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What we learned from the 2016 NCAA Tournament

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What we learned from the 2016 NCAA Tournament


1. The ACC is still the conference to beat in March

All year, no matter the sport, there is always debate amongst both fans and analysts on which conference is the best. This year many suggested that the Big 12 was the best conference because the Big 10 was top heavy and ACC’s depth was also breaking down. During the tournament, the ACC flexed its muscles and dominated.

The ACC tied a tournament record by having six teams advance to the Sweet 16 and later broke a record by having four teams in the Elite Eight, per sbnation.com. Their success even continued to the Final Four where Syracuse, a 10-seed and major cinderella story in the tournament, faced off against the only 1-seed left standing, UNC. In the end, UNC beat Syracuse and came up three points short of Villanova in the National Championship game, ending the ACC’s incredible tournament run.

2. Mid-major schools can hold their own

Every year come Selection Sunday, we see analysts and pundits alike ask the same question the committee is: “How many mid-majors qualify for the tournament?”

A mid-major is a school outside of the classic Power Five and Big East conferences. Of the 32 mid-majors that made the tourney, 12 made it past the first round, including UConn, St. Joe’s and Middle Tennessee. Outside of the 15 and 16-seeds, the mid-majors that lost only did so by an average 8.1 points. For the most part these mid-majors held their own and played competitive games against teams that had more talent and experience than a lot of them.

Mid-majors were able to take down some of the best teams in the nation including Michigan State, West Virginia, California and Arizona. While no mid-major made it past the second round this year, their ability to keep it close and even beat perennial CBB powerhouses should help increase the chance of more mid-majors appearing in next year’s tourney.  

3. This tournament was more about better play than raw talent

It is often said that basketball is a game of streaks, both in game and over the course of a season. In game teams go through times when they seem to hit every shot they attempt and other times when they seemingly can’t buy a basket. Likewise, over the course of a season, a team goes through times where it can win games with ease and other times where it can’t beat even the weakest of opponents.

Middle Tennessee played arguably the best game in school history against Michigan State and pulled off one of the greatest upsets of all time. Michigan State was predicted to beat  Middle Tennessee handily, but lost in part because of Middle Tennessee’s shooting hot streak. Villanova, after losing the Big East to Seton Hall, had one of the most impressive shooting streaks in March Madness history. Villanova rode this streak all the way to the National Title game.

4. Upperclassmen are just as important to teams as freshmen superstars

For the past few seasons, NCAA has seen its fair share of freshmen phenoms. From Jahlil Okafor and Andrew Wiggins to Anthony Davis, the NCAA has seen a lot of great talent leave after one season for the NBA. With this large influx of one-and-done, many upper tier schools, like Kentucky and Duke, began to scramble for this kind of talent in hopes that those players would push their program to new heights. This talent rush has had mixed results with some teams winning national titles and others going home in the Round of 32. That wasn’t the case this year.

The top freshman in the country, Ben Simmons of LSU, didn’t even make the tourney this year. While the second best freshman, Brandon Ingram of Duke, made it to the Elite 8, the overall team wasn’t as impressive as it had been in years past. All of the dominant teams that made the tournament – Villanova, Kansas, Oklahoma, UNC, Michigan State – were all led by upperclassmen if not senior leadership.

It was this deviation from the norm that made this tournament feel special and for many of the teams mentioned, it helped them throughout the entire postseason. The two teams that met in the National Title game both had excellent senior players, like Marcus Paige and Ryan Arcidiacono. Kris Jenkins, the player who hit the game winning shot for Villanova, was a senior.

We’ll have to wait for next year’s tourney to see if this year’s trend continues but it was definitely an interesting storyline to follow this tournament.

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2016 NFL Mock Draft

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2016 NFL Mock Draft


1. Los Angeles Rams

Key Additions: Quinton Coples (LB/DE)

Key Losses: Janoris Jenkins (CB) James Laurinaitis (ILB) Rodney McLeod (FS)

Needs: WR QB DB ILB

The Pick: Jared Goff, Quarterback, California

Notes: The Rams gave up a king’s ransom to acquire the No. 1 pick in this year’s draft and many sources from both ESPN and NFL.com have linked them to either Jared Goff or Carson Wentz.  

2. Philadelphia Eagles

Key Additions: Brandon Brooks (G) Nigel Bradham (OLB) Rodney McLeod (FS)

Key Losses: Cedric Thornton (DE) DeMarco Murray — TRADE — (RB)

Needs: WR CB DE QB

The Pick: Carson Wentz, Quarterback, North Dakota State

Notes: The Eagles recently moved up to make sure they were able to select the quarterback they wanted as opposed to settling for a lesser player. Carson Wentz would not start immediately, but given starting quarterback Sam Bradford’s injury history, he may see some playing time this year.  

3. San Diego Chargers

Key Additions: Travis Benjamin (WR) Casey Hayward (CB) Dwight Lowery (FS)

Key Losses: Eric Weddle (FS) LaDarius Green (TE) Patrick Robinson (CB)

Needs: DE CB S TE

The Pick: Jalen Ramsey, Defensive Back, Florida State

Notes: Jalen Ramsey would be a great selection as he has the potential to play both free safety and cornerback, which are both positions of need for the Chargers.  

4. Dallas Cowboys

Key Additions: Cedric Thornton (DE) Alfred Morris (RB)

Key Losses: Mackenzy Bernadeau (C/G)  

Needs: LB DB S QB TE

The Pick: Joey Bosa, Defensive End, Ohio State

Notes: The Cowboys have a lot of needs going into the draft most of which are defensive. Joey Bosa can fill the void on the defensive line left by Greg Hardy’s departure and Demarcus Lawrence’s suspension.

