Young Coyotes the Real Valley 'Work in Progress'

For all the veteran-laden and 8-4 Phoenix Suns say about their squad being a work in progress, the Phoenix Coyotes seem to be the team in town that's actually progressing rather than just rebuilding around a new centerpiece.

I went to last night's Blackhawks/Coyotes game at Jobing.com Arena, honestly, to get my first in-person look at Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane; I hadn't seen either of them live it. That should be no offense to the 'Yotes; I've only missed one home game all season.

However, I found myself more occupied with nitpicking at what the young Coyotes are doing right and wrong so far this season rather than drooling over the immense talent that Kane and Toews have.

Doing it right: Defense. This past draft day, I was convinced that the trade sending Keith Ballard and Nick Boynton to Florida for Olli Jokinen was addition by subraction. Boynton was nothing more than minute-eater in his two years in Phoenix; scoring only 5 goals and finishing with a -22 rating. Ballard still has the potential to become a fine defenseman in this league; he's currently 2nd on the Panthers in scoring; but I would have definitely taken a playmaking forward over a developing defenseman in the short term. The six regular defensemen the 'Yotes put on the lineup every night are doing a fine job so far; I really like what Keith Yandle has become, Derek Morris is having a solid start to the season and, frankly, Kurt Sauer may turn out to be one of the biggest steals of this past offseason's free agent market. It's a nice balance of youth and experience that will continue to get better.

Doing it wrong: Power Play. Despite the defense being solid a whole so far, the Coyotes lack a proven power play quarterback. The Coyotes currently own the 4th worst power play in the National Hockey League, mainly because it seems like noone is comfortable taking shots. Granted, Phoenix potted two PP goals last night against Chicago, but they came into the game with only 9 man-advantage goals through the season's first 16 games. They don't move the puck well and struggle on forechecking when they lose the puck down low. Special teams are a key factor during a tight playoff race and this is something the Coyotes need to sure up once February and March roll around.

Doing it right: The Rookies. I've got nothing but good things to say about Kevin Porter, Mikkel Boedker and Viktor Tikhonov. Boedker might be the most complete 18-year-old player I've seen this decade; I thought it was the right pick and the right fit after watching him play in the Memorial Cup last season and he's jumped right into the action with the Coyotes so far. Porter has shown flashes of superb playmaking skill but could use a little more toughness while Tikhonov is a terrific stickhandler and passer. With vets like Olli Jokinen, Shane Doan and even a grinder like Steve Reinprecht around, I have no doubt that these kids are in good hands and will develop nicely.

Doing it wrong: Line Juggling. Last night, Peter Mueller and Olli Jokinen shared a line with Daniel Carcillo. If I never see that forward combo again, it will be too soon. Poor Daniel, for all the grit and motor that he has, just can't keep up with those speedy linemates. There were several breakouts before Carcillo was taken off the line in which Mueller and Jokinen sped through the neutral zone for a potential odd-man rush, but the advantage didn't materialize because Carcillo didn't have the wheels to jump into the play. IMO, get Doan back on that line and the scoring will come. Doan said it himself last night in the locker room: "We need more offense." It's tough when you can only put two on the board when you get 38 shots on goal, and the right line combinations will lead to more pucks in the net.


New Header

As I'm sure you've come across, BTS has a fancy shmancy new logo up there at the top.

Big thanks to my buddy Nick Saia for putting it together; he also does all the great graphic work for my all ASU sports blog, Pitchfork Nation.


BTS NCAA Hoops Previews: Big Ten

If you thought it has been a down year across the board for the Big Ten this football season, wait until conference play in basketball gets kick started.

Not more than two years ago, this conference contained arguably the two best teams in the nation at the time and a collection of the best players in America. The Big Ten sent a team to the national title game twice in three years (Illinois in 2005, Ohio State in 2007) and last season had two teams in the Sweet 16 and another win the NIT.

Now, I'm struggling to find more than two teams that will be nationally relevant in 2008-09. The one thing that's for certain, though is that Raymar Morgan (pictured left) is going to be a terror for the other 10 teams to stop.

Here are my thoughts on these Big 2, Middling 2 and Little 7 in my predicted order of finish.

