Tuesday, July 19, 2016

We’ll Make It, Tommy

It was Jan. 19, 2015, and life was good. My beloved Patriots just steamrolled the Indianapolis Colts in the AFC Championship Game, 45-7, and were heading to their sixth Super Bowl appearance in the Brady-Belichick Era (which commenced in 2000). In what was a rainy championship game in Foxborough that Sunday evening, the Patriots put a well-balanced attack on display. Colts quarterback, Andrew Luck, was rocked by the Patriots D; held to 126 yards passing and forced into throwing two interceptions. In Brady-esque fashion, Tommy tossed three touchdown passes through the rain. “Blount-force” was the Patriots’ mantra, as LaGarrette Blount ran for 148 yards and three scores on 30 carries in the contest. Life was good! I chanted “We’re on to Arizona” to face the Seattle Seahawks in two weeks at Super Bowl XLIX. 

Let’s just say my joy would be — deflated — rather abruptly over the course of the following week. 

Yes, I’m beating the dead horse that was Deflategate once again. It’s always been humorous to me how sports commentators seem to always apologize at this point for even the slightest mention of Deflategate on their radio segment, podcast, or column, because at the end of the day, we really are just talking about air in balls. Air in balls, people. Good grief. 

Anyways, as infamous as it may be in the eyes of many sports fans, Deflategate will always hold a (troublesome) place in my mind. 

It wasn’t all bad, I mean, remember when Brady stuck it to the NFL and beat his four-game suspension just 10 months ago? Wasn’t it great watching a vengeful Brady terrorize opposing defenses this past season? This was a “Psycho Tom” — a name given to Brady by Skip Bayless — who was doing any and everything possible in his being to not only make it to his seventh career Super Bowl; but to have Roger Goodell hand him the Lombardi Trophy with a grimace on his face. 

Well, that didn’t quite happen. Brady left the 2015-2016 season without a Super Bowl trophy. And entering the upcoming season, Deflategate has reared its ugly head on Brady and the Patriots. 

As Brady and the NFL went to war in the courthouse this summer, the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals reinstated Brady’s four-game suspension which had been fended off by Brady less than a year earlier. And that’s where we are right now. After having his most recent appeal rejected by the Court of Appeals, Brady has finally made public his decision to stop battling the (egregious) suspension. I’m going to avoid going on a tangent about what I think was an egotistical move by the NFL — who put in millions upon millions of dollars in legal costs to have Brady punished for his balls’ PSI shortcomings. This “Brady vs. NFL” heavyweight bout obviously went far beyond the pressure in those 11 footballs the Patriots used in the first half of the AFC Title Game. This meant so much more, it was about the players self-perceived power versus the League’s overruling power. The “NFLPA vs. Goodell.”

So, it is what it is. Brady is out for the first quarter of the upcoming regular season. The prospect of not having number 12 under center to open up the season is a naturally-terrifying one for New England fans. I mean, we know it’s going to have to be a reality someday, right? As magical as this Brady-Belichick Era has been, it will most definitely reach its conclusion at some point. 

When Jimmy Garoppolo trots onto the field Week 1 for the Pats, it will be the first time in the past 14 seasons that someone not named Tom Brady receives the Patriots’ first offensive snap of the season on opening day. 

Garoppolo, who was drafted in the second round (62nd overall) by the Pats in 2014, will be the man tasked with navigating the Patriot offense through the first four weeks of the season. We have seen Garoppolo sparingly during his time with New England — which is to be expected when the franchise’s No. 1 string quarterback practically has his Hall-of-Fame bust in Canton crafted already. 

Patriots fans may recall Garoppolo’s mop-up duty in the the Kansas City Massacre two years ago; when the Patriots fell to the Chiefs, 41-14, on Monday Night Football; and chaos ensued the next day as many clamored that the Patriots’ successful run was all but finished. In that game, Garoppolo looked pretty solid against what was likely the Chiefs third-string defense in the fourth quarter. He led the offense to a touchdown on his first possession in the game in what was an abysmal night for Patriots nation. Ironically enough, Garoppolo closed out the 2015 Championship Game that sparked the Deflategate saga. 

While Garoppolo under center still seems taboo to me and many others, I do think that Brady’s surrendering to the suspension was the right move. Should Tommy have taken this battle any further, it would have likely ended up becoming a Supreme Court case. Yes, a Supreme Court case — for football pressure — in a time that our nation is so troubled and tasked with other pressing issues such as gun violence and racial equity. It’s perfectly appropriate to bring footballs and air pumps to the Supreme Court right now.

