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2013 NHL Playoff Predictions

The 2013 NHL playoffs are about to begin. In about 60 days, a new Stanley Cup champion will be crowned. Let’s take a look at the first round match-ups as well as which teams have what it takes to make it all the way to the end.

Eastern Conference

(1) Pittsburgh vs (8) New York Islanders

Prediction For Series:

Pittsburgh In Five

How Far Can Pittsburgh Go?

The Penguins have a lot of talent on their team. It is almost unfair to have players like Jarome Iginla and Brenden Marrow on the same line. Once Sidney Crosby comes back, they will have what it takes to win the Stanley Cup.

(2) Montreal vs. (7) Ottawa

Prediction For Series:

Montreal In Six

How Far Can Montreal Go?

Montreal has struggled down the stretch. Don’t be shocked if this is the only series that they win as Boston and Toronto look like strong teams heading into the playoffs.

(3) Washington vs. (6) New York Rangers

Prediction For Series:

Capitals In Seven

How Far Can Washington Go?

Look for the Capitals to be completely gassed after playing seven games against the Rangers. After a tough first series, they will be hard pressed to advance much farther. The Capitals played in a weak division and only have a chance of advancing to the conference finals if Alex Ovechkin scores at least a goal a game.

(4) Boston vs. (5) Toronto

Prediction For Series:

Boston In Six

How Far Can Boston Go?

The Bruins have the best chance to play the Penguins for the right to advance to the Stanley Cup finals. While the Pens have the edge in offensive talent, the Bruins have one of the best goalies in the game in Tuukka Rask.

 

Western Conference

(1) Chicago vs. (8) Minnesota

Prediction For Series:

Chicago In Four

How Far Will Chicago Go?

They will be playing at least into the third round. However, it is uncertain if they can beat Anaheim to get to the Stanley Cup finals.

(2) Anaheim vs. (7) Detroit

Prediction For Series:

Anaheim In Six

How Far Will Anaheim Go?

The Ducks will face a Red Wings team that is hungry after barely extending its 22 year playoff streak. However, once they get past the Red Wings, it will be easy sailing until the conference finals.

(3) Vancouver vs. (6) San Jose

Prediction For Series:

Canucks In Seven

How Far Will Vancouver Go?

To be fair, neither of these teams would be advancing if they weren’t playing each other. Both teams are too inconsistent to be considered serious contenders. Therefore, Vancouver will be exiting in the second round.

(4) St. Louis vs. (5) Los Angeles

Prediction For Series:

Los Angeles In Five

How Far Will Los Angeles Go?

They will be a sleeper team this year. While they could be bounced in the second round by Chicago, they could also play like they did last season when they were practically undefeated in the playoffs.

Projected Stanley Cup Finals:

Pittsburgh vs. Chicago

Prediction For Stanley Cup Finals:

Chicago In Six

What Decides The Series?

The Blackhawks have too much premium talent on their team. Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews are two of the best players in the league and the play of Ray Emery has been a revelation. Although it will not be a cakewalk, the Blackhawks will benefit from playing as many as four games at home. If the series does go past six games, that will be the deciding factor.

 

2013 Men’s NCAA Championship Basketball Post-Game

The Louisville Cardinals defeated the Michigan Wolverines 82-76 in one of the most exciting NCAA Championship games in recent memory. For the second game in a row, the Cardinals needed to overcome a slow start to claw their way back into the game and eventually pulled it out in the end thanks to their superior defense and ability to create turnovers.

The first half of the national championship game was perhaps the most exciting 20 minutes of basketball throughout the entire tournament. While many expected Russ Smith of Louisville and Trey Burke of Michigan to steal the show, it was Luke Hancock and Spike Albrecht who lit up the scoreboard. Albrecht got the ball rolling by hitting four three pointers en route to 17 first half points while Hancock answered with four straight three pointers to help Louisville erase a double digit Michigan lead right before the first half.

National Player of the Year, Trey Burke, had a quick start to the game, scoring Michigan’s first seven points, before being whistled for two fouls in the first half. When Burke received his second foul of the game, he was forced to sit on the bench for the remainder of the first half. This opened the door for Spike Albrecht to pick up where he left off on Saturday night, which was knocking down outside shots. Albrecht quickly hit a long three pointer right when he entered the game before scoring 14 more first half points.

However, not to be outdone by the freshman backup point guard, bench player, Luke Hancock of Louisville showed that he could hit three point jumpers as well. Trailing 33-21 with just over four minutes remaining in the first half, Hancock helped lead the Cardinals on a 16-3 run by knocking down four three pointers in a row. Michigan hit two free throws right before halftime to take a 38-37 lead into the locker room.

Once the teams emerged for the second half, the Louisville Cardinals picked up their defensive effort and made a few adjustments while on offense. The biggest adjustment the Cardinals made was to isolate guard Peyton Siva in the pick and roll game. Siva did an excellent job running the offense and either creating a wide open look in the lane for himself or finding an open teammate for an easy dunk. Chane Behanan was the biggest recipient of Siva’s improved play in the second half as he finished with a double-double for the game, scoring 15 points and grabbing 12 rebounds. It was Behanan’s seven points in just under six minutes in the early stages of the second half that gave Louisville the momentum it needed out of the break.

After the Cardinals found their way on offense, they were able to clamp down defensively as well. Outside of Trey Burke, the Michigan Wolverines had a tough time scoring in the second half. Mitch McGary was a virtual non factor because of foul trouble while Glenn Robinson III and Nik Stauskas also struggled to find any room on the offensive end.

While Spike Albrecht was able to provide a huge spark for the Wolverines in the first half, he was unable to provide much of anything in the second half as he seemingly wore down from the extended playing time he received during the first 20 minutes.

