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About Steve Hartman

Digital Sales Manager at Rivertown Multimedia. Huge sports fan from basketball to tennis, golf to football and everything in between.

When Will MN Sports Fans Be Rewarded?

There’s a reason I’m a fan of Duke basketball. And no, it’s not because I’m a pretentious rich kid who fell in love AFTER the back-to-back titles of 1991-92. It’s because at a young age I enjoyed rooting for the underdog. It’s probably hard to remember Duke being an underdog, but as a 7-year-old watching the 1990 NCAA Championship I felt bad for the Blue Devils. They lost in a blowout to the Runnin’ Rebels of UNLV. From then on I was hooked on Duke. Over the years I grew to love Coach K, Wojo, Grant Hill, etc.

Sorry for the rambling, but the main reason I like Duke TODAY is because of their predictability. I KNOW they’ll be in the NCAA tourney. I know they’ll be a high seed. And I know every year they have a chance to win it all. They don’t always do it, but they have a legitimate chance.

Which brings me to the topic of the day. When will MN sports fans be rewarded? Last night, a buddy and I perched upon a bar stool to watch the Gophers men’s basketball game vs Indiana. Minnesota was fresh off an impressive road win at Iowa. They were finally looking relevant in the Big Ten after starting conference play 0-5. You could sense fans were ready. There was a turnaround a brewin’. (I’ll say it again, there’s no better atmosphere in the MN sports scene than Williams Arena when the Gophs are good). But alas, the Gophers bring hope, get fans excited, only to bring them back down to earth with a huge thud. In this case it was a 90-71 whooping. Defense, specifically 3-point defense, was apparently optional for Richard Pitino’s bunch.

This idea of creating excitement, manufacturing reasons to care have become almost epidemic like in the Twin Cities. The Wolves, Twins and Vikings year-in and year-out bill this as “the year” (Vikings) or “watch how exciting we’ll be” (Timberwolves) or “we’ve got some young talent, you better buy season tickets now” (Twins). But when will the MN sports fan be rewarded for believing the PR machine of our local sports teams?

It’s been nearly 24 years since the last championship parade took place in the Twin Cities. Boston has had 4 Super Bowl Championships alone in the last 15 years! Think about this. The Gopher football team played in, did NOT win, just participated in a New Year’s Day Bowl and we acted as if it was a miracle. Glen Mason went 8-5 regularly during his tenure. But a Jan 1 Bowl hadn’t happened since 1967. Someone, besides the Lynx, make it stop.

The list is too long. 1998, 2000, 2009 Vikings, 2004 Wolves, 2003 Wild, 1997 Gophers hoops (it DID happen), 2003 Gophers FB….man the local teams were actually good for a while. “What was that like?” I often ask myself.

So once again I found myself last night HOPING this Gophers turnaround was for real. And once again, the local team let me down. Build me up, only to disappoint.

Another early 90s team I latched onto because they lost in a big game….the Buffalo Bills. Maybe it’s not the teams. Maybe it’s just me.

NFL Conference Championships Predictions

I saw a cool stat the other day. All 4 QBs left in the NFL, and both teams in the CFP Championship were from the Pac 12 and Big 10.

We all know how that game turned out, as Ohio State put together a dominating performance and led the Buckeyes to a 42-20 win over Heisman Trophy winner Marcus Mariota. Will the Big Ten QB’s help their teams to the Super Bowl?

NFC Championship Game

Packers at Seahawks – This game pits the hobbled Aaron Rodgers (Cal grad) vs Russell Wilson (Wisconsin, if only for 1 season) and the “Legion of Boom” Seattle defense. Rodgers looked more like Roy Rodgers than Aaron during the 1st half of Green Bay’s win over Dallas. However, he regained his form enough to pull out a  26-21 win, with the help of a questionable call. I actually think the warmer weather in Seattle will help Rodgers and Co. Last week, Seattle’s defense was dominating as always, albeit against a below-average Carolina offense that some feel shouldn’t have even made the playoffs. Seattle hasn’t played a team with a high-end QB since an Oct 12th loss to Tony Romo and the Dallas Cowboys, unless you consider Eli Manning elite and in 2014 I do not. In between the Seattle D saw a lot of St. Louis, Carolina, Arizona (w/o Carson Palmer) and SF’s Colin Kaepernick. This will be a test unlike any the Seahawks have seen in months.

