Archive for April, 2014

NCAA Final Prediction

Posted: 04/07/2014 by levcohen in Basketball, NCAA

It’s a matchup between two high seeded teams who shouldn’t be high seeded. It’s a matchup between #7 and #8 seeded basketball powerhouses. The second best player in college basketball (Shabazz Napier) against the most talented team in the country. In a game that will break the record for highest combined seed in a National Championship game, we see not Butler or VCU, but Connecticut and Kentucky. That’s why this 7 vs. 8 feels more like last year’s game, in which Louisville met Michigan. So all the talk about upsets and the like might be overblown, which is fine by me; if we get the kind of game we got last year, I’ll be happy. And I think we can get that sort of game. In one corner, there’s Connecticut. I’ll be honest: Even at halftime, when they held a three point lead, I didn’t think they had much of a chance of beating Florida. Would they keep it close? Absolutely; I thought they would do that before the game even started. But even as UConn’s lead grew, Florida was more talented. They were also doing a good job on Napier, who ended with just six shot attempts. And their offense, led by Patric Young and Casey Prather, was bound to wake up, right? Connecticut was energetic defensively, but they didn’t have the manpower to defend guys like Young and Prather with their focus on the likes of Scottie Wilbekin and Michael Frazier instead. Florida was going to go on a run. But that run simply never came, and UConn ended up winning by 10. I would say it was a fluke result, but I’m now underrating the Huskies. Florida did a good job on Napier, but the fact that other guys eventually stepped up for Connecticut is very important, and I think it will be carried over for another game. DeAndre Daniels, a presence both inside and out, shot 9-14 from the field, hit two threes, and had 10 huge defensive rebounds against one of the upper-echelon defensive teams in the country. Ryan Boatright, Napier’s speedy backcourt mate, poured in 13 points and got to the rim at ease. Napier is the star, but this is by no means a one man team. And they are pressure the ball very well defensively. Napier had four steals, and the Huskies are lethal on the fast break.

And in the other corner, there’s Kentucky. Could you think of a less-Cinderella-ish Cinderella? Technically, Kentucky is just that, because they are an eight seed who has knocked out an undefeated one seed, a flavor-of-the-month four seed, and a hot shooting two seed, all of whom made the final four last year. Kentucky is overflowing with talent, and it shows. They find ways to win (or at least have been in the tournament), and often do so by just throwing the ball in the vicinity of the basket and gobbling up the offensive rebound. They are out to prove that they are a stronger, more physical team, and they often do so. Julius Randle has more double doubles than anyone else in college basketball, and, even without Willie Cauley-Stein, a ton of big men to support Randle. In the tournament, this team has transformed from a talented team into a one that is just really cohesive and good at basketball. In their win over Wisconsin, they turned the ball over just four times. They also shot 50% from the field. The game before, against Michigan, they shot 53% from the field and turned it over 11 times. This isn’t a fluke.
I’ve talked up both teams now, which makes sense because they are the last two teams standing. Which team will hoist the trophy tonight?

Three Keys to the Game:
Both teams are good in close games. The fact that Kentucky has won by the smallest cumulative margin of any team that made the title game is now well known, and it’s true. Their last four wins have come by just 11 points combined, and the last two have come on three pointers from Aaron Harrison. UConn can win close games, too. If they take a lead, watch out, because they have shot 91 of 105 from the free throw line in the tournament. That’s 87%. And they also shot 78% for the season. If they have a lead late in the game, Kentucky won’t be able to catch them.
Turnovers. Again, UConn is lethal on the fast break. And they force a lot of turnovers with their pressure defense. But again, Kentucky turned it over just four times against Wisconsin, a team that plays defensively very differently, letting the offense come to them rather than pressuring the ball. Will UConn’s defensive pressure win out? Or will Kentucky’s offense?
Crashing the boards: The Florida Gators had 12 offensive rebounds against Connecticut. That wasn’t a fluke, because they are a bigger team than a small-ish UConn team. And if Connecticut had a tough time rebounding against Florida, they definitely have their work cut out against Kentucky, who are one of the best OREB teams in the entire NCAA. Again and again, offensive rebounding has bailed the Wildcats out, and it could well do so again against another smaller team.

