Today’s Top Twelve: 2013 Eagles MVPs

YOUR First-Place Philadelphia Eagles…that has a nice ring to it.  It’s not exactly something that sounds weird or uncommon considering we’re really only two years removed from a decade-plus era of division dominance, but from the sheer depth of those two long years, it certainly is a beautiful phrase.  As most of you know, I actually tend not to overreact.  I believe football – and its 16-game season – is just one huge “sample size issue,” so I usually come off as an overoptimistic ray of sunshine during the seemingly darkest days and a sobering bath of cold water during the seemingly brightest of days.  And, while the Eagles commentary on the site has been non-existent, this year has been no different.  I was preaching “cold water” patience after the Washington game when the world declared Chip Kelly’s offense nothing short of “revolutionary.”  But, I was preaching “ray of sunshine” patience after the Broncos annihilated a team that looked completely lost with a coach that all-of-a-sudden looked overmatched.  Patience.  That is what we needed in both instances.  Well, after the beating the Redskins on Sunday and entering the bye on a 3-game winning streak, I am ready to actually agree with the commonly-held belief that our Eagles are in the driver’s seat in the NFC Least.  And, while it probably will only result in a 9-7 division title and a home dog status in the playoffs when San Fran or Carolina come to town, this is progress.  And, progress is what we needed so desperately after the last half-decade of the Reid Era were littered with quick fixes, free agency fool’s gold, and tricking ourselves into thinking that on-paper talent was more important that team chemistry, proper coaching selections, players that hunger for victory, and (as Doogan as always refers to) the SKILL of staying healthy.  And, as the great Bill Walsh always said – “you set base camp in the playoffs…then you climb the mountain.”  Just get to the tournament.  And, that is what the Eagles are in a great position to do over the next month and a half.  In Chip We Trust!  

But, how did we get here?  Well, below, in my humble opinion, are the 12 most important people to shape the 2013 Eagles resurgence.  

Honorable Mentions:  Mychal Kendricks (if the list went to 13, he would be #13 – he’s been great in his second year, I just personally want a little more consistency from a strongside linebacker but that will almost certainly come with experience – he’s a budding star); Riley Cooper (after looking like a guy who didn’t belong in the NFL for much of the season, he has exploded with Foles at the helm – it has to make one think about whether Foles’ development has been this good for Cooper or whether Cooper’s has been part of the reason for the Foles explosion…hmmmm); Brandon Boykin (he’s been terrific in the slot and even stepped up when he had to start); Benny Logan (has been such a revelation, that he made Isaac Sopouaga completely expendable – which, in and of itself, was a good thing – and has really blossomed, helping to make this 2013 draft class look like it could be really special); Colt Anderson (there is a rare Eagles post when I don’t mention Mr. Anderson – he hasn’t seemed to make quite the difference that he has in years’ past, but you would still be hard-pressed to find a person on this planet that covers kicks and punts better than my boy, Colt); Donnie Jones (we probably all forgot how nice it is to actually have a good punter)  

12). Cedric Thornton – A defensive lineman with only 1 sack is among the dozen most valuable players on a first-place team?  And, selected over a linebacker pushing 70 tackles through 11 games?  Well, I think so.  I think Thornton’s development has been absolutely crucial to the strides that this defense has made.  He has played the run exceptionally well and is rushing the passer so well that teams seem to start sliding protection in his direction, which has opened up things for the edge rushers.  Thornton has shown the potential to be a real star in this league and may even get some Pro Bowl consideration from those in the know. 

11). Cary Williams – Now, I was “offline” during the whole training camp fiasco, so I never got to chime in on Cary Williams and the ordeal with the sconces (or whatever the hell that word is), but let’s just say that the summation of my thoughts were – “Wow, this is being way overblown.”  Now, I don’t fully blame the media – who certainly has a history of blowing things way out of proportion because I think Cary’s refusal to just shut the hell up certainly aided the overdramatization of it all.  But, really, what were we really fired up about?  Seriously.  I think Williams’ addition – not necessarily on the field because he has proven to be not much more than an average cornerback – has been team-changing.  We suffered through two years of a defense led by a polite, mild-mannered offensive line coach-turned coordinator who was abused by a foul-mouthed, cranky defensive line coach.  On the field, we were subject to a cornerback who was as overly cerebral as he was overly paid and a defensive end who pretended to be “cultured” all the while emulating the crankiness of his position coach clearly to the detriment of the defense, as a whole.  And, “cerebral” and “cultured” may be great at dinner parties, but those traits don’t exactly win football games.  Now, I am not at all insinuating that Cary Williams isn’t intelligent (far from it, actually) nor am I implying that he isn’t cultured (hell, he taught me what a sconce is – though, I’m still not sure I’m even spelling it right), but what I am explicitly saying is that Cary Williams brought with him the F-YOU attitude that this defense has lacked since the great Brian Dawkins left for the Rocky Mountains.  This F-YOU attitude has pervaded throughout the defense and now they play with anger.  Again, Williams has been little more than a mediocre cornerback in his play (which, has sadly been quite the upgrade from last year), but I don’t think I’m overstating the effect a guy like that can have on a young group – especially when he wears a Super Bowl ring on his finger (and loves to talk about that…among other things).  

