• Three things Texas must do to ensure a successful 2014 recruiting class

    San Antonio Brennan High School defensive end Derick Roberson.
    San Antonio Brennan High School defensive end Derick Roberson.

    The 2013 class is in the books and all attention is now on next year’s batch of talent. Eight verbal commitments are already in for the class of 2014, but the heavy lifting is just underway. Here are the three goals Texas needs to achieve the most to make sure that heavy lifting pays off:

    1. Address the defensive line

    The Longhorns have needs across the board, but none of them compare to the holes they have in the defensive front after failing to sign a single defensive lineman in the 2013 class. Four-star defensive end Derrick Roberson of San Antonio Brennan (above) has already given his verbal commitment. Other key names to keep an eye on include defensive end Solomon Thomas from Coppell and Nederland defensive tackle DeShawn Washington.

    2. Play the long game

    Gone are the days of wrapping up your recruiting class and your junior days simultaneously. Texas needs to fight harder for recruits who don’t immediately commit, as well as hold back a few scholarships for possible late bloomers. A slow-and-steady approach allows you to better evaluate potential recruits and decreases the chances of decommitments, which was a major problem this past season. The little amount of action coming out of the two recent junior days indicates that Mack and company are finally getting away from handing out nearly all of their scholarships a year in advance.

    3. Increase out-of-state presence

    Heavy encroachment by the SEC means it will be a lot tougher for the Longhorns to rely solely on the state of Texas for its recruits. The needed depth may not be available anymore, so Texas needs to expand its footprint. It’d be a major departure for the Longhorns, 90 percent of whose recruits last year were Texas natives. But right now, they are in serious danger of having a shrinking sphere of influence and this is the best way to combat that.

  • The Indiana Pacers: The best team nobody talks about

    Whenever my roommate and I play NBA 2K, it’s usually a long process to decide which teams to play with.

    We’re competitive people, and we take our gaming against each other very seriously. No one wants to be the one to lay their head on their pillow at night feeling defeat. This is NBA 2K after all.

    In the grudge match we had last night, I chose to play with the Indiana Pacers. I was met with a few jeers and jabs from my roommate, and he started looking for a lower-tier team to play with against me. I wasn’t having it.

    “Use the Knicks. Be the Knicks," he told me.

    The New York Knicks are his favorite team, and the team he usually uses on NBA 2K. I had never played with the Pacers before.

    I was beating him, 74-53, when he quit with three minutes left in the fourth quarter.

    Now, the meaning of this video game victory is not to boast about my abilities to press buttons on a game controller. It’s to note the lack of coverage the Pacers have received. My roommate himself didn’t know how talented the team is, and even Paul George’s All-Star selection wasn’t enough to put the Pacers on the map.

    It’s no secret that the NBA is a star-driven league. Stars sell apparel. Stars put people in the seats. Stars make commercials and get movie deals. And where are stars born? In big-market cities.

    The big markets have always been the media favorites of the NBA. Even with the success the San Antonio Spurs have had in the last decade, you rarely meet a Spurs fan that isn’t actually from San Antonio or at the least the state of Texas.

    But quietly, in the Midwest, there's a very dangerous small-market team to worry about. The Pacers are closing in on the second seed in the Eastern Conference. And these guys are good.

    Being unable to draw stars to Indy, the Pacers have had to be shrewd in the draft. They took a chance on Roy Hibbert with the No. 17 pick in 2008 and took largely unknown Paul George with the No. 10 pick in 2010. Tyler Hansbrough, the No. 13 pick of the 2009 draft, is a great energy guy off the bench. Of the current starting lineup for the Pacers, no player was drafted above the 10th pick in the NBA draft. 

    They acquired David West via free agency (at a time when many believed West was too beaten up, past his prime) and George Hill via a trade for Kawhi Leonard from San Antonio. 

    And this starting five is excluding All-Star forward Danny Granger (17th pick in 2005), who has been injured for the majority of this season and didn’t see action until two games ago against Detroit.