7 Connecticut (31-8) vs 8 Kentucky (29-10):
Spread: Kentucky favored by 2.5
Remember, Connecticut just did a thing for a second time that Kentucky couldn’t do in three chances: beat Florida. They therefore fare well when it comes to looking at common opponents. It really comes down to how well each team can negate the other team’s greatest strength. Can Kentucky stop Shabazz Napier and DeAndre Daniels? And can Connecticut stop Kentucky from getting second chance opportunity after second chance opportunity? That’s the key of the game. Connecticut wins 71-70. Because I want to be different and everyone is picking Kentucky.

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Final Four Predictions

Posted: 04/05/2014 by levcohen in Basketball, NCAA

This final four is absolutely full of storylines. So much so, in fact, that the best team in the country, Florida, is the least talked about team. The three most talked about topics, at least from what I have been seeing, are:

  • Kentucky: youth, poor regular season, peaking at the right time
  • Wisconsin: Bo Ryan finally gets a trip to the final four after going every year with his father, who died last year
  • Connecticut: Shabazz Napier. Shabazz Napier. Shabazz Napier.

To me, the most interesting part of this field of four is related to Florida. The 36-2 Gators are joined in the Final Four by the two teams they lost to, and their arch rival in the SEC, a Kentucky team they have already beaten three times. Both teams are favored to make it to Monday, so we could see a fourth matchup between the schools. Either way, if the Gators cut the nets down on Monday, they’ll have either avenged both of their losses, or avenged one and beaten a team with anywhere from six future NBA players to even more four times. If that’s not impressive, I don’t know what is. To me, that would make the Gators one of the best team in NCAA history. I don’t think they’d be remembered as such, though, because they don’t have a future NBA star on their roster. When you remember the best college basketball teams, you remember them first and foremost by their NBA success. What Florida has done without a future star might be unprecedented, which makes this even more impressive. I don’t think there is any debating that Florida is the best team left. But the best team doesn’t always win, and the others also have things going for them. Connecticut has the best player, Kentucky has the most talent and is peaking at the right time, and Wisconsin is the most steady.

1 Florida (36-2) vs 7 Connecticut (30-8)
Spread: Florida favored by 7
Florida is a much better team than Connecticut is, and have been all year. But UConn is a scary team to play right now. They are forcing turnovers (opposing teams are actually shooting just about as well as they are in the tournament, but they’ve won by getting transition buckets), and of course they have Shabazz Napier. They should be in this game for throughout, and I wouldn’t bet against Napier at the end of the game. I just think that, in the end, Florida will win this game. They are much bigger than UConn is, and I think they’ll be able to destroy the Huskies, whose leading scorer is Napier, the point guard, on the boards. Since they are the best team in the country, it was hard for me to find ways to beat them. They don’t turn it over much, they are tall, and they defend well. Basically, they should overpower Connecticut. But I don’t think they will, because UConn has Shabazz Napier. Florida has won each of their first four games comfortably, but they haven’t really won a blowout. I see that continuing here. Florida wins 74-68.

2 Wisconsin (30-7) vs 8 Kentucky (28-10)
Spread: Kentucky favored by 1
Frankly, I was surprised at the spread. With the way Kentucky is playing, it’s hard to imagine that they are just a one point favorite against Wisconsin, another team that is playing pretty well themselves. We all knew that Kentucky had this in them. I just wasn’t sure they’d put it all together in time. They have, and it looks like they will totally outmatch this Wisconsin team. On the offensive glass, Kentucky is terrific. They also are a lot more talented than Wisconsin is, and have beaten three consecutive top 10 teams in Wichita State, Louisville, and Michigan. However, there are still some concerns. It’s not as if Kentucky crushed any of those three teams. All were close and came down to the wire. And I think people are discounting the Wisconsin Badgers. I certainly have been. They just beat an Arizona team I thought would go all the way to the championship game. They also have Frank Kaminsky, who had a huge game against Arizona, can shoot the three, and can post up. Kaminsky is the most improved player in the country, and I think Wisconsin is good enough to keep it close against Kentucky. But the Wildcats’ physicality and tenacity on the boards should be enough to win the game. Kentucky wins 70-67

MLB Standings Predictions- AL

Posted: 04/02/2014 by levcohen in Baseball

Before we are too deep into the season, I need to hammer out some MLB predictions. I already did the NL, so here are the AL Standings predictions, starting with the extremely intriguing AL East, continuing with the less intriguing AL Central, and ending in the AL West, which I think has the biggest range of 1-4 outcomes (I think it’s safe to say the Astros, who beat the Yankees 6-2 in their season opener, will finish last).

