoffs; that’s always one of our goals. I can sit up here and sugarcoat it all you want me to, but you just can’t replace Paul George.”

The Pacers have lived up to Bird’s word. As of Wednesday morning, Indiana (25-34) is 10th in the Eastern Conference standings, a half-game behind eighth-place Brooklyn and a full game back of seventh-place Miami. (It’s incredible how forgiving the Eastern Conference can be.) Now that he’s practicing in full again, the timetable for George to return to game action can be measured in weeks instead of months. Added to the optimism in Indianapolis is the undemanding remaining schedule.

It would be one thing if the Pacers had simply persevered without George. But they’ve also hung in there despite injuries to seven of the their top eight rotation players, as noted by Jared Wade of the estimable Pacers blog, 8 Points, 9 Seconds.

George Hill has played in just 20 of the team’s 59 games. C.J. Watson missed the first 15 games of the season. David West failed to suit up for 15 games. Ian Mahinmi, C.J. Miles and Rodney Stuckey have all missed stretches of games due to injury.

In the wake of George’s injury, it would’ve been easy for the Pacers to drastically reconfigure their plans for the season — and one could make a strong argument that they should have done exactly that, but we’ll get to that debate in a second — but the Pacers refused to pursue anything but the playoffs, even after losing six of seven to start the season, eight straight from late November to mid-December, and seven in a row over a two-week stretch in January.

I’m of the belief that the Pacers couldn’t afford to take a hit publicity-wise with a perceived white flag at any point, whether that be in December with a trade of West or Roy Hibbert, or going into full sell mode in the hours leading up the the trade deadline last month. (Let’s also remember that Bird, one of the game’s greatest competitors, would never sign off on any version of tanking.) But, because they kept the team together for a playoff run, have the Pacers cost themselves future success?

Still reenergizing the organization post-Brawl, the Pacers could not afford to potentially alienate their loyal fans, the fans who came back, or new fans of the team

When Ron Artest charged into the stands at The Palace of Auburn Hills on Nov. 19, 2004, he altered the fate of the Pacers’ franchise for the next decade. Realistic title contenders when they played in Detroit that night, the Pacers were never the same post-Brawl.

After winning 61 games in 2003-04, the Pacers’ victory totals embarked on a steady decline post-Brawl as the team attempted to rid itself of the real (and sometimes perceived) bad seeds on the roster. The decline of the franchise coincided with a drop in attendance, and Indianapolis became a football-first town thanks to the year-to-year dominance of Peyton Manning and the Colts. (The existence of four powerful college basketball teams — Indiana, Purdue, Butler and Notre Dame — in the Hoosier State and the high quality of play in high school gyms around the state do the Pacers no favors when it comes to attracting fans.)

During the 2004-05 season, the Pacers won 44 games, advanced to the East Semis, and were ranked 17th out of 30 teams in attendance. In the five years that followed, the Pacers won 41, 35, 36, 36 and 32 games, made the playoffs once (losing in the first round), and were ranked 24th, 28th, 30th, 28th and 27th in attendance.

But things changed. The Pacers drafted Roy Hibbert, Paul George and Lance Stephenson. They traded for George Hill. They signed David West.

From 2010-11 through 2013-14, the Pacers won 37, 42 (lockout-shorted season, math says the Pacers would’ve won 52 times over an 82-game season), 49 and 56 games, advancing to the East Finals twice and coming within a game of the NBA Finals in 2013. Attendance was still lagging, though, as Indiana ranked 30th, 29th and 25th in attendance from 2010-11 through 2012-13.

But last season was different, as the Pacers were 15th in attendance. They had (and still have) a likeable core, though now that core is aging.

Bird could’ve shipped out the 34-year-old West ($12.6 million player option for 2015-16), as well as Watson, Luis Scola and Rodney Stuckey, all of whom are on expiring contracts and could’ve been useful parts to contenders. Hell, a case could be made that Hibbert ($15.5 million player option for 2015-16) should’ve been traded for the right return.

But I don’t think Bird wanted to even risk looking like he had given up on the season. Most Pacer fans knew any hope of a deep playoff run went out the door with George’s injury, but Bird didn’t want to risk alienating anyone by making a few trades that could have submarined a chance at the postseason or that could have fed into the niotion that any sort of mini-rebuild around George was on the horizon.

If Hibbert, West, Watson, Scola, Stuckey, etc, want to leave, I think Bird wanted to let them do it on their own terms in the off-season, even if it will cost him potential assets and draft position this June. It should also be noted that outside of George and 2013 first-round pick Solomon Hill (who leads the team in minutes played), Indiana has no other young assets that necessarily need playing time.

It’s awfully kind-hearted for the Pacers to care about the fans like that. But will that magnanimity backfire in the coming years?

Despite all the injuries, the season actually worked out well for the Pacers and their plans post-George injury. By the time George returns in a week or two, Indiana will have played roughly 80 percent of the season without its best player and remained in the playoff hunt — something the Pacers can sell as proof that they are an organization dedicated to winning, no matter the stakes.

Let’s throw some cold water on this, though.

First, let’s dispel with the notion that the Pacers are a “dangerous” No. 7 or No. 8 seed. Even if George is miraculously 100 percent for the start of the playoffs in April, Indiana is not winning a playoff series.

Lest anyone forget, the Pacers damn near lost to the Al Horford-less Hawks in last year’s first round — and this time around they won’t have a top-form George or Lance Stephenson. Those same Hawks now have a healthy Horford, a deeper bench and the East’s top record. If the Pacers’ first-round opponent was LeBron James and the Cavs, the outcome would be the same. With Timofey Mozgov, Kevin Love, Tristan Thompson and Kendrick Perkins, Cleveland has more than enough capable bodies to throw at West and Hibbert, and the Cavs have Iman Shumpert, J.R. Smith and James to blunt George’s impact.

Second, part of the reason the Pacers took the better part of a decade to get back to relevancy was they were never bad enough to draft in the top half of the lottery. Barring a collapse, the same thing will happen this year. That positioning could be the difference between drafting a future running mate for George — say D’Angelo Russell or Karl-Anthony Towns — and taking less of a sure thing like Jerian Grant or Caris LeVert.

As random as the draft can be, the safe bet is always to bet on talent, and the most talented players always go near the top of the draft. Of course, the Pacers priority should be winning each season, but they also to make sure George is put in a position to lead Indiana to deep playoff runs year after year.

I believe the Pacers had no choice but to stay the course in August, but they should’ve been asset-hunting and executed trades for all or most of the West-Watson-Stuckey-Scola quartet by the trade deadline. The return for those players would’ve been minimum, but with that strategy, the Pacers could’ve upped their chances for getting into the top half of the lottery.

Who the NBA’s seven-worst teams should take with the No. 1 overall pick

Jahlil Okafor and his monstrous hands are likely coming to an NBA frontcourt near you next fall.

I think the seven worst teams by record on Wednesday morning — the Knicks, 76ers, Timberwolves, Lakers, Magic, Nuggets and Kings — will possess the seven-worst records at the conclusion of the regular season, though maybe not in their current order. Once the draft order is finalized, all eyes will be on the team with the No. 1 overall pick. Here’s what I’d do if I were each of those teams and were first on the clock:

Knicks: Take Jahlil Okafor without hesitation. The talent cupboard is nearly bare in New York, but Duke’s freshman center would be a tremendous building block.

76ers: Trade down and select Emmanuel Mudiay or D’Angelo Russell. Nerlens Noel and Joel Embiid’s skill sets don’t appear to overlap, but that would be the case if Philly took Okafor or Kentucky forward Karl-Anthony Towns.

Timberwolves: Take Towns, who would compliment Nikola Pekovic well on offense (by providing jump-shooting) and defense (by being a rim deterrent). Pekovic is a bit untradeable with three years and $35.8 million left on his contract after this season, so selecting Okafor would be imprudent. With Ricky Rubio, Zach LaVine, Andrew Wiggins and Shabazz Muhammad on the roster, there’s also no real need for a ball-dominant guard like Mudiay or Russell.

