The NFL Draft is the logical midpoint of the offseason–almost 3 months after the Super Bowl and roughtly 3 months before the start of Training Camp.  Three days of speculation, prognostication and teams saying they got the players they wanted while analysts criticize selections.  Originally this was a football oasis to whet one’s appetite for the upcoming season–now it’s merely part of a “must focus” slate that includes the combine, free agency, ota’s and other minicamps.  When I started following the NFL I couldn’t wait for the draft;  now that I’ve been covering it for 20 years I can’t wait for the NFL Draft to be done.  

A New Era– Scot McCloughan makes his first major architectural impact with the Skins.  While running the San Francisco 49ers (as VP Player Personnel and then General Manager) McCloughan had four drafts…with solid results.

2005– First overall selection Alex Smith eventually made a Pro Bowl…although hindsight places Aaron Rodgers ahead of the former franchise QB.  Frank Gore has over 11,000 career yards rushing.  Offensive linemen David Baas and Adam Snyder made over 80 starts in the league.  Even tight end Billy Bajema (7th round) played in 120 NFL games.

2006– Tight end Vernon Davis has made a pair of Pro Bowls.  Defensive end  Manny Lawson became a five-year starter.  Fifth rounder Parys Haralson (DE-Tennessee) started for 6 years in the league and sixth rounder Delanie Walker (WR-Central Missouri St) has caught 123 passes in the last 2 seasons (problem is, both were with the Titans after notching 123 career catches his first seven years).

2007– Linebacker Patrick Willis has been voted All-Pro 5 times while making the Pro Bowl 7 times.  Tackle Joe Staley’s made 5 Pro Bowls in his 8 year career.  Defensive backs Dashon Goldson and Tarell Brown have become starters…with Goldson nabbing All-Pro honors before signing with Tampa Bay (he’s with the Redskins now).

2008–  Not his best work.  First rounder Kentwan Balmer (DT-North Carolina) played in just 46 games.  Second rounder Chilo Rachal (G-USC)  was a starter in the league for only one season.  Reggie Smith (DB-Oklahoma), Cody Wallace (C-Texas A&M) and Larry Grant (LB-Ohio St) failed to play 50 games with the Niners.  Josh Morgan (WR-Virginia Tech) arguably enjoyed his best season in Washington.

Cause for Confidence– the building blocks to a Super Bowl team were acquired during that stretch.  For a defense that gave up the fourth post points–McCloughan has a track record identifying and bringing in performers on that side of the ball.

Cause for Concern– he whiffs on wide receivers.  Rasheed Marshall, Brandon Williams, Michael Robinson and Jason Hill each made minimal impact. That’s not a need for this team– so one should feel okay.  Unless WR Amari Cooper falls to them at #5.

Skins Needs–  where to begin after losing 25 games over the last two years?

Offensive Line– the unit allowed the second most sacks in the NFL.  Stanford tackle Andrus Peat and Iowa guard Brandon Scherff grade in the top ten overall.

Rush Lineman– the Skins D was tied for 21st in sacks in 2014. Florida linebacker Dante Fowler Jr and USC defensive end Leonard Williams are options.

Defensive Backfield– the team allowed the highest passer rating in the NFL last fall.  Three corners are notable:  Michigan State’s TraeWaynes, Washington’s Marcus Peters and Wake Forest’s Kevin Johnson all grade in the 11-18 range, depending on which anaylyst you listen to.  They could be factors if the Skins trade down.

Until tomorrow– and the second/third rounds.

So much for the doom and gloom column.  It was written last night when the Nationals carved out an 8-run crater…en route to what should have been a seventh straight loss.  They had a minor leaguer starting in place of their 210 million dollar man because of an injury sustained during an at-bat.  The team’s best player from 2014 was languishing in AA Harrisburg.  All the Nats had to do was lay down and take this one begrudgingly.  They would have been 7-14 (on pace for 54-108)…and winless over the last week.  Thanks for nothing, Dan Uggla.

