ESPN Upstate Blog

Join us here everyday for thoughts, predictions, scores, and more with some of the best sports authorities in the Upstate.  We have blogs from Greg McKinney of the Huddle, Mark Sturgis and Price Atkinson from Straight up with Sturg and guest blogs from Regie Eller!

A Tale of Two Cities Part I

"It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of light, it was the season of darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair" -Charles Dickens' "Tale of Two Cities"

In these series of posts we are going to take a close look at two cities who now lay claim as the Capital City of the ACC: Tallahassee, Fla. and Clemson, S.C. And further, why the rest of the ACC has a lot of catching up to do.

It was the best of times:

Florida State University is heading into its sixth season under the leadership of Jimbo Fisher. The question no longer is "Can Jimbo Fisher bring FSU back?" but rather, "Is Jimbo etching his own statue that will one day be erected at Doak Campbell Stadium?" He appears well on his way to creating his own dynasty in Tallahassee, Florida.

Entering the 2015 season, Jimbo Fisher leads the nation in victories per season in his first five seasons at an 11.60 wins per year clip. The Seminoles have won a remarkable 58 games during this stretch including FSU's third National Championship in 2013 as well as the past three ACC Championships.

Three-hundred and eighty miles north via I-85 and I-75 is the home of Clemson University, led by Dabo Swinney who is entering his seventh full season as head coach. Swinney has now led the Tigers to four consecutive 10-win seasons, one of only three FBS programs nationally to have done so in the last four years (Alabama, Oregon). With high-profile bowl wins over perennial powerhouses like LSU (No.9, Chick-fil-A Bowl), Ohio State (No. 7, Orange Bowl), and Oklahoma (Russell Athletic Bowl), the Tigers continue to push the Clemson program forward demanding National attention and respect.

Between the two coaches, they have protected their respective cities the best of any other ACC school. The Fisher-led Seminoles have won 18 of 20 ACC games played at Doak Campbell Stadium, a winning percentage of 90 percent - which is the current best in ACC history. The Swinney-led Tigers have won 23 of 26 home ACC games, winning percentage of 88% - which is now third among ACC head coaches. (Only Ken Hatfield was better than Swinney, who garnered a 12-1-1 record in four seasons.)

It was the worst of times:

In 2015, the ACC enters with respect. Not because of an SEC-West-like competition level but because FSU and Clemson have firmly planted its flags in the ground as legitimate contenders year in and year out for the College Football Playoff.

However for schools not named FSU or Clemson, it is simple: until a statement is made, you are riding the coattails of the two schools who make and own the ACC. For those schools, it is the worst of times because you aren't FSU and you aren't Clemson.

There are questions all around in 2015: How can Florida State replace Jameis Winston? Will Clemson be able to press its defense forward without Vic Beasley? Can Deshaun Watson stay healthy? Will Chad Morris be missed? I surmise that those questions are better than those of the rest of the ACC: Will Al Golden and Mike London keep their job after the 2015 season? Can anyone in the Coastal Division put up a fight against either Clemson or Florida State? Who are some possible "sleepers"?

When the preseason rankings come out, you will find Florida State and Clemson inside or just outside of the Top-10. Outside of these two cities, however, we all will have to wait and see what a season of uncertainty brings.

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ACC Football Kickoff (Day 2): ACC going up a Tuesday

The aroma of fresh brewed coffee drifts through the air and entices me to drink not only one but four cups! The day then begins. After getting the hang of the interview grind yesterday, I must say that the ACC Kickoff has not disappointed!

I've had a blast the past 48 hours and will always remember this first opportunity! It is sad to come to a close, but after two strong days of hard work, this media event has been a success!

Today encompassed interviews with ACC coaches from NC State's Dave Doeren to U of L's Bobby Petrino and Virginia Tech's Frank Beamer to name a few. From addressing controversial questions to having a bit a fun, we got to know each of the coaches and what their expectations are for the upcoming season. Getting the inside scoop and sharing laughs was priceless!

More than just interviews, I had the opportunity the past two days to network with other stations, media directors, and reporters from the southeast. I feel like the most memorable moment (and slightly embarrassing) was at lunch! I was chatting with staff from the ACC Digital Network while eating, and I am not the best multi-tasker while eating. (most people know how hangry I get)

During a great conversation with Executive Producer, Andy Siegel, the salad and I were not getting along, as a huge chunk was stuck between my teeth. Trying to be as proper and mannerful as I could to get the lettuce unstuck..I wasn't able to crack a smile the whole time or frankly talk that much at all. I'm not going to "lettuce" discuss that further.