The Most Valuable Mediocre Cornerback in the League

 

10). Connor Barwin – If you were to judge Barwin’s impact from just the past couple of games, he would actually probably be a good bit higher on this list.  But, I want to take the whole season into account, and Barwin took a little time getting established on this defense.  But, since he found his way, he has been a man on a mission.  I wouldn’t be surprised to see more dominant games ahead for the guy who rides his bike to work.  

Wait, there are eight Eagles more valuable than the greatest QB of all-time?!?

 

9). Nick Foles – What?!?!?  The NFL’s leader in passer rating is only the 9th most valuable guy on his own team?  Yes, he is.  I’m not trying to sell him short here.  I’m just saying that Foles has only started 5 of 11 games this year, and one of those was arguably the worst game ever played by an NFL quarterback.  All that said, the 4 games (plus most of the first Giants game) that Foles has been out there have been legendary.  And, there is no doubt that the reason that the Eagles are now the legit favorites to win the division is squarely because of the stuff Foles has done.  But, I just have to give deference to some of the other guys who actually have played more than half of the team’s games.  

8). Jason Peters – Jason Peters has been considered – by many actual “experts” – the best tackle in football, when healthy.  And, while he hasn’t completely returned to his pre-injury form this year, he has come around as of late and is playing his best football of the year right now.  And, that is not surprising, considering he is still just barely a year removed from rupturing his Achilles tendon – TWICE.  If Peters is what he is and isn’t going to return to his All-Pro form – which is entirely possible given his age and health history – then the Eagles still have a high-quality left tackle, who is tailor-made for this system.  If Peters is actually still recovering and will only get healthier – which is also quite possible given the severity of his injury – then we might not yet totally realize just how incredible this offense could be.  With the ever-improving rookie Johnson on one side, a returned-to-form Peters on the other, and a stellar interior (more on that coming up), the sky is the limit for this unit.   

(NOTE:  I never played offensive line in the NFL – or on any level of football.  I never coached or scouted or evaluated talent for a football team on any level.  I don’t even know most of the techniques needed to become a good offensive lineman.  But, line play is one of my favorite things to pay attention to, and while I don’t really know anything about what makes a good lineman, I like to think that I do, so humor me in these “evaulations,” as I like to think of them…) 

 

7). Fletcher Cox – Similar to my feeling on Barwin, as stated above, I believe that just looking at this team over the past month or so, Cox may actually be at the top of this list.  But, he was a bit inconsistent in the beginning of the year, which is completely understandable, considering he’s only in his second year in the league, and his first year in this brand-new system.  It is incredibly encouraging (I am getting downright giddy about his potential) that every game for the past couple of weeks, Cox has put in the best game of his career.  He keeps upping his play every time out – capped by this week’s utter domination of the Washington Professional Football Team, where he lived in the backfield.  He saved what could have been a devastating collapse on that final play when he forced RG3-and-out (see what I did there?) to give away the final drive when Boykin fair caught the pass in the end zone for the game-winning interception.  Coach Kelly said that “Boykin saved his butt,” but what he really meant – and everyone knows it – is that Cox saved his butt.  While I am loving the offensive line, I am even more bullish about this defensive line, which is starting to be utterly dominant week in and week out, and there isn’t a guy over 25 among them.  It is not unreasonable to think that Fletcher Cox might be the best player on the best D-line in football within a year or two.  

6). Evan Mathis – Evan Mathis has become an unknown star on this team.  Even in the dreadful seasons of 2011 and 2012, the one consistently bright spot on this team has been Mathis, who has – without any recognition – gone out and gotten the job done.  He is big enough to protect the middle, strong enough to open holes for Shady (and, even more so, the inside-the-tackle running threat of Bryce Brown when he comes in to change it up), and, maybe most importantly, athletic enough to hit the second-level or pull, as this complex offense requires.  Maybe a bit of a head-scratcher as a Top-6 MVP on this team, but the interior of this line has been sensational all year (and, particularly during Foles’ ascension), and a lot of that credit belongs to Mathis.  