Continuing to appeal would have definitely been an uphill battle legally for Brady as well. Let’s just say that Brady did continue to enter courtrooms for the remainder of this summer. And let’s just say he won another appeal that would push his suspension away temporarily. Who’s to say that the suspension wouldn't return at the end of the regular season — or even worse, at some point in the playoffs. It’s overall just better for Brady to get this suspension out of the way sooner, rather than later in the season. 

Let’s take a quick look at the Pats’ opponents during those first four Brady-less weeks:

Week 1: @ Arizona
Week 2: vs. Miami
Week 3: vs. Houston
Week 4: vs. Buffalo

So, not a much better time to have a three-game homestand than when you’re bringing in an inexperienced quarterback, right? This scheduling is definitely going to benefit New England early on. Nobody is projecting the Patriots to go 4-0, and that is for good measure. I see the season-opener at Arizona being a tough matchup for New England. The Houston match up in Week 3 could definitely be seen as a pick ‘em contest at this point in time. And while both divisional opponents — Miami and Buffalo — have made several beneficial moves this offseason, I feel being at Gillette for those games helps a whole lot. A majority of commentators have projected the Pats to go either 2-2 or 3-1 during this span, and I’m right there with them. 

Despite the impending suspension, the majority of Vegas still has the Patriots as the favorites to take Super Bowl LI in Houston this season. 

Also folks, keep in mind that this is not uncharted water for Belichick. This is the same coach who plugged Matt Cassel into the Patriot offense and led the team to an 11-5 record back in 2008. If we should know one thing by know, it is to never doubt The Hoodie, ever. 

Brady’s suspension will still allow him to keep in contact with the organization up until Week 1, when he will be officially barred from team activities. It’s safe to say that Tom will likely be at home those first four weeks watching the contests from the comfort of his living room. With Uggs on his feet, supermodel wife beside him, and coffee mug in hand, Brady will intently be following his team from a distance. You can bet that Brady’s inner fire burns more and more with every moment that passes by and brings him closer to his return. 

If the NFL thought it had a Psycho Tom last season, just wait. He wants nothing more than to have Goodell pass him the Lombardi Trophy on Feb. 5, 2017, and declare the Patriots “world champions.” 

Brady has the uncanny ability to channel his rage into brilliance on the field. Oh, and what a beautiful, passionate rage this season will hold. 

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Reflecting on Club 55

Everyone knows that the sport of football is a game of numbers. While the purists of the sport maintain that the only two statistics that matter are win-loss records and final scores, it’s pretty difficult to not buy into the analytics and numbers behind the game. With the boom of fantasy football and the explosion of social media coverage, football and almost every other major sport has fully immersed itself into the world of numbers, spreadsheets, and averages. Whether you buy into what the analytics guys are preaching to you about Phillip Rivers’ low completion rate with two minutes remaining on the road in indoor stadiums; or whether you are one of those old-timers stressing intangibles and the things that don’t show up on the scoresheet,  statistics have engrossed the modern world of sports.

The USC Football program has its own set of number games. No, not a statistical battle with regards to yardage per game or offensive efficiency, but with the digits that Trojan players sport on their chests. 

There are the obvious suspects when it comes to the revered numbers that have been worn by USC legends. The Peristyle of the L.A. Coliseum displays the six jersey numbers which have been permanently retired by USC: Heisman winners Carson Palmer (#3), Matt Leinart (#11), Charles White (#12), Mike Garrett (#20), O.J. Simpson (#32) and Marcus Allen (#33) have had their digits forever inscribed into Trojan football history. 

While not officially retired by the program, just as hallowed in USC lore are the numbers 5 and 43. El numero cĂ®nco, which most famously belonged to Reggie Bush — the (sort of, well, kind of) 2005 Heisman trophy winner — has not been worn by a player since his departure from the university in 2006. In a 2011 piece for the L.A. Times regarding this very same topic of jersey numbers and their significance at USC, Pat Haden remarked that it would be a very, very long time before another player sported Bush’s No. 5 again due to the controversies surrounding his infamous NCAA sanctions. The No. 43, formerly belonging to All-American safety Troy Polumalu — an NFL All-Pro and Pittsburgh Steelers legend — has not been worn by a Trojan since 2002. 

Also, come to think of it, you can’t talk iconic USC jerseys without the mention of Hall of Fame safety Ronnie Lott either (#42).

With all that being said, the No. 55 is yet another set of digits which carry a world of importance in the land of Troy. The number has historically been given to a standout linebacker for the Trojans; it cannot be requested by a player; it must be earned and delegated by the coaching staff. In fact, there have been many seasons in which no player was selected to receive the jersey number. 

