Making the case for every fringe playoff team

The NBA season is halfway over, which means it’s time to start evaluating potential playoff teams.

The top four seeds in each conference are virtual locks, due to overall talent and coaching. The fifth-seventh seeds will do some changing around as teams jockey for their playoff seeding. Although, close followers of the NBA probably wouldn’t be surprised if the Pistons or the Trailblazers fell out of the playoff picture after overachieving slightly in the first half of the season.

As with any sport’s playoff, however, the most interesting storylines are the ones involving the teams on the bubble.

With that in mind, let’s look at each conference’s eighth seed and first two teams on the outside looking in.

Eastern Conference

Indiana Pacers (21-19, No. 8 seed)

The Pacers have been just fine without Paul George. Victor Oladipo has been playing close to his ceiling, although they’re still overpaying for him. The other piece of the trade that sent George away, Domantas Sabonis, has also been playing nicely. He’s two rebounds shy of averaging a double-double, and will probably end up setting career-high averages in every meaningful category.

While their offense has been clicking, their defense is some of the most below average in the Association. Not awful, just very mediocre. Their offense alone can win the Pacers enough games to keep them in the 8th spot. Lack of defensive consistency will have been their downfall if they fail to make the cut.

Philadelphia 76ers (19-19, first team out)

Philadelphia is one of the most exciting stories in the NBA this season. The “process” seems to have finally come to fruition, and we are finally seeing glimpses of what this long and arduous rebuild has wrought.

Even though the 76ers are a .500 team, don’t be fooled. They’re currently first in the league in rebounds per game, second in assists resulting made field goals, and sixth in points. A rested and re-energized team could ride that kind of momentum to a playoff spot after the All Star break. Plus, their first overall draft pick hasn’t even played five games yet.

NBA Playoffs

Embiid scores on Whiteside. (Photo by: Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)

What will keep them out of the playoffs is their youth and inconsistency in their game to game performances. As the season drags on, the young players might start to slow down, which will only exacerbate their inconsistency issues. Those red flags usually mean a .500 team will stay a .500 team, but playing in a weak conference will definitely help.

New York Knicks (19-21, second team out)

The Knicks are a force to be reckoned with in the paint on both ends of the court. They are ninth in points in the paint and second in points allowed in the paint. Yes, we’re talking about the New York Knicks.

The team is huge, size-wise. Porzingis, O’Quinn, Kanter and Noah are all either over or close to 7-feet. That length pays dividends over a long regular season, but could actually be a problem if they sneak into the playoffs. The East is full of jump shooting teams, which will stretch New York’s strengths too thin to make them truly effective.

Western Conference

New Orleans Pelicans (20-19, No. 8 seed)

New Orleans might very well be a better team than their record indicates. They’re second in points in the paint thanks to Anthony Davis and Demarcus Cousins. They’re also second in the NBA in assists per game thanks to some great guard play both from starters and off the bench. Not to mention they have the second toughest schedule in the NBA (according to 2016-2017 team records).

Team defense leaves a lot to be desired for the Pelicans. Bottom five in opponents points in the paint per game doesn’t make a lot of sense considering the front court they have. They also give up the third most points in the league per game.

NBA Playoffs

Davis and Cousins during a game against the Spurs. (Photo by: Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images)

It’s an especially strange case on New Orleans’ part. The chemistry and coaching is clearly there, as evidenced by the assist totals. But the defense is nowhere near where it should be, in spite of Cousins and Davis. Remember that Alvin Gentry was brought on to be a defensive mastermind, and the roster has only gotten better since he came to town. Maybe look for a coaching shake-up if the Pelicans miss the playoffs.

Los Angeles Clippers (18-21, first team out)

Doc Rivers’ team is hurting out west. The Clippers have been a staple of the Western Conference playoffs for the past six years, but the days of Lob City have finally come to an end. Chris Paul’s departure marked a culture change for the Clips, and the team has not found its stride just yet.

Los Angeles still has a great 3-point game. Beverley, Williams, Rivers and even Griffin can all pull up from distance. They also have great personnel for man-to-man defense. Those two things are golden in NBA playoff basketball. But, yet again, team defense is going to be the main hurdle between them and their playoff streak.

Utah Jazz (16-24, second team out)

The new look Jazz are in a soft rebuild. After losing their number one scorer in Gordon Hayward, the Jazz were almost certainly take on a new identity. But picking up Ricky Rubio and finding a steal in Donovan Mitchell should have stopped the bleeding more than it has.

Their defense is some of the best in the NBA, all around. In fact, the Jazz are top 10 in almost every meaningful defensive category under Quin Snider. Against the trend, the offense is what will probably keep Utah out of the playoffs this year. Although, again, this is a new look team. And offense almost always comes together more quickly than defense. If they can keep up the defensive dominance, they won’t be out of the playoff picture for long.

 

Featured image by ANTHONY GRUPPUSO-USA TODAY

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2018 NBA All-Star game starters

Predicting the NBA All-Star starters

NBA All-Star weekend is a great time for players to get some rest, have fun and entertain. Being the best at your job is always sought after, just like being an All-Star in the NBA is.

This season, there are many different combinations that are worthy of being starts for the All-Star game on both the East and the West. With the Western Conference having the majority of last year’s All-Stars, the Eastern Conference could potentially have some new faces in their starting lineups.

Eastern Conference

2018 NBA All-Star game starters

2017 NBA All-Star game (Photo from Clutchpoints.com)

There is a little bit of difference here.

2017 starters: Kyrie Irving, DeMar DeRozan, LeBron James, Giannis Antetokounmpo and Jimmy Butler.