Enough salad puns, but still on the topic of food, ACC has served up a great spread the past two days. I have to commend and thank them for the wonderful food!

In conclusion, this weekend has been one filled with a lot of high notes. Anyone who is looking to intern or really get into the sports broadcasting realm, I highly recommended going to an ACC Kickoff in the future. It has cultivated my interviewing skills and overall broadcasting presentation.

As a Gridiron intern in training, I leave this weekend with a sense of pride that I have accomplished and learned a lot all thanks to ESPN Upstate's Price and Sturg!! Thank you so much for the baptism by fire!! Immersion is always the best way to learn. I'm looking forward to the start of the season and my ACC Media Day return next year!!

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ACC Football Kickoff (Day 1): Fresh Perspective from a Newbie

PINEHURST, NC - In the midst of all the gridiron excitement, the ACC Kickoff has commenced in Pinehurst. On "Radio Row," you hear immense amounts of chatter, laughs, high fives, and computer clicks as ongoing interviews are cranking up.

I am fully submerged in this testosterone filled environment, as I am only one of a handful of women down in the bunkers of Radio Row. Everywhere you look, there is station upon station and reporters galore! You cannot turn an acute angle without seeing a mic, camera, or laptop computer!

I can't say enough about this gorgeous location of Pinehurst. In your down time, you can enjoy the view and even find time to perfect your golf drive or just enjoy the fine humidity (which is rampant....AND...notorious for making bad hair days!). Although the stations here are numerous, there is still ample amount of territory to stake out a perfect spot.

In our case with ESPN Upstate, we're fortunate enough to have the corner view with a window, which is kind of like having the "corner office". I'll take it! We are nestled between ESPNU filming and a few other radio shows that are ongoing. The buzz is ongoing and can be quite distracting until the headphones are in place! For me though, the chatter only makes everything more alive and exciting!

At first, I was a bit nervous amidst this media frenzy, but it didn't take long for me to be caught up! With every interview, I became more acclimated to the flow and couldn't' wait for the next one. Most of the reporters here have numerous years of experience and resumes stacked to the moon. I am quiet in awe of them. While I have a lot of experience in the sports realm, I am usually the one answering questions. Being on the other side of the table, as I have found out, is challenging as the questions you ask set the tempo for the interview.

So, my task here has been to master the art of balancing interesting informative questions while still be entertaining! Questions posed in the wrong way can create answers that are not prolific. You want to get the best possible answers from your interviewees. It sounds like a lot to balance and it IS a lot. Once you become a pro, like Sturg and Price (my radio mentors), interviewing becomes second nature.

While on this topic, day one marked the start of student-athlete interviews. It was non-stop from 8:15 am to 7 pm. Each player brings to the table their own unique personality. I feel that the questions we ask bring this out. What I love about working with Price and Sturg is that after we make the hard hitting, stats questions, we also find something intriguing or humorous to end the interview with, which is my job! I know from being on the other side of the mic that being comfortable is key to a great interview and getting a laugh or two in always lightens the mood.

Day one, in my opinion, was a complete success. The motto for the day was "sink or swim" and I feel like I completed a Michael Phelps' style swim for the finish.

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My 2015 preseason SEC predicted order of finish

Sturg and I will be at ACC Football Kickoff starting Sunday at Pinehurst, so ACC fans will get their share of updates from players and coaches thru Tuesday.

With the SEC's preseason poll expected to be released anytime now, I thought I'd take a shot in providing my "vote" and picks that we talked about on "Straight Up With Sturg" this week. It's not easy this year, especially in trying to sort out the SEC West because of the quality and depth going into the season.

But as of today, here's how I think the final standings turn out…

SEC East

1. Georgia - Despite an unsettled situation at QB, the Bulldogs return four of five starters up front to block for a deep running back corps led by the SEC's best in Nick Chubb. Jeremy Pruitt's defense will be much improved in his second season. While many are picking Mark Richt's squad to win the division by default, I don't think the Dawgs are far and away the class of the division and will be challenged.

2. Tennessee - The Vols have all the buzz and many thinking Butch Jones' talented recruiting classes will finally begin paying off in competing for a division title. Despite having 10 started back on offense, including dual-threat QB Joshua Dobbs and a bevy of playmakers, I still think UT is one more season away. An underrated defense plus a favorable schedule (UGA comes to Knoxville) will have the Vols in the top-half of the East.

