“King Crimson” AJ McCarron on this week’s SI cover

In this week’s SPORTS ILLUSTRATED (11/25/13)—on newsstands now— executive editor L. Jon Wertheim writes about Alabama’s big man on campus and he doesn’t mean Nick Saban. No, the Big Mac in Tuscaloosa is quarterback AJ McCarron, Bama’s master of passing efficiency, who is on the brink of leading the Crimson Tide to its third national championship in four years. Writes Wertheim, “McCarron might be almost as well known for his arm candy as his arm strength, his body ink as his body of work. But let’s be clear: He’s not just one of the great Alabama quarterbacks. AJ McCarron is on the short list of the most successful players in the history of college football. Even if not many think of him that way.” (Page 39)

Despite his 35 wins in Tuscaloosa and two BCS titles, McCarron has never been a Heisman finalist or a first-team All-America. Instead of being considered one of the nation’s top quarterbacks, he’s routinely labeled as a “game manager.” He plays on a team with an old-school philosophy and with a stern disciplinarian and perfectionist as its head coach.. “He has as many national championships as he does defeats,” writes Wertheim. “He holds the Bama record for passing yards (8,184) and touchdowns (70). He has yet to lose a road game. In an offense designed to pick up as much on the ground as in the air, he still tosses for 222.8 yards a game.” (Page 41)

Joe Namath, who won a national championship at Alabama in 1964 under legendary coach Paul (Bear) Bryant and who Bryant referred to as “the greatest athlete I ever coached,” has nothing but high praise and high hopes for McCarron. “Everything AJ has shown has been positive,” Namath says. “He’s productive in the right way. He’s excelled under pressure. He plays well in big games. He’s a leader. He’s carried himself beautifully. He’s going to go into those interviews and wow them. He’ll be successful [in the NFL], and anyone who knows football knows why.” (Page 45)


SI 2013-14 College Basketball Preview

SPORTS ILLUSTRATED’s College Basketball Preview—on newsstands now—breaks down the 2013-14 season with 24 pages of scouting reports chock full of analysis, top story lines and coaches’ takes on the season, as well as SI’s Final Four prediction. Which will be the last teams standing on the floor at the Big Dance? SI predicts Duke (Anaheim Region), Kentucky (Memphis Region), Louisville (Indianapolis Region) and Michigan State (New York City Region) will punch tickets to Texas, with the Cardinals beating their interstate rival, the Wildcats, for their second straight title.

Pairing up college basketball’s biggest rivalries, SI presents four regional covers: North Carolina’s James Michael McAdoo and Duke’s Jabari Parker; Michigan’s Glenn Robinson III and Michigan State’s Gary Harris; Louisville’s Russ Smith and Kentucky’s Julius Randle; Kansas’ Wayne Selden Jr. and Oklahoma State’s Marcus Smart.

SI’s College Basketball Rankings

1. Louisville

2. Kentucky

3. Michigan State

4. Duke

5. Kansas

6. Arizona

7. Michigan

8. Syracuse

9. Florida

10. Oklahoma State

11. Ohio State

12. North Carolina

13. Memphis

14. UConn

15. Marquette

16. VCU

17. Creighton

18. Wichita State

19. Gonzaga

20. Harvard

SI’s Luke Winn writes, “The most scoring-friendly rule changes of college hoops’ modern era could have a profound effect on the defending champs. Hand- and forearm-checking will now result in automatic whistles, and no team’s guards are more difficult to defend without making contact than Louisville’s Russ Smith and Chris Jones.” (Page 60)

Pairing up college basketball’s biggest rivalries, SI presents four regional covers: North Carolina’s James Michael McAdoo and Duke’s Jabari Parker; Michigan’s Glenn Robinson III and Michigan State’s Gary Harris; Louisville’s Russ Smith and Kentucky’s Julius Randle; Kansas’ Wayne Selden Jr. and Oklahoma State’s Marcus Smart.

Inside SI’s College Basketball Preview

Extreme Teams

This season, the old adage, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” will fall by the waste side. The unique talents of some of college basketball’s top players have inspired coaches to experiment and innovate on offense. SI’s Luke Winn explains how four programs—Creighton, Kentucky, Michigan and Wisconsin—will go to the extreme to push the boundaries of what was once believed to be sound college hoops strategy.