On the official USC Football website, the team roster — which lists uniform numbers — is constantly being updated. Several weeks ago, sophomore linebacker Cameron Smith was temporarily listed as No. 55, which sent social media and Trojan Football blogs into a frenzy. However, all the hype surrounding the new Trojan-55 quickly died when the roster was updated and Smith was listed back at his normal No. 35. Reasons for the No. 55 listing of Smith have not been disclosed by the university; it is still possible that he could rock the “fives” this fall, but that’s still just speculation at this point.

Whether Smith, a Freshman All-American in 2015, winds up with the revered 55 or not, the number already has as proven a track record as any other digit in the history of college football. Here are some of the most prominent Trojan linebackers who took on the legacy of No. 55:

Junior Seau (1987-1990)
The late Seau was an All-American linebacker for the Trojans in the 1989 season — a year in which he totaled 19 sacks. He would go on to have one of the most decorated professional careers in the history of the NFL: 12 Pro Bowl selections, 8-time First-team All-Pro,  and 1992 NFL Defensive Player of the Year. Seau, whose No. 55 jersey with the San Diego Chargers is now retired, was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2015. 

Willie McGinest (1990-1993)
McGinest was a regular on the All-PAC-10 conference teams during his time with the Trojans. In his senior season, McGinest received All-American honors and was a finalist for the prestigious Lombardi Award, given every season to the best linebacker or lineman in the nation. After being drafted fourth overall by the New England Patriots in the 1994 NFL Draft, McGinest went on to win three Superbowl titles (all with New England) over his 15-year career. He was also selected to two Pro Bowl teams (1995 and 2003).

Chris Claiborne (1996-1998)
In 1998, Claiborne became the first and only Trojan to ever win the Butkus Award, given annually to the best linebacker in the country. After an All-American career at USC, Claiborne went on to be drafted ninth overall by the Detroit Lions in the 1999 NFL Draft; he never had quite the illustrious NFL career that the other members of Club 55 did. 

Lamar Dawson (2011-2015)
Dawson, the most recent Trojan to wear No. 55, may be one of the more underachieving players to bear the hallowed digits. Injuries derailed Dawson’s time with the Trojans; he only made 20 starts for the men of Troy over his five-year tenure with USC. 

As the 2015 All-PAC-12 Defensive Freshman of the Year, Smith certainly has the upside that could rightfully earn him the fives on his chest. In the coming weeks, and as the fall approaches, it will be interesting to see if anyone from USC addresses the Cam Smith 55 fiasco as a slip up in the typing of rosters, or as something Trojan fans should get used to seeing on Saturdays. Many speculate that the coaching staff did in fact grant Smith the number, but for one reason or another, a decision was made either for, or by, him to remain No. 35. 

Like most major universities, USC boasts one heck of a Greek life system. Take a stroll through Frat Row on a Friday night and you will be sure to find a plethora of fraternities putting together functions and partying the night away. As illustrious as Alpha Gamma may seem to some, there is hardly any fraternity more revered at USC than that of the Club 55 Linebacking Corp. 

After an impressive freshman campaign, Smith currently stands as an intriguing pledge. 

Monday, June 6, 2016

A Sizzling Seager Sparks Dodger Offense

It’s the first week of June, which means multiple things for the baseball world. Division contenders are beginning to separate themselves from the division pretenders, All-Star Game propaganda is beginning to circulate around social media, and the MLB Draft has arrived. The First-Year Player Draft — which takes place on Thursday, June 9 — has been very kind to the Dodgers as of late. 

Today, June 6, marks the 10-year anniversary that LA signed a particular 6-foot-3 southpaw out of Highland Park High School in Texas: Clayton Kershaw. Well, that turned out pretty well. Kershaw has blossomed into — what many people consider to be — the best pitcher on the planet; hard to argue against that position. Right about now it seems that the Dodgers played their cards correctly once again in the 2012 MLB Draft when they selected shortstop Corey Seager with the 18th overall pick of the first round. 

Seager wielded a sizzling bat for the Dodgers in this past weekend’s home series against the Atlanta Braves. In honor of the NBA Finals, I will say in a very LeBron-esque fashion, Seager hit “not one, not two, not three, not four …” but five home runs in the three-game home stand. 

In Friday night’s series opener, Seager stole the show hitting three homers into the seats of Chavez Ravine. He became the sixth youngest player (22 years, 37 days) to hit three home runs in a single contest, and is just the first Dodgers rookie to accomplish the feat since 1959 (Don Demeter). On Sunday afternoon, Seager concluded the series going 3-for-5 at the plate with two home runs and four RBI. 

Seager’s five round-trippers are the most one player has had against the Braves in a single series since Barry Bonds hit six in a three-game series against Atlanta in 2001. 

