Thank You, Joe Maddon

Thoughts from a die-hard Cubs fan

By: Kody Smith

CHICAGO, IL – NOVEMBER 04: Manager Joe Maddon of the Chicago Cubs holds the World Series trophy during the Chicago Cubs victory celebration in Grant Park on November 4, 2016 in Chicago, Illinois. The Cubs won their first World Series championship in 108 years after defeating the Cleveland Indians 8-7 in Game 7. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

The Chicago Cubs and Joe Maddon have decided to mutually part ways following five seasons with the unorthodox manager.  Needless to say, the last five years were nothing short of magical.

First and foremost, I will admit that Joe Maddon’s managerial decisions at times made me want to rip the hair out of my scalp. The bullpen utilization, the strange lineup combinations, and the lack of “small ball” made me curse Maddon due to the detrimental outcomes of key games over the years. However, I will not relive Maddon’s tenure as the manager of the Cubs in terms of “what could have been” or “should have been.” Instead, let’s take a trip down memory lane, and remember what that man not only did for the franchise, but also for the incredible Chicago Cubs fan base.

From 2004-2014, the Chicago Cubs only made the postseason two times. Under the managerial leadership of one of the all-time greats, Lou Piniella, the Cubs managed to win consecutive National League Central Division titles (2007-2008), which led to two postseason berths. However, the North Siders could not manage a single playoff win, getting swept in the NLDS both years; by the Diamondbacks in 2007 and the Dodgers in 2008. The talent was there, with the likes of Alfonso Soriano, Derrek Lee, and Aramis Ramirez leading the way, but “The Curse” just seemed to have other plans for the franchise. The team would not see another postseason until 2015, which brings us to Mr. Respect90.

Following a 73-89 campaign in 2014, the front office seemed to have the pieces to build to a successful team. Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer were building a promising farm system, with superstar prospects Javier Baez, Addison Russell, Kyle Schwarber, Willson Contreras and Kris Bryant hungrily awaiting their chance to shine in the “Big Leagues.” Add those young talents to a roster alongside Anthony Rizzo, Starlin Castro, Jake Arrieta, Kyle Hendricks, and a couple of quality bullpen arms, the Cubs were primed to make some noise in 2015. In October of 2014, the managerial services of Joe Maddon became available following his departure from Tampa Bay, ending his nine-season run as the Manager of the Rays, which included a trip to the 2008 World Series. Fast-forward to November 2014, Epstein and Hoyer found their man, signing Maddon to guide the young, rebuilt squad.

Along with Maddon, the Cubs would add veteran pieces to the team to compliment the potential stars, signing perennial All-Star Jon Lester to a 6-year contract, and adding veteran catchers Miguel Montero and David Ross to call the games from behind the plate. And with the acquisition of Dexter Fowler from Houston, the lineup had a legitimate leadoff hitter, which was a rare commodity for the Cubs. 2015 was not an easy season to debut as the manager of a team in the Central Division, however, with the Cardinals and Pirates coming in with dangerous squads. In fact, the two would conclude the season with the two best records in the National League. Maddon took the challenge on the run, and would flourish in his first year, as the Cubs would finish the campaign with 97 wins, leading to the second NL Wild Card spot and the team’s first postseason appearance since 2008.

As a fan of the Chicago Cubs, how could you forget this postseason? The team would shutout the Pirates 4-0 in the one-game Wild Card playoff, following an absolute gem by Jake Arrieta on the hill. The victory was the first playoff win for the Cubbies since 2003 (we don’t talk about the 2003 playoffs on this blog. Or ever.). A meeting with arch-rivals the St. Louis Cardinals in the NLDS awaited Maddon and the Cubs. After coming up short in game one (Jon Lester looked phenomenal here, by the way), the Cubs would bounce back for three consecutive wins to eliminate the “Red Birds,” and advance to the NLCS. I will never forget the moment when former Cub Hector Rondon finished off the Cardinals with a pitch in the dirt. I fell to the floor in my parents’ garage and just stared at the TV. As tears filled my eyes, my emotions could not be matched. The previous garbage seasons no longer mattered, and we had Joe Maddon to thank as much as the players on the field. Unfortunately, the Cubs’ magical run came to an end following a 4-0 sweep by the New York Mets in the NLCS. Again, this is a subject I do not like to talk about much. However, Joe and his unrivaled charisma won the 2015 MLB Manager of the Year award, and there was no argument on my end. He took a team that had only won 73 games the year prior to 97 victories in 2015, a 24-game swing. Oh, not to mention, he also happened to manage the NL Cy Young Award winner (Jake Arrieta), and the NL Rookie of the Year (Kris Bryant). Not a bad first year.

With 2015 in the rear-view, Maddon and the Cubs looked to bounce back better than ever, and they did not disappoint. The 2016 Cubs were seen as potential favorites to win the World Series. I still, to this very moment, cannot believe the Cubs were ever seen as favorites to win a title. Even though the talent was there in abundance, especially with the additions of super utility-man Ben Zobrist and the Gold-Glover Jason Heyward, I had just been so accustomed to heartache from my favorite sports franchises, especially by the Cubs. However, I trusted Joe. I believed in Joe. This was the year.

This team was something special. Young, superstar talent mixed with hungry veterans made for instant magic and chemistry on the field. I mean, the squad won 26 of its first 34 games for crying out loud. The Cubs would basically run-the-table for the 2016 campaign, as Maddon’s Baby Bears led the NL Central from start-to-finish to claim the NL Central Division title. A key addition in closer Aroldis Chapman from the Yankees at the trade deadline was enormous, helping pace the Cubs to a 103-58 season record, their first 100-win season (basically) since the Ice Age. Oh, again, more accolades to add to Maddon’s incredible resume, as he managed the 2016 NL MVP (Kris Bryant) and two Cy Young Award finalists (Jon Lester and Kyle Hendricks).

As memorable as the regular season was, the Chicago Cubs fan base will forever remember the playoffs from start-to-glorious-finish. I will NEVER forget the pure effort and energy that Maddon brought. Sure, we cursed some of his choices, but without him, moments like these may not exist:

  • Baez’ game-winning homer in the NLDS off Johnny Cueto
  • The epic 9th inning comeback inside of AT&T Park to advance to the NLCS
  • Defeating Clayton Kershaw in game 6 of the NLCS to advance to the World Series
  • The ENTIRETY of the seven-game set against the Indians, especially Game 7.  

After 108 years, the “Loveable Losers” finally reached the top of the mountain, and it was so, so beautiful.

“This is gonna be a tough play. Bryant…the Cubs… WIN THE WORLD SERIES! Bryant makes the play. It’s over, and the Cubs, have finally won it all! 8-7 in 10!” — Joe Buck.   

2017 would bring a second consecutive NL Central Division title, but an elimination from the playoffs at the hands of the Los Angeles Dodgers in the NLCS. 2018 was disappointing, to be honest. The team would win 95 games, but fail to get past the Wild Card, being ousted by the Colorado Rockies. The writing was on the wall at that point for Joe, which, I understand. A team like the Cubs had no business losing in the Wild Card game, especially after the three-year-run the seasons prior, possessing nearly same roster. Then, following a miserable 2019 campaign, the Cubs finished with just 84 wins, far below expectations.

And, with that, Maddon was let go. I will not dwell on the negatives of his tenure, now or ever again. I sit here in regret thinking about the things I may have said about Joe at times, and he did not deserve the scrutiny. He did what many mangers have only dreamed of, and what many before him failed to do. He brought a World Series championship to the most loyal and loving fan base in all of sports. He truly is not only a Cubs or Major League Baseball icon; he is now a Chicago icon and will be forever.

So thank you, Joe. Thank you for everything. You will never truly understand how grateful Cubs fans are that you took the job when you did. Nobody could have done it better. Nobody.

(Baseball) Playoffs?! We’re talking about playoffs?!

A preview and predictions for Major League Baseball’s Postseason

By: Jesse

2019 Major League Baseball Postseason Bracket (CBS Sports)

As a baseball fan, we just watched another fantastic season. As a fan of a specific team, well, it was a less than stellar finish. But I digress. For the second time in three years, the record for most home runs hit in a season (by the entire league) was broken. It had been 6,105, set in 2017. After this season, the record now sits at 6,735 – 630 more dingers than the previous record.

Justin Verlander just hit 3,000 strikeouts and led the league with 21 wins. He and teammate Gerritt Cole each had 300+ strikeouts, with Cole leading the league at 326. Tim Anderson of the White Sox won his first batting title with a .335 batting average, while Christian Yelich secured his second in a row at .329, despite being injured since September 10th (and out for the year) with a broken kneecap. I think Yelich probably remains the favorite for repeating as National League Most Valuable Player, as well, though Cody Belinger of the Los Angeles Dodgers and Anthony Rendon of the Washington Nationals are in the conversation.

Pete Alonso (also an MVP candidate) of the New York Mets not only broke the record for home runs in a season by a rookie, but led the league with 53 long balls. Eugenio Suarez of the Reds had 49, and the Royals’ Jorge Soler (obligatory “former Cub” mention here) led the AL with 48. Rendon led in runs batted in with 126.

So where does that leave us? With October baseball, of course!

I know what you’re asking yourself: Jesse, how’d you do with your preseason predictions to now?

I’m glad you asked.

If you go back and read our preseason piece (or most of the midseason update), you can get a feel for how I thought the season would play out to this point. As far as how many teams I correctly predicted making the playoffs, I got seven out of the ten correct (Rockies, Red Sox, and Cubs let me down). For division winners, I got five of the six (I had Washington winning the NL East, not Atlanta).

The Wild Card Games are Tuesday and Wednesday this week. The Milwaukee Brewers travel to our nation’s capital to play the Nationals in the National League Wild Card game on Tuesday. Whoever wins that will go to Los Angeles and play the Dodgers, who won 106 games this year.

Wednesday’s American League Wild Card Game features the Tampa Bay Rays at the Oakland Athletics. The winner of that goes on to a best-of-five with the AL’s number one team, the Houston Astros, the league’s best team with 107 wins.

The rest of the first round includes the St. Louis Cardinals against the Atlanta Braves (Atlanta having home-field advantage due to the better record), and the Minnesota Twins against the New York Yankees in the American League (New York will enjoy home-field advantage there). Each of those series is a best-of-five.

Of course, from there, the Championship Series for each league is a best-of-seven, and then the World Series follows the same format. If the schedule plays all the way to Game 7 of the World Series, the MLB playoffs will conclude October 30th.

So, I know you’re just dying to know what I think about who will win it all. You’re in luck!

Wild Card Round

We’ll keep this one really short. The Brewers have been red hot AGAIN in September (just like last year’s surge to the division crown), but how far can a Yelich-less Milwaukee go? I think they could easily win, but I’m going to go with the Nationals because they’re at home and will likely throw Max Scherzer. I like them to go on and face the Dodgers.

In the American League, we have another matchup that could go either way. As of right now, the A’s haven’t announced a starter (though it will most likely be Sean Manaea), but Charlie Morton will get the ball for Tampa. He’s been dynamite this year, particularly against Oakland (0.68 ERA in two games). I’m going with the Rays to move on to Houston.