Was last night’s 13-12 comeback an isolated incident or the start of something special?  The team still has the most errors in the majors (23 in 21 games) and these aren’t harmless miscues.  The Nats goofs have led to 23 unearned runs…most in the big leagues as well. The lineup has been spotty (5th most strikeouts, 21st with runners in scoring position).  And the perceived rotation to die for?  A 5-9 composite record with the 15th best ERA in the majors (4.01) and the 4th highest batting average against (.286).  Healthwise, the rotation (Scherzer’s April 28th start pushed back 3 days) and bullpen (Craig Stammen done for the year) have taken their lumps while the lineup isn’t even in Plan B mode (backup IF Escobar out with a cleated glove hand).  At what point do the alarms begin to sound?

The major league season is often about market correction.  This weekend the Nationals face the NL East leading New York Mets in a four game series…a team that owns the best record in the Majors thanks to a solid opening series where they took two of three in DC from the preseason favorites.  No time like the present to climb out of the division cellar– but first they have a chance to win a series for the second time all year in Atlanta.  How much momentum can they generate from last night’s rally?

The Major League Baseball season is a marathon…not a sprint.  Actually, it’s more of a soap opera.  For those unfamiliar with the dinosaur that was daytime drama (Ryan’s Hope, Another World, Guiding Light, etc.), the beauty of following a soap opera (outside of being able to communicate effectively with your 80-something great-aunt on plot points) is that you don’t really need to be locked in to the show to follow it.  Every day there are narrative breadcrumbs…and things don’t really change if you miss an episode or two.  Stefano DiMera remains evil incarnate.  The Josh and Reva storyline will always have exhausting twists and turns.  And most of the good characters continue to be appallingly stupid.  But for those who watch every day, there are subtle rewards.  Character turns.  Minor scenes that might just foreshadow major changes in the future.  Or–it’s just filler until sweeps brings out the big storylines.

Two weeks into the season–barely a snapshot–the Nationals are off to a 6-7 start.  While nobody’s panicking or looking at postseason possibilities (Mets fans, your magic number is now 149!), there are certainly trends to look at.

 

Causes for Confidence– a lineup that woke up after a slow first week (36 runs in 6 games after scoring 17 in their first 7 outings).  Ian Desmond’s hot start (.314 batting average, 8 runs scored and 5 RBI).    The return of Denard Span to the lineup.  A pitching staff that ranks 6th in staff ERA (2.97) and is tied for 2nd in quality starts (9–with a 5th best 6.1 innings per start).

Causes for Concern– the team leads the majors with 14 errors.  A lineup that ranks second in strikeouts (110).  Anthony Rendon remains in the land of limbo:  the third baseman is hitting, running and taking grounders at the spring training facility–but there’s not timetable for his return to DC.  Speaking of injuries, bullpen bulldog Craig Stammen’s surgery subtracts a major force from the relief corps.

 

Heroes of Last Week– Bryce Harper scored 8 runs while homering twice and driving in 5.  Max Scherzer struck out 9 over 8 innings in his lone start.

This Week’s Foes– St. Louis (8-3) leads the National League Central while Miami (3-10) owns the second worst record in the NL.

Game to Watch– Thursday at Nats Park, Max Scherzer pitches against Michael Wacha (2-0, 1.35 ERA–and let’s not forget his near no-hitter of the Nats in 2013).  One nice way to finish a homestand.

Game to Skip– Saturday in Miami, Stephen Strasburg pitches against Tom Koehler (6.75 ERA in 2014).  The 4:10 first pitch comes just as the afternoon heat gets its second wind.  Seats will be available.

Heading into Maryland’s National Semifinal game with UConn, one felt that it was possible for the Terps to beat the Huskies–but the path to victory resembled bringing Apollo 13 back from space.  We were talking about a 40-point checklist-and if one item was amiss, Tom Hanks was going to burn up in the atmosphere or float away into space (one would also have accepted a “Back to School” reference where Thornton Mellon faced a 1-question exam–in 29 parts).  The Terps actually took an 8-7 lead and were playing a one-possession game (down 22-19) against the Huskies with 9 minutes left in the first half…until the checklist began to toll against coach Brenda Frese’s team that resulted in an 81-58 loss.

Sunday’s Keys—

1-Keep Brionna Jones active inside and out of foul trouble– the sophomore sat most of the first half with two personal fouls.  Minus their low post meal ticket (she picked up foul #2 with 16:04 left and the score tied at 10), the Terps shot 6 of 14 and turned the ball over 5 times over the next 11 minutes.  UConn went on a 24-13 run to take the lead for good.