Lakers: See Knicks blurb.

Magic: Take Towns. With Nik Vucevic under contract through 2017-18, the Magic are in a similar situation as the Timberwolves: they have an offensively-gifted but ground-bound, defensively-limited center. That’s where Towns comes in.

Nuggets: Take Towns or trade down and select Mudiay or Russell. If Denver takes Towns, they should look to move Kenneth Faried — which would be difficult because of his four-year, $50 million contract extension that kicks in next season. If the Nuggets select Mudiay or Russell, they should look to trade Ty Lawson, who has $25 million and two years left on his deal and could probably use a change of scenery. Given how well 20-year-old rookie center Jusuf Nurkic has played in limited time, I’m assuming Denver would stay away from Okafor.

Kings: Take Towns or trade down and select Mudiay or Russell. Towns would compliment DeMarcus Cousins perfectly. If the Kings eschewed Towns, they could go after Mudiay or Russell, either of whom would give them needed creativity on the ball.

After earning his journalism degree at Ohio State University, Grant Freking worked at a newspaper outside of Indianapolis for three years before returning to his native Cincinnati in late 2014. Freking is a Co-Editor and founding member of The Ohioan. He also contributes to Cincinnati Magazine and Redleg Nation. Follow him on Twitter.

Ohio State Basketball: The two-faced nature of Thad Matta’s NCAA tournament success, plus re-living Matta’s top wins and most painful losses in the Big Dance

Thad Matta was all smiles after winning the South Region in 2007.

The Thad Matta era at Ohio State is an interesting study when it comes to the NCAA tournament. There’s a segment of the Buckeye fanbase that believes Matta has underachieved in the Big Dance, with chief logic in that argument centered around three straight disappointing exits from 2009-11. Matta loyalists would counter by noting that Ohio State has advanced to the Sweet 16 in five of its eight tournament appearances under Matta, not to mention a trio of Elite Eights, a pair of Final Fours and a national runner-up finish in 2007. The loyalists would then add, Not too bad for a guy coaching at a football school.”

Matta’s record in 10 NCAA tournaments with Ohio State is 17-8, with an average margin of defeat of just over five points. I believe Grantland’s Mark Titus was the first to point this factoid out, but Ohio State’s last six tournament losses have been by a combined 14 points — and five of those games were decided in the waning moments. That’s incredible!

So, with Selection Sunday less than a month away, let’s review Matta’s NCAA tournament accomplishments with the Buckeyes, as well as ranking Matta’s top eight tournament losses and his top eight wins.

2 missed NCAA tournaments: 2005 (Jim O’Brien scandal) and 2008 (you try making the NCAA tournament after losing Greg Oden, Mike Conley Jr., Ron Lewis, Daequan Cook and Ivan Harris.)

5 Sweet Sixteens: 2007, 2010-13

3 Elite Eights: 2007, 2012, 2013

2 Final Fours: 2007, 2012

1 National Runner-up: 2007

Ranking Ohio State’s eight NCAA tournament losses under Matta

*Think of No. 8 as the loss you think about once every few years. Think of No. 1 as the loss that makes you wake up in a cold sweat on a random Tuesday in September, then compels you to go to the pantry and eat half a bag of Lay’s all in the name of cursing Brandon Knight.

8) 2009 Round of 64: No. 9 Siena 74, No. 8 Ohio State 72, 2OT

Ohio State blew an 11-point second-half advantage, which allowed Matta to endure his initial opening-round setback in seven NCAA games. Siena’s Ronald Moore nailed a 3-pointer to send the game into overtime, then hit another triple from roughly the same spot to push the Saints — coached by current Iowa head honcho Fran McCaffery — ahead in the waning moments of the second overtime. Evan Turner led OSU in points (25), rebounds (9), assists (8), blocks (2) and steals (2).

7) 2006 Round of 32: No. 7 Georgetown 70, No. 2 Ohio State 52

Ohio State was upended by Georgetown in Dayton as Roy Hibbert and Jeff Green combined for 39 points and 22 rebounds. (Only four Hoyas scored in the game.) The Buckeyes, who were the regular-season Big Ten champs and playing in their first NCAA tournament under Matta, trailed by 13 at half. OSU would avenge this defeat in 2007.

6) 2014 Round of 64: No. 11 Dayton 60, No. 6 Ohio State 59

This loss is ahead of the Georgetown defeat because it was an awfully cruel way for Aaron Craft’s career to end. Even the most ardent Buckeye fans knew the 2013-14 squad wasn’t very good, and if administered truth serum, I believe Matta would state this team was among his least favorite to coach. (The 2014-15 bunch has to be working its way up the ladder.) The end of this game was magnificent. Craft scored on a supremely-athletic reverse lay-in to give OSU a one-point lead with 15.5 seconds left, only to see Dayton’s Vee Sanford score over him with 3.8 ticks remaining. Craft took the inbounds pass and drove the length of the floor, but had his game-winning push shot rim out. The Flyers were coached by former Buckeye assistant Archie Miller, and received nine points and five rebounds from OSU transfer Jordan Sibert.

5) 2010 Sweet 16: No. 6 Tennessee 76, No. 2 Ohio State 73

Otherwise known as the Revenge of Wayne Chism. Chism was a freshman on the Volunteer outfit that blew a 17-point halftime advantage to Ohio State in the 2007 Sweet 16, and he got his revenge — along with 22 points and 11 rebounds — in what turned out to be Evan Turner’s final game (31 points, 7 rebounds, 5 assists, 6 turnovers) with the Buckeyes. Turner’s desperation trey was blocked to the end the game, but the national player of the year scored 21 points after intermission — including a go-ahead 3-pointer with 41 seconds remaining — while his teammates combined to go 3-of-16 from the field in the second half.

4) 2013 Elite Eight: No. 9 Wichita State 70, No. 2 Ohio State 66

Matta and Ohio State probably felt a little better about this loss when Wichita State not only nearly topped eventual national champion Louisville in their next game at the Final Four, but also when the core of the Shockers returned in 2013-14 and began the season 35-0. Heading into this game, most expected OSU to win despite the Buckeyes narrowly escaping Iowa State and Arizona in its two previous contests. Ohio State came out of the gate with about as much spunk as a hungover Eeyore, trailing 35-22 at half and by as much as 20 in the second half. Spurred by LaQuinton Ross of all people, the Buckeyes cut the lead to three with two minutes and 49 seconds left in the game. The deserving team won, though.

3) 2012 Final Four: No. 2 Kansas 64, No. 2 Ohio State 62

Kansas was down nine at half and led for three minutes and 48 seconds all night, but seized control of the game at the end. Jeff Withey smothered Jared Sullinger, forcing the Ohio State big man into a 5-of-19 shooting night in his final college game. The Buckeyes’ decision-making down the stretch was less than ideal: William Buford appeared miffed after dunking home a second-straight ill-advised 3-pointer by Deshaun Thomas with 9.6 seconds remaining; Aaron Craft had an ill-fated attempt to intentionally miss a free throw; and then Ohio State failed to foul Kansas with 2.9 seconds left. OSU probably would’ve been drilled by Anthony Davis-led Kentucky in the final, but considering how Matta’s bunch controlled the game, the loss was undoubtedly bitter for the Buckeyes.

2) 2007 National Championship: No. 1 Florida 84, No. 1 Ohio State 75

Florida seized control of the game midway through the first half and never looked back, winning its second straight championship and installing itself as perhaps the greatest college team since the new millenium. This game was also notable for the sheer amount of talent in the game, as five players (Greg Oden, Al Horford, Mike Conley Jr., Corey Brewer, Joakim Noah) were selected in the top 10 of the 2007 NBA draft. Ohio State’s Daequan Cook was selected later in the first round, while Chris Richard and Taurean Green from Florida were taken in the second round. Gator reserve Marreese Speights was a first-round pick in the 2008 draft.