Division Series

Our official matchups (based on predictions so far) are Cardinals/Braves and Nationals/Dodgers in the NL and Twins/Yankees and Rays/Astros in the AL.

What I desperately want to see happen is the Cardinals, Dodgers, and Yankees all lose in the first round. That’s the fan in me. I’ll try and keep those aside for now.

I think the Dodgers will beat the Nationals in four games. In the other NL series, I think the Braves will squeak past St. Louis in five games to move on to the Championship Series for the first time since 2001.

On the other side of the bracket, I think the Astros defeat Tampa Bay in four games, and while I want the Twins to win and have been incredibly impressed with them this season, I think the Yankees are just too good and will win in four games as well.

Championship Series

That leaves us with the Los Angeles Dodgers versus the Atlanta Braves on one side, and the Houston Astros against the New York Yankees on another.

Dodgers/Braves could be a very good series. Again, the fan in me wants the Braves to win, but I think LA is just too deep and Atlanta is too young. Their time to shine is around the corner, but I don’t think it’s this year. Dodgers in six and on to their third consecutive World Series.

Yankees/Astros this year is a matchup for the ages. Both teams topped the 100 win mark (103 for New York, 107 for Houston) and are stacked from top to bottom. A Yankees/Dodgers World Series is an absolute nightmare scenario in my mind, but I think the Astros are the better team and will win an exciting seven game series to make their second World Series in three years.

World Series

Just like 2017, I have the World Series matchup being the Los Angeles Dodgers and the Houston Astros. To be fair to myself, this is probably the matchup I would have picked at the beginning of the season, but to be fair to you, since I didn’t put it in writing back in March/April, I won’t give myself too much credit.

Can this be the year Los Angeles breaks through and wins its first title since 1988? Or will Houston win its second World Series in three years and stifle the Dodgers once again?

Two years ago, these two teams went seven games in an all-out brawl of a World Series. The Astros, of course, came out on top. Not much has changed for either side, but Houston acquired Zack Greinke from Arizona at the trade deadline this year, and I think that makes the difference. The trio of Greinke, Gerritt Cole, and Justin Verlander is better than LA’s trio of Hyun-Jin Riu, Walker Buehler, and Clayton Kershaw. Kershaw’s postseason struggles continue, Alex Bregman wins World Series MVP, and the Astros win another title, putting down the Dodgers in another thrilling seven game series.

Thanks for following our MLB coverage this season! There won’t be any need for us to follow up at the end of October because these picks are sure to be a lock. Now you can get back to watching football.

NFL Season Preview

I mean, this is what you’ve all been really waiting for, isn’t it?

Fair warning – that’s the last picture you’ll see in this article. If you came for the images, you’re about to be devastated.

We are just weeks away from football season and I CANNOT CONTAIN MY EXCITEMENT. It helps when the team you cheer for is actually good for a change.

College football officially starts this weekend (sort of), though Labor Day is the big kickoff for the NCAA. Which means the NFL is so, so close. September 5th, opening night, Bears vs. Packers. Let’s. Go.

I painstakingly listed out the entire NFL schedule by hand and went through each team calculating wins and losses. In a 16-game season, with 32 teams, that means the overall record for the entire league by year’s end has to equal 256 wins and 256 losses.

My first go-around ended with 254 wins and 258 losses. Slight problem.

But! Problem solved. I just had two games where nobody won, that’s all. All squared away.

Let’s run through the divisions. I’m going to list each team’s record, in order I expect them to finish, and give their best win, worst loss, and either one big thing to watch or expect, or, in some cases, I might just rip into them for being terrible (looking at you, Miami).

NFC North

Chicago Bears, 11-5

Where else would we start but the NFC North? You should know by now if you know me, but I am a big time Bears fan. 12-4 last year was surprising, but I expect them to win the division again. Also, I cannot get over Matt Nagy wearing visors despite being bald. Such an alpha move.

Best win: Week 11 @ Los Angeles Rams

Worst loss: Week 15 @ Green Bay (which, in my opinion, isn’t a bad loss. I expect the Bears to lose the games they should lose, and win the games they should win).

One big thing: It’s all about Trubisky. How far can the Bears 3rd-year quarterback take them? The defense will still be top-tier. Can the offense keep up in Nagy’s second year as head coach?

Minnesota Vikings, 9-7

On a tiebreaker (win percentage among conference games), I have Minnesota finishing second in the NFC North. A 9-7 campaign barely gets them the six seed in the NFC playoff picture (on a head-to-head tiebreaker with Atlanta and the aforementioned case against Green Bay).

Best win: Week 6 vs. Philadelphia

Worst loss: Week 7 @ Detroit

One big thing: The Vikings could easily finish with double-digit victories if they can take care of business against the bad teams on their schedule. A lot of that falls on Kirk Cousins, who is the 2019 stock market of quarterbacks (the volatility part, not the all-time high part). But it will be interesting to see how Dalvin Cook responds coming off an ACL injury. If he can stay healthy and be an every-down running back, watch out.

Green Bay Packers, 9-7

I have the Packers improving to a winning season under first-year head coach Matt LaFleur, but unlike the Vikings above them, a 9-7 record does not get them into the playoffs. FiveThirtyEight had an article recently that asked if Aaron Rodgers was still elite. I (and you) would be a fool to think that he’s regressed, but I don’t think the Packers have the right pieces around him yet.

Best win: Week 15 vs. Chicago

Worst loss: Week 5 @ Dallas (only because I think Green Bay is overall a better team than Dallas)

One big thing: How will Matt LaFleur and Aaron Rodgers get along this year? The great oaf Mike McCarthy is (sadly) no longer the head man in Green Bay, but anyone who thinks this is LaFleur’s team is out of their minds. Let Rodgers call the shots and watch it happen.

Detroit Lions, 5-11

In the basement we have Detroit. No real surprise here. I think they regress a bit under second-year coach Matt Patricia, and it may be the last time we see him on the sidelines in Detroit, which is sad because I like Patricia. This team has a lot of holes, and it can’t be fixed overnight.

Best win: Week 7 vs. Minnesota

Worst loss: Week 16 @ Denver

One big thing: I just don’t think Kerryon Johnson is your #1 running back in a league like this. Kenny Golladay and Marvin Jones Jr. are in a similar situation – good players, but if that’s your top-2 receiving corps, count me out.

NFC South

New Orleans Saints, 12-4

The Saints were literally one play away from the Super Bowl last year, and with the new pass-interference review/challenge rule in effect, they almost certainly give the Patriots a better run for their money than the Rams did. Not much has changed. I fully expect the Saints to get a first-round bye and play that first playoff game in front of the raucous New Orleans crowd.

Best win: Week 7 @ Chicago

Worst loss: Week 6 @ Jacksonville (I think this is just going to be one of those quirky games; there are more of these coming.)

One big thing: How long can Drew Brees be this good? He has to be in the conversation for top-5 quarterbacks of all-time at this point, right? I certainly think so.

Carolina Panthers, 11-5

Carolina has a similar problem as Detroit at the wide receiver position. They lost Devin Funchess to the Colts, and their top two receivers are now Curtis Samuel and DJ Moore. Uh, what? If it wasn’t for Christian McCaffrey (who essentially single-handedly won me my fantasy championship last year, thank you), the Panthers would miss the playoffs. Though if Cam Newton isn’t able to play the full year, Carolina won’t get close to this record.

Best win: Week 17 vs. New Orleans

Worst loss: Week 6 @ Tampa Bay

One big thing: Cam Newton’s health. Can he stay healthy all season? He takes a lot of shots as a big, running quarterback. I don’t think the Panthers can afford any stretch with Kyle Allen at QB.

Atlanta Falcons, 9-7

Atlanta misses the playoffs on a head-to-head tiebreaker with Minnesota, who I have them losing to in week one. But it’s a slight step forward from last season for Matt Ryan and crew, who could very easily prove me wrong and make some noise in the playoffs.

Best win: Week 2 vs. Philadelphia

Worst loss: Week 6 @ Arizona

One big thing: How many yards can Julio Jones get this year? He’s talked about aiming for 3,000 yards this offseason, which is obviously a stretch, but if anyone has a chance, it’s hard to bet against Jones.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers, 5-11

The Bucs inch forward this year after finishing one game worse in 2018, but like Detroit, there are just too many holes on this team to be a serious contender. That, and the fact that they play in one of the strongest divisions in football. That doesn’t help.

Best win: Week 6 vs. Carolina

Worst loss: Week 10 @ Arizona

One big thing: I hate to keep focusing on the quarterbacks, but what version of Jameis Winston will Tampa get this year? If it’s the version that throws as many (or more) interceptions as touchdowns, this might be his last season in Florida (at least with Tampa Bay).

NFC West

Los Angeles Rams, 11-5

I don’t think the Rams have quite the same season as last year (13-3 and a Super Bowl appearance), but I think they’ll still be happy with a division title. They’re as good as anyone in the NFC, so we’ll see if Sean McVay can keep doing whatever it is he’s doing out there.

Best win: Week 1 @ Carolina

Worst loss: Week 16 @ San Francisco

One big thing: The Rams offense was dynamite last season, and now they get Cooper Kupp back at wide receiver. Even if Todd Gurley cools off a bit from last year, Kupp’s presence will give another talented target for Jared Goff to aim for.

Seattle Seahawks, 8-8

I have seen some NFL preview pieces that have the Seahawks as high as 13-3, but I just don’t see it happening. I don’t love this team. The defense isn’t what it used to be, and Russell Wilson can be wildly inconsistent. I think this is a disappointing year for Seattle.

Best win: Week 3 vs. New Orleans

Worst loss: Week 10 @ San Francisco

One big thing: The receiving corps for Russell Wilson probably isn’t what he dreamed of when signing his massive contract. David Moore and Tyler Lockett are a decent top-two, but Ed Dickson as a number one tight end isn’t the most frightening thing in the world.

San Francisco 49ers, 7-9

Obviously a step forward from last year with a healthy quarterback, but I’m not convinced the 49ers are as ready to leap forward as some analysts think they are. Then again, they’re getting paid for their opinions. I do this out of the goodness of my heart.

Best win: Week 5 vs. Cleveland

Worst loss: Week 1 @ Tampa Bay

One big thing: It can’t be anyone other than Jimmy G, right? How will Garoppolo fare in a full season, if he can stay healthy? His first preseason appearance was…less than stellar.

Arizona Cardinals, 4-12

Listen, I like Kyler Murray. I think he has a chance to be good in the league. And I like Kliff Kingsbury as a coach. But this just isn’t the year for them. If they keep drafting well and Larry Fitzgerald continues to not age, they could make a run in a few years. Until then….

Best win: Week 15 vs. Cleveland (another quirky one; don’t worry, Browns fans)

Worst loss: Week 5 @ Cincinnati

One big thing: Seriously, how much longer can Larry Fitzgerald be awesome in this league? 35 is not old by any stretch, but with what he’s done at the level that he’s done it for as long as he’s done it – did you follow that? – wow.

