NASCAR Releases Photo of Noose Rope in Bubba Wallace’s Garage

By Scott Mandel

NASCAR released a photo of the garage pull-down rope fashioned as a noose that was found hanging in Bubba Wallace’s garage stall at Talladega Superspeedway on Sunday.

A Richard Petty Motorsports crewman noticed the noose and informed crew chief Jerry Baxter, who notified security. A photo was taken of the noose before it was cut down, and NASCAR contacted the FBI, who also viewed the picture. 

The Associated Press’s Jenna Fryer reports, “every single entity that viewed evidence—no other pull in any other stall had one like that—and ALL believed it was a noose.”

Following its investigation, the FBI announced Tuesday that the noose found in Wallace’s garage was there as early as October 2019 and the driver was not the target of a hate crime.

The Cup garage at Talladega Superspeedway was built in 2019 and had not been used again until Sunday. NASCAR president Steve Phelps said NASCAR has swept all 20 tracks, 1,648 garage stalls and found 11 total ropes that had a pull-down rope tied in a knot. Out of those 11, only one was a noose—the one found in Wallace’s garage stall.

Wallace issued a statement Wednesday afternoon regarding the FBI’s findings and said he felt “relieved that the investigation revealed that this wasn’t what we feared it was.”

Wallace, the lone Black driver in NASCAR’s top tour, added in his statement Wednesday that the findings of the investigation “should not detract from the show of unity we had on Monday, and the progress we’ve made as a sport to be a more welcoming environment for all.”

The act of unity that Wallace alludes to came Monday afternoon, ahead of the Geico 500. NASCAR drivers rallied around Wallace before the race, as they pushed his No. 43 car down the track to the front of the field in support.

Baseball Is Back, But Is It Really?

By Scott Mandel

That actual baseball is about to be back on the field under the summer sun is one small step for man…and one giant leap backward for mankind.

My god. The moon landing was a piece of cake compared to this. Negotiations are negotiations, yes, and baseball has a long, ludicrous history of turning them into drawn-out battles.

But this…this was a new low even by lower-than-a-worm’s-belly standards.

As more than two million people in the United States have contracted COVID-19, the bickering between players and owners over the path back onto the field commenced.

As more than 120,000 people in this country have died from this pandemic, the bitterness turned toxic.

Then George Floyd was killed after a police officer pressed his knee on Floyd’s neck in broad daylight on the streets of Minneapolis two months after Breonna Taylor was shot and killed by police in her own apartment in Louisville. Protesters were tear-gassed by United States Park Police on the streets outside of the White House, and the country erupted into a righteous rage.

All the while, the sport former Commissioner Bud Selig regularly referred to as a “social institution with social responsibilities”, abdicated those responsibilities. Not once, but twice—twice!—owners and players appeared to reach a deal (March 26 and June 17) and then couldn’t even agree on what that deal was or that there had been a deal.

Now, upon re-entry, the sport looks smaller and smaller. Insignificant.Videos you might like

Commissioner Rob Manfred on Tuesday used his power to unilaterally implement a 60-game season after three months’ worth of “negotiations” ended in a stalemate. Those early-summer dreams about the Sport Formerly Known as America’s Pastime romantically returning in a star-spangled burst around July 4 now lay in storage along with all of the nation’s canceled fireworks.

A game fighting for its patch of real estate on an ever more crowded sports landscape could have had several weeks alone in the spotlight. Instead, it will have a few days, and then the NBA and NHL playoffs will crank up.

The half-full view, of course, is that games will begin again on July 24, or thereabouts, finally releasing us from the grainy hell of replays from the distant past and giving us, finally, nightly options beyond searching the Netflix queue for the 6,000th time.

So now come the tentative first steps back, however belatedly, and we’ll see what the fan reaction is and just how much the sport alienated even its hardcore base. Of course, with no attendance, it may take a while to gauge the true effect. If a tree falls in the forest and no one is around…that sort of thing.

Or, maybe by squeezing 60 games in under the wire and dodging the virus, the game will, as ever, rise up and make a disgusted clientele remember why they loved it in the first place.

So, Play Ball!

Right?

Or is it, Play Ball…(sigh)

Unlike any other season in more than a century of Major League Baseball: a 60-game sprint, in empty ballparks, with Opening Day essentially being the start of the pennant race.

The severely reduced game calendar will be by far the shortest in the history of MLB, strike seasons included. Before now, the most abbreviated schedule ever played was in 1981 when a two-month players’ strike caused clubs to play roughly 107-110 games.

Furthermore, by playing only 37 percent of its usual 162-game schedule, this will represent the sharpest reduction of a season of any of the four major American professional sports leagues in history. No league, outside of a full cancellation, has ever played a season with less than 56 percent of its scheduled games.

As a result, the importance of each game for what amounts to the entire season will be magnified tremendously: Each game will carry the significance of nearly three in usual circumstances (2.7 to be exact). Meaning, if there are six scheduled games each week, every club’s weekly schedule will carry the weight of 16 games in a normal season. A sense of urgency will be there from the first pitch.

Because of the brevity, odds immediately increase for flukes.

Teams that get hot for a 20- or 30-game stretch will be difficult to catch. If you look at last year’s schedule on June 4—a date at which most teams had played between 58 and 60 games—the National League division winners would have been Philadelphia, Chicago and Los Angeles. Only the Dodgers, of course, won their division in 2020. (The American League division winners would have been the same as at season’s end: the Yankees, Twins and Astros).

Under the same circumstances in 2018 (June 4 cutoff, most teams at 58-60 games), Boston, Cleveland and Seattle would have won division titles in the AL—and the Mariners are currently dragging the longest playoff drought in the majors, not having played in a postseason since 2001. NL division winners would have been Atlanta, Milwaukee and Arizona. The Mariners and Diamondbacks were the outliers as the Astros and Dodgers wound up winning the Western divisions.

The schedule will be re-configured into, essentially, geographic pods: Western teams will only face Western teams, etc. The Yankees’ schedule, for example, will consist of 40 games against AL East foes with the remaining 20 games against NL East teams. That number of in-division games and interleague games will remain equal for all teams. In a shortened season and with COVID-19 concerns, the idea is to limit travel and, thus, both health and fatigue risks.

That will afford one interesting wrinkle: If you remember back to the halcyon, pre-virus days in February and early March when the Astros’ cheating scandal dominated the baseball conversation…well, the Astros weren’t scheduled to face the Dodgers, their 2017 World Series victims, this season. Now they are. But, alas, in an empty Dodger Stadium.

Rosters will be expanded early in an effort to keep pitchers healthy. Extra innings will start with a runner on second base, largely because health experts advise against games lasting hours and partly because MLB figures this is a good opportunity to test-drive some ideas without any long-term commitments. And the trade deadline will be pushed back a month to Aug. 31.

While the designated hitter will arrive in the NL this year—sorry, purists—because Manfred is implementing as much in lieu of a negotiated agreement, there will not be a DH in the NL in 2021. At least, as of now.

Also, because the season is coming by way of decree and not agreement, forget the notion of expanded playoffs (and free substitution). For now, October, if the virus allows us to get that far, will look the same, with 10 teams in the usual format.

One positive—hello again, purists—is that there will not be advertising patches on uniforms this season (one of the players’ offers to owners included the approval to sell ad space on the unis). In a storied game in which certain uniforms—Yankees, Cardinals, Dodgers, Tigers, Red Sox—are iconic, it would be like spraying graffiti on St. Peter’s Basilica.

So now the question becomes: Given that this season was called to order instead of negotiated, will it essentially be a joyless slog through three months that are simply a prelude to more ugliness when negotiations begin for the next Collective Bargaining Agreement?

There is a chance some stars will boycott in protest and decline to play this year. Unless they’re excused for legitimate health concerns, players refusing to play would not be paid, of course.

Players could display their anger and frustration in other ways. For example, in one of their proposals, they offered enhanced telecasts (essentially being mic’d up during games). Under current conditions, they have the right to decline extras like that—and many likely will.

Two things that are likely to disappear: the All-Star Game and Home Run Derby. During negotiations, the players’ union was discussing ways to hold both after the postseason concludes. Now, both will likely be canceled.

Meanwhile, there is a health crisis to manage, and the genuine concerns about the risks of playing could stretch far and wide among players. For example, the wives of both Angels star Mike Trout and Yankees ace Gerrit Cole are pregnant this summer. Will both men feel comfortable playing given those circumstances, or might one or both opt out?