1) 2011 Sweet 16: No. 4 Kentucky 62, No. 1 Ohio State 60

It takes a special kind of loss to top falling short in the national championship game, but Ohio State’s shocking defeat — end of Usual Suspects-shocking — to fourth-seeded Kentucky in the Sweet 16 derailed what look to be a surefire ride to the Final Four. The 2010-11 OSU team was a juggernaut, winning its first 24 games and its final seven tilts heading into the tournament, including a 93-65 evisceration of Wisconsin on Senior Day for Jon Diebler, Dallas Lauderdale and David Lighty. (One of the Buckeyes’ defeats came at Purdue when E’Twaun Moore went absolutely insane and scored 38 points.) The Kentucky game was a close affair throughout. A Diebler trey leveled the game at 60 with 21.2 seconds left, but then Brandon Knight canned a jumper with 5.4 ticks remaining despite having Aaron Craft practically glued to his chest. William Buford got a decent look from three as time expired, but the shot clanged off the rim. The game was bit of payback for what the 2006-07 Buckeyes did to John Calipari’s Memphis Tigers in a game listed below.

Ranking Ohio State’s eight most gratifying NCAA tournament wins under Matta

8) 2013 Round of 32: No. 2 Ohio State 78, No. 10 Iowa State 75

Ohio State’s season was sinking fast on Feb. 17, 2013. On that day, the Buckeyes were blown out 71-49 at Wisconsin for their third loss in four games. But, OSU would go on to rip off eight straight wins, including three over top-10 teams. Against Iowa State, Aaron Craft suffered through a nightmare second half, committing key turnovers and missing the front end of two one-and-ones as the Buckeyes blew a 13-point advantage. But Craft redeemed himself in the final seconds as he waved off Deshaun Thomas and swished a game-winning trey, sending OSU to its fourth straight Sweet 16.

7) 2012 Sweet 16: No. 2 Ohio State 81, No. 6 Cincinnati 66

The Buckeyes broke through a two-year Sweet 16 roadblock with this victory over Cincinnati. Thomas and Jared Sullinger combined for 47 points. Much like the No. 8 game, Ohio State blew a sizable lead — this time it was a 12-point halftime margin — before a 17-1 run gave the Buckeyes some breathing room over their in-state foe.

6) 2013 Sweet 16: No. 2 Ohio State 73, No. 6 Arizona 70

Sean Miller, a former assistant to Matta at Xavier, had the Wildcats ready from the jump and sprung out an early 11-point lead. Seconds after yielding the foul on an and-1 by Mark Lyons that allowed Arizona tie the game with 21.8 seconds left, LaQuinton Ross took a feed from Aaron Craft and swished a 3-pointer for the game-winning score with two seconds to play.

5) 2007 Elite Eight: No. 1 Ohio State 92, No. 2 Memphis 76

It feels odd to pin a victory that sent Ohio State to its first Final Four since 1999 so far up on this list. This tilt was the 2006-07 Buckeyes’ top performance out of six NCAA tournament contests — OSU shot 41 (!!!) free throws, making 35, and Greg Oden scored 17 points and grabbed nine rebounds in just 24 minutes. Given the nature of the Buckeyes’ two previous wins in the tournament against Xavier and Tennessee, the Memphis game was lacking in the drama department, hence its placement on this list.

4) 2007 Sweet 16: No. 1 Ohio State 85, No. 5 Tennessee 84

Down 17 at halftime, Ohio State rallied to level the game midway through the second half, eventually sealing the biggest halftime comeback in NCAA tournament history on Greg Oden’s block as time expired. Given the No. 3 game on this list and the fact that they only beat Tennessee by two at home in January, it’s hard to think how the Buckeyes could’ve been overconfident, but they certainly didn’t take the Vols seriously in the first half.

3) 2007 Round of 32: No. 1 Ohio State 78, No. 9 Xavier 71, OT

One, this was a classic Gus Johnson game. (AND WE’RE GOING TO OVERTIME…IN LEXINGTON…HA HA!!…COLLEGE BASKETBALL…CBS SPORTS…THIS…IS MARCH MADNESS!!!) It’s a damn shame Johnson doesn’t voice NCAA tournament games anymore. Two, not reaching the Sweet 16 with the Thad Five would’ve been a disaster, and it’s likely overconfidence was an issue for an Ohio State outfit that sported an 18-game winning streak entering this game. A portion of that unblemished stretch included a 15-1 record during Big Ten regular-season play and a Big Ten tournament title where all three of the Buckeyes’ victories came by double digits. Three, there’s no way Matta would’ve ever heard the end of losing to his old school (and former players)…as No. 1 seed…in the Round of 32. OSU’s rally from an 11-point deficit was secured when Ron Lewis swished a 3-pointer with two seconds left to force overtime and cause Johnson to (rightfully) lose his shit.

2) 2012 Elite Eight: No. 2 Ohio State 77, No. 1 Syracuse 70

This game was all about vindication for Matta and Jared Sullinger, the latter of whom postponed the NBA for a season for to reach a Final Four after Ohio State’s stunning Sweet 16 loss in 2011. The Buckeyes closed the game by going 13-of-14 from the foul line, with Thomas and Lenzelle Smith Jr. hitting some timely shots, too.

1) 2007 Final Four: No. 1 Ohio State 67, No. 2 Georgetown 60

The lasting memory from this game is this appropriately-titled “Greg Oden Just Misses a Monster” YouTube clip I’ve embedded under the header. During this game, both Oden (20 minutes) and Roy Hibbert (24 minutes) played well but were marred with foul trouble. By reaching the NCAA Final, Matta proved that he could not only collect elite talent, but coach it and mold it into a larger unit. The 2006-07 team was headlined by the Thad Five (Oden, Mike Conley Jr., Daequan Cook, David Lighty, Othello Hunter), but received immense contributions from two seniors (Ivan Harris, Ron Lewis) and two juniors (Jamar Butler, Matt Terwilliger) that saw major playing time on the Big Ten regular-season champion 2005-06 team. It takes a great coach to get a team as diverse as that 2006-07 unit to not only mesh, but to achieve great things.

After earning his journalism degree at Ohio State University, Grant Freking worked at a newspaper outside of Indianapolis for three years before returning to his native Cincinnati in late 2014. Freking is a Co-Editor and founding member of The Ohioan. He also contributes to Cincinnati Magazine and Redleg Nation. Follow him on Twitter.

If the season goes south by late July, which Reds will be on the market? Part II: Marlon Byrd and the Maybes

Remember when the Reds could've acquired Marlon Byrd in 2013, and then he homered against them in the Wild Card Play-in Game? Good times.

Part I of this series examined the rationale of trading Johnny Cueto and possible destinations for the ace starter should the wheels come off in late July. Today, I’ll use the same formula to evaluate Marlon Byrd and the Maybes, a small group of Reds that the club may or may not actively shop — and perhaps trade — depending the state of the team, state of management and a return that could not possibly be passed up.

Marlon Byrd

Contract Status: Due $8 million in 2015 ($4 million paid by Phillies). $8 million option for 2016 vests if Byrd reaches 500 plate appearances in 2015. If option does not vest, the $8 million is a team option.

The Word: The Reds should have a good idea of if Byrd’s 2016 option will vest by the non-waiver trade deadline on July 31. If the Reds are in the thick of the playoff race, they’ll gladly keep playing Byrd and pay the vesting option. If the Reds start free-falling like they did last July — when they lost nine of their first 10 games post-All Star Break — Byrd will be firmly on the market so the team can open up playing time for guys like Donald Lutz, Yorman Rodriguez and (hopefully) Jesse Winker.