Obviously Butler is now a member of the Western Conference, so he will be replaced. Like every year, the big man has been taken out of most starting lineups due to the NBA trying to increase scoring and excitement. The five that seem most likely to get the call include a new face who was previously in the Western Conference.

Irving, DeRozan, James, Antetokounmpo and Victor Oladipo seem to be the most deserving. This would obviously put Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid on the outside looking in, but they would be reserves.

Oladipo has proven that he can be a No. 1 for a surprising Indiana Pacers team. Oladipo’s numbers read as 24.8 points, 4.1 assists and 5.3 rebounds per game. He is averaging well over his career average in every statistic previously listed. He is shooting nearly six percent better than his career average and has a player efficiency rating over 24. He is more than deserving of a starting spot in a weak Eastern Conference.

Oladipo is the second leading scoring guard in the East only behind DeRozan. Oladipo is shooting the exact same from the field per game as Steph Curry. Oladipo is shooting just over 49 percent on almost 18 attempts, which is the same as Curry exactly.

Oladipo is having his best statistical season of his career. His stats match up against all other Eastern Conference guards. In comparison to someone like Joel Embiid, Oladipo has played in more games, averaged more points, played more minutes and as of right now, the Indiana Pacers have a better record than the Philadelphia 76ers. The Pacers have overachieved based on rankings, and that is why Oladipo’s been so important.

Western Conference

The Western Conference is home to the league’s best big men.

2017 starters: Steph Curry, James Harden, Kevin Durant, Kawhi Leonard and Anthony Davis.

This year there doesn’t seem to be too much difference.

This year’s starters could have some parody. There are three point guards in the West all deserving of a spot. Curry, Harden (I guess we can officially call him a point guard now) and Russell Westbrook.

Durant seems like a sure thing, and the final spots seem to be between the Pelican big men. In the end, I think the lineup for the West has to be Curry, Harden, Durant, Davis and DeMarcus Cousins.

Last year, in Russell Westbrook’s MVP season, he didn’t start in the All-Star game. This season, he has less impressive numbers and has more help. He is still the third best guard among that trio. It does not help that the game is being held in L.A., which means that Curry is put ahead of him.

It’s hard to pick between the two Pelican big men. They both have solid numbers and compliment each other well. In the Western Conference, the two are fourth and fifth in the voting, and they are both more than deserving for a spot in the frontcourt.

The argument for getting both of the Pelican big men to the starting lineup starts with this: DeMarcus Cousins is averaging 25.8 points and 12.5 rebounds per game. Anthony Davis is averaging 25.8 points as well and 10.3 rebounds per game. The two are averaging double-doubles in the same frontcourt. They both have a player efficiency rating over 23.7. A guy like Kawhi Leonard being hurt opens the door for both big men.

Karl-Anthony Towns is another guy averaging a double-double and is up over 23 in his player efficiency rating. He plays the exact same minutes as Cousins. The only difference is he is averaging just over 20 points per game which is nearly 20 percent less than both Cousins and Davis, and they are on the same team.

Ultimately, the last two spots in the Western Conference starting lineup are likely two of the three previously listed players. Davis and Cousins have made strong cases as All-Star starters, and they share the same frontcourt.

The hometown guy

Kyle Kuzma will find his way on a roster here. He has put up great numbers and at times has been the most important piece for the Lakers. It seems like the voters love to have a hometown guy, and Kuzma, at this point, seems to be the most deserving.

 

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Philadelphia Flyers losing streak

Philadelphia Flyers continue to recover from early struggles

In the late parts of November and early December, the Flyers went on a 10-game losing streak, placing them at the bottom of the Eastern Conference. The early season struggles set the Flyers back tremendously in the playoff conversation. However, with grit and grind, the Flyers have managed to throw themselves into the playoff conversation with a strong two months of play.

Since the losing streak, the Flyers are one of the hottest teams in the NHL with a 11-4-1 record. Over this span, Philadelphia is scoring 3.31 goals per game, while at the same time allowing just 2.38 goals per game.

The quick turnaround from the Flyers might have been done just in time to save their season. They will have to continue their recent play to have a shot.

Playoff Chances

At 46 points, the Flyers sit one point behind the Penguins in what is a tight Wild Card race. With five teams within three points of each other and around 40 games left to play, the playoff race is lining up to be one of the best we have seen.

With 40 games remaining to play, 12 of those for the Flyers will be against the teams in the Wild Card race. Down the stretch, the Flyers will have to continue to play high-level hockey to give themselves a shot at the playoffs.

Change In Play

Offense

Early season losing streak

(Photo by Matt Slocum)

Claude Giroux, Sean Couturier, Wayne Simmonds and Jakub Voracek are the leaders of a Flyers offense that has played at a very high level the last 16 games. For the Flyers to secure the final playoff spot, they will need these guys to continue to produce at this level.

Currently, Giroux leads the team in points with 52 and is the leader of this group. Giroux has taken it upon himself to spark this Flyers offense, and right now, they are playing like one of the best teams in the league. Of Giroux’s 52 points on the season, 24 have come during this winning spell. Giroux has risen his plus-minus rating to a +9 over this last stretch of games. If Giroux continues this play, it will be tough to stop this Flyers offense.

Following in Giroux’s footsteps, players like Simmonds and Voracek are pouring in numbers at a very productive rate. Voracek leads the team in assists currently with 43 and has eight goals on with that as well. Simmonds has been an excellent contributor to this run as well. Of Simmonds’ 26 points on the season, 12 have come during this run. Simmonds brings a balanced attack on goal-scoring and passing. The play of their role players on offense has been a significant reason as to why the Flyers are bouncing back.