On relying on freshmen Winn writes, “This season the Wildcats will take aim at the Fab Five’s legacy. Calipari has assembled the first recruiting class that, on paper, trumps the quintet of top 100 players that Steve Fisher brought to Michigan in the fall of 1991. Kentucky has the

No. 1 ranked freshman at four positions—6’ 6” Andrew Harrison at point guard; his 6’ 6” twin, Aaron, at shooting guard; 6’ 9” Julius Randle at power forward; and 7-foot Dakari Johnson at center—and two more McDonald’s All-Americans, 6’ 6” swingman James Young and 6’ 9” power forward Marcus Lee. With those six players as well as 6’ 9” freshman Derek Willis in a nine- or 10-man rotation this season, the Wildcats could allocate 70% of their minutes to freshmen while making a run at a national title.” (Page 52)

On the limits of star power Winn writes, “That Creighton’s Doug McDermott, a 6’ 8” hybrid forward who can score from anywhere, benefits from having point guard Grant Gibbs around is beyond debate. Gibbs assisted on 83 of McDermott’s 284 field goals last season, when the All‑America averaged 23.2 points and took 34.8% of the Bluejays’ shots during his time on the floor. This is the team’s inaugural season in the Big East, and it will be Creighton’s best chance to make it past the NCAA tournament’s opening weekend for the first time. To do so the Bluejays may have to test the limits of how much a team can depend on one shooter.” (Page 54)

On the limits of the three-point shot Winn writes, “The postseason success of teams that attempt more than 40% of their shots from long range has not been great. Of the 385 teams that have been at or above 40% since 2003, just 61 have made the NCAAs, and only two have cracked the Final Four: ’05 Louisville, at 42.1%, and ’11 VCU, at 41.2%. From ’03 to ’12, John Beilein coached nine straight teams at West Virginia and Michigan that exceeded the 40% mark. Only when he decreased the Wolverines’ long-range reliance to 34.2% last season did he reach the national title game.” (Page 56)

On the limits of ignoring the post-up Winn writes, “The Cinderella darling from Dunk City—Florida Gulf Coast—posted up on only 3.3% of its possessions, the 12th lowest in the nation last season. Louisville won the national title with a post-up rate of 4.9%, Syracuse reached the Final Four with a rate of 4.2%, and Michigan answered the question of how rarely a team could post up and still have the nation’s most efficient offense. Just 1.9% of the Wolverines’ possessions were post-ups, the lowest rate in all of D-I.” (Page 56)

Inside SI’s College Basketball Preview

Shades of Blue

Duke’s Andre Dawkins lived his dream of playing for the Blue Devils—until the tragic death of his sister snapped his passion for the game he loved. Now the senior guard is sharing the story of his emotional journey with SI’s Seth Davis in the hopes of helping others.

A little more than a month into his freshman season, in 2009, Dawkins’s older sister, Lacey, 21, died after a car accident while traveling to Durham to watch him play in a Dec. 5 game against St. John’s. Dawkins returned to the Blue Devils’ lineup immediately after Lacey’s funeral, never missing a game and performing beyond everyone’s expectations. However, when Dawkins returned to Durham for his sophomore season, there were signs that something was off with his game. “Even when he was playing well, there was no spark to him,” associate head coach Steve Wojciechowski says. During his junior season Dawkins’s struggles continued as his play and attitude soured. Shortly after Duke fell to 15th-seeded Lehigh in the first round of the NCAA tournament, Coach K dropped a bomb on Dawkins. “You’re not going to play for us next year.”

Writes Davis, “Dawkins was stunned. Krzyzewski explained that the coaches had decided that whatever issues Dawkins was having, he was not going to solve them while continuing to play. It wasn’t good for Dawkins, and it obviously wasn’t good for the team. ‘I knew this kid was having problems, fundamental things that went way beyond basketball,’ Krzyzewski says. ‘I told him, “Look, I’m not professionally able to help you at the level that you need to be helped, and you being in this environment, I believe, is not healthy for you. We need to get you out of this so you can find out what makes you happy, what keeps you on an even keel.” Because if he was only playing ball to prevent something or get away from something, then he would never really face up to his problems.’ ” (Page 97)


Boston Strongman

In this week’s Sports Illustrated—on newsstands Wednesday—  senior writer Tom Verducci writes about how 2013 World Series MVP David Ortiz, one of the greatest postseason sluggers ever, used leadership and resilience to carry the Red Sox and the city of Boston to their third Series title in eight years. Ortiz, who had a .688 BA with 11 hits and two home runs in the six- game Series against the Cardinals, shares this week’s cover with Boston police officers Javier Pagan and Rachel McGuire and detective Kevin McGill –all three appeared on SI’s April 22, 2013 cover as the issue reported on the Marathon bombings.