1) Michigan State Spartans
Tom Izzo, under his watch, will never let this program slip. They brought in another top-20 recruiting class to complement All-American caliber players like Kalin Lucas and Raymar Morgan. They've got shooting touch with those two, size with senior Goran Suton and leadership from fiery senior guard Travis Walton. They'll miss Drew Neitzel's motor, but the Spartans will have no problem going into March on a roll and should hang their first Big Ten Champions banner since 2001. Delvon Roe, a 6'8" forward, will make an immediate impact as a freshman.

2) Purdue Boliermakers
There's no way Matt Painter can do a better job stepping into Gene Keady's giant shoes than he has done over the past two seasons. A 25-9 record and revitalized fan base has West Lafayette buzzing about this team in 2008. Even more remarkable, he had that record and a close loss to Elite Eight member Xavier being led by a freshman trio of Robbie Hummel, E'Twaun Moore and JaJuan Johnson. They're all back this season and the experience they gained will take the Boilermakers far this spring.

3) Ohio State Buckeyes
Will the star big man from any recruiting class go anywhere but Columbus anymore? Greg Oden and Kosta Koufous made immediate impacts for the Buckeyes over the last two seasons...this eyar...it will be 7-footer B.J. Mullens. Thad Matta's team was left in the cold on Selection Sunday last year, but no matter, they just parlayed that into a deep, impressive run to an NIT title. Athletic guard David Lighty and Evan Turner are the returning starters and Matta is expecting a lot from sophomore Jon Diebler at the two-guard. The Buckeyes are clearly the best of middle pack behind Michigan State and Purdue this season.

4) Wisconsin Badgers
In what was supposed to be a rebuilding year after Big Ten POY Alando Tucker split for the NBA, the Badgers didn't really do anything...other than win the conference title and could only be stifled by Cinderella Davidson. The best thing about Wisconsin every year is that Bo Ryan is the best in the Big Ten at coaching up younger players. This year, his disciples will be Trevon Hughes, Marcus Landry and hulking forward Joe Krabbenhoft. The Badgers are also blessed with quality depth at every position.

5) Minnesota Golden Gophers
If there's one guarantee about the Gophers this season, its that Blake Hoffarber will nail a ridiculous shot. He had this one in a Minnesota state title game to send the game into double OT and then, to follow it up, this buzzer-beater to knock off Indiana in the quarters of the Big Ten tourney. Tubby Smith has immediately given this program credibility again and, while they will not challenge for a conference title this year, they've got a real shot at making the tournament. Along with Hoffarber, Lawrence Westbrook is an experienced starter and Al Nolen's lockdown defense pace the Gophers attack and swingman Jamal Abu-Shamala's ceiling is sky high.

6) Illinois Fighting Illini
Major steps back are the name of the game for Bruce Weber since losing the '05 title game...their win total has dropped every year since going 37-2 in 2004-05 up through last year's complete miss of the postseason. The ray of hope for Chief Illiniwek this season is transfer Alex Legion, a 6'5" guard who decommitted from Michigan to go to Kentucky, then left after six games in Lexington to enroll at Illinois. He's surrounded by Trent Meacham, another transfer, Demetri McCamey and Chester Frazier; those guys paired with Legion will make for a very good backcourt.

7) Michigan Wolverines
John Beilein will see improvement in his second season in Ann Arbor, but not enough to get Michigan to the Big Dance. Laval Lucas-Perry, a small yet rangy transfer guard from Arizona, will provide an immediate impact, but the Wolverines has major trouble scoring across the board.

8) Iowa Hawkeyes
It's safe to say that this program hasn't been the same since winning the Big Ten in 2006 then getting quickly dispatched by 14-seed Northwestern State in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. The Hawkeyes spiraled to 17 and 13 win seasons since then and Todd Lickliter has his work cut out for him now as Tony Freeman and Justin Johnson, who combined for nearly half of Iowa's points last year, are gone.