The Flyers will have to continue to dig themselves out of the cellar after an early-season losing streak. The offense is finally starting to produce, and they are quickly turning into a team that no team wants to play. An offense that was seemingly non-existent is now firing on all cylinders.

Defense

During the losing streak, the defense of the Flyers was a noticeable weak spot. Guys like Robert Hagg, Ivan Provorov and Shayne Gostisbehere now have this defense playing well. Provorov and Hagg are two young defensemen that bring an energy to the rink every night for the Flyers.

Gostisbehere has always been an offensive threat on the defensive side for the Flyers. So far this season, Shayne has tallied 32 points, but the significant change for him on this run is his defensive play. When he is on the ice, teams are scoring, but not at the alarming rate that they were during the losing spell. Gostisbehere has his plus-minus rating at a +2 throughout the Flyers’ recent winning period.

On defense, the Flyers have made the corrections needed to win hockey games. They have had some young stars step up, and are getting production from everyone on the defensive side of the puck. If they keep this play up, there is no doubt that they will find their way into the playoffs.

Goalies

Brian Elliott and Michal Neuvirth have been a good combo the whole season. Currently, both goalies are giving up under three goals per game, and have save percentages above 91 percent. In Elliott’s last 15 games played, he has given up just 36 goals, which is good for a goal against average of 2.4 goals per game. He has been one of the best goalies in the entire NHL throughout that span. The goalie play for the Flyers has been extraordinarily consistent and continues to play at a high level.

If the Flyers were to make the playoffs, there is no doubt that the play of Elliott and Neuvirth can spark a deep run. The offensive and defensive sides of the puck have done an excellent job of helping these two out recently, and the success has followed.

Down the stretch

For the Flyers, they will have the opportunity to win some crucial games moving forward, but being in such a tight Wild Card race, they are going to have to show up on a nightly basis. From this point on this is a team that cannot afford to make mistakes. The only thing worse than an early-season losing streak is a late one.

 

Featured image by Kate Freese Photography

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NFL divisional playoffs picks

NFL divisional playoffs preview and picks

We were fortunate enough to get four reasonably competitive games to kick off the NFL playoffs last week. You can check out last week’s picks here.

For this week’s divisional playoffs, games will be picked both straight up and against the spread. Outright upsets have an asterisk. All point spreads are from rtsports.com at the time of my writing.

Postseason record- 3-1

Postseason record against the spread- 2-2

Saturday

Falcons at Eagles – For the first time since the NFL adopted its current playoff format, a sixth seed is favorite over a home standing top seed. This is not without merit though. Without Carson Wentz, the Eagles are just another average to below-average football team. In the final two games of the regular season, Philadelphia’s offense accounted for a grand total of 13 points, and the team as a whole was pushed around for long stretches by the non-playoff bound Cowboys and Raiders.

The above paragraph is not a good recipe for taking on the Falcons at the moment. Atlanta needed to win as much as humanly possible late in the regular season to keep its playoff hopes alive. The sudden death nature of the NFL playoffs changed nothing for them last week. They have been in that situation for almost 2 months.

Reigning MVP Matt Ryan and the offense are not quite the juggernaut they were last year, but they are still very good. What has sparked Atlanta’s late-season run as much as anything is defense. The Falcons have not surrendered more than 24 points in a game since Week 11. This includes holding the top-ranked scoring offense to just 13 points last week. If all the offense has to do is score in the high 20s, this team is tough to beat.

Apart from winning a shootout with the lowly Giants, the Eagles offense has not gotten anywhere close to the high 20s with backup quarterbacks since the injury to Wentz. Philadelphia’s defense is pretty good and has stood on its head in recent weeks to keep the Eagles in games. Thus, this will not be a blowout.

However, one of these teams is quarterbacked by Matt Ryan and the other by Nick Foles. Sometimes, it is just that simple.

Winner: Atlanta

Good bet: Falcons (-3) Atl 21 Phi 13

Titans at Patriots – Tennessee did a great job of making a few plays to pull off the big upset in Kansas City last week. However, that result had more to do with Kansas City’s collapse. If New England has a double-digit lead, whoever is playing running back will get the ball a lot more than 11 or 12 times.

NFL divisional playoffs picks

Photo from USA Today

You can’t help but be impressed with the resilience and toughness of Tennessee. That roster is not good enough to get to this point on talent alone. Different guys have stepped up for them all year long. Last week, it was Marcus Mariota playing with his head on a swivel to complete a touchdown pass to himself and Derrick Henry rushing for 156 yards in the absence of backfield mate DeMarco Murray that made the difference.

However, the Titans lack the firepower to really make the Patriots nervous in a playoff game. At this point, nothing more can be said about the greatness of Tom Brady and Bill Belichick. They are 25-9 in playoff games. Moreover, only three of those nine losses have been at home. Tennessee will keep this close for a while with solid fundamental football, but New England will pull away late.

Winner: New England

Good bet: Patriots (-13) NE 34 Ten 20

Sunday

Jaguars at Steelers – Vegas is showing great restraint by making the Steelers only a seven-point favorite here. With the way the Jacksonville passing offense has looked for the last month, a double-digit spread would have been perfectly reasonable.

However, the Jacksonville defense has shut down some very good offenses this year. The Jaguars went in to Pittsburgh early in the year and intercepted Ben Roethlisberger five times in a route.

Also, there is more than one way to look at the performance of Blake Bortles last week. It is easy to say he threw for just 87 yards and therefore was completely awful, or you can commend him for his 88 rushing yards and ability to make enough plays for his team to win, even though he did not play very well.

Not very many people have subscribed to the second school of thought leading up to this game, but I am one of them. With a great supporting cast around him, Bortles is fine. Other than one or two games, Jacksonville has had no problem scoring points this year. Almost every offense is going to get shut down at least once or twice a year, no matter who the quarterback is.