Even though the Michigan Wolverines were struggling on both sides of the ball, they never really fell out of the game. Whenever the Louisville Cardinals would make a small run, the Wolverines seemingly had an answer and kept the game close. This created an exciting finish that saw the Louisville Cardinals knock down several key free throws to secure the victory.

At the end of the day, the Louisville Cardinals were the better team and it showed in their execution down the stretch. The Cardinals knew exactly what they wanted to do on both offense and defense and were able to force a couple of key turnovers late. Once Louisville received the ball after those turnovers, they had several options on offense that were not there in the first half. When Hancock hit a corner three with 3:20 to go, the Cardinals saw their lead balloon to 10 points, and it seemed to be too much for the Wolverines to overcome.

For those college basketball fans hoping for an exciting championship game, they certainly got everything they had hoped for and more. Monday’s game featured several scoring runs and all of the momentum swings that make college basketball so great. If next year’s NCAA title game is as entertaining as this one was between Louisville and Michigan, then college basketball fans will be in for another treat.

March Madness First-Round Matchups

EAST REGIONAL
Despite bowing out early in the Big Ten Tournament, Indiana was awarded the East Regional’s top seed, and their opening round matchup against the play-in winner (either Long Island or James Madison) should be little more than an exhibition. The Hoosiers simply have too much depth, talent and superior coaching. The Hoosiers road then becomes considerably more difficult however, with a second-round meeting versus either N.C. State or Temple, the 8-9 seeds. N.C. State, in particular, has the makings of a tough matchup, with a starting five as talented as any nationally. In the other sub-regional bracket, 5th-seeded UNLV takes on the 12th-seeded Cal Golden Bears. The Runnin’ Rebels are loaded with talent, especially freshman Anthony Bennett. Cal’s defense holds the key to advancement, and coach Mike Montgomery has plenty of NCAA experience. 4th-seed Syracuse has a history of overlooking first-round opponents, and this season’s foe is Montana, the 13-seed. It’s difficult to believe that Jim Boeheim won’t have the Orangemen prepared however. On the other side of the East bracket. #2-seed Miami, fresh off their program-defining ACC Championship, faces an under-publicized Pacific squad. The Hurricanes surely didn’t make it this far to come up lacking now. Their potential next opponent will be either Illinois, the #7-seed, or #10-seed Colorado. An upset (at least seed-wise) by the Buffaloes wouldn’t come as a shocker. The other East sub-regional features an interesting matchup between the Marquette Golden Eagles and Davidson. Both are deliberate, walk-it-up teams, and the team that finds their shooting eye more successfully should advance to play either 6th-seeded Butler or Bucknell, the 11-seed. Butler’s recent NCAA experience should give them an advantage, and coach Brad Stevens ALWAYS has the Bulldogs ready.

SOUTH REGIONAL
Being a No. 1 seed has advantages, and one of them is usually playing close to home early on. Such is the case with Kansas, who open in Kansas City against the Hilltoppers of Western Kentucky. This should be as easy a “no-brainer” as the first-round offers. The always entertaining 8-9 matchup features Roy Williams’ always-dangerous North Carolina squad against a nearly equally tough team, Villanova. The Tar Heels have been living and dying by the three-pointer recently, and how well ‘Nova defends the trifecta should hold the key. Shaka Smart’s swarming band of VCU Rams takes on the Akron Zips in the 5-12 matchup, which promises plenty of up-and-down action. In the other sub-regional contest, Michigan, playing virtually at home in Auburn Hills, should spoil South Dakota State’s second-ever Tournament appearance, although the Jackrabbits gave Baylor all they could handle last season. The South Regional’s other half features an interesting mixture of past champions (Georgetown, Florida, UCLA) and relative newcomers (Northwestern State, Florida Gulf Coast). The Hoyas welcome FGC to the Party, and it could get ugly. Their next opponent comes from either the San Diego State Aztecs or Oklahoma. SD State has made some noise in the Tournament in recent years, and should handle the Sooners. Florida’s upset loss in the SEC Tourney relegated the Gators to a three-seed and a meeting with 14th-seeded NW State. Billy Donovan’s talent-laden squad will be eager to atone for losing to Ole Miss. The young and talented UCLA Bruins, sixth-seeded but playing without injured Jordan Adams, will more than have their hands full against 11th-seeded Minnesota. An upset here is almost expected.

WEST REGIONAL
Mark Few’s Zags finally earned a top seed after years of “close but no cigar” assignments. Talented, experienced and extremely well-coached, expect them to dispatch of Southern fairly easily. The 8-9 matchup promises both a competitive game between Pittsburgh and Wichita State, as well as a tough matchup with Gonzaga in Round 2. Pitt’s size and depth should prevail. One of the first-round’s more unlikely matchups occurs with fifth-seeded defensively-minded Wisconsin taking on the freewheeling Ole Miss Rebels. Marshall Henderson of the Rebels is talented and fearless, but he’s also never faced a defense like Bo Ryan’s, and the Badgers should persevere. Hard-playing Kansas State will face the winner of the play-in game between Boise State and La Salle. Bruce Weber’s ‘Cats were embarrassed in the Big-12 title game and will be itching for some payback. The West’s other sub-regional tips off with Big Ten champion Ohio State matched up with the Iona Gaels in Dayton; that’s in Ohio by the way. Thad Matta’s talented group will then take on either Notre Dame or Iowa State. An upset by Fred Hoiberg’s Cyclones wouldn’t surprise most observers. In the opposite sub-regional, Steve Alford’s New Mexico team has been touted as a sleeper nearly all season, and going against Ivy League champion Harvard gives them the opportunity to prove it. Next up for the Lobos should be the 6th-seeded Arizona Wildcats, although they will have to get by a hungry Belmont squad that’s 0-5 in NCAA Tournament play and is ready to change that zero.