Sources say MLB has accepted the notion that some players will test positive but believes as long as they can manage the situation and keep the numbers relatively low, they can get through the shortened season.

One universal thing about this season: There are myriad complications around each corner.

And there look to be more on the way.

Players vs. Owners…

MLB Players Association executive director Tony Clark.

MLB Players Association executive director Tony Clark.Joel Auerbach/Getty Images

Neither side in this months-long dispute covered itself in glory, and there is plenty of blame to go around.

For those scoring at home, the owners probably came out as the “winners” (very loose definition there) because they were able to control their losses with a 60-game season rather than paying the players full pro-rated salaries for, say, 82 games.

But it’s hard to believe anyone in the owners’ suites are toasting what they accomplished.

Part of what made things so contentious is the fact that both players and owners have (some) valid arguments.

The players, feeling like they got played in the last Basic Agreement, point to the fact that the sport has taken in record revenues in recent years ($11 billion or so last year), and yet the average player salary has decreased in consecutive years for the first time since the MLBPA started keeping such statistics more than half a century ago in 1967.

So the general feeling from them is: If you are going to squeeze free agency and reduce our share of the pie when times are good, then why should we go out of our way to help you share the losses when times are bad?

The owners are taking a shorter-term view of things, arguing that they are hemorrhaging money (“a bloodbath,” one says) this summer and want the players to share that burden. They say that playing without fans means, without ticket revenue, parking, concessions and gift shop receipts, each team is losing (depending on market size) somewhere between $640,000 and $1 million per home game.

Multiply that by 81 home dates and, even if you quibble with the exact numbers the owners are citing, it’s difficult to argue they’re not losing a ton.

The winning play by both sides would have been to give more than they wanted now and save the big fight for the looming Collective Bargaining Agreement negotiations that are set to begin within months. The CBA expires after the 2021 season, and each one generally lasts five years.

So in the midst of a pandemic and with the country reeling from unemployment and social justice issues, why not look big now by sacrificing some of what you want to try to get through one partial season?

That’s the question that will be lingering for years.

The cold winter ahead…

Mookie Betts' tenure as a Dodger could be a short one if he leaves the team in free agency after this season.

Mookie Betts’ tenure as a Dodger could be a short one if he leaves the team in free agency after this season.Gregory Bull/Associated Press/Associated Press

Look out.

What we know is that the financial losses this year are enormous, and nobody has promised that things will be back to normal by next year’s season opener in March.

That will likely make for one of the coldest free-agent markets in years. Mookie Betts picked a horrible time to decline Boston’s contract overtures—he reportedly turned down a 10-year, $300 million offer last summer. Several industry sources say he won’t come close to that as a free agent this winter. Some expect him to settle for a one-year deal and try again later.

Other top free agents this winter—catcher J.T. Realmuto, shortstop Marcus Semien, outfielder George Springer and pitchers Trevor Bauer and Marcus Stroman—can also expect to find a hard time generating big offers.

Furthermore, how will arbitration even look this winter? One industry source guesses that those eligible will have to be judged on their 2019 numbers because there is no way to fairly and accurately decide contracts on a 60-game season this summer.

Also, for numbers fans: There will be no revenue sharing this season because there is too little revenue to share. Luxury-tax rules will revert back to 2019; there is no “resetting” of the luxury tax for clubs in 2020.

More trouble looms in 2021…

If only we could flip a switch and everything would be back to normal by Opening Day next year. If only.

Shaded by the effort to get the game back on the field this summer is the bleak outlook for 2021. Will a vaccine be developed, proven, approved and distributed on a large enough scale by then? Will fans be comfortable entering stadiums for mass gatherings? Heck, will governors and health experts even allow it, or will social distancing still be enforced by then?

As one owner says, speaking from the perspective of the clubs: “2021 is going to be ugly, too. A sellout could be 16,000.”

In other words, he’s expecting attendance to be capped by social distancing requirements, at least in the beginning.

Meanwhile, the negotiations for the next CBA will be playing out in the background. Given that the two sides couldn’t come to an agreement this summer, there’s no reason to believe the relationship will do anything but worsen.

The owners believe they made some offers that should have been accepted in negotiations this spring and summer and maintain that the union leaders either misled the players or lied to them. Further complicating things, sources say owners have developed a strong antipathy toward the union’s new lead labor lawyer, Bruce Meyer, and believe that agent Scott Boras overstepped his bounds by meddling in—and helping to torpedo—negotiations.

The players rejected every offer by the owners since the game was suspended in March and, in the end, valued their right to file a grievance that the owners negotiated in bad faith above all else. Not all players seem on board, and Bauer’s tweet Monday night seemed to echo what some owners think, which is that the players didn’t all receive the information they should have:Trevor Bauer@BauerOutage

So we gave up shares of playoff money, eliminating the qualifying offer for 2021, paycheck advance forgiveness, Covid 19 protections, and protection for non guaranteed arb contracts for next year in order to hold on to our right to file a grievance…🤔🤔6,918Twitter Ads info and privacy1,546 people are talking about this

Many players, however, believe the owners have allowed the erosion of competitive integrity via the handful of clubs that tank each year in order to rebuild.

Maybe the best, most positive hope that the two sides will reach an agreement on the next CBA without an interruption to a season is that they are each losing so much money this summer that it’s hard to imagine either side in the industry could sustain more massive losses in 2022 and beyond.

Of course, as we learned this summer, the danger in underestimating them is that there’s no telling how low they will go. 

NBA Fundamentals, Where Art Thou? Stat Lines Are Wacked

By Scott Mandel

Oy. The NBA. Where art thou gone? Yesteryear was so much more satisfying to us baby boomers.

Now, we are getting ridiculous stat lines in the wide open game the NBA has turned into.

Last night, Giannis Antetakoumpo compiled 40 points and 20 rebounds, from his forward position. I’m guessing not one of those rebounds were gathered through the physical act of boxing out or fundamental positioning because of the way the pro game has changed, with emphasis on the long jump shot from beyond the three-point line.

Today’s game is dominated by the three-point shot, in the way it spaces out players and opens up the lane for unobstructed drives for layups. The blocked shot or clogged lane is a thing of the past. This season, Mike D’Antoni’s Houston Rockets average 55 three point attempts per game. The lowest per game attempts of threes in the league is 27, by the Indiana Pacers. That represents anywhere from 35 to 60% of all shots coming from beyond the three-point stripe.

As soon as offensive teams throw up those 3s, nobody is crashing the offensive boards, anymore. The three goes up and all five guys head down court to play “defense” in case of the inevitable long rebound a missed 25-footer often produces. They don’t want to give up easy fast break buckets on those long rebounds, which create 2 on 1 breaks.

So, the game has turned into a run and gun, playground-style in which it is not unusual to see an offensive player come down the court ahead of his teammates, shooting a three without anyone around him to rebound a miss. These guys are going 1 on 3 and still shooting it from 25 feet.

Coaches used to be able to reign-in undisciplined players with bench time or, allowing team veterans to pull the kids aside and tell them they are messing with their all-important playoff bonus money. Those days are over, as rookie #1 draft choices are making several million dollars per year, guaranteed for at least three years. Playoff money? That’s used for tips.

To this aging eye, there are too many 19 and 20 year olds who don’t have a fundamental basketball bone in their body. It’s become very difficult to watch if you remember the sport as an exercise in strategy, fundamentals, hard-nosed defense, and driven by great coaches.

Today’s NBA players are the most graceful and powerful athletes on the planet. It’s always been like watching the ballet, except the dancers wear short shorts and bounce a ball. Today, it is, in reality, just a ballet. Less contact, less strategy and structure to the “dance,” and, less defense.

The good news? The better teams in the league play the type of fundamental basketball most of us want to see when the playoffs begin. And the teams that go furthest in the post-season play the best fundamental style of the sport, while leaning on one or two superstars on their roster to rise above everybody else. That part has not changed.

Ivy League Schools Losing Top Athletes Because of Eligibility Rules

By Scott Mandel

When the Ivy League was officially founded in 1954, one of the conference’s guiding principles was that intercollegiate athletics were a pursuit for undergraduates only.

But it’s safe to say those tenets failed to anticipate the NCAA’s graduate transfer rule, which has altered the landscape of college basketball over the past decade. It’s even safer to say the Ivy League of 66 years ago never anticipated a talent like Columbia guard Mike Smith.ADVERTISEMENT

Smith, who leads the Ivy League in scoring with 21 points per game, missed most of what would have been his junior year in 2018-19 with a torn meniscus.