9) Northwestern Wildcats
It's almost crazy to put the Wildcats up this high in the Big Ten seeing as that they had one win in conference last year, and that was over sad-sack Michigan. However, Kevin Coble and Craig Moore give Evanston a light at the end of the tunnel this year; they're two of the conference's better long-range shooters. That light, unfortunately, isn't a postseason bid though.

10) Penn State Nittany Lions
Hopefully fans in Happy Valley got their share of winning this football season, because there sure wont be much at the Jordan Center this season. Ed DeChellis' job is on the line here...no improvement, again, will probably cost him his job.

11) Indiana Hoosiers
This will probably be the most anyone writes about a last-place projection anywhere, but it's warranted for the Hoosiers, who have gone through more turmoil over the past nine months than anyone in the nation. After the Kelvin Sampson debacle mercifully ended (depending on who you talk to), Indiana and new head coach Tom Crean is left with no returning starters and barely a returning scholarship player in sight. In fact, according to The Sporting News, more than 50% of the members of the USBWA couldn't name two Indiana PLAYERS, let alone starters. Senior Kyle Taber is the Hoosiers most talented player, but beyond him, walk-on Brett Finklemeier has the most experience of any othe player on the team with 11 minutes. No, not per game. Total. In his career. Indiana will trot out eight freshmen this season and it will be a lean year in Bloomington, that's for sure. However, if there's one coach that brings the attitude and the fire to turn this program around, it's certainly Crean.


BTS NCAA Hoops Previews: Big East

Quick. Name as many teams as you can from the Big East.

Can't get all 16? Don't worry. Neither can I. It's a near impossible feat because inherently, you'll forget South Florida. Or Seton Hall. Or Rutgers. Or all three!

Either way, the Big East has become a lumbering giant of a power conference, spitting out some of the best talent, most memorable games and the most tourney bids every year.

Many actually think the Big East could receive 10 tournament bids this season. I'm not ready to go quite that far; I think the top half of the conference will be next to shoe-ins for March Madness, but if the cards fall the right way, 9 or 10 might actually not be too far off.

The most fun thing about the Big East this season will be the amount of incredible, quality upperclassmen that are returning this season. I feel like the lack of turnover throughout the conference will only increase the quality of conference play in 2009 and make the postseason tournament, which this year includes all 16 teams, that much more intriguing to watch.

On to my analysis of the Big East, in order of predicted finish:

1) Louisville Cardinals
It all starts at the top at Freedom Hall; Rick Pitino is still one of the premier coaches in Division I basketball and he does more with the talent that he has than anyone else. Despite the loss or David Padgett and the defection of Derrick Caracter (who was an attitude problem anyway), this team is a Final Four contender. If they can find someone to fill Padgett's big shoes, they're going to be dominant. Super-recruit Samardo Samuels joins an already talented cast including Earl Clark, Edgar Sosa and Terrence Williams.

2) Connecticut Huskies
Another Final Four contender is located in Storrs, where Hasheem Thabeet is back and stronger than ever. Possibly the most dominant big man in the college game, Thabeet's 7'3" frame dwarfs everyone else in the Big East. During the offseason, he sured up the weaker points in his game (handling contact and foul shooting) to fine tune his repertoire of skills. It also goes without saying that he's the conference's best shot blocker. Around him, A.J. Price will return from his ACL injury and reliable four Jeff Adrian will be Thabeet's supporting cast.

3) Notre Dame Fighting Irish
I never thought I'd say that the Big East' best 1-2 punch would come out of South Bend, but enter Kyle McAlarney and Luke Harangody. With the loss of dominant rebounder Rob Kurz, the Fighting Irish are going to need Harangody to become more of a banger down low, something that should be a problem considering his 251-pound frame. McAlarney has arguably the best range in the conference, and when you pair him with Tory Jackson and his ball-moving ability, you've got a very dangerous backcourt.

4) Pittsburgh Panthers
Kind of an unfortunate year for Jamie Dixon to have what many regard as his best Pitt team under his tenure. However, their defensive prowess and the recovery from the rash of devestating injures the Panthers suffered last year makes them more than a darkhorse to finish on top of the Big East heap this season. This year's Pitt team will be very physical inside with DeJuan Blair, Gary McGhee and Tyrell Biggs...it's the unit that will have the best chance to match up with Hasheem Thabeet. The surprising return of Sam Young gives the team desperately needed veteran leadership and long-distance shooting.