NFC East

Philadelphia Eagles, 13-3

I hate to say this after the double doink disaster of last year’s playoffs, but man, I love this Philly team. They have a real shot at getting back to the Super Bowl this year. I will be shocked if they don’t win the NFC East and a little less shocked if they aren’t the #1 overall seed, but still. Watch out.

Best win: Week 11 vs. New England

Worst loss: Week 7 @ Dallas (only because I’m making myself choose)

One big thing: I think the entire defense is loaded. If Carson Wentz stays healthy and has a big year, even if the defense struggles from time-to-time (which I don’t really see happening), the Eagles can win a shootout against anyone.

Dallas Cowboys, 8-8

Looooots of locker room and offseason drama. Some people are due some big paychecks in the Cowboys organization (Congrats, Fort Wayne’s own Jaylon Smith!). It remains to be seen whether one of them will even play this year without a new contract. Regardless, I don’t think Dallas is good enough to compete for the division title.

Best win: Week 7 vs. Philadelphia

Worst loss: Week 17 @ Washington

One big thing: Ezekiel Elliott of course. Will he play without a new contract? If not, how long will he sit out? He doesn’t really have a lot of leverage in this situation. What’s he going to do, sit out for two years for a new contract? Not a chance.

Washington Redskins, 3-13

I am not impressed with this team. Which is a shame, because they have some really good players on defense, like Josh Norman and Landon Collins and even Ryan Kerrigan. I just don’t trust the offense, and I don’t find the defense to be good enough to win them multiple games.

Best win: Week 17 @ Dallas

Worst loss: Week 6 @ Miami

One big thing: Who’s going to be the quarterback? Alex Smith had a setback in his recovery from a gruesome leg injury (look it up if you dare). Colt McCoy? Case Keenum? Rookie Dwayne Haskins, the 17th overall pick? Nobody knows. But I do think a healthy Derrius Guice could kickstart the offense.

New York Giants, 3-13

Gross. Speaking of “nobody knows what’s going on here,” it’s the Giants! But seriously, what are they doing? Besides Saquon, what is happening in the Meadowlands?

Best win: Week 2 vs. Buffalo

Worst loss: Week 16 @ Washington

One big thing: Do I have to do one here? How long will Eli Manning be under center in the Big Apple? The Giants spent the #6 pick on Duke’s Daniel Jones, who didn’t even have a winning record against the ACC. Maybe everyone (almost literally) will be wrong about Jones and he’ll save the Giants. But other than Saquon Barkley, who could be the league’s best running back by season’s end, the Giants have a whole lot of nothin’.

AFC North

Cleveland Browns, 11-5

That just feels weird to write, you know? But Cleveland has a ton of talent and a very favorable schedule. They’re a trendy pick, and I’m hopping on board.

Best win: Week 3 vs. Los Angeles Rams

Worst loss: Week 15 @ Arizona

One big thing: The Baker to Beckham connection. How lethal can it be? Mayfield impressed in his rookie season, and OBJ is a perennial All-Pro (and staple on my fantasy team). And while the optics may not look great, Cleveland’s signing of Kareem Hunt gives them a devastating 1-2 punch with him and Nick Chubb in the backfield.

Pittsburgh Steelers, 11-5

By virtue of the conference winning percentage tiebreaker, the Steelers will concede the division title to Cleveland this year. I still think Pittsburgh will be good enough to make the playoffs as the six seed, but the window is closing, and this might be their last big shot at making a run.

Best win: Week 13 vs. Cleveland

Worst loss: None, but if I have to pick, Week 17 @ Baltimore

One big thing: JuJu Smith-Schuster can be every bit as good as Antonio Brown was with Ben Roethlisberger. I think Pittsburgh’s success is going to ride on the back of running back James Conner, who was outstanding last season in Le’Veon Bell’s absence.

Baltimore Ravens, 10-6

In the first Flacco-less season in Baltimore since 2008, I think the Ravens will be good enough to hit double digit victories, but not quite good enough to make the playoffs in a stacked AFC.

Best win: Week 4 vs. Cleveland

Worst loss: None, but again, if I have to, Week 7 @ Seattle

One big thing: The receiving just isn’t there for Lamar Jackson. He’ll be able to make things happen with his legs, and I think Mark Ingram will have a big year as Baltimore’s offensive line is one of the best in football, but I don’t think a run-heavy offense wins enough in the pass-dominant era that we’re currently in.

Cincinnati Bengals, 5-11

I think the Bengals have a lot of young talent on offense, but I don’t think their defense is good enough to keep up with the rest of the AFC North. When you have three teams hitting double digit wins, someone’s gotta be the loser.

Best win: Week 13 vs. New York Jets

Worst loss: Week 3 @ Buffalo

One big thing: I really think this team is just a couple of players on defense and a consistently good Andy Dalton away from being a playoff team. Joe Mixon should have a pretty big year out of the backfield for Cincinnati. I like him as a pass-catcher too, especially if you’re in a PPR fantasy format.

AFC South

Indianapolis Colts, 12-4*

*Subject to change based on Andrew Luck’s health. But this Colts team is scary good when everyone is healthy, and I’m here for it. If you’ve known me for a long time, you know I used to be a huge Colts hater. No longer. I love this Colts team and I want to see them win (unless they play Chicago in the Super Bowl, then they can go…you know what, fill in the blanks yourself).

Best win: Week 5 @ Kansas City

Worst loss: Week 17 @ Jacksonville

One big thing: It has to be Andrew Luck and his health. It’s been an ongoing story over the last several seasons, but when he’s on, he’s a top-tier quarterback in the league. Darius Leonard is one of the scariest men on Earth, and the Colts defense is going to feed off of him this year. Look. Out.

Houston Texans, 10-6

While I was filling out my predictions, Houston’s schedule ended up looking a lot like last season did, as far as results go. I have them starting slow (2-5 through seven games) and going 8-1 the rest of the way (including winning their last six games). But like Baltimore, a 10-6 record doesn’t get you into the playoffs in a year like this one in the AFC. If Luck misses an extended period of time, however, Houston can run away with the division.

Best win: Week 3 @ Los Angeles Chargers or Week 13 vs. New England

Worst loss: None; it’s just a tough schedule. But I’ll say Week 5 vs. Atlanta

One big thing: The running back position leaves a little to be desired since I think Lamar Miller is pretty inconsistent, but DeAndre Hopkins is one of the best receivers in the league, so it makes up for the backfield issues. Hopkins and Deshaun Watson’s ability to connect makes this team fun to watch.

Jacksonville Jaguars, 5-11

I know that they have a pretty good defense and now they have Nick Foles at quarterback, but I don’t think Foles is going to be the savior that Jags fans want him to be. Plus, Leonard Fournette is basically Trent Richardson 2.0, which is not a good thing.

Best win: Week 6 vs. New Orleans

Worst loss: Week 12 @ Tennessee

One big thing: Fournette is more inconsistent than Lamar Miller, and if the Jaguars can’t get a solid run game established, they’re out of luck. Foles can’t throw for 400 yards each game, though I’m sure he’ll try.

Tennessee Titans, 5-11

I read one prediction piece that had the Titans going 11-5 and winning the division. I had to stop and think about whether we were talking about the same Titans team. Very good defense, but I have no faith in this team. I have no faith in Marcus Mariota at quarterback anymore, and I have less faith in Ryan Tannehill. Not a chance this team even sniffs .500 this year. Book it.

Best win: Week 7 vs. Los Angeles Chargers

Worst loss: Week 14 @ Oakland

One big thing: The quarterback play. I loved Mariota when he was at Oregon. There have been flashes of greatness in his play in the NFL. I want to like him. But he’s so wildly inconsistent, and Tannehill, while a very good player to have as a backup quarterback comparatively speaking, doesn’t do much for me either. I just don’t like this team.

AFC West

Kansas City Chiefs, 13-3

Hard to think that the Chiefs are anything other than Super Bowl favorites entering this season. With the reigning MVP in Patrick Mahomes and weapons like Tyreek Hill and Travis Kelce to throw to, KC could have their best shot in recent memory to bring home the Lombardi Trophy.

Best win: Week 17 vs. Los Angeles Chargers

Worst loss: None; I have them losing to New England, Indianapolis, and Los Angeles, all 12-4.

One big thing: Of course we can talk about Mahomes, but I’m more interested in the backfield. Kareem Hunt was very good last year until…he wasn’t there anymore. Can Damien Williams and Carlos Hyde provide a similar output to take some pressure off Mahomes? Also interested to see how Tyrann Mathieu performs in his first season in KC in a defense that needs some help.

Los Angeles Chargers, 12-4

Like last season, I think the Chargers are right there with Kansas City at the top of the division. And, like last season, I think they come up a game short and settle for another Wild Card berth. Philip Rivers was a revelation last year, and his receiving corps is among the best in football. This team could make a deep run.

Best win: I have them splitting with Kansas City, but Week 8 @ Chicago is no joke.

Worst loss: Week 7 @ Tennessee (one of those fluky games)

One big thing: The Chargers need Joey Bosa to stay healthy up front on defense. Another player returning from injury is tight end Hunter Henry, who adds another weapon to Rivers’s arsenal.

Oakland Raiders, 4-12

The Hard Knocks Curse? David Carr is overrated, and it’s not like the Raiders have any other options with Nathan Peterman and Mike Glennon behind him. Not even Antonio Brown can save this team, although who knows if he’ll play. That helmet situation is wild.

Best win: Week 9 vs. Detroit

Worst loss: Week 15 vs. Jacksonville

One big thing: Seriously, what is going on with Antonio Brown? Is he really not going to play because he doesn’t get to wear his preferred helmet this season? I don’t think he’s going to pass up $15 million, but who knows with him.

Denver Broncos, 3-13

Denver still has a pretty good defense. Their wide receivers aren’t bad (Emmanuel Sanders and Courtland Sutton are the top two). Phillip Lindsay in the backfield could be a nice surprise. So why are they so low? We’ll get to that.

Best win: Week 13 vs. Los Angeles Chargers

Worst loss: Week 17 vs. Oakland

One big thing: Joe Flacco seems poised to be the starting quarterback after he was run out of Baltimore last season. I don’t think he’ll be what John Elway wants him to be in Denver, although he is really good at throwing the ball up and getting a pass interference penalty called in his favor. The thin air in Denver could help that.

NFC East

New England Patriots, 12-4

No surprises in this division. Tom Brady, in his 47th season in the NFL, will lead the Pats to another division title. Even without Rob Gronkowski, I don’t think this train slows down any time soon. Brady and Belichick might be looking for a few more rings before they ride off into the proverbial sunset of retirement.

Best win: Week 14 vs. Kansas City

Worst loss: Week 4 @ Buffalo

One big thing: Which running back will Belichick feature this season? Sony Michel, the power back from Georgia is currently listed at number one on the depth chart. But he also has former Super Bowl stud James White, James Develin, and Rex Burkhead behind him.

New York Jets, 8-8

The Jets are a much better team than they were a year ago, but it isn’t quite good enough for the playoffs and pushes them out of a prime draft spot. Le’Veon Bell should be a big help for their offense, but it’ll really be about Sam Darnold under center.