In every other Division I league, Smith would have been granted a medical redshirt, allowing the fifth-year athlete to play a fourth season of basketball as a graduate student at the school where he enrolled as a freshman in 2016.

Those options, however, do not exist in the Ivy League, which neither grants redshirts nor permits graduate students to play athletics. Combine that with the talent of Smith and his importance to Columbia’s roster, and you have a perfect storm of questions — primarily, should this decades-old rule be revisited and revised?

“It’s very strange. It’s different,” said Columbia coach Jim Engles, who has spent most of his season fielding calls from other programs who are openly recruiting Smith because of the player’s guaranteed ineligibility in the Ivy League next season.

“You’re focused on your season and you’ve got guys calling, ‘What’s going on with this kid?’ You’re trying to get your team to focus on the moment and the season. But it’s the way things are now.”

More than a dozen Ivy League basketball players have graduated and transferred to another school since 2015, including several who have played at the high-major level. This spring, however, the trend will hit a new peak. At least seven players — including four who are actively playing this season — will be compelled by Ivy rules to head elsewhere for their final seasons.

Smith joins teammate Jake Killingsworth, Penn’s Ryan Betley and Yale’s Jordan Bruner (who is also expected to pursue professional options) in the group of players who, because of the rule, are actively auditioning for free-agent suitors at this moment. Two others who are sitting out this season because of injury — Harvard’s Seth Towns (the 2018 Ivy Player of the Year) and Dartmouth’s Brendan Barry — will have to leave, too. Another, Columbia’s Patrick Tape, has left the team but will graduate from Columbia and transfer in the spring.

The four Ivy League basketball coaches ESPN spoke with for this story were in favor of examining a rule that seems to show little sympathy for Ivy League players who suffer serious injuries, and little regard for the academic ambitions of the conference’s players. Sure, some Ivy League players might want to transfer and play in the ACC or Big Ten if they have that opportunity, but others might have a desire to finish out their college basketball careers while attending grad school at the only college they’ve known — the same way their peers at Duke, Stanford or Vanderbilt can.Get the best of ESPN sent to your inboxThe ESPN Daily delivers the biggest sports news and moments every weekday.Sign me up!Privacy PolicyRead the Latest

“When someone who clearly values their academics, scheduled to graduate on time or early — they should be able to do what they want,” Brown coach Mike Martin said. “A lot of these guys want to see what it’s like at the highest level. But for someone who wants to stay and play at the school he’s been at for four years, I think [compelling them to leave is] unfortunate.”

Martin has experience with the issue, which arose when former Brown player Rafael Maia was attempting to remain in the program for his final season of eligibility in 2015-16. Maia had been forced by the NCAA to sit out his freshman year at Brown because of a graduation-calendar issue related to his arrival from his native Brazil, but he graduated in four years and had another year of basketball eligibility to use in 2015-16 — just not at Brown. Martin said Maia wanted to stay with the Bears but was forced to leave because of the rule, going on to average 2.0 PPG in 33 games with Pittsburgh in 2015-16.

“I think it’s unfortunate because Maia wanted to stay here, play for us,” Martin said. “He wasn’t looking to go elsewhere until he exhausted every possible situation.”

“I would love it if the kid qualifies for it,” Penn coach Steve Donahue said of the ability to stay for a fifth year in the Ivy, noting Betley would have preferred to stay. “I don’t know why that’s a bad thing. If anything, it would really show the kid’s dedication to both sides of his life. I’d be very much in favor of supporting kids that can get into these grad schools. I think it would really help. It’s the right thing to do for a lot of reasons.”

Coaches like Martin and Donahue have an uphill battle in getting the rule examined, however. First, the change needs to be proposed by a coach or administrator and put into the legislation system. The coaches in the league then vote, with a majority (at least five votes) needed to advance to the next step. It then goes on to a vote among athletic directors before moving to the Policy Committee, a group that includes school vice presidents and deans, faculty and athletic administrators. The final step would be a vote among school presidents, and both the Policy Committee and presidents need to approve the change by a supermajority (six votes).

Despite the bureaucratic red tape, Yale coach James Jones is among those who think it’s fair to ask whether the Ivy should revisit the issue.

“I think that all things are up for review that can help a student-athlete,” said Jones. “If it helps a student-athlete, I think we should look at it and see if it fits for us. It hasn’t been a blip on the radar — it’s more and more prevalent. It may be something our coaches’ group takes a look at. It may be something that gets on the table down the road. It is an issue for a lot of our teams.”

Ivy League executive director Robin Harris said she is unmoved by a call to examine the ethics of the rule, and disputes how it might impact quality of play.

“What’s the problem with it?” she said. “We’re still continuing to thrive as a league. … I think we have to have an issue to fix.

“It’s a philosophical approach that we do what’s right for college athletics and what’s right for student-athletes, as well,” Harris added. “We have other rules that maybe put us at a disadvantage competitively, and yet we continue to have about 100 ranked teams a year, continue to do well in NCAA tournaments, win national championships. … We haven’t really talked about it, because it’s one of the philosophical underpinnings of the league.”

But could it at least be argued that the rule has turned the Ivy League into a developing free-agent market, given the circumstance of players like Smith and Bruner being openly recruited as free agents?

“It’s a testament to what our coaches are doing,” Harris countered. “[The players] are able to transfer and play at some of the bluebloods. … I really think that it showcases the student-athletes.”

The rule does have a silver lining for players confronted with the situation: Because they will not have future Ivy eligibility, players such as Smith and Tape can submit their profiles directly into the transfer portal at any time during the academic year. Smith entered the portal in October and immediately became one of the most sought-after transfers on the market. (Smith declined to be interviewed for this story, with a Columbia spokesman telling ESPN he is not focusing on his recruitment until after the season.) But the fact that he is in the portal means he has likely been on the receiving end of dozens of phone calls from college coaches.

For the people on the other end of those phone calls, it’s an advantage. It’s unusual for a college coach to be able to actively recruit, without tampering, a player currently playing Division I college basketball. Coaches could have watched Smith play high-major competition during nonconference play (Columbia faced Wake Forest, Virginia and St. John’s in November) to get an immediate sense for how his game would translate to a higher level.

Midway through last season, USC coach Andy Enfield thought the Trojans needed backcourt depth and shooting for the 2019-20 season. A name from the transfer portal came up in discussion: Columbia guard Quinton Adlesh. A California native, he was a natural fit. The Trojans’ coaching staff was able to watch film and monitor his development as the season progressed, then they decided to bring him in for an official visit before landing his commitment on April 1, just a few weeks after the season ended.

“It was extremely beneficial to know that a particular player is transferring,” Enfield said. “We were able to evaluate him during the season and get to know him when we were allowed to call. The relationship was already developed, somewhat.”

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Adlesh, who missed most of his freshman season (2015-16) at Columbia with an ankle injury, estimated that 15 or 20 schools reached out to him before he settled on USC and said there was a benefit to making his intentions known early.

“I figured I’d just put it out there, so coaches knew, in case they wanted to target me or had a potential spot they wanted to fill,” Adlesh said. “I didn’t engage in any talks with coaches until the season wrapped up. I wanted to get a sense of who’s available. … I was up front. If I had any contact with a coach, I said I would love to get back in touch when the season wrapped up.”

Could we get to the point where college coaches are conducting campus visits with active Ivy League players in the middle of the season? That has been the case for Tape, who is sitting out this season while finishing up his undergraduate degree at Columbia. He tore a ligament in his toe over the summer and then aggravated the injury before the season began. Tape realized he could probably try to return after a few games, but he preferred to play a full season — even if it wasn’t in the Ivy League. Instead, Tape left the team.

It seems to be working out so far: The 6-foot-10 big man has already toured Syracuse and has visits set up with Maryland, Ohio State and USC.

“I think a lot of Ivy League players are looking to get the best of both worlds,” Tape said.

As players like Smith and Tape ponder their next moves, it will be up to Ivy League coaches to decide whether to push for reform, or risk having their talented rosters be potentially undermined by the rule.

“The league certainly loses a lot of talent from it,” Towns said. “It’s more of an ethical thing for the Ivy League; I’m not really sure how I feel about it. But the league objectively loses talent.”