Potential Trade Partners

There are a handful of teams (Dodgers, Padres, Red Sox) one could rule out at this point because of clear outfield logjams, but it’s simply too early to name anyone specific at this point. The Reds would have plenty of options — contenders are always looking for extra bats down the stretch, especially players like Byrd who sport some power — though it should be noted that the return for an outfielder that turns 38 in August won’t exactly spark memories of Bartolo Colon for Grady Sizemore, Cliff Lee, Brandon Phillips and Lee Stevens. Having said that, general manager Walt Jocketty will gladly take whatever he can get for Byrd if the Reds are sinking and want to rid themselves of Byrd’s steep vesting option in 2016.

The Maybes

Brandon Phillips

DatDude is pretty much untradeable.

Contract Status: Due $12 million in 2015, $13 million in 2016 and $14 million in 2017. Free agent after 2017 season.

The Word: The minute the Reds feel they are out of the playoff race, they should entertain any offer for a guy whose offense is regressing fast and is not worth $39 million over the next three seasons. Here’s what I wrote about Phillips in October regarding his 2014 season:

Brandon Phillips’ on-base percentage, slugging percentage and on-base plus slugging percentage declined for the fourth straight season. Phillips — limited to 121 games because of thumb surgery — registered his highest strikeout rate in six years and the lowest ISO% (slugging minus average) of his Reds career.

Even with no ready-made replacement on the horizon — Eugenio Suarez has 36 minor-league games at second base under his belt, but has only played one game at second since 2012 — if the Reds aren’t contenders, they should look very hard at trading Phillips. And if accepting less value in return for zero-to-minimal help on paying the remainder of Phillips’ contract results in a deal, that avenue should be pursued as well.

But here’s the kicker in all of this: Phillips, who already had limited no-trade protection included in the six-year, $72.5 million contract he signed prior to the 2012 season, secured full no-trade protection last August after achieving 10-and-5 status. I’ll let’s Mark Sheldon explain what 10-and-5 means:

Under the rules in the Basic Agreement, players with at least 10 years logged in the Majors, including the last five with their current team, gain full no-trade protection. With team turnover because of trades and free agency so common around today’s game, these rights can be quite difficult to attain.

To paraphrase Rocco Lampone in Godfather Part II, trading Phillips would be “difficult, (but) not impossible.”

I could tumble through any number of potential plots, but the only scenario I could see where Phillips would agree to a trade is if it’s patently clear the Reds are going nowhere in 2015 and have also begun the process of re-shaping their roster by performing any number of maneuvers to shed salary and get younger. (A trade of Johnny Cueto or any of the other players on this list could sour Phillips and other Reds veterans.) There’s no doubt about Phillips’ drive to win — he’s played hurt many times in his career — and a white flag on 2015 (and in turn, probably 2016) may be enough to convince DatDude that it’s time to move on.

Potential Trade Partners

Angels: Entering spring training, Josh Rutledge is the Halos’ starting second baseman. I’ll let NBC’s Craig Calcaterra take it from here:

Rutledge turns 26 in April. While he has shown some flashes in short bursts — and while he really rocketed through the Rockies system — he’s never really established himself as a major league quality bat, hitting .259/.308/.403 in 947 plate appearances across three seasons. He has played more shortstop than second base, but that’s not to suggest that he’s a plus glove either, as he really can’t handle short. Obviously the Angels will, as the Rockies have done, see if he can handle second base full time.

Los Angeles’ lineup has more holes than one might think. There’s Mike Trout, Albert Pujols, Chris Iannetta and Kole Calhoun…then a lot of question marks in Josh Hamilton, David Freese, Matt Joyce, Erick Aybar and C.J. Cron. There’s no immediate batting help coming from the minors.

Given the Angels’ desperation to win, large payroll and willingness to pursue aged stars (Pujols, Hamilton), this could be a match made in heaven for the Reds if the Halo’s anticipated issues at second base become a reality.

Blue Jays: A knee injury shelved Maicer Izturis for most of the 2014 season, but he’s expected to be the starter at second for the Jays in 2015. For team with eyes on not only the postseason but a deep playoff run, relying on a 34-year-old utility man with no pop and declining on-base skills is going to form a black hole in the lineup sooner rather than later. Toronto will have to upgrade at some point. Devon Travis, the Jays’ touted young second baseman I mentioned as a possible centerpiece in a potential Johnny Cueto deal, could be ready in 2015, but the 24-year-old has yet to make his major-league debut. If the Reds and Blue Jays reached a deal centered around Phillips, it’s very unlikely Travis would be included because of the money left on Phillips’s deal.

White Sox: and RosterResource project 22-year-old rookie Carlos Sanchez to start at second base for Chicago. Rotoworld is going with Emilio Bonifacio. Gordon Beckham is probably in the mix… even though he probably shouldn’t be in the mix. The batting order is going to be very reliant on a great sophomore year from Jose Abreu and a bunch of maybes (Adam Eaton, Melky Cabrera, Adam LaRoche, Avisail Garcia, Conor Gillaspie.) The White Sox went big in the offseason, bringing in Cabrera, LaRoche, David Robertson and Jeff Samardzija. They want to win the AL Central. (Though that’s an unrealistic goal with the present roster.) Would Phillips move the needle at all? Maybe. But executive vice president Ken Williams and general manager Rick Hahn have never been afraid to go against the grain, and Phillips is better than any second baseman the Sox have right now.

Other teams to keep in mind: The Nationals, who have Yunel Escobar (set to play second base full-time for the first time since 2007) starting and Danny Espinosa (career slash line of .228/.299/.387) behind him. There’s depth, but given that the Nats are supposed to win the World Series this year, anything can happen. The Rangers, because they may need someone if they start contending and Rougned Odor can’t hit. Top prospect Jurickson Profar is already hurt again and may miss all of 2015. The Orioles if they decide Jonathan Schoop can’t cut it. (On the other hand, Baltimore’s entire team is essentially headed for free agency or arbitration in 2016, so money will be an issue.)

Aroldis Chapman

Can Aroldis Chapman possibly repeat his insane 2014 season?

Contract Status: Due $8.05 million in 2015. Arbitration-eligible for third time in 2016. Free agent after 2016 season.

The Word: As historically-dominant as Chapman was in 2014, he wasn’t even a two-win player (1.9 WAR) in the eyes of’s Wins Above Replacement metric. Chapman’s WAR likely would’ve been at least 3 if he hadn’t missed the start of season after taking a liner to the face in spring training, but there’s also a lesson to be learned here: closers are only so valuable. Hopefully the Reds factor this truism in — as well as the lessons learned from the contracts they handed to Francisco Cordero (4 years, $46 million), Jonathan Broxton (3 years, $21 million) and Sean Marshall (3 years, $16.5 million) — before considering another big-money deal for an effective (or in Chapman’s case, damn near unhittable) reliever.

There’s no doubt the long-limbed Chapman is a fan favorite — his 100 mph fastballs send the GABP faithful into a tizzy. But, owner Bob Castellini SHOULD see past that. When Chapman does hit free agency, he’s going to command one of the biggest (if not the biggest) yearly salaries ever for a reliever. The Reds can’t afford to pay a guy who averages 66 innings pitched a year Papelbon money.

Potential Trade Partners

Dodgers: As soon as news broke Wednesday that Dodger closer Kenley Jansen is going to miss 8-12 weeks with a broken foot, Jocketty should’ve been on the phone gauging Andrew Friedman’s interest in Chapman. Jansen is listed at 6-5, 265 pounds. Big guys with foot injuries is typically a precursor to more bad news. (The NBA is littered with what-if stories about big men with bad feet. Bill Walton, Yao Ming, etc.) I don’t think Jocketty would pull the trigger NOW, but keep an eye on the Dodgers’ closing situation going forward. If the Reds sink come July and L.A. has a hole in the ninth inning — my faith in Brandon League, Joel Peralta and J.P. Howell isn’t that high — then the two teams could be a perfect match.