AL East:
1. Boston Red Sox (93-69). The Red Sox are basically- not exactly, but basically- the same team as the one that won the World Series last year. Yes, Jacoby Ellsbury is gone; he’s the only huge contributor from last year’s team who did not return outside of Jarrod Saltalamacchia, a catcher who was replaced by A.J. Pierzynski, who should be about as productive as Salty was, and shortstop Stephen Drew, who is replaced by top prospect Xander Bogaerts, who is almost definitely already a better player than Drew is. The fact that the Sox didn’t push hard to retain is telling; they think they have a suitable replacement in Jackie Bradley. Er… Never mind. Bradley, who was supposed to win the centerfield job, currently has a bench role. The starting CF is no other than the mighty Grady Sizemore. The tag “mighty” just “might” sound sarcastic, but it really isn’t. Grady Sizemore is a heck of a baseball player. He was once seen as Mike Trout before Mike Trout. In his age-22 to age-25 seasons, Sizemore missed just nine games. He hit 20 homers in each of those four years, and also stole 20 bases. He even went 30-30 one year. In that time, Sizemore had a triple slash of .281/.372/.496 with a baseball reference WAR of at least 5.5 in each of the four years. He also won two gold gloves, but finished in the top-10 of the MVP voting just once, probably because of the sparse attention given to Cleveland Indian players. That won’t be a problem in Boston. Then injuries happened, and the now-31 year old Sizemore has not played Major League baseball since 2011. But he’s back now, and he apparently decided to sign with the Red Sox because of their terrific medical staff. And he homered in the first game of the season. I think everyone’s rooting for Grady Sizemore, but this is by no means just a feel-good story. If Sizemore stays healthy, he could be not just a suitable replacement for Ellsbury, but a terrific one. Either way, the Red Sox will be good. Again, they retain most of last season’s team, and have added a lot to their bullpen, which should now be very strong. There isn’t a huge weakness on the team, which is another reason that the Sizemore signing makes so much sense. The Red Sox are fine either way, so the Sizemore signing is one of the best low risk (Bradley could always come in and start) vs. high reward ones in recent memory.

2. Tampa Bay Rays (90-72). The Rays are in many ways the same old Rays, but this could be the best Rays team we have seen. They didn’t trade David Price, so will return their ace to a deep rotation. They also added Ryan Hanigan and Logan Forsythe, both prototypical Tampa Bay investments. Neither cost a lot, and both will contribute defensively and could start often. The team is mostly all back, with a closer upgrade (Grant Balfour should be a better closer than Fernando Rodney was last year) thrown in. I like this team a lot, because I envision a couple of their players having breakout seasons. Desmond Jennings, who has all the talent but has never put it all together, is 27 now, was scalding hot in spring training, and already has three doubles and a .571 average in his first two games of the season. A 20-30 season could be in store. I also think that Wil Myers will develop into one of the better hitters in baseball this year, and I believe that Chris Archer should take another step forward after his great rookie performance last year. The rotation is terrific, the defense is outstanding, and the offense is average to slightly above average. That should be enough for 90 wins, if not more.

3. Baltimore Orioles (83-79). Adam Jones. Chris Davis. Nelson Cruz. Manny Machado. J.J. Hardy. Matt Wieters. Nick Markakis. I don’t know how many people realize it, but this is a premier offense, and it’s absolutely loaded with power. After Jhonny Peralta got a big deal from the Cardinals, I think a lot of people expected Cruz to get the same from a different team that didn’t mind that he was involved in the Biogenesis scandal. But it didn’t happen. In the end, Cruz signed a modest, short term deal with the Orioles… And I loved it for the Orioles and for Cruz. Cruz gets a chance to prove he is legitimate in a hitters park, while the Orioles take a small gamble on a player who has 133 homers in the past five years. The offense is terrific, and in Machado, the Orioles have a premier defender. The infield should be terrific defensively and offensively, which is in stark contrast with the Yankees, a team many have making the playoffs. I don’t, in large part because of their poor infield, which is why I have the Orioles above them. All they need is some solid pitching, and they have a bunch of solid but not great starters. That could change, as Kevin Gausman, who will be a great starter, is waiting in the wings. Watch out for this Orioles team. It might surprise some people.