3. Missouri - How can anyone not pick the Tigers to win the division? Gary Pinkel's team has only won it in both seasons since entering the SEC. Well, I think Mizzou's two-straight trips to the SEC title game comes to an end having lost so many players to the NFL recently and without a handful of power forwards at WR. Russell Hansbrough is a workhorse at RB and will shoulder a heavy load this season.

4. South Carolina - The biggest unknown and toughest team to figure out in the entire SEC is South Carolina. Exactly what does Steve Spurrier have to work with besides a very unclear picture at QB and a defense that was un-Carolina-like last year? Dynamic WR Pharaoh Cooper could be a dark horse Heisman contender, especially if USC is better than most think. Cooper will be ALL over the field and take his share of snap at QB. The defense should be much improved under new defensive coordinator Jon Hoke.

5. Kentucky - I know Big Blue is my alma mater and I'm not just going out on a limb believing Mark Stoops' team is much better. After a 5-1 start last season, UK ran out of gas down the stretch with so many talented freshmen and sophomores on the field. Starting QB Patrick Towles (6-5, 250 lbs.) has a cannon for an arm and some big receiving targets outside. The biggest question mark is will UK be better defensively and who'll replace the Cats' two best players in DE's first-round NFL Draft pick Bud Dupree and fourth-round pick Za'Darius Smith.

6. Florida - I think I'm one of the few who absolutely loved the Jim McElwain hire. He brings the fun, uptempo offense Gators fans are accustomed except it'll have to wait a year. McElwain will be looking for playmakers in August camp and have a razor thin offensive line with only six letterman coming out of spring practice. One bright spot is the defense led by one of the country's top DB and first-team, All-SEC pick Vernon Hargreaves.

7. Vanderbilt - If you think Vandy finishes anything higher than last, then will you please raise your hands? Yeah, I don't see many hands up.

SEC West

1. Auburn - Sturg doesn't like my pick to win the SEC West but the marriage of offensive-minded Gus Malzahn coupled with new defensive coordinator Will Muschamp is too perfect of a tandem. The fiery Muschamp makes the Tigers' defensive instantly better and he's got some stud true freshmen, who'll see the field including No. 1 recruit in the ESPN 300 Byron Cowart. But it's still all about offense on the Plains and starting QB Jeremy Johnson. Despite limited starting experience, Johnson's got an outstanding arm and isn't short on big-time receivers to throw to. Maybe the different in the SEC West? The fact Auburn gets Bama at home to end the season.

2. Alabama - It's tough to count out Nick Saban and the Tide as the preseason favorite, but I think this year the loss of so many players the last two season to the NFL finally catches up with Bama much like LSU last season. Talent will NEVER be a problem in Tuscaloosa and for a Saban-coached team. Junior RB Derrick Henry is as good as any back in the SEC and he'll carry a big load with Saban saying this week he's looking to getting back toward a run-first, power game. The fact that Jacob Coker has solidified himself as the firm starter at QB yet is troubling, though he'll be under center in the opener against Wisky.

3. Ole Miss - Almost all of my picks in the West are uncomfortable here. But picking Ole Miss to finish third might be the riskiest. With the NCAA investigation surrounding star OT Laremy Tunsil, stud WR Laquon Treadwell coming off a knee injury suffered last year against Auburn and looking for a QB to replace Bo Wallace gives me heartburn. Hugh Freeze's Rebels still have a defense that will keep them in every single game plus the probably the best defensive line in college football.

4. Arkansas - Like the Vols, Arkansas has all the preseason buzz in the SEC West. The Hogs feature a pair of RB's that each ran for more than 1,000 yards last season in Jonathan Williams (1,085) and Alex Collins (1,024). Both average more than 5.5 yards per carry and combined for 23 rushing TDs. Throw in Brandon Allen who passed for 2,285 yards last year with 20 TDs and just five picks and the Hogs could have an offensive as explosive as Auburn.

5. LSU - Attrition to the NFL Draft finally caught up with LSU last season in going just 8-5 (4-4 SEC). Les Miles has reloaded with talent but I'm still skeptical with Anthony Jennings and Brandon Harris unable to take hold of the QB job. The Tigers will ride Leonard Fournette as far as they can and defensively with John Chavis gone to College Station, it's unknown just how good Kevin Steele's unit will be.

6. Texas A&M - Speaking of John Chavis, defense is a major area of improvement needed if the Aggies are gonna challenged for the top-half of the division, which is where Chavis comes in. It wouldn't surprise me if Kevin Sumlin's team finished second or last in the division.