5. Jacksonville Jaguars

Key Additions: Malik Jackson (DE) Tashaun Gibson (FS) Chris Ivory (RB)

Key Losses: Zane Beadles (G) Stefen Wisniewski (C)

Needs: DT OLB G

The Pick: Myles Jack, Outside Linebacker, UCLA

Notes: Myles Jack is arguably the best linebacker in this year’s draft and would be a great addition to Jacksonville’s young core.

6. Baltimore Ravens

Key Additions: Eric Weddle (FS) Mike Wallace (WR) Ben Watson (TE)

Key Losses: Courtney Upshaw (OLB) Kelechi Osemele (G) Daryl Smith (ILB)

Needs: RT DE LB S

The Pick: Ronnie Stanley, Offensive Tackle, Notre Dame

Notes: While the Ravens have struggled to find a defensive identity since Ray Lewis’ retirement, another large concern has been the offensive line, which has had a hard time protecting QB Joe Flacco. Ronnie Stanley would help solidify that line.  

7. San Francisco 49ers

Key Additions: Zane Beadles (G)

Key Losses: Alex Boone (G)

Needs: QB OL WR LB CB

The Pick: Paxton Lynch, Quarterback, Memphis

Notes: The 49ers have a ton of holes that still need to be filled after Jim Harbaugh’s departure, the main one being quarterback. Paxton Lynch should be competing for a starting job come this fall.

8. Cleveland Browns

Key Additions: Robert Griffin III (QB) Rahim Moore (FS) Alvin Bailey (G)

Key Losses: Alex Mack (C) Tashuan Gipson (FS) Travis Benjamin (WR)

Needs: QB OL LB S

The Pick: Reggie Ragland, Inside Linebacker, Alabama

Notes: Reggie Ragland’s addition would help to build up the Brown’s defensive core.

9. Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Key Additions: Brent Grimes (CB) J.R. Sweezy (G) Robert Ayers (DE)

Key Losses: Bruce Carter (OLB)

Needs: S LB T

The Pick: Vernon Hargreaves, Cornerback, Florida

Notes: Tampa Bay would further improve their secondary with addition of Vernon Hargreaves who could bring some youth to what should be an impressive veteran core.

10. New York Giants

Key Additions: Olivier Vernon (DE) Janoris Jenkins (CB) Damon Harrison (DT)

Key Losses: Robert Ayers (DE) Geoff Schwartz (G) Rueben Randle (WR)

Needs: G RB LB SS

The Pick: Laremy Tunsil, Offensive Tackle, Mississippi

Notes: Laremy Tunsil is the best available player on the draft board in this position. He is also the best offensive lineman in the draft and would have an immediate impact for the Giants.  

11. Chicago Bears

Key Additions: Danny Trevathan (ILB)

Key Losses: Matt Forte (RB) Jermon Bushrod (T)

Needs: T CB ILB QB

The Pick: Jack Conklin, Offensive Tackle, Michigan State

Notes: Jack Conklin could almost certainly be a starter on the Bear’s rebuilding offensive line.

12. New Orleans Saints

Key Additions: Coby Fleener (TE) James Laurinaitis (ILB) Nick Fairley (DT)

Key Losses: Rafael Bush (FS) Ben Watson (TE)

Needs: LB DE CB WR

The Pick: DeForest Buckner, Defensive End, Oregon

Notes: DeForest Buckner is viewed by many draft analysts as the second best defensive linemen in the draft. His ability to rush the passer would greatly help a Saints defense looking for an identity.

13. Miami Dolphins

Key Additions: Kraig Urbik (G)  Isa Abdul-Quddus (S) Jermon Bushrod (T)

Key Losses: Lamar Miller (RB) Brent Grimes (CB) Olivier Vernon (DE)

Needs: RB CB G LB

The Pick: Ezekiel Elliott, Running Back, Ohio State

Notes: Most analysts advise against picking a running back in the first round, but Ezekiel Elliot is one of the recent exceptions to that rule. Miami has an opening at running back since Lamar Miller’s departure to free agency an opening that Elliott should fit well in.    

14. Oakland Raiders

Key Additions: Kelechi Osemele (G) Sean Smith (CB) Bruce Irvin (OLB) Reggie Nelson (FS)

Key Losses: J’Marcus Webb (T) Charles Woodson — RETIREMENT — (FS)

Needs: T TE ILB SS

The Pick: Leonard Floyd, Outside Linebacker, Georgia

Notes: Though many NFL scouts argue that Leonard Floyd is too small to play linebacker at the NFL level, his skills as a pass rusher are hard to ignore. If Floyd bulks up he can be a quality outside linebacker. If he doesn’t, he may be able to find his niche as a defensive end.

15. Tennessee Titans

Key Additions: Ben Jones (C) Rishard Matthews (WR) DeMarco Murray — TRADE — (RB)

Key Losses: Michael Griffin (FS)

Needs: T DL LOLB DB

The Pick: Darron Lee, Outside Linebacker, Ohio State

Notes: The Titans have done a fairly good job of rebuilding their offense as of late. Darron Lee would help start the process of rebuilding their defense.  

16. Detroit Lions

Key Additions: Geoff Schwartz (G) Marvin Jones (WR)  

Key Losses: Manuel Ramirez (G) Isa Abdul-Quddus (S) Calvin Johnson Jr. — RETIREMENT — (WR)

Needs: WR T ILB

The Pick: Laquon Treadwell, Wide Receiver, Ole Miss

Notes: Without Calvin “Megatron” Johnson the Lions will need a new centerpiece to their receiving core. Though no one can replace Megatron,” Laquon Treadwell has both the size and talent to help rebuild the receiving core.