Astros’ Cheating Won’t be Easily Forgotten by Major Leaguers

By Scott Mandel

Baseball is burning. Opposing players are pummeling the Houston Astros as the fallout from their cheating scandal refuses to dissipate, and fans are frothing for vengeance after the players involved were spared from discipline by the league. Commissioner Rob Manfred is trying to wrap his arms around it all only for the anarchy to keep expanding. Every day is something new. Saturday, it was bad tattoos. Sunday, the commissioner will talk and try to explain how this all unfolded on his watch. Monday, if it came out that the Astros used furtive earpieces or Bluetooth buzzers or a robust artificial-intelligence operation to gain an advantage, it would surprise absolutely nobody.

There is no order. Just pure, distilled chaos.

It’s not going away any time soon. This is a reality every person involved should learn to understand sooner than later. Not because this is some media creation that thirsts for the mother’s milk of controversy and giddily gawks at the overnight transformation of Major League Baseball from the league of Charlie Chaplins into a full-flavored copy of the NBA, where no sacred cows exist. No, this is now about something much more primal: survival.

The tentacles of baseball’s cheating scandal are long and abundant. All of the Astros players, past and present. Their front-office members. Their opponents. Manfred and his associates. The MLB Players Association. Team owners. Fired general manager Jeff Luhnow and manager AJ Hinch. Alex Cora and Carlos Beltran, both of whom lost managing jobs on account of their involvement. It is a wide swath of characters with competing interests and self-preservation in mind, each with a story to tell. Already those involved are trying to game the timing, to ensure that their version does not find itself lost amid the morass of takes.

The prevailing narrative Saturday came from Astros shortstop Carlos Correa, who originally declined comment through a team spokesman and then granted a wild interview to MLB Network in which he told the reigning National League MVP to “shut the f— up,” reiterated that the Astros’ 2017 World Series title was not won through ill-gotten gains and introduced the world to Jose Altuve ‘s unfortunate collarbone tattoo.

A quick backgrounder, since that last sentence sounds like a Mad Lib: Los Angeles Dodgers star Cody Bellinger unloaded on the Astros on Friday, a day after the beginning of their mea culpa tour turned disastrous, by saying Altuve “stole” the American League MVP award from New York Yankees star Aaron Judge in 2017 and that the Astros “stole the ring from us” by beating the Dodgers for the 2017 championship. Bellinger was the latest player to flout the game’s long-held omertà and unload a shotgun into the barrel in which the Astros swim these days. Dragging the Astros is the sport within a sport.

Correa decided to come clean with something that data compiled by an Astros fan named Tony Adams had seemed to show: Altuve did not like when his teammates banged on a trash can adjacent to the dugout to alert him of the coming pitch type. Adams logged more than 8,000 pitches from home games during the 2017 season and heard trash-can bangs on 13.2%. Of the 866 pitches to Altuve, there were bangs on only 24 — 2.8%.

MLB punishes Astros

“For [Bellinger] to go out there and defame Jose Altuve’s name like that — it doesn’t sit right with me,” Correa said. “‘Cause the man plays the game clean.”

Knowing the data, and having been told by another player on the 2017 Astros that Altuve did not engage regularly in the trash-can scheme, I had asked him Thursday to explain why.

“I know your question,” Altuve said. “I really appreciate your question. It’s good. But I want to take this as a team. I think we’re all at the same level right now of feeling the way we’re feeling about doing what we did. I’m not here to say you and you more than you and you. We’re a team. I’m not saying this today. I always say this is a team. And if we are something, we all are something.”

For all of the fallout from that day, particularly after owner Jim Crane’s contraction of foot-in-mouth disease, Altuve’s answer stood out as not just sincere but commendable — the sort of thing other players in baseball in different circumstances would respect and the rare instance, in this whole scandal, of someone not obviously acting in his own self-interest. Altuve could have absolved himself. He could have gone full Shaggy. He instead subjected himself to the fusillade of condemnation that would come.

Because it’s true: He didn’t stop it. No one did. And that’s a question the players lobbing grenades at the Astros ought to ask themselves, too. If they truly plumb the depths of their self-awareness, how many believe they would not simply be conscientious objectors as the data suggests Altuve was but entirely blow up a scheme being used by a team barreling toward 101 wins?

Social media vs. MLB

How the internet helped crack the Astros’ sign-stealing case.

What the Astros did was clearly cheating, clearly wrong, clearly a black mark on their championship. It is also naïve to think less hubristic versions of sign-stealing weren’t going on elsewhere and that had those been accelerated the players would have put a stop to them.

The defiance emanating from the Astros’ clubhouse, even after their apologies, is coated in this let-he-who-is-without-sin-cast-stones mentality. Correa besmirched Bellinger for suggesting Houston was cheating for the last three years, saying it occurred only in 2017. Ken Rosenthal immediately corrected him, saying Manfred’s report said the Astros had stolen signs in 2018, too. Correa danced around this, landing ultimately on a judgment of Bellinger daring to vilify Altuve and the Astros: “With me, that doesn’t sit right.”

The problem, of course, is that the moment the Astros decided to start banging on trash cans, they forfeited any sort of moral authority that allows them to differentiate between right and wrong. They might as well have KICK ME stitched across the backs of their jerseys instead of their last names, and it’s because of their collective action. So as satisfying as it feels to try and speak into existence this notion that their championship isn’t irreparably tainted, to drop F-bombs on the haters, to stand up for Altuve like Altuve stood up for him and the rest of the Astros who did think enough of the trash-can scheme to use it for months, it runs the risk of sounding like Charlie Brown’s teacher.

Correa’s defense stretched past aggrieved and into comedic during his denial that the Astros had used wearable buzzers during the 2019 season to signal the coming pitch. Bellinger and Yankees catcher Gary Sanchez had questioned why, after Altuve hit a walk-off home run to send the Astros to the World Series this year, he did not want his jersey ripped off. First, Correa said, Altuve’s wife had expressed discomfort with it when he and Kemp unclothed Altuve earlier in the season.

“The second reason that he don’t want me to talk about this, but I’m gonna say it, is because he’s got an unfinished tattoo on his collarbone, right here, that, honestly, looked terrible,” Correa said. “It was a bad tattoo. And he didn’t want nobody to see it. He didn’t want to show it at all.”

A bad tattoo. Welcome to baseball in 2020.

There’s more to come. There’s always more with this Astros story that drips out with all the efficiency of a broken faucet. The coming days, weeks, months will teem with more details, explanations, facts. Manfred’s report looks more and more like a Polaroid that needs to be shaken. The manifold characters all have their versions of the story to tell. There are reputations to be salvaged, careers to be saved, sides to be taken. This is the just the beginning.

It’s never too early to start or join a fantasy baseball league for the 2020 season.

The next step is Manfred addressing the media Sunday in North Port, Fla. As commissioner, the sport’s well-being ultimately falls on him. And while the ultimate fallout of the scandal is unclear — is it, in a perverse way, actually driving interest to baseball, or does the stench of misconduct have the opposite effect? — he must answer for his role in it reaching this point, where a new fire smolders every day.

And rest assured, potential arson abounds. What will Beltran, slimed and smeared, say when he speaks out? How will MLB, if at all, punish the Boston Red Sox, whom they’re investigating for stealing signs in 2018? What will the punishment for Cora, who is expected to be suspended, be? How can the MLBPA preach solidarity when its members attack one another on the daily? Will others join former MLB pitcher Mike Bolsinger and a daily fantasy player in filing lawsuits against the Astros and the league? Who will speak out next? What will he say?

In a week, spring-training games begin. The Astros will play the Washington Nationals, who beat them in the 2019 World Series. Across the sport, eyes will be trained on the game to see if Nationals pitchers intentionally throw at Astros hitters. Houston manager Dusty Baker tried to preempt any retaliation Saturday, asking MLB to do all it can to prevent premeditated beanings. It only served to draw the ire of those who see the inevitability of what is to come: a pitcher who dots an Astros hitter with a fastball to send a message that what they did is indefensible will receive a longer suspension than any of the Astros did for their indefensible acts.

Yes, baseball is burning, and nobody — not the Astros, not Manfred, not the rest of the players — can stop it. Only time will slow it, and until then, as baseball’s cheating scandal metastasizes, as it dirties all it touches, remember that what caused it in the first place will guide its direction going forward: the choices of individuals looking out for themselves.

Major League Baseball Pondering Changes in Postseason Format

By Scott Mandel

Major League Baseball is mulling significant changes to its postseason, including increasing the number of teams from 10 to 14 and adding a reality-TV-type format to determine which teams play each other in an expanded wild-card round, sources told ESPN.

MLB is considering a move in which each league would have three division winners and four wild-card teams make the postseason, sources said. The best team in the league would receive a bye into the division series, while the two remaining division winners and the wild-card team with the best record of the four would each host all games of a best-of-three series of the opening round.