5) Syracuse Orange
This is my conference sleeper. They bring back six (yes, six) players with significant stating experience from last season, and we all know what Jim Boeheim can do with experience. The Orange return Jonny Flynn, who I think is the most exciting young point guard in the Big East. Pair him with Eric Devendorf, and you've got a very athletic, quick and talented backcourt. They lose uber-talented guard Donte Greene, but it shouldn't be a large dropoff. I'm a bit concerned about their size in the post; starting center Arinze Onuaku only comes in at 6'9", but their outside shooting will pick up that slack. The most appealing thing about Syracuse is their depth; Boeheim has at least 10 players that will make a significant impact this season.

6) Marquette Golden Eagles
I'm putting Marquette lower than most experts on this list because I really do think the loss of Tom Crean will have an immediate, short-term mental impact on the program. Despite the fact that there isn't a whole lot of turnover on the roster, Buzz Williams has his work cut out for him in this top-heavy conference. At least setting the starting lineup will be easy; it won't take a rocket scientist to get the trio of Dominic James, Jerel McNeal and Wesley Matthews on the floor and active every night. A startling lack of size up the middle will hurt this team as the loss of Ousmane Barro leaves Marquette without an experienced big man.

7) Georgetown Hoyas
Georgetown is going to be the mystery of the conference this season; they definitely have the talent to finish higher than 7, but they have the lack of depth that could send them spiraling lower. The lack of depth comes from the sudden transfers of Vernon Macklin and Jeremiah Rivers, but having shooters and defenders like Jessie Sapp and DaJuan Summers make Hoyas fans optimistic. Look for a jump in production from swingman Austin Freeman along with the return of oft-injured guard Chris Wright. Oh yeah...the loss of Roy Hibbert...it just might hurt. A little.

8) Villanova Wildcats
The 'Cats are way too small to compete for a Big East title this season. Jay Wright loves the small, speedy guys (Speedy Claxton, Randy Foye, Allan Ray), but it leaves his teams year in and year out without matchup size in the post or length in the backcourt. The thing that Villanova has going for them is the lack of roster turnover; the Wildcats didn't lose anyone of significant value to graduation or the draft, as Dante Cunningham and Shane Clark will lead the way.

9) West Virginia Mountaineers
I'm reluctant to call anything that Bob Huggins has his hands on a rebuilding project, but it's the closest thing to it he may have encountered. His most talented player and emotional leader, Joe Alexander, is gone, and there isn't a sure shot to take his place. Joe Mazzulla is a bit unreliable with his shot selection, as are Alex Ruoff and Da'Sean Butler, but when all three of them are hitting, the Mountaineers are able to steal basketball games. This isn't a good defensive team by any stretch though; the starters aren't quick enough and they don't block enough shots.

10) Providence Friars
First year head coach Keno Davis, who comes over after his tremendous work at Drake last year, has his work cut out. He'll soon find out that this isn't quite the Missouri Valley, especially with the offense he runs and the three-point shooting he lacks. Jeff Xavier and Brian McKenzie are nice outside shooters, but they're going to be taking many more long-range shots in this flex offense than they're used to.

11) Cincinnati Bearcats
They're better, but still not a tourney contender. The cupboard was bare for Mick Cronin when Huggins took off and he's done his best to recruit over the past three seasons, but his roster this year tremendously lacks experience. There's no doubt that this is the most talented team that Cronin has fielded in three seasons, but they're still a year or two away from being a postseason threat.

12) Seton Hall Pirates
The conference isn't getting any worse while Seton Hall progressively gets better. The Pirates stingy defense will create turnovers, but scoring off of those TO's tends to be a problem that keeps them from winning games. The loss of Brian Laing, the team's emotional and physical leader, will hurt Seton Hall big time.

13) DePaul Blue Demons
It was a surprising step backwards for DePaul last season and it will not get much better in suburban Chicago this year. Their most significant players, Mac Koshwal and Dar Tucker, are not surrounded by experienced role players, putting undue pressure on the youngsters. DePaul has a devestating habit of blowing leads, which obviously isn't conducive to being a consistent winner.