Currently leading the Dodgers in all three Triple Crown categories (.286 AVG, 14 HR, 35 RBI), Seager stands as a frontrunner for the NL Rookie of the Year award. Among National League shortstops, Seager is: 1st in WAR (2.2), 2nd in HR (14), 2nd in RBI (35), and 4th in AVG (.286). In his last 25 games, Seager has hit 12 home runs.

Seager’s numbers certainly scream he is worthy of consideration for a selection to the NL All-Star team; however, he may be falling victim to an All-Star voting system which has evolved into a popularity contest. While there are definite positives that come from a fan-voting system, there are some cases in which an active fanbase — think Kansas City All-Star voting situation last season — can get certain players on the All-Star team which may be less deserving than others. In the most recent NL All-Star voting report, Seager has a ways to go vote-wise for a selection to the Mid-Summer Classic; Addison Russell (CHC), Trevor Story (COL), and Asdrubal Cabrera (NYM) currently lead All-Star voting at shortstop for the National League. Anyhow, should Seager continue his hot-hitting, there is still sufficient time for him to make a run for an All-Star selection. 

What made Seager’s offensive surge this past weekend all that much more satisfying was the fact that Los Angeles swept the series against the Braves — the Dodgers third series sweep of  the season. The three-game winning streak has pulled the Dodgers (31- 27) within 3.5 games of the division-leading San Francisco Giants (35- 24). This week, the Dodgers take on the Colorado Rockies at home in a three-game set before making the trip up north to AT&T Ballpark to face the Giants in a weekend series that could have large implications on standings in the NL West. 

Believe it or not, Seager is a huge fan and reader of the Angel’s in the Outfield sports blog — okay, maybe that’s not true. But what is undeniably true is the fact that the Dodgers will need to receive continued production at the plate from the 22-year-old slugger as the season continues and the race for the West heats up. 

Saturday, June 4, 2016

The "Way Too Early" Look at USC - Bama

If the early bird catches the worm, then consider me the overly eager night owl waiting for daybreak and the first catch of the day. And I’m not waiting for just any old earthworm. My worm is the return of USC Football — and it’s just beginning to peek it’s pink little head out of the soil. 

We currently stand 90 days away from the commencement of Trojan Football, it couldn’t possibly be too early to break down their opening matchup against Alabama, right?

In its biggest preseason game in nearly 10 years, USC will take on the reigning national champion Alabama Crimson Tide in the eighth annual Cowboy Classic to be held Sep. 3. The contest will take place at “Jerry’s World” — otherwise known as AT&T Stadium, home of the Dallas Cowboys. Airing on ABC and kicking off at 5 p.m. PT (8 p.m. EST), the battle between Troy and the Tide will be primetime action garnering lots of speculation from the college football universe. 

It’s fitting that the Trojans open up their season against the reigning national champions; it is only a preview of the challenges which await head coach Clay Helton and his team in his first season as head coach. According to multiple sources, it is projected that the Trojans bear the most difficult regular season schedule record-wise in all of college football. 

The Crimson Tide are expected by many to enter the contest ranked the No. 1 team in the land. Meanwhile, in the ESPN.com “‘Way Too Early’ College Football Rankings”, USC is projected to be ranked No. 12 entering Week 1. While I do feel that a No. 12 ranking is overly generous for a USC team that is coming off a disappointing Holiday Bowl loss to Wisconsin and several key losses on both sides — including Cody Kessler and Su’a Cravens — this opening game against Alabama has all the makeup to be a fantastic preseason matchup. 

Here is my breakdown of both sides of the ball for USC and Alabama. Later, I’ll also play fortune (or misfortune) teller by predicting the outcome of USC’s season opener.


Entering the game, both USC and Alabama will have one major factor in common: each side will be debuting a brand new face starting under center. While USC has had its highly-speculated quarterback competition featuring Max Browne and Sam Darnold, Alabama has had its own battle for the role of signal-caller. With Jake Coker graduating after leading the Tide to a national title this past January, the void at quarterback opened a competition between: Cooper Bateman, David Cornwell, and Blake Barnett. Over the course of Alabama spring practice, the competition reportedly narrowed down to Barnett and Bateman. In a recent segment for SEC Network, analyst and former Alabama national champion quarterback Greg McElroy stated he feels Barnett will be the opening day starter for the Tide when they kick off against USC. Barnett — a redshirt freshman and former 5-star recruit from Corona, California — brings newfound athleticism to the quarterback spot for Alabama; expect him to be under center against the Trojans. As far as USC’s competition goes, expect Browne to lead the Trojan offense on opening day. While Darnold has made great strides this spring, Browne is still expected to have the edge in the competition for the starting spot. 

