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Sunday, February 23, 2014

NASCAR Preview 2014

The 2014 NASCAR season starts today with the Daytona 500.  Thirty-six points races later, a Sprint Cup Champion will be crowned.  In between, there will be ups and downs.  Checkers and wreckers.  Road courses, short tracks and super speedways.  Here are a few things to watch for during the 2014 NASCAR Sprint Cup season.

Harvick's new ride. (AP Photo)
Old Faces in New Places:  Due to the nature of the NASCAR business model, it is not unusual to have drivers switch teams in the off-season.  But, the 2014 season has some particularly interesting changes involving big name teams and established drivers.  Stewart-Haas Racing was at the center of the off-season action.  Ryan Newman left SHR to drive the #31 at Richard Childress Racing.  Despite that departure, SHR expanded from three teams to four.  Tony Stewart and Danica Patrick will be joined by a new star in the SHR garage.  His name is Kevin Harvick.  Harvick brought his lucrative Budweiser sponsorship with him and when he joined the SHR stable.  Havick's star power allows the mercurial Kurt Busch to avoid some of the spotlight as he also joins SHR to drive the #41 car.  Kurt Busch will be replaced at the single-car operation of Furniture Row Racing by Martin Truex, Jr.

Dillon in the #3 (Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images)
Youth Movement:  There are eight new drivers in the Sprint Cup series who will be attempting to run a full schedule.  That equates to about 20% of the drivers on the track at any given time being rookies.  That's a lot.  It's hard to predict who will turn out to be the most talented driver in the long run.  But in NACAR, equipment matters.  Austin Dillon and Kyle Larson will be joining established teams with good equipment and large budgets.  Kyle Larson will be driving the #42 for Chip Ganassi Racing.  The 21 year-old Larson was the rookie of the year last season in the Nationwide Season.  That indicates he has talent.  It also indicates that he has limited experience in big time stock car racing.  Austin Dillon, on the other hand, is a proven champion.  Dillon won the 2012 Camping World Truck Series championship in 2012 and followed that up with a Nationwide Series championship in 2013.  Austin Dillon will be driving the iconic #3 car for his grandfather's RCR team.  When Dillon takes the green flag at Daytona, it will be the first time the #3 has appeared in a Sprint Cup race since Dale Earnhardt's tragic on-track death in 2001.

New Gen 6 Cars:  The changes to the cars heading into 2014 are not nearly as drastic as they were heading into the 2013 season.  To sum it up, the spec changes that NASCAR put into place for this season are designed to create more downforce on the cars.  That should mean faster speeds in the corners.  But, until we see these cars on a variety of tracks, we will not know for sure how this will affect the quality of the racing.  From what we've seen so far during the racing at Daytona's Speed Weeks, it looks like tandem drafting will no longer dominate at super speedways.  That alone is an improvement that warrants the changes.

Qualifying Changes:  Gone are the days of single-car qualifying laps.  In a radical overhaul, NASCAR has gone to a group qualifying format that consists of knockout rounds.  The move is designed to bring more fans to tracks and TV sets in the early days of race weekends.  No doubt, this will be more fun to watch, but it could also get expensive for teams if multi-car wrecks become commonplace.  The new format should result in the best race day cars starting at the front on race day.  There will be no place for qualifying specialty cars that can't perform in race trim and in traffic.

(Getty Images)
Revamped Chase:  The biggest topic of conversation heading into the 2014 NASCAR season is revamped format for the Chase.  The basic gist is that NASCAR has changed the focus from consistency to winning.  Under the new format, if a full time team wins a race, then they are almost assured a spot in the Chase.  Once the Chase gets started, it will be divided into four segments.  After each segment, four drivers will be eliminated, and the points will be reset to start the next segment.  This will culminate with four drivers racing in a winner take all race at Homestead to end the year.  No complicated scenarios.  Whoever finishes the best out of those four cars in the final race will win the title.  This format has ruffled the feathers of some of the sport's long time fans.  There is an old-school camp who believes the championship should be a marathon and not a sprint.  However, NASCAR correctly understands that in order to compete with NFL football in the fall, they need to have their own version of a Super Bowl at Homestead on November 16, 2014.  There could certainly be flaws in the new format, but I applaud NASCAR for their willingness to innovate and adapt.

