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    These are memorable because they’re different.

    Take a look at the official game art released by the Chick-fil-A Kickoff Game(s) for Week 1’s Alabama-Florida State and Georgia Tech-Tennessee neutral-siters at Atlanta’s new Starkiller Base of a stadium:

    Both posters include campus landmarks, statues of coaching legends, and mascots (Buzz and Smokey are ready to scrap, but Big Al wants no part of the flaming spear), all centered around a demented cathedral with an expensive car’s logo all over it and all in a comics-like version of a vintage style. This is surely the most time anyone’s ever going to put into capturing Butch Jones’ face:

    You don’t see this kind of classic game art these days. Everything tends to look like a Nike ad, which is fine. But it’s hard for official promo materials to stand out on their own when they all look like an especially talented Instagram teen made them for recruits to get Twitter shout-outs.

    That can and will continue. Let’s mix in some more of this sort of thing is all I’m saying:


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    Monday’s Say Hey, Baseball looks at the revamped Nationals pen, Jackie Bradley’s dinger-robbing catch, and teams that are starting to think about selling.

    Listen, we know it’s tough to catch up on everything happening in the baseball world each morning. There are all kinds of stories, rumors, game coverage, and Vines of dudes getting hit in the beans every day. Trying to find all of it while on your way to work or sitting at your desk just isn’t easy. It’s OK, though. We’re going to do the heavy lifting for you each morning and find the things you need to see from within the SB Nation baseball network, as well as from elsewhere. Please hold your applause until the end, or at least until after you subscribe to the newsletter.

    * * *

    David Robertson coming to the rescue of the Nationals bullpen has felt inevitable for months now. You knew that Mike Rizzo wouldn't (read: couldn't) leave the Nats pen as is, as it was an invitation to an(other) NLDS exit no matter how good the lineup or rotation were. They didn't end up getting Robertson despite rumor after rumor suggesting that was the end point of all this. But that's also fine because the Nats decided to get two relievers in one deal instead.

    Washington acquired the A's 2016 closer, Ryan Madson, and their 2014 closer, Sean Doolittle. While neither were closing now with the regularity they once did, they're both still performing at a high level. Madson has pitched in 40 games and produced a 2.06 ERA with 6.5 times as many strikeouts as walks in 2017, while Doolittle missed time due to a shoulder strain but has still managed to strike out 31 of the 79 batters he's faced while allowing just a pair of free passes on the year.

    Compare that to the Nats pen, where the lone bright spot has been Matt Albers keeping up the Cinderella act into the middle of the season but at the cost of the rest of the relievers turning into pumpkins, and you can see why Washington went for the package deal. That's not hyperbole for a poor performance, either: The Nats have a 5.31 ERA from their bullpen while allowing an 822 OPS, whereas the league-averages are 4.11 and 720. If not for Washington's rotation and the general fumbling of the rest of the NL East, the Nationals wouldn't have the lead they do.

    The Nats don't necessarily need to be done adding to the pen, either. If they want to go for the total overhaul, they still have two weeks to make deals before the non-waiver trade deadline. And with the White Sox clearly selling at a time few others are, maybe the Nats will end up with David Robertson as has been foretold.


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    If your team needs a final piece, then ... well, uh, the pickings are slim.

    NBA free agency is all but over. The biggest names were all signed a week into the month, and the middle-of-the-pack ones have gone steadily since then until almost none of them are left. Still, every team needs a solid eighth or ninth man coming off the bench, and more rotations haven’t been finalized so far than have. That leaves us with the best players who are still on the free agency market.

    Players likely only headed to one team

    Nerlens Noel

    The restricted free agent and the Mavericks were “not close” to a deal on Wednesday, according to a league source, but the team is still the extremely heavy favorites to sign him before the summer is up. It’s only a matter of time and whether someone else decides to extend him an offer sheet that would inevitably be matched. (There aren’t many teams left with cap space.)

    Pau Gasol

    Gasol opted out of his deal with the San Antonio Spurs which would have paid him $16.2 million next season. It must have needed some convincing by the Spurs, who wanted flexibility for the summer, but they will presumably reward Gasol now that their plans fell through.

    Mason Plumlee

    It’s impossible to gauge what Denver thinks of Plumlee, who they acquired last year for Jusuf Nurkic. They have an excess number of players in the frontcourt already, but Plumlee is a restricted free agent, so there’s also no reason to let him go elsewhere. The most likely option might be Plumlee taking the qualifying offer for a year.

    Nikola Mirotic

    Mirotic is another restricted free agent and a player who the Bulls have said they’d love to keep. With time, he’ll probably re-up with Chicago.

    Jonathon Simmons

    Despite the Spurs maybe renouncing his restricted free-agency rights (although that wasn’t totally clear), it still seems most likely that the player discovered by the Spurs will end back with them.

    UPDATE: Guess not! Simmons signed a three-year deal with Orlando.

    Manu Ginobili

    Either Ginobili has said, “I think I can still play,” but his decision to return or retire next season is still up in the air. If he returns, of course, the only option is the Spurs.

    Alex Len

    The Suns are presumably set on retaining their restricted free-agent center, especially given the only other two on the roster are 34-year-old Tyson Chandler and 6’7 Alan Williams (if you can even call him that). Marquese Chriss could (and probably should) slide up there at some point, too, since his outside game doesn’t appear to be developing.

    JaVale McGee

    The Warriors are the only team that accentuates McGee’s strengths enough that his weaknesses don’t overtly shine through. (To be fair, McGee also played one of his best years of basketball.) Since he didn’t get a huge offer on the open market, there’s a good chance he returns somewhat cheap to Golden State.

    David Lee

    This one is iffier than any player listed above, but Lee was a successful rotation player in San Antonio last year after struggling to be that in any of his stops since Golden State. He declined a player option, but he may end up returning there anyway.

    Players who could be headed anywhere

    Derrick Rose

    Does anyone want Rose? He averaged 18 points on 47 percent shooting last year, a way higher percentage than the previous seasons. But given his inability to hit threes and his declining free-throw rates, he’s still not a highly efficient player, not to mention he’s a poor defender.

    Shabazz Muhammad

    After a couple of decent seasons with the Timberwolves, Muhammad may be able to carry on the decent role playing with another team as well. Plus, he shot 34 percent from three last season, which isn’t too bad.

    Tony Allen

    It appears the Grit ‘N’ Grind days are over, and Allen may be moving on from Memphis. That’s sad, and his effectiveness is almost gone, but he’s a good veteran on the bench for someone, you’d think.

    JaMychal Green

    It’d make sense for him to return to Memphis, and that still seems like the frontrunner. But after weirdness on the Fourth of July and virtual silence ever since, who knows.

    Luc Richard Mbah a Moute

    This is the player you sign on, like, July 24 for the minimum, and then he ends up starting 38 games for your favorite team. It’s not great, but at least it’s decent value. And hey, he shot 39 percent on threes last year, his best number behind the arc yet.

    UPDATE: Mbah a Moute is headed to the Rockets.

    Deron Williams

    Despite barely showing up in the finals, Williams was actually quite good during the regular season. Still, he’s not consistent.

    Andrew Bogut

    Another Mavericks castoff from last season, Bogut is reportedly healthy and ready to go. Still, his injury history would scare anyone off, and he probably shouldn’t make more than the minimum. Also, do fellow teammates appreciate his locker room presence?

    Ty Lawson

    What a dramatic rise and fall of a career. Lawson was incredibly average last year in Sacramento, if anyone needs an extremely backup point guard.

    Brandon Jennings

    Another incredibly average point guard, but if you must have one ...


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    Free agency proves that traditional centers don’t just matter as much anymore. Why is this the case?

    More than two weeks into the 2017 NBA free agency period, nine centers have signed new contracts for a combined $145 million. Nine centers have combined to lock up a bit more guaranteed money than Jrue Holiday. Nine centers have combined to lock up $50 million less than Stephen Curry. Nine centers have combined to lock up $30 million less than Blake Griffin.

    Why?

    Part of the reason is that this was a particularly down season for centers — Nerlens Noel and Pau Gasol were the top options on the market entering July. A second reason the collective centers’ payday has been so pitiful is that the top options (including Noel and Gasol) have yet to sign contracts. By my assessment, only eight of the top 50 free agents were centers. Of those, only three — Kelly Olynyk, Dewayne Dedmon, and Nene — have signed deals.

    Behind the slow processing of the centers this summer is the truth of the matter: centers really don’t matter that much any more. The position has been de-emphasized in the modern NBA.

    The most attractive centers available are inherently less attractive because of how the game is played. Noel can’t shoot, pass, or really score. He’s an ace defender and rim protector, but he’s a totally lopsided player. Gasol, meanwhile, can pass and score, but is an entirely inflexible and doomed defender at this point in his career.

    As the league moves closer and closer to positionless basketball, teams are opting for smaller big men who may not be able to block shots like Noel or post up like Gasol, but who can offer just a bit more flexibility on the court.

    Olynyk is an interesting example. He’s a rugged defender — not necessarily a good defender, but he puts bodies on opponents. (Ask the folks he’s injured). He gets a modest share of steals and blocks, and he’s a pretty good passer and deep shooter. Miami will try to mold him into a great shooter to play behind and off Hassan Whiteside. Olynyk is not in any way a specialist: he’s a bit of a do-everything center who provides more, not less, flexibility to lineups because of his shooting.

    That’s what’s valuable today.

    Noel is good, and will make a pretty penny once Dallas gets around to signing him, or once Noel gets around to signing another team’s offer sheet. But he offers no lineup flexibility. That, and his restricted status, contribute to the slow burn of his free agency. If you’re signing Noel to a max deal (or anything close), you’d better be ready to give him 30 minutes a game. That’s 30 minutes without any scoring or shooting at one position, so you’d better have shooters elsewhere in your rotation or you are subjecting yourself to too limited an offense.

    Again, what Noel does is valuable — skilled defense is perhaps still undervalued overall. But the concessions you make when you pay and play rigid archetypes are beginning to be better understood.