The potential changes were first reported by the New York Post.

Once the teams clinch, and the regular season ends, the plan gets congested:

  • The division winner with the second-best record would select its wild-card opponent from the three wild-card winners with the worst records of the four.
  • The team with the worst record of the three division winners would pick its opponent from the remaining two wild-card teams.
  • The final matchup would pit the wild-card winner with the best record against the wild-card team not chosen.

All of the selections, sources said, would be unveiled live on television the Sunday night of the final regular-season games.

The winners of the wild-card series would advance to the divisional round. Currently, two teams from each league play a winner-take-all wild-card game, and the winner faces the team with the league’s best record.

The appeal of the changes, according to the Post, is twofold. It potentially would increase fan interest, and could benefit MLB via richer television rights package.

Deals with ESPN and Turner both expire after the 2021 season.

Bobby Knight, Hall of Fame Coach at Indiana, Returns to Campus First Time in 20 Years to Hero’s Welcome

By Associated Press

Bob Knight cherished the short stroll from the practice gym to Assembly Hall.

It ended his 20-year journey back to Hoosiers basketball.

Surrounded by dozens of former players and thousands of Indiana fans chanting “Bob-by, Bob-by,” the 79-year-old Knight finally returned to his home court Saturday to a rousing welcome.

“We love you, Bobby,” one fan shouted from the crowd.

Hoosiers fans spent years waiting and hoping they could give the once combustible coach the proper reward for everything he did in 29 seasons in Bloomington — three NCAA championships, a school-record 662 victories, 11 Big Ten titles and five Final Four appearances.

But the firing on Sept. 10, 2000 created a bitter split between Knight and the university. He declined opportunity after opportunity to reunite when his championship teams were honored. He even declined to come back for his induction into the school’s athletic Hall of Fame in 2009 because he didn’t want to detract from the other class members.

And then, suddenly, it was all over.

For the first time in 20 years, Bob Knight returned to Assembly Hall where he was honored with his 1980 Big Ten championship team.

With the Hoosiers playing their biggest rival, Purdue, with longtime friend and rival Gene Keady in the arena and his 1980 Big Ten championship team being honored, Knight put aside his grudge and walked to midcourt with his son, Pat, and former players Quinn Buckner and Scott May.

“Thank you coach, thank you coach,” the fans chanted as Knight waved to the crowd and pretended to run practice drills.

He led the crowd in a chant of “de-fense” and when his former players gathered round, he hugged some of them. Among them was Hall of Famer Isiah Thomas, who led the Hoosiers to the 1981 national title. He even playfully messed around with television announcer Dick Vitale.

No, he wasn’t dressed in his trademark red sweater. Instead, he wore a red Indiana basketball warmup jacket.

And he wasn’t as loud or fiery as he was all those years ago. He needed help as he shuffled back to the court and he had to stop a couple of times on his way. He seemed to enjoy the moment every bit as much as those inside Assembly Hall.

It took years to mend the relationship.

Athletic director Fred Glass stayed in touch with Knight, hoping one day the icy relationship would thaw. Then last spring, Knight surprised everyone by showing up for an Indiana baseball game.

He also moved back to Bloomington last year and there was speculation for weeks he might soon return to Assembly Hall.

Knight made public appearances around the city and state, making speeches, signing autographs and attending games and practices.

Some thought he would come back to watch his alma mater, Ohio State, when the Buckeyes visited Assembly Hall on Jan. 11. Instead, he went to Marian, an NAIA school in Indianapolis, where one of his former players, Steve Downing, is the athletic director.

Knight hadn’t been back to Assembly Hall since he was fired after a student accused Knight of grabbing him in the hallway of Assembly Hall. The university had initiated a zero-tolerance policy for Knight earlier that year following an investigation that he choked a former player, the late Neil Reed.

Knight finished his career at Texas Tech, retiring in 2008 with a then-record 902 victories.

Who Are the Players of the Year in Every NCAA D-1 Conference?

From espn services

you think the race for the 2020 Wooden Award is a toss-up, wait until you see the competition for conference Player of the Year honors in each league.

It’s early February, so all of this could change, but we made an attempt to handicap the Player of the Year races in all 32 Division I conferences.

Here’s the criteria we tried to emphasize:

  • With at least a month of data to evaluate in most cases, we thought emphasizing individual impact in league play made sense.
  • In most cases, good players on good teams are the top candidates for these awards. So please save the tweets about our exclusion of the volume shooter from the bottom-feeder in your favorite conference.
  • In most cases, there were more than two top candidates for the award. But we picked two because … that’s what we decided to do.
  • Some leagues lack an obvious front-runner and top contender, but we did our best. Sorry, SEC. Things are weird right now. (And yes, we think Kansas has the top two candidates for Big 12 Player of the Year. Deal with it.)

Without further ado:

American Athletic Conference

Front-runner: Jarron CumberlandCincinnati Bearcats

Cincinnati’s veteran has averaged 20.0 PPG during his team’s current four-game win streak. He has also made 44 percent of his 3-point attempts, hit 52 percent of his shots inside the arc and anchored the No. 2 defense in the American.

Top competition: Precious AchiuwaMemphis Tigers

Memphis has gone from top-10 program to potentially sliding off the bubble and missing the NCAA tournament. But the only reason the Tigers — who benefited from the contributions of projected lottery pick James Wiseman for just three games — remain in contention for a postseason slot is because Achiuwa (16.1 PPG, 10.0 RPG, 2.3 BPG in AAC play) has been a dominant athlete.


Atlantic Coast Conference

Front-runner: Vernon Carey Jr.Duke Blue Devils

At one point in Duke’s 97-88 win at Syracuse on Saturday night, Jim Boeheim smirked at Mike Krzyzewski after Carey finished an easy bucket, as if to say, “How the hell are we supposed to stop this?” Carey’s performance (26 points and 17 rebounds) extended the streak of dominance we’ve witnessed all year from the freshman (Duke has averaged 109 points per 100 possessions with Carey on the floor this season, according to hooplens.com).

Top competition: Jordan NworaLouisville Cardinals

The Louisville standout certainly has a strong case for ACC top honors after making 49 percent of his 3-point attempts and 85 percent of his free throw attempts in league play. But he’s a step behind Carey based on his inconsistency since the start of league play (3-for-12 in a Jan. 18 win at Duke; 3-for-13 in Saturday’s win over NC State; 3-for-11 in a Jan. 22 win over Georgia Tech), even though Nwora has the slight edge with 18.5 PPG versus Carey’s 16.2 PPG in ACC action.Get the best of ESPN sent to your inboxThe ESPN Daily delivers the biggest sports news and moments every weekday.Sign me up!Privacy PolicyRead the Latest


America East Conference

Front-runner: Anthony LambVermont Catamounts

The reigning America East Player of the Year isn’t competing with the same efficiency he enjoyed a year ago. But he has made 45 percent of his 3-point attempts in league play and 87 percent of his free throw attempts while also averaging 17.3 PPG for a Vermont team that entered the week atop the league at 7-1.

Top competition: Elijah OlaniyiStony Brook Seawolves

Stony Brook’s star led the program to a 6-2 start in league play by averaging 19.6 PPG and connecting on 55 percent of his shots inside the arc. He has earned three America East player of the week honors.


Atlantic 10 Conference

Front-runner: Obi ToppinDayton Flyers

Toppin, a projected first-round pick in the NBA draft who commands the most efficient offense in America, is not only the favorite in this Player of the Year race, he might be the front-runner in the Wooden Award chase, too. He has put together eye-popping numbers for a Dayton team that’s undefeated in the Atlantic 10, but his 71 percent clip inside the 3-point line in A-10 play, along with 19.7 PPG and 8.0 RPG, top the list.

Top competition: Fatts RussellRhode Island Rams

He has steered Rhode Island’s eight-game winning streak (its last loss was Jan. 5). Russell entered the week averaging 20.0 PPG, an assist every five possessions and a 42 percent success rate from the 3-point line in A-10 action.


Atlantic Sun Conference

Front-runner: Garrett SamsNorth Florida Ospreys

In the nonconference season, Sams scored 20 points in North Florida’s loss to Florida State. The 6-foot-7 wing has put together impressive efforts (17.3 PPG, 53 percent clip from beyond the arc) comparable to that outing against Leonard Hamilton’s program for a North Florida team that boasts the best offense in the league and shares a slice of the top spot in the standings.