7. Mississippi State - What's the one thing MSU has that nobody in the league can boast? A dual-threat Heisman contender last season in Dak Prescott that's been thru the wars of the SEC. Prescott's senior year will have to be special for the Bulldogs to avoid the SEC cellar, while Dan Mullen has several question marks on defense thanks to the NFL Draft.

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Source: Upstate official meets w/ NCAA official in Indy on March Madness bid

The Upstate is moving quickly to take advantage of the NCAA's postseason ban being lifted.

A source tells ESPN Upstate that an official from the city of Greenville was in Indianapolis on Monday to meet with the NCAA in regard to a possible bid for a future NCAA Basketball Tournament preliminary site at the Bon Secours Wellness Arena.

According to a source close to the situation, the meeting was designed to the "lay the groundwork" for an upcoming bid and gauge the NCAA's interest in returning to Greenville.

Future preliminary sites were announced last November for the next three NCAA Tournaments beginning in 2016. The earliest Greenville could place and potentially land an NCAA bid would be for the 2019 postseason tournament.

Columbia and Greenville are expected to be the two interested cities in luring the NCAA Tournament back to the Palmetto State. Colonial Life Arena in Columbia seats approximately 18,000 and is bigger than the 15,000-seat Bon Secours Wellness Arena, so size is a non-factor.

USC Athletic Director Ray Tanner said last week the school is looking forward to hosting more NCAA events. However, USC's interest as a host school in Columbia is "lukewarm" at best according to the source.

That leaves Greenville as the state's lone bid and would give South Carolina a better shot than competing against another fellow city. A growing and booming downtown with nightlife, restaurants and lodging all within a few blocks from "The Well" is another feather in Greenville's cap that other area cities don't have.

The Southern Conference based in Spartanburg and member school Furman University served as the host institutions in 2002 when the then Bi-Lo Center hosted the first and second rounds. According to the Greenville CVB, the local economic impact from hosting the 2002 March Madness experience in Greenville was significant and expected to be much higher next time.

The source also indicated that an "Local Organizing Committee" is already in the work. Without a local Sports Council to spearhead the ground work, an LOC would provide the planning infrastructure and support.

Time will tell but the wheels are moving for the NCAA Tournament to return to Greenville.

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My Top 5 storylines this week at SEC Media Days

The annual football "circus" at The Wynfrey Hotel in mid-July always brings its share of excitement for college football fans around the country.

Why? Well, for starters it means we're finally talking college football again after a long (and still continuing) summer. The media list-making, "best of's", speculation and off-the-field news or non-news depending on which beat you're lucky to cover is coming to a close. And of course the attention begins shifting to the upcoming season (unless you're Florida State when there's always off-field news breaking).

The 24-hour media "circus" otherwise known as SEC Football Media Days in Hoover signifies to unofficial start of the college football season, as team are still a couple of weeks away from beginning August practice.

We're accustomed to the typical "coach speak" from college football's deepest, most talented and the standard-bearing conference. Head coaches each take turns holding court and telling scribes how excited they are for the season, newcomers that can make a different, returning players who've worked hard to improve, favorable schedules and facility upgrades around campus that further enhance their respective programs.

With the traditional don't-piss-anyone-off quotes we'll get as most coaches try to avoid bulletin board material, here are my top 5 storylines and things I'm most excited to seeing and hearing this week at SEC Media Day:

1). Ole Miss head coach Hugh Freeze and how he handles the Laremy Tunsil investigation

Everybody knows a late-June altercation between Laremy Tunsil and his stepfather wasn't simply the best offensive tackle sticking up for his mother, as Freeze valiantly stated in the days afterwards. The NCAA is on the scene now and the timing couldn't be worse for Freeze heading to Media Day with his merry bunch of Rebels expected to be in the conversation to challenge Alabama as every other SEC Western Division team will be. It'll be interesting to see what tone Freeze strikes before more than 1,300 media members.

2). Steve Spurrier in his record 23rd appearance

There isn't a coach that strolls thru the Wynfrey ballroom in Hoover and delivers more meat annually than Steven Orr Spurrier (Les Miles might be the only exception, which we'll get to more below). Spurrier uses the media to indirectly talk to his and team and players as well as anyone, so which player might he pick on or praise Tuesday morning. The Head Ball Coach doesn't shy away from brutal honesty as it relates to his Gamecocks competing or not for a division title.