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Thursday, February 20, 2014

College Basketball and American Presidents

Monday, February 17, 2014 was Presidents Day.  Naturally, this got me thinking about what American Presidents would make up a successful college basketball program.  It takes more than just the guys on court to have a successful program, so this post is going to give you a breakdown of everything from athletic directors to coaches to boosters.

Head Coach:  A team made up entirely of Presidents of the United States would certainly not lack leaders on the floor, but someone needs to make the finals for the team.  Andrew Jackson would be the idea coach for this squad.  Jackson is a highly regarded tactician from his military days, and he proved himself as a recruiter when he convinced a group of French pirates to aid the Americans in the Battle of New Orleans during the War of 1812.

Point Guard:  The ideal point guard is a floor general who is capable of leading a team through adversity and yet willing to step out of the spotlight to facilitate the success of other players.  That makes George Washington the natural choice for this position.  Washington displayed grit and determination during the winter of 1778 at Valley Forge.  He showed creativity and the ability to attack when he crossed the Delaware to launch a surprise assault on Christmas night.  And he demonstrated unselfishness when he turned down the chance to be king and chose to serve only two terms as President.

Shooting Guard:  This position goes to Teddy Roosevelt, if for no other reason than the position has the word "shoot" in it.  No President loved to shoot more than TR.  Roosevelt was renowned for his hunting before, during and after his term in office.  At 5'10", Teddy might be a bit undersized for this position, but the fearlessness and grit he demonstrated by forming the Rough Riders and leading them in the Spanish American War will make up for his physical shortcomings.

Small Forward:  Small forward is the most versatile position in basketball today.  To be truly great at this position, a player needs to be able to handle the ball like a guard at times and dig in to play post defense at other times.  In other words, this position is a bit of a chameleon.  For that reason, Bill Clinton is the perfect choice at small forward.  President Clinton could be all things for all people.  He was equally comfortable eating barbecue at fundraisers as he was eating filet mignon at state dinners.  There are some legitimate concerns about Clinton's issues off the court, but with Washington setting the tone in the locker room, Clinton should thrive.

Power Forward:  There are five players on a basketball team, but only one basketball.  That means that some players will need to embrace a gritty role on the team.  This team needs a power forward who will hold his ground in the post and box out for rebounds.  That is why William Howard Taft secures this spot.  Taft is the biggest President the country has ever had.  Legend has it that Taft once got stuck in the White House bathtub.  If Taft can't be rooted out of the bath without the assistance of his aids, then there is no way an opponent will root him out of the paint when a rebound is up for grabs.

Lincoln assassination
Center:  Abraham Lincoln is the clear choice at center.  At 6'4", Lincoln is the tallest President our nation has ever had, and he has good physical strength from his rail splitting and wresting days as a young man in Illinois.  There are definitely questions about Abe's mobility and awareness since an amateur assassin was able to get a gun right up to his head without Abe ever moving a muscle to respond.  Overall, though, Lincoln is a space eater who will keep defenses honest.

LBJ laying down the law
Sixth Man:  It takes more than five guys to cut down the nets at the end of March Madness.  Every championship team needs a solid bench.  There is no better bench player than Lyndon B. Johnson.  Johnson proved he can come off the bench and contribute in tough spot when he took the oath of office in the hours after JFK's assassination.  Plus, Lyndon Johnson has a bit of a mean streak that will allow him to serve in the role of enforcer when necessary.

Team Manager:  Barack Obama's love of basketball is well-documented, but, as many of us found out the hard way, love of the game alone will not get you a roster spot on a college basketball team.  We have all gotten to see Obama's actual skills on the hard court.  He can only go left off the dribble and his jump shot kind of resembles that of a junior high girl.  Sure, it's a tough break for Barack that his game has gotten enough exposure to allow this sort of nit-picking, but ask anyone who comes back for an extra year of college instead of turning pro.  That's just how things go.