17. Atlanta Falcons

Key Additions: Alex Mack (C) Mohamed Sanu (WR) Courtney Upshaw (OLB)

Key Losses: Paul Soliai (DT)

Needs: DB DL RT WR

The Pick: A’Shawn Robinson, Defensive Tackle, Alabama

Notes: The Falcons have committed to building their defense for the past few drafts and will continue this year. With the addition of A’Shawn Robinson, the Falcons look to improve upon an increasingly skilled defensive line.  

18. Indianapolis Colts

Key Additions: Patrick Robinson (CB)

Key Losses: Coby Fleener (TE) Dwight Lowery (FS)

Needs: RB S G RT

The Pick: Cody Whitehair, Guard, Kansas State

Notes: Cody Whitehair has been described as the “safest offensive linemen in the draft.” Whitehair would help strengthen a very weak Colts offensive line that struggled to protect QB Andrew Luck last season.

19. Buffalo Bills

Key Additions: Corey White (CB) Fernando Velasco (G)

Key Losses: Chris Hogan (WR) Nigel Bradham (OLB) Mario Williams (DE)

Needs: DE WR LB

The Pick: Shaq Lawson, Defensive End, Clemson

Notes: Shaq Lawson could be a good replacement for Mario Williams and help keep the Bills’ defensive dominance.

20. New York Jets

Key Additions: Matt Forte (RB) Bruce Carter (LB) Ryan Clady — TRADE — (T)

Key Losses: D’Brickashaw Ferguson (LT) Chris Ivory (RB) Damon Harrison (DT)

Needs: RG QB TE

The Pick: Hunter Henry, Tight End, Arkansas

Notes: The Jets in this draft should look to solidify their offense, which has improved gradually over the past few years. Hunter Henry is considered the best tight end in the draft by many and will compete for the starting spot on the Jets.

21. Washington Redskins

Key Additions: Vernon Davis (TE) Josh Norman (CB)

Key Losses: Terrance Knighton (DT) Alfred Morris (RB)

Needs: WR RB DL

The Pick: Sheldon Rankins, Defensive Tackle, Louisville

22. Houston Texans

Key Additions: Lamar Miller (RB) Brock Osweiler (QB)

Key Losses: Brandon Brooks (G) Rahim Moore (FS) Nate Washington (WR) Arian Foster (RB)

Needs: S TE G C

The Pick: Kevin Dodd, Defensive End, Clemson

Notes: Most of the Texans needs can be addressed in the later rounds, so they may look to add to a strongpoint of their team. Kevin Dodd would be a nice compliment to JJ Watt on the Texans impressive defense.

23. Minnesota Vikings

Key Additions: Alex Boone (G) Michael Griffin (FS) Andre Smith (RT)

Key Losses: Mike Wallace (WR) Josh Robinson (CB)

Needs: DE SS LG

The Pick: Emmanuel Ogbah, Defensive End, Oklahoma State

Notes: The Vikings have done a great job of adding players that make an immediate impact on the team both offensively and defensively. Emmanuel Ogbah could be the latest addition to a Vikings defense that has been on the up and up for the past few years.

24. Cincinnati Bengals

Key Additions: Karlos Dansby (ILB) Brandon LaFell (WR)

Key Losses: Marvin Jones (WR) Mohamed Sanu (WR) Andre Smith (RT)

Needs: RG FS LB WR

The Pick: Will Fuller, Wide Receiver, Notre Dame

Notes: The Bengals lost two of their secondary receivers to free agency and will look to find a No. 2 option opposite of star wideout AJ Green. Though some scouts are worried about his consistency issues catching the ball, Will Fuller should, at a minimum, draw some defensive attention away from AJ Green.

25. Pittsburgh Steelers

Key Additions: Ladarius Green (TE) Ryan Harris (LT)

Key Losses: Kelvin Beachum (T) Heath Miller — RETIREMENT — (TE)

Needs: DT DE DB

The Pick: Noah Spence, Defensive End, Eastern Kentucky

Notes: Noah Spence is widely regarded as a gamble due to his history of issues off the field, but the talent he brings cannot be ignored. The Steelers are looking to go back to their days of defensive dominance and Spence could help accomplish that goal.  

26. Seattle Seahawks

Key Additions: J’Marcus Webb (T)

Key Losses: Russell Okung (LT) Bruce Irvin (OLB) Marshawn Lynch — RETIREMENT — (HB)

Needs: T G DT LOLB

The Pick: Le’Raven Clark, Offensive Tackle, Texas Tech

Notes: The Seahawks lost the centerpieces of their offensive line to free agency so they will be looking for replacements. Le’Raven Clark is a solid tackle prospect who will have the opportunity to protect QB Russell Wilson’s blindside come this fall.

27. Green Bay Packers

Key Additions: Jared Cook (TE)

Key Losses: Casey Hayward (CB) BJ Raji — RETIREMENT — (DT/DE)

Needs: LT CB DL

The Pick: Andrew Billings, Nose Tackle, Baylor

Notes: The Packers have spent the past few drafts improving their defense, specifically their secondary. This year, they may continue the improvement of the defense with the selection of Andrew Billings who will help replace BJ Raji’s spot on the defensive line.

28. Kansas City Chiefs

Key Additions: Mitchell Schwartz (RT)

Key Losses: Sean Smith (CB) Jeff Allen (G) Husain Abdullah — RETIREMENT — (S)

Needs: WR LG DE DB

The Pick: Josh Doctson, Wide Receiver, TCU

Notes: Even with the pickup of Jeremy Maclin, the Chiefs biggest need remains wide receiver. Josh Doctson should make a solid No. 2 receiver opposite of Maclin.