3). Les Miles and his summer vacation stories

This one deals more with humor than actual football but Les Miles' comedy hour Friday morning is a can't-miss session. As quotable as the HBC, it starts with Miles giving an update on his family's summer vacation and could then travel to stories about his kids soccer and softball games. It's comical Miles feels the need to provide vacation updates but the unorthodoxy always excites me. You just never know what road "The Mad Hatter" is going to travel, but it's always sure to fill a reporter's notebook and become one of the most popular soundbyte on SportsCenter and the first-year SEC Network.

4). Will the Georgia Bulldogs be the runaway SEC East favorite by default

I know Georgia is the easy favorite and pick to win the East. But will the media simply pick the Dawgs because there's no other obvious choice? Answer: Yes/ or course. Brice Ramsey didn't exactly dust Faton Bauta when it came to running away with the starting QB job this spring. New offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer luckily has four of five starters returning to block for the best running back in the conference and a bevy of talent behind Nick Chubb. Defensively they'll much better in Jeremy Pruitt's second year running the show. Tennessee is a team on the rise with an incredible amount of young talent and Spurrier loves to be counted out. Something tells me the East will be closer than anyone expects this season.

5). Greg Sankey's first Media Days as new SEC Commissioner

Former SEC Commissioner Mike Slive was maybe the most powerful and influential men in college athletics before stepping down last month. Top deputy Greg Sankey takes over and will provide a different look, feel and texture leading the conference. I think it's strange yet cool to see Greg Sankey pop up watching a late-night, 2015 spring U2 concert tour stop on Periscope. But that's the youthful and fun nature of the SEC's top dog. His first formal address to the league kicks things off on Monday at 12:30 pm (EST) and will give fans their first look and taste of the Greg Sankey show.

(Click here for the complete 2015 SEC Media Day schedule)

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How did you grade the Panthers' Draft? I gave it a big, fat D-

I never saw this one coming. With all the past NFL Drafts the Carolina Panthers have been involved in, never have I seen one botched and bumbled like this weekend.
Carolina general manager Dave Gettleman, head coach Ron Rivera and the rest of the decision makers in the Panthers’ front office clearly know much more than I do about playing the National Football League. The Draft is more than just about the process of selecting a player. 

The part I know most about is the individual player as it relates to fit and area of need. In that department, this Draft equaled nothing but a big, fat D- on my grading scale.

And I’ve seen enough of these things to know where to wave a red flag and belt out, “Are you serious?!?” That’s exactly what I said (more like screamed) after the first night of the NFL Draft in Chicago when the Panthers selected No. 25 overall. Let’s start there shall we?

Carolina started the Draft with nine overall picks and needs were clear at offensive tackle, wide receiver and running back. Gettleman has been steadfast in balancing position need with his overall “best-player-available” strategy.

Florida offensive tackle D.J. Humphries, the player most everyone including me thought the Panthers would take, came off the board to Arizona just before Gettleman and company were set to likely take him. So what did my guys from Charlotte do? They turned in the biggest head scratcher of the first round with everybody left trying to figure it out. 

Stacked at linebacker with two of the league’s best in Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis, why would the Panthers select versatile linebacker Shaq Thompson when so many talented wide receivers were left for the taking? I understand the organization’s commitment to defense, which is where championships are built and won. But with a first-round pick, it needs to be someone who walks in the door and starts from day one (outside of a quarterback). 

Instead the Panthers plucked the linebacker/safety/tailback hybrid Thompson for aposition already solidified by Kuechly and Davis and is likely to get no farther than the practice squad this season.

Cam Newton needed a quality and capable left tackle and his name isn’t free agent signee Michael Oher (questionable at best to lockdown the spot). Newton could’ve also used a “stretch” wide receiver to compliment a bevy of big, possession guys (Benjamin, Cotchery, Bersin). 

If you still don’t think it was a reach, try this one. The Panthers were the only team to workout the former Washington Huskie, showing every other organization viewed him as a second-round player at best. Was he really a first-round grade and the “best player available” according to Gettleman? I’ve got a very hard time believing it.

The hits kept on coming Friday night. The Panthers traded away their third and sixth round selections to move up 16 spots in the second round where they selected Michigan tight end/wide receiver Devin Funchess. 

Funchess (6-4, 233 lbs) provides Newton another big target on the other side of Benjamin, creating matchup problems for smaller DBs. He’s coming off a foot injury last season and ran just a 4.77 40 at the Combine (though he reportedly ran a 4.47 at Michigan’s Pro Day). 

Still, was he really the best player out there? Wasn’t there a speedy wideout the front office liked that high on their draft boards?

Trading away picks to move up was smart considering Carolina entered the Draft with a total of nine selections. Running the numbers tells you logically there’s no way nine new players make the 53-man roster. So whittling down the overall selections to move up early was smart, but it also ended Carolina’s Friday night and left them without a third-round pick.