MIDWEST REGIONAL
Probably the strongest region overall, the Midwest features no less than six former national champions and four former National Coaches of the Year. The tournament’s No. 1 overall seed, the Louisville Cardinals, captured the Big East Tournament title and is as well-suited as anyone to hoist the trophy on April 8 in Atlanta. Their first test comes against North Carolina A&T, which they should pass easily. Up next comes the winner of Colorado State-Missouri, with Missouri probably favored, but they’ve got a history of under-achieving in March. The PAC-12 champion Oregon Ducks, disappointed at receiving only a 12th-seed, will be looking to make the doubters believe, but they have to get by Oklahoma State and super-freshman Marcus Smart first. The Ducks interior play should help them advance. The Billikens of Saint Louis come in with their highest seed ever, a No. 4, and coach Jim Crews’ savvy, experienced squad should have no trouble with New Mexico State. The Midwest’s other sub-regional gives us the #2-seeded Duke Blue Devils and 15th-seed Albany, one of the tournament’s biggest mismatches. Coach K’s team then will have to take on either Creighton and Player of the Year candidate Doug McDermott or the Cincinnati Bearcats. This should be among the more entertaining first-round matchups, with Creighton able to score against anyone but offering very little defensive resistance, while Cincy is almost their polar opposite, defensively strong but offensively-challenged. Josh Pastner’s 6th-seeded Memphis squad will have to rely on their elite athleticism against play-in winner St. Mary’s, an intelligent, make-few-mistakes squad led by the Australian do-it-all Matthew Dellavedova. An upset here would not be out of the question. Tom Izzo has been here a few times before, and his Michigan State Spartans should prevail, although not overwhelmingly against 14th-seeded Valparaiso.

This March Looks to be Extra Mad

The nearly three-week national phenomenon known as March Madness is fast approaching and along with all the usual suspects, hopeful middle-of-the-pack major conference contenders and mid-major wannabes are jostling for positioning as the regular season winds down. Every year reveals a handful of teams that no one had high hopes for early in the season, and conference tournaments always produce a few surprises; 2013 should be no different. Unlike in recent seasons, when even a novice could safely predict at least one Final Four participant, this year is shaping up to literally be a crapshoot, with at least a dozen teams having legitimate national title aspirations.

Defending champion Kentucky has been up-and-down, to be expected when relying on freshmen in key roles, and their repeat hopes were probably dashed when big man Nerlens Noel went down with a season-ending knee injury in mid-February, taking away the nation’s leading shot-blocker. Definitely a “bubble team,” John Calipari’s Wildcats need at least a couple more wins to secure a spot. Kansas, runnerup to Kentucky in 2012, is safely in, but this Jayhawk squad isn’t nearly as dominant as some of Bill Self’s recent teams, and their best chance to obtain a No. 1 seed probably depends on how they fare in the Big 12 Tournament. The team that’s spent more time than any other atop the polls, the Indiana Hoosiers, are about as safe a bet to be handed one of the four coveted top seedings as any team nationwide, but they’ve stumbled in some conference matchups lately and need to regain confidence (and wins) before they can punch their tournament ticket.

The other teams that have been among the top 10 in the polls for most of the season and can’t be counted out for a deep run include Louisville, Syracuse, Georgetown, Gonzaga, Michigan, Michigan State, Duke, Miami, Florida and Arizona.

Rick Pitino’s Cardinals don’t have the can’t miss All-Americans, but they are an excellent defensive team and score just enough to usually win. Syracuse, in their final Big East season before joining the ACC next year, have experience, elite athleticism and a top-notch PG in Michael Carter-Williams. Another Big East squad that is rounding into shape at just the right time are the Georgetown Hoyas. Otto Porter, Jr., just a sophomore, has been developing into one of the nation’s top all-around players over the past month, and appears capable of carrying Georgetown well past the first couple of weekends. Gonzaga is a team that’s been operating under the national radar (as they do almost annually), but coach Mark Few may have his best-ever team this year. Big men Kelly Olynyk and Elias Harris are as efficient a one-two front court tandem as any, while PGs Kevin Pangos and David Stockton keep the Zags offense humming like a well-oiled machine. PG Trey Burke heads up a star-studded Michigan Wolverine squad, with plenty of contributions from Tim Hardaway, Jr., Glenn Robinson III and freshman big man Mitch McGary. Tom Izzo’s Michigan State Spartans seem to always play their best towards the end of the season, and this year follows the pattern. Guards Keith Appling and Gary Harris thrive on the perimeter while big men Branden Dawson and Adrien Payne take no prisoners in the paint. With Ryan Kelly’s return, Duke presents an entirely new look for opposing defenses, while seniors Mason Plumlee and Seth Curry have plenty of experience and basketball smarts to carry most teams. The surprising Miami Hurricanes haven’t hit the proverbial wall as many expected, and they might be the most experienced team in the country with a starting lineup averaging nearly 22 years of age. It’s a sophomore however, PG Shane Larkin, who directs coach Jim Larranaga’s over-achieving squad. Billy Donovan’s Florida Gators are clearly the class of a watered-down SEC, and their guard triumvirate of Boynton, Rosario and Wilbekin fully capable of playing different styles and tempos, Florida presents a formidable matchup against anyone. The Arizona Wildcats are similar to Florida in versatility and experience, and coach Sean Miller is due for some national recognition.

Several teams started out the season with big expectations, both from the experts and themselves, only to fall short and forced to scramble to get back to their once lofty level. Kentucky could be included among that group, but there are many others that also fall into that category. The N.C. State Wolfpack shocked everyone by advancing to 2012′s Sweet 16 and as a result, entered this season as ACC favorites. Several buzzer-beater losses and a healthy dose of humility later finds the ‘Pack once again underrated as tournament time nears, but with an experienced starting five and as much motivation as most teams, they may be ready to pull off a repeat of last season.