29. Arizona Cardinals

Key Additions: Evan Mathis (G) Chandler Jones — TRADE — (DE)

Key Losses: Jonathan Cooper — TRADE — (G) Bobby Massie (RT) Sean Weatherspoon (ILB)

Needs: LB C QB CB

The Pick: Eli Apple, Cornerback, Ohio State

Notes: The Cardinals are just a few pieces away from being a perennial Super Bowl contender. One of those pieces is Eli Apple, cornerback who can play opposite of Pro-Bowler Patrick Peterson long term.

30. Carolina Panthers

Key Additions: Paul Soliai (DT)

Key Losses: Brad Nortman (P) Josh Norman (CB)

Needs: T DB DE G

The Pick: Germain Ifedi, Guard/Offensive Tackle, Texas A&M

Notes: The Panthers biggest weakness is their offensive line which was painfully exposed in the Super Bowl. Germain Ifedi is listed as a guard, but according to many scouts NFL teams, they could try to play him at tackle before moving inside. At either position, he fills a need for the Panthers.

31. Denver Broncos

Key Additions: Russell Okung (LT)

Key Losses: Malik Jackson (DE) Brock Osweiler (QB) Danny Trevathan (ILB) Peyton Manning — RETIREMENT — (QB)

Needs: QB G FS TE

The Pick: Connor Cook, Quarterback, Michigan State

Notes: The entire NFL community seems to be divided on Connor Cook. Some say he could be a good starting QB while others say he lacks leadership needed for a NFL player. However, recently he has been climbing up many draft boards. The Broncos desperately need a QB and Cook is a viable option at pick 31.

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Fall of the Spartans: How Middle Tennessee upset Michigan State

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Fall of the Spartans: How Middle Tennessee upset Michigan State


For Michigan State fans around the country, March 18, 2016 is a day that won’t soon be forgotten.

The Spartans entered their first day of NCAA’s March Madness as a two-seed that people across the nation felt was snubbed of a one-seed. According to ESPN, the Spartans were favored in 91 percent of brackets to advance to the next round and 22 percent to win the tournament, but neither of these predictions would happen.

Michigan State was upset 90-81 by 15-seed Middle Tennessee, handing the Spartans arguably their worst loss in school history and head coach Tom Izzo’s first one-and-done tourney trip in his first 18 trips per Detriot Free Press. How did a small Conference-USA team take down one of college basketball’s perennial juggernauts?

Michigan State’s struggles began almost right out of the gate. Middle Tennessee’s offense caught fire early and never slowed down, only missing a handful of shots within the first 10 minutes. To make matters worse, Michigan State’s offense was sluggish from the get-go and didn’t wake up until the end of the first half. By then Middle Tennessee had the lead and momentum.

While the Spartan offense picked up after halftime, in large part due to senior Matt Costello’s dominance in the paint, the team was never able to close the gap that Middle Tennessee created and maintained throughout the game.

Middle Tennessee’s ability to shoot and make the three also played a huge role in their victory. All but one of Middle Tennessee’s starters made at least one three-pointer, including the team’s power forward/center Darnell Harris. This created a matchup nightmare for the Spartans as Costello, Davis and Schilling had to leave the paint to attempt to guard the three-point line. Something that none of them are particularly strong at.

The mismatch clearly showed. In the first half alone, Middle Tennessee shot 61 percent from beyond the arch and finished the game shooting 57 percent. Michigan State just couldn’t keep the pace, shooting 45 percent overall from beyond the arch.

On the seemingly rare occasion that Middle Tennessee missed they were always there fighting for a rebound and more often than not Middle Tennessee got it. Though the stat sheet showed that Michigan State won the rebound battle, it didn’t show during the game as MT grabbed almost every crucial rebound this game had. Perhaps the reason behind this stems from the fact that Michigan State’s big players were all spread out away from the paint allowing for MT guards Jaqawn Raymond and Giddy Potts to combine for nine rebounds.  

Free throws and fouls also played a large part in this game. 35 fouls were called over the course of the game – with a 10 foul difference between the two teams – most of them being “tic-tack” or “touch fouls.” This kind of officiating environment caused the Spartans problems all year because of how aggressive the Spartans’ defense is.

Denzel Valentine, Gavin Schilling and Matt Costello were all in foul trouble during the latter portion of this game, which further restricted the already struggling Spartan defense. When it came down to free throws, Middle Tennessee, one of the worst free throw shooting teams, shot 61 percent from the line. The Spartans shot 66 percent, but much like their rebounding total, it didn’t show during the game. There were far too many times where Michigan State went one of two or zero of two from the line, while Middle Tennessee players made both free throws on their attempts.

Ultimately when trying to analyze Michigan State’s loss, Tom Izzo put it best, “They outplayed us.” Middle Tennessee did everything right, it shot lights out from the field, slowed the Spartan offense to a near standstill and played like a team possessed. Michigan State was flat out beaten and that isn’t an indictment against the Spartans, but rather praise to Middle Tennessee. It is for that reason that Michigan State shouldn’t hang its head on this loss for too long. Would it have been nice to see Michigan State seniors Matt Costello, Bryn Forbes, Colby Wallenman and Denzel Valentine end their collegiate careers on a better note? Yes. However, this loss doesn’t take away from the excellent season Michigan State had or how great this senior class of players was.