Top competition: Rob PerryStetson Hatters

Stetson’s 6-3 star is a talented guard who is listed as a “very good” offensive player in half-court sets and defensive player in man-to-man schemes, per Synergy Sports data. His 17.2 PPG and 47 percent clip from beyond the arc have helped Stetson remain in the hunt for the conference crown.


Big East Conference

Front-runner: Markus HowardMarquette Golden Eagles

The Marquette star is somewhat a victim of his own success from a year ago. He hasn’t enjoyed the same national buzz, yet he’s averaging 29.7 PPG in Big East play, although his 33 percent clip from the 3-point line is a drop from his 2018-19 numbers.

Top competition: Myles PowellSeton Hall Pirates

His 3-for-14 outing in his team’s 74-62 home loss to Xavier on Saturday was a surprising and rare stumble for a stellar competitor and national Player of the Year contender. He has scored 23 points or more in six of his nine Big East games and registered a top-10 steals percentage in league play.


Big Sky Conference

Front-runner: Jonah RadebaughNorthern Colorado Bears

The league leader in assists (7.1 APG) is also averaging 16.2 PPG. The 6-3 guard has made 39 percent of his 3-pointers in Big Sky play while leading a Northern Colorado squad that’s 7-2 since New Year’s Day.

Top competition: Sayeed PridgettMontana Grizzlies

Montana’s star is top 10 in the Big Sky in scoring (18.9 PPG), rebounding (6.7 RPG), field goal percentage (45.3) and assists (4.0 APG). The 6-5 combo forward has also made 71 percent of his free throws.


Big South Conference

Front-runner: Phlandrous Fleming Jr.Charleston Southern Buccaneers

The 6-4 standout has recorded 10 games with 20 points or more since Dec. 21. Fleming’s Big South stat line — 22.1 PPG, 9.0 RPG, 4.8 APG, 1.2 BPG — is nothing short of impressive.

Top competition: Ben StanleyHampton Pirates

Hampton’s star is an efficient performer who is ranked fifth in Ken Pomeroy’s conference Player of the Year rankings in the Big South. Stanley deserves that nod after averaging 23.9 PPG (55 percent clip overall), 8.0 RPG and 2.6 BPG through his first eight games in Big South games.


Big 12 Conference

Front-runner: Devon DotsonKansas Jayhawks

The dynamic Kansas guard entered the weekend as the Big 12’s leader in scoring (16.6 PPG) and steals (2.1 SPG), just part of the case for a sophomore guard who has played with poise in some of the biggest moments in college basketball this season. Then he finished with 21 points (9-for-16) in 40 minutes in KU’s 78-75 win over Texas Tech on Saturday.

Top competition: Udoka Azubuike, Kansas Jayhawks

No disrespect to Freddie GillespieJared ButlerJahmi’us Ramsey or the other standouts in the league, but Dotson’s teammate is clearly his greatest threat in the Big 12 player of the year race. With the league leader in rebounding (10.1 RPG) and blocks (3.4 BPG) on the floor, opposing Big 12 teams have made fewer than 40 percent of their shots inside the arc, according to hooplen


Big Ten Conference

Front-runner: Luka GarzaIowa Hawkeyes

Iowa’s big man might be the favorite to win the Wooden Award right now after anchoring his team’s 7-4 start in the Big Ten and extending his campaign for postseason accolades with averages of 26.5 PPG and 10.5 PPG through his first 11 Big Ten games. He has made 55 percent of his attempts in post-up situations, according to Synergy Sports data.

Top competition: Cassius WinstonMichigan State Spartans

Michigan State’s veteran leader (19.6 PPG in league play) is carrying the Spartans, who entered the week tied with Illinois for first place in the conference. With Winston on the floor, Michigan State is a different team in league play: 38.1 percent from the 3-point line versus 31.3 percent with Winston on the bench; 0.83 PPP allowed versus 1.06 PPP allowed with Winston on the bench.

1:54

Winston records career high in win vs. Michigan

Cassius Winston scores a career-high 32 points on 11-of-19 shooting as he leads the Spartans to an 87-69 win over the Wolverines.


Big West Conference

Front-runner: Lamine DianeCal State Northridge

CSUN’s star has made more than 50 percent of his shots inside the arc for a program that leads the conference with a 40.4 percent mark from beyond the arc. He’s also the conference leader in scoring (26.0 PPG) and rebounding (9.5 RPG) to go along with 1.5 BPG and 1.6 SPG.

Top competition: Collin WelpUC Irvine Anteaters

The UC Irvine standout is a rare 6-9 athlete who has been a threat everywhere on the floor in Big West play. Welp (13.1 PPG, 6.3 RPG) is 18-for-20 from the free throw line while also committing turnovers on just 9.5 percent of his possessions.


Colonial Athletic Association

Front-runner: Grant RillerCharleston Cougars

With his strong performances, the Charleston star continues to support the idea that he has a future at the next level. He’s averaging 23.6 PPG and a ridiculous 49 percent clip from the 3-point line in CAA play, while also adding 4.5 APG.

Top competition: Nathan KnightWilliam & Mary Tribe

Opposing teams can’t use the Hack-a-Shaq strategy against William & Mary’s 6-10 star, who has made 57 percent of his shots inside the arc and 89 percent of his free throw attempts. He’s also averaging 20.8 PPG and 11.5 RPG.


Conference USA

Front-runner: Jhivvan JacksonUTSA Roadrunners

The UTSA star has won three of C-USA’s player of the week awards while averaging 26.4 PPG and 39 percent of his 3-point attempts in league play. His team’s 4-6 start in C-USA action could hurt his cause, but his numbers are definitively accolade-worthy.

Top competition: Bryson WilliamsUTEP Miners

Another star for a sub-.500 team in league play. Williams’ numbers (19.2 PPG, 8.0 RPG, 1.1 BPG, 56 percent clip inside the arc) are solid and he’s ranked second behind Jackson in KenPom’s C-USA Player of the Year rankings.


Horizon League

Front-runner: Antoine DavisDetroit Mercy Titans

Davis, the son of Detroit head coach Mike Davis, entered the week ranked third in the country in scoring (23.4 PPG) and is trying to pull his team to the top half of the league standings. He’s also averaging 1.6 SPG and connecting on 90 percent of his free throw attempts.

Top competition: Loudon LoveWright State Raiders

The 6-8 forward has fueled Wright State’s ascent to the top of the Horizon League’s standings after averaging 15.5 PPG, 10.1 RPG and 1.4 BPG (2.0 BPG in Horizon League play). He also leads the league in offensive rebounding percentage.


Ivy League

Front-runner: Paul AtkinsonYale Bulldogs

Yale is off to an undefeated start in league play and a top-50 spot in the NCAA’s NET rankings with Atkinson leading the way. The conference’s No. 1 scorer (18.5 PPG) is also averaging 10.0 RPG and connecting on 62 percent of his field goal attempts in league play.

Top competition: Mike SmithColumbia Lions

Columbia’s standout guard is not only making an impact on offense (17.5 PPG, an Ivy League-high of 5.5 APG), but also on defense, where he leads the conference with 2.8 SPG. In conference play, opposing teams have made just 32 percent of their 3-point attempts with Smith on the floor for Columbia.


MAAC

Front-runner: Rich KellyQuinnipiac Bobcats

Quinnipiac’s lead guard has made 39 percent of his 3-pointers for a team that has taken a higher percentage of its shots from beyond the arc (50.4) than any team in America not named North Florida. He has also made a wild 96 percent of his free throw attempts in MAAC play, while averaging 17.1 PPG amid a 6-4 start in the league.

Top competition: Jalen PickettSiena Saints

The Siena sophomore is listed as an “excellent” performer in half-court sets with a 45.2 percent clip in those situations, per Synergy Sports data. He’s also averaging 6.2 APG in league play.


MAC

Front-runner: Loren Cristian JacksonAkron Zips

Akron’s top player is the maestro of a team that’s ranked in the top 40 in adjusted offensive efficiency, per KenPom. He has averaged 23.5 PPG and 4.9 APG, while also connecting on 59 percent of his 58 attempts from beyond the arc in MAC play.

Top competition: Tahjai TeagueBall State Cardinals

The Ball State standout is averaging 15.4 PPG, 9.0 RPG and 1.6 BPG. The success runs in the family for the 6-8 forward who is the cousin of NBA guard Jeff Teague (Atlanta Hawks) and former Kentucky star Marquis Teague, who won a title with Anthony Davis and the Wildcats in 2012.