Moving to the fourth round and with another upward-bound deal, the Panthers rose up to select Oklahoma offensive tackle Daryl Williams. Williams is huge but he lacks the athleticism to be a premier left tackle in the NFL, likely starting his Panther career on the right side of the line. The Panthers gained some depth up front by finally selecting a quality player in Williams at a needed position. 

Carolina wrapped up with a pair of fifth-round selections, plucking another linebacker David Mayo and running back Cameron Artis-Payne. Artis-Payne will be given a shot to make the roster with oft-injured Jonathan Stewart lacking a quality backup with DeAngelo Williams gone. 

Maybe past Carolina Drafts have conditioned me not to get my hopes up. Maybe it’s why I never become glued to every single pick and selection, opting to check the Draft tracker after every round.

The star power of every Draft comes at the top in round one and two. The meat for every team begins in round three and continues through round six. Every now and then it’s easy to take a flyer and burn your final pick in round seven. 

The middle-four rounds are the heart and guts where you can really upgrade if you’ve got a quality scouting department and can find value, which is where Gettleman’s BPA strategy becomes an asset.

Had it been me, I would’ve taken an OT in the second round and then come back with a speedy WR sitting there in the third round like Tyler Lockett, Jaelen Strong or Sammie Coates.

Don’t get me wrong, I think Thompson and Funchess could turn out to be quality NFL players down the road. I just don’t see them as immediate stars with the ability to contribute on the field in helping Carolina win another NFC South title and ultimately deep into the playoffs. 

In the final year of his contract, Carolina will soon be deciding if Newton is the future at quarterback and if so, what they’re prepared to offer him if they decided he is. Making the kind of investment in a player like Newton at that position needs to come with some built-in insurance. A strong left tackle is one of the strongest areas of insurance the Panthers have lacked the last two seasons since Jordan Gross unexpectedly retired a season early. 

Unlike Marty Hurney and past members of the front office, I do think Gettleman has a better grasp on strategically building a deep, quality roster around defense and speed. But this Draft left me wanting more on the offensive side of the football where the needs were obvious and misses just as clear. 

Like recruiting classes, it’s unfair to truly assign a grade immediately afterward. Gettleman had a host of rookies playing in the playoffs last year. So time will tell. 

Carolina’s 2015 NFL Draft picks
Round 1 (25) Shaq Thompson - OLB/Washington
Round 2 (41) Devin Funchess - TE/Michigan
Round 4 (102) Daryl Williams - OT/Oklahoma
Round 5 (169) David Mayo - LB/Texas State
Round 5 (174) Cameron Artis-Payne - RB/Auburn.

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Lookout for some very special, talented athletes in the Upstate tomorrow

Sometimes the glitz and glamour isn’t what it’s all about in sports. The South is dominated by college football with a sprinkle of college baseball and maybe a small touch of college basketball.

Individual sports equal the country club variety and usually come with a select following, especially in this area of the country. 

But if you’re looking to see some of the Superhuman-type athletes that have graced our area playing fields like former collegiate standouts and now NFL-ers Sammy Watkins and Jadeveon Clowney, check out some of the triathletes in the Upstate this weekend.

The 2015 USA Triathlon Collegiate National Championships begins tomorrow morning in Clemson. Triathlon equals swim, bike and run (in that order) and trust me, having done several, they aren’t an easy task. Over 1,000 athletes at the peak will be primed and ready to hit the course starting at Clemson’s Campus Beach over the next two days. 

The next “wave” of Olympians will be on display tomorrow and Saturday, as college athletics once again provides the Olympic movement with the ultimate training ground. And triathlon is no different. 

The Buffs from the University of Colorado are the defending champs (winning five straight) and show no signs of relenting their title, while several schools are chomping at the bit. The Palmetto state will also be on full display with the Clemson Triathlon Club competing as well as athletes from across the state, including Furman and South Carolina.

I can’t lie though…my heart will be with the University of Arizona Tricats squad and a very special young lady - Mary Kate Callahan. Sturg and I had the distinct opportunity and pleasure of talking with her Wednesday afternoon on the show.  

Mary Kate isn’t your average triathlete. Actually, she’s an above average paratriathlete ranked in the top-five in the world in her particular classification. Losing the use of her legs from before she even turned a year old, the 19—year old has represented Team USA at the 2012 and 2014 World Triathlon Championships. 

