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Duke poised for another magical March

Rich Barnes-USA TODAY Sports

Wednesday night, Duke made a mistake that many college basketball teams make: strong first half, subpar second half.

Everything was clicking for the Blue Devils in the first half. Duke led Syracuse 78-75 thanks to a first-half double-double (14 points, 10 rebounds) from Jayson Tatum on an efficient 6/11 shooting.

In the second half, the Orange outscored the Blue Devils 53-42 and limited Tatum to five points on 2/5 shooting. That said, it still took a last second three-pointer by John Gillon to give Syracuse the win, and its first lead of the night.

Even with the upset loss, Duke is still a dangerous postseason team.

On Jan. 23, the then No. 15 Blue Devils suffered their fifth loss of the season by falling at home to North Carolina State for the first time since 1995. It was Duke’s third loss in four games and fourth in seven games. The NC State loss was the only one of those four to happen at Cameron Indoor Stadium.

Of the five ranked opponents that the Blue Devils had played to that point, three traveled to Coach K Court. Duke lost both road games to ranked foes, Florida State and Louisville.

Everything changed on Jan. 30.

The then No. 21 Blue Devils topped No. 20 Notre Dame in South Bend, 84-74. The 10-point win was exactly what Duke needed. Don’t forget, after the NC State loss head coach Mike Krzyzewski banned his players from their locker room on non-game days. At the time, Krzyzewski was not actively coaching the team since he was recovering from back surgery.

The Notre Dame game was the last that Krzyzewski missed. The Blue Devils went 4-3 without him and are 6-1 since he returned. In that time, Duke beat No. 8 North Carolina at home and No. 11 Virginia on the road. The Blue Devils are 3-0 against ranked opponents since the NC State loss after starting the season 2-3.

Now, Duke has lost for the first time since the NC State game, but a lot has changed then. The aforementioned return of Krzyzewski was invaluable, but so too has the emergence of Tatum. The freshman has scored in double-digits in 18 of 20 games and has 12 games with at least 10 points and seven rebounds.

Tatum is the forward that Duke lacked last season. Luke Kennard and Grayson Allen are talented scorers but are both guards. The way to stop Duke last season (and early this season) was to frustrate Allen and focus solely on Kennard. The Blue Devils lost 11 games last season for the first time since 2007 but still made it to the 2016 Sweet 16.

This year, Allen’s tantrums continued and he was suspended. He’s been inconsistent since his return on Jan. 4, but he’s found a way to stay on the court and out of trouble. Kennard has built off his success as a freshman, improving in points per game, field goal percentage, three-point percentage and rebounds per game. He has recorded a team-high 15 20-point games this season.

Even with the Syracuse loss, Duke is clicking. Four of the Blue Devils six losses have come on the road and it could get worse since Duke closes the regular season out at North Carolina. Regardless, the good news is that the ACC and NCAA Tournaments are played at neutral sites.

Duke has figured out its identity and will be frightening to face in March. Tatum and Kennard are tough enough to stop, but imagine if Allen can rediscover his scoring touch from last season when he averaged 21.6 points per game on nearly 47-percent shooting. The Blue Devils are 7-2 when Allen, Kennard and Tatum all score in double-digits. The ‘Big Three’ is The Key. 

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Will Paul George get traded?

Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

In a stacked Eastern Conference, the Indiana Pacers are trying to build a championship team.

Last Friday, ESPN’s Chris Haynes reported that the Pacers are willing to part with their 2017 first round draft pick in order to give superstar small forward Paul George some help. Besides Jeff Teague, the Pacers do not have enough proven star power to win in a league where the team with the brightest stars wins the NBA Finals.

With Paul George’s contract set to expire in 2018, the Pacers are trying to go all in and win a championship before George has time to ponder leaving.

Don’t think he won’t leave. On Friday, he said he had told Pacers’ president Larry Bird “I always want to play on a winning team,” and told ESPN’s Marc Stein, “Man, I want a chance to play for a chance to win a championship.”

Nearly a week later, George said that he wants to stay in Indiana, only if they are serious about contending for a championship.

Since All-Star Weekend ended, George has popped up in trade rumors with teams like the Los Angeles Lakers. As Thursday’s 3 p.m. deadline approaches, the Pacers are running out of time to decide which direction they are going in.

Instead of trying to win with George, they need to win without him. No, that won’t happen in 2017, 2018, heck, probably not until at least 2022. That said, they need to get a head start on rebuilding.

Again, no matter who the Pacers bring in, be it Jahlil Okafor or Carmelo Anthony, they will not get past a healthy Cleveland Cavaliers and advance to the NBA Finals.

That said, the right acquisition and a postseason injury to LeBron James, Kevin Love, or Kyrie Irving could put the Pacers as favorites to win the Eastern Conference. Don’t think a major injury to a Cavaliers’ star is unlikely. Love is currently out following left knee surgery last week and missed the bulk of the 2015 postseason with a shoulder injury. Irving missed the 2015 Finals and has been hobbled this season with hamstring and ankle sores.  James has never missed more than 20 games in a season but is no spring chicken at 32.

If the Cavaliers wear out the path to the trainer’s room, then the Pacers are a favorite to come out of the East… if they make the right trade at this deadline.

What does Indiana need?

How about a shooting guard? Monta Ellis, Glenn Robinson III and Rodney Stuckey aren’t cutting it. George and Teague need a shooter to get the ball to when there is a double team on one of them. Whether that means getting Kentavious Caldwell-Pope or Tim Hardaway Jr., the Pacers need to improve their guard depth.