Once March Madness kicks in, all bets are essentially off. Heroes will be created in the time it takes a ball to go through the hoop while once-revered superstars will just as suddenly discover how the other half lives. Some small school will throw a huge scare into a major power and a little-known head coach will be inundated with media requests whereas before he was merely another face in the crowd. About the only sure-fire prediction about March Madness is that one team will call the season a success while 327 others will have to wait ’til next year.

2013 MLB Predictions

Spring training is set to get underway and baseball fans everywhere are looking forward to another exciting season. With the start of spring training comes the hope of winning a World Series as every team in baseball has an equal shot at the title. This is what makes spring training so special for many fans as it gives them a chance to make predictions about the upcoming season and assess their minor league talent for the future. Below are a few MLB spring training predictions for the upcoming baseball season.

Division Winners

One of the best parts of spring training is getting a glimpse of players on their new teams and trying to figure out just how good every team is going to be. Just about every division in baseball this year is up for grabs as no single division has a clear cut favorite that is surely going to run away with the division title.

AL East – Toronto Blue Jays – The Toronto Blue Jays made the biggest changes to their every day line in all of baseball, acquiring Jose Reyes, Emilio Bonifacio, Melky Cabrera, R.A. Dickey, Josh Johnson and Mark Buehrle. With a much improved lineup and pitching staff, the Blue Jays should find themselves in contention for the AL East crown all season long.

AL Central – Detroit Tigers – While the Detroit Tigers got off to somewhat of a slow start last year, the Tigers figured things out after the all-star break and won the AL Central division in the last few weeks of the year. The signings of Torii Hunter and Anibal Sanchez fills two major voids in the Tigers’ roster this season while designated hitter Victor Martinez is set to return to the team after missing all of last season with a knee injury. Martinez’s return to the lineup should help improve Detroit’s offense, which was already pretty good last season.

AL West – Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim – The Anaheim Angels once again signed the marquee free agent this offseason when they inked slugger Josh Hamilton to a five-year deal worth $125 million. Hamilton gives the Angels another bonafide slugger in their lineup to join Albert Pujols, Mike Trout and Mark Trumbo. One area where the Angels need to improve is their bullpen. New closer Ryan Madson hopes to shore up that position while Scott Downs, Kevin Jepsen and Ernesto Frieri will work the 7th and 8th innings.

NL East – Atlanta Braves – The Atlanta Braves finished with a 94-68 record a season ago and failed to win the NL East because the Washington Nationals were so consistently good all season long. With the Nationals poised to return to earth a bit this year, the Atlanta Braves will look to win the division on the strength of their starting rotation and outstanding bullpen. The Braves have some of the best arms in all of baseball, and will use those players to lead them to the postseason once again. B.J. Upton and Justin Upton were also brought in to the Atlanta Braves this offseason with the hopes of improving the team’s offense, which will be without retired star Chipper Jones. If the Upton brothers are able to improve their offensive skills in their new surroundings, the Braves could be one of the scariest teams for other National League teams this season.

NL Central – Cincinnati Reds – The Cincinnati Reds are the class of the NL Central once again this year. While the St. Louis Cardinals are a talented team, the Reds boast the most complete lineup and pitching staff in the division. If Cincinnati’s star players can stay healthy this season, the Reds should have no problem once again winning the NL Central by a comfortable margin. One issue that may need to be resolved with this Reds team early in the season is the closer position. Aroldis Chapman is slated to move into the starting rotation with Jonathan Broxton taking over the closer duties. However, should Broxton struggle early in the year, it will be interesting to see how the Reds will handle this situation, especially after Chapman was so dominant a year ago as the team’s closer.

NL West – Los Angeles Dodgers – The Los Angeles Dodgers have been printing money and spending it like mad ever since the trade deadline last season. This new trend did not change in the offseason when the Dodgers signed prized free agent pitcher Zach Greinke to a long-term deal. Greinke will join other big name acquisitions Carl Crawford, Adrian Gonzalez, Josh Beckett and Brandon League for their first full season with the Los Angeles Dodgers. As all of these players should be healthy heading into the 2013 season, the Dodgers certainly have the most talented roster in the NL West, and should be able to pull away in the standings at the end of the year.

NASCAR’s Super Bowl is Daytona

The Daytona 500 is commonly referred to as the “Super Bowl of Stock Racing,” or “The Great American Race.” The race not only offers the season’s biggest prize purse (nearly $19 million in 2012), but is considered by far the most prestigious event on NASCAR’s schedule. For almost two decades, the 500′s television ratings have topped all other North American auto-racing telecasts, including the much older legendary Indianapolis 500. Major NASCAR corporate sponsors take advantage of Speedweeks to promote their product whenever and wherever possible, but perhaps nowhere is their presence as saturated as at Daytona. Although the overall economic malaise has caused sponsorship to diminish throughout the first dozen years of the 21st Century, the 500 remains “the” absolute showcase for NASCAR, and they go to extraordinary lengths to ensure the event is memorable for all involved.

The event is held at Daytona International Speedway in Daytona Beach, Fla., where NASCAR is headquartered and where the organization was founded in 1948. Daytona Speedway was opened in 1959, with original construction costs estimated at $3 million. With a seating capacity at just under 168,000, Daytona is second only to Indianapolis Motor Speedway (est. 400,000) in North America. The race itself consists of 200 laps on the 2.5-mile tri-oval asphalt surface, which has four 31-degree banked turns. The track was most recently repaved in 2010, and lights were added in 1998.