Harding hosting a golf event
Booster Club:  It's a dirty little secret that booster money drives the engine of major college sports.  Okay, it's really not much of a secret.  The main man in the President's college basketball boosters organization would be Warren G. Harding.  Sure, under Harding's leadership, the boosters would constantly court scandal, but Harding is a good time guy who will make make the booze and the cash flow at alumni events.

Athletic Director:  The guys that sit behind the desks are not as exciting as the guys on the court, but every winning program needs vision at the top.  John Adams is the kind of man that can put together a focused plan and implement it.  It's well-documented that he had the brains to write the Declaration of Independence but lacked the winning personality to galvanize others in the rebellion.  For this reason, he cannot be coach of this team, but his intellect will still be an asset to the program.  Also, Adams' Protestant sensibilities will help keep Harding's boosters in check.
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Friday, February 14, 2014

Cooking with Banshee: Shrimp Bruschetta

The Winter Olympics are underway.  That seems to call for something a little fancier than my usual football fare.  I really get no credit for this recipe other than that I've eaten it and now I've typed it up to share with you all.  My baby sister Katy Kovalenko served this on Christmas Eve when she hosted the family this year for Christmas in Connecticut.  This shrimp bruschetta recipe includes the topping and the toasts.  It includes a few tweaks and additions from me and my sister.  This recipe originally came from Giada at the Food Network but this version includes a few tweaks and tips from Katy and the Banshee.

Shrimp Bruschetta

Toast Ingredients:
1 loaf salt-crusted sour dough bread (can use ciabatta)
1 clove garlic, halved
Olive oil for drizzling

Toast Directions:
Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F.  Cut the bread into half inch slices.  Place the slices onto a baking sheet.  Drizzle the slices with olive oil.  Bake for 10 minutes or until lightly toasted.  Rub the warm toasts with the cut side of the garlic cloves.  Set aside.

Topping Ingredients:
3 Tbs olive oil
2 shallots, thinly sliced
1 clove garlic, minced
1 lb cooked shrimp, peeled and deveined (can be frozen)
Kosher salt and ground pepper
6 Roma tomatoes, diced
1/4 cup white wine
1/4 cup chicken stock
3 Tbs chopped fresh tarragon
1 cup packed arugula, chopped
1/2 cup marscapone cheese

Topping Directions:
Chop the cooked shrimp and set aside.  In a medium skillet, heat the olive oil over medium heat.  Add the shallots and the garlic.  Cook for 2 minutes, stirring constantly.  Add the chopped tomatoes.  Season with salt and pepper.  Cook over medium-high heat for 4 minutes or until the tomatoes start to soften.  Turn the heat up to high.  Add the wine and scrape up the browned bits that have stuck to the pan.  Cook for 2 minutes.  Add the chopped shrimp.  Stir in the cooking stock.  Cook for about 3 minutes or until most of the liquid has evaporated.  Remove the pan from the heat.  Add the arugula and the tarragon.  Stir in the marscapone cheese until the entire mixture is creamy.

Serving Directions:
Arrange the toasts on a serving platter.  Spoon the shrimp mixture over the toasts.  Enjoy!

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Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Top Dog: Day Two at Westminster 2014

The 138th Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show wrapped up on Tuesday night with the crowning of Best in Show for 2014.  But, before an overall champion could be crowned, Best in Group had to be awarded in the Sporting, Working and Terrier groups.

Riley (John Minchillo/AP)
Sporting Group:  The sporting group is comprised primarily of gun dogs bred to assist in hunting fowl.  This group includes retrievers, setters, pointers and spaniels.  As usual, the Golden Retriever got a lot of cheers from the Madison Square Garden crowd.  But, it was Riley the Irish Water Spaniel who was chosen to represent the group in the Best in Show competition.

Working Group:  This group features big, strong, brave dogs.  Most of these dogs were bred to guard animals, people or homes.  Others are draft dogs and rescue dogs.  Matisse the Portuguese Water Dog was one of the smallest dogs in the group, but he was named Best in Group and advanced to the finals.