Tom Izzo has done a great job of creating a top tier basketball program at Michigan State and top tier programs bounce back from these types of losses. In fact, Duke, the team that won the National Championship last year, did so one year after being upset by Mercer, a 14-seed.

Tom Izzo and the Spartans will learn from this, grow from it and come back next year hungrier than ever for a deep postseason run; hopefully ending in a championship.

Stats courtesy of ESPN, Detroit Free Press & The Washington Post

    

 

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Why basketball still needs the ‘Hack-a-Shaq’ strategy

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Why basketball still needs the ‘Hack-a-Shaq’ strategy


Over the course of his 19-year career, Shaquille O’Neal was a dominant force as a big man in the NBA. O’Neal was nearly unstoppable in the post and close to the basket, leaving the task of stopping him especially challenging for his opponents. However, O’Neal had one glaring weakness in his game – his free throw shooting.

Shaquille O'Neal at the free throw line. Photo via Creative Commons.

Shaquille O’Neal at the free throw line. Photo via Creative Commons.

O’Neal’s career free throw percentage was 52 percent and it didn’t take long for opposing teams to catch on. Teams began to foul O’Neal when he went up to shoot, because it was highly likely he would miss both free throws.

This strategy quickly became known as the “Hack-a-Shaq” and was used not only on O’Neal, but other players around the NBA who couldn’t shoot free throws.

Now, five years after O’Neal hung up his jersey, the strategy that bears his namesake has come under fire by NBA fans, coaches, executives and the league itself.

Recently the “Hack-a-Shaq” strategy has transformed into a far different being than what it started as. Teams have gone from predominantly fouling poor free throw shooters on their shots and more toward fouling poor free throw shooters before and during the bonus.

Most of the time the fouls committed aren’t normal accidental shooting fouls, such as a botched block attempt, but instead weak touch fouls. The problem with this adaptation is that it slows down the game exponentially. The “Hack-a-Shaq” strategy was originally used primarily on shots, or late in the game, but the present day adaptation happens throughout the entire game.

Last season, teams began to foul Clippers Center DeAndre Jordan, who has a poor free throw rate of 39.7 percent. Most of those fouls occurred before Jordan was even able to touch the ball.

The problem appeared at its worst this year during a game between the Phoenix Suns and the Detroit Pistons. The Pistons were leading at half, so the Suns began to foul Pistons Center Andre Drummond, who shoots at 35 percent, right out of halftime. The fouls committed against Drummond were almost always touch fouls away from the ball, which dramatically slowed the speed and tempo of the game.

Fans, coaches and team executives have all become upset with the strategy because, in their opinions, it makes the game less enjoyable.

At first, NBA Commissioner Adam Silver brushed off these complaints saying that the NBA wouldn’t consider a rule change regarding the “Hack-a-Shaq” strategy. However, with a new wave of complaints and the problem appearing to get worse, the NBA is planning to review the legitimacy of the strategy.

Despite the strategy’s namesake, the idea of fouling a big man to force him to the free throw line goes before O’Neal’s career.

Big men in basketball have the notorious stereotype of not making free throws, so fouling them to prevent their shots is nothing new. While hacking does extend games, sometimes that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. In late game situations a few free throws can be the difference between a win or a loss, so it makes sense that teams would opt to foul in that situation.

Likewise, if a team is down by a large margin, a set of wasted possessions via missed free throws may be enough to turn the tide of the game.

Another element is the big men themselves. These players are professionals playing in the best professional basketball league in the world, they should be able to hit a free throw. Free throws, in the grand scheme of things, are a small part of the game and it doesn’t take a state of the art practice facility to work on them. These players should take the time and address this clear weakness in their game if not for themselves then for the sake of the team.

The “Hack-a-Shaq” strategy has its advantages and disadvantages but it should ultimately be kept in basketball. It is a legitimate way for a team to come back late in a game and in a sense rewards players who work hard on their free throws. Has the strategy today evolved into a bit of a mess? Yes, but that doesn’t mean that it has to be banned outright. The NBA could look to reform the strategy and or limit it, but an outright ban would hurt the game of basketball from top to bottom.

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It’s time to give Cam Newton some respect

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It’s time to give Cam Newton some respect


During the last two weeks of playoff action, the Carolina Panthers have delivered two brutal defeats to the Cardinals and Seahawks respectively en route to their Super Bowl berth. They have been clicking on all sides of the ball and capitalizing on their opponents every mistake.

Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton. Photo via Wikimedia Commons.

Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton. Photo via Wikimedia Commons.

No one player has played better football for the Panthers than their quarterback Cam Newton. Newton played phenomenal, picking apart two of the better defenses in the NFL and throwing for 496 yards, three touchdowns while rushing for an additional two touchdowns. Newton and the Panthers performance should surprise no one if you look over their season’s body of work.

Yet, somehow, this season Cam Newton has been called out for seemingly no justifiable reason. There have been plenty of doubters during Newton’s career and sometimes they’ve been justified. A few years ago, Newton had a rough patch of games and became irritated with both his and the teams play. His frustration showed both on the field and during interviews so much so that eventually he was confronted about it by his teammates.

Following the confrontation, Newton has been, by NFL standards, a model citizen. In spite of his growth, Newton has had every criticism thrown against him this year, many targeted his character rather than his play on the field.

He has been called a thug by many, despite having no run-ins with the law. Others have accused him of being arrogant and “fake” because when he plays he always seems to have a smile on his face.

Perhaps the most infamous criticism that he received came in week nine of the season following a 27-10 beatdown of the Tennessee Titans when an opposing fan wrote a letter about how Newton’s celebration, a dancing dab, was offensive to her 9-year-old daughter and was a poor example to all the children watching him play. Despite all of this, Newton responded by brushing it off and continuing to play at an elite level.

