Drought over somewhere

Just two weeks remain in the 2016 MLB season, and not many people could have predicted what we are seeing right now. The three teams that have a chance at winning it all this year are three teams that haven’t come close in years.

The last time any of the three teams remaining won a World Series title was in 1988 by the Los Angeles Dodgers. Then 40 years before that the Cleveland Indians won it all against the Boston Braves. And we all know about the Chicago Cubs. They have the longest drought of all, going on 108 years.

NLCS PREDICTION

I think this one is going to Game 7. Thursday’s game was the last where the Dodgers will have home-field advantage in the series.

Kenta Maeda’s performance for the Dodgers thus far in the postseason can’t be called anything but below average. Through two starts he’s given up seven earned runs on nine hits in seven innings. He’s struck out six but walked five which has pushed him to a 2.0 walks plus hits per inning pitched. His final two starts in the regular season were poor as well.

Jon Lester on the other hand is a left-handed pitcher. Despite having a lefty-heavy lineup, the Dodgers were one of the worst offensive teams in the league against left-handers this season. I’ve got to give Lester the advantage on the mound.

Game 6 and 7 will be in Chicago, giving the Cubs the home-field advantage, but we are guaranteed to see Los Angeles’ Clayton Kershaw once more this series. The Dodgers will need to use Kershaw in Game 6 to avoid elimination and force a Game 7. Tied up at 3-3, the series could go to anyone. As a Dodger fan I have to go with Los Angeles, but the numbers continue to favor the Cubs.

WORLD SERIES PREDICTION

Each playoff team’s chances of winning the World Series are: Cleveland Indians, 42.6 percent; Chicago Cubs, 31.2 percent; and Los Angeles Dodgers, 26.2 percent, according to SportsLine as of Thursday morning.

On Wednesday the Cleveland Indians polished off the Toronto Blue Jays in Game 5, making them the first team to advance to the World Series. This is the reason SportsLine has them as the current favorites. But the Indians have been the underdog since we entered the postseason. They weren’t supposed to win the ALCS. Experts went for the Blue Jays, whom the numbers supported but Cleveland proved them wrong. Perhaps it’s the underdog mentality that will carry them to a win.

Once the NLCS is decided, that team will be the favorite to win it all with a 47.4 percent chance. It’s not a huge difference, but it’s significant enough. Defensively I’d have to give the Indians the advantage. On paper either NLCS team would seem to have the edge. While both teams had great regular seasons, in the postseason the mound has been owned by Cleveland. The Indians have gone 7-1 on their road to the World Series with their downright amazing pitching performances leading the way.

Turn to the other side and offensively it’s the two NLCS teams that should dominate. Unlike some teams, Los Angeles has been consistent in scoring runs this postseason and has yet to be shut out. It’s already shown it can perform at the plate against the Nationals and Cubs.

The reason Chicago was the favorite through the regular season and moving into the postseason is the fact that it has the most complete team in the MLB. If they don’t crack under the pressure there seriously is no stopping them. That is if they can get past the Dodgers first.

Prediction: Whoever wins the NLCS will win the World Series. I predict Cubs over Indians in five or Dodgers over Indians in six.

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War of the continents

Unless you are an avid soccer fan or read the sports headlines on your chosen internet browsers newsfeed, you probably had zero idea that two of the biggest sports events are happening this month.

If I already have you racking your brain, I will give you a hint – they’re international events, and no, it’s no the Olympics. For a great portion of the world the Olympics are on the back burner.

Last week the Copa America kicked off and Friday is the 2016 European Championship. Who will be crowned the Americas and Europe’s finest?

COPA AMERICA

Not as well known as the Union of European Football Associations’ Euro, the Copa America is soccer’s oldest international competition. Americans should tune in because the United States men’s national team is playing in it. Also, for the first time in the tournament’s 100-year history, it’s being hosted outside of South America and on U.S. soil.

The U.S. men’s team has much riding on its performance. After losing its tournament opener to Columbia, the Americans faced a must-win situation against Costa Rica on Tuesday. Fortunately the team figured out how to make it work despite the doubts and won 4-0. Now just a win against Paraguay on Saturday stands in the way of the United States making the quarterfinals. Advancement to the quarterfinals is necessary for this U.S. team that has time and time again failed to impress.

But will making the quarterfinals be good enough? Prior to the win against the Ticos, U.S. Soccer President Sunil Gulati suggested that U.S. men’s head coach Jurgen Klinsmann could be out of a job if the team didn’t start winning.

