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If you’re not a front runner, it’s hard to have all of your teams clicking at the same time. My guess is that most fans are satisfied if they have at least two teams going good simultaneously. I’m a baseball-basketball-football guy and right now my football teams are carrying the banner for my sports fandom.
I’m not much of a college football fan and I very rarely watch a game that doesn’t involve the NC State Wolfpack. My first three years at State, the team went 3-8 each year and that kind of set the tone for everything. Well, this year was pretty good, a nine-win season culminating with a convincing bowl win. The program is heading in the right direction and recruiting might be better now than at any time in school history. And now we received news that QB Ryan Finley will be back for his senior season.
Remarkably, NC State has developed into a QB school. There’s Philip Rivers and Russell Wilson and Mike Glennon and Jacoby Brissett playing currently in the NFL. If Finley had come out this year, he would have been a late 2nd or early 3rd-round pick. He makes good decisions and is a classic pocket passer. I get the sense the coaching staff would rather have a more athletic QB but Finley is so good that his lack of running skills really doesn’t hurt very much.
While the team loses all-everything performer Jaylen Samuels, with Finley returning the offense could be even better than it was this past season. A strong senior season and Finley could play himself into the first round. And the first round is where all-world defensive lineman Bradley Chubb will land, possibly a top 10 overall selection.
The only black mark against the football team is that it plays in, by far, the tougher of the two ACC divisions. It has to battle both Clemson and Florida State on a yearly basis. And Louisville, too. This past year they beat the latter two teams but were unable to get past Clemson. It will be a perennial uphill battle to sweep those three teams.
On the pro side, the Vikings, predicted by many for a .500 season, instead went 13-3 in a year where they lost their starting QB and top RB by week four. Offseason acquisition Case Keenum became a dark horse MVP candidate while the WR tandem of Stefon Diggs and Adam Thielen might be the most dangerous receivers in the league. But the unsung heroes of the team is an offensive line that has handled numerous injuries yet still kept Keenum from getting killed and also done a fine job of opening up holes for the running game.
But the defense is what makes the team go. They led the NFL in both fewest points and fewest yards allowed. Their front four gets pressure without blitzing, the linebackers are young and athletic and the secondary features both great cover guys and big hitters. They did not excel in getting turnovers but when you lead the league in shutting down third-down conversions, you don’t need to rely on interceptions or fumble recoveries.
The Vikings tied for the best record in the conference but took the second seed, as the Philadelphia Eagles had a win over a Carolina Panthers team that the Vikings lost to when they were playing without four of their five starting offensive linemen. In the Wild Card round, the Vikings played all four of the NFC teams and went 3-1, as they earned wins over the New Orleans Saints, Los Angeles Rams and Atlanta Falcons.
The Falcons knocked off the Rams on Saturday, meaning the Vikings will face the winner of the Saints-Panthers game in the divisional round. Before the playoffs started, the one team I didn’t want to face was the Saints. The Vikings beat them in the first game of the season, before the Saints got their defensive woes straightened out.
In Sunday’s game, I’ll be pulling for the Panthers. Playing Carolina at home with a much healthier offensive line should make a big difference for the Vikings. Of course, the Saints won both regular-season meetings against the Panthers. You’ll hear someone talk about how it’s tough to beat a team three times in one year but the actual results don’t show that at all. In fact, of the last 20 times that teams met for the third time, the team that won the previous two matchups went on to win the third game 13 times.
The Vikings have been the most successful of the teams that I root for but they’ve also provided, by far, the most stomach-punch losses of any of my teams. The last time they were in the playoffs, they lost by a single point after missing a chip shot field goal as time expired. It was a brutal way to lose a game and it probably doesn’t even make the top five of painful losses the team has suffered since I started following them.
Yet things are lined up almost perfectly for them this year. While they didn’t get the top seed, they got the extra week off to get healthy. And the Eagles have to play without Carson Wentz, which will make their road to the Super Bowl much tougher than what the top seed usually has. And the Super Bowl will be in Minnesota this year.
With another team, I might be cocky. But the Vikings have taught me humility.
