Preps Talk

AFC North - What You Need To Know

AFC North - What You Need To Know

Baltimore Ravens (12-4, 378 Points For, lost in AFC Championship Game): Forget everything you thought you knew about the Ravens, the flow is changing. The aging defense is no longer a dominant unit, and sack-master Terrell Suggs could be down for the season. As a result, the games will be more open this year, on both sides. QB Joe Flacco seems ready for more responsibility on offense, and receiver Torrey Smith was an uncoverable monster all summer. You'll land Smith as your third or fourth wideout in most drafts, but he's capable of a Top 15 year at the position. Anquan Boldin can still grab 65-75 passes, but he's not a deep threat and his touchdown upside is limited. Ray Rice is a known commodity, a Top 3 back on anyone's board. If you're in a deeper league and feel the need to handcuff, the backup is Bernard Pierce. That said, Ray Rice has been very durable as a pro.

Pittsburgh Steelers (12-4, 325 PF, lost in Wild Card Round): Todd Haley has his share of detractors, but his offensive methods are well-respected and he should do a fine job with the Steelers offense, in time. But for 2012, we worry about the offensive line and what it will allow Pittsburgh to accomplish. Isaac Redman (groin) is no sure thing in the backfield and Rashard Mendenhall is coming off a major knee injury; with that in mind, earmark summer sleeper Jonathan Dwyer for the late rounds. Ben Roethlisberger is still a Top 12 fantasy quarterback, when he's allowed to stand and fire. Mind you, Big Ben runs into a few sacks himself by holding the ball too long. Antonio Brown could ascend to the No. 1 receiver spot, and he's a good bet for 7-9 scores this year after being touchdown-unlucky last year. Mike Wallace is a dynamite deep threat, though he's unhappy about his contract and blew off most of the summer. Brown's progress (and lucrative contract extension) might wind up bothering Wallace, too. Buyer beware.

Cincinnati Bengals (9-7, 344 PF, lost in Wild Card Round): A bunch of things fell right for the surprise Bengals last year, and they were happy to take advantage of a soft schedule. Cincinnati never beat a team with a winning record in 2011, so be careful when you judge this roster. QB Andy Dalton was a quick study and should be a decade-long starter, though he's not a special talent by any means. But so long as he keeps pitching the ball to electric WR A.J. Green (now there's an elite player, a Top 5 pass-catcher), everyone in the Queen City will be happy. There's no solid No. 2 wideout here, which means tight end Jermaine Gresham will be targeted liberally. BenJarvus Green-Ellis is a straight-line runner with no lateral agility, but he never fumbles and he's reliable around the goal line. Look for a boring 1,100 yards and 7-9 touchdowns, the type of year Cedric Benson used to give us. Try to secure Green-Ellis as your third back.

Cleveland Browns (4-12, 218 PF): Most NFL clubs viewed Brandon Weeden as a so-so prospect, someone to consider in the third or fourth round of April's draft. Part of the bearish nature was tied to Weeden's age - he's already 28, having spent several years as a baseball prospect. The Browns wrote their own memo on Weeden and pounced in the first round, 22nd overall pick. Obviously they'll give him a chance to play right away, for better or for worse. Weeden's college stats were floated by a wide-open spread offense, but the Browns don't have the personnel to run that here. At least there's second-year receiver Greg Little on the outside, a budding star. Running back Trent Richardson was a respected pick at the No. 5 slot, but he needed a knee scope in early August. If he can heal up quickly, he'll run behind an underrated offensive line; while the Browns don't have an answer at right tackle yet, they do have two blocking stars in LT Joe Thomas and C Alex Mack. Montario Hardesty has settled in as the backup tailback, and could be an interesting sleeper if Richardson is slow off the mark. Cleveland's underrated defense should keep things surprisingly competitive, but this will be another losing year by the lake.