The U.S. doesn’t stand a chance to win it all, but considering we won’t be seeing the U.S. men’s team in the Olympics, a strong Copa performance is a must.

Brazil would have been my favorite if it wasn’t playing without half of its starting lineup. The team is saving its weapons in hopes of earning an Olympic win at home in August.

Lia’s Prediction: Columbia. The Columbians impressed me so much during the 2014 World Cup they became my favorite to win it all. At that point in time that may have been eager considering how young the team was, but not they are older and more experienced. Columbia’s dominance in the group stage is a definite indication it has what it takes to compete with favorites Argentina and Uruguay.

EUROPEAN CHAMPIONSHIP

The sports elite lay claim to the Euro. As much as I am beyond excited for the tournament opener Friday afternoon, I am also wary of potential disaster. The tournament is on French soil, and since last year’s Paris attacks, security levels have been at an all-time high.

With French Prime Minister Manuel Valls saying Europe is at war following the attacks in Paris and Brussels, many have pushed for the cancellation of the tournament. With thousands of rowdy fans packing into stadiums day after day for the next month, let’s hope nothing can get past security.

Lia’s prediction: Germany. The French are one of the favorites to win it all. Normally they blow it at world tournaments, but they are incredibly successful at home having won every contest on home soil in the last century. Spain is the reigning champion, but after a 2014 World Cup performance the Spaniards would like to forget and a rocky qualifying road, I don’t have faith in them to take Euro for a third time in a row.

The Germans are the kings of major tournaments and they have only gotten stronger following their 2014 World Cup dominance. The only part of their lineup that draws questions for me is their front line, but I know they have the personnel who will rise to the occasion.

Who will get the Ring?

It was pretty obvious to basketball fans around the country that the 2016 NBA Finals would be a rematch between the 2015 NBA finalists. Despite firing former head coach David Blatt midway through the season, the Cleveland Cavaliers were already well on their way to being named the top contenders in the Eastern Conference. The Golden State Warriors were dubbed to make a repeat visit since the fourth game of the regular season. Even though head coach Steve Kerr wasn’t on the sidelines for the first 43 games of the season, his team worked its way to a 39-4 start.

Golden State was named champion after six games in 2015, but don’t expect the 2016 series to go down the same way.

CAVALIERS

The 2016 Cleveland team is not the same team the Warriors beat a year ago. In 2015, the Cavaliers were playing without two of their stars: Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving. Love was knocked out in the first round of the playoffs with a dislocated shoulder. Irving’s season came to a close after suffering a broken kneecap in Game 1 of the finals.

The outcome of the 2016 finals will be greatly dictated by these two stars’ performances. LeBron James put up a fight with a much weaker support staff last year, and it still took the Warriors six games to take them down. Love and Irving should add difficulty to the Warriors looking to cap their best season in history.

In the two regular-season matchups against Golden State, Love and Irving were ineffective, but they have risen to the occasion this postseason.

These two really need to excel in defense. James is the only true two-way player for the Cavs and defensively is one surefire way that the Cavaliers could manage a win. With a strong defense, Oklahoma City was able to push Golden State like no way before.

Cleveland will have to play defense like we haven’t seen this season. In the playoffs alone, with Irving on the court Cleveland is surrendering 107 points per 100 possessions. Love isn’t much better with 105.6 points per 100 possessions. The one thing Love and Irving confidently provide are buckets on the other end of the floor, but will it be enough?

J.R. Smith and Channing Frye add a little to the Cleveland lineup. Frye could be just the wrinkle needed if he can continue his dominance from beyond the arc. Smith has the ability to provide on the defensive front, having shown improvement all season. He has also proven he can get the job done offensively and is another player currently hot from the 3. Cleveland holds the record for most 3-pointers in a game both playoff and regular games. Threes could prove to be the secret against an equally hot 3-pointer team in Golden State.

WARRIORS

Golden State seems to be peaking at the right time. That might seem like a crazy statement for a team that is 73-9, but it’s not. The team faced its toughest obstacle in the Western Conference final. The playoffs have been a rough time for the defending champions that have included injuries, potential suspensions, overcoming an improbable deficit. If you ask me, they are finally hitting their stride.

The key to the Warriors pulling off the greatest season in NBA history will be to stay healthy and to avoid pushing the limits. Stephen Curry’s ankle injury followed by a knee injury was the first bump in the road. People questioned the Warriors’ ability to get things done without the two-time MVP, but they got it done time and time again, and in Game 7 against Oklahoma, Curry finally started to look himself again.