Writes Verducci, “If any one person were to lead the Red Sox and—given the team’s cultural importance in New England—by extension Bostonians through a terrible time, it was a man with an outsized capacity for resilience. The grind of a 162-game season played in a 182-day window, followed by the wilds of postseason play, would test even Lewis and Clark. But among baseball’s 109 world champions there has never been a story of resilience quite like this one. No team—not the 1969 Mets, not the ’91 Twins—has won the World Series in the year after being as bad as the Red Sox were in 2012 (.426 winning percentage). And only six months before the Series—just a half mile east on the same street where Ortiz was applauded—two pressure-cooker bombs exploded near the finish line of the Boston Marathon, killing three people, wounding 264 others and terrorizing hundreds of thousands. Four days later the citizenry was ordered to “shelter in place” during a daylong citywide lockdown, while a manhunt for the bombers proceeded. The pleasant routines of life, including baseball, were put on hold.” (Page 32)

Things were not always easy for Ortiz in Boston. Since arriving in Boston in ‘03 Big Papi has battled through injuries, steroid allegations, batting slumps and criticism from an ex-manager who claimed Ortiz quit on the team. Still, Big Papi remained ebullient and ready to lead by example.

Writes Verducci, Ortiz is the team’s leader in every imaginable way, a man of imposing size (6′4″, 250 pounds) yet easy accessibility. He delivers the right words and mood for a club as reliably as he does big hits. He is a baseball -philosopher—thoughtful, colorful, -profane—and his well-scarred career and outsized personality serve him well in big situations that can rattle others. “You can be the real deal today and s— tomorrow,” he says. “That’s how the game goes. On the day you feel your best, you can go 0 for 5. You go home and say, ‘I feel like Superman, and I went 0 for 5.’ That tells you how tough this game is: On your best day you had a bad day.” (Page 32)


Waiting for the Hate

In this week’s Sports Illustrated—on newsstands now—senior writer Austin Murphy writes about how (and why) the nucleus of the Pac-12 is changing, as No. 2 Oregon (8–0) and fifth-ranked Stanford (7–1) prepare to face off in the Pac 12’s game of the year in Palo Alto on Thursday, Nov. 7.

Historically speaking, the Oregon-Stanford college football rivalry never really registered on anyone’s radar west of the Golden Gate Bridge. It never warranted any cool nicknames like The Iron Bowl (Alabama-Auburn) or The Red River Rivalry (Texas-Oklahoma) or the simple and direct moniker The Game (Michigan-Ohio State). The Ducks and the Cardinal never had the national spotlight on their intense coaching matchups the way Bo Schembechler versus Woody Paige or Bobby Bowden versus Steve Spurrier did.

It was only over the last few years that the Ducks versus the Cardinal took on any type of significance outside the Pacific time zone. The two schools have been forging a rivalry that has shifted the Pac-12’s power nexus had an annual impact on the national title hunt. Writes Murphy, “Besides, acrimony excepted, this game will have everything. It’s Oregon’s second-ranked offense, led by quarterback Marcus Mariota, against Stanford inside linebacker Shayne Skov and the Cardinal’s 25th-ranked D. It’s a play-in to the Pac-12 title game, and the latest dramatization of the conference’s power shift from Los Angeles. It’s a clash of fashions—the Cardinal’s basic red-and-white versus whatever space-age design the Ducks are rocking—and of philosophies reflected by those unis: Stanford’s old-school, smashmouth power game versus Oregon’s no-huddle, hurry-up Blur attack.” (Page 48)

For more than 60 years, Pac-12 football was dominated by heavyweight contenders UCLA and USC, which have won a combined 18 conference titles and 55 national titles between them and which have produced Hall of Fame players such as the Bruins Jackie Robinson (yes, he played football too), Ken Norton Jr. and Troy Aikman, and the Trojans’ Frank Gifford, Marcus Allen and Lynn Swann. Now all eyes in the West are focused on the Ducks’ Mariota and wide receiver Josh Huff and the Cardinal’s Skov and linebacker AJ Tarpley. Nevertheless, the talent surge at both schools can also be attributed to a surge in resources.