The winner of the inaugural Daytona 500 in 1959 was the legendary Lee Petty, who collected $19,050. Contrast that with the $1,589,387 awarded to the 2012 500 winner, Matt Kenseth. The first million-dollar Daytona 500 winner was the late Dale Earnhardt, Sr. in 1998, who had endured years of near-misses before taking the checkered flag on his 20th attempt. When his son, Dale Earnhardt, Jr. won the 2004 race, the Earnhardt’s became the third father-son team to be victorious in The Great American Race. The other two father-son combos to take the checkered flag were Lee (’59) and Richard Petty (7 time-winner) and Bobby (3-time winner) and Davey Allison (1992). Bobby Allison’s 1988 victory made him the oldest winner (50 years, 73 days), while Trevor Bayne’s surprising 2011 win made him the youngest Daytona 500 winner (20 years, 1 day). Richard Petty’s seven wins lead all drivers, with Cale Yarborough’s four victories the second-most. Petty (1973-74), Yarborough (1983-84) and Sterling Marlin (1994-95) are the only three drivers to win consecutive 500s. The Waltrip brothers, Darrell (1989) and Michael (2001, 2003) are the only brothers to have each won a Daytona 500.

The Daytona 500 has presented more than its share of memorable races in the 54 years the event has been staged, beginning with the very first race. Three cars (Lee Petty, Johnny Beauchamp, Joe Weatherly) crossed the finish line at the same time in the ’59 race, with Petty and Beauchamp racing for the checkered flag with Weatherly a lap down. Weatherly’s car inadvertently blocked the official NASCAR camera, leading to three days of official review before Petty was declared the winner. Richard Petty’s 1964 victory was the most dominant in the event’s history, leading 184 of the 200 laps to win going away. A last lap duel between Richard Petty and David Pearson in the 1976 500 led to a spinout in the homestretch with both cars winding up in the infield grass, short of the finish line. Petty was unable to restart his car, but Pearson somehow coaxed his vehicle back onto the track and staggered across the finish line for the victory. A fierce blizzard that paralyzed most of the Eastern and Midwestern U.S. played into CBS’ favor in the 1979 race, which was being nationally-televised live for the first time. The television audience was well-above expected due to the snowstorm, and the telecast was also the first to introduce in-car cameras. Race leaders Cale Yarborough and Donnie Allison crashed on the final lap, and subsequently began fighting on the infield grass after exiting their respective vehicles. As the drivers scuffled, Richard Petty, who’d been at least a half-lap behind the leaders, guided his car across the finish line to a most improbable victory. The thrilling finish is frequently credited with providing NASCAR with the national “shot” of attention it had long sought to elevate the sport to major-league status. The 1988 race featured several notable events, including Bobby Allison’s “oldest driver to win” the 500, and became even more of a “family affair” when his son Davey finished runnerup. The race also featured one of the scariest wrecks in the event’s history when Richard Petty went airborne on Lap 106 and was nearly cut in half when other drivers couldn’t avoid it upon settling back on the track. Miraculously, Petty escaped serious injury. Dale Earnhardt, Sr. appeared destined to finally win at Daytona in 1990 until he blew out a tire on the final lap, allowing Derrike Cope to slip past for the win. In his career, Earnhardt had four times been leading the race with under ten laps remaining only to fall victim to either mechanical issues or just bad luck.

The most unforgettable Daytona 500 occurred in the 2001 race when the iconic Dale Earnhardt, Sr. was killed on the event’s final lap after losing control and slamming into the outside wall in Turn 4. Tragic and bittersweet, Earnhardt Sr’s. crash happened at almost the same time two of the drivers for DEI (Dale Earnhardt Inc.), Michael Waltrip and son Dale Earnhardt, Jr. were crossing the finish line to end up 1-2. Earnhardt’s death brought about immense changes from NASCAR to protect their most valuable asset, the drivers.

The Super Bowl of Stock Car Racing, the 2013 Daytona 500 is scheduled to be held on Sunday, February 24. This will be the 55th running of the Great American Race.

Recalling NBA Slam Dunk Champs of the Past

The very first sanctioned Slam Dunk Contest took place in Denver at halftime of the 1976 ABA (American Basketball Association) All-Star Game. The ABA, unlike its older, more established contemporary, the NBA, had a reputation as playing an undisciplined, anything-goes game, and the inaugural Slam Dunk Contest was partially an attempt to put more fans in the seats, as well as a showcase that would more clearly define the differences between the two leagues. The NBA still had stars (Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Dave Cowens, Rick Barry, John Havlicek, Elvin Hayes), but these players were not only aging, but they played the game in a slower, “old school” style that relied more on teamwork and set plays. The ABA also had stars (Julius Erving, David Thompson, George Gervin, Marvin Barnes, Artis Gilmore), but these younger players were revolutionizing the game with a free-lancing, up-and-down style of play that emphasized showmanship much more than the NBA.

The ABA’s initial Slam Dunk Contest featured only five contestants; Erving, Thompson, Gervin, Gilmore and Larry Kenon. Unlike the tightly regulated contests that fans are accustomed to today, the Denver event was essentially like a playground pick-up game. Each contestant was allowed two minutes to perform five dunks. The only requirements; a dunk from a standing position under the basket, a leaping dunk from 10 feet away, a dunk from the left side, one from the right side, and one from either baseline. There were no celebrity judges or elimination rounds. Each player was simply given two minutes to complete the five dunks.

The two consensus favorites to win the competition, Erving and Thompson, didn’t disappoint the sold-out McNichols Arena crowd. They were the final two contestants and Thompson wowed the crowd with a double-pump reverse dunk during which he seemingly hung in the air for an eternity. His final dunk was a 360-degree baseline slam that in which his head almost grazed the rim. The 6’4 Thompson, the shortest contestant in the competition, raised his arms to acknowledge the cheers. The final contestant, the legendary Dr. J, then took the court and after a somewhat “so-what?” reverse dunk from the left baseline, he dribbled out to near mid-court. He turned, faced the basket and with just three long strides, exploded off the floor from the free-throw line (15-feet) and windmill-slammed the ball through the hoop. No one had ever seen that done before, and a legend was born. After a brief discussion among the “judges,” Erving was declared the winner and the players came back on the court to start the second half.