He's everything I hate...and that's why I love him

 

5). DeSean Jackson – Cocky, quick-tempered, diva wide receivers are a dime a dozen in the NFL.  And, many of them are nowhere near worth the trouble.  But, we have one that is.  This offense works because of DeSean Jackson.  And, sometimes it works best when Jackson doesn’t even touch the ball (just don’t tell him that).  He is so feared in the NFL, that every single defensive gameplan that the Eagles face is tailored towards taking away the D-Jax home run.  Safeties can’t cheat on the run.  Corners can’t blitz.  And, most importantly, the focus of a defense is always tested because one misstep could result 7 points.  The overattention paid to Jackson has opened up things for the emerging Riley Cooper, and more importantly, has allowed Kelly and the staff to design plays to find mismatches – particularly LeSean McCoy on a linebacker, which was perfectly exemplified Sunday when McCoy scored on the wheel route against his ill-equipped defender – linebacker Ryan Kerrigan.  If you’ve ever played a team sport, you know that Jackson is one of those guys that you love to have wearing your colors.  There is something to be said for the guy on your team that just gets under the skin of opposing teams.  Opposing teams expend a whole lot of energy hating DeSean, which, if it takes them off their game just a little bit, plays right into DeSean’s master plan and is a big part of his, let’s just call it, “charm.”  

4). Jason Kelce – What is the definition of the Most Valuable Player?  Well, that debate runs hot at times (just ask any Mike Trout supporter), but to me, it’s pretty simple.  A team’s MVP is the player who would have the most negative affect on a team’s success were they to no longer be a part of that team.  Even with a clear definition, it is still an interesting debate because there is almost never a way to truly measure this – even qualitatively, let alone quantitatively (with all due respect to supporters of the grossly overrated baseball statistic of WAR).  That being said, what happened last year after Jason Kelce was injured in the later part of the Eagles Week Two win over the soon-to-be Super Bowl Champion, Baltimore Ravens (that’s right, most people forget that 1 of the FOUR wins the Eagles had last year was over the World Champs)?  Let me give a quick recap (VERY quick because everyone would probably just as soon forget it) – after beating the Ravens to go to 2-0, the Birds went to Arizona and laid an egg before coming back and limping through an improbable win over the Giants at the Linc.  The Birds were 3-1 before the wheels fell off and they only won 1 of their final 12 games.  There have been countless reasons cited as to what happened – everything from divided locker rooms to coaching staff infighting to flat-out bad players.  But, the one thing that I have not really heard at all was the loss of the center.  The NFL is littered with promising seasons derailed by an injury to a team’s center and the Birds not only lost a center last year, but one of the best in the league.  Now, I am not saying that the 2012 Eagles were a 12-4 team with a healthy Jason Kelce, but I think the 2013 Eagles could be a 10-6 team with a healthy Jason Kelce – and a playoff afterthought without him.  That is pretty much exactly how I would define “valuable.”  

3). DeMeco Ryans – I seriously debated putting Ryans #1 on this list – and how crazy would that have sounded 12 months ago?  Now, I love DeMeco Ryans.  I loved him in Houston, and I was elated when the Birds acquired Ryans from the Texans for, essentially, a 4th-round pick.  But, he was borderline bad last year and, at times, looked like he was all but done as an NFL player.  Fast-forward to 2013 and he is, in my opinion, the far and away most important player on this surprisingly rejuvenated Eagles defense.  He flies to the ball, rarely misses a tackle, and always seems to be in the right place and the right time.  He has seems to be – despite being, by all accounts, a quiet, reserved guy – the unquestioned leader of this defense.  And, as history shows, the best defenses in the NFL are those led by the middle linebackers.  (Don’t agree?  Why don’t you mention that to Ray Lewis, Mike Singletary, or Jack Lambert…)  And yet, there’s an interesting twist in the backstory of the Great Ryans Renaissance of 2013 – Ryans was only made expendable in Houston because (a) he did not look like the same player after rupturing his Achilles in 2010 and (b) he seemed like a poor fit for the Texans’ new 3-4 defense.  Now, three years removed from probably the worst injury a linebacker could suffer (see the concerns laid out in a nice article here, written a year ago – before Ryans’ resurgence), Ryans is somehow looking much like the stud who busted into the league in 2006 with over 150 tackles for the Texans.  And, even more incredibly, he has been doing it for a team that plays a whole lot of the very 3-4 brand of defense for which Ryans was considered a total misfit.   