Marlins: There’s pressure to win now in Miami — handing Giancarlo Stanton the biggest contract ever while bringing in Mat Latos, Dee Gordon, Michael Morse and Ichiro Suzuki will do that. I don’t think the Fish can hang with the Nationals in the NL East, but they should certainly be in contention for the two Wild Card slots. Incumbent closer Steve Cishek has been very good the past two seasons (135 innings, 158 strikeouts, 2.35 FIP, 73 saves), but adding a truly elite reliever in Chapman would give Miami a lethal 1-2 punch in the late innings. The Cuban-born Chapman — whose offseason home is less than an hour from Miami — would be a fan sensation in the area.

Padres: This match is pretty simple. Given that San Diego made the biggest splashes during the offseason — acquiring Matt Kemp, Justin Upton, Wil Myers and James Shields — it’s fairly clear the Padres are trying to win now. The club’s current closer is 37-year-old Joaquin Benoit. With the exception of 2012, Benoit’s FIP has been under 3 each season since 2010. Benoit’s also thrown over 900 innings in his major-league career. Everyone’s arm has an expiration date, and if Benoit falters, relying on the effective but inexperienced Kevin Quackenbush may not be the best route.

Blue Jays: Toronto has more pressing questions (second base, outfield, rotation) and there’s certainly a case to be made that Brett Cecil can handle closing duties. However, if Cecil falters, the options behind him don’t exactly scream Tom Henke.

Other teams to keep in mind: The Nationals have Drew Storen and Casey Janssen, two players with extensive closing experience. But if you’re trying to win it all, go big or go home. The Red Sox seem to be rolling with Koji Uehara and have Junichi Tazawa and Edward Mujica in reserve, but none of those guys can match Chapman. The Mets’ closer situation is up in the air, but I don’t see them being better than the Nationals or Marlins in the NL East.

Mike Leake

This picture of Mike Leake is cool.

Contract Status: Due $9.775 million in 2015. Free agent after 2015 season.

The Word: Leake’s situation is by far the most complicated of anyone on this list. It’s easier to break it down into a handful of contingencies. (Forgive the military-speak, I re-watched Zero Dark Thirty the other night. Completely forgot Chris Pratt portrayed one of the SEALs.) All of these contingencies assume Leake is his usual solid self and stays healthy.

Contingency 1: The Reds stay in the race all season, then decide to re-sign Leake to a new multi-year deal — probably between $10 and $15 million per year — during the season or in the offseason. Management refers to Leake as the “next Bronson Arroyo” and concludes that Leake’s steadiness deserved to be rewarded.

Contingency 2: Regardless of whether the Reds are in the race by late July, the club decides NOT to re-sign Leake to a new multi-year deal because they’ve decided they’re only going to pay Homer Bailey — which would’ve been strange thinking — and that the performance of the newbies to the rotation (Raisel Iglesias/Tony Cingrani/Anthony DeSclafani) and the nearly-there top prospects (Robert Stephenson, Michael Lorenzen) makes Leake’s departure manageable.

Contingency 3: The Reds are out of the race by July, then decide to re-sign Leake to a new multi-year deal because two of the Iglesias-Cingrani-DeSclafani triad struggle, with either Iglesias or Cingrani being permanently moved to the bullpen. Stephenson and Lorenzen don’t make the majors at all, meaning they can’t be counted on immediately in 2016. Management refers to Leake as the “next Bronson Arroyo” and concludes that Leake’s steadiness deserved to be rewarded.

Contingency 4: The Reds make an (empty-headed) decision to re-sign Johnny Cueto prior to Opening Day or (by some miracle) in the offseason. There is absolutely no money left to retain Leake.

Contingency 5: The Reds do not re-sign Cueto, and trade Brandon Phillips, Aroldis Chapman or Jay Bruce, freeing up enough cash to re-sign Leake. If two of the Phillips-Chapman-Bruce trio are shipped out, I would be stunned if Leake was not retained.

Potential Trade Partners

Many of the same potential suitors for Johnny Cueto would apply to Leake as well, especially the Dodgers and Angels. (The Leake-to-Angels trade I proposed in the fall could still work).

Jay Bruce

Jay Bruce's struggles in 2014 mean he is firmly in the spotlight in 2015.

Contract Status: Due $12 million in 2015 and $12.5 million in 2016. $13 million team option for 2017 ($1 million buyout).

The Word: Let’s drop a Jay Bruce Truth Bomb. Bruce, who turns 28 on April 3, is almost two years YOUNGER than Todd Frazier. From 2010-13, Bruce clubbed at least 25 home runs and had an OPS of at least .807. Last season was a disaster, mostly because Bruce played hurt. So, everyone calm down. As long as Bruce is healthy, foregoes a hard-headed approach in the batter’s box and make necessary adjustments, he should be great in 2015.

Potential Trade Partners

Power is the rarest commodity in the game today, and even if Bruce improves negligibly in 2015 from 2014, the right-fielder would have no shortage of suitors — especially since his contract is pretty friendly.

After earning his journalism degree at Ohio State University, Grant Freking worked at a newspaper outside of Indianapolis for three years before returning to his native Cincinnati in late 2014. Freking is a Co-Editor and founding member of The Ohioan. He also contributes to Cincinnati Magazine and Redleg Nation. Follow him on Twitter.

Grant & Ahmer’s NBA Chain Email Extravaganza

It's Dame's fault that Grant and Ahmer started exchanging novel-length emails on the NBA. (And put your tongue back in your mouth, Pablo.)

What started as a simple email from Ahmer regarding Damian Lillard’s (since-corrected) All-Star snub turned into near-5,000 word back-and-forth about the absurd amount of talent in the West, roster decisions, the playoff races and me showing my soft spot for the Philadelphia 76ers. Oh, and we revised our preseason order-of-finish predictions for each conference. Enjoy. — Grant

AHMER: I feel for Dame here. He has been playing an elite level of basketball since he got into the league, and this year is putting up an impressive line of 21.5 ppg, 6.3 apg, and 4.6 rpg this season. Anyone who watched his walk-off 3-pointer in Game 6 against the Rockets last year knows that Lillard is at least in the All-Star conversation every season. He was an easy Rookie of the Year pick his first year, and deserved that All-Star spot last season.

On the other hand, Lillard plays in the West, which is stacked at the point guard position. Commissioner Silver is considering expanding each roster next year, so it’s clear that becoming an All-Star in this day and age is tough to say the least. There was no doubt that Steph Curry was going to be the starting PG this year. Lillard couldn’t have expected to be voted as an All-Star starter with Steph, Kobe, Blake Griffin, Marc Gasol or Anthony Davis. But who should Lillard have gotten the nod over? His own teammate, LaMarcus Aldridge, is averaging a double-double with 23.6 ppg and 10.3 rpg.

After the starters, the reserves get selected from a coaches vote. Coaches pick two guards, three frontcourt players and two wild cards from their own conference. If I’m a coach in the West, who do I pick? James Harden is putting up MVP/scoring title-caliber numbers this year. Klay Thompson shows up teammate Steph Curry almost every other night, and has won Player of The Week three times this season. I don’t know if I could live with myself for not putting Kevin Durant on that list. Boogie Cousins is sixth in the league in scoring and third in rebounds. LaMarcus has been a reckoning force all season as well. Wild cards? Every coach wants to see CP3 in the All-Star Game, regardless of his numbers this year. So my last wild card pick would fall between Russell Westbrook and Lillard. Entering Thursday night, Westbrook was tied for second in the league in points per game. (Granted, that is with a lot of time off.) I would have picked Lillard personally, but can you blame someone for picking Russ?