Best win: Week 7 vs. New England

Worst loss: Week 11 @ Washington

One big thing: There’s been a lot of hype about Quinnen Williams, the defensive lineman who was this year’s number three overall pick. How will he fit in with the defense in New York, and what impact will he have?

Buffalo Bills, 5-11

I really like Josh Allen, and I really enjoy Bills Mafia breaking tables in new, creative, and dangerous ways each week, but I don’t think the Bills can compete this year. I liked their first round pick this year (Ed Oliver, defensive tackle from Houston), but they’re a handful of key players away from another playoff run.

Best win: Week 4 vs. New England

Worst loss: Week 11 @ Miami

One big thing: I don’t hate the acquisition of Cole Beasley, and I hope he becomes Buffalo’s version of Julian Edelman (for Allen’s sake). But the receivers don’t scare me, and they have an aging backfield in LeSean McCoy and Frank Gore. Those names don’t strike the same fear they used to.

Miami Dolphins, 2-14

Yikes. On the bright side, my predictions mean that Miami gets next year’s #1 overall pick. Is #TankForTua a thing yet? The Dolphins really need a franchise quarterback. Fitzpatrick isn’t it, and I don’t think Josh Rosen is either. That, and I don’t think the defense will be very good this year.

Best win: Week 11 vs. Buffalo, I guess

Worst loss: Week 15 @ New York Giants

One big thing: Miami has some really talented young guys! I like Devante Parker, Kenny Stills, and Albert Wilson at receiver! I like Kenyan Drake out of the backfield! But the defense is not good (they did attempt to remedy this by drafting Clemson’s Christian Wilkins this year) and the quarterback situation is among the worst in the league (toss-up between the Dolphins and Giants). Just suck it up and go get your franchise QB in 2020.

A Midsummer Night’s Classic

At the “Midway point” of the Major League Baseball season, let’s check in with our preseason predictions and other updates

If you came for the pictures, you might as well stop reading now.

Welcome back! It’s been a few months since I’ve written anything. It’s been a busy few months. I can’t promise I’ll be back as frequently as I was in the beginning stages of MSP, but now seemed like a good time to update the fans (you all) on the baseball season. But, of course, good baseball fans (like you all) have been paying attention all along, haven’t you?

Before we jump in, we did miss a few things. The NBA Championship was won by the Toronto Raptors, their first in franchise history. The Raptors came into existence in 1995, and this year was the first time they had even been to the NBA Finals. They beat the defending champion Golden State Warriors, and Kawhi Leonard was named Finals MVP. This never would have happened during a Barack Obama presidency…but I digress (/s for those of you who get it). Leonard bolted this past weekend for Los Angeles, but not to join LeBron and Anthony Davis. He signed with the Clippers, and they traded a massive amount of first round picks (5 – a record!) to the Oklahoma City Thunder in exchange for Paul George. Also, Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving signed with the Brooklyn Nets, DeAngelo Vickers Russell was traded to Golden State, and the NBA is still paying insane amounts of money to mediocre players.

The hockey playoffs were far more exciting in my humble opinion. I look forward to the Stanley Cup Playoffs every spring, and this year’s did not disappoint (though my predictions certainly did…yikes). While I was ultimately less than pleased with the teams that made the Final (the Boston Bruins and St. Louis Blues), the Blues raised their first Stanley Cup in franchise history, and it was cool to see that fan base and some of those players (Ryan O’Reilly and Jay Bouwmeester, specifically) raise the Stanley Cup. Also, if you watched live, NBC did not do a very good job of uh…censoring the players. Live mics + Stanley Cup-winning players = a lot of F-bombs on national television.

The Virginia Cavaliers won their first National Championship in April, and in case you missed it, I CALLED IT HERE. I don’t need to say much more. I’ll quit while I’m ahead.

Let’s get to baseball.

These won’t be as long or as detailed as the preview posts. I’m mostly doing this to massage my ego where my predictions look good, and I’ll quickly skirt over the divisions that aren’t going my way. When you’re the Editor-In-Chief and a contributor on your own site, you can do whatever you want.

I’ll link to each division preview in case you want to check my math and hold me accountable. Each team has played between 85 and 94 games so far, so we’re just over the halfway point with a 162-game season.

AL West: Not bad

The Astros currently lead the AL West, which I (and every other MLB writer) predicted they would win. At 57-33, they’re currently on pace for 102.5 wins (I had them at 102). The Oakland Athletics (50-41, projected for 89 wins) are in second. I had them in second in the division and winning 93 games.

The Texas Rangers are actually in third place right now, six games above .500 (48-42). I predicted them to finish last and only win 62 games; instead, they are on pace for a cool 86 wins. The Angels are in 4th, where I had them (currently 45-46, projected 80-82) finishing the year at 76-86. Rounding out the West is the Seattle Mariners. I thought they’d win 79 games this year, but they’re sitting at 39-55 and only on pace for 67 wins.

AL Central: Spot On

I won’t lie. I feel good about this one.

Most of the pieces I saw leading up to the season had the Cleveland Indians repeating as division champions. But not Midwest Sports Pulse. Oh no.

I picked the Minnesota Twins to win the division, and they have been on fire. The Twinkies are 5.5 games up on Cleveland at the All-Star Break with a 56-33 record. At that pace, they’re projected to win just under 102 games (but we can round up). I only predicted them to win the division at 88-74, so they are way ahead of my pace.

The Indians (50-38, projected 92-70) are in second place as I mentioned, and I thought they’d drop off this year to 85 wins. The Chicago White Sox are in third at 42-44 (79-83 pace, I had them at 80-82). Kansas City sits in a distant fourth place (30-61 right now, projects to be just a 53 win season…yikes). Turns out I gave them too much credit (64-98 was my prediction). Rounding out the Central is the Detroit Tigers at 28-57. Based on the number of games played, Kansas City is actually further back from the Twins (27 games) than Detroit is (26 games back), but the Tigers are in last due to winning percentage (.329 to KC’s .330). I thought Detroit would win 61 games and eclipse 100 losses, but again, I gave them too much credit. Of course, anything could happen, but their current record would put them in a tie with the Royals at 53-109 at season’s end.

AL East: Not bad

The New York Yankees/Evil Empire lead the East at the All-Star Break with a 57-31 record, which is best in the American League. If they keep up this pace, they’ll finish with 105 wins, which is four above what I had them pinned at in the preseason.

I had Boston finishing in second place, but due to an abysmal start to the season, they aren’t there. Instead, Tampa Bay is in second (I had them in third at 87 wins) with a 52-39 record. That puts them on pace to win 92.5 games this season. You can round up or down, your choice.

Boston, despite the terrible start, is in third. At 49-41, it could be much worse for the Sox. Instead of the 95 games I had them winning, they’re currently on pace for 88, but that could change.

At the bottom of the division are the two teams I expected to be there: Toronto and Baltimore. The Blue Jays have been entertaining to watch thanks to Vladimir Guerrero Jr. (who is crushing the Home Run Derby as I write this). I thought they’d win 76 games this year – they’re on pace for only 60 wins (34-57). And last, and certainly least, are the Orioles. I predicted them to go 58-104 by season’s end. Sitting at 27-62 currently, they’re only projected out to win 49 games this season. Brutal.

NL West: Not Great

This is probably my least favorite division in baseball, if I’m being honest. I don’t like the team in first. The Los Angeles Dodgers are running away with the West with 60 wins to only 32 losses. They have the best record in baseball. I had them at 95 wins; instead, they’re on pace for 105 or 106 wins. That’s really all I want to say about them.

In second place is a surprise: the Arizona Diamondbacks. I thought they’d finish dead last (65-97). At one game over .500 (46-45), they’ve been a pleasant surprise this year. Granted, that only puts them at an 82-80 pace, well behind the Dodgers, but good for AZ.

Third place currently is the San Diego Padres. I had them finishing in third at 79-83, and they’re projected to finish 81-81 (currently at 45-45). In fourth place, the Colorado Rockies have struggled. I thought they’d continue as a solid baseball team (90-72), and instead, they’re a game under .500 at (44-45). I think the Rockies will still get hot and make the playoffs instead of finishing .500, but they are definitely missing DJ LeMahieu this season (he’s in New York, on the American League side, crushing baseballs).

Last is the San Francisco Giants. Again, I’m not mad about this one. At their current record (41-48), I didn’t give them quite enough credit (my prediction was 70-92), as they are on pace for 74 wins, but nothing says they can’t go on a nice 14-game losing streak at some point. On the flip side, they could go on an equally as long winning streak. Baseball’s a funny game.

NL Central: Wrong, but not mad

The NL Central is pretty jumbled up from my preseason predictions, but it’s also the most competitive in baseball (I will give myself credit here, as I did say “toughest” division in baseball in the preview).

The Cubs (smiley face) are currently leading the division, but only by a half game. I thought they’d finish in second place with 91 wins. Chicago currently sits at 47-43, which would give them just 84.5 wins at the end of the season. But, as it stands, that’s good enough for first.

The Brewers (47-44, projected 83.5 wins) are in second (I had them in third). It appears I gave the top three teams in this division too much credit, as I had the Brewers finishing third with 88 wins. Right now, that would win the division by three or four games (depending on how you rounded the Cubs total). Christian Yelich has been unreal again, and he might best the non-steroid single-season home run record (Maris, 61).

The Cardinals have been a disappointment to Cardinals fans, and to nobody else. Jokes aside, at .500 (44-44), they are well below the 94-win prediction I thought they’d hit. And while a lot of the preview piece focused on how good the Paul Goldschmidt addition would be…well, he’s not been great. Goldy has struggled this season, and I think that’s a big reason why the Cards are in third place.

The bottom two teams are switched from my preview: Pittsburgh is in 4th at 44-45 (an 80 to 81 win pace; I only gave them 74), and Cincinnati is in last at 41-46 (I had them at 80-82; they’re on pace for a 76 win season). The Pirates have been led by MVP-candidate Josh Bell. If he stays healthy, I don’t see why they can’t compete.

While none of these teams have a particularly impressive record, every team is within 4.5 games of the Cubs. While that’s scary as a Cubs fan, it’s fun as a baseball fan. I’m looking forward to the rest of the season.

NL East: Pretty meh

It could be worse.

The Atlanta Braves lead the division with a solid 54-37 record. I thought they’d be the runners-up this year with 88 wins; instead, projected out, the Braves win 96 games. That’s ahead of both the pace and prediction of my NL East champion, the Washington Nationals. They currently lead the Wild Card race at 47-42, and that gives them an 85.5 win pace (I had them at 90).

The Phillies are in third, competing and holding the second Wild Card spot with a 47-43 record (same as the Cubs). That puts them on an 84 or 85 win pace, which is right around where I had them (83).

The Mets hold the fourth spot, which is one behind where I thought they would finish this year with 86 victories. New York is 40-50 (72-90 projection), but they do now have the reigning Home Run Derby champion (congrats to Pete Alonso!). Last, and least, the Miami Marlins are in a familiar and expected position. I had no faith in the Marlins, but they are ahead of the prediction I had for them. I thought they’d only win 53 games; instead, they might get to 60 if everything plays out as is. Good job, you aren’t the worst!