Writes Murphy, “The Ducks have won 12 games in each of the past three seasons; the Cardinal, 12, 11 and 12. The Ducks have been to four straight BCS bowls; the Cardinal, three. Both teams’ ascent to the college football aristocracy has come (relatively) recently—spurred largely by a couple of sugar daddies. Call it the Nouveau Riche Bowl. John Arrillaga (net worth: $1.8 billion), who played basketball at Stanford in the 1950s and developed much of the real estate that is now Silicon Valley, has given at least $251 million to his alma mater, where six buildings bear his name. Nike shogun Phil Knight (net worth: $16.3 billion) has kept his name off the architecture in Eugene, but he’s been even more generous, bestowing at least $300 million.” (Page 48)

While Stanford, known more for its academic achievement than its touchdown prowess, has surprised some with its recent success, it’s the Hatfield Dowlin Foot Performance Center, Oregon’s new state-of-the-art, 145,000 square foot football facility that has gone viral across all recruiting and social media platforms. However, Murphy says Knight plays down the importance of his philanthropy and influence on the football program’s success. “The secret is not the money” Knight says. Even with his gifts, Knight believes, Oregon has less to work with “than any of the traditional powers. The secret is management.” (Page 49)


Gone Crazy

This fall, the 2013 World Series has been the greatest show on Earth. In this week’s sports illustrated–on newsstands now–senior writer Tom Verducci explains how the Cardinals and the Red Sox both brought the weird in the 109th fall classic—from whacky beards to foul-ups, bleeps and blunders—in a series full of tense games and never-seen-before endings. But look past the drama and the two evenly matched teams, and you see a sport in need of change. Think the DH was funky? Make way for the bonus at bat.

Writes Verducci, “The atmosphere of the 109th World Series could be described in many ways—-intense, passionate, noisy—but rarely does rushed enter into the 21st-century baseball conversation. As scoring has declined and pitching has come to dominate the game over the past decade, every pitch carries an intensity that prompts hitters into deep bouts of concentration and routine, as if they’re preparing to dive off the cliffs of Acapulco 292 times, which is the average number of pitches in a major league game in 2013.” (Page 34)

Boston and St. Louis were the best teams in the majors this season. Only twice during the Wild Card Era — in 1995, when the Indians met the Braves in the first year of the three-tiered format, and in 1999, when the Yankees played the Braves — has the team with the best record in each league squared off in the World Series. However, the paths each team took to this year’s Fall Classic were drastically different. While the Boston’s pitching staff was middle-of-the pack all year, the Cardinals’ rode to glory on the arms of their flamethrowers, especially during the postseason.

Writes Verducci, “The National League champion Cardinals epitomize how young power pitching rules today’s game. Throughout the postseason they ran to the mound eight homegrown pitchers between 22 and 26 years old who threw between 95 and 100 miles an hour. Those callow flamethrowers combined to throw 71% of St. Louis’s innings through the first 15 games in October while piling up 92 strikeouts in 96 innings. So enriched with pitching is baseball that it was harder to get a hit in the big leagues this year (.253 batting average) or get on base (.318 OBP) than at any time in the 40 years since the designated hitter was adopted.” (Page 34)

In contrast, the Red Sox relied on patience at the platelong pitch counts and late rallies (plus a late season surge from DH David Ortiz)to get wins. “The American League champion Red Sox are the preeminent counter-tacticians to this wave of superior pitching: They turn offense into defense. They saw more pitches than any team this season, 158.3 per game. They willingly sign up for strikeouts—they were eighth in baseball in whiffs while blowing past the franchise record—as the tariff for “grinding out at bats” to “run up pitch counts,” the highest virtues of hitting as extolled by coaches and the media. Where offenses of great potency once earned such menacing nicknames as Murderers’ Row, the Big Red Machine and Harvey’s Wallbangers, baseball now aspires to “grinders” when it comes to hitting excellence. Players who make outs return to high fives and fist bumps in the dugout as long as they saw five or more pitches.” (Page 34)

Stylistically, the Red Sox–Cardinals World Series highlighted the drawn-out, low-scoring war of attrition that baseball has become. As an alternative, Verducci suggests that baseball should consider a mechanism that guarantees the best players get to hit at the most exciting time. Call it, The Bonus At Bat.


Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 129 other followers