Both Browne and Barnett should have quite the assets at their disposal offensively. Through the air, Browne leads a USC offense that leaves little to be desired from a receivers standpoint. The Trojan receiving corp. is spearheaded by Juju Smith-Schuster (89 receptions, 1454 yards, 10TD last season), a definite preseason candidate for the Biletnikoff Award. Alabama sophomore receiver Calvin Ridley — who has drawn comparisons to former Alabama great, Julio Jones — leads a solid group of receivers for the Tide. In the backfield, USC sports a talented running back tandem in Justin Davis and Ronald Jones — both running backs have the potential to rush for 1,000 yards in the same season. Replacing Heisman winner Derrick Henry for the Tide is sophomore running back Bo Scarbrough who has drawn plenty of praise from followers of Alabama Football throughout the spring.

In front of Scarbrough is an offensive line which lost three pivotal pieces from 2015 — including All-American center and Rimington Award winner Ryan Kelly. It will be interesting to see the O-line rotations Nick Saban and his coaching staff implement to account for thee  in the season opener. USC on the other hand looks very similar at the line of scrimmage offensively. The Trojans return all of their starters on the offensive line in 2016 — including All-PAC-12 tackle Zach Banner.


Alabama — who ranked third in total defense amongst FBS teams last season — returns five starters on the defensive side in 2016. While the Tide lost three of its top defensive talents in Reggie Ragland, A’Shawn Robinson, and Jarran Reed to the NFL Draft, the defense still looks to be stout in Tuscaloosa. Expect Reuben Foster to be a major contributor defensively for Alabama out of the middle linebacker spot; he has the ability to make things very difficult for USC in both the rush and pass.

The Trojans defense, now under the command of coordinator Clancy Pendergast, enters their 2016 opener with a plethora of questions marks. The biggest of these concerns on the defensive side of the ball are found at the line of scrimmage on the USC defensive line. Upfront the Trojans have lost five active members of their defensive line from last season. Additionally,  the sole upperclassman on the line, Kenny Bigelow Jr., ended his 2016 season prematurely with a knee injury during spring practices. In the secondary, USC is undoubtedly loaded with talent — which includes a Freshman All-American cornerback in Iman Marshall — however teams did pass for 254.2 yards per game (116th in FBS) against the Trojans last season. If Alabama receivers are able to advance deep into the USC secondary, this could spell big trouble for the men of Troy.

      Alright, now that I’ve reeled on a bit about strengths and weaknesses of both teams, it’s time to clutch up and make a prediction:

I have Alabama defeating USC, 31-20.

First, to my dear Trojan Family, please don’t berate me too harshly for my prediction. I do truly believe that if one looks at this contest from an objective perspective, they can see that it will be a difficult contest for USC to come away with a victory in. Now, hear me when I say this, I do believe that the Trojans can make things very interesting in this game — they very well may have plenty of positives to draw away from this early-season loss to the reigning national champions. With that being said, the Rolling Tide do come into this matchup the undisputed elite of college football. I expect Alabama to take the field with a chip on their shoulder to prove they are still the most well-oiled machine in the nation with a win over a USC team projected to be on the rise. While I could see the game remaining close throughout, I do (unfortunately) see the Tide rolling the Trojans in one of the more anticipated preseason games in recent memory. 

While my mind is saying Alabama, believe me when I say my Trojan spirit is vigorously chanting: “FIGHT ON! BEAT BAMA.”

Wednesday, June 1, 2016

Thanks Again, Poly Pipeline: Thoughts on Jackie Jones

For the top-ranked athletic recruit of today, selecting a university to take their talents to is only half the battle. It seems that all of the top prospects — especially those in the sport of football — have attempted to outdo one another in putting together the most boisterous, flashy, and impressive college commitment announcement on National Signing Day. We can thank a site like Bleacher Report for some of the most epic college commitment videos in recent memory; the folks down at B/R are responsible for that epic video that featured prospect Brandon Burton capturing the UCLA flag during a paintball war, thus committing to the Bruins. 

It’s safe to say that USC commit and former Long Beach Poly star Jackie Jones wasn’t ready to let anyone top his announcement when he called on hip hop mogul Snoop Dogg to help make his commitment. Jones, a product of the Snoop Dogg Youth Football League, sat down with the rap legend in an interview-style video that concluded with the five-star prospect committing to USC. Not bad, Jackie. Not bad. 