The West runs deep at PG outside of Steph, CP3, Russ and Dame though. Mike Conley has led his Grizzlies to an impressive 39-14 record and the No. 2 spot in the West right now. Eric Bledsoe is playing in a three-guard lineup and is still averaging 17 points, five rebounds and six assists per game. Even Monta Ellis has got to be in the conversation as well.

Lillard is pissed off, and in my opinion, rightfully so. I see both sides of the debate, but I think after Steph Curry, Lillard has had the most impact on his team as a PG thus far this season. And I guarantee you he’s not going to let anyone live down the fact that he got snubbed. LaMarcus decided to forego surgery on his thumb to make sure Portland keeps flirting with a top seed in the West. This will be good for the NBA, and even better for my fantasy team.

Sidenote: I want a list of all the coaches that put Tim Duncan in their All-Star lineup. Have they been watching him play? The fact that he was voted in before Boogie is ridiculous. Do they think it is his last season? What were they thinking? Somebody help me.


GRANT: Given that the fans are so centrally involved and this year’s campaign was so #hashtag-heavy, I try not to get too worked up as to whomever is selected for the All-Star Game. But the fact is that 10, 15 and 20 years down the road, the number of All-Star appearances will be part of someone’s Hall of Fame candidacy. So, All-Star Game selections do matter.

I hear you loud and clear on Lillard, and I think Dame should be an All-Star over — wait for it — Kevin Durant. Durant’s enjoying a good-but-not-great season by his lofty standards, and if he had played in 60 percent of his team’s games, I’d be all for his inclusion.

But he hasn’t. Entering the All-Star break, Durant has played in 25 of OKC’s 52 games. Someone who’s played in less than half of his team’s games can’t be an All-Star. I’d be singing the same tune if Durant were averaging 40 points per game. I don’t think it’s too much to ask the NBA to prohibit players that haven’t played in at least half of their team’s games from being All-Stars. This rule would have prevented Lillard’s exclusion in the first place.

As for Duncan, I found his selection to have more merit after reading Sam Amick’s informative piece on Duncan and Coach Pop. Duncan’s been an incredibly steady two-way force for the Spurs at age 38. I completely agree with what Popovich said in the article — without Duncan playing like he’s 29 and not 39, the Spurs are not the No. 7 seed in the West entering the break.

Talking about Duncan and the Spurs reminds me of something even the most ardent NBA fans fail to forget sometimes: the regular season is such a grind. I wrote last week about the Cavaliers and how a strategy of short-term change and long-term patience has paid off for them. It took two and a half months of suffering, but the Cavs look like a legit team.

Teams go through various ebbs and flows throughout the season. It’s OK to not get worried when a team you know is really good (Warriors, Grizzlies, Spurs) hits a rough patch. They have veteran players and good coaches. They’re super-talented and deep. You can’t be awesome every night.

Then there are teams like the pre-Mozgoz/Shumpert/Smith Cavaliers. Even when rumors of David Blatt losing the locker room were swirling and Dion Waiters was threatening to become the first player in history to be murdered on the court by his own teammates, I had to remind myself that they still had moves to make. (Now if it were April and Shawn Marion was still playing major minutes in Cleveland, this would be a different discussion.) It takes time to build continuity. Everyone’s lauding the Warriors for their two-way awesomeness this season, but the Curry-Thompson-Bogut-Lee-Barnes-Green core is in its third season together. Things take time.

So let me ask you this: Which teams are you most interested to see in the second half of the season?

Do you think the Hawks need another wing? Are the supposedly insanely-deep Wizards really that deep, or is a reliance on Rasual Butler an indication you might need additional bench scoring? Just how far will the Pelicans and Thunder go to ensure they make the playoffs? How heartbroken will Knicks, Lakers or Magic fans — sorry, had to — be if they fail to win the Jahlil Okafor Sweepstakes?

Yes, children, that's Tim Duncan playing against the Seattle SuperSonics.

AHMER: Honestly, I agree with you on Durant. I felt weird just typing out that Lillard should have made it over Durant, so I stopped myself. But the thought was with me. It was like, “How can I have any credibility on this blog when I say Durant shouldn’t be an All-Star this year?” But you’re right. I was a little upset when he dropped out of Team USA after the Paul George incident, and he just hasn’t been playing the same this year. I’m glad it’s not only me that gets that vibe.

And I guess you’re right about Duncan. The numbers aren’t there though, but if we’re talking leadership, etiquette and just being an overall class act, then yes Duncan is an All-Star. But so is Dirk Nowitzki — the Mavs were good without Monta, without Rondo, without Tyson Chandler, but they have never been good without Dirk. (Dirk has since been named as the replacement for Anthony Davis.) Weird comparison, but still the same vibe. Without Dirk being Dirk this year, the Mavs wouldn’t be where they are either. I think the ASG would be more exciting if you threw Zach Randolph or DeAndre Jordan into that last big man spot, but that’s just me. But we both stipulate to the fact that Lillard should have been there this year, and I think you know Portland is looking more dangerous than last year.

Like you said, teams take time to mesh together. Everyone knows Steph, Klay and Kyle Korver are shooting a lot of 3s this year. Nobody mentions Wesley Matthews, who is tied with Steph and Korver for most 3-pointers made this season. That’s because Portland has been through its ups (beating Houston last year in the playoffs) and downs, and finally looks like a team that can at least dance with the big boys this season. I like Portland, and would love to see a Portland-Golden State matchup in the West Finals this season. Besides Memphis and Houston (some days), nobody is playing on their level out West.

Teams I’m most excited to see…hmm. I have League Pass so I try to watch most teams as much as I can. I’m intrigued by the Hawks, to say the least. I want to say they need another wing, but every game of theirs I’ve watched doesn’t make it seem like that. It feels like they have four guys who can shoot the 3-ball on the floor at any given time. Al Horford and Paul Millsap are enough of a distraction down low for teams to have to give up open shots to their shooters. I still don’t see them doing anything big in the playoffs. The Hawks have been notorious for regular-season success and postseason regrets for what feels like the last decade. Hopefully Mike Budenholzer can keep this up and prove himself as a legit coach. If they make it past the first round, I think he should take Coach of the Year.

Yes, the Wizards need more help. Their core of John Wall, Bradley Beal, Paul Pierce, Nene and Marcin Gortat is amazing. Their bench is rising to the occasion this year with some great play from guys like Kris Humphries, Martell Webster, Kevin Seraphin and Andre Miller. Again, postseason play is a truly different animal. But, if their starting five can stay healthy, they will be a lot to handle come playoff time. We’re not too far away from the trade deadline, but I don’t see the Wiz budging on their lineup. Matter of fact, I don’t know who will make any moves before the deadline. It kind of feels like all of the noteworthy moves of the season have already been made, don’t ya think?

I’m also going to keep a close eye on Phoenix, Toronto, Chicago and Dallas. I think Phoenix still has a shot at taking the No. 7 or No. 8 seed. I wanted Jeff Hornacek for COY last year, but the Suns missing the playoffs probably did him in. Their three-guard lineup is so intriguing to watch. It’s like teams know its coming, but still look like a deer in headlights when Goran Dragic, Eric Bledsoe and Isaiah Thomas start to click.

Toronto was an Eastern Conference contender before DeRozan went out. They held their ground while he was gone, so I’m going to assume that they will be a problem come playoff time. What do you think?

The Mavs and Bulls have been the biggest disappointments for me this year. I thought this was the year the Bulls finally made a big run, but they’re just not playing consistent ball every night. D-Rose is on and off every night, and it feels like either Rose or Jimmy Butler is going to have a good game, but never both at the same time. Pau Gasol and Joakim Noah are holding it down in their frontcourt, but coach Thibs better have something up his sleeve come playoff time.

Same with the Mavs. When they got Rondo, I thought it was all over in the West. I thought they were a team to finally compete with the Warriors, and that Rondo gave them a star-studded lineup. They’re getting there, and it won’t matter what seed they take in the playoffs, but they need something else, right?