And that’s about as much as I want to write about baseball for now. I’m fairly happy with how my predictions look, but another 70+ games could change things drastically. I might look back at this piece in September or October and laugh like I did at my Duke piece (not linking that one; you can find it). Or, everything might shake out EXACTLY how I thought.

Don’t bet on that outcome, though. I’m no James Holzhauer.

NHL Playoff Preview

Spring’s most enjoyable playoffs begin Wednesday

By: Jesse

LAS VEGAS, NV – JUNE 07: Washington Capitals Left Wing Alex Ovechkin (8) hoists the cup after defeating the Las Vegas Golden Knights 4-3 to win the Stanley Cup during game 5 of the Stanley Cup Final between the Washington Capitals and the Las Vegas Golden Knights on June 07, 2018 at T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas, NV. (Photo by Chris Williams/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Okay hockey fan!

I’m hyper-aware of my audience. But to those of you who care, it’s time for our first annual Stanley Cup Playoffs preview.

Full disclosure, this won’t be as in-depth as my previous baseball and college basketball pieces. I haven’t watched as much hockey this season as I would have liked to, and I haven’t followed it for as long as I’ve followed other sports. But, I love hockey playoff time, and it’s always entertaining, even if your favorite team didn’t make it…for the second straight year (yeah, I know some have it worse).

Last year, the Washington Capitals finally broke through and won their first Stanley Cup. Arguably the best player in the league, Alex Ovechkin, finally climbed the highest mountain. It was a feel good story that bested another feel good story from last year – the Vegas Golden Knights in their inaugural season.

As many sports fans know, expansion teams generally struggle in at least their first season, if not for several years. Look no further than the Houston Texans in the NFL, who didn’t make the playoffs until they were 10 seasons in. Most expansion teams follow a similar trajectory – Vegas had no interest in that.

The Golden Knights were one of the best stories of the 2017-18 NHL season. The season started right around the time of the mass shooting in Las Vegas, and the city rallied around the Golden Knights. The number 58 was retired at the beginning of the year in honor and memory of the casualties in that domestic terrorist attack, and Vegas played with that chip on its shoulder all the way to the Stanley Cup Final.

So who will raise the Cup this year? The odds-on favorite is Tampa Bay, who finished the season with 128 points and won the Presidents’ Trophy. The Lightning are absolutely stacked, but they haven’t won a Stanley Cup since 2004, and the window might be closing on them soon. They did make the Final in 2015, but lost to the Chicago Blackhawks in six games.

The Lightning have probable Hart Memorial Trophy winner Nikita Kucherov leading their offensive attack. Kucherov finished with a massive 128 points (41 goals, 87 assists) this season, and Steven Stamkos (98 points) and Brayden Point (92) both had outstanding seasons as well. Throw in goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy and a couple of the best defensemen in the league in Victor Hedman and Ryan McDonagh, and the Lightning are a force to be reckoned with.

It’s hard to bet against the Lightning in the Eastern Conference, but they don’t exactly have an easy matchup in the first round. The Columbus Blue Jackets’ window is right now, and they know it. Artemi Panarin led them with 87 points (28 goals and 59 assists), while Cam Atkinson tallied 41 goals and 28 points (nice). Sergei Bobrovsky is solid in net, but his postseason struggles are well-documented. Columbus is a dangerous team to play in a series, but I expect Tampa to get past them.

From there, the only two teams that I think really have a shot at taking out the Lightning are the Boston Bruins and the Washington Capitals. Boston has an interesting first round matchup with the Toronto Maple Leafs, who were my preseason pick to win it all, but Toronto has been trending in the wrong direction.

The Bruins were led by Brad Marchand, who finished with 100 points. The 22-year-old stud David Pastrnak finished with 81 points and led the Bruins with 38 goals. Patrice Bergeron had 79 points on the year as well, and Tuukka Rask has been one of the best goaltenders over the past six seasons, winning the Vezina Trophy (best goalie) in 2013-14.

The Capitals return a ton of their Stanley Cup winning roster from last year. Ovechkin led the league with 51 goals, and also led the Caps with 89 points. Nicklas Backstrom, Evgeny Kuznetsov, and John Carlson all scored at least 70 points, and T.J. Oshie is still on the roster as well. Goaltender Braden Holtby hasn’t been as crisp as he was last season (especially in the playoffs), but the experience is there.

All in all, I expect the Lightning, Bruins, Capitals (vs. Carolina), and Penguins to win their first round matchups. I don’t think the New York Islanders have enough talent to keep up with Pittsburgh in their series. And while it’s hard to bet against Tampa, I like…no, never mind. I’m picking the Tampa Bay Lightning to come out of the East.

Out West, the hottest team all year has been the Calgary Flames (no pun intended). They finished with 107 points, which was best in the Western Conference, and they have one of the most complete teams in hockey. They had five players score at least 74 points, led by Johnny Gaudreau (36 goals, 63 assists). Both goaltenders, David Rittich and Mike Smith, were solid this year, and Mark Giordano could (and maybe should) win the Norris Trophy as the NHL’s best defenseman.

Their first round opponent is the Colorado Avalanche. Nathan MacKinnon is one of the best young players in the league, and like Gaudreau, he also finished with 99 points (41 g, 58 a). Even younger than MacKinnon is Mikko Rantanen, who scored 87 points, and the captain (though older), Gabriel Landeskog, posted 34 goals and 41 assists. It isn’t going to be enough to beat Calgary, though (sorry, Trefty).

My preseason pick in the West was the San Jose Sharks, and like my preseason pick in the East, they too have been trending in the wrong direction as of late. They go up against Vegas in the first round, which should be a terrific series. I think home ice and the late-season acquisition of Gustav Nyquist, along with Brent Burns, Tomas Hertl, and Logan Couture will be too much for Vegas this year, and the Sharks will send the Golden Knights home early. I’m not confident in this pick, but I’m sticking by the Sharks.

I like the Nashville Predators to beat the Dallas Stars in six games in their first round matchup, and while the Winnipeg Jets haven’t been impressive lately, I like them to beat the red-hot St. Louis Blues. I just have a feeling about the Jets and that they’ll right the ship.

Out of the Flames, Sharks, Predators, and Jets, any of those four teams could make a run to the Cup Final. Conventional wisdom and the eye test says go with Calgary, but I think I’m going to ditch my preseason pick again (sorry Sharks) and go with the Nashville Predators to make the Stanley Cup Final out of the West.

That leaves us with a Tampa Bay/Nashville Final, and as much as I love those yellow Preds jerseys and the way the Nashville fans bring it come playoff time, I just don’t think any team can outlast the Lightning in a seven game series. Kucherov could carry the Lightning to the Cup by himself, but he doesn’t have to, because Tampa is stacked. Look for the Tampa Bay Lightning to raise the Stanley Cup for the first time in 15 years.

WASHINGTON, DC – MAY 15: Nikita Kucherov #86 of the Tampa Bay Lightning celebrates after scoring a goal on Braden Holtby #70 of the Washington Capitals during the second period in Game Three of the Eastern Conference Finals during the 2018 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs at Capital One Arena on May 15, 2018 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images)

NL East Preview

Who comes out on top in one of the best divisions in baseball?

By: Jesse

This is our final division preview piece for the 2019 season, and while I think the NL Central is the strongest division from top to bottom, there’s a solid chance that the NL East race will be more entertaining to watch throughout the year.

Four of these teams believe they could win the division and make the playoffs, but the reality is, only three of them actually can play postseason baseball. And that’s the best case scenario. They could send the division winner only and miss out on the other two wild card spots.

If you’re a fan of the Mets, Nationals, Phillies, or Braves, you obviously have to pull for your team to win the division and not leave anything else up to chance. The Rockies will be strong contenders for a wild card spot out West, and the Cubs and Brewers (according to Midwest Sports Pulse’s predictions) should compete out of the Central. It all boils down, like every year, to how many wins you can scrounge up.

Let’s dive right in.

Washington Nationals

Projected record: 90-72

Anthony Rendon prepares for a game in 2017 | Photo by: Keith Allison

No Bryce? No problem!

The more casual baseball fan may be wondering why the Phillies aren’t the overwhelming favorite to win the division after acquiring Bryce Harper for a mere $330 million over 13 years.

And perhaps more than that, why would the team that Bryce Harper left be the favorite?

Glad you asked.

The Washington Nationals are one of the most interesting teams in baseball. Yes, they just lost their superstar outfielder in free agency to a division rival.

But what are they really losing? Harper may be an all-time great by the time he’s finished, but he didn’t resemble that in 2018. We’ll get into those details in the Phillies section.

The Nationals have the best top 3 in baseball when it comes to the starting pitching. Max Scherzer is maybe the most dominant pitcher in baseball right now. He won the Cy Young Award in both 2016 and 2017 (to go along with his 2013 Cy Young with Detroit) and finished second in the voting last season. In each of the last six seasons, he’s thrown at least 200 innings, struck out no fewer than 240 batters, and his average ERA is right around 2.80.

But the Nationals still have Stephen Strasburg, the former number one overall pick in 2009, and they signed Patrick Corbin in free agency this offseason from the Arizona Diamondbacks. Oh, and Corbin signed a six-year deal for $140 million, so yeah, the Nats believe he can be a key contributor. Oh, and they have one of the best closers in baseball in Sean Doolittle, who was an All-Star last year.

While Harper provided good power numbers, Washington won’t miss that as much as you might think. Anthony Rendon has hit 24 and 25 home runs over the last two seasons and driven in close to 100 runs. He’s also batted above .300 during that stretch as well. He’s quietly one of baseball’s most solid players, and he’s likely due for a lot of money in an upcoming contract extension. Not quite Harper or Trout money, but Rendon should get a large pay day.

Former superprospect Juan Soto was one of baseball’s best young players in 2018. He hit .292 with the club in 116 games, hitting 22 home runs and racking up 70 RBI. He’s also an outstanding outfielder and finished second in the Rookie of the Year voting, behind another division rival. Over the course of a full season, if healthy, Soto should hit at least 30 home runs and come close to 100 RBI.

The Nationals also have Brian Dozier on a one-year deal. He’s a few years removed from his 42 home run season with Minnesota, but he still managed half of that total in 2018, and his presence will help make up some of those lost Harper numbers.

Trea Turner has been terrific at shortstop for Washington since 2015. His offensive numbers have declined in the last two seasons since he hit .342 in 2016, but he stole 43 bases last year and creates offense however he can. Expect that from likely every day center fielder Victor Robles as well. He seems to be the most big league ready prospect for the Nationals in 2019, as he has a little bit of experience at the Major League level over the last two years, and the Nats will give him the nod in center field on Opening Day.

Ryan Zimmerman is still there, despite being 97 years old (at least that’s how long it seems he’s been there). Jokes aside, Zimmerman has been consistent, and while he was limited to just 85 games in 2018, he had a career high 36 home runs in 2017. Zimmerman also seems to have that “clutch gene” and Washington has counted on him in big spots over the years. He and Matt Adams should trade off at first base from time to time in 2019.