The Heart and Soul of the New-Look Eagles D

 

2). LeSean McCoy – Yes, this team’s surprising success has been on the backs of the unexpected defensive resurgence and the even-more-unexpected emergence of Nick Foles as the greatest quarterback the game has ever seen.  But, while those two welcome developments may be the most surprising, the most important Eagle on the field this year comes as a surprise to no one.  With all respect to that guy up in Minneapolis, Shady McCoy is quite possibly the best running back on the planet.  And, he couldn’t be more perfect for the brilliant offensive mind of Chip Kelly.  He hits the holes when they’re there and makes people miss in the backfield when they’re not.  He is a terrific pass-catcher and a very underrated pass-blocker.  He is the talent that makes this offense go and would be – if not for the stupid stats being put up in the Mile High City – a legitimate candidate for league MVP.  He has been that good.  My only complaint is that he needs to stop giving us heart attacks with these seemingly season-ending injuries that only keep him out a series or two.  

1). Chip Kelly – I can say it when it’s true – and it’s true more often than I would like to believe – I WAS WRONG.  I was not a huge fan of the Chip Kelly hire.  I wouldn’t say that I outright hated it because I was intrigued and saw the lure, but I really thought that this team needed an identity of toughness to pull itself from the wreckage left by the last regime that – while wildly successful – stayed too long and left behind a dumpster fire of poor drafts, jaded veterans, and a rabid, yet cynical fanbase just waiting for a reason to believe.  And, for some reason, 85-points-per-game in Eugene, Oregon, while intriguing, didn’t exactly scream “toughness” to me.  But, man, was I wrong.  I don’t think I could create even a fictional coach that would more be exactly what I would want in my head coach.  He is highly involved in the analytics, but not afraid to go by his “gut.”  He loves the high-powered, high-paced offensive schemes, but, still believes completely in running the football.  He believes that football is won in the trenches by large men.  He values efficiency and a minimization of errors without sacrificing explosive play.   He believes in his offensive system, but understands when it needs tweaking.  He is not too stubborn to change his mind and admit where he was wrong, but he is also the unquestioned head man, who takes full accountability of everything under his purview. He recognizes the things on which he is not an expert and trusts the men he has chosen to fill those gaps.  He is solely focused on how to be the best – all the way down to how you eat and sleep – and leads this by example.  And, most importantly, he only cares about one thing – winning.  Time will tell if all of this adds up to the long-elusive Super Bowl title in Philadelphia, but if you couldn’t tell, I’m smitten.  I’m a believer.  And, I didn’t even want to be.  But, there is absolutely no doubt in my mind that the Eagles success this year is more of a result of Chip Kelly than anyone else in the entire organization.  And, I don’t think it’s really all that close…

It’s Gametime!

I know it’s been a long time since I’ve contributed to BSB.  Can I blame a newborn, a two-year old, a second job, and TWO job changes?  Well, I’m going to, whether I can or not.  And, while my first post back should be a post-mortem on the Phillies season or my take on the Chip Kelly Era, I’m really just going to start fresh.  A brand-new college hoops season kicks off on Friday with 136 games on the slate.  With 58 more on Saturday and 31 on Sunday, that is 225 games this weekend alone!  So, let’s take a look at the slate.    

THE BEST GAMES OF THE WEEKEND

Friday 6:30 – Maryland vs #18 Connecticut (in Brooklyn, NY) 
In the first collegiate edition of a great season of hoops scheduled for the Barclay Center this year, this is an interesting matchup of one probable tournament team and one potential tournament team.  Dez Wells might be a star this year and, if so, the Terps should be dangerous in their final year in the ACC.  On the other side, the Huskies have one of the best (albeit undersized) backcourts in the country with Shabazz Napier and Ryan Boatright.  And, both team return a lot of core players other than their stars, so this should be decent basketball right out of the gate.

Friday 7:00 – St. John’s vs #20 Wisconsin (in Sioux Falls, SD)
Like the UConn-Maryland game above, this pits one team that is likely a tournament team against another team that – if the pieces come together – might actually have a higher upside.  The Johnnies could be really good this year…or barely mediocre.  The Badgers will always be good as long as Bo Ryan is there.  I guess it’s more of a home game for Wisconsin, but a neutral-site game in Sioux Falls, SD, is anyone’s guess.  

Friday 8:00 – Georgetown vs #19 Oregon (in South Korea)
In probably the game of the weekend, the Otto Porter-less Hoyas travel to South Korea to face a really, really good Oregon team.  The Ducks lost 4 starters from last year’s team, but have the potential to be better this year because of the new faces to Eugene that aren’t that new to the college hoops fan.  With sophomore sensations Dominic Artis and Damyean Dotson in the backcourt, they bolstered their squad with UNLV transfer Mike Moser and Houston transfer Joseph Young (who led the Cougars in scoring last year at 18/game).  They also added a couple stellar JUCO transfers.  