14) Rutgers Scarlet Knights
Worst offense in the Big East. Period. 16th in FG percentage, 16th in 3-point percentage, worst assist-to-turnover ratio and next to worst in overall scoring. Pretty much explains it all for the Knights. The one thing they have going in 08-09 is a surprisingly good recruiting class, headlined by Mike Rosario and Greg Echenique. This is definitely a work in progress.

15) St. John's Red Storm
How can "New York City's College Basketball Team" be this bad every year?

16) South Florida Bulls
Can Matt Grothe play power forward, too?


BTS 2008 NCAA Hoops Previews: The ACC

This is the first in a series of conference previews leading up to the opening of college basketball season. TOMORROW: The Big East

It's Final Four or bust for the guys in Carolina Blue.

In 2005, Roy Williams took North Carolina's best team since 1993 to a national title over Illinois. Since then, it's been strong teams but disappointing results for the Tar Heels, right up through last year's Final Four debacle against Kansas; a game which was over before tipoff.

The Heels landed a coup when the pacemakers of their team; Hansbrough, Wayne Ellington, Ty Lawson and Danny Green; all decided to come back to Chapel Hill after the last three all dipped their toes in the NBA waters.

An ACC regular season and tournament title might just be the tip of the iceberg toward the Tar Heels march to the National Championship.

However, there ARE other teams in the Atlantic Coast Conference, and they'll all be gunning for UNC throughout 2008-09. Here's my predicted order of finish:

1) North Carolina Tar Heels
Read everything above and it'll explain why the Heels are on top of the ACC this year.

2) Duke Blue Devils
Just another season in Durham. Coach K returns from helping Team USA toward their gold medal and will be the Tar Heels stiffest competition in the ACC this season. They return sharpshooting guards Greg Paulus and Jon Scheyer while sophomore forward Kyle Singler has improved his post presence this past offseason. If Brian Zoubek can stay healthy, the reigning ACC Newcomer of the Year will become a 7'1" terror. Gerald Henderson is quite possibly the best wing in the league; his tenacity and grit are traits that coaches coveted during recruiting and he has only expanded them. Highly touted forward Olek Czyz is in the system now and earned MVP honors during spring workouts.

3) Wake Forest Demon Deacons
The Deacs endured one of the biggest tragedies in recent memory when Skip Prosser suddenly passed away just before last season started. Many pundits wrote off Wake because of a combination of Prosser's passing and their overall youth, but the Demon Deacons came through with a respectable 17-13 record and youngsters like James Johnson and Jeff Teague emerged as budding leaders of the future. All three recruits for 08-09, including Al-Farouq Aminu, kept their commitments as well and Aminu, Tony Woods and Ty Walker will all see significant playing time.

4) Miami Hurricanes
You're not reading incorrectly. The traditional football powerhouse has a hell of a basketball team again this year, and it all centers around stellar senior guard Jack McClinton. He's possibly the most underrated player in the ACC but he's ready to burst on the national scene this season. A dynamite three-point shooter and commanding floor leader, if it weren't for Hansbrough, McClinton might be a frontrunner for POY honors. Beyond Jack, the 'Canes return four starters from a team that won 23 games and made the NCAA Tournament last season, including forwards and dominant rebounders Dwayne Collins and Jimmy Graham.

5) Clemson Tigers
This should take the sting away from another disappointment of a football season: Oliver Purnell is the anti-Tommy Bowden. He's got a young, dynamic and now tournament seasoned team that's hungry to make strides in conference. Though they lose dynamic leaders in Cliff Hammonds and James Mays, senior swingman K.C. Rivers is ready to fill their shoes. The guys helping him out, Demontez Stitt, freshman phenom Andre Young and sharpshooting guard Terrence Oglesby, are a cast of characters that make the Tigers a darkhorse for a top-3 finish in the ACC.