Terrier Group:  The terrier group is my favorite group at Westminster.  These are little dogs with big personalities.  And, although there has been a drought lately, the terrier group has produced more Best in Show winners at Westminster than any other group.  Coming into Westminster, there was a lot of buzz surrounding Sky the Wire Fox Terrier.  And, it was indeed Sky who was crowned Best in Group.

Sky, Best in Show (AFP/Getty Images)
Best in Show:  The Best in Show competition at Westminster Kennel Club has all the pomp and circumstance of a coronation at Westminster Abbey.  This year's judge, Betty Regina Leininger, was dressed to the nines as she strode onto the Garden floor to select the champion dog of 2014.  Riley, Matisse and Sky were joined in the Best in Show competition by Nathan, Classy, Ally and Coco, the group winners from Monday night.  After careful examination, Ms. Leininger named Sky the Wire Fox Terrier as Best in Show for 2014.

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Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Westminster 2014 Day One

Day one at the 138th Westminster Kennel Club Dog show is in the books.  On the first day of competition, Best in Group was awarded in the Hound, Toy, Non-Sporting and Herding groups.  And, in at least one group, there was a major upset.

Nathan (Frank Franklin II/AP)
Hound Group:  This group is the most hilarious to watch due to the wide range of body types.  All of these dogs are bred to hunt in some form or fashion.  But the enormous Scottish Deerhound, bred for hunting deer, looks very funny in the same ring as the short-legged Dachshund who is bred for hunting badgers in dens.  The winner of the group is also a unique looking animal.  It was Nathan the Bloodhound who was chosen to represent the hound group in the Best in Show finals.

Toy Group:  A lot of people brush off the diminutive dogs in this group as "punting dogs" or "glorified cats."  However, the last two dogs who were named Best in Show at Westminster came from the toy group, so fans were certainly paying close attention to who would win the group this year.  Despite the fact that this group is filled with fluffy, photogenic lap dogs, the judge chose perhaps the most bony and least attractive dog in the group when he selected Classy the Miniature Pinscher.  This was not really an upset, though, since Classy is the most decorated Min Pin in history.

Non-Sporting Group:  The third group to take the ring on Monday night was the Non-Sporting group.  This group truly is a hodge-podge of breeds.  This group has been summarized by stating that "the only thing the dogs in the non-sporting group have in common is that they don't have enough in common with the breeds of any other group."  This group does contain some very recognizable breeds, however, including the Dalmation, the Bichons Frise and the Bulldog.  In the end, it was Ally the Standard Poodle who took home the prize for best in the group.

Coco the Corgi
Herding Group:  The WKC saved the most excited group of the night for last.  Swagger, an Old English Sheepdog and Banshee Sports' pre-show favorite to win Best in Show was in this group.  But, it was an underdog that came out on top.  Coco, a Cardigan Welsh Corgi, defeated the defending group champion Swagger and will represent the herding group in the finals on Tuesday night.

Coverage of the 138th Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show will resume on Tuesday night at 8:00 p.m. EST on USA.  The evening's events will begin with the Best in Group competitions for the Sporting, Working and Terrier groups.  The evening will end with the crowing of the prestigious award for Best in Show.

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Sunday, February 9, 2014

2014 Westminster Dog Show Preview

Banana Joe, 2013 WKC champion. (Stan Honda/Getty)
The eyes of the sports world are turned towards Sochi and the Winter Olympics.  But, here at Banshee Sports, we are turning our focus to the 138th Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show.  Monday and Tuesday of this week, New York City will go to the dogs.  And on Tuesday night, the Westminster Kennel Club will have chosen just one dog to anoint with the prestigious title of Best in Show for 2014.

Even though the Olympics are underway, the NBC family of networks will once again devote six hours of live televised coverage to the WKC Dog Show.  On Monday night, the coverage will begin at 8:00 p.m. EST on CNBC.  Monday night's events will include the crowning of Best in Group for the Hound, Toy, Non-Sporting and Herding groups.  On Tuesday night, the coverage will be on USA at 8:00 p.m. EST.  On Tuesday night, the judges will select the Best in Group for the Sporting, Working and Terrier groups.  The festivities will conclude on Tuesday night with the crowning of the Best in Show for 2014.