MEAC

Front-runner: Jibri BlountNorth Carolina Central Eagles

Last week, Blount — the son of Pro Football Hall of Famer Mel Blount — collected his fourth MEAC player of the week award. The 6-7 forward, who says he might make a run at a football career after basketball, led the conference with a 26.8 PPG average in league play entering the week.

Top competition: Ronald JacksonNorth Carolina A&T Aggies

The 6-7 center has recorded six double-doubles in MEAC games. His averages of 17.2 PPG and 12.2 RPG are unrivaled in league play for North Carolina A&T, which entered the week atop the MEAC standings.


Missouri Valley Conference

Front-runner: AJ GreenNorthern Iowa Panthers

As the catalyst of the top offense in the Missouri Valley Conference, Northern Iowa’s star has led the league in scoring (22.7 PPG) and connected on 49 percent of his 3-point attempts. Northern Iowa has made 54.4 percent of its shots inside the arc with the 6-4 guard on the floor.

Top competition: Cameron KrutwigLoyola Chicago Ramblers

Two years ago, the Loyola Chicago star was a freshman who helped the program reach the Final Four. This season, he’s one of the best players in the Missouri Valley Conference, proven by marks of 14.2 PPG, 8.6 RPG and 1.7 SPG in league play.


Mountain West Conference

Front-runner: Malachi FlynnSan Diego State Aztecs

San Diego State, the last undefeated team in college basketball at 23-0, is led by the Wooden Award candidate who has 21 assists and two turnovers in his team’s past four games. He has made 48.2 percent of his shots as a pick-and-roll ball handler, per Synergy Sports data.

Top competition: Sam MerrillUtah State Aggies

At this pace, the reigning Mountain West Conference Player of the Year will have a strong case to repeat. He’s averaging 18.1 PPG and 3.8 APG for a Utah State squad that has won three of its past four.


Northeast Conference

Front-runner: Isaiah BlackmonSt. Francis (PA) Red Flash

With Blackmon (21.6 PPG in NEC games, the top mark in the league) on the floor this season, St. Francis has connected on 51.1 percent of its shots inside the arc and 37.4 percent of its 3-pointers, according to hooplens.com. Blackmon has made 46 percent of his 3-point attempts in league play and he boasts the NEC’s top offensive rating, per KenPom.

Top competition: Raiquan ClarkLong Island Sharks

The Northeast Conference leader in minutes per game (38.5) is also second in scoring through the first stages of the conference season at 20.7 PPG. Long Island’s forward has also made 57 percent of his shots inside the arc and averaged 23.6 PPG over his past three outings.


Ohio Valley Conference

Front-runner: Terry TaylorAustin Peay Governors

The 6-5 forward is averaging 20.9 PPG and 10.8 RPG while connecting on 80 percent of his free throw attempts for an Austin Peay squad that has won its first 10 games in the OVC. Per OVC media relations, he’s one of six active Division I players who’ve registered at least 1,700 career points and 800 career rebounds.

Top competition: Tevin BrownMurray State Racers

A year ago, the Murray State star was Ja Morant‘s sidekick and he scored 19 points in the program’s 83-64 victory over Marquette in the first round of the NCAA tournament. This year, Brown has emerged as a leader for the undefeated Racers (10-0 in OVC play) by averaging 20.9 PPG in MVC games.


Pac-12 Conference

Front-runner: Payton PritchardOregon Ducks

If anyone has sealed a conference Player of the Year award after the first month of his league’s slate, it’s Pritchard, who has made 40 percent of his 3-point attempts. He has also averaged one assist for every three possessions and made 86 percent of his free throw attempts for an Oregon team that entered the week in first place at 7-3.

Top competition: Oscar da SilvaStanford Cardinal

In Stanford’s 70-60 win over Oregon on Saturday, the Cardinal star collected 27 points, 15 rebounds and three assists, enhancing his shot at securing multiple postseason accolades for a program that’s chasing its first NCAA tournament berth since 2014. The 6-9 junior has made 67 percent of his shots inside the arc since the start of Pac-12 play.


Patriot League

Front-runner: Tommy FunkArmy Black Knights

The player with the best name in the Patriot League is also one of its top players, signaled by the 22.1 PPG average he has amassed during Army’s current six-game winning streak. He’s also the Patriot League leader in assists (7.2 APG).

Top competition: Max MahoneyBoston University Terriers

Mahoney is the ace for a Boston University squad that has made 53.8 percent of its shots inside the arc, a top-30 mark nationally. In the Patriot League, he’s top 10 in scoring (15.4 PPG), rebounding (8.1 RPG), assists (3.7 APG), field goal percentage (64 percent) and steals (1.4 SPG).


SEC

Front-runner: Anthony EdwardsGeorgia Bulldogs

Yes, Georgia has been one of the worst teams in the SEC, which goes against the norm for creating candidates for postseason accolades, but the conference doesn’t exactly have its typical amount of elite players. That should elevate the candidacy of Edwards, a projected top-five pick in June’s NBA draft. He’s averaging 20.8 PPG in league play, which includes a 19.0 PPG clip in three losses to Kentucky (two games) and Auburn.

0:26

Edwards throws down big windmill jam

Anthony Edwards steals and breaks away to throw down a thunderous windmill dunk.

Top competition: Mason JonesArkansas Razorbacks

He has averaged 25.7 PPG in the Razorbacks’ last four contests. He has also recorded assists on more than one-quarter of his team’s possessions, which is why it’s about time folks start talking about Jones, the reigning SEC Player of the Week, as an SEC Player of the Year candidate.


Southern Conference

Front-runner: Isaiah MillerUNC Greensboro Spartans

The UNC Greensboro star made noise in November when he registered 19 points in 24 minutes in a 74-62 loss at Kansas. He has averaged 22.4 PPG and 3.7 SPG, both top marks in the SoCon.

Top competition: Mason FaulknerWestern Carolina Catamounts

The Western Carolina junior has scored 18 points or more in seven SoCon games. The Northern Kentucky transfer also is averaging 18.9 PPG and 6.0 APG, the top mark in the conference.


Southland Conference

Front-runner: Kevon HarrisStephen F. Austin Lumberjacks

In an upset win at Duke, Harris finished with 26 points and four assists. He has taken that momentum into the Southland, where he’s averaging 18.5 PPG and connecting on 45 percent of his 3-point attempts.

Top competition: Sha’markus KennedyMcNeese State Cowboys

McNeese State has surged into contention in the Southland with Kennedy as its leader. The 6-8 forward is averaging 18.6 PPG and 11.3 RPG in conference play, while connecting on 69 percent of his attempts inside the arc.


Summit League

Front-runner: Tyler HagedornSouth Dakota Coyotes

The 6-10 force is set to replace Mike Daum, the former South Dakota State star who won three Summit League player of the year awards, as the biggest star in the conference. Hagedorn is the nation’s best 3-point shooter (57 percent on 101 attempts) and one of its top free throw shooters (91 percent), and he’s averaging 19.4 PPG for a team chasing a Summit League title.

Top competition: Douglas WilsonSouth Dakota State Jackrabbits

The best player for the top team in the Summit League has connected on 61 percent of his field goal attempts while averaging 19.1 PPG in conference play. South Dakota State’s standout has added 1.2 BPG for the conference’s No. 2 defense.


Sun Belt Conference

Front-runner: Nijal PearsonTexas State Bobcats

After an 0-3 start in league play, Texas State has won seven of nine. Pearson (20.0 PPG, 38 percent from the 3-point line, 84 percent from the free throw line) has carried this team to the top tier of Sun Belt Conference.

Top competition: Markquis NowellLittle Rock Trojans

He’s No. 1 in assists (5.6 APG) in league play as Little Rock continues to separate from the pack in the Sun Belt Conference race (it entered the week 11-2 in league play). He has also made 41 percent of his 3-point attempts since the start of conference action.


SWAC

Front-runner: Maurice HowardAlcorn State Braves

The Alcorn State standout is averaging 15.9 PPG and 4.6 APG, the top mark in the SWAC. Per Synergy Sports data, he has also been an “excellent” defender whose opponents have made just 30.8 percent of their shot attempts in isolation situations.

Top competition: Roland GriffinJackson State Tigers

Jackson State’s top performer finished with 16 points and seven rebounds in a loss to Baylor in December. The 6-6 forward has averaged 15.8 PPG and 7.3 RPG in SWAC play.