She’s no joke. But more importantly, she’s an inspiration to other athletes around the country facing daily obstacles and challenges. It’s no stretch to say…in 19 years she’s done more than I’ve done in 40 years. 

I marvel at Mary Kate’s courage, grit, fight and determination. And like I told her Wednesday on the show, I’m also jealous of her. Having come up short in competing at the highest level of my own sport (swimming), she’s summited the mountain by earning the right to wear the stars and stripes as a competitor at the very top of her sport. 

There’s no greater honor in sports than being able to wear the United States flag on your chest or uniform in an international competition. I always dreamed of experiencing that feeling. But Mary Kate has lived it. She’s breathed it in rarified air that I and many others dream of.

The crazy thing? At 19-years old, she’s just beginning. 

I’ll be there cheering for her tomorrow and this weekend, wearing a smile while watching in awe as she and others in the paratriathlon wave compete Saturday morning at 9:45 a.m.

We can all learn something about self discipline and commitment by watching these special athletes compete in a sport that’s driven by individual determination. But Mary Kate and the other paratriathletes redefine all that and more. Thanks for bringing your talent and shining examples to Clemson. It’s gong to be an honor watching you. 

Something tells me Mary Kate has many, many more mountains that she’ll summit over the coming years because there isn’t a peak too high for her. 

Friday, April 24
Time               Event                                                                                                                          Location
9 a.m.              Men’s Draft-Legal Collegiate Championships Start                                  Campus Beach
9:58 a.m.       Estimated First Men’s Finishers                                                                      Campus Beach
11 a.m.           Women’s Draft-Legal Collegiate Championships Start                           Campus Beach
12:02 p.m.    Estimated First Women’s Finishers                                                               Campus Beach
Saturday, April 25
Time               Event                                                                                                                          Location
7:30 a.m.       Men’s Collegiate Club National Championships Start                             Campus Beach
9:25 a.m.       Estimated First Men’s Finishers                                                                      Campus Beach
9:45 a.m.       Paratriathlon Collegiate Club National Championships Start              Campus Beach
10:40 a.m.     Women’s Collegiate Club National Championships Start                      Campus Beach
12:35 p.m.    Estimated First Women’s Finishers                                                               Campus Beach
4:15 p.m.       Mixed Team Relay Start                                                                                      Campus Beach
5:20 p.m.       Estimated First Mixed Team Relay Finishers                                             Campus Beach
8-9:30 p.m.   Awards Ceremony                                                                                                 D.W. Daniel High School


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The Quest for Perfection

38-1 and you are a failure.  Not in my book.  Are you the 2015 National Champions Kentucky Wildcats, no you are not?  But regardless of who wins the national title between Duke and Wisconsin, this version of the Kentucky Wildcats will be the single greatest storyline from this season.

There are a few teams in college athletics that are expected to compete at the games highest level, and it’s actually a “Catch 22”.  If said team wins, well hey, that was expected, and what’s the big deal in that?  However, if they lose, watch out, it’s incoming, and everything those teams accomplished along the way are seemingly dismissed as not that big of a deal.  

I’m no Kentucky basketball fan.  In the long run, as an unabashed “Bama Man”, it helps my Crimson Tide Basketball program in the long run, with or without coach, that Kentucky doesn’t go 40-0 and add yet another feather to that very sweet hat of theirs. Maybe it’s the Alabama in me that allows me to see that win the ultimate mission was not accomplished; it’s just unfair in my opinion to label these kids that are 18-20 years old as failures.

Think about it, they can’t go in a bar and legally buy a drink, yet those players still have so much to be proud of.  Those Freshmen and Sophomores won 38 games in a row, no team has ever accomplished that.  In the long run, that simple fact may have very well been Kentucky’s undoing.

The last four teams that enter the Final Four on a 30 or more game winning streak have all seen their season end right there in the semifinals.  The Final Four is the game’s biggest stage, yet it’s the worst time to see some things happen that you haven’t dealt with all season.  It’s the wrong time to get out-hustled by older players that understand losing, because you don’t know what it feels like to be out-hustled, and actually lose a game.  Sometimes the fear of losing another game because you know how much it hurts can be the ultimate motivating factor.

The 2014-15 Kentucky Wildcats are not failures in my book, but again, they are not the National Champions either.  They did however captivate our attention for all but 48 hours of this season with their story.  Failure is such a harsh word and should be reserved for things and/or people in life that actually deserve that label, not a group of college basketball players… or football players… or baseball players…

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My 10 predictions for the Sweet 16/Elite Eight

It’s been a long week. Mostly because I’ve begun to have trouble sleeping. Nerves have fully set-in with Kentucky remaining undefeated and of course still alive as the hunted in the Sweet 16, which gets going tonight and continues tomorrow.