IHSA Football Playoff Pairings Show Roundup

IHSA Football Playoff Pairings Show Roundup

CLASS 1A

Revealing the Class 1A Bracket

Analyzing the Class 1A Bracket

CLASS 2A

Revealing the Class 2A Bracket

Analyzing the Class 2A Bracket

CLASS 3A

Revealing the Class 3A Bracket

Analyzing the Class 3A Bracket

CLASS 4A

Revealing the Class 4A Bracket

Analyzing the Class 4A Bracket

Predicting Class 1A-4A

CLASS 5A

Revealing the Class 5A Bracket

Analyzing the Class 5A Bracket

CLASS 6A

Revealing the Class 6A Bracket

Analyzing the Class 6A Bracket

CLASS 7A

Revealing the Class 7A Bracket

Analyzing the Class 7A Bracket

CLASS 8A

Revealing the Class 8A Bracket

Analyzing the Class 8A Bracket

Class 7A and Class 8A Predictions

 

In ugly home opener, Lauri Markkanen gives a glimmer of hope

In ugly home opener, Lauri Markkanen gives a glimmer of hope

Keeping the game simple is often a tough task for rookies entering the NBA, but it seems Lauri Markkanen has been a quick learner in that aspect.

Through two games he’s probably the lone bright spot, especially after the Bulls’ cringe-inducing 87-77 loss to the San Antonio Spurs in their home opener at the United Center.

Jumper not falling? Okay, go to the basket.

“It wasn’t falling so I tried to get to the rim a couple times,” Markkanen said. “At the end, I was like let’s do it and I connected on a 3-pointer, I felt more open just because I was at the rim. I think that helped.”

He was asked what the difference was in the second game of his career compared to the first.

“I mean the crowd was chanting for us (tonight),” Markkanen said, referring to Thursday in Toronto.

He wasn’t attempting to display any dry wit but applying common sense seems to work for him, even though he’s been thrust into a situation after an incident that doesn’t make any sense.

With Bobby Portis and Nikola Mirotic out for the foreseeable future, playing a game-high 37 minutes will be more common than anomaly.

“Whatever your minutes are, you gotta play them to the best of your ability,” Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg said. “He’s being allowed to play through some mistakes right now. He’s gonna play heavy minutes every night.”

He only shot five of 14 but achieved his first double-double with 13 points and 12 rebounds after a 17-point, eight-rebound debut against the Raptors Thursday.

No, someone didn’t open a door for a draft to come into the United Center on that three-pointer that went wide left, but it didn’t stop him from being assertive and continuing to look for his shot.

There was plenty of muck, easy to see on the stat sheet. The 38 percent shooting overall, the lack of penetration, the 29 percent shooting from 3-point range and 20 turnovers.

It’s not hard to imagine what Markkanen will look like with competent and effective NBA players around him, along with a true facilitating point guard that will find him in this offense.

“Markkanen is a wonderful player,” Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said. “He’s aggressive, he’s smart and obviously, he can shoot the ball. He’s just going to get better and better as he figures things out.”

He received a crash course, facing the likes of Pau Gasol, LaMarcus Aldridge and Rudy Gay Saturday night. On one instance, Gay drove baseline and made Markkanen buckle with a 3-point play.

Aldridge had 24 shots in 32 minutes as a new focal point with Kawhi Leonard out with injury.

So he’s not getting treated with kid gloves, nor is he backing down from the assignments.

“He didn’t shoot the ball well but he battled,” Hoiberg said. “He had a tough assignment with Pau, who’s gonna be in the Hall of Fame one day. Good experience. He guarded Aldridge, Rudy Gay some. He battled, he fought them.”

Even with the airball, had the moment that gives the Bulls fans hope, when he drove on Gasol, spun and hooked a lefty layup while being fouled by the veteran in the first half—giving the United Center faithful something to have faith in for a moment.

“Sometimes you get labeled as a shooter. That’s the label Lauri had,” Hoiberg said. “But he really is a complete basketball player. He’s versatile, he can put in on the deck. He slides his feet very well for a guy that’s seven feet tall, someone his age. Yeah, he’s learning on the fly. He’s gonna have ups and downs, as young as he is. He’s gonna have some struggles at times. But he’s played pretty darn well for everything he’s been through, understanding two days ago he’s gonna be in the starting lineup.”

And for all the bad air around the Bulls right now, from the on-court product to the off-court drama that seems to follow them around like Pigpen, it would be even worse if Markkanen’s first two games had him looking like a corpse, or someone who would be a couple years away from reasonably contributing to an NBA team.

“He’s good, he’s very good,” Gasol said. “I like him. I like his game.”