Eight years later, following the merger between the two leagues and the arrival of such future Hall of Famers as Larry Bird and Magic Johnson, the NBA reintroduced the Slam Dunk Contest at the 1984 All-Star Game, held fittingly, in Denver. Erving recreated his iconic free-throw line dunk, but the eventual winner turned out to be Larry Nance, who dazzled the judges with a unique “rock the baby” dunk. The following two contests were won by Atlanta Hawks‘ teammates Dominique Wilkins (1985) and in 1986, the diminuitive Spud Webb outdunked Wilkins in the finals to capture the title. At only 5’7, Webb was the shortest competitor to win the contest. The next two years were dominated by the electric Michael Jordan who clinched the crown with his recreation of Dr. J’s legendary free-throw dunk, although Jordan added his trademark “tongue-wag” to his soaring slam. In 1989, New York Knick Kenny Walker, a last-minute replacement in the competition, took home the title, edging out Clyde “The Glide” Drexler.

The 1990s saw the Slam Dunk Contest lose a bit of its appeal, partly due to the lack of superstars in the competition and also due to the general lack of originality among the dunks themselves. Kobe Bryant’s win in 1997 raised the excitement level somewhat, but other than Harold Miner’s between-the-legs reverse winner in 1993, the decade turned out to be rather pedestrian. The title went to Brent Barry in 1996, notable for being the only (so far) non African-American to capture the trophy.

One of the more exciting Slam Dunk Contests occurred at the 2000 All-Star Game in Oakland. The two finalists, Vince Carter and Tracy McGrady, were not only Toronto teammates, but also cousins (an event first). Carter edged out McGrady with a series of gravity-defying windmill dunks, along with an alley-oop extravaganza that was lobbed by McGrady. The next four contests reverted back to a lack of superstars, notable primarily for Jason Richardson’s back-to-back wins in 2002-03, the first repeat winner since Jordan in 87-88. The 2005 winner, Atlanta’s Josh Smith, introduced a new wrinkle into the competition by donning a Dominique Wilkins “throw-back” jersey to honor the former Hawk.

In 2006, it was time for the “little guy” to prove they too could fly with the best, and 5’9 Nate Robinson of New York delivered, defeating Andre Igoudala in the finals. Gerald Green of Boston captured the crown in 2007, clinching with a flying windmill dunk after soaring over a table. The next season, Dwight Howard came out dressed in a Superman shirt and cape which made his free-throw line slam even more exciting. The Mighty-Mite, Nate Robinson, returned in 2009 and not only took home the title, but repeated the feat a year later to join Jordan and Richardson as the only back-to-back champions. A Kia Optima was featured in the 2011 contest, with Blake Griffin capturing the crown by leaping over the NBA’s Official Car and slamming home a powerful windmill dunk. In 2012, Jeremy Evans soared above the competition to take the title.

Heating Up on the Ice (Hockey at its Finest)

With a quarter of the NHL season nearly complete, it is time to take a look around the league to see what has been happening and just what type of surprises have greeted hockey fans. There is no question that the lockout shortened season, and subsequent condensed schedule, has created a unique NHL season this year. With teams playing as many as three games in four nights, you never really know which team is going to show up on a given night. However, a handful of organizations have set themselves apart from the rest of the league early in the season.

Top Teams in 2012-13

New Jersey Devils – The New Jersey Devils are leading the Eastern Conference with 19 points and currently own a 8-2-3 record. Many hockey experts expected the Devils to struggle this season with the loss of Zach Parise via free agency. However, the opposite has been true thus far. New Jersey has relied heavily on its excellent defense to allow just 28 goals on the year, an average of 2.1 goals against per game. If the Devils can continue to play this type of defense for the remainder of the year, it would not be surprising to see this team make another deep run in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

Boston Bruins – The Boston Bruins were looking to get out to a quick start this season after stumbling early last year. So far, the Bruins have done just that as they have an 8-1-2 record and are second in the Eastern Conference with 18 points. Much like the New Jersey Devils, the Boston Bruins have gotten great goaltending thus far this season to go with their excellent team defense. Boston’s penalty kill is tops in the NHL at 93.5%. If Boston can find any type of added offense this season, the Bruins could be extremely dangerous come playoff time.

Chicago Blackhawks – The Chicago Blackhawks have been the hottest team in the NHL this season as they have yet to lose a game in regulation. With a 10-0-3 record and an NHL best 23 points, the Blackhawks appear to be the cream of the crop this season in the NHL. Chicago has received an excellent combination of high powered offense and stingy defense while compiling their 10-0-3 record. With 44 goals on the year, the Blackhawks lead the Western Conference in scoring and are just two goals behind the Tampa Bay Lightning for the NHL lead.

Anaheim Ducks – The Anaheim Ducks have been a bit of a surprise this season as the Ducks are currently in second place in the Western Conference with a 9-2-1 record and 19 points. Much like the Blackhawks, the Ducks have relied on their offense to carry the team through the early stages of the season. Anaheim averages 3.3 goals per game and owns the seventh best power play in the league at 23.1%. An Achilles heel for the Ducks may be their team defense as Anaheim allows 2.7 goals per game and has a penalty kill percentage of just 69.6%. However, the play of rookie goaltender Viktor Fasth has to be encouraging to Ducks fans as the goalie has yet to lose a game in six starts. If Fasth can provide Anaheim with a much needed defensive boost, the Ducks could be a real power in the Western Conference this season.