Friday 10:00 – Colorado at #25 Baylor
If the South Korea game isn’t the best of the weekend, this one is.  The Buffs lost Anthony Roberson, but return Spencer Dinwiddie and Askia Booker in one of the more underrated backcourts in the nation.  Baylor is – as always – INCREDIBLY athletic, but will probably be rather undisciplined.  Even on the road, this might be a signature win for the Buffs right off the bat.  

Saturday 2:00 – Manhattan at LaSalle
This is more of a Philly-centric pick here, as the Explorers will try and build off of the Sweet 16 run from last year (with everyone except Galloway back) against a really tough Manhattan team that is the favorite to win a solid MAAC this year.  

Saturday 5:00 – Temple at Penn
And, in a complete homer pick, the Temple Owls open their season with a Big Five game in the greatest basketball arena in the world.  

GAMES THAT MIGHT MATTER COME SELECTION SUNDAY

Friday 5:00 – Oklahoma at Alabama
Come early March, when the word “bubble” is the most oft-used word in sports, this game may be referenced more than you might imagine.  Neither of these teams are probably good enough to compete in their respective leagues, but they both are definitely good enough for Tournament consideration.  And, if they are both on the bubble a head-to-head game – regardless of it taking place on November 8th – could be huge.   

Friday 6:00 – Boston College at Providence
A very interestesting game at the Dunkin Donut Center, as two teams that are kind of forgotten on the global college hoops landscape have legit chances to be relevant this year.   

UPSET ALERTS

Friday 7:00 – Gardner-Webb at Xavier
Xavier is in complete rebuild mode, which is the only reason a Big South team would even have a shot to go in and beat them.  And GW is a veteran team that should be decent this year.  Watch out, Muskies.  

Friday 8:00 – Lehigh at Minnesota
C.J. McCollum is gone and the Mountain Hawks are kind of in rebuild mode, but they brought in one of the best recruiting classes in program history, so if they can gel early enough, they have a shot against a shaky Gopher team.  

Friday 8:00 – Lafayette at Villanova
Didn’t Lafayette beat the ‘Cats last year?  Well, the Leopards are even better this year (though, so is ‘Nova), so who knows?  

Friday 8:00 – Buffalo at Texas A&M
Texas A&M hasn’t recovered from the departure of the incredibly underrated Mark Turgeon and could struggle this year.  Whereas, the Bulls of Buffalo are a decent MAC program that has another decent roster this year.  

Friday 8:00 – Mercer at Texas
Rick Barnes might actually be on the hot seat if not for the incredibly hot seat of UT’s football coach, Mack Brown.  Either way, Barnes has not recruited well lately, which is a death sentence to a guy who has had Kevin Durant, LaMarcus Aldridge, D.J. Augustin, B.J. Tyler, Terrence Rencher, etc, etc, etc, and never made a Final Four.  And, they welcome an experienced, outstanding Mercer team that returns 4 starters (including their stud PG Langston Hall) from a team that finished ahead of the “Dunk City” FGCU team in the A-Sun last year.  

Friday 9:00 – Oakland at #12 North Carolina
Oakland returns 4 starters from a decent team a year ago for their inaugural season in the Horizon League.  UNC is a little in flux with off-the-court issues  surrounding guys like P.J. Hairston and on-the-court issues surrounding guys like J.M. McAdoo.  I don’t think the Heels will lose in the Dean Dome here, but they better come to play.  

Friday 9:00 – Florida Gulf Coast at Nebraska
Not sure if anyone’s ever heard of FGCU, but they’re not bad.  And, while Nebraska is improving, they are still not really a competitive Big Ten team and are vulnerable here.  

Friday 9:00 – Northern Colorado at Kansas St.
It’s hard to say enough about the coaching job Bruce Weber turned in in his first season in Manhattan, KS, last year.  But, Rodney McGruder and Angel Rodriguez are both gone, and it remains to be seen if Will Spradling and Shane Southwell can step up and lead this team.  And, they have to find out real fast, as the other UNC is one of the more under-the-radar mid-majors this year and might challenge the perennial top dogs in the Big Sky.  Also to note – if the refs actually start calling the game the way they have been asked to, then depth could be at a premium this year, and UNC is one of the deeper teams in the country, whereas K-State is not.  Hmm…  

Friday 10:00 – Cal Poly at #6 Arizona
This is kind of crazy because Arizona is loaded this year, but Cal Poly is a dangerous team that returns a large part of the team that knocked off UCLA last year around this time.  

