Celtics, Timberwolves lead new Power Rankings as NBA returns; Predicting expanded CFP field

Celtics, Timberwolves lead new Power Rankings as NBA returns; Predicting expanded CFP field
Celtics, Timberwolves lead new Power Rankings as NBA returns; Predicting expanded CFP field

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???? Good morning to everyone but especially ...
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THE NBA

After a week away for the All-Star break, the NBA returns tonight, and Colin Ward-Henninger has new Power Rankings, complete with one reason for hope or concern. Here's his top five:

Celtics (previous: 1) -- "Reason for concern: The Celtics are obviously an excellent basketball team, but if the goal is a championship it's time to nitpick. Boston simply doesn't get to the rim." Timberwolves (2) -- "Reason for hope: Minnesota has the best record in the NBA (23-11) against teams above .500." Thunder (9) -- "Reason for concern: OKC's offense has been downright bad without Shai Gilgeous-Alexander on the floor. They score a ridiculous 122 points per 100 possessions with him on the court, but that falls to 111 with him on the bench." Clippers (5) -- "Reason for hope: When Kawhi Leonard and Paul George are on the floor the Clippers are virtually unstoppable. They score 122 points per 100 possessions in Leonard and George's minutes, while allowing just 108." Cavaliers (3) -- "Reason for concern: The Cavs have been the league's hottest team since Jan. 1, rattling off an 18-3 record. But, if you look closely, you'll see a lot of wins are over the NBA's bottom-dwellers."

As for five storylines to watch ... here are mine:

Where do the Lakers and Warriors end up? They're currently ninth and 10th in the Western Conference -- the final two spots in the play-in -- and a postseason without LeBron James and/or Stephen Curry would be odd. But the play (and emotional status) of Draymond Green may ultimately be the determining factor. 
When does Joel Embiid return, if at all? The 76ers are fifth in the East but haven't had Embiid since late January due to a meniscus injury. They're 26-8 when he plays and 6-14 when he doesn't. Who wins the West? The Celtics are running away with the East, but in the West, the Timberwolves are up just 1.5 games on the Thunder, two games on the Clippers and three games on the defending champion Nuggets. What's up with the Bucks? They're the elephant in the room. They fired Adrian Griffin despite a 30-13 start. Successor Doc Rivers is just 3-7. But, hey, at least he has the support of Giannis Antetokounmpo. Who wins MVP and the other individual honors? Remember, the 65-game minimum has already ruled out several potential candidates.

With under two months left in the regular season, buckle up and enjoy the ride.

???? Honorable mentions ⚽ And not such a good morning for ...
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ARSENAL

Arsenal came into Wednesday's match against Porto riding high, and rightfully so. The Gunners had won five straight Premier League matches, outscoring opponents 21-2 over the span. Surely that would carry over to the Champions League against a susceptible defense, right?

Wrong.

Galeno curled in a stunning effort in the 94th minute to beat the Gunners, 1-0. Arguably even more stunning? Arsenal put exactly zero shots on goal, a far, far cry from the attack that was running rampant recently. You can blame Gabriel Martinelli, who gave the ball away late, blame the attackers and blame manager Mikel Arteta. But at the end of the day, inexperience was a deciding factor, James Benge writes.

Benge: "This was Arsenal's junior moment, a young side, many of whom were playing in their first Champions League knockout game, failing to appreciate that it was only halftime in the tie, as the old cliche goes. Better to preserve parity before you get them back on your ground."

Chuck Booth dropped the Gunners from third to eighth in his Champions League Power Rankings. Here's the top five:

Manchester City (previous: 1) Real Madrid (2) Inter (5) PSG (8) Lazio (14)

Meanwhile, Napoli and Barcelona drew, 1-1, with star strikers Robert Lewandowski and Victor Osimhen trading second-half goals.

???? Not so honorable mentions The Mavericks missed out on keeping Jalen Brunson for cheap ... twice. Sorry, Expos fans: Netflix is making a documentary about the team's downfall. ???? Predicting the 12-team 2024 College Football Playoff
USATSI

Now that the 5+7 model is official, it's prediction time. Chip Patterson made his early prediction on the 2024 playoff field.

The first thing that caught my eye? In an even more loaded SEC, there's a familiar name at No. 1.

Patterson: "1. Georgia (SEC champion): Pre-spring practice ratings of the top teams in college football have Georgia at No. 1, and then there's a gap before you get to the more interesting discussions about teams Nos. 2-4. Quarterback Carson Beck returns after leading the Bulldogs offense to stellar and often overlooked results in 2023, and after missing the playoff due in part to some rough injury luck, there will be no motivational issues in the 2024 season."

The SEC and Big Ten both put four teams in Chip's predicted field.

Oh, and by the way, now that we're finally expanding to 12 ... the CFP Management Committee is exploring expanding to 14.

???? Pete Prisco's Top 100 NFL free agents, ranked
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We're officially inside of three weeks until the start of NFL free agency, and that means lots of big names potentially hitting the market. Pete Prisco has graciously ranked the top 100 players who could be available, and here's his top six:

Kirk Cousins, QB, Vikings Chris Jones, DE, Chiefs Josh Allen, LB, Jaguars Justin Madubuike, DT, Ravens Danielle Hunter, DE, Vikings L'Jarius Sneed, CB, Chiefs

You'll notice I included six instead of my normal five, and that's because Sneed is too good to not get a mention here. Plus, how Kansas City manages Jones' and Sneed's free agencies could play a major role in the Chiefs' quest to be the first NFL team to achieve the elusive three-peat.

As for some other good players you should know who didn't make the top six ...

16. Saquon Barkley, RB, Giants -- His position didn't help his ranking, but I'm convinced Barkley can have a Christian McCaffrey-esque impact on the right team. Imagine him surrounded by a legit passing attack and a legit offensive line. 35. Bryce Huff, DE, Jets and 83. Josh Uche, LB, Patriots -- Pass-rush specialists are always helpful. Neither Huff nor Uche play a ton of snaps, but they make them count: Only Micah Parsons had a better pressure rate than Huff last year (min. 200 pass-rush snaps), and Uche led the category in 2022.

Here's our free agency primer for all 32 teams.

⚾ Five MLB teams that could make the playoffs in 2024 after missing out in 2023
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Believe it or not, there is baseball on TV today. The Dodgers and Padres open spring training game action, and while Shohei Ohtani won't play, it's a welcome reminder that Opening Day isn't far away -- and Ohtani is on track to be back by then.

Hope springs eternal -- no pun intended -- and Mike Axisa is feeling the good vibes with five teams that could make the 2024 playoffs after missing the postseason last year, including ...

Axisa: "1. Yankees: That 82-80 finish prompted the Yankees to attack their weaknesses in a meaningful way. Juan Soto was the best hitter to change teams this offseason, and New York also added Alex Verdugo to improve an outfield that was very weak in the two non-Aaron Judge spots last year. Also, they are two high-contact lefty bats, something the Yankees sorely lacked. Marcus Stroman provides stability in the middle of the rotation and the ability to keep the ball in the park at homer-happy Yankee Stadium."

Mike also mentions that the Yankees should be much healthier this year, and one of those players returning is among Mike's 10 players

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