Jacksonville is too good to get blown out. Any team that leads the league in rushing offense, as well as several defensive categories, is capable of going anywhere and beating anyone. However, Roethlisberger getting Antonio Brown back will be the difference in this one. Even if Brown is not fully healthy, his presence alone gives the vaunted Jacksonville defense another thing to worry about on a loaded Steelers offense.

Winner: Pittsburgh

Good Bet: Jaguars (+7) Pit 27 Jac 24

Saints at Vikings – No team was more impressive than New Orleans last week. All year, the Saints had done most of their damage by running the ball with Mark Ingram and Alvin Kamara. Carolina held that duo to under 50 combined rushing yards. The Saints still managed to win. Drew Brees showed us all why he is going to the Hall of Fame someday.

NFL divisional playoffs picks

Photo from si.com

Unless there is a truly dominant team, whoever wins the Super Bowl has to find a way to win a game or two where its best stuff is not working. There is no dominant NFL team this year, and that is exactly what the Saints did last week.

This week, the task is a little bit tougher as New Orleans goes on the road to face another very stout defensive unit in Minnesota. The vast majority of Minnesota’s success this year has come from backups, castoffs and other spare parts. Mike Zimmer and his staff have done an incredible job of getting the most out of Case Keenum. Keenum has nearly doubled his career touchdown passes this season. However, much like the other NFC matchup this weekend, it is foolish not to take the established star quarterback over the journeyman in playoff football.

Winner: New Orleans

Good Bet: *Saints (+ 5.5) NO 27 Min 20

 

Featured image from chiefs.com

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Top MLB prospects 2018

Four prospects to watch for in 2018

With spring training just a few short weeks ahead, it is time to start thinking about this year in prospects.

For this article, we will be looking at four prospects that could make a big league impact in 2018. Not only that, but they could be players to keep an eye out for rookie of the year.

Nick Senzel: Cincinnati Reds

Top MLB prospects 2018

Senzel is the brightest name in the Reds’ farm. (Photo from Cincinnati Enquirer)

Senzel, the second overall pick of the 2016 draft, will likely be making his major league debut in 2018. He is a plus defender at third base and has excellent speed that can turn him into a base-stealing threat.

Senzel also possess an excellent batter’s eye and should be able to draw walks at the big league level. There is no doubt that he is the best prospect in the Reds ranks, so he will be an excellent addition to an already solid Reds offense in 2018.

The Reds, and the rest of the MLB, considered Senzel to be one of the most big-league ready bats in the 2016 draft. This is a big reason why the Reds took him so high, along with the fact he may be the best bat in that class. Expect him to make a large improvement to a Reds offense that could possibly go toe to toe with anyone in the league.

Ronald Acuna: Atlanta Braves

Acuna is one of the younger prospects that could be making a difference in 2018. He is just 20 years old, but may have one of the brightest futures. He has the chance to be one of the next great five-tool players. Although he has power potential, he has yet to show it too much in the minors. He has lots of time to get stronger and develop that potential power down the road.

What Acuna has been able to show in the minors is ability to hit well to all fields. He has hit for a high average and is a great base-stealing threat.

Acuna was named the Arizona Fall League MVP in 2017. In 23 games, he was able to hit for .325/.414/.639 along with seven home runs. The potential is great for the young Braves phenom, and he could force himself to be in contention for Rookie of the Year in 2018.

Alex Reyes: St. Louis Cardinals

Top MLB prospects 2018

Alex Reyes still has some time before he reaches the starting rotation. (Photo from ESPN)

Reyes is one of the top prospects in the Cardinals system and already had major league time in 2016. In 12 games, he was able to post a 1.57 ERA with 52 strikeouts in 46 innings. He would have played in 2017 as well, but he missed the whole year after getting Tommy John surgery.

The 23-year-old out of New Jersey has a stellar fastball that has already been able to blow away major league hitters. His fastball coupled with an 88-90 mph changeup has high strikeout potential. He will be an excellent major league starter given the opportunity.

In the case of 2018, Reyes may not get many extended looks at the starting role. Since Reyes is still very young and is coming off a big surgery, the Cardinals are going to be very careful with him in 2018. They have already stated that he may not get work until late April, and at that point will get a bullpen role.

The Cardinals are in need of a closer at the moment. If they do not trade for one or sign someone like Greg Holland, there are rumors that Reyes could get looks in the closer role. Either way, Reyes is going to be a big name in the big leagues.

Michael Kopech: Chicago White Sox

Kopech is the kind of starter that tops out at 100 mph that can still reach the high 90s late in games. He is ranked as the second best prospect in an absolutely stacked White Sox system.

Kopech has been compared to Noah Syndergaard due to his wide arsenal. That is largely why he was a centerpiece in the Chris Sale trade with the Boston Red Sox.

He still has some work to be done before he is the fine tuned starter that he could be one day. Kopech can strike guys out like no other, but still has some control issues that can be worked on over time. It is nothing that you don’t see with high-velocity young pitchers. Chicago still has time before they are where they want to be on the big league level, but Kopech will get some solid time in 2018 where he can prove his star potential.

 

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Early college football top 25 for the 2018 season

Alabama had a thrilling comeback to win yet another title. It included putting in a freshman quarterback, who hadn’t played a meaningful snap all season long. The game just goes to show that college football is unique and great. While the 2017 season is now over it is time to look ahead to the 2018 season. Here is the early college football top 25 for the 2018 season:

1. Alabama Crimson Tide

While they always lose talent to the NFL, Alabama can replace it. Jalen Hurts or Tua Tagovailoa will lead the offense alongside any of the talented running backs that decide to return to school. Najee Harris found some daylight in the title game and will also be back. The defense will lose a lot more talent to the NFL, but they always step up. A lot of players got experience this season due to injuries.

