Thursday, March 27, 2014

Battle of the Bluegrass: Why Louisville vs Kentucky is the Greatest Rivalry Today

Chaos is approaching. All systems are a go with sirens blaring and the sun setting. The ultimate showdown between good vs evil (who's good and who's evil all depends on who you ask) will be watched by millions of spectators on Friday night.

Sleep safe viewers, it is not Armageddon. However, in the state of Kentucky, it's the closest thing to it.

Kentucky and Louisville will battle for a spot in the Elite Eight on Friday night. The two teams have met once this season, with the Wildcats edging the Cardinals 73-66. Although some experts are predicting UK to sweep the series, UL could easily send John Calipari and his young squad packing home.

No extra hype needed for this rivalry game, yet the fact that Friday's game is a huge NCAA tournament match-up for a potential Final Four appearance doesn't hurt the notoriety. Forget your brackets, gambling odds and other outside interests. When it comes to this game, what really matters is the pride within the borders of the bluegrass state. After all, it is the greatest rivalry in modern day college basketball.

I learned the hard way. As a 12 year old moving to Kentucky, I had no idea what I was in for. Football was second to hoops, and half of the people couldn't grasp the concept of hockey. Basketball had no importance to me, that is until the annual Battle for the Bluegrass rolled around. That's all anybody talked about, and on game day, all attention was fixed on the television screen as Edgar Sosa blasted a three point shot in the final seconds to lift Louisville over Kentucky. The excitement from the kids at school, the disappointment on family member's faces, the meaning this rivalry carried was new to me, and I loved it.

See in Kentucky, you're either born a Cardinal or Wildcat. Outsiders coming in are properly baptized. Switching allegiances is nearly a sin in churches throughout a state. This rivalry has broken up partnerships, friendships and yes, even relationships. For 364 days a year, fans of both teams participate in ferocious trash talk, and on the day of the game, the intensity multiplies. Hate is a strong word to use in any context, but boy oh boy, do these two sides hate each other.

Maybe it's the fact that the two universities are within nearly 75 miles of each other? Or perhaps the constant power struggle between UL and UK to get not only top recruits to participate in sports programs, but the cream of the crop students for academics as well? All the above are true, yet one man was able to add an already big quantity of fuel to the fire in this rivalry.

Rick Pitino has built an impressive resume.The only head coach to lead three different schools to a Final Four appearance (Providence, Kentucky and Louisville), and the only coach in the NCAA to lead two different schools to a national championship(You guessed it, Kentucky and Louisville). Among the many impressive feats on his resume includes a brief stint with the New York Knicks, and a short tenure with the Boston Celtics. Pitinio, however, is notorious for one decision. The decision to cross over to the dark side, to switch blue for red. Forget about any Benedict Arnold, Rick Pitino was far worse in the minds of Wildcat fans.

To Cardinal faithful, he's a savior. Leading Louisville to its first Final Four appearance in 19 years in 2005, and winning it's first national championship in three decades in 2013. He resurrected the Cardinal program after legendary coach Denny Crum retired, and Louisville alumni and fans could never be so gracious. However, in Lexington, Pitino is synonymous with the words "traitor", and "villian" among many things. Once a highly respected man for leading UK back to the promise land in 1996, ditching big blue for the big stage of the NBA and then coaching the sworn enemy certainly is no way to go out.

 Forget about burning bridges, Rick Pitino might have burnt every bridge, road and trail on his way to Louisville.

Since then, John Calipari has stepped up majorly and made Wildcat fans forget about the woes of the 2000's. Coach Cal has led UK to it's first national championship since Tubby Smith left in 1998, and continues to produce NBA talent since his arrival. A major upgrade from the last coach (we're looking at you, Billie Gillispie) Calapari has made Kentucky into a shade of it's former self, a powerhouse in modern day basketball.

Combine the proximity of the two schools, the past endeavors of a certain Italian man, the overall success of both programs and the intense hatred towards the opposition and what do you get? Simply a day in the State of Kentucky. I'm sure a rivalry like Duke vs North Carolina is similar, yet I don't believe the fans trade intense Facebook posts and tweets every, single, day. Some say it's unnecessary, others say it's too much. I say, it's beautiful.

The last time these two met in the NCAA tournament was in the 2012 Final Four. After Kentucky upended Louisville to go on to the national championship game, the people of Lexington took to the streets. Couch burning, shotgun shooting and car spray painting were the main activities for the next few hours. Outsiders call it inhumane and crazy, but they'll never understand. For the whole state, it's an intense passion that is unparalleled to anything else. Babies are named after players, and homes become divided.