They won’t make a trade to add to their depth. Bird is smart enough to know that the East is improving around them and that the time is up to win under Paul George. The Wizards, Celtics, and Raptors aren’t going away after this season. Whether that means adding depth or trading George, neither will happen this year. Indiana will sit on its hands at the trade deadline and look to move George later down the road. It’s a mistake Bird will regret later.

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Projecting Team USA's World Baseball Classic starting lineup

In less than a month meaningful baseball games will be played. Pitchers and catchers report next week for MLB Spring Training and exhibition games start this month, but March wets the appetite of hungry baseball fans. The World Baseball Classic begins on March 6.

In the three years that the event has taken place, Japan has won twice and the Dominican Republic claimed the most recent gold. The United States has never medaled.

On Wednesday, teams revealed their rosters for the battle for baseball supremacy. The Americans’ quest for gold has begun and it’s time to shape up the lineup. Manager Jim Leyland has tough decisions ahead of him, but here is who should start at each position.

Catcher: Buster Posey

Jonathan Lucroy, a career .284 hitter, would start on most teams, but not for the Americans when a three-time World Series-winning catcher with three Silver Sluggers, a Rookie of the Year and an MVP is also on the roster. Buster Posey is the standard for catchers in MLB and will start at catcher.

First Base: Paul Goldschmidt

Statistically, Eric Hosmer had a better 2016 than Paul Goldschmidt. However, since both joined MLB in 2011, Goldschmidt has had a better career.

Consider more than just Goldschmidt’s (.299, 140 HR, 507 RBI) edge in obvious career stats over Hosmer (.277, 102 HR, 472 RBI). Goldschmidt’s cumulative career WAR (29.0) and Offensive Runs Above Replacement (252) blow Hosmer’s (10.1, 114) out of the water.

Hosmer has a World Series title, but Goldschmidt is a two-time MVP runner-up. It is an easy pick at first.

Second Base: Ian Kinsler

On paper, Daniel Murphy is a better hitter than Ian Kinsler, but defensively, Murphy is a liability. In each of the past five season, Murphy has posted a negative Defensive WAR, while Kinsler has posted a negative Defensive WAR once in his 11-year career.

If Kinsler is in the field, Murphy is a potential designated hitter. It will be hard to keep a guy who finished second in the National League with a wRC+ (weighted runs created) of 156 and was the MVP runner-up in 2016 off the field.

Shortstop: Brandon Crawford

He’s the only true shortstop on the roster. *insert shrug emoji*

Third Base: Nolan Arenado

No team with Matt Carpenter at the hot corner is complaining, but Nolan Arenado is the best third baseman in the National League.

After back-to-back 40-plus home run seasons, Arenado is a fine middle of the order bat for the Americans. Yes, 25 of his 41 home runs in 2016 came at hitter-friendly Coors Field (61%), but it’s not as if Arenado is a homerun-or-strikeout hitter; he’s a .285 hitter in four seasons.

It’s not all about hitting for Arenado, he’s also the back-to-back Gold Glove winner at shortstop for the National League. Meanwhile, Carpenter has a six-year cumulative Defensive WAR of -2.3 and only has had one season with a positive Defensive WAR.

Left Field: Christian Yelich

He’s the only leftfielder on the roster, but he has earned his spot. Yelich saved 2.5 runs with his arm and won a silver slugger last season. He more than earns this spot.

Center Field: Andrew McCutchen

Center field and right field are interesting because of Andrew McCutchen. Every different website displaying Team USA’s roster has McCutchen listed as a centerfielder despite Pittsburgh Pirates manager Clint Hurdle moving McCutchen to right field last week.

Regardless, McCutchen should start ahead of Adam Jones. Yes, McCutchen struggled in 2016 and is a bad centerfielder, but Jones is not better offensively or defensively than McCutchen. For centerfielders that played at least 942 innings, Jones and McCutchen finished 15th and 17th out of 17 players in Ultimate Zone Rating (UZR), which measures how many runs a player saves at his position. Jones and McCutchen both finished with negative UZR’s.

UZR is not the only stat that condemns Jones and McCutchen; both had negative, below average Outfield Arm Runs (ARM), which measures how many runs a fielder saves with his arm.

Offensively, despite a poor year, McCutchen (.336 OBP) still got on base more than Jones (.310). Sure, Jones (21.3 at bats per home run) hit more home runs than McCutchen (24.9 AB/HR) and Jones (17.1 K%) strikes out less than McCutchen (21.2 K%), but McCutchen (102 wRC+) creates more runs than Jones (96 wRC+) and McCutchen (.329 weighted on-base average) has better hits than Jones (.319 wOBA).

They’re both bad defensively and neither did enough offensively in 2016, but McCutchen should get the nod over Jones in center for the World Baseball Classic.

Right Field: Giancarlo Stanton

With McCutchen in center, there’s no reason to not play Giancarlo Stanton. For rightfielders with at least 450 plate appearances, Stanton hit baseballs harder than anyone else, finishing with a 42.9 HARD%. Stanton also finished fourth among rightfielders with 450 plate appearances with a 22.7% home runs per fly ball ratio. Can’t go wrong with a healthy Stanton in right field based on offense alone.

Designated Hitter: Daniel Murphy

With Kinsler edging him for the spot at second, Murphy will DH in the World Baseball Classic. His bat has to be in the lineup however possible.

Top to bottom, the Americans have a superstar starting lineup. Here’s what Leyland’s batting order should look like:

Batting Order

1) Ian Kinsler

2) Daniel Murphy

3) Buster Posey

4) Paul Goldschmidt

5) Giancarlo Stanton

6) Nolan Arenado

7) Christian Yelich

8) Brandon Crawford

9) Andrew McCutchen

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