NCAA Tournament continues parity-filled season

By Sam Cowan

The opening weekend of the NCAA Tournament is one of the most fun sports periods of every year and it’s also one of the most nerve-wracking.

Whether you’re looking to win some money in your office pool or you just filled out a bracket for fun to compare against the nation, you will have your eyes glued to your television, phone or computer for most, if not all, of the 48 games crammed into the four day open.

With all the parity present in college basketball this year, some including myself predicted an unpredictable weekend and that’s exactly what we got.

The wild weekend included 10 double-digit seeds advancing to the second round, a tournament record. Highlights included the No. 14 seed Stephen F. Austin Lumberjacks rolling over trendy Final Four pick West Virginia 70-56, the No. 12 seed Yale Bulldogs winning their first tournament game in program history and No. 11 seed University of Northern Iowa hitting a 3-pointer at the buzzer from beyond half-court to get by Texas.

However, the biggest upset of the week was No. 15 seed Middle Tennessee State University shocking the world and decimating just about every bracket in the country by beating No. 2 seed Michigan State in what is arguably the biggest upset in tournament history.

To put the win by MTSU in perspective, it was just the eighth time in tournament history a 15-seed had beaten a 2-seed and many had Michigan State projected as a 1-seed coming into the tournament to begin with.

Of course, this incredible effort by MTSU was followed two days later by them getting destroyed by No. 10 seed Syracuse in the second round.

The second round didn’t feature as many surprise winners, but did have some incredible finishes including Notre Dame surviving by one point on a tip-in with a second remaining, an epic 31-second, 12-point comeback by Texas A&M which had to be seen to be believed and No. 2 seed Xavier falling on a buzzer-beating, corner 3-pointer as the latest casualty of a crazy tournament.

Now, the Sweet 16 looms on Sunday and there are certainly some interesting contenders hanging around.

Seven of the remaining teams have never won the tournament and another two teams, Wisconsin and Oregon, haven’t won the tournament since World War II.

All four No. 1 seeds survived the opening weekend, which means the possibility of an all 1-seed Final Four is still in play. If it happens, it would be the second time ever and the first since 2008.

On a different note, No. 11 seed Gonzaga and Syracuse facing off on Friday means we will be guaranteed a double-digit seed in the Elite Eight.

The potential for a champion from the ACC is high as six of the teams remaining come from the conference, the most by far of any conference this season.

No matter what the final results are, it’s pretty much a given there will be a few exciting finishes along the way to the championship game in April. There’s just something about the NCAA Tournament which brings out the best in teams and in the sport.

Bold predictions for NFL free agency

By Sam Cowan

NFL free agency officially begins at 4 p.m. EST Wednesday and, just like every year, it has the potential to shake up rosters and shift the hopes of football fans around the country.

The free agency period is the next major step in the NFL offseason schedule and the player movements will be major storylines until the NFL Draft at the end of April.

While there will be an almost-innumerable number of roster moves between now and the start of the 2016 preseason, there are some which will hold more weight than others. Here are five bold predictions on what will happen in free agency between now and the end of April.

Robert Griffin III finds a new home with the Rams

When Griffin was benched in favor of Kirk Cousins for the 2015 season, I wrote a column about his career up to that point.

Given how Cousins performed throughout 2015, it came as no surprise when the Redskins made the decision to cut Griffin and his $16 million guaranteed contract. While Griffin’s last few years in Washington were not pretty, his career is far from over.

I see Griffin finding a home with the Los Angeles Rams as their new starting quarterback because I doubt Rams ownership wants Case Keenum or Nick Foles leading the charge in their return to Los Angeles.

For those scoring at home, the Redskins got Griffin after making a blockbuster trade with the Rams which saw the Rams receive a total of eight draft picks and now it looks like they will get Griffin anyway. I think it’s safe to say the Rams won that trade by a mile.

Johnny Manziel stays a free agent

It’s been a rocky two years in Cleveland for Johnny Manziel.

While his 2015 season was arguably better than his rookie campaign on the field in 2014, Manziel faced plenty of issues off the field including entering rehab, partying when he promised the Browns he wouldn’t, alleged domestic assault of his girlfriend and he even had Nike drop him as a sponsor.

Now with new head coach Hue Jackson making it clear the organization will not tolerate his behavior anymore, Manziel is a certainty to be cut.

Given his track record off the field and his general lack of success as a starter, I find it highly unlikely anyone will pick him up. Some desperate team might prove me wrong, but I don’t see it happening.

Brock Osweiler gets a nice new contract from the Broncos

I would argue the biggest winner from Peyton Manning’s official retirement was Brock Osweiler. The 25-year-old was in contract limbo with an expiring contract upcoming and the Broncos uncertain about whether they would need him to be their starter.

With Manning gone, a lack of big-name quarterbacks in free agency and no fantastic prospects in the draft, I think the Broncos will fall all over themselves to offer Osweiler a new contract.

The Broncos couldn’t give him the franchise tag due to the equally valuable Von Miller also hitting free agency, but I think they will still do everything in their power to get him on a long-term deal.

We will still be talking about Deflategate when the offseason ends

I thought we were done with this in 2015. Roger Goodell and the NFL gave Tom Brady a slightly frivolous four-game suspension, Brady lost his appeal, Brady brought the appeal to court, the NFL lost and the suspension was voided before the start of the season.

Now here we are, one month after the season ends and Deflategate is back in the news with the NFL appealing the appeal decision. The crazy thing is the judges seem to have sided with the NFL during the proceedings and we could see the suspension come back for the 2016 season.

If that happens, we will likely see Brady take this case to the next level of the courts and this will continue ad nauseam. We won’t even hear the ruling on the current appeal for a few weeks or months while the judges deliberate.

I want to remind everyone this all started over some underinflated balls in a 38-point blowout and has turned into one of the biggest courtroom dramas in sports history.

Nobody will replace Calvin Johnson, Charles Woodson or Peyton Manning

The number of great players who have called it a career in the past three months has been astounding. Woodson and Manning both completed incredible 18-year careers which place them among the greatest players at their positions ever.

Johnson’s career was much shorter at only nine years, but he still put together an absolutely incredible career which changed the way defensive backs played against receivers.

They aren’t the only players leaving the game either. Marshawn Lynch, Heath Miller, Logan Mankins and Jared Allen have all rode off into the sunset this season with Hall of Fame caliber resumes.

One thing’s for sure, the 2021 Hall of Fame ballot will be one for the ages as you could make arguments for all six of these players making it into the hall someday.

The league will continue on as new players keep cycling through to replace the old, but it will be a while before any of these players are truly forgotten.