2-Rebounds and Turnovers– the Terps were outrebounded 35-28 and committed 13 turnovers (8 in the first half). One cannot give a team like UConn extra shots and/or possessions.  Breanna Stewart & Morgan Tuck outrebounded the Terps starting bigs 17-6.  Ouch…

3-Transition Team– the fast break never got in gear against a very quick UConn team that gave the Terps very few chances to run for easy baskets.  Facing a halfcourt Huskies defense, their size disadvantage was amplified.

4-Boost off the Bench– Brene Moseley shined in a reserve role…notching 12 points and 4 assists in 21 minutes.   Unfortunately, the Terps needed another monster effort or two from their subs– especially with Jones in foul trouble and the Huskies handcuffing senior Laurin Mincy (1-5 shooting, 6 turnovers).

 

Senior Sayonara– sad to see Mincy not have her best game on her final night playing for the Terps…but what a career for the guard from Newark, NJ.  Despite suffering two torn ACL’s (wiping out her senior year of high school and most of her junior season at Maryland), Laurin scored 1,379 career points and provided the necesary leadership with a very young team this past winter (3 starters were sophomores).  Best wishes to Laurin–as it’s been a pleasure and a privilege to cover her since she walked on Campus in 2010.

 

Next Year–  the bar has always been there.  It’s UConn (and Notre Dame to a lesser degreee).  How does an elite program like Maryland scale the “super-ultra-premium-elite” wall?  It’s tough for a program that’s made two straight Final Fours and just wrapped up an unbeaten conference season to say to itself in the mirror, “we need to get even better”.  It’s a challenge for a squad with three returning All-Big Ten players to the starting lineup to remark, “we have deficiencies that need to be addressed”.  To get to UConn’s level, the Terps need athletic size inside and more consistent shooting on the perimeter.  Can those needs be met with the players returning this fall?  Unless either of the 5-star recruits Kiah Gillespie and Brianna Fraser rock the world from day one on campus, it’ll have to be.  The road to Indianapolis begins today…

Despite the National Semifinal game pitting Maryland against UConn being a showdown of #1 seeds, the Huskies are the overwhelming favorite.  Can you blame conventional wisdom?  The two-time defending National Champions have won 35 straight games while posting victories in the NCAA Tournament by 56, 36, 51 and 21 points.  The Huskies are 3-0 against the Terps over the last three seasons–winning on home, neutral (as neutral as Bridgeport, CT can be) and road courts by an average of 18 points per game.  They boast a matchup nightmare in National Player of the Year Breanna Stewart (18 points and 8 rebounds per game leads the Huskies–and she’s second on the team in assists, blocks and steals).  Coach Geno Auriemma’s bench also boasts players who could start for most of the other teams in the tournament.  Prepare to pay Pat Riley the residuals for printing “Threepeat” paraphernalia.

Or–Maryland makes the miraculous happen.  They shock the world like Notre Dame did in 2011 when the Fighting Irish upended then 36-1 UConn.  They extend the season two more days like the 2006 Maryland team did when they beat a North Carolina squad that only three weeks previously topped the Terps for the ACC Championship.  They turn the college basketball world upside down– or given their status as one of the top four seeds, a few degrees off its normal true north.

 

How do the Terps go from the dream to a reality of an upset?

Start Strong– the Terps began last year’s Final Four game against Notre Dame slowly–and it cost them.  They fell behind early in NCAA games against Princeton and Tennessee before pulling away.  They can ill afford having to play catchup against the Huskies…who showed in their Regional Finals win over Dayton the ability to hit that next gear (going on a 15-3 run to start the second half after trailing 44-43 at the half).

 

Win the Battle of the Boards– Maryland ranks 8th in Division I in rebounding margin; UConn is #2 behind George Washington.  Limiting the Huskies (who shoot 54%) to just one shot is necessary for survival.

 

Get Brionna Jones Going-– the sophomore center’s hit 20 of 31 shots in the NCAA Tournament (64.5%).  Her success in the low post will in theory will open up shots for Lexie Brown and Laurin Mincy on the perimeter in the halfcourt offense.