    This isn’t to say that the best centers in the NBA are going anywhere. They are the exceptions that prove the rule. Marc Gasol and DeMarcus Cousins are excellent passers and emerging shooters. Gasol’s a defensive ace, Cousins is a star scorer from every spot inside the arc. Joel Embiid is a throwback 20-10 pivot with excellent rim protection and more joie de vivre than a New Orleans second line. DeAndre Jordan is maybe the league’s best finisher at the rim and a star defender and rebounder — surround him with passing and shooting, and it doesn’t matter that he can’t spot up or switch everything. Rudy Gobert doesn’t finish quite as consistently as Jordan, but he can switch everything.

    This is what is actually surprising about Whiteside’s unlikely success: he earned a huge payday last summer as an Embiid-like throwback, an anachronistic ‘90s-era center. But Whiteside was enough like Jordan on both ends — he was perhaps more DeAndre Jordan than DeAndre Jordan himself — to make it pay off for Miami.

    Noel could make a huge payday work out, too: he is a skilled and swift defender, and could be as flexible on defense as he is inflexible on offense. Versatility matters on both ends, and so much of our discourse on positions and positionlessness revolves around offense. This is foolish. Ignoring the defensive ramifications of the game’s evolution ignores half the game. The ability to switch is more important every year, and if Noel can consistently switch action and chase shooters yet still recover to rebound, he will have been worth every penny.

    Teams just need to understand what they’re paying for. Increasingly, it’s not just centers for the sake of having centers.

    It’s a cheat to use the Warriors as proof of anything, but this point is illustrative of the broader story. Golden State has a $136 million payroll before luxury tax next season. Only $4.8 million of that — or 3.5 percent of the payroll -- is being paid to centers.

    The defending and future champs don’t need centers. So why would anyone else?


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    No arrests were reported in connection to the altercation.

    Dallas Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott was involved in a late-night altercation at a Dallas bar on Sunday, according to Mike Fisher of 103.5 The Fan.

    A spokesperson for the Dallas Police Department confirmed to ESPN that no arrests were made in connection with the incident and no police report was filed. Few details are available on the nature of the altercation or the extent of Elliott’s involvement.

    The Cowboys are aware of the incident, but did not comment when approach by NFL Network.

    The NFL has been investigating domestic violence allegations made against Elliott in 2016. The league presented its findings to Elliott on July 14, and according to ESPN, Elliott is in the process of preparing a response.

    ESPN’s Adam Schefter reported that Elliott could face a one- to two-game suspension for violating its personal conduct policy based on the results of the domestic violence investigation. Elliott was not charged or arrested, but the personal conduct policy is broad and is not dependent on the same burden of proof as the legal system.

    We’ll have more details on this incident as the story develops.


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    Kirk Cousins is going to make a lot of money in 2018, and Washington may be looking for a quarterback after botching things with him.

    Washington’s NFL team is one of the worst run professional sports franchises on the planet. Between a bad owner who endlessly defends their offensive team name, and poor personnel decisions, there’s not much they’ve gotten right in recent memory.

    Monday further solidified that legacy. The team was unable to come to terms with quarterback Kirk Cousins, which leaves him to play on the franchise tag for a second consecutive season. A third season under the franchise tag would mean the team pays him $34 million (or $28 million under the transition tag), and that’s just not going to happen.

    No matter what happens moving forward, Cousins is going to become one of the highest paid quarterbacks the NFL has ever seen. Washington has botched this entire situation, helping lead him to future greener pastures.

    Signing Cousins sooner would have meant a lower price

    Nobody expected Kirk Cousins to be here when he was drafted in 2012. He was selected by Washington in the fourth round after the team had selected who they expected to be their franchise quarterback — Robert Griffin III. Things didn’t pan out with Griffin, and now the selection of Cousins seems like a smart move.

    Except this too, is falling apart for Washington.

    Cousins was given the franchise tag after the 2015 season in which he threw for nearly 4,200 yards and completed 70 percent of his passes. Throwing for 4,000 yards isn’t as out of this world as it once was, but it’s still a good season. Cousins then followed that up in 2016 with nearly 5,000 yards passing and 25 touchdowns — that will raise some eyebrows.

    It’s easy to say now that an extension after his 2015 campaign would have been a steal, but that also means they would have had to have given him a legitimate offer. The team has lowballed him since December 2015, with offers that were upwards of $7 million less than the 2016 franchise tag, per Sports Illustrated’s Albert Breer.

    Signing him at $22 million per season would look like a bargain at this point. Instead, Cousins is going to make even more money, whether that’s in Washington or elsewhere. Former GM Scot McCloughan reportedly wanted a deal for Cousins and told people around the league that if he had full control, it would have happened in 2016. Yet at this point, Washington doesn’t seem like the best option for Cousins.

    This could cost them a future franchise quarterback

    Another season of Cousins seems like a waste for Washington. Chances are low that he returns after the season, and it’s pointless for them to have either not extended him, or get something in return and move forward. The 2018 NFL Draft class is expected to be filled with quarterback talent with the likes of Sam Darnold, Josh Allen, Lamar Jackson, Josh Rosen, and others.

    But with Cousins under center, Washington will be better than they would have been with just about any other option available to them. That’s going to cost them a better spot in the draft. So not only did they botch securing him to a deal in a reasonable amount of time, but they’re also going to likely cost themselves position for a better quarterback in next year’s draft assuming that’s the direction they decide to move in.

    Sure, you could make the argument that in a draft class so deep, perhaps it doesn’t really matter how far they move back. But why not shoot for the best when you know the probable outcome? Play the odds in your favor when you can.

    They threw him under the bus 10 days before training camp

    After the 4 p.m. ET deadline on Monday, Washington released a statement from team president Bruce Allen, airing out contract negotiations.

    It felt like one of those moments when you’re younger and you try to tell on your sibling first, thinking your parents will take your side. Because Allen disclosed what the team offered Cousins, he and the franchise expected everybody to look at Cousins and say “they tried, what’s your problem?” and that’s not the case at all.

    It was corny, with verbiage like “despite our repeated attempts” and “we accept his decision” to try to make him out to be the bad guy. Yet coming from Washington, it’s not all that surprising.

    Aside from that, the deal wasn’t good enough for Cousins to tell himself that he couldn’t do better. NFL.com’s Tom Pelissero pointed out, “taking that offer would've meant gaining about $29 million and one year's security in exchange for giving [Washington] his rights through 2022 (and preserving their option to bail any time after 2018, barring injury).” That’s an easy pass if you’re Cousins.

    Now he holds all of the leverage

    Cousins has the keys now, and he’s not going to turn this car around. There’s no question that he’s betting on himself by playing on another one-year deal, though this time around it’s different.

    He’s proven what he needs to prove on the field with his play. He can be greater than or equal to what he provided for Washington last year, which led to the NFL’s third-best total offense. If Washington takes a step back in 2017, he can point to the weapons he lost from 2016 and say that a dropoff in his own performance isn’t his fault. A team like the Jets, who have all the cap space in the world and the worst quarterback situation in the league, would not say no to Cousins and throw the checkbook at him.

    Cousins is also going to be the first quarterback on the market in his prime in over a decade since Daunte Culpepper and Drew Brees were in 2006. With a rising salary cap coming and Derek Carr’s record $25.05 million average next season, it would take some sort of disaster for him to not get his contract next season.

    Washington doesn’t know what they want to do

    Washington hasn’t had a franchise quarterback since Joe Theismann, and he played his last season of football in 1985. Theismann even had an entire Monday Night Football broadcasting career go by, and the team has yet to find a quarterback to lead the way over several seasons.

    This may be the closest they have come, even if we’re still not certain as to what type of player Cousins is.

    On May 23, Allen told CSN Mid-Atlantic that there was still a possibility of giving him a third franchise tag in 2018. Monday, he told reporters that he hopes the team can secure a deal with Cousins so he could end his career in Washington. What the result will be can only be told as time passes.

    Perhaps they could start by getting his first name right.


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    The Los Angeles Dodgers will try to improve on the best record in baseball on Tuesday night as clear road chalk at the sportsbooks against the Chicago White Sox.

    The Los Angeles Dodgers are 9-0 over their last nine games with three straight series sweeps against the Miami Marlins, Kansas City Royals, and Arizona Diamondbacks. The Dodgers will be going for a 10th straight win Tuesday night in the first game of a two-game series against the Chicago White Sox.

    Los Angeles is a -300 road favorite in Chicago at sportsbooks monitored by OddsShark.com. Clayton Kershaw takes the mound for the Dodgers against Miguel Gonzalez and the White Sox, who are massive +250 home underdogs.

    Los Angeles Dodgers

    The Dodgers came out of the All-Star break on the same tear they went in with, sweeping the Marlins on the road. The sweep brought Los Angeles' record to a remarkable 29-4 over its last 33 games and an MLB-best 64-29 on the season.

    Los Angeles has the best team ERA in the majors by a considerable margin at a sparkling 3.12, and ranks fourth-best on offense, averaging 5.15 runs per game.

    The team is particularly dangerous when Clayton Kershaw starts. The Dodgers are 13-0 in Kershaw's last 13 starts including a 6-0 record on the road, per the OddsShark MLB Database.

    Betting Line / Total: Los Angeles -300 / 8.5 Runs

    Chicago White Sox

    The White Sox were on the wrong end of a sweep coming out of the break, dropping three straight at home to the Seattle Mariners. Chicago is on the opposite side of the spectrum from the Dodgers overall, coming into this series in the midst of a 1-7 slump and with the worst record in the American League at 38-52.

    Staff ace Jose Quintana was traded away to the Chicago Cubs for prospects, and more assets are expected to be shipped out of town before the trade deadline. Chicago is 3-9 in its last 12 games as a home underdog.

    Tuesday night's total is set at 8.5 runs at online sports betting sites. The UNDER is 14-6-1 in Clayton Kershaw's last 21 road starts.

    After this two-game stint in Chicago, the Dodgers return home for a favorable home stand that includes series against the Atlanta Braves, Minnesota Twins, and San Francisco Giants. This series wraps up Wednesday night with a matchup between Kenta Maeda and Carlos Rodon.