    These aren’t your household superstar names.

    These Pacers are leading the NBA in rebounding and defense, but that’s not all they're good for. They’re a talented bunch. They space the floor. They have shooters. They have stars and closers with Danny Granger and Paul George. They’re big down low with David West and Roy Hibbert.

    The Pacers' frontline is big enough to cause matchup problems, and their perimeter defenders are long enough to match up with most players in the league. The backcourt is quick enough to match up with most guards in the league as well.

    Quietly the Pacers have slipped into the second seed in the Eastern Conference, and after the scare they gave the Miami Heat last season, it’s time to take them seriously.

  • On Hockey: Central division report card after first third of the season

    Last week, I took a look at the Pacific Division at the one-third mark of the season. This week, we’re going to jump over to the Central Division, which, in my opinion is the most competitive one in all of hockey.

    1. Chicago Blackhawks (15-0-3)

    Wow. I’ve raved about them in past blogs, but I have no choice but to reiterate the praise and awe that they deserve for their performance so far. 18 games and zero regulation losses. 33 out of a possible 36 points. Their goalies, Corey Crawford and Ray Emery, both possess a goals allowed average (GAA) of 2.10 or fewer, and both hold a save percentage of .930 or better:. Simply phenomenal. Their offense is unbelievably talented - Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews and Marian Hossa are on a tear right now. They have solid scoring depth, backed by a superb defense that allows the fewest goals in the league, and is also the league’s second-best penalty-killing unit. They already boast the best goal differential in hockey. Just wait until Patrick Sharp finds his 35-goal-a-year stride. This team looks unbeatable right now.

    Grade: A++ (if there is a grade that high, they certainly deserve it).

    2. St. Louis Blues (10-6-2)

    There is no question that they are overshadowed (just like everyone else) by the dominance of the Blackhawks. But quietly, this is a very good team. I love the Blues’ offensive depth – they have eight players with at least three goals, and that has them at sixth in the league in goals per game. Their power play of 30.6 percent is absolutely lethal. The defense, on the other hand is a little lethargic right now. The only thing that is confusing about them so far: goalie Jaroslav Halak features both a 1.70 GAA and only a .911 save percentage. What’s up the that? Anyhow, I really like the way this team is constructed and I think they will finish second in the central. Given how tough this division is, that’s actually saying something.

    Grade: B+

    3. Detroit Red Wings (9-7-3)

    I wrote in the first edition of my power rankings a couple of weeks ago, that this team has been on a roller coaster this season. They still are, but seem to be finding their way after whopping Vancouver and Nashville at home last week. Their offense is aging, but still has the talent to be competitive. Henrik Zetterburg and Pavel Datsyuk are still top-line caliber players that can carry a team through a rough offensive stretch. The Wings also have also found a keeper in young center Damien Brunner. Their defense is suspect (as it has been since Nick Lidstrom retired a couple of years ago) and Jimmy Howard has been a little inconsistent in net. In this division, you can survive offensive droughts as long as you have a quality defense and a hot goalie stopping pucks. This is an “A” team that is not quite playing like it right now.

    Grade: B

    4. Nashville Predators (8-6-5)

    This team is offensively starved, ranking last in the league in goals per game. That really is unbelievable considering the weapons on their roster. Their third-ranked defense, seventh-ranked penalty kill and a god-like Pekka Rinne in between the pipes are keeping them afloat in the central. But Rinne can’t start every game, and he certainly won’t repeat last year’s sterling season (when he won 40 games , and was probably robbed of the Vezina award) if his team is only averaging 1.9 goals a night. The offense is well-balanced though, and it should start to heat up soon. The defense is thriving even after losing Ryan Suter to free agency. If they can put it all together, they can be a dangerous club in the playoffs.

    Grade: B-

    5. Columbus Blue Jackets (5-12-2)

    Well, let’s be nice – they’ve got some work to do. They rank no higher than 20th in the league in any offensive category. Their single bright spot has been the penalty kill, which ranks 10th in the league. Overall, they have an under average roster that lacks star power. Not much else to say about them.