Friday Midnight – Drexel at #22 UCLA
Speaking of knocking off UCLA, the Drexel Dragons will try and erase the awful memories of a terribly disappointing season last year with one big midnight victory.  But, aside from playing in Pauly Pavilion, there might be a body-clock issue here, as a midnight game will probably favor the West Coasters.  Then again, these are college kids and when I was in college, I was at my best in the early hours of the morning.  

Saturday noon – USC-Upstate at Virginia Tech
I’m not even sure this would be a huge upset.  Va Tech has fallen on really hard times (shouldn’t have fired Mr. Greenberg), while USC-Upstate is a program that is really on the rise (despite a disappointing setback last year) that returns all 5 starters.  

Saturday 4:00 – Wagner at Penn St.
The best team in the NEC versus possibly the worst in the Big Ten.  Still a big advantage for the Big Tenners, but would you be that surprised?  

Saturday 7:00 – St. Joe’s at Vermont
I love to kick St. Joe’s when it’s down, so let me just say that Vermont should probably be favored in this game (I haven’t seen a line, so they might be).  

RANKED TEAMS WITH WALKOVERS

Friday 3:00 – North Florida at #10 Florida
This probably won’t be a very competitive game, as the Ospreys of North Florida are a mediocre team from the A-Sun, but it will give us our first look at dynamic freshman PG for the Gators, Kasey Hill.  And, we should get a prolonged, 40-minute look at him, as they may have as few as five players dress for this game with all the issues going on in Gainesville. 
  

Friday 7:00 – UNC-Asheville at #1 Kentucky
Our first look at the WildKittens.  Even the best UNC-Asheville teams of recent memory wouldn’t have a shot at Rupp Arena, but this Asheville team is gonna get BLOWED OUT.  Should be fun to see just how athletic and cohesive this new-look UK team is. 
  

Friday 7:00 – McNeese St. at #2 Michigan St.
While the raw, uber-talented #1 team is beating up on Asheville, the veteran, experienced #2 team should be doing the same to McNeese St. 
  

Friday 7:00 – Davidson at #4 Duke
Our first look at Jabari Parker and this year’s Dukies is against an always-tough Davidson team.  The Wildcats lost a lot from last year, including 2-time SoCon POY, Jake Cohen, so they probably won’t put up more than 10 minutes of fight. 
  

Friday 7:00 – UMass-Lowell at #7 Michigan
The first ever D-I game for UMass-Lowell probably won’t be one to remember. 
  

Friday 7:00 – Cornell at #8 Syracuse
Wait, Syracuse is playing a non-conference game against a lower-level team in the Carrier Dome?  No way… 
  

Friday 7:00 – Illinois St. at #14 VCU
Shaka Smart’s havoc-filled Rams are loaded yet again.  They get an opening day opponent that is only scary in reputation, as the Redbirds lost all 5 starters and are in compete rebuild this year. 
  

Friday 7:00 – Miami (OH) at #21 Notre Dame
I’m not 100% sold on the Irish this year, but they should have no trouble with a rebuilding Red Hawks team. 

Friday 7:00 – James Madison at #24 Virginia
Last year’s JMU team that made the tournament wasn’t that good, while last year’s UVA team that didn’t make the tournament was that good.  This UVA team should be better, while the JMU team is worse.  Should be a nice-looking win early for UVA that might not seem as good later on. 

Friday 8:00 – LA-Monroe at #5 Kansas
Welcome to our college hoops lives for a couple months, Andrew Wiggins.  He has a cushy start, as ULM is terrible.  Aside from Wiggins, I might be more eager for the collegiate debuts of dynamic SG Wayne Selden and 7-foot monster Joel Embiid.  While not as heralded (or as good) as Wiggins, they will probably be in our lives a little bit longer before jumping to the Association. 

Friday 8:00 – Mississippi Valley St. at #8 Oklahoma St.
Another terrible team on the road against arguably the nation’s best player.  The only unanimous selection to the All-American team, Marcus Smart, might only play a half in this one.     

Friday 8:00 – Christian Brothers (D2) at #13 Memphis
Hey, Josh, you’re a big-time program  who is now in a big-time conference.  Act like it and stop playing D-II teams.  This Memphis roster boasts maybe the best backcourt in the nation, but it’s pretty crowded with the addition of Michael Dixon from Mizzou, so playing time could be interesting all year. 

Friday 8:00 – Southern at #17 Marquette
I’m officially sick of the massive overrating of Buzz Williams, so I will not be tuning into this one even if it is on one of my 1000 cable channels. 