    Los Angeles Dodgers at Chicago White Sox

    When: Tuesday, July 18, 8:10 p.m. ET

    Where: Guaranteed Rate Field, Chicago, Ill.

    Dodgers at White Sox OddsShark Matchup Report


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    Larry The Snail is your world champion, and England remains the king of creating the weirdest dang sports. Over the weekend, the World Snail Racing Championships were held in Congham, and it brought the nation’s fastest gastropods out in force.

    The concept behind snail racing is pretty simple. All the snails are placed inside a circle, and they have to get out the fastest way possible.

    Larry crossed the line in 2:47, edging out “Uslime Bolt,” which we’re mentioning only because Uslime Bolt is the greatest name for a racing snail ever — and he has a custom enclosure:

    The prize for winning the World Snail Racing Championships? An impressive trophy full of lettuce. It’s an excellent prize for the human and snail alike:


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    Dave Doeren is both doing a strong job overall and appearing on hot-seat lists.

    The ACC might have been the best league in the country last year. From the perspective of S&P+ averages, the SEC barely held onto the top spot (which is why this countdown is previewing ACC teams right now and not SEC teams yet), but if you get points for winning the national title, the Heisman, and of course the Piesman, the ACC gets the nod.

    Clemson and Florida State have emerged as two of the surest things in the sport, but the strength has been the middle class. In addition to two top-six teams, five ACC teams ranked between 12th and 25th in S&P+.

    This is great news for the league. But it’s making it difficult to gauge how teams are actually doing.

    For most of last season, I saw vague references to NC State coach Doeren being close to the hot seat. As I sometimes get stuck in my ratings world and forget about records, this had me confused.

    Doeren inherited a team that had ranked worse than 75th in S&P+ in three of its last four seasons under Tom O’Brien. The Wolfpack offense fell directionless after Russell Wilson left, and the defense was merely decent. Because of the state of the conference, they were still winning — O’Brien’s last two sub-75 teams went 15-11 — but this was a mediocre program.

    The Pack ranked just 78th in Doeren’s first season but improved to 46th in 2014, 41st in 2015, and 25th last fall. The defense has improved for three consecutive years, and the offense regressed by only a bit last season* after improving the previous two years. This was a strong team that finished well, beating UNC in Chapel Hill and trouncing Vanderbilt in the Independence Bowl.

    So shy in the world would Doeren be under pressure with such clear improvement? Wins. He doesn’t have a ton of them. He is 25-26 after four seasons, 22-17 if you remove the first-year reset. In O’Brien’s last four years, State was 29-22. Improvement on paper is great, but it only means so much to fans if you’re just improving enough to keep up with the conference’s improvement.

    NC State left some wins on the board in 2016. The Wolfpack would’ve beaten Clemson, if not for a missed field goal. They fell to an East Carolina that would succumb to injury and finish 3-9, and they should have been kicked out of the Def. S&P+ top 25 for giving up 21 points to Boston College in an upset loss.

    Still, against teams outside of the S&P+ top 15, they went 7-2, and both losses were statistically unlikely. Their postgame win expectancy, based on a game’s key stats, was 82 percent against ECU and 64 percent against BC, meaning there was only about a 6 percent chance of losing both (and a 52 percent chance of winning both).

    The major problem: they played four really good teams and lost to all four. They nearly beat Clemson and Florida State but didn’t. They are not only in the best-ever version of the ACC, they were randomly placed in its best division, too. (Divisions: dumb and outdated.)

    So how do we judge Doeren then? “They’re better on paper” sounds great, but it’s not reassuring if you keep leaving your stadium bummed out. (State has lost at least three home games in each of Doeren’s seasons.)

    Still, using historical precedent, what can State expect? The Wolfpack have only had a handful of teams better than 2016’s since Lou Holtz left in the early 1970s. In fact, per S&P+, there have been just three, in 1979, 2002, and 2003. Only one won more than eight games.

    NC State has mastered the art of being competitive and coming up short. (As a Missouri fan, I can say such a thing.) Over the last 29 seasons, they have been to 20 bowls but have won double-digit games or finished in the AP top 15 just once. State’s history has been of brief brilliance and the funks that follow.

    Don’t expect much to change in 2017. State plays four teams projected 17th or better, seven in the top 40. The Pack are projected to again rank in the top 30 and again win about seven games.

    There are worse fates, but the problem for Doeren is that there are better ones, too.

    * That’s including the Notre Dame game in the ratings, and as that game was played in an outright monsoon, there’s a case for removing it. It probably bumped State’s defensive ranking up by 10 spots and bumped the offense down an equal amount.

    NCAA Football: ACC Football KickoffJeremy Brevard-USA TODAY Sports

    2016 in review

    2016 NC State statistical profile.

    A quick glance at NC State’s 2016 results suggests a narrative: the Pack started 4-1, lost four in a row, then won three of four. So they fell victim to a midseason funk? Not necessarily; they fell victim to playing three elite teams (Clemson, Louisville, FSU) in four weeks, two on the road.

    Even taking the unlikely losses to ECU and BC into account, State was tremendous against less-than-tremendous teams.

    • NC State vs. S&P+ top 15 (0-4): Avg. percentile performance: 52% (~top 60) | Avg. yards per play: Opp 6.1, NC State 5.0 (minus-1.1) | Avg. score: Opp 32, NC State 16 (minus-16)
    • NC State vs. everyone else (7-2): Avg. percentile performance: 83% (~top 20) | Avg. yards per play: NC State 6.1, Opp 4.6 (plus-1.5) | Avg. score: NC State 32, Opp 19 (plus-13)

    The offense was problematic in games against good competition. The Pack scored 17, 13, 20, and 13 points in top-15 games, getting truly thumped only once (54-13 to Louisville) but otherwise remaining competitive enough to lose in frustrating fashion.

    Will the experienced offense find another gear?


    Offense

    NC State offensive radar

    Full advanced stats glossary.

    Last winter, Matt Canada became one of the hottest assistant coaches in college football. His Pitt offense ranked fourth in Off. S&P+, and it got him hired by LSU.

    A year earlier, Canada was getting pushed out of Raleigh by Doeren. Maybe the two didn’t see eye-to-eye, but in two years, Canada had improved the State offense from 90th in Off. S&P+ to 35th. It was a confusing move.

    Eliah Drinkwitz’s first NC State offense was, considering the circumstances, fine. It was good against lesser teams — the Wolfpack did score 33 on Mike Elko’s excellent Wake Forest defense and put up 41 against Vanderbilt — and some of the regression could be explained by a quarterback change and the loss of three excellent linemen.

    Drinkwitz is a Gus Malzahn disciple, and his tactical flexibility was fascinating. He basically created a brand new, H-Backish position for Jaylen Samuels and gave him 81 pass targets and 33 carries. (I followed Backing The Pack’s lead and listed his position as JAYLEN in the spreadsheet at the bottom of this preview.) He gave slot receiver Nyheim Hines 60 targets and 13 carries. He gave running back Matthew Dayes 249 carries and 41 targets.

    NCAA Football: Syracuse at North Carolina StateRob Kinnan-USA TODAY Sports
    Nyheim Hines

    The Drinkwitz offense identifies top play-makers and gets them the ball in as many ways as possible. With Samuels and Hines back, that should continue. But Dayes’ departure opens up the backfield. That might not be the end of the world, as the run game wasn’t very effective. Drinkwitz attempted balance on standard downs, calling run plays 61 percent of the time, but State ranked 78th in standard-downs success rate.

    State got away with falling behind the chains because quarterback Ryan Finley was so good at catching back up. Finley’s passer rating was at its best on second down — he completed 68 percent then, with a 148 passer rating — which suggests good decision-making from Finley and strong play-calling from Drinkwitz. State ranked 16th in passing-downs success rate and created third-and-manageables.

    Be it Hines, Samuels, senior Dakwa Nichols, or junior Reggie Gallaspy II, a reliable ball carrier needs to emerge. The return of four line starters (including senior all-conference guard Tony Adams) should help. State’s line will likely start Adams and four juniors, so it should improve this year and again in 2018.

    NCAA Football: North Carolina State at SyracuseRich Barnes-USA TODAY Sports
    Ryan Finley

    If the run game can bring a little more efficiency, that could create more dam-busters. State was so busy catching up to the chains that big-play opportunities were a rarity. Non-QBs averaged just 4.7 yards per carry, and while Samuels and Hines combined for 98 receptions, they only averaged 11.1 yards per catch.

    There was an emphasis on efficiency and horizontal passing that did occasionally open up big plays. Wideouts Stephen Louis, Bra’Lon Cherry, Kelvin Harmon, and Maurice Trowell did catch a combined 101 balls for 1,723 yards (17.1 per catch). But Finley averaged only 12.1 yards per completion against top-15 teams, when Dayes averaged just 4.3 yards per carry. There was no pop.

    Continuity is a major plus. Louis, Harmon, and Trowell return (as does 2015 contributor JuMichael Ramos), and Finley and Drinkwitz are both in their second seasons in major roles. There’s potential for both efficiency and explosiveness; the task is to have both against really good defenses.

    Defense

    NC State defensive radar

    I noted in last year’s preview that letting Canada go but keeping defensive coordinator Dave Huxtable was confusing. The Wolfpack defense had improved for two straight years, but it was lagging behind the offense.

    That changed in 2016. The Wolfpack would have had a top-30 defense even without the hurricane game against Notre Dame, and they had one of the most punishing run defenses in the country.

    That’s not going to change in 2017, not with the top five linemen and top three linebackers back. The defense was lucky from an injury perspective — of the 20 defenders to average at least 0.8 tackles per game, 13 played in every game, and only one missed more than three games — and that probably won’t continue, but for the front six at least, depth means it probably won’t matter.