This season, Newton threw over 3,800 yards, 35 touchdowns and 10 interceptions while leading his team to an impressive 15-1 record. Perhaps what is most impressive about this is that Newton was able to put up these numbers and lead his team to the Super Bowl with a very limited talent pool.

Early on in the season Newton lost his top receiver Kelvin Benjamin to a knee injury leaving him with a group of unproven and some injury-prone wide receivers. Further adding to potential problems was a running game that also lacked consistency. Newton’s only consistent weapon was tight end Greg Olsen. The only other quarterback to play at this level with so little weapons is Tom Brady, putting Newton near the same level as one of the best quarterbacks of this generation.

Cam Newton is now approaching a milestone that no other quarterback has ever done before. According to CBS Sports, if Newton wins the Super Bowl and League MVP he will be the only other player to win a Heisman, BCS National Championship, MVP and Super Bowl in the history of the NFL. Even if Newton is unable to complete this incredible feat, he will still have a lasting impact on the game.

Newton has revolutionized the quarterback position by being both a great runner and superior passer, something very seldom seen in the NFL and even more rare from a QB with a lack of skilled position players. Newton has also been the latest QB to try to disprove stereotypes for what is expected of an African American quarterback. The main stereotype being that black quarterbacks are only good runners, not passers, which Newton’s play over the last two seasons has disproved that notion.

Cam Newton has proven time and time again that he is an elite QB that will do everything in his power to put his team in position to win. He has grown significantly as a team player and face of a franchise while maintaining his image.

When Newton plays the game he shows his emotion and looks as though he is genuinely having fun, which makes watching him that more enjoyable. This Super Bowl Sunday you can expect to see Newton playing his heart out in an effort bring a Lombardi Trophy back to Charlotte for the first time in the team’s history. So maybe it is time that Cam Newton’s critics take a step back, look at all Newton has accomplished in his short career, and appreciate his greatness.

Statistics via ESPN.com

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Professional Spartans: Kirk Cousins

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Professional Spartans: Kirk Cousins


kirk

Back in the spring of 2012, the Washington Redskins were desperate for a quarterback. Fresh off of a 5-11 season, the team was searching for the franchise quarterback that they had been missing since the ‘90s.

In the first round of the draft, according to Bleacher Report, they gave up a King’s Bounty of three first round picks and a second round pick to acquire Robert Griffin III out of Baylor. Many assumed that the Redskins had found their man. However, three rounds later with the seventh pick in the fourth round, they selected another quarterback – Kirk Cousins.

The reaction to the Redskins selection of Cousins in the fourth round was mixed. Many thought that he was picked strictly as a backup.

According to an NFL.com scouting report, many NFL scouts agreed with this noting that “while he was a QB drafted for his intangibles and experiences as a three-year starter and captain at Michigan State, he has deficiencies that will hurt him at the next level.”

During his first year in Washington, D.C., Cousins played three times, filling in for an injured Robert Griffin III. His first game was a loss against the Atlanta Falcons despite putting up decent numbers.

Eight weeks later, Griffin III exited early from a game against the Baltimore Ravens. Cousins successfully managed the late part of the game and helped the Redskins to an overtime victory. The next week, according to NFL.com, he started the first game of his career during which he had two touchdowns and threw for 329 yards on his way to a 104.4 passer rating and a victory.

After 2012, things began to go up and down in Cousins’ career. Expected franchise savior Griffin III suffered a severe injury in the 2012 postseason, which he would never fully recover from. In 2013, Cousins played in five games including the last three weeks of the season after then Washington Redskins head coach Mike Shanahan declared Griffin III inactive. Once again, Cousins put up average numbers, but he began to show a problem with throwing interceptions and consistency.

In 2014, Cousins played in place of an injured Griffin III for five games where his performances ranged from great to inconsistent. His unreliable play lead to him being benched and replaced by third-string QB Colt McCoy and a flurry of trade rumors.

However, in 2015 Cousins has another shot. Following a concussion that Griffin III sustained during the preseason against the Lions, Cousins was named the starter quarterback for the season in a controversial move by head coach Jay Gruden.

Initially things didn’t look promising for Cousins this year. Reports swirled of an alleged rift between the players on whether to follow Cousins or to stay loyal to Griffin III. Now, four games into the 2015 season, Cousins has made strides to winning over both the locker room and fans.

So far this year, Cousins has thrown for 1,005 yards, four touchdowns and four interceptions, as stated on NFL.com. His play still follows an up and down pattern when it comes to touchdown to interception ratio and his quarterback rating, but Cousins’ overall play this year feels different.

Cousins is playing very good for being on a team that is limited talent-wise and dysfunctional on the management level. He is leading the Redskins to victories and keeping them competitive in games that might have otherwise been blowouts.

Cousins’ ability to make something out of a weak roster, rolling with the mismanagement and sometimes media punches add a layer of value to him. If Cousins continues to improve on his overall game and keep his team competitive despite the roadblocks ahead, he could be in for a good payday come this offseason.

Cousins’ NFL future looks bright and if he leaves Washington, D.C. next spring for a more stable team, his career could take off, making him a solid tier two quarterback.

 

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The Evolution of Sportsmanship: Bridging the Gap Between Athletes and Authority

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The Evolution of Sportsmanship: Bridging the Gap Between Athletes and Authority


By Alex Tekip

Ever since collegiate athletes were young, playing youth sports in their hometown, they have been encouraged to practice sportsmanship. Constant reminders from a dad on the sideline encouraged children to play to win, but to respect their opponent. Handshakes and compliments after games served as a code of conduct.  However, once athletes make it past peewee soccer and little league, official regulations are put into place; mandates put forth by the NCAA. Professionalism and lack there of becomes rigidly defined.