The link to Jones’ commitment video is featured on SB Nation at the link below:

Ranked as the No. 96 prospect in the ESPN 300U rankings, Jones was one of the major commitments USC clinched this past signing day. With 1556 receiving yards and 16 touchdown receptions over his final two seasons at Poly, Jones received scholarship offers from over 20 Division I programs — including the likes of Alabama, Texas A&M, and Oklahoma. In the 2016 U.S. Army All-American Bowl, Jones — who was rated as a 5-star ATH prospect — showed an ability to swarm to the ball carrier defensively; he led the West All-Star team in total tackles with eight. 

In its pursuit of Jones’ services, USC must have thought to itself, “If it ain’t broken, don’t fix it.” The Trojans are certainly hopeful that Jones can be another example of the fine football pipeline which Long Beach Poly has been to the land of Troy as of late. In three consecutive years, USC has scored big with their Jackrabbit recruits. All-PAC-12 First Team receiver Juju Smith-Schuster and Freshman All-American cornerback Iman Marshall have made immediate impacts upon arriving to USC from Poly. 

The addition of Jones brings depth to a USC secondary that was less-than-elite in its defending of the pass this past season. While the unit did receive a boost from Marshall’s strong freshman campaign at corner, USC did allow 254.2 passing yards per contest (116th in FBS) while only intercepting 14 passes (34th in FBS) in 13 games this past season. 

It will be interesting to see how Clay Helton and defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast utilize Jones this upcoming fall. Jones’ upside and athleticism as a cornerback could garner him some early playing time throughout the season. While both cornerback slots are currently occupied by perennial All-Americans in Adoree’ Jackson and Marshall — with sophomore Isaiah Langley likely serving as the primary substitute for either slot — it could be possible for Jones to inherit a role on the field for certain situational defensive packages and rotations. However, do not be surprised if the Trojans find alternative options to get Jones on the field. His versatility could permit him to perform from another spot on the defense or even make an occasional transition into some sort of offensive role.

Whether Jones makes his impact in an immediate fashion this fall, or sometime in the (hopefully not too far) future, expect him to be a vital part of USC’s defensive scheme in seasons to come. 

Oh, and by the way, I don’t actually mind Jones hanging with the D-O-Double-G all that much. In all, I actually think Snoop could be a valuable mentor to the kid. I would just hope that Jones could take one lesson from looking and listening to Snoop: the ability to play in a way that is “Young, Wild, and Free.” 

Saturday, May 28, 2016

A Disrupted Troy: USC Basketball’s Scrambled Offseason

The USC Men’s Basketball program is coming off of a Cinderella season. Well, a Cinderella season minus the conference title, deep postseason run, or the third-string redshirt senior hitting a half-court shot with no time left in regulation to upset the top-seeded team in the NCAA Tournament. Okay, maybe it wasn’t a campaign which one would necessarily classify as a “Cinderella season” for the Trojans, but it was definitely a notable one which fans will remember in the years to come. 

And while it was gut-wrenching for USC fans to watch as Providence perfectly executed an inbounds play that gave Friars forward Rodney Bullock the ball under the rim for an uncontested game-winning layup in that opening round of the NCAA Tournament — which put the Trojans behind 70-69 with 1.5 seconds remaining — there was still an atmosphere of optimism in Troy about what the team had accomplished this season. 

All things considered, this past season was a revitalizing one for USC Basketball. In head coach Andy Enfield’s third season at the helm, he led the men of Troy to a 21-13 overall record (9-9 in PAC-12 play) and USC clinched its first NCAA Tournament berth since 2011. In 2016, the Trojans exceeded the 20-win mark in the regular season for the first time since 2009. USC entered the NCAA tournament as an eight-seed before being abruptly eliminated in the first-round by Providence. In all, this past season appeared to serve as a launching pad for the relevancy of USC Men’s Basketball on a national scale in the years to come. 

However, player and personnel shifts made in the weeks shortly following the conclusion of the season have jeopardized USC’s status as one of the top up-and-coming programs in college basketball. The offseason began on a positive note for USC, as the Trojans and Enfield agreed on a two-year contract extension that will have him courtside for the team through the 2021 season. 

How quickly one’s fortune can change.

Almost immediately after the news broke regarding Enfield’s contract extension, Katin Reinhardt (11.4 PPG for the Trojans last season) announced his intentions to transfer from USC for his upcoming senior season. Sources have since confirmed that Reinhardt’s transfer has gone through and he will play his final season of college basketball for Marquette University. While the loss of Reinhardt — a proven swingman and offensive asset for the Trojans — certainly hurts, what came next for the Trojans may have ultimately been the big blow altering the outlook on the upcoming season for USC. 

In that same week in which Reinhardt announced his transfer, junior guard Julian Jacobs announced that he was forgoing his senior season and declaring for the NBA draft. Jacobs’ fellow junior teammate Nikola Jovanovic also announced that he would be declaring for the NBA Draft in mid-April. 