It’s of course difficult to replace a player like Bryce Harper, but the Nationals have enough talent to do just that in 2019, and they’d like for the story to be about the current Nationals, not former ones. Look for them to come out swinging and prove to the world that they’ll be just fine without him.

Atlanta Braves

Projected record: 88-74

NL Rookie of the Year Ronald Acuna Jr. (13) digs in at the plate last September against the Cardinals | Photo by: Thomson M

The next two teams could finish in any order, but I think the Braves are more talented, so I’m sticking them in the #2 spot.

Atlanta is the defending division champion, winning 90 games before bowing out of the playoffs to the eventual National League Pennant winning Los Angeles Dodgers. They have one of the most exciting young players in baseball who has already established himself in Ronald Acuna Jr.

Acuna was the Rookie of the Year for the National League in 2018. He hit .293 with 26 home runs and 64 RBI in just 111 games. If he’s healthy and plays in every game this year, that’s an additional 51 contests for him to rack up more impressive statistics. Acuna could be a legitimate contender for the National League MVP Award this season.

The Braves also have Freddie Freeman, the Gold Glove winner at first base last season. Freeman had 191 hits and played in all 162 games, finishing 4th in the MVP voting. His average was .309 and he can be counted on for around 25 home runs each season. He’s become one of the most consistent all-around players in baseball.

Nick Markakis is patrolling the outfield in Atlanta again this year. The former Oriole also played in all 162 games last season. He hit just a shade under .300 and was an All-Star for the first time in his 13 year career. He’s also a three-time Gold Glove winner, adding to his collection in 2018.

Ozzie Albies is another exciting young player for the Braves that you may want to keep an eye on. Albies hit 24 home runs last season and gathered 167 hits en route to his first (of many) All-Star selection(s). Along with Albies, three-time Gold Glove winner Ender Inciarte should pace both the offense and defense. It’ll be interesting to see if the Braves can get the production they hoped for from Dansby Swanson, the former #1 overall pick.

Let’s also not forget that the Braves signed former AL MVP Josh Donaldson to a one-year deal worth $23 million. Donaldson’s numbers have declined the last two years as he dealt with multiple recurring injuries, but he should provide a boost on offense for a team with plenty of it already.

The biggest question in Atlanta will be the pitching staff. Mike Foltynewicz will likely be the ace of the staff, but he’s out until late April. Kevin Gausman is also starting the season on the injured list. Julio Teheran will get the nod on Opening Day for Atlanta. Teheran went 9-9 with a 3.94 ERA last season. The rest of the rotation is comprised of young, mostly untested arms in the forms of Sean Newcomb, Kyle Wright, Bryse Wilson, and Max Fried. While the returns of Foltynewicz and Gausman will alleviate some of the inexperience, the pitching staff as a whole is what I think will keep the Braves from winning the division in 2019.

New York Mets

Projected record: 86-76

Can the reigning National League Cy Young winner power the Mets to a division crown? Methinks not | Photo by: Arturo Pardavila III

In the complete opposite of Atlanta above, a massive portion of the Mets’ hopes for this season lie on their pitching staff, including the 2018 NL Cy Young winner, Jacob DeGrom.

DeGrom just signed a five-year, $137 million contract extension this week, and I think it’s safe to say that he’s earned it. Since 2014, DeGrom has 1000 strikeouts and a 2.67 ERA, which is among the best in baseball since that time. Last season, in a year where the Mets finished 77-85, DeGrom went 10-9 with 269 strikeouts and an astonishing 1.70 ERA. He was magnificent for a bad team, and with any additional run support, he could make a strong case for winning back-to-back Cy Young Awards.

Besides DeGrom, the Mets also still have Noah Syndergaard, the hard-throwing right hander. Despite missing some time in the past two seasons, Syndergaard has a tendency to overpower hitters, routinely hitting triple digits with his fastball.

Zack Wheeler and Steven Matz round out the top four in the Mets rotation. Wheeler went 12-7 last season in 29 starts, while Matz struggled a bit more, finishing with a 5-11 record and a sub-4.00 ERA.

The offense has some key cogs that have been around for a while. Robinson Cano, who served an 80-game suspension for the use of performance enhancing drugs last season, was acquired from Seattle in an offseason trade that saw the Mets send Jay Bruce to the Mariners, among other players and prospects. The 36-year-old second baseman is an eight time All-Star and a career .304 hitter. His bat should be a welcome addition on the National League side of New York.

Todd Frazier and Yoenis Cespedes are two other names that have been around for a while. Frazier is currently dealing with an oblique injury and doesn’t have a timetable for a return just yet. His numbers have steadily declined since 2016, when he hit 40 home runs with the White Sox, but the Mets are hopeful he can bump up his average and power numbers from last season. Cespedes, who is 33 years old, has one of the best arms in baseball, but has had each of his last two seasons end prematurely from injuries. Double heel surgery last year sidelined Cespedes starting in April, and like Frazier, there’s no timetable for his return. He’s been quoted as saying he thinks he’ll play in 2019, but isn’t sure whether it will come in July, August, or September. A career .274 hitter, Cespedes has two years left on his deal with the Mets.

Wilson Ramos will handle the catching duties while Travis d’Arnaud recovers and rehabs from Tommy John surgery he underwent last April. Today, d’Arnaud was placed on the 10-day Injury List, so his return will likely be much sooner than either Cespedes or Frazier.

The offense is really going to revolve around two young building blocks in the outfield: Michael Conforto and Brandon Nimmo. Conforto was an All-Star in 2017 before dislocating his left shoulder on a swing in August. He hit .243 with 28 home runs and 82 RBI last season.

Nimmo spent all of 2018 with the Mets and parts of both the 2016 and 2017 seasons as well. He hit .263 last season in 140 games, adding 17 home runs. In each of his three seasons (partial or full) with New York, Nimmo has seen his on-base percentage, slugging percentage, and OPS (On-base Plus Slugging) percentage increase each year. He finished 2018 with an .886 OPS, which was good for 17th best in all of baseball.

If the Mets stay healthy throughout the year, as they’ve struggled to do recently, they’ll absolutely compete for the NL East crown. I expect them to be in the race until the very end, but both the Nationals and Braves outrank them in talent, particularly on offense, and that’s why I see them finishing in a healthy third place.

Philadelphia Phillies

Projected record: 83-79

New Phillie Bryce Harper readies himself for a pitch during spring training | CSN Philly

I know, I know.

It seems like the Phillies should be the NL East favorites, right? You have every right to think that.

They won the Bryce Harper sweepstakes this offseason, signing the phenom to a then-record 13-year, $330 million deal (which was shortly broken by Mike Trout’s $430 million). They traded for Marlins catcher J.T. Realmuto in February. They traded for Jean Segura in December, bringing over the shortstop from Seattle. They signed Andrew McCutchen to a three-year deal worth $50 million.

It’s hard to argue that any team had a more productive offseason than the Phillies. The offense is loaded from top to bottom, and once you factor in young studs Odubel Herrera, Maikel Franco, and Rhys Hoskins, that’s a scary lineup to face.

But this team is going to have issues on the mound, and that’s the main reason I think they’ll miss the playoffs in 2019.

Aaron Nola is one of the best pitchers in baseball, hands down. The 25-year-old went 17-6 last year with a 2.37 ERA, finishing third in the Cy Young voting. He also struck out 224 batters. He’s considered an early top contender for the Cy Young this season as well.

But beyond that? There are some question marks.

The #2 guy in Philadelphia is Jake Arrieta. I won’t hide anything here; I love Jake. He was a massive piece of the Cubs rebuild and World Series run. But since his 2015 Cy Young winning season, his numbers have been on a steady decline. The hard-throwing righty is also 33 years old this season and returning from knee surgery to repair his meniscus. He’s expected to pitch this week and be ready, but it remains to be seen how effective he can be. He had his highest ERA (3.96, still pretty good) and lowest strikeout total (138) since the 2013 season.

The rest of the rotation isn’t great. Nick Pivetta lost 14 games last year and his ERA was 4.77. Zach Eflin was a little bit better, going 11-8 with a 4.36 ERA in 2018. Vince Velasquez may factor in as the fifth starter, but he finished the 2018 campaign with a 9-12 mark and the highest ERA of the three (4.85). The Phillies have to get production out of their 3-5 pitchers if they want to have any real shot at winning the division, and the bullpen needs to be solid as well. The problem with the latter is that the bullpen has some talented young arms without a lot of experience, and it generally takes time to adjust to the big league level.

The offense will be good enough to keep them around and win a few games on their own. Obviously Harper brings a ton of talent with him, despite his average dipping to .249 in 2018 and striking out 169 times, a career high. He still managed to hit 34 home runs, drive in exactly 100 runs, and he walked 130 times. But he hasn’t quite been the same since his 2015 MVP season.

Realmuto was an All-Star and won the Silver Slugger for National League catchers in 2018. Segura hit .304 on his way to 178 hits last year. McCutchen struggled a bit between the Giants and Yankees, his average just .255. His 20 home runs were the lowest since 2013, but to be fair, his career high is 31, set in 2012.

As for the other three I mentioned above, Herrera started the 2018 season hot but cooled off to finish with a .255 batting average, the same as McCutchen. He did smack 22 home runs, and his power numbers have generally increased in his four seasons with the team. Franco had a solid year, batting .270 and slugging 22 home runs. He has 71 dingers in the last three years, so something around that 22-24 range is about what’s expected. Rhys Hoskins was the most impressive in 2018, as he hit 34 home runs in 153 games. The Phils would like to see his average go up from .246, but a season with 30-plus home runs and 100 RBI isn’t out of the question for him.

Obviously the Phillies have the talent to fight for a division championship, but the offense will have to carry them to it. While it is certainly capable of doing so, I see the pitching being too much of an issue. If that’s the case, they’ll certainly wonder whether they could have spent some of that offseason money on another arm. As of publishing, Dallas Keuchel is still available, and the Phillies have been linked to him as of late, but he still remains unsigned. If Keuchel does sign with Philadelphia, expect them to shoot to the top of the favorites to win the division in Vegas.

Miami Marlins

Projected record: 53-109

Can a spiffy new logo keep the Marlins from losing 100 games? No.

Ay yi yi.

What can you really say about Miami? (Insert dumpster fire GIF).

Sort of like the Orioles and the Royals that we talked about in past previews, this team is just bad. So bad, in fact, that the picture at the top of the article with every team’s logo wasn’t even updated, and nobody probably would’ve noticed.

Miami is firmly in the middle of a rebuild, but it doesn’t seem to be ending anytime soon. The top prospect is right-handed pitcher Sixto Sanchez, who was acquired from Philadelphia in the J.T. Realmuto trade. The only other Top 100 guy in the organization is Cuban outfielder Victor Victor Mesa (not a typo). Those two alone aren’t going to make this team go, whenever they make the big leagues.

Since Derek Jeter became a non-controlling owner in Miami in September 2017, Realmuto, Dee Gordon, Marcell Ozuna, Christian Yelich, and Giancarlo Stanton have been traded or have signed elsewhere. If the Marlins still had all of those guys on the team, they’d probably be the favorites to win the National League East, if not the entire National League. To be fair, it isn’t all Jeter’s fault, and it probably isn’t really his fault at all, but I don’t hear a lot of people questioning Bruce Sherman instead, and I’m sure Sherman is grateful to have Jeter take the heat.