 

Temper the Turnovers– the Huskies also rank second in the nation in assist-to-turnover ratio (1.76).  Maryland’s 40th.  It’s tough enough trying to make shots against UConn, but if they can’t even get quality shots–it’ll be a long night.

 

Transition, Transition, Transition– Maryland can run better than most teams in the country…and against a team like UConn it’s imperative to get easy baskets whenever possible.

 

Defend the Undefendable– Breanna Stewart can kill opponents in so many ways.  The 6-foot-4 forward shoots 54% from the field and 32% from 3-point range while being able to pass out of switches and double-teams effectively (119 assists ranks second on team).  In theory, Malina Howard will be assigned the task of containing Stewart.  But the junior can put the ball on the floor effectively as well-meaning multiple Terps will draw the assignment of stopping this offensive monster.  Dayton had some success (Stewart shot 8 for 18) but that left the door open to Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis and Morgan Tuck (the two combined to score 50 against the Flyers).  A herculean defensive effort against Stewart and her teammates won’t assure victory, but not having one will guarantee defeat.

 

Backups must Stand Up– Brene Moseley, Tierney Pfirman, Kristen Confroy and Kiara Leslie have all contributed in reserve roles this winter–and each has had a standout moment or two during the tournament run.  At least three need to have outstanding efforts against the Huskies.  There can’t be a drop-off from starters to reserves–or UConn’s depth will prove to be the difference.

How do you sort out Selection Sunday Shenanigans?  It’s tough to piece together a 68-school tournament bracket…but there are always things to nitpick each and every year.  And 2015 is no different…

Chasing Kentucky– the Wildcats to the surprise of absolutely no one receive the #1 overall seed and a three bus rides:  they spend the first weekend in Louisville (78 miles away from Lexington), the second weekend in Cleveland (a 5-hour drive from Rupp Arena) and the third weekend in Indianapolis (a 3-hour drive from campus).  Big Blue Nation can save on hotel rooms…giving the rational fan base more money to throw at “I Still Hate Laettner” t-shirts.

Planting Seeds– Villanova snagged the #1 seed in the East away from Virginia thanks to their roll through the Big East Tournament.  Wisconsin snagged the #1 seed in the West by winning the Big Ten in overtime.  Therefore the fourth #1 seed goes to…Duke?  The Blue Devils finished behind Virginia in the ACC and lost in the conference tournament semifinals.  I would have placed Arizona in the fourth #1 spot.

Who Got Hosed– forget about a school getting a #4 instead of a #3 (Maryland)…which teams got robbed?  Davidson despite entering the Atlantic 10 Tournament ranked 24th (which would generate a 6 seed) gets a #10.  Miami (Fla) misses the field despite a 10-8 ACC record, 7 road wins and a victory over Duke at Cameron Indoor.  Boise State plays Dayton in a First Four game–on Dayton’s home floor.  The First Four is basically the extra helpings of bread I don’t even acknowledge when I eat out at the March Madness Cafe.

 

Maryland (27-6, 13-5 Big Ten, lost in the conference tourney semis)– the Terps get a #4 seed in the Midwest and a first weekend destination of Columbus, Ohio after just about everybody had the team ticketed for a #3 seed in the East playing in Pittsburgh.  I think Notre Dame winning the ACC Tournament moved the Fighting Irish into that spot–forcing the Terps down one slot.  Unfortunately that slot is in the same region as favorite Kentucky (a potential Sweet Sixteen matchup).  Columbus is also an easier commute for #13 seed Valparaiso and #5 seed West Virginia.  Stop complaining Terp fans!  Your school is in the Big Dance for the first time since Gary Williams was mispronouncing Greivis Vasquez (alternating between Greevous and Grayvous).

Player to Watch:  Melo Trimble is the engine that makes this train run.  The freshman transformed a program that was hemorrhaging players last spring into a tournament team…averaging 16 points and 3 assists.  Would he slow down once Big Ten play started?  Hardly.  Will he slow down now that the NCAA Tournament is underway?  Don’t bet on it…

Darkhorse Breakout Candidate: while Dez Wells and Jake Layman are the other two main offensive cogs, the Terps need help from one of the “other guys” on this roster if they’re to make a deep run.  Evan Smotrycz began the year injured and spent most of the season on the fringe–before averaging 9 points and 4 rebounds during two Big Ten Tournament games.  Can the senior build on that and turn around what’s been a difficult final season?