    NCAA Football: Miami at North Carolina StateRob Kinnan-USA TODAY Sports
    Bradley Chubb (9) and Justin Jones (27)

    The tackle trio of Justin Jones, B.J. Hill, and Eurndraus Bryant was immovable, which freed up play-makers in every direction. End Bradley Chubb had 21.5 tackles for loss (sixth in FBS), 10 sacks, and three forced fumbles last year, while fellow ends Kentavius Street and Darian Roseboro combined for 21 and 12.5, respectively. Primary linebackers Airius Moore and Jerod Fernandez added 18 TFLs, 2.5 sacks, and nine passes defensed.

    State disrupted the run as well as anyone, ranking seventh in rushing success rate, 21st in power success rate, and 26th in stuff rate. Adjust for opponent, and you’ve got a defense that ranked 12th in Rushing S&P+. It would almost be disappointing if the Pack didn’t move into that top 10 this year.

    William & Mary v North Carolina StatePhoto by Grant Halverson/Getty Images
    Airius Moore and friends

    Of course, opponents figured out that they shouldn’t run — State faced runs just 47 percent of the time on standard downs, 125th in FBS — and found more luck throwing. That will continue. State ranked 39th in passing success rate, and while big-play prevention was a strength, a quick passing game was a good antidote for State’s awesome run defense and aggressive pass rush.

    This is problematic, considering the Pack have to replace three of their top four safeties (second-round draft pick Josh Jones and nickels Dravious Wright and Niles Clark) and corner Jack Tocho.

    There is a senior presence with the return of safety Shawn Boone and corner Mike Stevens, but State will have to rely on less proven pieces in the back. Either sophomore Nick McCloud, redshirt freshman James Valdez, or converted receiver Johnathan Alston will likely start opposite Stevens at corner, while the other safety roles will go to some combination of unproven juniors (Dexter Wright, Freddie Phillips Jr.) and sophomores (Jarius Morehead, Trae Meadows, Tim Kidd-Glass).

    A drop-off is inevitable, and the magnitude will determine how much State gets to take advantage of this run defense.


    Special Teams

    If you remember one play from NC State’s 2016, it is probably a missed field goal. With two seconds remaining in Death Valley, freshman kicker Kyle Bambard had a 33-yard kick to beat eventual national champion Clemson but pushed it wide. State lost in OT.

    That was just one kick, but it was a strong indicator. State ranked 116th in Special Teams S&P+ last season, thanks mostly to miserable production from the legs. Bambard missed four field goals under 40 yards and three PATs, and only 22 percent of his kickoffs reached the end zone. Punter A.J. Cole III fared better, averaging 41.3 yards, but State still ranked just 77th punt efficiency.

    Nyheim Hines is an excellent kick returner. I just listed all of State’s known special teams strengths.


    2017 outlook

    2017 Schedule & Projection Factors

    Date Opponent Proj. S&P+ Rk Proj. Margin Win Probability
    2-Sep vs. South Carolina 36 2.7 56%
    9-Sep Marshall 101 21.3 89%
    16-Sep Furman NR 31.6 97%
    23-Sep at Florida State 3 -18.8 14%
    30-Sep Syracuse 60 8.9 70%
    5-Oct Louisville 14 -6.1 36%
    14-Oct at Pittsburgh 33 -0.9 48%
    28-Oct at Notre Dame 17 -7.8 33%
    4-Nov Clemson 6 -10.3 28%
    11-Nov at Boston College 76 9.4 71%
    18-Nov at Wake Forest 64 4.5 60%
    25-Nov North Carolina 38 5.4 62%
    Projected S&P+ Rk 27
    Proj. Off. / Def. Rk 51 / 27
    Projected wins 6.6
    Five-Year S&P+ Rk 3.8 (50)
    2- and 5-Year Recruiting Rk 46 / 40
    2016 TO Margin / Adj. TO Margin* 2 / 2.8
    2016 TO Luck/Game -0.3
    Returning Production (Off. / Def.) 71% (83%, 58%)
    2016 Second-order wins (difference) 8.5 (-1.5)

    Every fan base deserves that feeling of breakthrough occasionally, and that makes the NC State job a tricky one. The Wolfpack are consistently good but never experience true success, and because Doeren hasn’t changed that, either overall or in single-game upsets — at NCSU, he’s 0-15 against P5 teams that finished with at least nine wins and 25-11 against everybody else — he is facing more pressure than his performance warrants.

    Fair or unfair, though, it’s not going to change. Odds are in favor of State having another of its better teams and again finishing with seven or eight wins.

    Is there a chance for a breakthrough? Absolutely. Few teams can boast this level of experience, and the combination of Drinkwitz’s positionless offense with a dynamite front seven gives the Wolfpack a combination of uniqueness and proven quality. They nearly beat the two best teams on this year’s schedule last year, and they get a revenge opportunity against Louisville.

    Experience creates extra pressure, though: this team will have to rebuild its offense and replace Samuels next year. Win now, or start over again.

    Team preview stats

    All power conference preview data to date.


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    He’s named Alabama and Auburn leaders. Texas and Michigan are both pushing hard.

    On Monday, the top-ranked tight end in the class of 2018, Jeremy Ruckert, committed to Ohio State. The next player on the list, Brevin Jordan, has long been committed to Miami. The best tight end left on the market is Luke Ford, a Carterville, Ill., product who was previously committed to Arkansas and now has offers from all over.

    Ford decommitted in June, and his recruitment’s gone to another level lately. He has offers from dozens of schools. Alabama has emerged as the consensus favorite, but he’s put Auburn in the same tier. He gushed about a visit to Texas last weekend, and he’s got another one to Michigan coming up. Arkansas and Georgia remain in the picture, too.

    And there’s a wild card here: Ford has said he’ll play wherever uncommitted five-star quarterback Justin Fields plays. It’s anyone’s guess where that’ll be, although it seems certain that Fields will decide to play somewhere in the Southeast.

    Fields was the star of The Opening, an elite recruiting showcase that wrapped up in Oregon on July 3. But Ford was one of its best tight ends:

    Ford, like a lot of young tight ends, models his game after Rob Gronkowski’s.

    “My game is just getting physical, blocking, running out for passes, catching the ball at the high point, using my speed and strength to get around and get open,” he says.

    Ford’s close to a dream prospect at the position. He’s got a 6’6 frame and is built like a bull, and it’s not hard to see him being a dominant run-blocker for a tight end. His hands are excellent, and he uses his size to create space while running routes.


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    Just another day in the morally sound universe of ABC’s hit franchise!

    Welcome to Sports Bachelor Nation. I, your host, Charlotte Wilder, must apologize for leaving you in the lurch last week. MLB All-Star weekend was in Miami, and I was covering it, which means last Monday night I watched the Home Run Derby instead of TheBachelorette.

    Now, I know that I’ve gone on this whole crusade to convince you all that this stupid show is sports, and it is. [*Extremely Stephen A. Smith voice*] HOWEVER: When presented with the option of witnessing Aaron Judge crush 13,000 home runs in four minutes or having to suffer through Rachel’s predictable dates with a bunch of boring-ass dudes for two hours, I will always — always — choose the dingers.

    Rachel was at All-Star weekend, it’s worth noting, but she did not respond to my tweets asking if she wanted to hang out. I tried. And I’m sorry to have failed you.

    Fortunately, I don’t feel like we missed much on this journey together, since Adam and Matt were the two dillweeds who Rachel was obviously going to get rid of before meeting four guys’ families this week. To jog your memory: Adam was the man who brought a creepy stuffed human to the mansion on the first night. Matt was the construction worker with hair plugs. I miss neither of them.

    (Also, shout out to Rodger Sherman at the Ringer, because thanks to his recap, I know what happened last week.)

    Let’s do this.

    BALTIMORE, MD, WITH ERIC

    Eric is from Baltimore, so it’s off to the City of Lights (as they call it) we go. Rachel shows up, they sit on a bench, and she puts her legs over his. Eric is wildly distracted by this physical contact. She asks him what he has planned for them and he’s like, “uh, I thought we could, see, the, uh, city, if you wanted, to, I’m from here” in that halting and unfocused way men speak when they’re trying to think with their brains and not their you-know-whats.

    Eric takes Rachel to a basketball court, where he tells her that the men in his life were involved in the streets, and growing up watching them, he vowed he never would be. He was a straight-A student who was always there for his friends. Speaking of friends, his friend Ralph shows up and says Eric is great (good friend!). He also says that Eric has never brought a woman home to meet his family.

    You can see Rachel visibly freak out. Her body language changes as the wheels start spinning and she’s like …. “What have I gotten myself into with this relationship noob?”

    Rachel is very, very nervous to meet Eric’s family. But when she gets into the house, Eric’s gathered parents, aunts, uncles, cousins, and siblings cheer for her. She relaxes immediately.

    These people rule. Eric’s Aunt Verna sits Rachel down and she’s like (I’m paraphrasing here), “Man, it must be tough being the first black Bachelorette.”

    Rachel looks at her as though she’s been waiting to hear this for months, because she probably has. She’s like (I’m paraphrasing again), “Yeah, Verna, it’s been really goddamn hard!!!!!”

    What she actually says is, “It’s a lot of pressure, because you’re being judged by two different groups: black people and everybody else. I don’t think people realize that. Having to worry about what an entire group of people think about your choices.”

    Eric is talking to his mom, and they’re both serving up a dish that I like to call Bachelorette Word Salad, where they say things like “overwhelming love” and “I’ve been running from love my whole life,” and all the things you’re supposed to say to convince America that you are Serious About This!!!!!

    Eric tells Rachel he loves her. I like Eric. He’s sweet, he’s straightforward, and he’s clearly very into this woman. But he doesn’t say, “I’m in love with you,” so in the limo when she leaves his family’s house, Rachel’s like, “I’m skeptical.”

    This show is wack.

    BIENVENIDOS A MIAMI, WITH BRYAN

    Bryan is from Miami, otherwise known as the Windy City, so that’s where we are. Rachel runs up to meet Bryan, who I find smarmy, underneath a canopy of palm trees. It’s immediately apparent that she is more into the idea of being physical with him than she is with Eric. They make out a ton and she says, “Hey baby!”