The 138th WKC Show has 2,845 dogs entered in 187 breeds.  Labrador Retrievers lead the way with 76 entries, and Golden Retrievers are second with 56 entries.  This year's show will include three newly recognized breeds.  Those are the Portuguese Podengo Pequeno in the Hound group, the Chinook in the Working group and the Rat Terrier in the Terrier Group.

Swagger, Best in Herding Group 2013.
When it comes to assembling the field for Westminster, the top five dogs in each breed as well as a variety of specialty  winners are specifically invited by the Westminster Kennel Club.  Last year's champion, Banana Joe, is not back to defend his title in 2014.  That leaves the door wide open for Swagger, the Old English Sheepdog.  At just 20 months old, in 2013 Swagger surprised the experts by taking home Best in Group for the Herding group at Westminster.  This year, Swagger is more experienced and more well-known by the judges.  Both factors will help him in his quest for Best in Show.

Swagger is by no means a lock to win Best in Show, however.  Matisse, the Portuguese Water Dog, is a solid contender for Best in Show.  Matisse won Best in Group in the Working group in 2013.  Matisse will have his work cut out for him to fend off Fifi the Doberman just to get out of
group.  Sky, the Wire Fox Terrier, is also expected to make a push for the title in her third trip to Westminster.

Check back with Banshee Sports throughout the week for continuing coverage of the 138th Westminster Kennel Club's Annual Dog Show.

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Saturday, February 8, 2014

2014 Winter Olympics Preview

The 2014 winter olympics are underway in Sochi, Russia.  For many Americans, this means that we will dedicate two weeks to sports that we really wouldn't know existed in NBC didn't bring them to our living rooms every four years.  In fact, I am fairly certain some of these sports were invented solely for the purpose of increasing the usage of some of these shiny new facilities in Sochi.  NBC will be broadcasting the games on five networks.  That is a potentially dizzying amount of obscure sports that will bombard your senses.  Here is a guide to help you sort through the wintry confusion.

Best High Profile Event.  Men's Ice Hockey.  Men's hockey is basically the men's basketball of the winter games except without the American juggernaut.  It's a sport that Americans know and understand.  The top stars of the NHL will be on the ice representing the flags of their home countries.  The favorite to win the gold is the Canadian squad featuring Sidney Crosby and many other household hockey names.  Alex Ovechkin's Russians and Daniel Alfredsson's Swedes are also top contenders for the gold medal.  The United States also comes into the olympics with golden expectations.  As far as I'm concerned, there is no better Olympic sport than one in which the Americans are not the favorites but are serious contenders for the gold.

(AP Photo)
Craziest Uniforms/Outfits.  Norwegian Men's Curling.  The opening ceremonies of the olympics is essentially the sports version of the red carpet at the Golden Globes.  The focus is on the fashion.  And certainly, the hideous sweaters worn by the American contingent were worthy of criticism.  But, I am more interested in what is worn in competition.  And so I present to you: the Norwegian men's curling team.  Until these dapper gentleman take the ice, we won't know for sure what we'll see.  But, if the promo pics and past history mean anything, it should be a spectacle.

Best New Event.  Luge Team Relay.  There are twelve new events for this year's winter olympics.  Surprisingly, 2014 will be the first year for women's ski jumping.  One of the more clever new sports is team figure skating.  It should be fascinating to see such an individualized sport given a team dimension.  However, the new sport that I am most excited about is luge team relay.  I was a little disappointed when I found out that there aren't any high speed baton handoffs.  Nonetheless, the strategy of choosing the order of the sleds and the execution of the transitions should make for an interesting new event.

Weirdest Event.  Moguls.  Moguls are just one weird event in the very weird category of freestyle skiing.  I understand racing.  Cars, horses, on foot, on skates.  Racing on skis fits into that same mold.  For some reason, whoever invented moguls decided that we should have a separate event where being the fastest only counts if you also look the prettiest as you do it.  Speed only counts for 25% of the score in moguls.  Style counts for the other 75%.