I like the Suns for that last playoff spot over the Thunder and Pelicans. But it’ll be an entertaining dogfight to say the least.

I really hoped last season was the last time the Magic made a push for the No. 1 draft pick, but I guess I was wrong. Losing on Okafor would suck, but I still think they could manage. Elfrid Payton is getting his shit together. As long as we match Tobias Harris’ offer sheet, he, Oladipo, and Nik Vucevic are coming together. Maybe Aaron Gordon starts to pan out? Maybe we throw some big money at a free agent power forward? What do you think? I love how far the NBA has come though. Not too long ago, you would never see the Knicks, Lakers, or Celtics trying to get a lottery pick. Oh, how the mighty have fallen. I guarantee you some of those GMs that voted against the reformed lottery system are ecstatic the vote didn’t go through now. If the 76ers get the No. 1 pick, I’m done with the NBA forever, though.

I know I was one of the guys saying the Cavs needed to axe Blatt, but they are now playing like I envisioned them playing before the season. Kevin Love still is working hard to get his numbers back, and that might take some time. His presence alone creates a problem for other defenses, but when he starts hitting shots like we know he can, it’s some beautiful basketball. As a Cavs hater, I only really panicked because I bought season tickets with every intention of trying to flip at least Eastern Conference Finals tickets for a profit. They better not disappoint.


GRANT: I think it’s easy to separate past Hawks failures from this season because of two people: Iso Joe and Mike Woodson. Had Al Horford been playing, the Hawks would have upset the Pacers in the first round last season. Remember, the Hawks led the series 3-2 and were up by five with just over three minutes left in Game 6. Budenholzer proved his legitimacy right there by taking a team that didn’t even want to be in the playoffs to the brink of slaying the East’s top seed.

Atlanta can score on anyone at anytime in the halfcourt right now — they’re sixth in the league in offensive efficiency and first in assist percentage. The Hawks scored at a pretty good rate last April vs. the Pacers’ vaunted defense, and don’t need to run to score — they’re a middle of the pack team when it comes to fast-break points.

You never know what’s brewing at the trade deadline. I’m not sure we’ll see any true blockbuster, but plenty of semi-important transactions happened at the deadline last year: the Pacers trading Danny Granger to the 76ers for Evan Turner and Lavoy Allen (woof); Andre Miller being shipped to the Wizards; and Steve Blake getting sent to the Warriors. (Fine, last year’s deadline sucked, though I will say that having spent most of the past three years in Indianapolis, the Granger trade was a HUGE deal. A lot of Pacers people weren’t happy about it, especially after they realized what kind of player Indiana got in return in Evan Turner.)

Toronto isn’t a title contender for me. The Raptors (36-17 at the break) will top their 48-win total from last year easiliy, but if they are matched up against Cleveland or Chicago in the second round, they’re going down. They’re in the good-but-not-good-enough category.

As for Chicago, their pieces don’t totally mesh right. Gasol is a sieve defensively, and I think his “comeback” season has as much to do with Rose’s ever-changing status and Noah’s injuries. Thibs has run Noah and Jimmy Butler into the ground the last two seasons. The one thing they have going for them is they have some guys on their bench — Aaron Brooks, Kirk Hinrich, Mike Dunleavy, Nikola Mirotic, Taj Gibson — who can score. It just feels like that unless Rose can fix his shooting woes — he needs to be shooting better than 30 percent from 3 — they aren’t a Finals team.

Right now, the Mavericks just don’t have enough meaningful depth, and that truth became clear when I watched them play the Warriors recently and saw guys like Charlie Villanueva, Richard Jefferson and J.J. Barea netting major minutes. When Dallas traded for Rondo, I think Mark Cuban & Co. figured it would bog down their offense some, but felt that in the end, their point-of-attack defense would improve. I guess we’ll see in the end. They’re going to have to score at an absurd pace to beat anyone in the postseason. If they draw Golden State or Memphis in the first round, Cuban can push up his summer vacation plans to May.

As I alluded to before, both the Thunder and Pelicans cannot afford to miss the postseason. I think New Orleans is more likely to do something desperate — like trading a future first rounder, Eric Gordon and John Salmons’ contract to Minnesota for Kevin Martin and Thad Young — in order to bolster a bench that’s shaky outside of Ryan Anderson. I think the Thunder will ride things out and hope that Durant and Westbrook’s collective tour-de-force can drag them into the playoffs.

With respect to your Magic, they’re in a good spot. Scott Skiles would not be a popular hire with NBA Twitter, but with the collective defensive potential of Payton, Oladipo, Harris and Gordon, they almost have to go in that direction since none of those guys I just listed are great outside shooters. That’s something they need to shake out. How far can a Payton-Oladipo-Harris-Gordon-Vooch core take them? They seem like they could be next year’s Bucks with the right leadership, but they’ve gotta find some guys that can score.

Who knows, maybe the Magic will luck themselves into the top three and have a shot at Jahlil Okafor, Karl Anthony-Towns or D’Angelo Russell. Maybe they should go after Kevin Love or Greg Monroe or Draymond Green or Wesley Matthews. It’s an interesting time for them.

Karl Anthony-Towns, Kentucky's super-talented freshman forward, would fit in well on the Magic.

AHMER: The regular season is such a grind. I’m willing to bet there will be some major shake-ups in the standings by playoff time. The Cavs have a long ways to go before they can catch Atlanta, but I wonder if Atlanta can keep it up. I feel like I always predict the Hawks to do better than they actually end up doing, but this year I’m going to be a naysayer and let them prove me wrong, not the other way around.

Ironically, Blake Griffin’s injury got Lillard into the All-Star game. I’m sure Lillard’s still pissed about the original snub, and I am willing to bet he makes a poster out of someone during the actual game Sunday. I’m kind of excited to see this Dunk Contest and see what the young bucks got up their sleeve. I’m hoping Oladipo makes it out, but anybody could win that thing aside from Mason Plumlee.

Word on the street is that the Mavs are looking to get Amar’e Stoudemire and Jermaine O’Neal. Not sure what O’Neal gives them, but Amar’e has surprised me this season, and he could give some much needed help to Dirk when Ze German needs it.

On a more pessimistic note, I want to see how each team does at keeping their team healthy for the playoffs. If Thibs keeps it up, Noah and Butler probably will end up getting hurt before it’s time to dance. Griffin and Dwight Howard’s injuries will be big — both of those teams will have their work cut out for them to maintain a good playoff spot. Steve Kerr needs to make sure he has both Andrew Bogut and David Lee ready to rock when the postseason begins, too. Injuries always play a huge role in the playoffs, one way or another.

I went to a Sixers game for the first time Monday night. (I have a goal of going to a game in every NBA arena before I die for a game — Wells Fargo got me to 14. I also told myself I would never pay to go see this godforsaken team, so when I got the text for free box seats, I knew it was time.) Teams really play to the Sixers level for some reason. That was some of the sloppiest ball I’ve seen from the Warriors all season, which begs the question: Were they having an off-night? Or do teams just know in the back of their mind all game that there is no way they will fall to Philly?

Furious George Karl is making a comeback to the coaching world — this time with Sacramento. I’m confused as to what Sacramento’s problem is here. GK was COY in the 2012-13 season. His team was impressive that year (57 wins!), and I think they might have been destined for better than a first-round exit with a healthy team (Gallinari’s injury killed them).

Apparently Boogie’s agents have been vocal about their displeasure with management’s decisions this season, though it appears Boogie has no problem with Karl’s hiring. Although Boogie has matured leaps and bounds compared to last season, he is still known to be an occasional problem child around the league. GK doesn’t deal with bullshit well, and clashed with Melo prior to his departure. Boogie’s numbers would probably go down in a GK system, but he could improve as a ballplayer. I’m interested to see what happens. I always get let down by the Kings, so I’m predicting not even Karl can help that franchise out.

