• Early MLB predictions: Who will come out of the National League in 2013?

    It’s never too early to start making predictions, right? Sure, spring training has only just begun, but what better time to predict which teams will be resilient enough to make it through the season and duke it out for baseball’s ultimate prize? In fact, should I get my predictions right, I’ll be seen as a baseball genius. And, should I get them wrong, I can just attribute it to the fact that my prediction was made in March. It’s a win-win. So, without further ado, here is my 2013 National League Champion prediction. 

    On paper, it looks to be a five-horse race for the 2013 National League pennant. The Nationals, Dodgers, Giants, Reds and Braves all look like they could play the part this year in the NL. However, when looking at potential contenders, you can never count out the St. Louis Cardinals, a team that has lived for October over the past decade. Additionally, with their payroll and own version of the “Big Three” atop their rotation, the Phillies will look to come back strong in 2013 after missing the playoffs in 2012. 

    The Reds are set to win the NL Central, with a rotation that can rack up innings and a potent lineup. The addition of Shin-Soo Choo at the top of the lineup is one of the more underrated moves of the offseason and could turn out to pay huge dividends when October rolls around. The Cardinals will give them some trouble in the Central, and I expect the Redbirds to earn another Wild Card berth.

    A point of concern I have for the Nationals and Braves and the Dodgers and Giants is the fact that both these pairs of teams are in the same division, which could cause them to beat up on each other during the regular season. Furthermore, one of these teams might not even make the playoffs, assuming the Cardinals fulfill my prediction and clinch the other Wild Card spot.

    In the NL West, I expect the Giants to win the division once again, despite the blockbuster moves the Dodgers made during the past offseason. I believe there is lots of built-up pressure in the LA baseball community, and I’m not positive that the Dodgers made all the right moves to build toward winning a championship. Instead, the Dodgers roster looks to be full of unproven players who will attract a larger fan base.

    In the NL East, I fully expect the Nationals to pick up where they left off, with a slight decrease in run production. However, should Steven Strasburg make it through a whole season this year, expect them to dominate even more than last year. The addition of Denard Span will provide a spark at the top of the lineup and expect Bryce Harper to take another step forward this season. The Braves will rely on an aging Tim Hudson and two very young starting pitchers that have only really proven themselves for one season. What worries me more, in the case of the Braves more than the Nationals, is the threat of the Philadelphia Phillies. After a very disappointing, injury-riddled season last year, the Phillies will be hungry and the intense fan base will provide enough pressure and motivation to force another playoff appearance or a change in management.

    In my eyes, the Nationals, Giants and Reds look to be the cream of the crop in terms of management, talent and experience of recent success. However, the Giants have won it all two of the past three years, so the odds are against them. So it comes down to the Reds and the Nationals. To be honest, I can’t make a case against the Reds potentially reaching the Fall Classic, but last year, the Nationals made one decision preventing them from getting past the Cardinals in the 2012 NLDS — the decision to sit Steven Strasburg after pitching 160 innings. Strasburg would have gotten the Nats through that series and perhaps deeper into the playoffs, but the organization chose to make a long-term decision.

    Therefore, this year, barring any injuries to Strasburg or any other key players, the Nationals will fight their way through the National League en route to the World Series.

  • Oklahoma City Thunder: The greatest pick-up basketball team ever Assembled

    Now, don’t get me wrong here. I’m not selling the Thunder short by any means. I realize they’re a lot more than a glorified pick-up basketball team, but they are the perfect pick-up basketball team.

    Pick-up basketball is very different from organized basketball. Usually, the most talented team or the most athletic team is going to win in a pick-up basketball game. You rarely see a cohesive group of five random people, and since most people go to the gym to try to channel their Michael Jordan, there aren't many defensive schemes present.

    The reason the more athletic and talented pick-up teams win is that they cause the most matchup problems. The pick-up team that gathers the best washed-up high school stars who are too big to be guarded by anyone runs the court all day. Or you’re on the positive side of the action and everyone else gets to enjoy the butt-whoopings they receive all day. 

    Now think of that in comparison to the Oklahoma City Thunder. How many mismatches do they cause on a nightly basis? And those mismatches are primarily centered on former Longhorn Kevin Durant. The guy’s a ball-handling scorer playing at 6-foot-11. Think about that for a second. He’s essentially a shooting guard who can play the small forward or power forward positions in certain rotations. Durant starts at forward, but his ability to play a shooting guard-style role allows him to cause many problems for defenses. He’s too big to big to be defended by a lot of guards and small forwards, but he’s too great a scorer to be defended by most power forwards. It’s a frustrating conundrum, and whenever he gets free jump shots off screens like the Thunder love to do with him, all you can do is watch the ball go up and hope he misses.