    Grade: D

    Overall, this is an elite division. It is home to four playoff-caliber teams, which should make for some extra exciting hockey down the stretch of this season.

  • Top NBA storylines: LeBron somehow getting better, Bulls could be a dark horse

    Here are two storylines worth watching this week in the NBA?

    1. LeBron James reaching new heights

    Whenever it seems impossible for Lebron James to take his game to another level, he seems to deliver. After putting away questions about his mental resilience with the 2012 NBA Championship victory, James is playing the game with passion and having fun. According to James, that’s what has fueled his rise to meteoric levels of efficiency, scoring more than 30 points per game and shooting 60 percent six games in a row at one point. It seemed that Kevin Durant had been in Lebron James’ realm in terms of MVP discussions, but James has  stomped over any question about who is the most valuable player in the NBA. After finally achieving his physical and mental apex, Lebron James seems ready to not only match Michael Jordan, but even surpass the G.O.A.T. (Greatest of All-Time).

    2. Are the Bulls the dark-horse contender?

    As much talk there is about teams like the Pacers, Nuggets, and Grizzlies, a playoff team without a superstar is rarely the recipe for success. With a ridiculously effective Bulls defense (third in the NBA) and the (probable) return of the most explosive point guard in Derrick Rose, the Bulls are sure to push a top seed. Without Rose, the Bulls have gone 32-24 and, if the postseason began today, would be the No. 6 seed, matched up with the Knicks. Chicago has home games against Cleveland, Philadelphia and Brooklyn this week, followed by a date at current No. 2 seed Indiana on Sunday. 

  • Payton, French pair up to pace the Longhorns

    Entering 2013, there were plenty of reasons for the Longhorn baseball team to wipe the slate clean and start over after last year’s disappointing season. Two Texas players have instead used last year as a launching pad to early success this year. Junior right fielder Mark Payton and sophomore pitcher Parker French,  have picked up right where they left off after they excelled in last year’s Big 12 conference play down the stretch. Leading the team in hitting and pitching, respectively, Payton and French have steered Texas to a much-needed 6-1 record. Although the team has yet to play an opponent that nears its level of talent, it was imperative that the Longhorns execute a strong start after 2012’s disappointing end. Fortunately for Texas fans and thanks in large part to Payton and French, that is exactly what they have done. With a three-game series this weekend against No. 11 Stanford, a team that swept the Longhorns in convincing fashion last year, Texas will need this budding duo to show up big at the plate and on the mound. And if the statistics from this season are any indicator, they will.

    14: The number of games it took last year’s team to reach six wins, a season in which the Longhorns failed to win the Big 12 for only the second time in seven years. Behind Payton and French, Texas is currently 6-1 and in the midst of a five-game winning streak. However, this week’s series at Stanford will be a huge test, as the Longhorns have yet to face a ranked opponent. 

    10: The number of RBIs Payton has this year through seven games, giving him by far the most on the team.  Although he is unlikely to maintain this torrid pace, he should bypass his numbers from last season easily, when he had 29 RBIs in 52 total games, including 16 in 24 conference games. At this point, no other Longhorn has knocked in more than three runs this year. 

    8: The number of games played last year by the Longhorns before French recorded his first win, a 2-0 victory against Houston Baptist. Through seven games this year, French has already won twice at UFCU Disch-Falk Field.  After a strong Big 12 season, in which he went 4-1 in conference play, French was named this year’s opening-day starter and has not looked back. 

    1.35: French’s ERA after his second victory of the season, an 8-2 win over Nebraska on Friday night. Through 13 1/3 pitched this year, French has surrendered only two runs, improving from his performance against Big 12 opponents as a freshman, when he posted a 2.54 ERA in eight appearances.

    .500: Payton’s batting average through seven games, thanks to another impressive weekend series that has him at 12 hits in 24 at-bats. This offensive outburst appears to be an encore for last year’s Big 12 conference play, when he hit .343 in 24 games.