One way the Cavaliers could pull off a win would be to push Golden State’s Draymond Green. Following the incident with Oklahoma’ Steven Adams in the last round, Green is just one flagrant foul or two technical fouls way from suffering a one-game suspension. If that happens, the timing could prove fatal to the Warriors. Klay Thompson is another Golden State player who can be easily drawn into foul trouble if played correctly.

Golden State beat Cleveland in both regular-season matchups, including the dominating Jan. 18 132-98.

PREDICTION: GOLDEN STATE WARRIORS IN SEVEN

I think it would be very bad judgment on my part to bet against Golden State again. I was definitely a part of the majority when I predicted Oklahoma City would deliver Golden State’s season conclusion. A 3-1 deficit is extremely hard to overcome. But the Warriors hushed everyone’s doubts when they became just the third team in history to come out on top in a conference final after such a deficit.

Despite the Cavaliers having rest on their side, a complete week at that, Golden State is on a high right now. Perhaps being tested by Oklahoma was the best thing that could have happened to the Warriors. If there was any sense of underestimating their opponents in the conference final, the Warriors won’t make that mistake again. They’ve figured out how they need to play and to what level in order to win the matchup.

Golden State will be Cleveland’s first true opponent. The West is still stronger than the East, and going 12-2 to make the finals means nothing when it was up against opponents that were overall just happy to make it to that point, such as the Pistons, Hawks and Raptors.

The Cavaliers will put up a strong fight, but it won’t be enough. Be prepared for the most entertaining matchup of the postseason.

NBA FINAL FUN FACTS

1. The year 2016 is the first time in history that the coaches standing on the sideline during the finals were not the coaches on the sideline to start the season.

2. If Cleveland wins, it will be the city’s first sports championship since 1964.

3. This is James’ sixth consecutive year to play in the NBA Finals.

4. The University of Arizona has the most ties to the finals out of all other American universities. Seven players and coaches have suited up in a Wildcats uniform.

5. With a win, the Golden State team will have the same number of rings as James, who is in search of his third.

Fight for the East and West

I’ve got to be honest. Until Tuesday night I had maybe watched three games of the NBA playoffs. I’m going to blame it on the NBA. These matches have been nowhere near exciting.

There have been hints of greatness through the process. I actually tuned in for the Warriors’ overtime win against the Trailblazers. I hoped Portland would have a stronger showing than it did, but I guess like the team, I can take OT as a success and leave with that.

The conference finals have been the most impressive, but that isn’t saying much, not when the games in both the East and West have been won by complete dominance. There hasn’t been a single game where in the final quarter the losing team was estimated to make a comeback. Some of the games have been decided by half-time.

CAN THERE STILL BE AN UPSET IN THE EAST?

Never would I have imagined Toronto putting up this strong of a fight. The Raptors had me actually believing they could pull off an upset until Wednesday night. They dominated the Cavs in Games Three and Four to come out in Game Five looking like a deer in headlights. The Raptors will have home-court advantage for Game Six on Friday night. After a subpar performance in Game Five, I think they will put out all the stops and tie the series 3-3. Unfortunately I don’t see the finals in Toronto’s future.

It still won’t be a walk in the park for the Cavaliers. In order to close out the series they need more than just Lebron James. Fans saw James carry the team on his back in last year’s finals with both Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving suffering injuries. In Cleveland’s two losses to Toronto, Love and Irving weren’t making the impact required of them by the team.

73 WINS DON’T MEAN A THING WITHOUT A RING

There really are no words to explain the situation in the West. It was a given that Oklahoma City would be Golden State’s toughest opponent. They had been throughout the regular season, but to be down 3-1. I’ll leave it to Golden State head coach Steve Kerr to explain that one.

“We didn’t play very intelligently,” Kerr said in the Game Four postgame conference. “Way too many turnovers (21), careless passes. This is probably the longest team in the league that we’re facing, and we are continuing to try to throw passes over the top of their outstretched arms. It’s probably not a great idea.”

The Thunder seemed to hit their stride three weeks ago and it doesn’t look like they have plans of laying off anytime soon. I’ve been impressed with every player to take the court, but the real MVP in my eyes is first-year head coach Billy Donovan. The ability to make adjustments separates the winners and the losers in playoff season. Donovan has passed with flying colors.

Golden State’s fate will fan on two things: ability to make adjustments and mental toughness. The first is Kerr’s responsibility. OKC has overwhelmed Golden State on the perimeter and dominated the glass throughout the series.