    Before we go any further, we need to talk about Bryan’s horrendous clothes. His polo shirt is ombre, sliding from pinkish red to slate gray, and he’s wearing a gray V-neck underneath it. But the worst part is that the gray of his shirt perfectly matches the gray of his pants, so his pants appear to be an extension of his top, and the whole thing ends up looking like some hideous jumpsuit. Look at this:

    They play dominos and go dancing before they meet Bryan’s family. We get a hint of trouble when Bryan’s like, oh, so the reason my last relationship ended is because she and my mom hated each other. We are primed for a Controlling Evil Monster Mom, which is a Bachelor/Bachelorette trope.

    We meet Controlling Mom at her Miami home. She raises her drink and toasts her son, calling Bryan the most special thing she has in her life. She then drinks an entire glass of wine while her eyes widen and she looks as terrifying as any potential mother-in-law could. I’m laughing, because you just know that two producers looked at each other as she did this and high-fived.

    “Bryan is very close to us,” Bryan’s mom says to Rachel. “Bryan is my life. But I just want to give you a warning. You are marrying the family too.”

    “Yeah, I want that,” Rachel says.

    And Controlling Mom is like: “If a woman wants to take a husband for her family she can do it. Some women want only for himself. If he’s happy, I’m happy. If not, I’ll kill you.”

    If not, I’ll kill you.

    Rachel’s like hahahahaha. But I’m like, yo, watch your back, Rachel. I think this woman is serious.

    But then, weirdly, Controlling Mom does a 180 and becomes really kind. She says, look, it was a pleasure to meet you. You’re a good person; love is the most important thing.

    Then Not-So-Controlling Mom starts crying, and Rachel starts crying, and the problem is that I am crying. This is extremely embarrassing for me to admit, but I cannot lie to you: I am moved by the conversation these women are having about true love. No amount of snark can protect me from my emotions as I wipe away my tears, a few of which fall into the mostly empty container of hummus in my lap as I sit alone on my couch.

    Bryan says, “Rachel, I’m in love with you.” Rachel kind of moans, and then they make out, and I thought Peter was going to win this whole time, but Bryan is really giving him a run for his money.

    MADISON, WIS., WITH PETER

    We are now in Madison, Wis., otherwise known as Sin City. Peter lives here, so he takes Rachel to this big-ass farmer’s market that’s in the city square every Saturday. Fun fact: I have been to this farmer’s market before, and there's this one stall that sells the best cheese-y bread in the entire world. Another fun fact: I was in Wisconsin a few years ago when I worked at a cooking magazine, and my phone had a thin film of meat and cheese grease on it the whole time. It got so bad, the touch screen momentarily stopped working. I wish I were kidding.

    Rachel meets some of Peter’s friend at a bar. There are two black men and two white women, and Peter’s like, “I told Rachel when we first met that eight out of my 10 best friends are black.” DUDE, ARE YOU REALLY PULLING A “I HAVE BLACK FRIENDS”?!?!?!?

    His friends are like, hey man, you show her your Black Friend Card? They're also like, look, Pete’s an accepting dude. But I’m like, if you treat being friends with people of different races as though it makes you a goddamn saint in 2017, you’re doing it wrong.

    Anyway. The rest of the hometown date is devoted to Peter’s “holding back,” and his reluctance to “let his walls down.” His family and Rachel get along, and you can practically see her ovulate when he’s holding his sister’s daughter. But then his mom tells Rachel she isn’t sure he’ll be able to propose to her, and Rachel seems pretty crushed. She’s like, “I don’t want a boyfriend at the end of this.”

    I get that she really wants to lock this thing up, but I’m also over here thinking … why does what the person is called matter? I don’t know. To me, the ideal situation for this show would be to end up with a boyfriend so you can see if you guys are compatible in the real world, as opposed to Fake Reality Land, before he gets down on one knee. (The woman never proposes because the patriarchy is oppressive and must be dismantled.)

    But Rachel wants a husband, and I can tell that this will be the main storyline for the rest of her and Peter’s relationship. Until the producers reveal it was all a pump-fake and they’re actually engaged.

    Peter doesn’t say, I love you, and he’s like, “Shit, I blew it.”

    ASPEN, COLO., WITH DEAN

    We’re in Aspen Colo., otherwise known as The Big Easy. Dean is from here, and he spends the entire first part of the date freaking out about seeing his family because they all haven’t been under the same roof in eight years. His mom died when he was 15 (he’s 26 now), and his dad kind of went AWOL afterward and then converted to Sikh faith.

    I’m like … are you sure national television is the place you want to do this?

    But Rachel is like, why haven’t you talked to your dad in two years? And Dean is like, “Is it my responsibility to talk to my dad? To make sure there’s a relationship?”

    I kind of wish Rachel would drop it, but she keeps pushing Dean on why he hasn’t worked harder to have a relationship with his family. BREAKING: Not everyone wants a relationship with their family, and not having one is sometimes way healthier than forcing something painful.

    Dean keeps saying he’s terrified as they walk up to the door, and I’m uncomfortable at how morally bankrupt it feels to use this young guy’s family strife for TV ratings (not that this franchise is some bastion of virtue). This feeling continues through the entire date. Everyone manages to have an OK time until everything goes to shit when Dean and his father speak to each other alone.

    They get into an argument about how Dean’s father wasn’t there for Dean and about how hard it was for both of them when Dean’s mother died. They both clearly loved her deeply. Dean’s dad keeps turning the conversation around on Dean and can’t take any criticism. He’s being pretty cruel as he refuses to accept that he’s hurt his son. But he’s also definitely deeply damaged by the loss of his first wife, so, I don’t know.

    I just hate this whole thing and wish they’d stop filming it.

    But I guess it’s what you sign up for when you make it this far on this show. It just feels really manipulative, exploitative, and shitty to make a person bring his estranged family together in front of millions of people because it’s “what you sign up for.”

    Rachel finds Dean lying on the floor after he talks to his dad. He’s a total wreck and tells her he’s falling in love with her. She says she’s falling in love with him, too. This feels like a big mistake on her part.

    Note: Dean recently posted this:

    ROSE CEREMONY, WITH EVERYONE

    Saying she’s falling in love with Dean is a big mistake on Rachel’s part because she ends up sending Dean home. I get it, I guess — he’s young, and his family is clearly not the ideal cookie cutter that she’s looking for, given that she keeps talking about how her parents have been married 37 years.

    But Dean is like, uh, why’d you tell me you were falling in love with me if you’re sending me home? And Rachel says she is falling in love with him. And he’s like, then, wait, what!? But you got rid of me?! And she says she just felt like he couldn’t give her what she needs. Which sounds like a lot of B.S. to me.

    In the limo on the way home, Dean is like, “she made a mistake.” It’s interesting to me that in the limos when a dude gets sent home on The Bachelorette, he’s often like, “She just made the most wrong decision of her life!” But when it’s a woman on The Bachelor, her reaction is usually, “No one will ever love me; I’m not good enough for anyone; this is a direct reflection of my character.”

    Even though it’s really just a direct reflection of some strange and kind of awful Stockholm Syndrome version of love. This is how society conditions us. AGAIN, WITH THE GODDAMN PATRIARCHY!

    Anyway, next week the guys meet Rachel’s family. Things don’t seem to go that well for Bryan in the previews, and there are a lot of teasers devoted to Peter’s “walls,” which makes me sure that they are red herrings and that Peter wins, as I originally predicted.


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    We haven’t seen many NBA teams change hands in the last few years. Will the Rockets’ impending sale change that?

    Until the Houston Rockets announced on Monday that longtime franchise owner Leslie Alexander planned to sell the club, it had been a quiet few years on the lucrative NBA team market.

    No teams changed hands in 2016, only a single franchise (the Atlanta Hawks) was sold in 2015, and just two clubs (the Milwaukee Bucks and L.A. Clippers) got new owners in 2014. We saw three franchises change hands in a four-year period, with maybe one more (those Rockets) being added on by the end of the calendar year.

    This was quite a shift from the previous four-year period, when a whopping nine teams were sold. The Nets, Hornets, Pelicans, Wizards, Pistons, Warriors, Sixers, Kings, and Grizzlies all changed hands from 2010 through 2013. (The Pelicans were actually sold twice but under special circumstances that will cause us to count it just once.)

    Most of those sales early in the decade came at relatively low prices, with two exceptions. The Warriors sold in 2010 for a then-record $450 million — at the time a quite hopeful valuation that has since become an incredible bargain. The Kings sold in 2013 for a then-record $535 million amid a minor bidding war between Seattle interlocutors and Northern California buyers.

    The bargain bin

    The other seven purchases were at non-notable or outright discount prices. Robert Pera, for example, bought the Grizzlies for $350 million, which isn’t much more than the Bobcats’ expansion fee a decade prior. Michael Jordan bought the Bobcats themselves — now the Hornets, of course — for a reported valuation of $275 million, including apparently just $25 million in cash. That’s just $1.5 million in cash more than what the Hornets will pay Dwight Howard this season, by the way.

    Mikhail Prokhorov in Brooklyn, Tom Gores in Detroit, and Josh Harris in Philadelphia also pulled discount purchases. All these sales — some under financial duress, some following the death of family patriarchs — happened in the run-up to and immediate aftermath of the 2011 NBA lockout.

    The Kings sale in early 2013 was a capstone of sorts — a veritable report card on how the exclusive club of people wealthy enough to buy major sports franchises felt the league did in collective bargaining. That record price for a mediocre team in a mid-sized market without an arena plan revealed what we now know to be true: The NBA is ascendant.

    The next sale — the Bucks, another mediocre team in a mid-sized market without an arena plan — set a new record. Then came Steve Ballmer’s $2 billion for the Clippers, followed by just under $900 million for the freaking Atlanta Hawks.

    Then, nothing.

    A period of stability

    Was it fear of another lockout in 2017 that gave the extremely rich pause? The Timberwolves and Nets have nominally been on the market for the last few years — Prokhorov seems to bounce between taking interest in Nets and forgetting he owns them, and Minnesota’s Glen Taylor has unloaded small slices recently. Otherwise, we’ve heard little about potential franchise sales.