2. Clemson Tigers

Clemson made a third straight College Football Playoff and will compete for another next season. Kelly Bryant and the talented running backs will be back. Deon Cain and Hunter Renfrow need to make their decisions still, but Clemson can replace them. The defense always reloads and will at the very least have stud defensive tackle Dexter Lawrence to build around.

3. Ohio State Buckeyes

Early college football top 25 for the 2018 season

J.K. Dobbins (Photo by cleveland.com)

J.T. Barrett may be leaving, but Dwayne Haskins looked good in relief against Michigan. Add him with J.K. Dobbins, Mike Weber and the majority of the offensive line returning and it has the makings of a good offense. The defense will still have Nick Bosa and Dre’Mont Jones, which will help make up a good defensive line.

4. Washington Huskies

The Huskies had a young team this season that saw them replace a lot of NFL talent on defense. Jake Browning should return to school to lead the team at quarterback. Myles Gaskin and Dante Pettis could both be lost to the NFL, but if Gaskin elects to return to school, the offense will be solid. The majority of the defense will return, but will have to fill holes left by Vita Vea and some very good linebackers.

5. Miami Hurricanes

Is Malik Rosier the answer at quarterback? Only time will tell. The Hurricanes should have him, Mark Walton and Ahmmon Richards back to make plays. They do lose a lot on the offensive line, but should be able to replace it. Miami should also get most of their defense back, which includes a great back seven of talented linebackers and a good secondary.

6. Michigan State Spartans

L.J. Scott decided to return to school, giving Michigan State almost all their starters back for next year. After winning ten games this season, they should be expected to compete even more next season. Brian Lewerke is a dual-threat that is expected to improve this offseason. The defense was very young and should also get a lot better next season.

7. Georgia Bulldogs

The Bulldogs just played in the National Championship, but are going to lose a lot of talent, especially on their defense. They could lose up to nine or ten players from the defense, which will not be easy to replace. Georgia has some playmakers on offense returning in Jake Fromm, D’Andre Swift and Riley Ridley. Most of their offensive line also returns.

8. Wisconsin Badgers

Wisconsin got a huge win when linebacker T.J. Edwards said he was returning for his senior season. He will give the defense some stability, as they lose a lot this offseason. The offense will be expected to pick up the slack, as Jonathan Taylor had a fantastic freshman season and most of his offensive line will return. The question is: How well can Alex Hornibrook play?

9. Oklahoma Sooners

Lincoln Riley did a fantastic job in his first year as head coach, but now has to move on without Baker Mayfield. Kyler Murray was a highly-touted recruit that Riley can mold. Freshman running back Rodney Anderson also returns after having a great season and Rose Bowl. Add those two to wide receiver “Hollywood” Brown and the offense should be set. Defensively, some talent will move on, but the offense is the strength of the team.

10. Virginia Tech Hokies

Early college football top 25 for the 2018 season

Josh Jackson (Photo by cjonline.com)

Josh Jackson had a fantastic freshman season that resulted in nine wins. His progression is what carries this ranking. Travon McMillan and Cam Phillips, his two offensive weapons at running back and wide receiver, are gone. Young receivers will need to step up and they will also need to replace a few offensive linemen. The Hokies will return about six or seven starters on defense, but will need to replace some NFL-level talent.

11. Penn State Nittany Lions 

Saquon Barkley is gone, but Trace McSorley is back again. He will now have to be the focal point of the offense with a new offensive coordinator. Most of the offensive line returns, but a lot of new faces will have to step up on defense, as they had a lot of seniors getting significant playing time.

12. Auburn Tigers

The Tigers had a great season that resulted with them playing in the Cotton Bowl. Auburn gets quarterback Jarrett Stidham back, while Kerryon Johnson is leaving for the NFL. They will lose some quality players on defense, but will get the majority back for 2018.

13. Stanford Cardinal

Bryce Love is likely going to the NFL. The good news for Stanford is they can seemingly plug in a lot of running backs into their system to be productive. K.J. Costello also showed some flashes of being a very good quarterback. They lose more than half of their defense to seniors, but the returning players are solid.

14. Notre Dame Fighting Irish

Both Josh Adams and Equanimeous St. are trying to make it at the next level. Losing Mike McGlinchey and Quenton Nelson deals a significant blow to the offense of Notre Dame. They still have some good offensive linemen, running backs and wide receivers who will step up next season. That only leaves the matter of quarterback. Ian Book and Brandon Wimbush will battle it out in the offseason for the starting role. The seniors leaving the defense will leave a mark, but a lot of players returning have gotten significant playing time due to injuries over the previous few seasons.

15. Boise State Broncos

Boise State has a chance to be in the national spotlight again this year, after fading in the past few seasons. Quarterback Brett Rypien and running back Alexander Mattison return, which should help keep the offense rolling. Losing wide receiver Cedrick Wilson and some offensive linemen will hurt, but they will manage. The defense is young and pretty much all returning next season, meaning they should be dominant.

16. LSU Tigers

The Tigers will have to replace a lot of their offense, but they have some talented recruits waiting to take the team to the next level. Myles Brennan looks to take over at quarterback after seeing action in six games this season. He was a highly-touted recruit that should be able to make plays with another year under his belt. A lot of good players from LSU’s defense will be missing as well, so they’re recruits will need to step up.