Mental toughness is a big one. There are statements that have been made about Steph Curry playing at 70-percent. All-Star forward Draymond Green is said to set the tone of energy on the court, a responsibility he said he’s fallen short of.

Two-hundred and thirty-twi is the number of times a team has been down 3-1 in a best-of-seven series. Nine is the number of times that team has come from behind to win. To make the finals the Warriors will need perfection.

FINALS PREDICTION: Oklahoma City Thunder vs. Cleveland Cavaliers

Nova’s win defies the 1 percent

Two weeks ago I discovered perhaps the greatest statistic in the entire world. Unfortunately that stat was completely destroyed Monday night with Villanova’s win over North Carolina.

I have secretly always been a North Carolina fan; not a legitimate fan, but when it came to the Duke-North Carolina matchup, I always went for the Tar Heels. What fueled my secret love? Ask my dad about the birth of his only daughter and first child, and he won’t forget to tell you that I was born during a Sweet 16 matchup, after he consistently told my mom it can’t happen. I was born into chaos. My dad and two grandfathers were screaming at the TV when I entered the world. North Carolina and the University of Michigan were playing. It was 1993 and the Tar Heels went on to win the championship.

Two weeks ago, as I was doing Sweet 16 predictions, I delved into history and discovered that the last three times the Tar Heels won March Madness they played their Sweet 16 game on my birthday, March 25. This year North Carolina defeated Indiana on March 25, and well it only seemed right. It was this crazy fact that prompted me to pick the Tar Heels to win it all this year.

Clearly my theory was wrong, but I can’t be upset Villanova destroyed it. Villanova winning it all this year gives hope to those teams that hardly enter the conversation for a national championship. Going into Monday night’s game, four schools had won 12 of the previous 20 national championships — Kentucky, Duke, Connecticut and North Carolina.

March Madness is the only major sporting event that gives the underdogs an equal chance, but it’s still rare to see Cinderella winning it all. There are the teams that have snuck into the inner circle — Syracuse, Michigan State, Kentucky and Kansas — to name a few, but they can’t even call themselves the underdogs anymore.

I can’t say this Villanova team was the typical underdog. The team was No. 1 for part of the season and shattered offensive records as it made its run, but when it came down to it, North Carolina was expected to do what it always does, win.

As I sat on my couch cheering as North Carolina closed the point gap in those final minutes, it was hard to deny that Nova looked like the stronger team throughout the game. So while I was heartbroken when that shot with less than a second by Kris Jenkins swooshed through the net, I couldn’t help but feel happy that the outcome wasn’t so predictable.

TOO EARLY FOR 2017?

Seven months separate us from the start of next year’s basketball season, but that isn’t stopping most from already making their predictions. While I hope it can be another year for the other 99 percent, the current favorite sitting atop headlines is no-shocker here, the Duke Blue Devils. The Atlantic Coast Conference was the dominant conference this year and by the looks of it, it could happen again. With Duke’s Grayson Allen having announced his return and the top two high school prospects heading to Durham in the fall, the Blue Devils will definitely be in the top five when the season kicks off.

Duke seems to be one of the only team not in complete limbo with the NCAA’s new NBA draft rules too. With that said, 2017 is completely up in the air until after that May 25 deadline.

Just Three Games Remain

After three weeks of March Madness, I am still trying to find the words other than completely unpredictable and upset-laden to describe the tournament, let alone the 2016 season.

Week three brought two more upsets to the season. Three of four No. 1 seeds were eliminated, including the overall No. 1 and top candidate to win it all, the Kansas Jayhawks.

Villanova is finally living up to the hype with the win that sent the Jayhawks packing. After struggling the last two years in tournament appearances, the Wildcats have finally proved that they are worthy to be in conversation with the top dogs.

Even though the Sooners were the No. 2 seed in their region, most people predicted them to come out on top over No. 1 Oregon. With the best college basketball player on their roster, Buddy Hield, some believe there is no stopping them.

University of North Carolina is the sole No. 1 seed remaining. The Tar Heels were the closest to a perfect season in 2016, but ended on a 32-6 record. Multiple factors pointed to a potential early sendoff for UNC, but it proved the doubters wrong and is now the favorite to win it all.

The last team in the final four is Syracuse, who after an early season ban barely made the tournament. In no way can the Orange be named this year’s Cinderella, but it is this year’s biggest shocker. Syracuse is only the fourth double seeded team to ever make the Final Four and the only 10th seed to ever make the Final Four.