Saturday noon – Morgan St. at #11 Ohio St.
At first, I didn’t understand the decision of DeSean Thomas to leave OSU for the NBA draft.  He was a STUD in Columbus.  But, then, when I heard that he was signed to a 7-figure contract in France after getting cut by the Spurs, I realized that there is so much more to these decisions than my enjoyment.  Anyway, people are touting Aaron Craft’s supporting cast (Lenzell Smith, Sam Thompson, LaQuinton Ross, etc.),  but I am not sold.  And, it’s just that – not sold.  I don’t disagree, but I don’t know enough to agree.  And, it’s not like we’ll learn anything here.  Morgan is a contender in the MEAC, but no MEAC will walk into Columbus on Opening Day and win. 

Saturday 1:00 – College of Charleston at #3 Louisville
I like this Charleston team (as usual) and like their move to the CAA.  But, Louisville’s press should run over just about any mid-major in the Yum! Center before they have a chance to set their rotations or learn each other’s cuts and such.  This could get ugly pretty quickly. 

Saturday 2:00 – Emporia St. (D2) at #16 Wichita St.
I’m interested to see how this Shocker team deals with the success of the Final Four run.  And, did Cleanthony Early just have an amazing month or is he really THAT good? 

Saturday 7:00 – Bryant at #15 Gonzaga
This is a long trip for Bryant, but I like that they scheduled up the year after breaking through to real respectability.  It should be interesting to see if they can build on a great 2012-13.  But, it won’t start here.  The Zags are too good. 

Saturday 8:00 – #23 New Mexico at Alabama A&M
I love the Lobos this year.  They have everyone back, except Tony Snell, who bolted for the NBA.  I’m not sure why they are on the road at a SWAC team that is usually just looking for a paycheck, but they wouldn’t have any trouble if it was played on Mars.  

Sunday 1:00 – Stetson at #21 Notre Dame
Another Notre Dame game.  My same sentiments apply, though I think Stetson can hang with them for a half or so. 

Sunday 4:00 – Northern Kentucky at #1 Kentucky
The WildKittens are at it again on Sunday and should be able to put on another show.    

OTHERS OF INTEREST

Friday 7:00 – Chicago St. at Indiana
Should be no problem in the first game of the “year after” in Bloomington.  I think they will be better than people think because I believe in Tom Crean, but chances like last year don’t come along too often.  

Friday 9:00 – Murray St. at Valparaiso
This is a great matchup of two of the stalwart mid-major programs.  But, Isaiah Cannon isn’t walking through that door.  Bryce Drew isn’t walking through that door.  Both programs are in a bit of a rebuild, but will still compete for the top of their respective conferences. 

Friday 9:00 – USC at Utah St.
Andy Enfield brings “Dunk City” to Hollywood?!?  Hold on a second – gimme Utah St. at home to welcome Enfield to the West Coast on a sour note. 

Friday 9:30 – UNC-Wilmington at Iowa
I’m very interested to see this Iowa team in action.  I think they’re really, really good, and possibly dark horse Big Ten title contender good.  If you haven’t seen them play under Philly’s own Franny O’Hanlon, you should learn the names Devyn Marble, Mike Gesell, Aaron White, Melsahn Basabe, and Adam Woodbury.  That starting five can play with anyone and they are deep, as they have at least four starter-quality players off the bench in Anthony Clemmons, Josh Oglesby, Zach McCabe, and the most high-profile and high-upside of them all, Jarrod Uthoff – the Wisconsin transfer that Bo Ryan originally tried to block from all Big Ten schools.  This Hawkeye team is slated to be one of my “pet” teams all year, so you might get tired of hearing about them… 

Friday 10:00 – Bucknell at Stanford
Coach Dawkins might be in some trouble out in Palo Alto.  And, they better not open the season 0-1 because this is a Bucknell team in major rebuild mode after losing 46% of their minutes and 60% of their points from a year ago. 

Sunday 3:00 – UMass at Boston College
This might be the highlight of Sunday’s slate, at least for me.  BC is a sleeper team in the ACC, while UMass is as much of a sleeper as you can with the best player in the A-10.  But, I guess Chaz Williams is easy to overlook since he’s listed at 5’9″ and realistically no bigger than 5’5″. 

EDITOR’S PICKS

Friday 7:00 – Delaware at Richmond
I wonder what this UD team has in store for us this year.  They could be pretty solid.  An Opening Day win at Richmond would be a nice start. 

Friday 7:00 – Belmont at Lipscomb
“The Battle of the Boulevard” is the best rivalry in sports that no one knows about.  Now that these two teams are no longer in the same conference, they get these two WARS out of the way early.  But, Opening Day?  That’s ridiculous! 

Friday 7:30 – Navy at Towson
This could be a banner year for Towson led by Vermont transfer Four McGlynn and all-everything forward Jerrelle Benimon. 