    And then there’s Russell Westbrook.

    Even though Russell Westbrook takes a lot of terrible shots, with many of those being shots that Durant should be taking, the guy’s another mismatch waiting to happen. He’s only 6-foot-3, but with his speed and athleticism he finds a way to cover most of the court. And he’s got some bulk to him. He’s not a small guy. Many argue that his natural position is shooting guard and I won’t deny that, but keeping him at the point is causing a lot of problems for opposing defenses. Many point guards in the league aren’t strong enough or quick enough to stay in front of him.

    Then there’s Serge Ibaka, the freakish athletic big guy who tries to swat anything in the paint and runs his mouth like he’s Charles Barkley, even though he isn’t actually carrying the team. He’s just a contributor. He does the dirty work, though, and he does it well. He barks, he scraps, he takes hard fouls and he can knock down a few long jumpers. Jump shots that space the floor enough to create space for Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook to attack.

    And then whenever you finally account for all the above, Kevin Martin has to come and ruin it all. That little guard with an awkward shot release who knocks down those dreaded kick out three pointers after great defense is played. And it gets worse with how deep the Thunder’s bench is.

    It’s no wonder the Thunder are so good when you look at it. They cause so many matchup problems with their players, and those matchup problems create opportunities for everyone else. When you have the 6-foot-11 Durant spreading the floor and Russell Westbrook able to sour to the rim with the best of them, it ends up being hard to create defense schemes to account for everyone, and unless you’re a top tier NBA team you won’t be able to match up. And to think, this team had James Harden. It’s too bad that core didn’t stay together.

    They may not win the NBA Title this year, and honestly I don’t see them getting past a healthy Spurs team to even make it out of the west, but if I’m assembling my next pick-up basketball team so I can run the court at Gregory, I’m molding it after the Thunder. Mismatches win games.

  • Karen Aston lands pair from two-time defending state champion Duncanville backcourt

    On Saturday, Duncanville juniors Ariel Atkins and Tasia Foman led their team to its second straight Class 5A state girls’ basketball title. On Sunday, they both verbally committed to the Longhorns.

    The two guards make up the starting backcourt for a Duncanville team that finished a perfect 42-0 and throttled Cibolo Steele, 59-36, in the championship game at the Erwin Center. The Pantherettes have won an astounding 70 games in a row.

    Atkins, the team’s leading scorer, is ranked as the No. 10 shooting guard in the nation for the Class of 2014, according to ESPN, and received offers from Baylor, Notre Dame, Texas A&M, Texas Tech and Oklahoma State, among others. Foman is the No. 37-ranked point guard in the country.

    At 5-foot-11, Atkins is versatile enough to play all five positions. She averaged 16.1 points, 5.7 steals and 4.6 assists this season. Foman, who chose Texas over SMU and New Mexico, added 11.2 points, 4.2 steals and 3.9 assists. Both were named to the UIL All-Tournament team for their performances this past weekend.

    The two will join the Texas program beginning with the 2014-2015 season in hopes that their overwhelming success in high school will translate to the college game. State powerhouse Duncanville is becoming a bit of a pipeline for the Longhorns. There is already a pair of former Duncanville players on the Texas roster in Empress Davenport and Ashley Roberts.

  • Rick Barnes looks to land Randle, Croaker

    Although Texas basketball doesn’t have a commitment for the 2013 class, Rick Barnes and company hope to change that very soon. Plano Prestonwood Christian power forward Julius Randle will announce his commitment on March 20, according to USA Today.

    The nation’s second-best Class of 2013 prospect, according to rivals.com, Randle’s most likely destination is either Kansas, Kentucky or Texas. Randle has been fairly quiet during his recruitment, and has not named a leader. According to his Twitter feed, he was added to the McDonald’s All-American team Wednesday.

    Even if Texas is unable to land Randle, it still has a chance with another elite prospect. Orlando Jones shooting guard Demarcus Croaker visited Texas over the weekend and may be close to a commitment.

    “I like the program, the coaches and how they develop players. Texas is the leader,” Croaker told espn.com.

    Croaker had initially committed to Murray State, but later decomitted in order to look into other schools. Although not an elite scorer, the four-star prospect who visited Texas last weekend looks to be a tenacious two-way player. He has not set an announcement date.