    The players’ union raised a lot of ruckus about fighting back against owners’ victories in the 2011 lockout aftermath. The union hired firebrand lawyer Michele Roberts, and superstars took over leadership positions.

    But the expected war never materialized: Roberts and commissioner Adam Silver reached a deal six months before the 2011 pact expired, keeping the major items intact. Labor peace is the order of business. The revenue is pouring in faster than ever as teams rack up broadcast dollars and new arenas open, most with heavy public subsidy. Every investment from the 2010-2013 team sale boom has paid off.

    A boom to come?

    Is this why Alexander is comfortable selling the Rockets now?

    His franchise is in great shape with a winning roster, stable management, and a superstar in his prime locked up for years to come. Without being so lucky to own a dynasty, it’s hard to imagine a better position to be in when you decide to cash out of the NBA. It’s likely that the Rockets’ valuation upon sale will beat the Clippers’ record $2 billion.

    Alexander bought the Rockets for $85 million 24 years ago. The stock market’s value has tripled over that time span. Yet thanks to the NBA’s massive growth, Alexander will have likely beat the stock market to the tune of $1.6 billion by the time he sells.

    How many of the other 11 owners who bought their teams before the year 2000 will be tempted to lock in that profit by selling soon?

    How many of the owners who bought on discount before, during, or just after the 2011 lockout will be interested in unloading their teams at huge profits?

    In a league where the Warriors look something like a dynasty, is it fun for Pera to sign the checks in Memphis or Gores to keep house in Detroit? Does Harris have his own process to trust in Philly where he might flip a distressed asset after recovering its value? Have the Kings lost their luster for Vivek Ranadive? Is Prokhorov at all invested in the Nets’ recovery to come?

    Finding out who thinks the NBA has growth still to come and who is ready to sell high will be fascinating to watch over the next couple of years.


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    Pitts is one of 2018’s sturdiest tight ends. He’s slated to commit on Thursday.

    Kyle Pitts is the No. 11 tight end and No. 252 overall player in college football’s 2018 recruiting class, according to the 247Sports Composite. He says he’ll commit on Thursday to one of Florida, Georgia, or Virginia Tech. The Gators are the consensus favorite to land him.

    Pitts, who stands about 6’6, has at least 20 reported scholarship offers. He’d previously been considering Penn State, Maryland, Oklahoma, and a handful of others. (Pitts also got a scholarship offer from Pitt, in case you were wondering. I was.)

    He’s a Pennsylvanian who plays for Archbishop Wood near Philadelphia. Among uncommitted tight ends in 2018, Pitts has the fourth-highest Composite ranking.

    What sticks out the most about Pitts’ game is the way he makes himself huge over the middle. Pitts has good hands, and he uses his considerable frame to create separation. He’s capable of boxing out defenders like he’s a power forward hunting for a defensive rebound. For that reason, he should be a significant red-zone threat in college.

    Pitts is a big, athletic, reliable tight end who could do a lot of his damage in the run-blocking game. It’s not a coincidence that the three schools still in the hunt for his commitment run offenses that are pro-style or relatively close to it. At any of those schools, Pitts figures to start plenty of plays in line. He can then go deep or block downhill, tapping the full range of his skill set.


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    Tom Brady’s done it. Ben Roethlisberger’s done it. Any team with a halfway coordinated QB could gain an advantage by ditching the punter.

    In 1989, Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Randall Cunningham punted a ball 91 yards in a windy game against the New York Giants. Nearly three decades later it stands as the third-longest punt in NFL history.

    It was no fluke. Yes, the wind helped, but Cunningham booted the hell out of it.

    But he was a special case. During his time at UNLV, Cunningham was an All-American punter in 1983 and 1984, and he stepped back to punt 20 times during his NFL career. In addition to his 91-yarder in 1989, he blasted another one 80 yards in 1994.

    There are some really athletic quarterbacks in the NFL today, but it’s hard to imagine even someone like Cam Newton launching a 70-yard punt over the head of a returner. That’s why there are professional punters who are the best in the world at doing that.

    But how far could a decent athlete get a punt to bounce if there was no returner back to receive? A simple line drive punt that goes 25 or so yards would have the chance to skip and roll for a while if there was nobody back to keep it in front of them.

    So stop giving teams the luxury of a punt returner.

    Pooch punt always

    Tom Brady got a chance to test his punting skills in a playoff game against the Denver Broncos. Up 45-10 in the final minutes, Bill Belichick toyed with Denver a bit by calling for a punt on third down. Brady punted the ball about 37 yards and then got another 11 yards after it bounced without a Broncos player back to receive.

    Belichick called for the same exact strategy back in 2008, allowing Matt Cassel to punt on third down. With no one back to receive, the ball bounced and rolled all the way to the one-yard line, 58 yards from the line of scrimmage.

    The same strategy likely would’ve worked on fourth down, too. No matter how far the distance is for a first down, what defensive coordinator in their right mind would send a punt returner back and give a quarterback an 11 vs. 10 situation?

    Ben Roethlisbergertook advantage of that on a 4th and 18 in 2013, punting a ball that was downed on the one-yard line against the Cleveland Browns.

    It’s pretty simple: If a defense is forced to choose between sending a punt returner back to receive or having 11 men to defend a possible conversion attempt, they’ll likely pick 11 men every single time. And in a league where it’s harder than ever to defend the pass, that’s the right call.

    Letting your quarterback do the punting can probably result in some pretty decent field position swaps in a league where only half the teams have a net punting average over 40 yards. It also gives the team the peace of mind of knowing that no return is on the way.

    Imagine being able to eliminate the possibility that a player like Tyreek Hill will ruin your day with one big punt return.

    Yes, there are exceptions

    Eventually, there will be a down and distance where a team will be willing to send a player back to receive. If a team is facing a 4th-and-25, should it let their quarterback punt a ball straight into the arms of a returner who will only have offensive linemen and wide receiver to beat? No, that’s a bad idea.

    But how often will that situation present itself?

    There were 2,334 punts during the 2016 season and over 20 percent of them (468) were on fourth downs with three yards or fewer to go. About another 50 percent of them (1,165) were 4-10 yards from a first down.

    Altogether, fewer than 300 punts came on a fourth down with more than 15 yards to go. That’s less than 10 per team in an entire 16-game season.

    Maybe it’s worth it to have a punter on roster for that bad, but uncommon situation. Maybe it’s better to use that roster spot on another player and let your kicker come in and give it a shot.

    That would just depend on each team’s situation.

    Will it ever happen?

    Yeah, right.

    For years, the NFL has tried its best to get teams to attempt more two-point conversions. It was already a mathematically better decision and rule changes have made it more obvious than ever that teams should go for two way more often.

    They don’t.

    Why? Because the NFL is a conservative league with coaches who make conservative choices. Asking your quarterback to also be your punter is a fun idea, but no coach wants to be the guy who has to explain why they let Blake Bortles shank a ball off the side of his foot for a six-yard punt.

    They also don’t want to be the one who has to explain why Derek Carr is making $25 million per year to throw passes, but just pulled a hamstring doing something else.

    Oh well. At least we get to watch Marquette King.


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    Now that North Carolina’s production finally makes sense, let’s find out what the program’s made of.

    Chapel Hill is a lovely place, and it houses a lovely campus. UNC has an enrollment in the neighborhood of 30,000. It’s spacious but not too spaced out, it’s got plenty of trees and pretty, old buildings, and the athletics facilities are mostly baked into the cake.

    The old basketball arena is on the main artery road on campus (the Dean Dome is separated but isn’t too far away), and the football stadium is in the middle of things. Downtown is nearby, and it’s got drinking (cheap and fancy) and eating (ditto) options. From the dorms, you can access virtually all of this by foot.

    This is a semi-idyllic, normal college town, and for a couple of years now, it has had a normal football team for once.

    Over Fedora’s five seasons, he has averaged a recruiting class ranking of 29.8 (per the 247Sports Composite), produced three S&P+ top-30 performances, and averaged eight wins per year. You could note that the other two teams were pretty far outside of the top 30, or that he should be doing a hair better in recruiting, but recruiting and performance are finally in line with each other.

    For most of the 2000s, that hadn’t been the case. The Tar Heels were the poster boys for what could be. In John Bunting’s first season, they beat No. 6 Florida State and No. 13 Clemson by a combined 79-12. They also lost to Wake Forest and Maryland and finished 8-5. They beat No. 4 Miami in 2004 but finished 6-6. They beat ranked Virginia and BC teams in 2005 but finished 5-6.

    When Butch Davis took over, he demonstrated the program’s ceiling by signing a top-10 class in 2007 and top-20 classes in 2009 and 2011. He went 8-5 for three straight years, and he was dismissed in the summer of 2011 as part of UNC’s ongoing effort to fight academic misconduct and improper benefits allegations.

    Big recruits, big wins, and no top-15 finishes from 1998 to 2014. That was UNC’s reality. And now it’s something far more ... reality-based.

    Fedora’s classes are almost identical from year to year, and from an S&P+ standpoint (presented in the format of adjusted points per game) his three good teams (2013, 2015, and 2016) have been within 0.4 points of each other: plus-11.1, plus-10.7, and plus-11.1. This is almost too normal.

    How does Fedora raise the bar now? I’m not sure, but I know he probably won’t do so in 2017. Like 2014, when UNC slipped to 6-7 and 71st in S&P+ before surging, Fedora’s Heels have a lot to replace, particularly on offense: a top-10 draft choice at QB, two running backs who combined for 1,500 yards, five of the top six receiving targets, and two all-conference offensive linemen. A scary-in-a-good-way special teams unit is also rebuilding. The defense is experienced but lost its coordinator.

    UNC is projected to fall from 21st to 38th in S&P+. The Heels’ schedule is kind, for an ACC slate — no Clemson or Florida State, and Louisville, Miami, and Notre Dame at home — and eight of 12 games are projected to finish within one possession, which means a few exciting new pieces could make the difference between a four- or nine-win season. The former might lead us to wonder about Fedora’s staying power; the latter might make UNC the 2018 ACC Coastal favorite.