SOUTH SEMIFINAL: VILLANOVA

I am going to go against the grain with the majority on this matchup. Despite a regular-season loss to Oklahoma by 23 on Dec. 7, 2015, I think the Wildcats have more going for them than the Sooners do.

Villanova is fourth in the nation in 2-point percentage and second in free-throw percentage. The Wildcats are great at forcing turnovers while not giving much up themselves, and they move the ball with ease, averaging an assist on 60 percent of field goals made.

The difference maker in their first matchup was 3 pointers, Villanova was 4-32, and Oklahoma was 14-26. If Villanova can beat Oklahoma in all other areas like it should, shots from beyond the arc aren’t important.

EAST SEMIFINAL: NORTH CAROLINA

I’m taking the current favorites on the East side of the bracket. The Atlantic Coast Conference champion North Carolina was the nation’s preseason No. 1 and it has the chance to end like it started. They’ve beaten every tournament opponent thrown their way by a minimum of 14 points, and I don’t see why they can’t keep that going.

The Tar Heels take the advantage in the paint and on the offensive glass with a deep front court. UNC swept Syracuse in the regular season by breaking the Orange’s 2-3 zone and doing what it does best, feeding the post, dominating the glass and drawing fouls. There is no reason another win shouldn’t be in the books.

The one thing UNC needs to avoid is settling for the 3. In their first two games against Syracuse, the Tar Heels shot for a combined 9 of 41 from beyond the arc. It’s hard to knock down those shots against the No. 13 perimeter defense.

NATIONAL CHAMPION: NORTH CAROLINA

Super Bowl 50

This coming Sunday millions of Americans will be ingesting a variety of unhealthy foods, drinking beer and watching the most anticipated NFL game of the year, Super Bowl 50. Last year’s “Deflategate” Super Bowl drew in 114.4 million viewers setting a new U.S. viewership record. Realistically it only beat out the prior year’s Super Bowl. So if Super Bowl 50 is at least a little interesting, it is estimated that a new record will be set Sunday night.

DENVER BRONCOS: Experience, Peyton Manning, No. 1 defense in the league

The Denver Broncos have made it to this point in the season because of their stellar defense, and even Manning agrees. The Bronco defense led the league in total defense, 283.1 yards per game, and passing defense, 199.6 yards per game. They were third in the league in run defense, with 83.6 yards per game, and fourth in scoring defense, 18.5 points per game. They also led the league with 52 sacks.

So far this has been the worst season in Manning’s career. Granted he lost six games due to a foot injury, but this season he set a career low in passing yardage, touchdown passes and passer rating. Manning also threw 17 interceptions this season, and the Panthers have forced nine in postseason play alone.

CAROLINA PANTHERS: Inexperience, Cam Newton, No. 1 offense in the league

The Carolina Panthers have been proving people wrong all season. Game after game the Panthers looked like a Super Bowl contender, but many people doubted until the very end. The Panthers enter Sunday with the most complete team in the league.

Newton makes his first Super Bowl appearance of his career. The former No. 1 draft pick and Heisman Trophy winner scored 45 touchdowns this season with 35 coming through the air. Carolina averaged 31.2 points a game and is ranked sixth in points allowed. It has the strongest offense and a strong defense as well.

OUTCOME 1, Panthers blow out the Broncos: In 2014, the Broncos made it to the Super Bowl with a record-setting offense and were annihilated 43-8 by the Seattle Seahawks. The Panthers and Seahawks play very similar with a strong run game designed around a dual-threat quarterback and an equally strong defense. The Panthers beat the Seahawks, 31-24 in the divisional round. It wasn’t the same Seahawks team from two years ago, but Carolina is a better team than Seattle was two years ago.

OUTCOME 2, Panthers win but barely: The Broncos might be able to figure out how to shut down Newton but they are going to have to get past an impressive offensive line first. Also, if Carolina’s defense dominates the line of scrimmage and attacks Manning, eliminating his much needed pocket, the Broncos will be left hoping that their defense can once again win them the game.

OUTCOME 3, Broncos win but barely: “Defense wins championships,” I’ve heard that my entire life as a sports fan and an athlete and usually I agree. Prior to 2015, 11 of the teams that went to the Super Bowl had the No. 1 defenses in the league, and nine of those teams went on to win it all. It’ll be a “barely” because the Panthers have the No. 1 pass defense in the league and Denver does not have a strong run game. Fourteen of Denver’s games this season were decided by one score.

Prediction: Panthers with the blowout.