Photo Credit: Jenna Chabot

In order to create a behavioral code of conduct for college athletes, the NCAA must first define what “sportsmanship” is. According to the NCAA’s committee for sportsmanship and ethical conduct, there are seven ideals of sportsmanship to which an athlete should adhere: respect, caring, fairness, civility, honesty, integrity, and responsibility.  The Big Ten Conference has a “BIG policy,” encouraging student athletes and fans to be bold when cheering on their team, but do so with integrity and respect for the opponent, as a great leader would.

However, the policy that hits closest to home is Michigan State University’s values regarding the behavior of athletes; such as respect, positive attitude, focus, accountability, continued improvement, and integrity. Sportsmanship policies are geared more towards fans, under the “Spartan Fans, Raise Your Shield” campaign.

Why is it that MSU does not seem to have an athletic policy directly mentioning the word “sportsmanship?”  It is likely that one reason for this is the detailed sportsmanship and athletic behavioral policies of the NCAA and the Big Ten. But, there could be another reason, one that is a little less obvious: the implications of giving a concrete definition to sportsmanship.

Juan Javier Pescador, who teaches college sports history at MSU, said a concrete code of scholarship would place even more pressure upon student athletes because they would be expected to perform with a high level of athletic ability while “(being) forced to follow a code of conduct in which they have no say.”

Pescador also believes that sports governing organizations and athletes would have a much better relationship if one could learn to listen to the other.

Photo Credit: Jenna Chabot

“The disconnect that exists between athletes and institutions make it difficult for any athletic governing board to create a policy that is accepted by both,” Pescador said. “Athletes are of a younger generation and have a very different idea of what sportsmanship is than those of the older generation; the ones who make the rules.”

It seems what athletes and athletic administrators need is a compromise, an agreement to show respect for the game in a way that is understood and agreed upon by both sides.

In 2007, The United States Olympic program launched a campaign to promote good sportsmanship. The guidelines required athletes to follow the conventions of sportsmanlike conduct, such as “assist competitors in need,” “acknowledge competitor’s skills,” “appreciate those who support you” and “accept praise with grace and humility.”

These behaviors may seem relatively simple to enact, but it is difficult to do so in a society that gives more media attention to actions that seem to promote unsportsmanlike conduct, such as the infamous “stomp” by Detroit Lions defensive tackle, Ndamakong Suh during a heated Thanksgiving Day game.

According to a Forbe’s survey, Suh’s actions placed him at number four on the list of “Most Hated Athletes in America.”  While apologetic for his actions, Suh noted that after one foul action he was “suddenly on the same level as Skeletor–the worst.”

In a later interview with ESPN, Suh remarked on the prestige that comes with being an athlete and the importance of having a professional attitude, stating that “[playing sports] requires a calm and composed demeanor, which cannot be derailed by the game, referee calls, fans, or other players.”

This year saw another incident similar to Suh’s at the collegiate level.

During the Michigan vs. Michigan State game at Spartan Stadium this year, Michigan State defensive end William Gholston supposedly violated the Big Ten’s sportsmanship conduct rules by punching lineman Taylor Lewan and twisting the helmet of quarter back Denard Robinson. MSU and the Big Ten put Gholston’s actions, for which he was flagged during the game, under further review with the result being Gholston’s suspension from MSU’s homecoming game against Wisconsin.

While there was no arguing that some sort of consequence would come from Gholston’s actions, it is important to note that he was simply following orders.

In an Oct. 17 interview with USA Today, Michigan State defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi said, “We were trying to play ‘60 minutes of unnecessary roughness,’ and we were lucky that we didn’t get called on every snap.”

Photo Credit: Jenna Chabot

Both Gholston and Jordan Kovacs, a safety for the University of Michigan, who were also interviewed by USA Today, had the same feelings as Narduzzi.

Kovacs noted the intense rivalry between the two teams requires nothing less than playing rough, that it’s simply “how it goes.”

Gholston defended his actions saying, “Everyone makes mistakes when (they’re) trying to go hard.”

Gholston said he viewed the helmet grab as him giving it his all during a heated game which required him to do so, but the MSU athletic department as well as the Big Ten conference ultimately considered Gholston’s conduct to be “unsportsmanlike.”

According to some sports columnists and bloggers, such as ESPN.com’s Brian Bennett, the Big Ten’s intervention in this matter reflected a broken sportsmanship policy within MSU. Head football coach Mark Dantonio made very little comment on the investigation, which, according to Bennett, lasted three days longer than it should have. MSU could have made the process painless and easy by giving Gholston the one game suspension themselves, without intervention from the conference, according to Bennett.

It is situations like Gholston’s that Pescador calls into question where authority, the media and the athletes themselves view an athlete’s performance differently. Pescador said this results in miscommunication between all three of these figures (as seen in the Gholston case), and reflects the “media revolution” that is overtaking sports at all levels.

“Athletes, both at the college and professional level, have very little private life,” Pescador said. “They are subjected to a lot of pressure based on how they are perceived by the media, and must cultivate a public figure at all times. If athletes view their athletic performance as them versus regulations/authority and vice versa, they could face serious consequences, especially in their public image.”

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A Spartan Identity

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A Spartan Identity


Rallying Spartan crowds since 1989, Sparty’s identity prevails as one of Michigan State’s greatest mysteries. The lovable and spirited Sparty has become a super star figure, but the students behind the green giant remain hidden. Named the National Mascot Champion three times in just four years, Sparty has reached celebrity status, yet his true identity remains one of MSU’s best-kept secrets.