Upon hearing news of Jacobs and Jovanovic declaring, I almost immediately shrugged off the reality of them actually following through with the Draft process and forgoing their senior seasons. Some (what I thought were) rhetorical questions jumped into my mind: Is Jacobs really willing to pass up on the chance to be backcourt-mates with Jordan McLaughlin next year and arguably stand as the best 1-2 combo in the PAC-12? Do these guys not understand that ‘SC is a prime contender with them on the roster next year? What sort of draft stock could Jovanovic possibly see himself having right now? 

No offense to Jovanovic, but when all of this news broke about NBA Draft declarations, my attention and concern first went to Jacobs. As USC’s first PAC-12 First-Teamer since 2011, the prospect of losing Jacobs was terrifying. An explosive mix of athleticism and poise at the point, Jacobs was really at the center of all the positive strides which the Trojans made in 2016. Many expected Jacobs to return for his senior season, as he was projected to spearhead a USC team breaking its way into the elite ranks of college basketball. 

Jovanovic put together a solid 2016 season, leading the Trojans in rebounding (7.0 RPG) and averaging 12.1 points per contest. While he was listed as a forward, Jovanovic was often the closest thing the Trojans had to a consistent big-man in their front court. A consistent factor in USC’s lineup, Jovanovic started in all 34 regular season contests for the Trojans. 

Well, these two tested the Draft market and both seemed to find it fair enough to hire agents and thus officially conclude their USC Basketball careers. With both Jacobs and Jovanovic not receiving invitations to the NBA Draft Combine, there are a lot of question marks concerning their draft stock and teams’ interest in their services. 

The Trojans’ shaky offseason is the perfect testament to the fact that “Way Too Early Preseason Rankings” are in fact usually way too early. Sports Illustrated projected the Trojans to be the No. 17 team in the nation come opening night of the upcoming season. SI was not alone, several other “Way Too Early” preseason rankings had USC positioned in the top-20 entering next season. It’s safe to say that with the losses of Jacobs, Reinhardt, and Jovanovic, top-20 expectations will dwindle down to middle-of-the-pack expectations in PAC-12 standings. 

USC did in fact make several moves to bolster their roster and possibly salvage the outlook on the upcoming season. Receiving a versatile transfer like guard Shaqquan Aaron from Louisville will certainly help aid the backcourt effort next season without Jacobs. Junior guards Elijah Stewart and McLaughlin will now be called on more-than-ever to rise as backcourt leaders for the team in 2017. Also, it would not be surprising to see four-star recruit Jonah Mathews (Santa Monica High School, CA) find some playing time as a freshman in the absence of Jacobs. 

As a teenage sportswriter, I only find it appropriate to illustrate the USC Basketball offseason with a very typical teenage scenario. 

First, let’s set the cast. The USC Men’s Basketball program is the noble, hardworking, and decent-looking boyfriend. Jovanovic and Jacobs are the good-looking, but fame-hungry, girlfriend. And the NBA Draft is the irresistible star-quarterback who just hit campus last week and is already the talk of the town. 

Let’s just say that the girlfriend has been lured away by the jock as said boyfriend pleads in agony for one more date; or in USC’s case, one more season of play from Jacobs and Jovanovic. 

Friday, May 27, 2016

We Asked, and We Have Received; Enter Julio Urias

Things are looking surprisingly promising for the Dodgers right about now. I mean, this is the same team who just last week embarked on a painful four-game losing streak which saw Dodgers pitching accumulate a 5.43 team ERA; the week also included dropping the Freeway Series to the Angels — which always hurts. 

Oh, the difference a strong series can make on a team’s outlook.

The Dodgers are coming off a sweep of the Cincinnati Reds — who have had their fair share of struggles lately — this week at Chavez Ravine. The Dodgers sandwiched the series sweep with stellar pitching performances from Clayton Kershaw (CG, 2 H, 0 R, 7 K) in the opener, and Scott Kazmir (12 K in 6 IP) in the finale. Alarmingly, things in Dodgertown had been getting pretty dusty of late, as this was Los Angeles’ first series sweep since pounding the Padres in the season-opener way back on April 4-6. 

The team is now riding a four-game winning streak, and with one organizational move Thursday morning things just got a whole lot more exciting for the Dodgers upcoming road series against the Mets this weekend. The Dodgers announced that highly-touted 19-year-old pitching prospect Julio Urias had been called up from Triple-A Oklahoma City to join the Major League rotation. Urias (No. 2 overall prospect in MLB.com’s Prospect Watch) is set to make his Major League debut Friday night at Citi Field.