Teams that Need to Turn it Around

Los Angeles Kings – The slow start for the defending Stanley Cup champions has been a bit of a surprise, especially since many did not think the Kings would fall victim to a “Stanley Cup hangover” with the lockout dragging on for so long. Poor offense has doomed the Kings on many nights as Los Angeles is averaging a dismal 2.3 goals per game, good for 24th in the league. One reason why the offense has struggled for Los Angeles has been the team’s power play. Currently, the Kings are capitalizing on only 11.8% of their power play chances, a number that surely need to improve if the Kings want to make the post season to defend their title.

Washington Capitals – The Washington Capitals rallied late in the season last year to make the playoffs, and it looks as if the Capitals will need to do it again this year if they are going to make the postseason. Through 13 games, the Capitals are tied with three other teams for the least amount of points in the NHL with nine. As was to be expected, the scoring has been there for the Washington Capitals as the team is averaging 2.8 goals per game, which is good for 10th in the NHL. However, the defense has been very subpar so far this year. Washington is allowing 3.5 goals per game, good for 28th in the NHL. The penalty kill unit has been terrible for Washington, and desperately needs to improve if this talented team is going to turn their season around.

For the teams near the bottom of the standings, the good news about this year’s condensed schedule is that things can turn around in a hurry. If a team can string together a few wins in a row, they will find themselves right back in the playoff hunt. This fact should make for an exciting NHL season as fans cannot count their teams out of playoff contention just yet.

What Makes LeBron so Dominant (Youngest Player to 20,000 points)

When his short jumper swished through the net at the 2:45 mark of the second quarter, Miami’s LeBron James became the youngest NBA player to reach the 20,000 career points mark. The milestone was reached in Oakland against the Golden State Warriors, a game James’ Heat won easily, 92-75. James finished with 25 points, 7 rebounds, 10 assists and a steal, typical numbers for the versatile Heat swingman.

At 28 years and 17 days old, James’ record-setting bucket eclipsed the previous mark set by Kobe Bryant (29 years, 122 days) by more than a year. James joins an elite group of 38 current and former NBA stars who have attained the 20,000 point mark, led by NBA career points leader Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (38,387). Besides James and Bryant, other currently active players to have reached the plateau are Kevin Garnett, Dirk Nowitzki, Ray Allen, Paul Pierce, Tim Duncan and Vince Carter.

Now in his ninth season, James has already earned nearly every possible award that the game of basketball has to offer, and barring injury will no doubt eclipse several more milestones before he hangs up his sneakers. A native of Akron, Ohio, James has been in the national spotlight since his high school days, first garnering attention during his sophomore year when he was named Ohio’s Mr. Basketball along with making USA Today’s first-team All-USA squad, the first sophomore to do so.

Following his senior season, James decided to forego college and entered his name in the 2003 NBA Draft. The Cleveland Cavaliers selected him with the first overall pick, and he immediately became the team’s star, setting a record in his very first professional game by scoring 25 points, the most ever by a player drafted directly out of high school in his debut. Later in the season, he scored 41 points in a game, making him the youngest to reach that mark, and for the season he averaged 20.9 points, 5.5 rebounds and 5.9 assists per game, easily earning Rookie of the Year honors. His impact helped the Cavaliers improve their win total by 18 games.

James added both to his accomplishments and legend over the next few seasons, including the youngest to attain a triple-double, earning selection to the All-Star team, setting a Cavalier’s single-game scoring mark with 56 points, and becoming the youngest-ever player named to the All-NBA team. As his reputation grew, the Cavaliers overall became a viable force in the league after decades of mediocrity. In the 2005-2006 season, James was named All-Star game MVP, averaged 30.6 points, 7 rebounds and six assists on the season, finished second to Steve Nash in league MVP voting, and led Cleveland into the postseason for the first time in seven seasons. In his playoff debut, James recorded a triple-double and averaged 30 points, 8 rebounds and almost 6 assists in two playoff series.

Despite being as physically talented as any player in the league’s history, James has improved some aspect of his game each season. He was named to the All-Defensive team for the 2008-2009 season, improved his free throw percentage dramatically, all the while continuing to post almost “video-game” numbers.

Following the 2009-2010 season, James shocked Cavalier fans by becoming an unrestricted free agent. Pursued by several teams, James eventually signed with the Miami Heat on July 8 on a live ESPN telecast. The decision drew widespread criticism (the exception being in Miami), but James was adamant about his dream to win an NBA Championship and felt the Heat offered him the best opportunity to attain that goal.

With new teammates Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, big things were expected from the Heat. Despite a period of adjustment, James and Miami soon proved that the expectations weren’t unreasonable, and wound up as the East’s No. 2 seed for the playoffs. After relatively easy series wins over Philadelphia, Boston and Chicago, the Heat advanced to the NBA Finals versus the Dallas Mavericks. It’s there where the Heat (and James) proved to be not-quite-ready, falling in six games after holding a 2-1 advantage.

True to form, James spent the offseason attempting to even further improve his game, and when the postseason rolled around, the Heat once again entered with the No. 2 seed. After surviving a grueling battle through the East, the Heat once again reached the Finals, this time going against an upstart Oklahoma City team led by young Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. Despite blowing a big lead and losing Game One, the Heat, led by James, rebounded to sweep the next four games to give him his lifelong dream, a championship ring. Not surprisingly, James was unanimously selected as NBA Finals MVP.

Other than Oscar Robertson and Magic Johnson, LeBron James combines an unbeatable mixture of size (6’8 250 lbs.), athleticism and basketball smarts that’s never been seen by any NBA player. And his unique combination of ball-handling, passing, shooting and competitiveness dwarf those two legendary Hall of Famers skill sets. Able to score against players of all sizes, James also has the ability to defend players at every position. Watching him powerfully snatch a rebound on the defensive end then skillfully weave his way through the opposition to finish the play with a highlight-reel slam dunk is “business-as-usual” for the 28-year old superstar. Along with his immense physical skills, James also possesses a winning personality that makes him a favorite of the media. No other current player approaches his talents, with perhaps the closest contender being either Kevin Durant or Blake Griffin. Durant however, isn’t nearly as strong physically, and while Griffin’s athleticism is at least the equal of James’, he is nowhere near LeBron when it comes to ball-handling, passing or perimeter shooting.