So on Friday, before tipoff at 9:45 ET, battle stations will be ready. Families will make the necessary viewing adjustments within the household, as sports bars across the state are thankful for a second day of this battle. A 40 minute fight between friends, co-workers and family members will be the only thing that matters for the next week, perhaps even the months coming. Whoever comes out victorious, Louisville or Kentucky, will advance to the Elite Eight and an entire fan base will claim it's rightful place on the throne of it's kingdom. After all, basketball does belong in the bluegrass state.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

2014 March Madness Preview

Oh yes.

It's that time of year again. Time for all college basketball fans to unite as one as imperfect people try to complete a perfect task: Correctly predict every game in the annual NCAA Tournament. The odds of a person successfully pulling this off, is well, large. To be exact, the odds are 1 in 9,223,372,036,854,775,808. However year after year, we find ourselves filling out brackets left and right, hoping we have the golden bracket. The close match-ups in the tournament requires some research for the serious fan, and with 64 teams in the tournament, that's exactly where the "madness" part comes in handy. People will drive themselves mad after hours upon hours of in-depth looks at teams.

In 2014, the NCAA tournament looks as intriguing as ever. With the selection committee being questioned over the seeding in this years contest, teams will take to the court in order to prove worthy of their respective positions. There are no clear cut favorites to cut the nets down this year, and no Cinderella favorites that could make a run for the ages. So whether you're playing against your co-workers in the office pool, or you're simply just a fan wanting some good games, strap on your seat belts and "get yo popcorn ready!", nobody is safe in the middle of March. Here's a preview of the 2014 Mens NCAA Basketball Tournament:

South Region

Top four seeds:

  1. Florida 
  2. Kansas
  3. Syracuse
  4. UCLA
The south region is home to the Florida Gators, one of the national favorites to win it all in 2014. With a stingy defense and group of veteran leadership supplied by Casey Prather, Scottie Wilbekin and Patric Young. As talented as the Gators are, the road is far from paved with a likely meeting with either UCLA or a feisty VCU in the Sweet Sixteen. Kansas retains the number two seed and was also a favorite to make a deep run into the tournament before star player Joel Embiid went down with a back injury. If Embiid is healthy, this team could very well win the region with the help of co-star Andrew Wiggins at the helm. Oh, and in case you forgot, Syracuse is pretty good as well. With an impressive resume, the Orange appear to be slightly cold rolling into the round of 64. Don't let the 2-5 record over the past seven games fool you, with a should be win against Western Michigan to start the big dance off the Orange should work out all kinks before moving deeper into the tournament.

Under the Radar Team of the South Region- VCU
With the talent in the South region, teams and analysts alike are over-looking this VCU team that went 26-8 this year. The Rams have always been a threat in the NCAA tournament with head coach Shaka Smart running the team, and with a defense that forces turnovers as easily as VCU, UCLA could be in for a surprise if the Rams advance to the round of 32.

Pretender of the South Region- UCLA
The Bruins have often been streaky throughout the season. With huge wins such as defeating conference foes Arizona and Oregon, UCLA has also seen it's not so sunny days as well. Losses to Washington State and Missouri cloud one's thoughts when considering UCLA as a serious contender in the South region. Expected to win their first game against Tulsa, a VCU match-up could spell the end for UCLA if they aren't cautious. Should the Bruins escape into the Sweet Sixteen, a possible meeting with Florida is likely to end their run.

West Region

Top four seeds:

  1. Arizona
  2. Wisconsin
  3. Creighton
  4. San Diego State
The Arizona Wildcats have two things going into the NCAA tournament: 1. They have the number one seed in the west region. 2. They also have the easiest path to the Final Four. For now, forget the road they will travel and evaluate the team. The Wildcats are playing some of the best basketball Tuscon has seen in decades. Combine the ferocious defense of Arizona and the talents of Aaron Gordon, the Wildcats are poised to make a satisfying run. The only thing holding the Cats back from being a complete team is the injury of Brandon Ashley. However, this is merely a small bump on another wise clean, dangerous Arizona team. The one team that does rival the Wildcats, are the Badgers up north. Wisconsin is practically the only team that can stop Arizona from advancing on to the Final Four, with wins against Florida and Michigan State. Wisconsin has four players that average double digit scoring every game, showing that the Badgers have multiple ways to score. Wisconsin is vulnerable on the glass, however, ranking 261st in the nation rebounding wise. Look past the first two seeds and there isn't much to admire in the west region, with Creighton and San Diego rounding out the top four seeds. Good but not great teams such as Oregon and Baylor are packed into the west to make it a tad more interesting, yet it would surprise many to see a team other than Arizona or Wisconsin represent the region in the Final Four.