So, who is still on the roster? Let’s start with some of the names you might recognize on offense. Starlin Castro, the former Cub and Yankee, will be the starting second baseman. Castro’s a career .281 hitter and if nothing else, he’ll give you consistency at the plate.

Neil Walker will be the starting first baseman on Opening Day. Most of Walker’s career was spent in Pittsburgh, but he spent 2018 with the Yankees and struggled, batting just .219.

Martin Prado is another name you might recognize. He’s been in Miami since 2015, but his last two seasons have each been hampered by injuries. Prado does have six .300+ seasons in his career, so if he can stay healthy and find a place to play the field, he could contribute.

Curtis Granderson will be the Opening Day left fielder in Miami. Granderson, who just turned 38, is pretty far removed from the days when he could have been considered a superstar. He hit just .242 in Toronto and Milwaukee last year, which admittedly was a 30 point improvement from 2017.

And that’s probably it as far as names some of you have heard of. Now, the Marlins do have an excellent third baseman in Brian Anderson. He finished fourth in NL Rookie of the Year voting in 2018, and he’s expected to be a key piece of the rebuild. Lewis Brinson, the center fielder, could be another key component in years to come. He was part of the Christian Yelich trade but has been disappointing. He hit just .199 in 109 games last season.

The pitching staff isn’t great, but it has some young talent that has potential to develop into one of the league’s better rotations. Jose Urena will be the ace once again. Urena went 9-12 last season but kept his ERA under 4.00 while striking out 130. The rest of the rotation is relatively inexperienced. The other four likely starters – Trevor Richards, Sandy Alcantara, Caleb Smith, and Pablo Lopez – have just 59 starts between them. Richards started 25 of those games last season, going 4-9 with a 4.42 ERA.

The bullpen is the same story, mostly inexperienced with a few vets sprinkled in. Sergio Romo signed a one-year deal with the club this offseason. The former three-time World Series champion with the Giants is the most experienced pitcher in the bullpen. Wei-Yin Chen started 26 games last season for the Marlins but is likely to begin the year in relief. The Marlins also seem ready to roll with Drew Steckenrider as the closer, despite him only having six saves over two seasons.

The Marlins are far from competing for anything meaningful beyond the first overall pick. The pitching staff could be a surprise this year, but playing nearly half of their games against the rest of this division and the offenses that come with it will make for a long year in Miami.

See? Still the same old Miami logo in this picture, and you probably missed it the first time. I almost did too, don’t feel bad.

The Most Wonderful Time of the Year

By: Jesse

Welcome to Midwest Sports Pulse’s first annual March Madness preview. Anyone who knows me knows that the NCAA Tournament is my favorite sporting event, and the first four days of the tournament are my favorite four days of the year. I am so excited that it’s finally here, and it doesn’t even matter that Indiana didn’t make it.

Okay, that stings a little.

This piece will have two parts: one being the teams that actually have a chance to win the tournament, and one being my general predictions for each region.

Let’s get started!

Part one: the teams that could win

Here, in an order that I will explain to you shortly, are the 20 teams that actually could win the NCAA tournament: Texas Tech, Michigan, Wisconsin, Kansas State, Virginia, Duke, VCU, Michigan State, Florida State, North Carolina, Clemson, Kentucky, Houston, Florida, Kansas, Gonzaga, Louisville, Oregon, Northwestern, and Washington.

Now, you may have noticed that a couple of those teams aren’t in the field, so we can eliminate Clemson and Northwestern.

So what else do the other 18 have in common?

Answer: they all finished in the Top 20 of Ken Pomeroy’s (KenPom) Adjusted Defensive Efficiency.

First, what does that mean? The Adjusted Defensive Efficiency (ADE) is the number of points allowed per 100 possessions, adjusted for opponent. Essentially, when Texas Tech is on defense 100 times, they’ve only given up 86 points this season, which is tops in college basketball.

Here’s why that matters. Since 2002, which is the first year that KenPom’s analysis is listed on his website, every single national champion has finished the season in KenPom’s Defensive Efficiency Top 20.

There’s one exception: these statistics have recently switched to “Adjusted Defensive Efficiency” from just “Defensive Efficiency.” When it was the latter, the 2009 North Carolina championship team finished 21st in Defensive Efficiency. But with the ADE, they were 18th.

But yes: every single champion since 2002 has finished in the top 20 of KenPom’s Adjusted Defensive Efficiency. From Maryland to Villanova, every single one.

I learned that fact a few years ago, and since then, I have not chosen a champion in my bracket that has finished outside that top 20 (which doesn’t mean I’ve gotten it right every year…quite the contrary).

I think it’s safe to say a few more of those teams (VCU, Florida, Kansas, Louisville, Oregon, and Washington) can be eliminated as well. With the exception of Kansas, all of those teams are lower in the seeding, and the Jayhawks just haven’t been as good this season as they were advertised to be, despite starting the season at #1.

So who’s left? Texas Tech, Michigan, Wisconsin, Kansas State, Virginia, Duke, Michigan State, Florida State, North Carolina, Kentucky, Houston, and Gonzaga.

You might look at those teams and say to yourself, “Yeah, well no kidding. Of course one of them is going to win.” Fair point. Those are some heavy hitters. But it should speak volumes as to how important defense has always been in college basketball, and that the teams that play the best defense are rewarded. Those 12 teams should be your only options when choosing a champion. And you could probably truthfully whittle that list down to 8 or 9 if you’re really feeling generous. For example, Wisconsin, Kansas State, and Houston are very good basketball teams, but I don’t think they have enough all-around firepower to get them to the Final Four, let alone win the championship.

Noticeable omissions from the KenPom Adjusted Defensive Efficiency Top 20: Maryland (22nd), Virginia Tech (25th), Purdue (32nd), Tennessee (34th), Auburn (45th), LSU (62nd), Villanova (73rd).

The lowest team in the tournament field is Fairleigh-Dickinson, who comes in at a pretty terrible 294th (out of 353 Division I teams). They’re in the play-in game Tuesday night against Prairie View for the right to get trounced by Gonzaga on Thursday. (Update: before I hit publish, Fairleigh-Dickinson came back and defeated Prairie View, so they will be facing Gonzaga.)

Oh, and just because I can? Indiana’s Adjusted Defensive Efficiency was 30th best in the nation this year, two spots ahead of Purdue. Go Hoosiers.

Part Two: Region by region breakdown

East Region

CHARLOTTE, NORTH CAROLINA – MARCH 16: Head coach Mike Krzyzewski of the Duke Blue Devils cuts down the net after defeating the Florida State Seminoles 73-63 in the championship game of the 2019 Men’s ACC Basketball Tournament at Spectrum Center on March 16, 2019 in Charlotte, North Carolina. (Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)

Let’s start in the East with the #1 overall seed: the Duke Blue Devils.

Duke is a pretty overwhelming favorite, at least as far as the number of people picking them to win the tournament. FiveThirtyEight puts their chances at 19%, which is tops among the field, and your bracket should probably revolve around how far you’re willing to take Duke.

If you’re in a pool where you can win money, you have two options with the Blue Devils. One, since they are the favorite, you could put your money on them and maybe have to split any prize winnings with 25-50% of your pool that also picked Duke. Two, you could go against the grain and hope it pays off.

I really think Duke makes the Final Four at the very least. This is one of the most talented college basketball teams to ever take the court together, and if you’ve watched any college basketball this year, you know how freakishly athletic Zion Williamson is. He’ll probably be the #1 pick in the NBA Draft in June, but he wasn’t even the top recruit coming in to Duke last summer: that was RJ Barrett, the likely #2 overall selection in the NBA Draft.

The top part of this region isn’t that strong. The 8/9 matchup between VCU and UCF could be fun to watch, and either of those teams could give Duke some struggles, but I also doubt either of them would be able to keep it up for 40 minutes.

I would expect Duke to play and beat Virginia Tech, the 4 seed, in the Sweet 16. A trendy upset pick is Liberty (12) over Mississippi State (5), but that’s not the 12/5 upset I would be most likely to take.

The lower half of this bracket should belong to Michigan State. I think they’re the best 2 seed in the tournament, and I also think it could have been the fourth #1 seed over Gonzaga, but that’s irrelevant at this point.

Stay far away from LSU. If you haven’t been following college basketball, their head coach, Will Wade, was caught on a wiretap by the FBI discussing payments to recruits.

Not great.

LSU certainly has enough talent to win a game or two, but don’t be shocked if Yale (14) upsets them in the first round. They can really shoot the basketball, and they have a legitimate NBA Draft prospect in Miye Oni. I’m taking Yale over LSU solely because of the Will Wade dilemma. It just seems like there are too many distractions in that Tigers locker room right now.

The 7/10 matchup between Louisville and Minnesota is fun if you’re a college basketball fan. Minnesota’s head coach is Richard Pitino, son of disgraced (also by the FBI) former Louisville head coach Rick Pitino. It could be an interesting matchup, but neither of them is going to win in the second round against the Spartans.

My Sweet 16 matchup in this part of the bracket is all Big Ten: Maryland vs. Michigan State. There are two ways this could go: Maryland is good enough to beat Michigan State (though the Spartans won the only regular season meeting 69-55), but they’re also inconsistent enough that they could lose to Belmont in the first round (if Belmont beats Temple). (That game is still being played as of publishing.)

The bottom line in the East is that this region should pretty much be chalk. Duke and Michigan State is the Elite 8 matchup you should expect to see. I wouldn’t be surprised if Tom Izzo leads the Spartans to an upset and another Final Four, but my official pick for the East has to be Duke.

West Region

CHICAGO, ILLINOIS – MARCH 16: Head coach John Beilein of the Michigan Wolverines calls out instructions in the first half against the Minnesota Golden Gophers during the semifinals of the Big Ten Basketball Tournament at United Center on March 16, 2019 in Chicago, Illinois. (Photo by Dylan Buell/Getty Images)

Of the four regions, the West is the most up in the air, in my opinion. Any of the 1-7 seeds has a legitimate shot to make the Final Four out of this region.

Let’s start at the top with Gonzaga. The Bulldogs, or Zags, have been nothing short of outstanding this year. They finished 16th in that Adjusted Defensive Efficiency that we discussed above, but maybe more importantly, they finished first in Adjusted Offensive Efficiency. The Zags scored 125.1 points per 100 possessions, which was tops in Division I by a point and a half.

They can flat out score the basketball. FiveThirtyEight gives them a 15% chance of winning the tournament, which is third best. Rui Hachimura averaged 20.1 points per game this year and shot nearly 61% from the field. Brandon Clarke 16.5 points per game and 8.4 rebounds per game. Zach Norvell averaged 15.3 points per game and shot over 37% from three point range. Those three alone are great, but Josh Perkins also averaged double figures (11 ppg) and gives an additional offensive threat.