17. Michigan Wolverines

Early college football top 25 for the 2018 season

Shea Patterson (Photo by freep.com)

Michigan won the Shea Patterson sweepstakes and the quarterback transfer from Ole Miss. Brandon Peters also showed potential at the position this season. They’ll need skill position players to step up next season. Donovan Peoples-Jones is in store for a big year at wide receiver if the quarterback play is good enough. The defense returns most of its key players. A player to watch is linebacker Devin Bush, who is one of the best in the country.

18. USC Trojans

Sam Darnold helped lead USC back to prominence, but now he is gone. Gone too are running back Ronald Jones and wide receiver Deontay Burnett. Two offensive linemen also graduate, so they will have some big shoes to fill in Los Angeles. A lot of their players on the defensive side of the ball will be testing the NFL Draft waters, so sophomore corner Jack Jones will have to step up and be a leader.

19. West Virginia Mountaineers

Will Grier had a great season for West Virginia and has decided to return to school. With most of his weapons back, Grier should have the Mountaineers in good position to have one of the best offenses in the country once again. While the defense isn’t the strength of the team, a lot of returning players will be good to work with.

20. Florida Atlantic Owls

Florida Atlantic hit a home run when they hired Lane Kiffin. He took a team that was supposed to be very bad and made them a conference championship team. Running back Devin Singletary was one of the most productive running backs in the country this season and will be back for his junior year. A young defense should also improve as a lot more people hop on the “Lane Train”.

21. Kansas State Wildcats

Bill Snyder is back for another season. They won nine games in 2016 and eight games this season with young teams. Now, with a bunch of veterans, the Wildcats are looking to compete more in the Big 12. Wide receiver Byron Pringle will be asked to do a lot for this team, but they will mainly try to run the football. If D.J. Reed decides to return at corner, it should be another solid year for the Wildcats.

22. Northwestern Wildcats

They won ten games this season and will be back for more next season. While their career leading rusher, Justin Jackson, is graduating, they seem to believe freshman Jeremy Larkin can be a workhorse back in his sophomore year. Quarterback Clayton Thorson is also back for next season, but is recovering from a torn ACL in the Music City Bowl. Freshman linebacker Paddy Fisher looks like he will be on of their all-time greats.

23. Florida State Seminoles

Early college football top 25 for the 2018 season

Deondre Francois (photo by gridironnow.com)

Willie Taggart did a good job of turning around Oregon in his one season in Eugene. He is a solid coach who will get some talent returning. With Deondre Francois back at quarterback, Cam Akers at running back and a lot of good receivers, they should be solid on offense. The offensive line has struggled in the last few years, they are young and shold improve. A lot might need to be replaced on defense, but they have recruited well.

24. Mississippi State Bulldogs

If Nick Fitzgerald can recover from a gruesome leg injury, the Bulldogs have the makings of a good team. They get most of their team back, which is encouraging, but Dan Mullen left for Florida. Joe Moorehead will try to make Mississippi State’s offense a lot better, just like he did at Penn State.

25. Texas A&M Aggies

Jimbo Fisher is a great haul for Texas A&M. He will have to work with quarterbacks Kellen Mond and Nick Starkel, but they can be successful. Trayveon Willliams returns at running back, along with a lot of the offensive line, but they will have to replace Christian Kirk. A lot of their best defensive players will be playing on Sundays next year, so Fisher has a little bit of work cut out for him on that side of the ball.

 

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trade deadline

Buyers and Sellers at The Trade Deadline: February 26th

The end is near for some. For others, it’s just the beginning.

The majority of teams are past the halfway point of the regular season. The marathon part of the year is over, it is now a dead sprint to the finish line and to playoff hockey.

Buyers and sellers will soon come forth as we approach the trade deadline. There are obvious active participants as we approach Feb. 26th, but also inactive participants. You have teams like Vegas who are willing to stand pat and trust their current rosters as they embark on a playoff push. Regardless, everything is now kicked up a notch..

Today we will discuss teams that are willing to buy or sell. It also cannot be stressed enough that the greatest tournament in sports (the Stanley Cup Playoffs) is right around the corner. We will dissect the statuses of the handful of teams most likely making moves, but will also note that the battle for Hockey’s Holy Grail is near. Nevertheless, who’s buying and who’s selling??

Buyers–>The St. Louis Blues.

trade deadline

Photo from Twitter

Yeah, I got to do it. In the most humble and non-biased way possible, the St. Louis Blues need to be buyers as legitimate Stanley Cup contenders. They have been fighting the injured reserve all year, which has taken a toll on their depth. Their top point getter (at the time of injury) Jaden Schwartz went down with an ankle injury on December 9th. Since then, the Blues have won just six games and have scored only 26 goals in their last 14 games sitting in 2nd place in the Central..

GM Doug Armstrong has said to Hockey Central that the team is not in the market for a rental player (reported by Sportsnet). With their limited cap space they have expressed interest in a 28 year old Mike Hoffman (Senators) who is signed through 2020. Hoffman would be a vital piece to St. Louis having scored 27, 29, and 26 goals the past three seasons. They have Ottawa’s attention as well with their prospect collection (Jordan Kyrou/Klim Kostin) and seem to be ready to make a move. Getting Schwartz back within the month and adding another sniper in the mix puts St. Louis in a much better position heading into the postseason.

Tuesday night marks the last game for the Blues before their bye week. They have played far more games than everyone in their division at 46 (after Tues.) making a win crucial. St. Louis will take the ice against the Florida Panthers at Scottrade Center at 7pmCT before getting a chance to rest and refuel.

Sellers–>Montreal Canadiens.

trade deadline

Photo from A Winning Habit

The Habs are currently seven points behind Pittsburgh for the second wild card spot in the East. They are in a bad spot because they would have to leapfrog six teams, three of which have games in hand on them. Their position prior to the trade deadline has been deemed as sellers. The Canadiens have scored 13 goals in their last eight games. Montreal is in no way out of the playoff race, but Carey Price would have to go on a run down the stretch as they are 29th in the league in scoring (2.46 goals per game).