4. New York Yankees (80-82). Mark Teixeira. Brian Roberts. Derek Jeter. Kelly Johnson. That’s the Yankees infield. Must have been pretty good 10 years ago. I’m sure McCann, Tanaka, Beltran, and Ellsbury, all huge signings by a frankly desperate Yankee team, will be good. But I have a hard time taking that infield seriously. Especially since the bullpen looks very suspect without the steady hand of Mariano Rivera. I know they’ll play hard for Jeter, because it’s Jeter’s last year. I know it’s hard to imagine a Yankee-less postseason in Jeter’s last year. But based on the roster, I think the Orioles, Rays, and Red Sox are all better teams. It’s that simple.

5. Toronto Blue Jays (74-88). Jose Reyes is already hurt. It’s sad, because this team has a lot of talent, and I’d love to see the Blue Jays succeed. But this feels to me like it’s going to be a carbon copy of last season, when they finished 74-88. The Blue Jays whiffed in free agency. They were in the mix for all the top free agent pitchers (including Tanaka), but ended up with none of them. Their biggest signing was Dioner Navarro. The starting rotation is led by R.A. Dickey (4.05 career ERA), who has a Cy Young award but is 39 now and was generally poor last year. Drew Hutchison (4.22), who has thrown fewer than 80 career innings and was never a big prospect. He had a good first start, and the Jays sorely need him to become a solid pitcher. Mark Buehrle (3.84), is an innings eater, and a solid one at that. That’s all he is, though. The rotation is closed out by Brandon Morrow, who dealt with lots of injury problems and poor pitching itis last year, and Dustin McGowan, who has thrown 46.2 innings since 2008 (!) and is now 32. I love the bats of Reyes, Jose Bautista, Edwin Encarnacion, Adam Lind, and Colby Rasmus. But Reyes and Bautista are injury prone, and the rotation is really bad. I don’t see it happening.

AL Central:
1. Detroit Tigers (91-71). I don’t like what the Tigers did this offseason, but I also think they still have more than enough talent and starpower to cruise to the AL Central title. They have Miguel Cabrera, the best, and now one of the richest, hitters in the world. They have Justin Verlander and, for another year at least, Max Scherzer, the best 1-2 starting punch in all of baseball. I’m not going to say the rest doesn’t matter, but that’s almost the case. That’s not a slight to everyone else, because some of them (Anibal Sanchez, Ian Kinsler, Torii Hunter, Victor Martinez, Drew Smyly, etc.) are quite good.

2. Cleveland Indians (84-78)
3. Kansas City Royals (82-80)
I think these two teams are about even, although public perception doesn’t agree with me. The Royals are almost universally regarded as the second best team in the AL Central; some respected baseball people (very few, but some) even have them winning the AL Central. I know what they are seeing- lots of young talent, a deep lineup, good defense. I just don’t think it will make them a 90 game winner. The rotation features Bruce Chen, Jeremy Guthrie, and Jason Vargas. Having one of those guys isn’t too bad, and I think you could win a title with one of them as your #5 starter. But all three? That’s a bit much. The bullpen is also good, but there aren’t any true stars on this team. I’m a big fan of Sal Perez, Eric Hosmer, Billy Butler, James Shields, and Alex Gordon, but none of those guys are stars. That might not be an issue, but it’s a little bit worrying.