Under the Radar Team in the West Region- Baylor
If any team were to make a unexpected run to the Elite Eight, it would be the Baylor Bears. Baylor has been battle tested with games against Kansas, Kentucky and Syracuse. Every team needs a big man to protect the paint, and Isaiah Austin holds the fort down for Baylor. Austin, who stands at a towering 7-foot-1 inches, averages about three blocks per game, forcing teams to think twice about driving into the lane. While the Bears do need to spread the floor a little more to analysts liking, they are a team that could make a splash early on.

Pretender of the West Region- Oklahoma
The Sooners are an up-tempo, run and shoot team averaging 82.2 points per game. Don't let this number deceive you, considering the defensive part of this Sooners squad isn't equivalent to its offensive counterpart. Oklahoma is a team built for regular season play, and have yet to prove themselves worthy to be labeled as a threat in the tournament. This team relies too heavily on it's offense, and when caught in a slow, controlled paced game, the Sooners are all of a sudden not so dangerous.

East Region

Top four seeds:

  1. Virginia
  2. Villanova
  3. Iowa State
  4. Michigan State
The east region is anchored by number one seed Virginia. After a shaky first half of the season, the Cavaliers have been red hot as of late, powering through the loaded ACC tournament and currently have an 11-1 record in the past twelve games. Virginia is not an eye appealing team to the average fan, yet their consistency on both sides of the ball keep UVA standing tall. Malcolm Brogdon and Joe Harris man the backcourt on offense while Brogdon and Akil Mitchell attack the glass on defense. The Achilles heel of Virginia seems to be ball movement with only 13.2 assists per game, and this can cause problems for the Cavaliers down the stretch with previous low scoring games. Villanova takes the two seed in the east, followed by Iowa State and Michigan State, respectively. While Villanova is a high octane scoring team when clicking on all cylinders, they have yet to find themselves in a close game with a prominent opponent, leaving questions about the teams crunch time ability in the tournament. Iowa State is lead by monster DeAndre Kane. The senior guard leads this powerful ISU attack and has the Cyclones ready to run the table in the East. Fourth seeded Michigan State is a favorite to make the Final Four in 2014, and rightfully so: They have all the pieces to consider themselves a serious contender for the title. The lower seeds in the east have potential to visit upset city, with Connecticut, Cincinnati and Memphis all being very capable of making some noise.

Under The Radar Team in the East Region- Memphis
Memphis, seeded at number 8, have played phenomenal Tiger basketball throughout the year. Losing to Florida by two points and sweeping the season series with Louisville twice, Memphis means serious business on the court. The Tigers attack is as balanced as can be, with threats racing in from beyond the arch and down low by the basket as well. Although turnovers and poor free throw shooting can haunt Memphis, this team has proven itself to be a wildcard when played this year. Should the Tigers play like they are capable of, look for Memphis to send shock-waves through America's brackets.

Pretender of the East Region- Villanova  
It's rare a team with a seeding this high can be considered a pretender in March Madness, yet here we are. Villanova doesn't have the resume to be a number two seed, or three or four seed for that matter. The Wildcats have been exposed when playing top ranked opponents, although they did salvage a win against Kansas early on in the year. However Villanova struggles against opponents they should regularly beat and is a risk to take when choosing teams after the first round. The Wildcats attack lives and dies from behind the three point line, and should a team catch them on a bad shooting night from downtown, trouble will ensue for Wildcat fans across the nation.