But the committee did Gonzaga no favors being the fourth 1 seed. They have a potential tough matchup in the second round with Syracuse and the famed 2-3 zone that Jim Boeheim employs. For some reason, it seems like teams forget how to attack and beat the 2-3 zone in March, and if Gonzaga isn’t making its shots, they could be upset early.

The 12/5 matchup here is definitely intriguing and another trendy upset pick. Marquette (5) takes on Murray State (12) in a game with two excellent NBA Draft prospects. I wrote about Marquette and Markus Howard last month, and you can find that piece here. Since then, the Golden Eagles have struggled to say the least. Ja Morant of Murray State is currently ranked third on most NBA Mock Draft Boards, and he could carry the Racers to victory here. Marquette could also regain its earlier form and Howard could lead them to a Sweet 16 berth or beyond. It’s really up to you: for what it’s worth, I picked Marquette to win, but I have them losing in the second round to Florida State.

The Seminoles, to me, are simultaneously an underrated and appropriately-seeded team. I think the best way to put that is that they’re dangerous and a sleeper pick. Leonard Hamilton is a terrific coach (I can’t believe he’s 70 years old) and he’s built a very talented roster that gave Duke just about all it could handle twice this year. I don’t foresee them having any trouble with Vermont.

The top Sweet 16 matchup for me is Gonzaga and Florida State, which would be a rematch from last year’s Sweet 16. Florida State, then a 9 seed, beat Gonzaga, a 4 seed, by a score of 75-60. I think they’ll beat the Zags again and advance to the Elite 8 for the second straight season.

In the bottom half of the bracket, there are four teams with a real chance at getting to the Final Four. Buffalo is an absolute sleeper: the Bulls ruined my bracket on day one last year when they demolished Arizona by 21 points as a 13 seed. They’ll get to the second round and face Texas Tech. The Red Raiders had the top ADE this season, and the Bulls scored almost 85 points a game. It could go either way, but I have Texas Tech advancing to the Sweet 16, also for the second straight season.

Nevada made a pretty neat Sweet 16 run last season, and they have the tools to do it again. The Wolfpack finished the season 29-4 and returned the Martin twins (Caleb and Cody) and Jordan Caroline. Caleb Martin averaged nearly 20 points per game and Caroline averaged over 17.

But they won’t be back in the Sweet 16 this year. Michigan, the 2 seed, is too good. John Beilein (pictured above) will lead the Wolverines over the Wolfpack and Texas Tech.

The Elite 8 matchup here for me is Florida State and Michigan, which is also a rematch from last season. I don’t see the result being any different either, and I have Michigan advancing to the Final Four again this year. Beilein has quietly built one of the most impressive college programs in the country, and his successes should continue.

South Region

CHARLOTTE, NORTH CAROLINA – MARCH 14: De’Andre Hunter #12 of the Virginia Cavaliers reacts after a play against the North Carolina State Wolfpack during their game in the quarterfinal round of the 2019 Men’s ACC Basketball Tournament at Spectrum Center on March 14, 2019 in Charlotte, North Carolina. (Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)

I know what you’re thinking, and there is absolutely NO WAY that Virginia loses to a 16 seed again. Not a chance. I would stake my entire reputation on it.

This region has some good teams, but it’s the Cavaliers and Tony Bennett’s to lose. They have a 17% chance to win it all, according to FiveThirtyEight. Virginia had the 5th best defense according to KenPom’s ADE, but this year, they also had the 2nd best offense (just behind Gonzaga). They had the 30th best offense last season, and 50th in 2017. This Virginia team is different in that they score the ball much better than the last few Tony Bennett teams, but they also play that same style of suffocating defense that Bennett has become known for.

They also have De’Andre Hunter this season, who missed last year’s tournament with a wrist injury. Between Hunter, Indianapolis native Kyle Guy, and Ty Jerome, the Cavaliers have a balanced offensive attack that will continue to be hard for other teams to contain.

Virginia should cruise through the top of the bracket to the Elite 8. I think Oklahoma (9) beats Ole Miss (8), but the Sooners can’t keep up with the Cavaliers.

This region has the 12/5 upset that I’m most keen on. The Oregon Ducks played their way into the NCAA Tournament by winning the Pac 12 Conference Tournament, and they are on a heater right now. They play Wisconsin, another Top 20 ADE team, and if the Ducks can shut down Ethan Happ in the post, it’ll be an early exit for the Badgers. Also: whatever the over/under is for this game, bet the under. This game should be first team to 50 points wins.

I also like UC Irvine to beat Kansas State in a 13/4 upset. The Anteaters are another team that’s hot coming into the tournament, and they won 30 games this season. Kansas State has a couple of good players (including Dean Wade), but there’s just something about this matchup that I don’t like. I’m taking the Anteaters over the Wildcats.

That gives Virginia either the 12 seed, Oregon, or the 13 seed, UC Irvine, in the Sweet 16. Like I said, Cavs cruise.

I think Villanova and Purdue both win their matchups in the first round to set up an interesting game in the second. Villanova has struggled at times this season, and overall, I think the 6 seed is appropriate for them. But the Wildcats are the defending champions, and they return a few players from last year’s team that bring a ton of talent and experience.

The question for Purdue will be how far Carsen Edwards can carry them. I think they’ll get past Villanova, but if Edwards has another 4-24 shooting performance like he did against Indiana, Purdue will be in heaps of trouble. They should make the Sweet 16, but their performance will be directly tied to Edwards.

I think Cincinnati is underseeded at 7. The American Athletic Conference Tournament Champions are a physical squad, and when they play Tennessee, another physical team, in the second round, don’t miss that game. It’ll be a real slobberknocker (thanks, J.R.) between the Bearcats and the Volunteers, but Tennessee should come out on top.

The Sweet 16 game between Purdue and Tennessee will be another fun one to watch. Grant Williams and Admiral Schofield are terrific players for the Vols, and they’ve led the team all season long. As much as I don’t want to pick the Boilers, I think Carsen Edwards will have a game that makes him a legend at Purdue and carry the Boilers into the Elite 8. I’m talking 40 points and maybe even a game-winning or game-clinching shot.

But that’s where the run ends. If it doesn’t happen before the Elite 8, Virginia’s defense will crush Edwards, and Purdue doesn’t have enough firepower on offense to overcome the Cavaliers. I like Virginia to get to their first Final Four under Tony Bennett (which seems insane to me).

Midwest Region

CHAPEL HILL, NORTH CAROLINA – MARCH 09: Coby White #2 of the North Carolina Tar Heels reacts after a play against the Duke Blue Devils during their game at Dean Smith Center on March 09, 2019 in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. (Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)

The Midwest region should really boil down to two teams, much like the East did. And, spoiler alert, it should be the top two seeds in the region.

North Carolina is a popular pick to win the title this year, and rightfully so. The Tar Heels beat Duke twice (albeit without Zion), which is impressive. They beat Florida State. They beat Virginia Tech. They also beat Gonzaga in December and scored 103 points in that game.

This team is good, which pains me to say. It may be one of best coaching jobs of Roy Williams’ career, too.

FiveThirtyEight gives the Tar Heels a 9% chance to win it all this year. It would be their second title in three years and fourth under Roy Williams. But they have to get there first, and Virginia would be waiting for them in the Final Four.

The Tar Heels are far better than any teams they’d face up through the Sweet 16, and I have them advancing to the Elite 8 pretty easily.

Utah State could be a team to watch, though. The 8 seed won 28 games this year and shoots the three ball well, which would be the key to any upset over North Carolina. But don’t bet on it to happen.

Auburn and Kansas should win their first round matchups and face off in the second round. The Tigers are coming off the SEC Tournament as champions, while Kansas has been reeling since the middle of the season. Their run of 14 straight Big 12 regular season championships came to an end this year (which is incredibly impressive), and I don’t have any faith in the Jayhawks. Auburn relies on the three pointer as well, and if they’re on, they’ll beat Kansas easily. If they can’t hit shots, Kansas should win. But neither of them will beat the Tar Heels.

A lot of people seem to like Houston in the bottom part of this bracket, but I don’t trust the Cougars. For one, I can’t stand their coach. In case you didn’t know, Kelvin Sampson is the head coach at Houston; you know, the same Kelvin Sampson who cheated and drove Indiana’s program into the ground. I like Houston to beat Georgia State in the first round, though if you’re really feeling spicy, take the Panthers in an upset.

However, I see Houston losing to Iowa State in round two. The Cyclones should dispatch of the Buckeyes easily, as I find Ohio State supremely overrated. I like Iowa State to make the Sweet 16.

They’ll play Kentucky. The Wildcats would face either Wofford, a team that made its way into the Top 25 this season, but hasn’t fared well against stiff competition, or Seton Hall. That game could be interesting, because the Pirates beat Kentucky in December. Either way, I don’t see Kentucky losing early, as they have improved loads since the beginning of the year.

They should also take care of business against Iowa State, which sets up a rematch in the Elite 8. Kentucky beat North Carolina 80-72 earlier in the season on a neutral court in Chicago. Both teams have come a long way since the start of the year, but I think the Tar Heels will prove to be too much for the Wildcats this time around, and North Carolina will advance to the Final Four.

Final Four

So it all comes down to this. My Final Four is Duke vs. Michigan and Virginia vs. North Carolina. The three ACC teams that earned #1 seeds should also earn their spots in the Final Four.

If you’ve read this far, I really appreciate you. Just wanted you to know that.

Duke and Michigan would be a heck of a game to watch. Both teams can score the basketball at a high pace and both teams play good defense. Of course, Duke is the favorite, but in this matchup, I think the luck runs out. It only takes one game for star freshmen to show their inexperience, and when it happens, teams don’t usually survive.

As much as I like Duke and the sheer amount of talent they have on the roster, I think the Michigan Wolverines pull this one out and make it to the National Championship game for the second straight season.

On the other side, we have an ACC rematch in Virginia vs. North Carolina. The only regular season matchup between these two teams was won by the Cavaliers, and I expect the same result. As good as the North Carolina offense has been lately, Virginia’s offense has been great all year, and that defense…well, I don’t need to tell you anymore about that. The Virginia Cavaliers will go to the National Championship game.

National Championship

A Virginia/Michigan National Championship game would be awesome. Michigan’s ADE was actually better than Virginia’s this season: the Wolverines had the 2nd best defense compared to Virginia, who finished with the 5th best defense.

You know what they say: defense wins championships.

But offense helps too, and while Michigan isn’t bad (18th AOE), Virginia is that much better. After the most humiliating exit in NCAA Tournament history in 2018, Tony Bennett and the Virginia Cavaliers will climb and conquer the mountain in 2019 and win their first National Championship. Michigan will again settle for runners-up, the 3rd time that’s happened since 2013.

CHARLOTTESVILLE, VA – MARCH 09: Head coach Tony Bennett of the Virginia Cavaliers cuts down the net after winning a game against the Louisville Cardinals to a clinch a share of the ACC regular season title at John Paul Jones Arena on March 9, 2019 in Charlottesville, Virginia. (Photo by Ryan M. Kelly/Getty Images)

Expect to see essentially this same image again on Monday, April 8th, when Virginia wins the Big Dance.