The Indians, along with the Pirates, were the surprise story of last season. Some regression will probably happen, and I have that factored into my prediction, but I think the Indians will still be a good baseball team. Because the offense is so good, I think the pitching is going to be the factor that decides whether the Indians are a .500 team or a 90-win team. After Justin Masterson, the rotation is full of question marks. But they are full of exciting question marks that could turn into exclamation marks. None of Corey Kluber, Zach McAllister, or Danny Salazar is in any way established as a good pitcher, but all are young and have potential. There is room for growth here, which is why I don’t understand all the pessimistic predictions. We know the offense will be there, which is more than I can say about most teams. It’s this simple: if the pitching is good, the team will be good. If it’s bad, it’ll be a mediocre team. I fall in the middle, which is why I see them as an 84 win team, but I’m surprised that so many people are taking the pessimistic approach with the Cleveland Indians.

4. Chicago White Sox (74-88). When I watch the White Sox, and it probably won’t happen only, I’ll focus on two players. First, I’ll only watch on Chris Sale starters, because Chris Sale, with his unorthodox delivery, is fantastic and fun to watch. Second, I’ll watch Jose Abreu. Abreu, the latest product from Cuba, is going to be a great player. I think he could have 40-homer power, and also walks a lot. I think he’s more likely to become a star than he is to become a bust. The Sox had a good offseason, adding Abreu, Adam Eaton, and Matt Davidson to their rebuilding team. This isn’t their year, but they are in the midst of a fairly short rebuild. They’re doing well, and I’m going to take a wait and see approach. Could they surprise last year? With Sale and Abreu, absolutely. But I still don’t think they are ready yet.

5. Minnesota Twins (62-100). If the White Sox are executing a quick rebuild, the Twins are executing a very slow one. But it’s working, as the system is one of the two or three best in baseball. Their top prospect, Byron Buxton, is the best prospect in baseball, and has been compared, somewhat unfairly to the player, to Mike Trout. Their second best prospect, Miguel Sano, has better power than any other prospect, except he just underwent Tommy John surgery. In Alex Meyer, Kohl Stewart, Jose Berrios, and Lewis Thorpe, the Twins also have a deep stable of arms in the Minor Leagues. What they lack, though, is Major League talent. The rotation might be a bit better than it was last year, but it basically can’t be worse. Joe Mauer, one of the best and most loyal Twins of all time, has almost no lineup protection. It’s a long rebuild, and the Twins are probably three or four years away from contention. Twins fans, watch Byron Buxton, and don’t watch the Big League team.

AL West:
1. Oakland Athletics (87-75)
2. Los Angeles Angels (85-77)
3. Texas Rangers (84-78)
Much like with the bottom three of the NL West, your guess is as good as mine here. Before the Athletics and Rangers were struck with a boatload of injuries, it looked like they were the two clear favorites with the Angels fighting for third. But the injury to Yu Darvish made me reevaluate the Rangers, and I found that the rotation is pretty bad. Darvish was the ace holding it all together, but without him, a lot of holes are exposed. The Rangers still have a lot of offense, but I don’t think it will be enough to lead them to the playoffs. Of course, the Rangers will likely make a bunch of deadline deals for pitchers and make this whole discussion moot, but for now, the Rangers are second or third best.
I just think that the Athletics will continue doing Billy Beane and Oakland Athletic things. Their roster definitely isn’t as flashy as either of the two division division rivals, but they are the best all around team. They won the division with 90+ wins the last two seasons, and, while they won’t be as good this year, they still should win the division.
The Angels are a very, very flawed team. But they have Mike Trout.

4. Seattle Mariners (81-81). Yes, I have four teams within six games of each other at the top of the AL West. I don’t know why, but I really like this Mariner team. They have Robinson Cano, but people have said they have nobody protecting him in the lineup. I would agree with that, except for the fact that I think their lineup has a lot of depth. Brad Miller, for example, a shortstop who was not supposed to start for the Mariners, hit two homers yesterday. I think Justin Smoak could be in for a solid year. Also, they have King Felix. He’s pretty good. And there are some young pitchers that could come up and provide a boost for the Mariners down the stretch. I don’t think this team will be out of it until the final few weeks of the season.

5. Houston Astros (61-101). The Astros have the best system in baseball, but they are still not ready to win more than 62 games yet, so I think their streak of 100 loss seasons will continue for yet another year. Cheer up, Astros fans. Your team has a direction, which is more than can be said about some teams.