I didn’t expect it nor do I think it’s possible for a team to go 40-0 in my lifetime. And still don’t, even with the Cats on the cusp at 36-0. Sure, I picked UK in my bracket, not because they’re my team but because I just don’t know who will be the first and only to knock them off. This weekend will be tougher and more pressure-packed for UK to get thru than if they’re able to advance to the Final Four

Four more fun-full days of college basketball begins again this evening, as four teams will punch their ticket to the Final Four in Indianapolis, starting Saturday and finishing Sunday afternoon in the Elite Eight.

So it got me thinking and here are my 10 predictions for the Sweet 16/Elite Eight:

1.) Kentucky is tested by West Virginia tonight before pulling away to win by a dozen points. Teams have flirted with it for a half this season and Bob Huggins’ Mountaineers will be the next “almost.” But like the others who tried and failed, WVU will get worn down by UK’s length and depth before falling.

2.) A UK-Wichita State Midwest Regional Final. The Shockers are playing outstanding basketball and I expect Gregg Marshall’s team to land a date with destiny and a matchup with UK in the regional final. The basketball gods will be all over this one. Remember the Cats upset then undefeated-Wichita last year in the Round of 32. The shoe will be on the other foot this time…could the Shockers play the spoiler?

3.) One thing synonymous with March is Tom Izzo and the Sweet 16. Almost as much as Tom Izzo in the Final Four. Izzo’s Michigan State team pulled one of the biggest upsets in the Tournament so far last weekend, beating No. 2 seed Virginia at its own game…tough defense. We knew the East Region was up for grabs and could get wild. The affable coach is anything but wild except on the court at times, which is where Sparty advances past Oklahoma and the Louisville-N.C. State winner en route to Indy. 

4.) Gonzaga will throttle UCLA back to Westwood and into the Elite Eight in a matchup against Duke that I’m dying to see. The Zags have size inside, perimeter shooting and experienced guard play led by Canadian Kevin Pangos. If Gonzaga lands in Mark Few’s first-ever Final Four as head coach like I’ve predicted, Pangos will be the one to take them there. 

5). N.C. State head coach Mark Gottfried will screw something up for the Wolfpack. I joke often that Gottfried is good for at least 6-8 points for the opposing team almost every time out because of his boneheaded coaching decisions. Luckily this Pack squad has plenty of talent (that Gottfried personally assembled) to withstand those dumb decisions and get past an offensively-challenged Louisville team.

6.) By halftime tonight, we’ll all be sick of the Sean Miller coaching against his former team Xavier storyline. We know Miller left Cincy for Tucson. We also know current Xavier head coach Chris Mack and Miller are close friends. But spare us this one guys and call us an exciting game, something I don’t think we’re going to get. 

7.) Frank the Tank’s mojo and game wins out tonight against the Tar Heels’ size. Despite an up-and-down finish to the regular season, UNC has finally found some mojo of its own, thanks to freshman shooting guard Justin Jackson scoring in double figures in 10 of the last-11 games. With Kennedy Meeks doubtful tonight, Brice Johnson is likely to get the assignment on Kaminsky. But it won’t matter as the 7-footer and Wisky are on a collision course against Arizona in the West Regional Final.

8.) Utah senior Delon Wright is a stat-sheet stuffer, who’ll show why he’s the top point guard in the country tonight. At 6-foot-5, he’ll be a matchup nightmare for Duke’s smaller backcourt of Tyus Jones and Quinn Cook. The problem for the Utes is they don’t have an animal inside big enough to contain Duke frosh Jahlil Okafor, which is the sole reason why Utah and Wright will fall to the Blue Devils.

9.) The pair of regional finals I expect between No. 1 and No. 2 seeds (Wisconsin vs. Arizona and Duke vs. Gonzaga) will give us a pair of must-see games Saturday and Sunday. And two games where both No. 2 seeds win and advance to the Final Four.

10.) Georgia State head coach Ron Hunter will be TV gold, while working as an guest analyst for CBS, TBS and TNT over the next four days. He’s not likely to issue any in-studio challenge to Barkley on the on-set basketball goal with his torn achilles. However, we’re virtually all guaranteed to smile at a coach who loves life and the game. Christmas in March? We’ve got it. Thank you CBS!

Will they all happen? Heck no. Maybe even half? Doubtful. But no matter what it’ll be four exciting days of college basketball!

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