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Tuesday, April 19, 2011

: With Sizemore back, Tribe for Real - Barnes' return completes Carolina coup - It’s Hillis vs. Vick for the Madden 12 cover

With Sizemore back, Tribe for Real
It took a bit of extra-innings heroics, but the Indians won yet another ballgame on Monday night and now boast the American League's best record at 12-4.

They're getting contributions from all around. Travis Hafner looks like a new man, sporting a .353/.414/.647 batting line and four home runs through 51 at-bats. Asdrubal Cabrera leads the club with 14 RBI, Justin Masterson is delivering ace-like performances every time out, and closer Chris Perez has allowed only two hits in seven appearances. He has five saves.

Then there's Grady Sizemore.

The 28-year-old was activated from the disabled list on Sunday and slugged a home run in his second plate appearance of the season. It was his first big fly since August of 2009 and he went 3-for-5 with a double and a run scored in an encore performance Monday night against the Royals. If Sizemore hits like he's capable of hitting and his knees stay cooperative, perhaps the Tribe can turn this early season spurt into something real.

They've won four straight games and 12 of their last 14. Now let's hit the news...

It’s Hillis vs. Vick for the Madden 12 cover

In one of the only upsets we may see in 2011, given the whole lockout thing, Browns running back Peyton Hillis has ousted Super Bowl MVP Aaron Rodgers from the Madden 12 cover competition.
Somehow, Hillis mustered more votes than Rodgers in an election that was opened up to the fans.
Sure, Browns fans are zealous — but so are Packers fans. Maybe, in the end, the Cheesehead base didn’t turn out the way they should have, assuming that Rodgers easily would win.
Hillis will need even more help if he hopes to upend Mike Vick, who bested Adrian Peterson for the other spot in the finals.
Given that Hillis has a much lower profile than Vick, the next vote could end up becoming a public referendum on Vick, one of the most polarizing figures in all of sports. The fact that he is so close to returning to the cover of the Madden franchise, however, is remarkable, given the ups and downs of his career and his life during and after a federal incarceration for conspiracy to engage in gambling and dogfighting.
Cast your vote at ESPN.com through April 27. The winner will be announced on SportsNation that same day, the four-year anniversary of the date on which Vick first denied any knowledge of or involvement in the dogfighting operation that had been discovered on property he owns in rural Virginia.

Barnes' return completes Carolina coup, makes Heels No. 1 in '11-12

The morning after the title game is not the ideal time to rank teams for next season, but it's become a national-writer tradition to do so, and the list tends to have a bigger readership than the title-game column, so who am I to refuse? The process requires putting out feelers, because little has been decided at that point: The indications were that Kansas' Morris twins, and possibly Josh Selby, were gone; Texas' Jordan Hamilton and Tristan Thompson might leave; and Kentucky's Brandon Knight and Terrence Jones might do the same. But the most intriguing chatter was that North Carolina's Harrison Barnes, John Henson and Tyler Zeller -- all projected first-rounders -- were serious about staying in school with a potential NBA lockout looming. "I hope it's not just wishful thinking," one UNC source said.
It was enough to make the Tar Heels my provisional No. 1 on April 5, and it turns out it wasn't just wishful thinking. On Monday, with Barnes' announcement that he was returning for his sophomore year, they pulled off the coup of keeping all the major parts together from this season's Elite Eight team, meaning that they're likely to officially begin the 2011-12 season at No. 1. (Kentucky could make its own case if Knight and Jones pass on the draft, but that would be an even bigger coup.)
Barnes' decision stands out in the context of his highly-rated peers; as was pointed out on Twitter, he's the first player in the last five years who didn't go one-and-done after being ranked in the top four on Scout and Rivals.com's prospect lists. But Barnes has a strong family situation and didn't need to rush into his first pro contract, a la Selby. Barnes could consider the big picture, and realize that he'd leave no legacy at Carolina if he left after one season, despite the fact that he was a projected top-five pick.
As a business major with a mindset that's as much MBA as it is NBA, Barnes knows full well that his personal brand would be enhanced by a national title -- particularly one that comes exactly 30 years after the Tar Heels won it all with Michael Jordan, the player Barnes' mother, Shirley, had him model himself after as a kid. Last summer, Barnes said that he viewed college, at the very least, as a "networking opportunity," and a championship would forever link him with UNC's legends. An immediate jump to the pros would have made him only a Brandan Wright-esque afterthought.

Now that Barnes is officially back, here are four thoughts on the 2011-12 Tar Heels:

1. If Barnes picks up where he left off this March, he should give Ohio State's Jared Sullinger a run for National Player of the Year honors. Barnes' early struggles were well-chronicled, while Sullinger was a beast from Day 1, but a side-by-side examination of their freshman seasons reveals two very different trajectories.
First, let's look at the trendlines of their respective offensive efficiency ratings (essentially points per possession) across 2010-11. The chart below shows each player's running five-game average from November-March, with a polynomial trendline. Barnes makes a significant surge in the last two months, while Sullinger is trending downward:
Barnes' surge is even more impressive when you consider that he was taking on an increasingly larger role in Carolina's offense down the stretch. This second chart compares running five-game averages of the percentage of team shots taken by each player. Sullinger's usage rate stays relatively flat around 25 percent, but Barnes' trends into the 30s:
2. This Tar Heels team could set a draft record. At best, they can tie the record held by '99 Duke and '05 Carolina for four lottery picks from one team -- Barnes, Henson, Zeller and James McAdoo are all in DraftExpress.com's 2012 lottery. But they have a chance to put six players in the first round, breaking the mark set by Kentucky in '10, if point guard Kendall Marshall and two-guard Reggie Bullock elevate their draft stock with big performances in a national-title run. They're both currently viewed as fringe first-rounders, and Bullock has much to prove after an injury-shortened rookie campaign.
3. If you thought the Carolina frontcourt was good last season, with Barnes-Henson-Zeller as the 3-4-5, it's only going to get better once 6-foot-8 freshman McAdoo is added to the rotation. He's a highly developed power forward who can play the 4 or 5 spots, and doesn't need much seasoning; DraftExpress' Jonathan Givony has called McAdoo a college version of Tim Duncan, and says that while Barnes is still the bigger NBA prospect at present, "McAdoo is not that far behind him." Both players could go in the top five in 2012.
4. The Heels do have some flaws, the first being that they were a subpar free-throw shooting team last season, ranking 236th nationally, at 67.2 percent. Henson's 47.9 percent is the most glaring problem, but an equally bigger issue is that the guy they'll like to have handling the ball in late-game situations, Marshall, shot just 69.0 percent as a freshman. For comparison, the lead guard in this year's title game, Kemba Walker, shot 81.9 percent from the stripe.
This Carolina crew is also questionable from long range. Roy Williams' '05 title team ranked seventh nationally in three-point percentage, and his '09 team ranked 24th, while the '10 Tar Heels ranked 248th, at 32.8 percent. Bullock, who was hailed as a big-time shooter as a recruit, hit just 29.6 percent and needs to step up. If they're hurting for long-range marksmen, freshman P.J. Hairston could serve as an instant-offense option off the bench. Scouting reports project him as the kind of gunner who can connect at a 40 percent clip, and on a team with a less-loaded roster, Hairston would be an immediate starter with a double-digit scoring average. For these Heels, he'll have to be content as a role player. Such is the trade-off when you're chasing a championship.

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