Road to the Penthouse: the Terps use their #4 seed as motivation.  Melo Trimble, Dez Wells and Jake Layman fire on all cylinders as they bounce Valparaiso and West Virginia–before becoming Kentucky’s #3 victim on their march to immortality.

Road to the Outhouse: they never get over getting the shaft–and come out sluggish Friday afternoon against Valparaiso.  The big men come up small.  Their tournament inexperience comes back to haunt them as the Crusaders notch an upset for the ages.

 

Georgetown (21-10, 12-6 Big East, lost in the conference tourney semis)– the Hoyas go west to Portland, Oregon for the first weekend as the #4 seed in the South bracket.  Coach John Thompson III’s team was consistently uneven against elite competition–looking great in 20+ plus wins against Villanova and St. John’s but finishing 4-6 against the top six teams in the Big East.  Xavier and Providence were bad matchups that caused the offense to self-destruct…and away from home Georgetown was 5-4.  Now they have to head all of the way across the country?  Does somebody have it in for the Hoyas?

Player to Watch:  D’Vauntes Smith-Rivera.  The junior guard leads the team in scoring and assists while also ranking third on the team in rebounding.  On a team without a true point guard, Smith-Rivera provides a clear head offensively.  On a team with multiple freshman playing major minutes, the upperclassmen provides a steady hand.  If the Hoyas make a run, he’ll be the reason why.

Darkhorse Breakout Candidate:  freshman Isaac Copeland appeared to have turned the corner in January–averaging 11 points over a 10-game stretch where he became the secondary offensive option  (we won’t even discuss how center Joshua Smith’s inability to be an offensive factor thanks to continual foul trouble).  Then he suffered not a “freshman 15″ but a “freshman 16″–managing 16 points over the next four games as Copeland suffered a 4-21 shooting slump.  Could a 15-point effort in the Big East Semifinals against Xavier be the start of a monster March?

Road to the Penthouse:  the Hoyas find their offensive identity and scrape past Eastern Washington before benefitting by Stephen F. Austin’s upset of Utah.  The Lumberjacks are no match for the Coach John Thompson III’s team–who reach the second weekend of the big dance for the first time 2007.  Even a loss to top-seeded Duke doesn’t dim the shine of a fantastic tournament run.

Road to the Outhouse:  Eastern Washington travels well to nearby Portland, Oregon.  The Hoyas offense stagnates and Joshua Smith gets into early foul trouble.  Eagles sophomore guard Tyler Harvey (23ppg) goes off and the Hoyas D can’t contain him.  Another agonizing defeat to a double-digit seed for coach John Thompson III.

 

Virginia (29-3, 16-2 ACC, lost in the conference tourney semis)– the Cavaliers get a #2 seed in the East after being ranked in the top five for most of the season.  You could make the case for UVa being in the same bracket as the softest of the #1’s (Villanova has looked suspect in losses and capitalized on a not-as-good-as-you-think Big East).  While defense was the difference this winter–the Cavaliers led the nation in scoring defense (50.8 points allowed per game)–Tony Bennett’s offense is highly effective–ranking 53rd in shooting.  Last year coach Tony Bennett guided the Cavaliers to their first ACC Regular Season Title since 1983 and their first ACC Tournament championship since 1976.  Can he lead the UVa to their first Final Four since 1984?

Player to Watch:  Malcolm Brogdon tallied 25 points (including 12 straight at one point) in the ACC loss to North Carolina–and remains the #1 offensive option on a team that doesn’t score a lot (225th in Division I).  They need the 6-foot-5 matchup nightmare to produce from the perimeter  with Justin Anderson still working his way back from injury.

Darkhorse Breakout Candidate: can you be a breakout candidate if you’re the team’s best player?  Justin Anderson missed eight games–the first seven with a broken pinkie and the eighth because of an appendectomy.  In two ACC Tournament games the junior shot 0-for-6 in 26 minutes played…if he can regain his previous form (13ppg, 47% three-point shooting) the Cavaliers will suddenly have that necessary extra gear for the Big Dance.

Road to the Penthouse:  Anderson is fully healed and gives the stagnating offense exactly what it was missing.  The Cavaliers cruise into the Final Four after disposing of an overseeded Villanova in the Elite Eight.  Once there, they face a spent Wisconsin team that has nothing left in the tank after upsetting Kentucky. BANNER!