In basketball, NC State had very low expectations coming into the year and they’ve already produced two signature wins over teams ranked #2 in the country. First they beat Arizona and then Saturday they beat Duke. Of course, this team also lost to UNC-Greensboro and fell by 30 points to a Notre Dame team playing without its top two players.
State has a new coach, trying to introduce a new system, which is why the expectations aren’t there this season. And to make matters worse, they’re forced to play without their starting point guard, Markell Johnson, who is currently suspended for violating team rules. During break from classes, Johnson went home to Cleveland and got into an altercation. It seems like he was a victim of being in the wrong place at the wrong time, being the most notable person when a fight broke out. While other programs might wait for the legal system to play out before handing out discipline, State was proactive. That’s the correct way to handle things and while it makes it difficult in the short term, it sets a necessary tone for the long term.
On nights when they shoot well, State can play with anyone. However, they’re just not a very good shooting team. And when the shots don’t fall, the defensive intensity drops off noticeably. Against Duke, State shot 50.7% from the floor and 92% from the line and scored 96 points. In their previous game against Notre Dame, they shot 36.7% from the floor and 53.3% from the line. Against Duke, they moved the ball well in the half court and ended up with a lot of dunks and layups. However, too many times they settle for passing the ball around the perimeter and taking a contested long distance jump shot.
This season is almost like playing with house money since the expectations are so low. The wins over Arizona and Duke were exhilarating and the losses are accepted with a shrug. Last year was so different because the expectations were so high. It was those unmet expectations that led to a coaching change. And it’s that coaching change that leaves fans optimistic about the future.
NC State will have three transfers next year, along with four four-star freshman recruits. New coach Kevin Keatts will have his players and should be able to run his system much more so than he can this season. This year becomes about getting experience for guards Braxton Beverly and Lavar Batts, both who played well against Duke. Hopefully Johnson will be cleared of wrong doing and can contribute both this season and the next two. Next year we can watch a team that’s legitimately 10 deep and can aggressively press all game long.
On the pro level, the New York Knicks are exceeding expectations and have a shot to make the playoffs this year. They’ve developed into a solid home team. And while the road record right now is awful, the losses now are competitive ones. They’ve successfully moved on from Carmelo Anthony and they’ve received unexpectedly strong seasons so far from Enes Kanter and Michael Beasley, who both have provided solid offensive performances.
The Knicks have gotten such good production from those two that most nights big men Joakim Noah and Willy Hernangomez don’t even get into the game. Kyle O’Quinn gives great effort and Kristaps Porzingis is the team’s unquestioned star.
The Knicks’ problems are typically in the backcourt. Point guard is a trouble spot with rookie Frank Ntilikina still trying to get established in the league. While the Knicks passed on taking Dennis Smith Jr. who is currently in the running for Rookie of the Year honors to pick Ntilikina, hopefully it’s a choice that pays off in the long run. You can see the talent that the French youngster possesses. Perhaps with experience he can develop into a top notch point guard. But he’s not there yet and his offense seems far off.
Veteran Jarret Jack has brought some stability to the position but when Jack is your answer, you know the problem is a big one. Courtney Lee has had a solid year at the two guard and has been a near automatic from the free throw line. The Knicks started the year playing Lee and top free agent signee Tim Hardaway Jr. on the wings but Hardaway has been sidelined and the Knicks have struggled to replace him.
While Beasley has picked up a lot of the scoring slack, the Knicks have been forced to give extended minutes to Ron Baker and Doug McDermott and neither one should get double digit minutes on a good team. Hopefully Hardaway returns later this month and helps to shore up the wing rotation. With Hardaway relegating those two to the bench, hopefully some of those close road losses can turn into wins.
After the Anthony trade, some doubted that the Knicks would win 20 games this year. So a season where they made the playoffs, even as a #8 seed that gets swept in the first round, would have to be viewed as a success. As for the future, a core with Porzingis, Kanter, Lee, Hardaway and Ntilikina seems promising. But will they be able to keep Beasley (unlikely) and can they continue to add to their core through the draft without Phil Jackson?
So, two football teams who seem to be peaking and two basketball teams exceeding low expectations. It could be a lot worse. But there’s been enough good things to help pass the time until baseball returns. And hopefully the Mets get 130 starts from their preferred five starters in 2018, which will go a long way to turning around a 92-loss team.
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