Midwest Region

Top four seeds:

  1. Wichita State
  2. Michigan
  3. Duke
  4. Louisville
When it comes to region strength, the Midwest should be tested for illegal substances. From top to bottom this region is stacked with talented teams, starting with Wichita State. Say what you want about the Shockers, an undefeated team with a "us against the world" mentality can be quite scary. WSU is practically the same team as last year, except arguably more efficient. Wichita State will finally get their chance to prove themselves worthy of a number one seed when they try to navigate their way through the jungle that is the Midwest region. Michigan sits at number two with a stingy defense and two scorers that shoot lights out from all over the floor, Caris LeVert and Nik Stauskas. After a slight up and down season by number three seeded Duke, the Blue Devils look to reestablish themselves as Final Four contenders with the help of Jabari Parker and Rodney Hood. Rebounding is the weakness of this Duke team, however with coach Mike Krzyzewski at the helm, adjustments should be made accordingly in hopes of a Final Four appearance. Defending national champion Louisville will get the number four seed and will look to prove the selection committee wrong come tournament time. The Cardinals are dangerously hot coming into the big dance, firing on all cylinders. Russ Smith leads one of the nations most efficient offenses, and combined with a nasty defense that glues pressure to the offense, Louisville is a silent favorite to hoist the trophy come April 7th. Kentucky is also a quiet team that can do damage given the chance. Even with the off year UK had, the Wildcats are a young, dangerous squad capable of knocking Wichita State off the throne of the Midwest region.

Under the Radar Team of the Midwest Region- Kentucky
Ignore the losses to Florida for UK. Florida is heralded as the best overall team in the tournament, and should the Cats go on a run, the two wouldn't meet up until a national championship game appearance. Kentucky's Julius Randle is likely to be a top five pick in next years NBA draft, and combined with Willie Cauley-Stein down low, UK has a solid presence in the paint combined with the dynamic Harrison twins in the backcourt. Certainly we've seen the upside of this Wildcat team, and with John Calipari at the helm, anything can happen.

Pretender of the Midwest Region- Wichita State
Although practically the same team from last year returns for WSU, not too many people are high enough on the Shockers to repeat their Cinderella run. Wichita State finished 34-0, yet their weak schedule clouds any reason for experts to believe in another run similar to a year ago. If they are to make it to the final four two years in a row, they will have to slay giants such as Louisville, Kentucky, Duke and Michigan to accomplish the feat.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Dual Threat Quarterbacks: Future of Football?

Playing quarterback on a football field, no matter what level, is one of the most mentally challenging and enduring jobs one could do. Knowing all the plays, where the defense lines up, and becoming a field general for your team are just a few of the many handful of items that a QB must do in order to be successful. For years, the most important values a team would look for in a quarterback would be intelligent decisions, arm strength and accuracy throwing the football. While these are still vital components in the modern-day of football, a new prototype has arrived.
‘Dual Threat’ would be the proper name. With the game changing by the year, the players are nowgetting bigger, faster, and stronger. With new defensive schemes and rule changes, the bottom half of the quarterback has received a whole lot of attention. Great footwork, speed, ability to avoid the pass rush and run when needed is now a tremendous bonus when selecting a quarterback. Gone are the days of Peyton Manning-like players. The new era of Michael Vick genre players has arrived, and it seems as if they won’t go anywhere, anytime soon.
Travel all the way back to the 70′s, where Fran Tarkenton was the first big name scrambler. Often credited as the innovator of running out of the pocket to create plays, Fran dazzled opposing defenses with nothing they’ve ever witnessed before. Kordell Stewart, Steve Young and Randall Cunningham were the next mobile quarterbacks to do so in the 80′s/90′s. However, it was Michael Vick in the early 2000′s that truly made mobile quarterbacks as well-known and prized as they are today, rushing for over 1,000 yards in 2006. 
Nowadays, the vital need to step up and make big plays is important to win football games. Defensive linemen aren’t getting any slower. With new equipment and technology now being used in the NFL, players and coaches are adapting quickly. With scouting as in depth as ever, coaches can now point even the smallest of fallacies in a player that will give them an edge. This is where the mobile quarterback comes in. An ever onslaught of skill assets creates not only a harder scouting report for the opposing team, but also the ‘unknown factor.’ For those who don’t grasp what this means, the unknown factor is simply the possibility of anything happening at anytime (i.e. Cam Newton breaking two tackles on a 70 yard touchdown rush.) This scary idea looms over opposing coaches and players like a dark cloud, ready to start pouring at any moment.
So where do these players go from here? Well, the only answer is: Up. With the constant arrival of players like Cam Newton, Colin Kaepernick, Andrew Luck and Russell Wilson, the future of not only the NFL but football in general is slowly starting to set in stone. Dual Threat quarterbacks are the best thing since sliced bread, and old school gun slingers are outdated, like pagers and phones with cords. With all the flashy highlights that are now being seen on ESPN every week in the fall, plays that would be seen only possible in Madden games are now being replicated on a game to game basis. Football is now getting more exciting, and as a fan, the future is awesome.