    2016 in review

    2016 UNC statistical profile.

    I got yelled at by UNC fans during the Heels’ 11-win 2015. UNC ranked a mere 28th in S&P+. It was easy to explain why — they lost to both of the S&P+ top-25 teams they faced (Clemson and Baylor), barely got by teams ranked 40th and 68th, and lost to a South Carolina that ended up in the 80s.

    When you’re winning, it feels like you should rank high no matter what, but things normalized in 2016. The Heels exceeded expectations from an S&P+ standpoint (they were projected 27th and finished 21st) but finished with a win total (eight) right where it was projected to be. The schedule went from featuring two top-30 teams to six; that’ll cost you a few wins.

    That’s not to say the season went according to plan. (UNC hasn’t totally kicked the UNC habit, I guess.) The Heels went 3-3 against those top-30 teams, beating No. 6 Florida State and No. 14 Miami on the road and knocking off No. 20 Pitt at home. If you’re capable of that, you probably shouldn’t also lose to a mediocre Georgia and both chief rivals (28-27 to Duke, 28-21 to NC State). The record was less a product of the schedule and more a product of when they showed up.

    • UNC in eight wins: Avg. percentile performance: 83% (~top 20) | Avg. score: UNC 40, Opp 22 | Avg. yards per play: UNC 7.5, Opp 5.5 (plus-2.0)
    • UNC in five losses: Avg. percentile performance: 47% (~top 70) | Avg. score: Opp 30, UNC 20 | Avg. yards per play: Opp 5.2, UNC 5.2 (plus-0.0)

    The defense was roughly the same, but the offense fluctuated. The Heels laid an egg in a rainstorm against Virginia Tech, but even in the other games, there was a clear difference between Good UNC and Bad UNC.

    Maybe it’s a good sign that the defense was more stable, as the defense will far more closely resemble last year’s unit than the offense will.


    Offense

    UNC offensive radar

    Full advanced stats glossary.

    Mitch Trubisky was only the starting quarterback for one year at UNC, but he made the most of it. He completed 68 percent of his passes and threw for nearly 3,800 yards with 30 touchdowns to only six interceptions; after completing 66 percent of his passes through two seasons as a backup, he proved small sample sizes can tell a semi-accurate story. That was enough to get him (over-)drafted second in the 2017 NFL draft.

    If he didn’t produce, however, UNC wasn’t going to win. He threw interceptions in three games (two in each), and the Heels lost all three. When he produced a passer rating under 150, UNC went 1-4. The run game was decent but unspectacular (and it was horrendous in short-yardage situations), and the defense was decent but inefficient, and Trubisky had to be awesome for the Heels to survive.

    Trubisky’s gone, and so are running backs Elijah Hood and T.J. Logan, receivers Ryan Switzer, Bug Howard, and Mack Hollins, and starting linemen Jon Heck, Lucas Crowley, Caleb Peterson. Yikes.

    This isn’t going to scare coordinator Gunter Brewer too much; he’s seen things. His career got rolling when he coached Randy Moss as Marshall’s receivers coach, and he ended up holding the same roles at UNC and Oklahoma State (under Fedora). When Fedora left to take the Southern Miss head coaching gig, Brewer ended up as OSU co-coordinator, then as passing game coordinator for a year at Ole Miss. Once you’ve worked for a desperate Houston Nutt, not much is going to phase you.

    LSU v MississippiPhoto by Stacy Revere/Getty Images
    Brandon Harris

    With so much gone, let’s take stock:

    • LSU graduate transfer Brandon Harris was the Tigers’ QB for most of 2015, and he threw for 2,158 yards and 13 touchdowns while sharing a backfield with Leonard Fournette. He was inefficient but explosive, completing 54 percent but at 14.6 yards per completion. He struggled in a season-opening loss to Wisconsin last year, then got yanked after going 1-for-4 for eight yards against Jacksonville State.
    • If Harris doesn’t seize control, the job will go to sophomore Nathan Elliott (8-for-9 for 55 yards as Trubisky’s backup) or one of two redshirt freshmen — Chazz Surratt or Logan Byrd. Surratt was the most well-regarded as a recruit, and Elliott wasn’t awful in scrub time last fall.
    • Senior Austin Proehl is the de facto go-to in the receiving corps. Of the six players targeted at least 20 times, he’s the only returnee. He had 597 receiving yards at 8 yards per target, and his 49 percent success rate second-best of that six-man bunch. He peaked with seven catches for 99 yards in the win over Pitt and seven for 91 in the bowl loss to Stanford. The only other wideouts with more than three catches last year: former walk-on and potential possession extraordinaire Thomas Jackson (18 targets, 17 catches, 78 percent success rate last year) and Jordan Cunningham (10 targets, six catches, 82 yards).
    • Tackle Bentley Spain and guard R.J. Prince have combined for 35 career starts, and sophomore guard Tommy Hatton added an extra eight last season. They are joined by Florida graduate transfer Cameron Dillard and USC graduate transfer Khaliel Rodgers, plus a smattering of former star recruits — sophomore William Sweet, redshirt freshman Jay-Jay McCargo, freshman Jonah Melton, etc. In theory, there’s a nice starting five.
    • Oh right, running backs. Hmm. Auburn grad transfer Stanton Truitt rushed 31 times for the Tigers last year as a part-time RB/WR. Sophomore Jordon Brown gained just 45 yards in 20 carries last year. True freshmen Michael Carter and Antwuan Branch are options. Aaaaaand I’m not sure what else.

    The run game will probably regress, which will put Trubisky-level pressure on the new passing corps. That doesn’t usually translate to success.

    Defense

    UNC defensive radar

    Former defensive coordinator Gene Chizik was really good at a couple of specific things. His Tar Heel defenses prevented big plays, waited for you to make a mistake, and then pounced, usually on passing downs. They were bend-don’t-break to the core, ranking 97th in success rate and 19th in IsoPPP (which measures the magnitude of the successful plays).

    UNC defensive efficiency and explosiveness

    It’s hard to create an elite defense with those principles, but when you’re trying to restore credibility, it’s a good place to start. Before you can win (make stops), you have to figure out how not to lose (suffer big breakdowns), right?

    UNC improved from 110th in Def. S&P+ pre-Chizik to 72nd in 2015 and 44th in 2016. But the 55-year old stepped aside to spend more time with his family, leaving John Papuchis to figure out how to keep pushing the defense forward.

    The 39-year-old is a Bo Pelini disciple who spent 2008-10 as Nebraska’s defensive ends coach and 2012-14 as NU defensive coordinator. His last Husker defense ranked basically the same as UNC’s last year, but the Huskers ranked a more balanced 43rd in success rate and 56th in IsoPPP. They gave up more big plays but created far more turnover chances. And they did that with an ultra young front.

    NCAA Football: Pittsburgh at North CarolinaJeremy Brevard-USA TODAY Sports
    Malik Carney

    Chizik had to deal with something similar last year. Among the 14 combined linemen and linebackers who recorded at least 8.5 tackles in 2016, six were sophomores, and three were freshmen. That didn’t do the Heels too many favors — they were 72nd in Rushing S&P+, 95th in rushing success rate, and 120th in stuff rate (run stops at or behind the line) — but assuming a normal developmental curve, that could mean improvement.

    End Malik Carney recorded 8.5 tackles for loss and 5.5 sacks last year, while tackles Jeremiah Clarke and Aaron Crawford appear to have potential as boulders in the middle. Meanwhile, junior linebackers Cole Holcomb and Andre Smith and senior Cayson Collins combined for 15 TFLs and eight breakups. If younger players like ends Jason Strowbridge and Tomon Fox and linebacker Dominique Ross live up to flashes of potential, the front seven could be fun. And if it isn’t, it probably will be in 2018.

    North Carolina v DukePhoto by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images
    M.J. Stewart

    The secondary was dealt a tricky hand in having to compensate for such an inexperienced front seven. Opponents far preferred run to pass, rushing 68 percent of the time on standard downs (13th in FBS) and 45 percent on passing downs (second). And the return of safety Donnie Miles and corner M.J. Stewart gives the Heels a couple of anchors in the back once more.

    Chizik didn’t employ a large rotation in the back, and the loss of safety Dominquie Green and corner Des Lawrence hurts. Even with Miles and Stewart, UNC will rely on youngsters — some combination of marginally tested juniors (Corey Bell Jr., J.K. Britt), sophomores (Myles Dorn, Patrice Rene, K.J. Sails, D.J. Ford), and freshmen (Myles Wolfolk, Greg Ross, C.J. Cotman, Tre Shaw).

    The run defense better improve, but the timing might be right for Papuchis to dial up the aggressiveness.


    Special Teams

    First, the good news: punter Tom Sheldon is back. The 6’3 sophomore was a first-year hit, averaging 42.7 yards per kick with a good fair catch ratio and a 70 percent punting success rate (14th in FBS). Odds are decent that UNC will be punting more, and Sheldon could give the Heels a field position bump.

    Now the bad news. No more Ryan Switzer (seven career punt return touchdowns). No more T.J. Logan (four career kick return touchdowns). No more Nick Weiler (7-for-10 on FGs longer than 40 yards last year).

    UNC ranked ninth in Special Teams S&P+ last season, and unless Weiler’s replacement is amazing, there’s almost nowhere to go but down.