The Dodgers acquired Urias’ services in a 2012 deal that saw Los Angeles dish out a total of $450,000 to negotiate a contract with, a then sixteen-year-old, left-handed pitcher from Mexico. Since signing, Urias has developed into one of the most highly-touted pitching phenoms in all of the minor leagues. 

As a 16, 17, and 18-year-old, Urias posted ERA’s of 2.48, 2.36, and 2.77 respectively. Pitching this season for Triple A Oklahoma City, Urias has further established himself as the top pitcher in the Dodgers’ farm system and very likely all of the minor leagues. Prior to his call up Thursday, Urias had a 4-1 record for the OKC Dodgers and led the Pacific Coast League in both ERA (1.10) and WHIP (0.78). If that wasn’t impressive enough, the left-hander hailing from Sinaloa was riding an active 27-inning scoreless streak before getting the Major League promotion from the Dodgers. 

Those well established within the Dodgers organization have been sure to chime in on Urias’ ability. Manager Dave Roberts has constantly been high on Urias’ upside as a prospect and a possible mid-season call up option for the Major League club.

“The repeatability of his mechanics for a young pitcher is impressive,” Roberts told Bill Plunkett of the OC Register. “The sharpness of his breaking ball, the late life of his fastball, the glove-side command with his fastball is pretty impressive. There’s a lot to like.”

Additionally, Ken Rosenthal reports that former Dodgers pitcher Zack Greinke regarded Urias as “the most perfect pitching prospect I’ve ever seen.” High praises from a pretty high-ranking Major League hurler. 

While the hype surrounding Urias is overwhelming, one must remember what he is long-term for the Dodgers: a pitching gem that they really can’t afford to mishandle and screw up. You can definitely expect an innings limit to be implemented on the most valuable left arm in all the minor leagues. 

While the quality of the content Urias has produced in the minors has been outstanding, there hasn’t been all too much quantity. The most innings Urias has pitched in a season was 87 2/3 back in 2014 for Single-A Rancho Cucamonga. Also, Urias’ season-high for pitches in a single outing this season with Oklahoma City has been 82; his career high is 89 pitches in a contest for Double-A Tulsa in 2015. While his stuff has most certainly been off the charts, there has undoubtedly been a reluctance to let Urias adopt a heavy workload in the minor leagues thus far. 

Most Major League organizations stray away from rapidly increasing the pitching workloads for their top prospects. So, as Urias — who has pitched 41 innings this season at Triple-A — makes his Major League debut, one can be assured that should he inherit a permanent role with the club, a workload limit around 120-140 innings for 2016 would be in effect.

There is the possibility of handing Urias a role in the Dodgers bullpen to account for this innings limit. The Dodgers bullpen — which has its own notorious reputation for instability — could take in Urias and help him acclimate to pitching in the Majors at a rate comfortable for Dodgers management; the Dodgers’ bullpen also currently ranks a middle-of-the-pack 12th in bullpen ERA (3.52) across the Majors. 

One must also keep in mind that Urias — who will be filling in for injured (tricep) Dodgers starter Alex Wood Friday — could possibly just be up with the Dodgers for a quick taste  of Major League action before being sent back down to Triple-A. There have been several occasions in which Major League clubs have called up a top prospect momentarily to make a start or two (think David Price and Chris Archer with the Rays) before returning to the minors. However, Urias certainly has the ability to impress Roberts with a strong outing Friday night and could possibly even earn some consideration for entering the rotation permanently. This is the fantasy every Dodger fan is dreaming up as Urias' debut approaches. 

When Urias takes the mound Friday night he will become just the second teenager (19 years, 288 days) this century to start a game. The other? Felix Hernandez (19 years, 188 days) back in 2005. Not bad company at all, am I right? 

Chat with any decent, half-knowledgable Dodger fan and they will be sure to remember the last time a teenager debuted on the mound for the team — because the result was pretty epic. On September 15, 1980, Fernando Valenzuela — a teenage left-hander from Mexico, sound familiar? — made his Major League debut as an Opening Day rookie starter for the Dodgers. What ensued was historic, and can only be summed up with one phrase: Fernandomania. That 1981 season saw Valenzuela win both the National League Cy Young and Rookie of the Year awards, all the while captivating a nation and Los Angeles community which fully embraced him. The Dodgers capped off Fernandomania by winning the 1981 World Series; not a bad rookie campaign, huh?

If Urias can manage to garner even a fraction of the success his Mexican predecessor bore for the Dodgers, then consider the Julio Urias experiment a wild success. 

Now I am off to to the pensive grindstone, trying to crank out some slogan half-as-cool as “Fernandomania" to coronate Urias with. Urias-mania? Uria-lly good? Urias-wood? This one will take a bit longer.