Road to the Outhouse:  The offense stays in neutral and Justin Anderson fails to regain his pre-injury form.  Tom Izzo’s Michigan State Spartans bounce the Cavaliers for the second straight year–only this time in the round of 32.  A heartbreaking loss made even worse by Duke advancing to the Sweet 16 in the same building hours before…and the Blue Devil faithful stay to cheer on the Cavaliers’ collapse.

 

VCU (26-9, 12-6 Atlantic 10, won conference tournament)– the Rams locked up an automatic bid by winning four games over four days in Brooklyn.  Coach Shaka Smart’s team gets a #7 seed in the West and plays Ohio State in Portland Thursday.  Who’s ready for another tournament run?

Player to Watch:  Treveon Graham leads the Rams in scoring and rebounding–while ranking second on the team in three-point shooting.  With Briante Weber in streetclothes it’s imperative that VCU’s alpha dog shoulders the burden.

Darkhorse Breakout Candidate: JeQuan Lewis was thrust into the starting lineup  when Weber went down with a season-ending knee injury.  During the A-10 Tournament the sophomore averaged 11 points and 3 assists–while also turning the ball over 3 times a game.  The Rams need Lewis to take better care of the ball in the Big Dance.

Road to the Penthouse:  the Rams bounce Ohio State in the first round and coach Shaka Smart’s havoc defense shocks Arizona to get to the sweet sixteen. Shaka Smart signs a 10-year contract with such a ridiculous buyout there’s no way he’d ever leave for greener pastures.

Road to the Outhouse:  The A-10 run was merely a mirage as Ohio State exposes the Rams deficiencies that were evident in their 5-6 finish.  The Buckeyes D’Aangelo Russell has a field day and VCU heads home...only to lose Shaka Smart to the Alabama vacancy.  

 

Portions previously appeared on WTOP.COM.

Selection Sunday…Zero Hour is nigh.  Little time to look around with only a handful of games on tap.  Sadly, the ACC Championship is not one of them.  Since the early 80’s this was a Sunday afternoon staple–and now it’s a Saturday night special.  I always thought the Big East made a major mistake in the 90’s when they moved their title tilt from one of a few games being played Sunday afternoon to one of the many games played in an overcrowded Saturday.  I mean, when wrapping up the conference tournament season wouldn’t you rather see the ACC than the AAC?  Although the American Athletic Conference of America has the defending champ in their midst. 

The Insiders:

Virginia– ESPN has the Cavaliers as a #2 seed in the East…playing Belmont in Charlotte.  CBS sends UVa to Charlotte as the South’s #1 seed–facing North Florida or Manhattan.  A lot could hinge on if Wisconsin wins the Big Ten Championship. 

Maryland–#3 seed in the East, headed to Pittsburgh and a matchup with Northeastern.  No real change over the last week…

Georgetown–CBS has the Hoyas a #5 seed in the West playing Wofford in Jacksonville, while ESPN has Gtown a #6 seed in the East facing Mississippi or Temple in Pittsburgh.  Meaning they’d face Maryland in the round of 32.  Not the same as Anaheim, but we’ll take it.

VCU– the Rams are a #8 seed in both models: CBS sends Shaka Smart’s team to Pittsburgh where they’ll play Ohio State…while ESPN has VCU facing St. John’s in Charlotte.  Could the Rams get a bump with a win over Dayton in the Atlantic 10 Finals?

 

On Tap Today–

1PM–Atlantic 10 Finals–VCU plays Dayton– the Rams lost to the Flyers 59-55 at home February 28th in a game where they shot 34% and only forced 8 turnovers.  The 1-2 combination of Treveon Graham (16pts and 9reb) and Melvin Johnson (16ppg, 11-24 from 3pt range) has powered the reconfigured (minus Briante Weber) Rams during the A-10 Tournament.  Can they contain Jordan Sibert?  The Flyers leading scorer dropped 19 points on VCU in February.  Rout Watch:  if the game gets out of hand, look for a walk-on named Joey Gruden–#44 in your program.  The sophomore is the son of Redskins coach Jay Gruden… and does a great Jon Gruden imitation.

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