Worst Event.  See above for the same reasons.  But, don't get me wrong.  I will still watch it.

Event with a Hidden Star.  Lolo Jones.  Does that name sound familiar to you?  It should.  Lolo Jones competed in track and field in the 2008 and 2012 summer olympics.  In 2008, Jones was the favorite to win the 100m hurdles and was in the lead before clipping the ninth hurdle and failing to medal.  An older Jones also fell short of the podium in the 2012 London games.  In 2014, Jones is returning to the olympic stage, but this time it will be the winter games.   Jones will compete as a member of the American women's bobsled team in the winter games.  In addition to switching sports at a world class level, Jones is a unique figure due to her publicized virginity and dramatic life story.

Most Underrated Event.  Curling.   I'm not saying that I'd watch this on Sundays instead of football or car racing.  But, like many others, I really enjoyed this event during the 2010 Vancouver games, and I am looking forward to watching it again in Sochi.  Although curling does not require the athleticism that's demanded in most other Olympic events, the pacing and the strategy of the game make for compelling television.

Tara Lapinky 1998 Nagano (Getty)
Can't Miss Moment of Sochi 2014.  Ladies Figure Skating Free Skate.  I am generally critical of events where the winner is chosen through subjective judging, but the crowning of the champion in ladies figure skating is one of the most iconic moments of every winter olympics.  We get to see grace and power wrapped up in elegant, sequined costumes.  Then we get to see raw emotion in the kiss and cry area.  And when it's over, we get to see the coronation of the princess of the sports world.  Hard to beat that.

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Sunday, February 2, 2014

Super Bowl XLVIII Preview

It's Super Bowl Sunday.  The talking is almost over.  The game is only hours away.  But, if you have room in your head for one more prediction post, this one will be worth your while.  After three rounds of NFL playoffs, Wild Banshee is 8-2 with predictions.  Here is how I see the big game unfolding.

Seattle vs Denver:  Sunday at 6:25 p.m. EST on FOX.  This game provides us with two extremely contrasting teams.  The Broncos have the league's best offense, a veteran quarterback, and they present themselves in a calm and quiet manner.  The Seahawks have the league's best defense, a young, rising star at quarterback, and they are a brash and bombastic bunch.  The one thing these teams have in common is that they are both really fantastic football teams.  That may seem like an obvious statement since both teams have obviously made it to the Super Bowl.  But neither of these teams squeaked their way into the playoffs and then just got hot.  The Broncos and the Seahawks were both the top seed in their conference.

The Seahawks advanced to the Super Bowl by defeating New Orleans and San Francisco.  As expected, Seattle won those games with defense.  They only mustered 23 points in each game.  The Broncos made it to the Super Bowl by beating the Chargers and the Patriots in the playoffs.  Surprisingly, the Broncos' defense was largely the story of their victories, as well ... particularly the the rush defense.  The Broncos gave up 130 total rushing yards in those two games.  I expect Marshawn Lynch will have more success than the Chargers' and Patriots' running backs had, but I do expect the Broncos to hold him in check.

On the other side of the ball, there is no one aspect of the Broncos offense that the Seahawks defense can focus on.  Denver has a wide array of receivers for Manning to choose from.  Seattle has a great secondary, but it is unreasonable to believe that they will be able to totally stifle this offense.  In addition, the Broncos have proven throughout the playoffs that they are willing and able to run the ball, as well.  Officiating will also be an important part of the game when the Broncos have the ball.  The Seahawks are extremely physical with opposing receivers.  The Broncos are especially fond of pick plays in the passing game.  If and when these calls are made could end up being one of the keys to the outcome of the game.

History tells us that when the league's best defense faces off against the league's best offense in the Super Bowl, it is the defense that prevails.  But, Peyton Manning was not a part of those games.  I do not expect the Broncos to run wild against the Seahawks defense.  But I think Manning will make just enough plays to win a relatively low scoring game.  Denver: 28-24.

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