    2017 outlook

    2017 Schedule & Projection Factors

    Date Opponent Proj. S&P+ Rk Proj. Margin Win Probability
    2-Sep California 55 5.5 63%
    9-Sep Louisville 14 -9.0 30%
    16-Sep at Old Dominion 93 11.7 75%
    23-Sep Duke 65 6.6 65%
    30-Sep at Georgia Tech 31 -4.6 40%
    7-Oct Notre Dame 17 -5.7 37%
    14-Oct Virginia 70 9.4 71%
    21-Oct at Virginia Tech 25 -7.0 34%
    28-Oct Miami 18 -4.5 40%
    9-Nov at Pittsburgh 33 -3.8 41%
    18-Nov Western Carolina NR 38.8 99%
    25-Nov at N.C. State 27 -5.4 38%
    Projected S&P+ Rk 38
    Proj. Off. / Def. Rk 59 / 32
    Projected wins 6.3
    Five-Year S&P+ Rk 6.9 (41)
    2- and 5-Year Recruiting Rk 29 / 24
    2016 TO Margin / Adj. TO Margin* -2 / 7.4
    2016 TO Luck/Game -3.6
    Returning Production (Off. / Def.) 41% (19%, 64%)
    2016 Second-order wins (difference) 8.5 (-0.5)

    UNC is experimenting with a newfound sense of normalcy, and it’s looked good in baby blue. But when you reach this top-30 level, one of two things tends to happen: you either upgrade, or you deal with bumps in the road. Recruiting isn’t changing much, so when experience isn’t distributed quite right, there will be setback years.

    UNC will almost certainly regress, with this much offensive turnover, but whether the Heels fall to 35th or 55th or 75th will set the bar. Adding Harris helps to assure a higher floor, but if one of the younger guys beats him out for the starting QB job, that might not be the worst thing, long-term.

    From Cal in the opener to NC State to finish the regular season, UNC’s season will be filled with relative tossups and ups and downs. The potential UNC shows will say a lot about Fedora’s ability to keep normalcy in Chapel Hill.

    Team preview stats

    All power conference preview data to date.


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    The USMNT need to step up their game in the Gold Cup knockout rounds.

    The CONCACAF Gold Cup has finally reached the knockout stages, and the United States are looking at a good path to the competition’s final in California — but to get there, they have to start putting in dramatically improved performances, starting with their quarter-final bout with El Salvador.

    The USMNT made significant changes to their squad after the group stage, making several pre-arranged changes to bring in some of the top talents in the American player pool, like Michael Bradley, Clint Dempsey, and Jozy Altidore. Unfortunately, that came at the cost of some of their few players who actually performed at a high level in the group stage, including joint-top scorer Dom Dwyer and creative midfielder Kelyn Rowe.

    Hopefully the United States can put in much better performances than they did in the group stage, because if they don’t they won’t have a good shot at making the final, much less winning it. They should win this match regardless — no offense to El Salvador, but they are by far the weakest of the teams in the quarter-finals — but they can’t afford any further weaknesses in the competition. The USMNT need to show a ruthless edge in this match, or there will be a whole lot more questions than answers for them moving forward.

    To watch this match online in the United States, you can stream it on the Fox Soccer Match Pass subscription service, or for free on Fox Sports Go with some internet providers. In El Salvador, the match will be streamed on TCS GO, and for viewing options in other countries you can check out the listings at LiveSoccerTV.

    Match Date/Time: Wednesday, 9 p.m. ET

    Venue: Lincoln Financial Field, Philadelphia

    TV: Fox Sports 1 (U.S. - English), Univision Deportes (U.S. - Spanish), SKY Planeta Fútbol, Sky HD (El Salvador)

    Make friends: Check out Stars and Stripes FC for more coverage of the United States national team.


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    We live and die by our 2K rating, folks.

    If there’s anything we’ve learned over the past few years, it’s that NBA players care about their 2K ratings just as much as we do.

    When two-time MVP and two-time NBA champion Stephen Curry entered the league in 2010, he was rated a 69. Sixty-nine! At the end of last season, he was a 94. Rudy Gobert had similar results, entering the league as a raw athlete in 2014 with the tender rating of a 53. Now, the Frenchman’s a perennial Defensive Player of the Year candidate who ended the 2016-17 season at an 81 overall.

    The list goes on and on. Players get better (or worse) as the season goes on, and their NBA 2K rating fluctuates weekly — sometimes daily — with their play. It’s a vicious cycle for those fringe players who care about their video-game selves, and an even more cruel punishment for the fans who use those players every day.

    That said, NBA 2K18 is exactly two months away, and a few notable players discovered their ratings in advance of the drop date. Some of their reactions were priceless:

    Kyrie Irving

    Cover star checks in about his #NBA2K18 rating @kyrieirving

    A post shared by NBA 2K (@nba2k) on

    Paul George

    #NBA2K18 rating confessionals w/ @ygtrece

    A post shared by NBA 2K (@nba2k) on

    Karl-Anthony Towns

    The #NBA2K18 Process is looking just fine to @karltowns at Commercial Shoot

    A post shared by NBA 2K (@nba2k) on

    Devin Booker

    70 point game intact, @dbook checks in on his #NBA2K18 rating

    A post shared by NBA 2K (@nba2k) on

    DeMar DeRozan

    Canadian #NBA2K18 cover star talks about his rating at commercial shoot

    A post shared by NBA 2K (@nba2k) on

    Joel Embiid

    Joel Embiid discussing The Process behind his #NBA2K18 rating @joelembiid

    A post shared by NBA 2K (@nba2k) on


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    There’s a very good reason behind this.

    Myles Garrett isn’t leading the NFL in rookie jersey sales. Neither is Deshaun Watson. That honor belongs to James Conner, the Pittsburgh Steelers’ third-round draft pick in 2017, according to data from Dick’s Sporting Goods. And there’s a good reason.

    Conner, an All-American at Pitt, fulfilled his dream of making it to the NFL when he was drafted 105th overall by the Steelers. But that accomplishment pales in comparison to what Connor did in 2016. He beat Hodgkin’s lymphoma.

    He tore his MCL during Pitt’s first game of the season, and during the rehab process, doctors discovered a lump in Conner’s chest. It was diagnosed as Hodgkin’s in December 2015. Hodgkin’s lymphoma is treatable, but it can be deadly. Conner underwent treatment, and by May 2016, he was cancer-free.

    There’s no quit in James Conner. You can see that in this video from his first post-treatment practice.

    Just four months later, Conner was back on the field for the Panthers. In Pitt’s first game of the season, he scored two touchdowns. He finished his final season at Pitt with 1,092 yards and 16 touchdowns.

    Connor isn’t just leading the rookie jersey sales. He’s third right now behind only Tom Brady and Dak Prescott league wide.

    James Conner has already overcome his toughest opponent | SB N...

    NFL draft prospect James Conner has already overcome his toughest opponent — Stage 2 Hodgkin's lymphoma.

    Posted by SB Nation NFL on Friday, April 21, 2017

    So it’s no surprise that fans are passing up some of the bigger NFL names to buy James Conner’s jersey. He’s an inspiration.


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    Dustin Johnson and Jordan Spieth are co-favorites at the sportsbooks this week in a wide-open field going into the British Open.

    Eight different golfers have won the last eight major championships in golf. Dustin Johnson will try to put an end to that streak by winning his second major title this weekend in the British Open.

    Johnson is a +1400 co-favorite to win the British Open at sportsbooks monitored by OddsShark.com. The 2016 US Open champion started 2017 off on a tear, finishing in the top three in five of his first seven tournament appearances, including three wins. But that form has eluded Johnson in recent months as he finished outside of the top 10 in The Players Championship and the AT&T Byron Nelson event, and then missed the cut in both the Memorial Tournament and the US Open.

    He'll look to get back on track at a discounted price this week.

    Before the current stretch of eight different winners over the last eight major tournaments, Jordan Spieth won back-to-back events at both the Masters and the US Open in 2015. Spieth (+1400 at online betting sites) has two strong finishes in his last four appearances, finishing runner-up in the Dean & Deluca Invitational in May and winning the Travelers Championship in June.

    The 23-year-old has finished outside of the top 25 in three of his four career appearances in the British Open, but had a solid tied-for-fourth showing in 2015 in this event.

    Sitting right behind Johnson and Spieth on the betting board are Rickie Fowler (+1600), Jon Rahm (+1600), and Sergio Garcia (+1800). Fowler and Rahm both have seven top 10 finishes and one tournament win under their belts this season, though Fowler enters this event in better form.

    While Rahm has missed the cut in each of his last two tournaments, Fowler has finished in the top five in three of his last four, including a tied-for-fifth place finish in the US Open.

    Other potential contenders in this week's field on the golf odds include 2014 British Open winner Rory McIlroy (+2000), Justin Rose (+2000), Hideki Matsuyama (+2000), Tommy Fleetwood (+2200), Henrik Stenson (+2500), Adam Scott (+2800), Brooks Koepka (+3300), Jason Day (+3300), and Paul Casey (+3300).

    Stenson is the defending champion at the British Open, and Koepka is the most recent major winner coming off of a win in the US Open.

    British Open Betting Odds (see the complete list at OddsShark)

    Dustin Johnson +1400

    Jordan Spieth +1400

    Rickie Fowler +1600

    Jon Rahm +1600

    Sergio Garcia +1800

    Justin Rose +2000

    Rory McIlroy +2000

    Hideki Matsuyama +2000

    Tommy Fleetwood +2200

    Henrik Stenson +2500

    Adam Scott +2800

    Brooks Koepka +3300

    Jason Day +3300

    Paul Casey +3300


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    After Dale Earnhardt Jr. won the pole for the July race at Daytona International Speedway earlier this month, NASCAR’s most popular driver said he wanted to compete in the 2018 preseason Clash on the same track in February.

    As a former winner of the non-points event, Earnhardt was already eligible to race in the Clash, but having earned his way into the race and no longer needing an exemption seemingly encouraged him to consider the opportunity — even if he was set to retire at the end of the current season.

    But not everyone is on board with Earnhardt, who missed 18 races last season with a concussion, his third since 2012, returning to race on the restrictor-plate track where multi-car accidents are a common occurrence. That includes Earnhardt’s wife, Amy, as Dale Jr. told reporters on Tuesday afternoon, “Amy doesn’t want me to run it.”

    This comment quickly went viral, prompting members of Junior Nation to take to social media in attempt to get Amy to change her mind. The messages ran the gamut from supportive and encouraging to hostile and critical.

    Amy responded Tuesday night by tweeting an explanation of why she didn’t want her husband to race at Daytona because of the possible risks to his health:


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