Ray Allen is yet to make a decision on returning to the NBA. How nasty would it be to see him come off the bench in Atlanta? I personally would love that move, but obviously his impact will be pretty low overall. If I had to guess, I would say LeBron is probably working pretty hard to get Allen back in his Boys Club in Cleveland.


GRANT: Aw, man, don’t hate on my Sixers like that. I have a strange fascination with that franchise because Sam Hinkie has burnt everything to the ground since he was hired as GM in March 2013. Know how many of the 2012-13 Sixers are on the current roster? Just Jason Richardson, and he hasn’t played at all the past two seasons because of a knee injury. Even for a league that can be as transactionally-crazy as the NBA, that’s wild.

What’s also crazy is that despite all the tanking talk, Philly is actually getting better. In an article that ran Tuesday, Grantland’s Zach Lowe noted that the Sixers are 12-24 since their 0-17 start, and were 12th in points allowed per possession. (If you want to see real-life tanking, look at the Nuggets, a veteran team who has so plainly given up that their coach has turned to reading books on millennials and rapping in order to snap them out of their funk. It hasn’t worked, as Denver lost 13 of its last 15 contests entering the break, with one of those wins being over the Lakers.)

I think, given the right moves, Philly can be a 30-win team next year. Aside from their own first-round selection — likely to fall somewhere in the top six — the Sixers also own Miami’s first-round pick in the June draft, though the Heat’s pick has top-10 protection. Given Dwyane Wade’s chronic injury issues — he’s skipping the All-Star Game to rehabilitate his right hamstring — it’ll be interesting to see how the Heat handle the rest of their season despite the emergence of Hassan Whiteside.

So, the Sixers could potentially add two first-round picks to a core that already includes a trio of former top-11 selections in Michael Carter-Williams, Nerlens Noel and presumably-healthy-for-next-season Joel Embiid. Guys like Tony Wroten and K.J. McDaniels (if he’s around) have proven that they belong in the league. What will be interesting is if Hinkie can convince some established veterans to fit in around the young guys and construct a roster like Milwaukee’s. The Bucks have positioned veterans like Jared Dudley, Jared Bayless and Zaza Pachulia around Jabari Parker (when he was healthy), the Greek Freak and Brandon Knight. (Whether that happened by accident or not is up for debate. But it’s working.)

Anyway, to close this out, let’s revisit our preseason conference order-of-finish predictions and make any necessary revisions. I’ll go first.

Grant’s East Order of Finish

Original: 1 Cavaliers; 2. Bulls; 3. Wizards; 4. Raptors; 5. Hornets; 6. Hawks; 7. Nets; 8. Heat.

Revised: 1. Hawks; 2. Raptors; 3. Cavaliers; 4. Bulls; 5. Wizards; 6. Bucks; 7. Hornets; 8. Heat.

It’s conceivable that I could still get seven out of eight teams right, just in a vastly different order. I have an inkling that Toronto will barely able to hold off the Cavaliers and Bulls. I think the Raptors value the No. 2 spot more than any of the teams chasing them because they feel the that a sold-out Air Canada Centre can give them a much-needed boost in a likely second-round series against Cleveland or Chicago. It’s completely crazy that — barring a complete collapse — Milwaukee will easily find its way into the postseason without Jabari Parker or Larry Sanders. Instead of selling Roy Hibbert, David West or George Hill, I think the Pacers will stand pat and try to make the playoffs without rushing Paul George back, but it won’t be enough to catch Charlotte (who desperately wants to make the playoffs) or Miami.

Grant’s West Order of Finish

Original: 1. Clippers; 2. Spurs; 3. Warriors; 4 Grizzlies; 5. Thunder; 6. Mavericks; 7. Rockets; 8. Trail Blazers.

Revised: 1. Warriors; 2. Grizzlies; 3. Trail Blazers; 4. Spurs; 5. Rockets; 6. Clippers; 7. Mavericks; 8. Thunder.

I think the West’s top two seeds are safe. Even if Andrew Bogut goes down, the Warriors have a four-game cushion on the Grizzlies, who could probably scrape by well enough if anyone aside from Marc Gasol was injured. I think the injuries to Dwight Howard and Blake Griffin will keep the Rockets and Clippers from getting homecourt, especially now that LaMarcus Aldridge put off thumb surgery and the Spurs are getting healthy the the perfect time. I’m a big believer of talent — even if it’s somewhat unorganized and occasionally poorly-coached — winning out, which is why the Thunder, who won five of six entering the break, will take the No. 8 seed.

While Kevin Durant will be trying to make OKC the most frightening No. 8 seed ever, James Harden will fight to keep the Rockets in the top half of the West without Dwight Howard.

Ahmer’s East Order of Finish

Original: 1. Cavaliers; 2. Bulls; 3. Raptors; 4. Wizards; 5. Hornets; 6. Nets; 7. Heat; 8. Hawks; 9. Pistons; 10. Pacers; 11. Knicks; 12. Magic; 13. Bucks; 14. Celtics; 15. 76ers.

Revised: 1. Hawks; 2. Cavaliers; 3. Bulls; 4. Wizards; 5. Raptors; 6. Bucks; 7. Heat; 8. Pistons. 9. Pacers; 10. Hornets; 11. Nets; 12. Magic  13. Celtics 14. 76ers; 15. Knicks.

I think the Hawks have too comfortable of a lead on the No. 1 seed to let Cleveland — or anyone for that matter — catch them. Can’t blame myself for putting the Hawks as a No. 8 seed to start the season though, right? Or did someone else predict they would send four players to the All-Star game this year? I’m not ready to say Charlotte is playing playoff basketball yet, and you can tell there is just something up with that squad. The Nets are probably going to make some roster moves, most of which will affect them negatively. I like the Bucks’ swag right now. What Jason Kidd has been able to do without Jabari Parker this season has been nothing short of impressive. I also like the Pistons for that No. 8 seed. Even though their record since losing Jennings isn’t great, a look at D.J. Augustin’s stats in those games tells me SVG’s coaching is working. (Anyone remember Rafer Alston in the 2008-09 season?). Word is that Paul George could return in the regular season. Although it’s probably a risky decision, the Pacers might be able to sneak into No. 8 spot if he’s able to meaningfully contribute.

Ahmer’s West Order of Finish

Original: 1. Spurs; 2. Clippers; 3. Warriors; 4. Rockets; 5. Mavericks; 6. Nuggets; 7. Trail Blazers; 8. Thunder; 9. Pelicans; 10. Grizzlies; 11. Suns; 12. Lakers; 13. Jazz; 14. Timberwolves; 15. Kings.

Revised: 1. Warriors; 2. Grizzlies; 3. Trail Blazers; 4. Spurs; 5. Rockets; 6. Clippers; 7. Mavericks; 8. Suns; 9. Thunder; 10. Pelicans; 11. Kings; 12. Jazz; 13. Nuggets; 14. Timberwolves; 15. Lakers.

Entering the break, only five games separate the No. 2 and the No. 7 seeds. Every team will need to finish strong and win important games to keep their spot because the Pelicans and Thunder are both hungry. Only teams one through 10 are in playoff contention at this point. It’s hard to predict where the Rockets, Clippers and Mavs finish this season because of their key injuries. Every Western Conference matchup is going to be fun this year.

Ahmer Sheriff is a graduate of the University of Cincinnati and University of Akron School of Law. He currently resides in Philadelphia and works as an Associate Attorney in Southern New Jersey. Sheriff will always have a soft spot for his hometown of Cincinnati, regardless of where life takes him. Follow him on Twitter.

Grant Freking is a graduate of Ohio State University, where he earned a degree in journalism and perfected the karaoke rendition of “Take Me Home, Country Roads.” Freking also contributes to Cincinnati Magazine. Follow him on Twitter.