WAC

Front-runner: Terrell BrownSeattle Redhawks

Seattle University’s top player leads the WAC in scoring at 18.1 PPG. In league play, opponents have registered a subpar 93 points per 100 possessions with Brown on the floor.

Top competition: Jabari RiceNew Mexico State Aggies

With teammate Trevelin Queen set to miss up to six weeks with a knee injury, the standout guard has helped his team preserve its unblemished record (8-0) in league play. Rice (46 percent from the 3-point line in league play) has averaged 19.0 PPG over the last two contests.


West Coast Conference

Front-runner: Filip PetrusevGonzaga Bulldogs

With Petrusev acting as one of the most efficient players in the country, Gonzaga has defeated WCC opponents by an average of 23.6 points per game. He’s averaging 16.9 PPG and 7.6 RPG while finishing 68 percent of his shots at the rim, per hoop-math.com.

Top competition: Jordan FordSaint Mary’s Gaels

The spark for a team that’s ranked top 10 in adjusted offensive efficiency, Ford is leading the West Coast Conference with a 21.2 PPG average. He has also made 42 percent of his 3-point attempts in WCC play.

Football Giants New Coach Joe Judge Fills out His Coaching Staff

By Scott Mandel

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. – Fifty years ago, when Joe Namath and the New York Jets won Super Bowl III, the championship coaching staff consisted of Weeb Ewbank, Walt Michaels, Clive Rush, and Buddy Ryan.

Four coaches. That was it.

Today, the league-worst New York Giants, under their fourth head coach in the past four years, Joe Judge, announced the composition of the team’s 2020 coaching staff. There will be a few more coaches on this staff than the Jets Super Bowl four.

How about 20 coaches on one team? That’s a ratio of about 2.5:1. two and a half players for every coach. That’s a better ratio than a Manhattan private school offers.

Judge’s 20-member staff is comprised of nine coaches who arrived from other NFL teams, including two who were head coaches last season; five who spent the 2019 season coaching collegiate football; and six who were with the Giants last year.

The first-year head coach revealed his three coordinators on January 17. On offense, it is Jason Garrett, 53, who is very familiar with the NFC East after coaching the Dallas Cowboys from 2010-19. The defensive coordinator is Patrick Graham, 41, who held the same position with the Miami Dolphins last season. Graham will also serve as assistant head coach. Thomas McGaughey, 46, returns for his third season as special teams coordinator. He was previously a coordinator for three other teams and was the Giants’ assistant special teams coach from 2007-10.

Freddie Kitchens, who was the head coach last season of the Cleveland Browns and Odell Beckham, Jr., was also brought in to coach the tight ends after just one year at the helm in Cleveland.

Kitchens, 45, spent the last two years in Cleveland, the first as running backs coach/associate head coach for the first eight games and offensive coordinator for the final eight before his season as head coach. He previously coached in Dallas (tight ends, 2006) and Arizona (tight ends, 2007-12; quarterbacks, 2013-16; and running backs in 2017).

“I think any position on offense is good for Freddie,” Judge said. “He’s got a lot of experience at different positions. He’s been head coach, he’s been a coordinator, he’s been a position coach. He sees it through a lot of different perspectives. What I love about Freddie is he brings an element of toughness and discipline to his room. He brings outside the box thinking a lot of times to how he approaches the game from a game plan perspective. I think he’ll be an asset to working with our offensive coaches and developing the game plan throughout the week. But ultimately, I’ve worked with Freddie, I’ve played for Freddie, and I’ve called against Freddie, and I understand what his players are about.” 

Marc Colombo, who played offensive line for the Dallas Cowboys, will be the offensive line coach under Garrett. whom he had worked with in Dallas since 2015.


Asked about the expertise Garrett and Kitchens bring as former NFL head coaches, Judge said, “Everybody brings a different type of experience to the job. I didn’t set out to hire anyone with former head coaching experience. That ended up being a plus of what different guys brought to their area.”


“The first thing I was prioritizing was good coaches who had a deep concern for the players that they were going to coach,” Judge said. “It has to start with the relationship from the coach to the player and understanding that we’re working together. Next thing I was prioritizing was good teachers. We had to find guys who can paint that mental picture for a player and find a way to tap into how they learn and get the most out of them. To me, it’s a big trust factor with the guys I have on the staff. I have a personal relationship with a lot of these guys, professional relationships with nearly all of them. Guys who I have not worked with directly, I’ve competed against, I’ve known for some time. I’ve more than done my research on everybody on this staff, including the guys I’ve worked with. No stone has been unturned. I’m very excited about the group we have in here. I know they’re going to bring a lot to this organization. I know they’re going to be a great asset to the players they’re going to coach.” 

Mets Introduce New Manager, Luis Rojas After Beltran Fiasco

By Scott Mandel

The New York Mets today introduced their second manager of this off-season, Luis Rojas, at an afternoon press conference at Citi Field.

Rojas, the 38-year old son of former major league great, Felipe Alou, has been a member of the Mets organization since 2006, when the Mets signed him to a players’ contract in his native country, the Dominican Republic.

After 13 years in the organization, mostly working in the minor leagues, Luis Rojas realized a dream Friday, when he became the 23rd manager in Mets history — amid unusual circumstances.

“I feel like the most lucky person in the world right now as the manager of the New York Mets,” Rojas said at Citi Field, where the team announced a managerial hiring for the second time this offseason.

Rojas received a two-year contract to replace Carlos Beltran, who departed after only 77 days on the job in the fallout from the Astros’ illegal sign-stealing scheme in 2017. Beltran, a player for that Houston team, was named in an MLB report that outlined the Astros’ use of electronic surveillance to steal catchers’ signs.

Rojas served as the Mets’ quality control coach last season and received multiple interviews for the managerial position following Mickey Callaway’s firing in October. That search yielded Beltran and also included names such as Eduardo Perez, Derek Shelton and Tim Bogar as candidates.

“I felt prepared then and I feel prepared now and I feel pretty good with what we have,” Rojas said. “We have a good team and we have a great staff. The staff is going to help me and we have already collaborated and we’re looking forward to break ground in spring training.

“I will lead this team into success.”

Rojas, whose father, Felipe Alou, managed the Expos and Giants and whose brother, Moises Alou, was an All-Star outfielder, was joined at the news conference by his wife Laura and son Louie, in addition to his mother and two of his brothers. Neither Felipe Alou nor Moises Alou was present.

In introducing the new manager, Mets general manager Brodie Van Wagenen focused on Rojas’ consistency as a person and professional.

“Last Thursday was a tough day,” Van Wagenen said, referring to the announcement Beltran had parted ways with the Mets. “We had a number of difficult days leading into Thursday’s decision and ultimately the parting of the ways with Carlos, but this is a very good feeling today and we’re excited about that. It’s an unfortunate circumstance for baseball, but today is a good opportunity and it’s an exciting time for the Mets as we continue to charge forward.”

Though managing experience wasn’t a prerequisite when Beltran got hired, Van Wagenen pointed to Rojas’ eight seasons as manager in the minor leagues at various levels for the Mets as a positive.

“In-game decision-making is an important part of the job and when you assess people’s strengths and weaknesses, no two candidates are the same,” Van Wagenen said. “And Carlos had different traits than what Luis has, but in [Rojas’] experience and actually calling the shots and running the game and running the base running, controlling the offense and having to make decisions about which pitchers get warmed up and which pitchers come into the game, I think all of those assets will be evident for us this year.”

Rojas takes over a team expected to compete for the NL East title, led by a potentially dominant starting rotation and last season’s major league home run leader, Pete Alonso. Rojas indicated he already has spoken with Jeff McNeil, Steven Matz and Noah Syndergaard, among others.

“It’s according to the team that you have,” Rojas said. “You have a team that can run, you run. You have a team that plays that way, you play that way, so it’s according to what we have. We have a really good roster, we have really good starting pitching, we have a really good bullpen and we can score some runs, so I feel pretty good about it right now.”

Rojas was hired as a coach at the team’s academy in the Dominican Republic in 2006 and later managed in Rookie-ball, Low-A, High-A and Double-A for the Mets before becoming the quality control coach under Callaway last season. As quality control coach, Rojas brought analytical information to the players and field staff. Rojas said his loyalty to the Mets was born when he first started working for the organization.

“When I saw that the Mets were not only developing baseball players, but they were developing men, that right away we had an educational program, back then it was a complex with two fields and we got the job done,” Rojas said of his arrival at the Dominican academy in 2006. “We moved into a bigger complex afterwards and just the love for the organization started growing and then it just kept growing and growing as I went along.”