Max Pacioretty (Canadiens Captain) has been reported as the main player on the trading block. It’s hard to imagine with Pacioretty having five of Montreal’s 12 30-goal campaigns in the last 20 seasons. He has immense value as the 29-year old is not even a rental with one year beyond 2018 remaining on his contract. GM Marc Bergevin has said that while the team is obviously looking for picks and prospects, they also are eyeing a top goal scorer in return for the Habs’ captain.

Montreal is off until Saturday when they are home to the Boston Bruins. They have 40 games remaining to make some sort of push, but it is almost clear they cannot compete with playoff teams. With points in only four of their last 10 and just seven wins away from home it’s going to be a tough road down the stretch.

Buyers–>Columbus Blue Jackets.

trade deadline

Photo from MyNHLTradeRumors.com

The Blue Jackets made a splash in the offseason acquiring Artemi Panarin. Everything seemed to be falling into place as they were atop the Metro Division for the majority of the first half. The Capitals hot streak that has surged them to the top along with key injuries to Columbus makes them buyers at the trade deadline. The Jackets are currently without top players Cam Atkinson, Alexander Wennberg and Brandon Dubinsky. Columbus is currently just 24th in the league in scoring putting in 2.71 goals per game.

As the Jackets continue to battle in getting healthy, GM Jarmo Kekalainen will definitely look to add to his contending team. He is said to be targeting a top two center by the February 26 deadline. Kekalainen has approximately 4.3 million in cap space to work with as he eyes former Blue Jacket Derick Brassard. The 30 year old has played in 40 games this year for Ottawa with 11 goals and 16 assists. The Canadien born center spent his first six years in Columbus and could most certainly bolster their somewhat underachieving offense.

The Blue Jackets sit in third place in the Metropolitan Division. They have played two more games than Washington and three more than New Jersey coming into Tuesday. It is going to be a dog fight to the very end of the regular season for home-ice advantage. Columbus has the talent to compete, but are again looking for help with 38 games remaining on their schedule.

“Let’s getter goin’ here”

All of this is very relevant information as we approach almost one month until the trade deadline. The reshaping of teams will soon commence, but there is a much greater circumstance forthcoming. Every game and every two points on the line now takes greater significance..

We are two and a half months away from playoff hockey. Two and a half months away from throwing the standings and seedings away and the best teams competing for Lord Stanley’s Cup..

It is the toughest trophy to win in sports, and the decisions made prior to February 26th have great impact. I don’t even want to talk about it anymore. Let’s just getter goin’ and enjoy it.

 

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Johnny Bower

Johnny Bower: The pioneer of hockey toughness

In honor of the passing of Johnny “The China Wall” Bower over the holiday break, I thought it would only be right to dedicate this article to one of the original “tough guys” of hockey.

A Brief History of Johnny Bower

Bower grew up in Prince Albert, Saskatchewan to a poor, working class family. Growing up in a family of nine children meant his family couldn’t even afford hockey equipment. So Bower created his own using an old mattress for pads and a tree branch for a stick.

At the age of 15, he lied about his age and enlisted in the Canadian Army during World War II. In 1943, he was discharged due to rheumatoid arthritis.

That didn’t stop Bower from being active. Less than two years later, Bower made his professional hockey debut with the Cleveland Barons of the AHL.

Bower bounced between the AHL and NHL for many years before finally getting claimed by the Toronto Maple Leafs in 1958.

The Toughness of Johnny Bower

If joining the Army at 15 years old and then playing professional hockey with rheumatoid arthritis isn’t evidence enough of how tough he was, then let his teammates, the statistics and the nature of his position convince you.

Being a goalie in this era of hockey was absolutely brutal. With no masks and minimal padding, injuries were an expectation, not an inconvenience.

Johnny Bower

Johnny Bower played most of his career in the NHL with the Toronto Maple Leafs. (Photo from AZ Quotes)

Dick Duff, one of Bower’s former teammates, said in an interview with CBC Radio, “[goalies] … the leg and arm, they would be yellow, green, black from stopping the pucks.”

Not only was Bower tough, but he was also talented. He won the Vezina Trophy two times. His name appears on the Stanley Cup four times (three of which were in consecutive years). He also remains the career leader in wins in the AHL.

When speaking of Bower specifically, Duff called him “fearless.”  Others refer to Bower as a “legend.” One thing for sure is that Johnny “The China Wall” Bower will live on in hockey history forever.

Hockey Toughness Through the Years

Bill Meltzer hit the nail on the head when he said,

“‘Hockey toughness’ is not about an individual player’s physical strength or fighting prowess. It’s about teammates protecting and defending one another, preserving together through adversity and pain. It’s not about a lack of fear but, rather, a willingness to face it head on.”

On Nov. 18, 2016, halfway through the second period during a game between division rivals Columbus Blue Jackets and New York Rangers, Blue Jackets’ left-winger, Matt Calvert, took a nasty slap shot to the face courtesy of the Rangers’ Nick Holden. (Video is bloody, be advised) (YouTube link from jguth95)

He was quickly helped off the ice and taken to the dressing room where he received 36 stitches.

One would assume that he would not see the ice again that night, but after passing a concussion test, he took to the ice again midway through the third period. Not only did he come back to play in the same game, but he also scored a short-handed goal, which proved to be the game winner.