6) Virginia Tech Hokies
Seth Greenberg almost got it done for the Hokies last year, but his team got snubbed on Selection Sunday. Greeny didn't let his team get down about it though, leading VA Tech to the quarterfinals of the NIT after a 21-win season. After being a high-scoring, explosive team in 2006-07 and going to the tourney, the Hokies have transitioned into one of the best defensive lockdown teams among the major conferences. They're a top-three rebounding team in conference but will have to find a way to improve their long range shooting. 1-7 against the RPI top-50 will not cut it, either.

7) Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets
Iman Shumpert is going to make an impact very quickly. He's Paul Hewitt's only freshman and he's going to muscle his way into the rotation with his shooting touch and defensive skill. Bassirou Dieng is a graduate transfer that will use his 6'9" frame to bang around inside and matchup with the best ACC big men.

8) Florida State Seminoles
Always a bridesmaid, never a bride. The 'Noles have made the NIT for three consecutive seasons but have been left at the altar scratching their heads on Selection Sunday in all three of those seasons. I don't think this is the year they'll get over the hump, either. Leonard Hamilton does the best with what he has, which this season will include a major upgrade in size.

9) Boston College Eagles
Tyrese Rice is back, and BC should thank their lucky stars to have him back, as he accounted for 28.5% of their entire offense last season. The Eagles are woeful from the outside but make up for it with adequate defense. Josh Southern and Rakim Sanders show promise, but this is a work in progress for Al Skinner.

10) N.C. State Wolfpack
Was JJ Hickson's departure really addition by subtraction? He commanded touches on almost every possession; something that rubbed many of his teammates the wrong way. Sidney Rice doesn't have a ton of talent to work with, including the lack of a seasoned point guard, and he's got not much to build on after losing their last nine of 2008 by more than 10 points each night.

11) Maryland Terrapins
Hard to believe this team was the national champion just 6 1/2 years ago. Then, it was all about Juan Dixon and Steve Blake...now, it's all about whether Gary Williams will hold onto his job. The program continues to lose the top recruits from Baltimore and Washington year after year. The Terps turn the ball over more than any other team in the ACC, and all of those turnover machines return this season.

12) Virginia Cavaliers
Ever wonder what life in Charlottesville would be like without Sean Singletary? Welcome to it.

BCS headed to cable? Not so fast...

Since 1979, ESPN has been the benchmark that all sports television programming has had to try to stack up to.

Back then, no one thought that an all-sports channel would catch on and become popular. However, we we all know, the network has become a cultural icon. It's been the host of thousands upon thousands of the best moments in sports for the past 29 years. It's the channel that gave us The Big Show, Bodyshaping, the ESPYs and plenty of other indelible marks on sports society.

However, I have a serious problem with the news that came out today that ESPN (not ABC, it's parent company) put in a bid to get the BCS television contract after the 2009 season, when their contract with Fox mercifully ends.

Let's be realistic here, first off. There is no network that provides better coverage of college football than ESPN. Save Pam Ward, they've got the best group of announcers and anaylists, the best in-game presentation and easily the best studio shows in the business. They especially kick it up during bowl season and, god forbid, actually make people like me care about the Meineke Car Care Bowl; usually a match-up between Joe's Plumber College and Wossamatta U.

Having those second-tier bowls on cable is just fine with me; however, I feel like the major championships of major sports in the United States belong on network TV. Even with the switchover to DTV this coming February (and we all know about it, those PSA's never end!), cable TV only penetrates just under 66% of homes in America.

I'm pretty sure that a good percentage of those 34% probably still like college football, too. If the BCS games, including the National Championship, make the jump exclusively to cable, it'll potentially leave millions of fans in the dark.

It only makes sense. The World Series is on Fox, the NBA Finals are on ABC, the Super Bowl rotates among the three networks that carry the NFL (Fox, NBC and CBS) and, god forbid, even the Stanley Cup Finals are on NBC. This allows even the casual fan who may just be flipping channels on their local networks to stumble across these pivotal games.

Why should college football, which easily outrates most NBA and NHL games, be any different?

I really enjoyed watching BCS games on ABC over the first several years of their agreement with the NCAA and if this were to happen, I'd be very interested to see if heads of the BCS suggest that the games be carried there again.


Oh dear.

Anybody got any good ideas for jinx-breakers?