“Some Spartys aren’t as trustworthy as others,” Sparty Mascot Program director Ben Hatala said. “If too many people find out, we remove them from the program.” The Sparty Mascot Program is coordinated by the MSU Student Alumni Foundation (SAF). The student-run program organizes events and Sparty escorts while working to preserve the Sparty identity. Sparty – not the student – is known for his school spirit at university games and events, as well as his special guest appearances at weddings and charity events. Yet, it takes a special person to be the fiery front-runner. Not only do physical requirements apply, mandating that individuals be between 5’10 and 6’2 and light enough to fit in the costume, but students must also showcase an energetic character.

Hatala is in charge of selecting mascots among the Sparty hopefuls. “We look for unique, charismatic, energetic people – people who are excited even when we’re losing. They have to have a level head on their shoulders,” Hatala said. But more than that, a Sparty must be trustworthy. According to Hatala, Sparty’s student identity is kept secret in order to maintain Sparty’s character as his own. “We strive to make Sparty his own person. We want Sparty to be Sparty, not someone else,” he said. He also said there is only one Sparty at any one time in the effort to uphold the single character of Sparty. With all Sparty’s publicity and involvement however, it seems impossible that the person beneath it all might remain concealed. It takes careful planning and trustworthy friends to maintain such a well-kept secret. And assuring secrecy isn’t an easy task when the person keeping it is always disappearing.

For an MSU student and former Sparty who has chosen to remain anonymous, leading the double life had its hardships. After three challenging rounds of auditions, the student earned the mascot spot. Try-outs he said, were physically demanding. He filled Hatala’s criteria and made a very lively and convincing Sparty. “I just had a lot of fun with it and tried to be as over the top as possible. And being a super dancer helped,” the former Sparty said. To rid himself of any suspicion, he often told others he was doing uninteresting things. Trips to the library, meetings and home visits were the extent of his weekly activities – or so he led others to believe. After just two weeks however, the job became too demanding. “I quit because it was more than I was ready to handle,” he said. “It was a lot more work than I thought it would be.”

That’s not to say though the Sparty veteran didn’t have any fun. “My favorite thing was getting to interact with people you knew but they didn’t know it was you,” he said. In reward of sporting the 40-pound costume, students like him are awarded a varsity letter. In order to protect their identities though, the letter must remain unattributed to Sparty.

State-goers have long speculated the duties and perks of playing Sparty, but most remain rumors. Gossip of scholarships, pay and free admittance to events have characterized the common but false perception of the Sparty position. Although Sparty is unpaid, the director sees it as a good thing. “It keeps kids in the program who want to be in it for the right reasons,” said Hatala. It is also a common misconception that only males can be Sparty. While the size requirements do typically attract more males than females, there was a female Sparty.

Contrary to Hatala’s assertion, the former Sparty says there is not just one Sparty, but several. According to the student, high profile events, like football games, are saved for the more “experienced Spartys.” These differences of account are yet another mystery surrounding the famous mascot.

Sparty tryouts are also largely undisclosed. For those uninvolved in the SAF, information regarding Sparty tryouts is hard to come by. Only a handful of connected students know about the auditions. Held in the auxiliary gym at the Breslin Student Events Center, Sparty hopefuls undertake a variety of challenges including push-ups, dances, improvisation and crowd rallying. These situations prepare them for what will eventually be interactions with cheerleaders and dancers, as well as on-the-spot crowd entertainment.

Students must make it through three rounds of tryouts before permanently donning the Spartan wear. Like all auditioners, the anonymous Sparty had to prove he could handle the costume. Running and performing push-ups with four-fingered hands and massive shoes are only two of the mascot’s demanding duties. For most Sparty candidates, improvisation is the breaking point of their performance. Auditions crowd member Kelley Smith, found the auditions highly entertaining. “There seem to be some really interesting people under the costume,” Smith said. “It’s funny to see how different people interpret how Sparty should be.”

Auditions begin with the mascot’s introduction to a modestly sized crowd, who cheer on the mascot as if it were a real event. The fight song commences and Sparty must run in, pump up the crowd and get them singing along. Next, Sparty is challenged with some scenario situations. Because there are limits to what Sparty can do, he is tested in tough situations like interacting with a shy child. Sparty must attempt to win the child’s trust without scaring or invading the child’s personal space. In addition, he must show that he can handle bad talk from a MSU bully. For one bold candidate who tackled his harasser, the crowd’s reaction suggested this Sparty would not move on to round two. For the seven other contestants, their physically friendly responses to the teasing were much more accepted. Following the test situations is improvisation. Sparty is directed to a table of props consisting of items like a body bag, a pillow chicken drumstick, a sled and hockey sticks. From these objects, he must use one in three different, unconventional ways. After all that, Sparty ends the routine by convincing the crowd he knows how to shake it. Participants must immediately switch up their dance moves to a CD of changing songs. The tracks include hip-hop, rap, pop rock and the classics, during all of which Sparty has to keep his feet, hands and body moving.

Having watched the animated performances of the eight Sparty contestants, Smith realized the work put in behind the mask. Like many others, it shocked him to find Sparty received nothing in reward of his work. “I know other schools’ mascots get scholarships, and it seems like a lot of work. I think he deserves one,” Smith said. He too wished he could don the mascot costume. Just a few inches taller, and it might have been. For those fit and lively enough to rally their fellow Spartans, there is no saying who may be the Sparty identity. Even if the strong Spartan face may not appear at all familiar, the person beneath could be your closest friend.

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