Calvert’s return to the ice that night after what should’ve been a game-ending injury serves as only one example of why hockey players are some of the most physically impressive athletes in professional sports. On top of the physical toughness, they also possess great amounts of mental toughness. Having to insert themselves into such a physically demanding situation when already injured takes insane amounts of courage.

Calvert isn’t the only hockey player to have displayed this kind of perseverance. Here’s some ‘tough’ hockey history.

In the 1964 Stanley Cup Finals, Toronto Maple Leafs’ defenseman Bobby Baun injured his leg badly enough that he had to leave the ice on a stretcher. He returned for overtime where he scored the game winner. It was later revealed that he did indeed have a broken leg. (YouTube link from NHL)

Derek Stepan of the New York Rangers returned to the ice after breaking his jaw in a 2014 playoff game against the Montreal Canadiens.

Boston Bruins’ Gregory Campbell blocked a shot during the 2013 playoffs, which resulted in a broken fibula.  Campbell got up and finished killing the penalty before leaving the ice. (YouTube link from Fred Murtz)

The list goes on and on. Endless amounts of lost teeth, stitches, breaks and sprains. Injuries that would often force the best of athletes to sit from anywhere between one game and a few months show us why hockey is a sport that demands respect, if for no other reason than the unmatched toughness of the players.

 

Feature image from Pictorial Parade/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

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2018 NCAA Tournament bracketology 1/8/18

Conference play is now in session, which means a lot is known about college basketball teams already. There is still more to be known throughout conference play, as a lot of teams have already been upset in the first few weeks. The NCAA Tournament is just over two months away. Here is the latest NCAA Tournament bracketology. Click to zoom.

 

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MLB free agency 2018

Turning up the heat on the hot stove

As is tradition in baseball, the long winter months are kept warm by the hot stove. But that stove has been running cold this winter. So we’re gonna turn up the heat and predict where some of the top MLB free agents will play in 2018.

Jake Arrieta

MLB free agency 2018

Jake Arrieta will look to join another World Series contender. (Photo from sportingnews.com)

The former Baltimore Oriole and World Series Champion Cub is a free agent this offseason and is testing the waters. Att 31 years old, not many fish are biting.

That can’t be blamed on Arrieta though. The burly right-hander went 14-10 with a 3.53 ERA last season. Any team would take that kind of production out of a starter. That is, any team that already had him.

While the Astros, Rangers, Twins, Blue Jays, Rockies, Brewers and Cardinals have all been linked to Arrieta, no deals have been offered. Arrieta is an ace-caliber pitcher and will have significant contract demands. Deals of 4-6 years and upwards of $180 million have been rumored to be what Arrieta is searching for. But in the prime of his career, it will be interesting to see what Arrieta values more: financial security or World Series aspirations. Look for Arrieta to have his cake and eat it too.

Prediction: Twins

Yu Darvish

After making 31 starts last season, Yu Darvish is out to prove he’s worth an ace’s salary and workload. He pitched to a 4.01 ERA with the Rangers in 2017, but pitched well for the Dodgers after being moved at the trade deadline.

But all of that work in the regular season won’t be able to change what Darvish did in the postseason. After two solid starts against the Diamondbacks and the Cubs, Darvish imploded on the biggest stage in baseball; the World Series.

In two starts against the Astros, Darvish posted a 21.60 ERA in only 3.1 innings pitched. Even in those limited innings, it’s the last impression the baseball world has of Darvish. He has been rumored to make a return to Los Angeles, but with the reacquisition of Matt Kemp, those rumors may be put to rest.

The Astros, Yankees, Cubs and Twins seem to be his remaining suitors. After bludgeoning him in the World Series, the Astros don’t seem like a good fit. The Cubs could really use a replacement for Arrieta though.

Prediction: Cubs

J.D. Martinez

MLB free agency 2018

J.D. Martinez is still looking for a long-term deal. (Photo from Arizona Sports)

The failed Astro and successful Tiger and Diamondback is looking to cash in coming off one of the best seasons of his career. After being sent from Detroit to Arizona, Martinez proceeded to tear the cover off of the ball for the remainder of the season. In 62 games with the Diamondbacks, Martinez blasted 29 bombs and slugged .741. Those are eye-popping numbers and are good enough to earn him a big pay day. At least, they seem to be.

Martinez has also been slow on receiving long term offers, with the Boston Red Sox five-year deal being the only one reported. Granted, there are other teams interested, like the Diamondbacks, Blue Jays and Giants, but they have yet to make a concerted effort to acquire Martinez.

The Giants seem like the best fit, with them in win-now mode after trading for Evan Longoria. But something special is brewing in the desert, and the Diamondbacks don’t want to change that recipe.

Prediction: Diamondbacks

Eric Hosmer

For Eric Hosmer and the Kansas City Royals, the World Series parade of 2015 seems long ago. Hosmer is now a free agent, and the Royals face one of the toughest rebuilds in the majors.

Even so, it is because of Hosmer. The 2017 season was arguably the best in Hosmer’s career, as he posted career highs in batting average (.318) and OPS+ (132). Coming off a career year like that, Hosmer will look to get paid this offseason.

But even coming off the best year of his career isn’t enough to move the market on Hosmer. Just like every other major free agent, Hosmer still sits unsigned as Spring Training inches ever closer. He does have one advantage over his contemporaries though; multiple long term offers.

Both the Padres and Royals are rumored to have offered the first baseman seven-year deals of more than $140 million. While the Royals offer seems to be chasing what they already had, the Padres offer seems like a chase of what could be.

With the Padres on the rise (one of the best farms systems in baseball) and the Royals on the decline (one of the worst farm systems in baseball), Hosmer will have to decide on where his loyalties lie.

Prediction: Royals

 

Feature image by Julie Jacobson/AP Photo. 

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