Friday 8:00 – Coastal Carolina at Akron
A solid low-major program visits a solid mid-major program.  Could be interesting, but probably won’t be. 

Friday 8:00 – Viterbo (D2) at North Dakota St.
An odd one to include here, except that North Dakota St. has a TON of talent.  And, I am not just talking relative to their level.  They have a TON of talent.  This might be the best team in the history of the Summit League, and I wouldn’t be surprised if they were a 12- or 13-seed come March. 

Friday 8:00 – Marist at Stony Brook
Stony Brook is, again, the class of the America East, while Marist is, again, a middling MAAC program.  But, the MAAC is a much better league, so this is a good spot for both teams to possibly pick up a quality win right off the bat. 

Friday 9:00 – Weber St. at BYU
Two trivia questions:  1). Who is the only BYU player ever to be in the nation’s top-10 in scoring as a sophomore?  2). Who, along with Danny Ainge, are the only two BYU players to reach 1,000 points before their junior season?  If you said Jimmer Fredette, you’d be wise…but wrong.  The answer is Tyler Haws, who shared M-West Freshman of the Year honors with Kawhi Leonard four years ago, then went on his mission and came back last year to only average 21.7 points per game while shooting 39% from three and 88% from the line.  He’s the key to the Cougars this year, and he gets it going against a good Weber team on Friday night.  I definitely want to find this one and tune in. 

Friday 10:00 – Fresno St. at UC-Irvine
The Anteaters of UC-Irvine are in serious contention for a Big West title.  An Opening Day win over Fresno would be a nice boost. 

Friday 10:00 – South Dakota St. at San Diego
The first game in the Post-Wolters Era for the Jackrabbits is a long trip to San Diego.  Can Jordan Dykstra and company carry the torch? 

Friday 1:30 am (Sat) – New Mexico St. at Western Michigan
New Mexico State might be more likely to win their conference than any other team in America, but that’s as much to do with the rest of the WAC than the Aggies.  They need non-conference wins to avoid the danger of being a 15-seed.  This would go a long way to get them to 13- or 14. 

Saturday 2:00 – Northern Iowa at Ohio
Just a great clash of solid mid-majors.  Granted, both teams are rebuilding, but this should be good nonetheless. 

Saturday 2:00 – Iona at Cleveland St.
See above… 

Saturday 6:00 – Norfolk St. at Texas-Southern
The best teams in the worst two conferences do battle. 

Saturday 6:30 – South Dakota St. vs Loyola Marymount (in San Diego, CA)
Another game for the Post-Wolters Jackrabbits.  This time they are up against one of the best unknown talents in the country.  If you catch this game, be on the lookout for Loyola’s Anthony Ireland.  he might be the best player this program has seen since Gathers and Kimble. 

Sunday 12:30 – Boston U at Northeastern
Northeastern came out of nowhere to win the CAA last year, but faltered in the conference tournament.  Can they repeat?  BU has moved to the Patriot League and immediately given the respect to be the coach’s pick to win the league.  I’m interested to see what happens here. 

Sunday 1:00 – Youngstown St. vs Eastern Kentucky (in Kennesaw, GA)
Eastern Kentucky was, quite possibly, the biggest surprise in the country last year when they challenged both Belmont and Murray St. for the OVC title.  Now, they have a lot of that team back and should give it another run under Coach Spoonhour.  YSU had an up and down season, and we’re still waiting for them to put it together and really compete in the Horizon. 

Sunday 2:00 – Haverford College (D3) at Stony Brook
I only added this one because I grew up a stone’s throw from Haverford College and I went to a school in the D3 Centennial Conference which boasts Haverford as a member.  They’re not a very good D3 team, so I don’t think they’d make much of a D1 team, either. 

Sunday 2:00 – Charleston-Southern at Delaware
Another chance for UD to show us something early against a decent opponent.  At least this one is in the Carpenter Center in Newark, DE. 

Sunday 5:00 – Elon at Marist
Another Marist game on this list?  It’s as if I care about the Red Foxes.  I don’t really, but I am intrigued to see Elon on the road against a decent opponent because Elon – for the first time ever – is the preseason favorite to win the SoCon. 

Sunday 5:30 – Harvard at Holy Cross
This Harvard team could be special – REALLY special.  This is a road game for the Crimson, but they should be heavy favorites. 

Sunday 6:00 – Oral Roberts at Tulsa
I like this ORU team and now that they are more accustomed to their new home in the Southland, they might really make a run at that league’s title.  Tulsa is a nice test, as the Golden Hurricane are a decent C-USA team.  A win here for ORU would be really nice.