When all is said and done, LeBron James undoubtedly belongs in that rarefied air occupied only by Michael Jordan and Julius Erving as “The Greatest Ever.”

What we Learned from the Conference Championships

The lessons learned from the recent NFC and AFC Championship games revolve as much around the losers as they do the winners. With the upcoming “Harbaugh Bowl” sure to dominate next week’s news cycle, last week’s “Final Four” raises some interesting questions.

First, just when it appeared that the Atlanta Falcons had that proverbial monkey-on-the-back clinging for dear life, they instead revert to the lovable, yet bumbling, stumbling Dirty Birds that we’re accustomed to. QB Matt Ryan, as has proven to be his blueprint for several seasons, was lights-out early in the game, looking like Joe Montana in his heyday. Just as the previous week’s thriller versus Seattle, the Falcons bolted out to a huge lead over the 49ers only to suffer fourth-quarter collapses. They managed to stage a final minute comeback over the Seahawks, but this past Sunday’s meltdown was fairly obvious by midway through the fourth-quarter. One of the biggest blunders was Ryan’s momentary “eyes-off-the-ball” debacle that led to a crucial late turnover which snuffed out a potential go-ahead drive. Television replays clearly showed Matty Ice getting ahead of himself and failing to secure the snap, leading to the ball going to the ground and subsequent San Francisco recovery as the Georgia Dome crowd booed lustily. For a QB who’s frequently praised for his coolness under pressure, Ryan literally “dropped the ball” and set himself (and his teammates) up for a long off-season. Also puzzling was RB Michael Turner’s limited participation in Atlanta’s usually balanced offense. The pile-driving Turner carried the ball just eight times (for 30 yards), but after gaining three yards on the Falcons first play of the second half, Turner virtually disappeared, leaving the ground game to Jacquizz Rodgers. Turner has been an integral part of Atlanta’s success since he arrived a few seasons back and now questions are abundant regarding his future. Atlanta’s dependable veteran TE Tony Gonzalez is retiring, and now they must find some way to replace his typical 100+ receptions and unmatched class and leadership. Julio Jones and Roddy White return, but as we saw on Sunday, it’s a slippery slope when the defense knows you’re going to throw the ball. On defense, the Falcons are in dire need of some tough tacklers, especially in the secondary, while the front seven is beginning to show some wear and tear.

The losers in the AFC, the New England Patriots, simply are nowhere near the juggernaut we’ve become accustomed to. Despite their Arena Football-like scoreboard extravaganzas, the Pats have shown an alarming tendency to fall all over themselves when faced with adversity, which no doubt causes Bill Belichick sleepless nights. His post-game media appearance found the “Hooded One” even more non-communicative than normal, which is saying something, since his typical persona is about as talkative as a Shaolin monk. Observers are also asking questions about QB Tom Brady, who looked nothing like the “Greatest QB of All-Time” label he’s been saddled with. The Patriots went scoreless after halftime against an admittedly veteran but banged-up Ravens defense that had been grossly overworked in two previous playoff games. New England’s resurgent ground game also failed to produce, and even though Brady and Co. downplayed it before the game, they sorely missed injured TE Rob Gronkowski, who watched the game from owner Robert Kraft’s luxury suite. Belichick’s patchwork defense also showed plenty of holes as Baltimore QB Joe Flacco routinely found the openings that kept the chains moving. Expect plenty of personnel changes over the offseason.

And now the winners. The San Francisco 49ers, fresh off their old-fashioned schoolyard whipping over the Green Bay Packers, came into the NFC title game with a young, mobile, record-setting QB and their typically opportunistic defense that has somehow neutralized virtually every opponent. Colin Kaepernick was expected to pick up where he left off against the Packers, where he set an NFL record for rushing yards by a QB. Instead, with the Falcon defense obviously keying on him, the lanky second-year signal caller demonstrated that he has an arm as well, and he shredded Atlanta’s secondary, especially with TE Vernon Davis, who’d almost become an afterthought late in the regular season. Veteran RB Frank Gore also showed plenty of heart and durability, while rookie LaMichael James gave the Falcons a completely different look when subbing for Gore. Even Randy Moss, well past his prime and used more as a decoy this season, made some clutch receptions, while Michael Crabtree made certain that defenders couldn’t forget about him. Some excellent run blocking by the offensive line also made a difference, while that tough-as-nails defense, led by LBs Willis and Bowman, took no prisoners.

Hollywood scriptwriters couldn’t have produced anything nearly as dramatic as the unfolding story of the Baltimore Ravens and their emotional leader’s final ride. With No. 52 Ray Lewis playing like he’s 27 instead of 37, the rest of his teammates followed his lead and made the Patriots look like a high school JV team on their home field. The real story however, has to be QB Joe Flacco’s elevation to “elite” status among NFL signal callers. Regularly the subject of trade talks and discontent among fans and teammates, the sturdy Flacco has been lights-out throughout the postseason. His playoff leadership has been nearly flawless, leading the Ravens easily up and down the field and going 8 for 8 on trips into the red zone. His rapport with receivers Torrey Smith, Anquan Boldin and TE Dennis Pitta has given Baltimore an explosive aspect that few would have thought them capable of a month ago. Also, with RB Ray Rice providing his usual production, the Ravens are a smooth-running machine heading into Super Bowl XLVII. Defensively, with greybeards Lewis, Reed and Suggs making certain that complacency or less than 110% effort occurs, it’s difficult to find anything not to like about their chances.