Prediction: A heavy dose of powerful running. Marshawn Lynch and Eddie Lacy will run roughshod over the opposing defenses. Seattle’s D is strong in the secondary, but can be had on the ground. In their previous 3 losses they gave up over 100 yards rushing in each, including over 150 vs Dallas and Kansas City. Seattle has rattled off 7 wins in a row, but that streak comes to an end. Packers win in Seattle, 27-24.

AFC Championship Game

Colts at Patriots – This game has many intriguing storylines. Will Andrew Luck (Stanford grad) take the next step into being the game’s next elite QB? Do Tom Brady (Michigan) & Bill Belichick have one more run in them, or perhaps more? Will the Colts be able to stop the Patriots running game after giving up 200 yards in a 42-20 loss in Week 11? Who wins the coaching match-up, because we know Belichick will have something up his sleeve? Many are predicting the Patriots will use the beat down they gave the Colts on the ground and flip the script by coming with 2 TEs and 2 RBs, but then flex everyone out and spread the field. It’s that cat and mouse coaching game that will be interesting to watch. Andrew Luck stifled an impressive defense in Denver last week. The Colts Defense has been a surprise, giving up only 11.5 pts per game in 2 playoff matchups. If they can hold the Patriots under 24 I like their chances.

Prediction: Andrew Luck looks poised to take over the mantle as the best QB in the AFC. Manning and Brady are approaching 40. But I don’t believe Brady is ready to give up the crown just yet. (Manning gave it up the past 2 seasons with his noodle-arm performances in the postseason.) I love what Chuck Pagano has done in Indy, but Belichick is going to “Belichick.” It’s hard to bet against a NE team at home in the playoffs and personally I’d love to see Packers – Patriots in the Super Bowl. I think NE is too balanced for the Colts to shut them down. Patriots win, 31-20.

Super Bowl prediction to come next week. Thanks for reading!

Big Ten Shows Up on the Big Stage…Finally

The Big Ten has long been lauded as overrated, under-performing, and downright bad on the national scene. Coming into New Year’s Day, the Big Ten Conference was 2-3 in bowl games. But that wasn’t the story.  When January 1st came around, I looked at 4 games, Wisconsin vs Auburn, Minnesota vs Missouri, Michigan State vs Baylor & the big one, Ohio State vs Alabama, as a chance to change perceptions.

Big Ten teams were underdogs in all 4 New Year’s Day match-ups, and all 10 overall. Wisconsin, Minnesota and Ohio State had the “difficult” match-ups facing the powerful SEC, a conference so lauded by national pundits that at one point, 4 of the top 5 ranked teams were from the SEC. And no one thought Michigan State could run up and down the field with one of the nation’s top offenses. I tweeted the morning of January 1st:

Not only did the Big Ten reassert itself as a potential national power, it did so impressively. Michigan State overcame a 20-point 4th quarter deficit vs Baylor. The Spartans offense was able to play fast and score points with the vaunted Bears attack. Ohio State won against Alabama after being down 21-6 at one point. The Buckeyes ran all over the Crimson Tide, and made big plays in the passing game from Cardale Jones, starting his 2nd game EVER. Minnesota, naturally, was the only Big Ten team to lose on New Year’s Day. Wisconsin beat Auburn in a very exciting game after the Auburn kicker hit the upright on their first possession of OT.

Ohio State is playing in the National Championship game. Michigan Sate lost 2 games all year, both to teams playing in the title game. The Big Ten looks as fast, strong and athletic as most teams across the country, even if perception and the 5-5 bowl record don’t agree. Your top teams have to be elite and with the re-emergence of Ohio State, continued success of Sparty and Bucky, and a Harbaugh in Ann Arbor, the Big Ten is BACK.

College Football Can Learn From Hoops

One of the highlights of the early college basketball season was Duke at Wisconsin. Two top-5 teams battled it out at the Kohl Center as part of the Big Ten-ACC Challenge. This annual event featuring marquee match-ups of teams from each conference got me thinking: Can you imagine if Oregon had to play at Alabama the first weekend of the college football season?

I understand football is a more taxing sport and hence the cupcake and creampuff non-conference slate for many teams. But rarely do we get marquee non-conference match-ups in late August or early September. For every Wisconsin vs LSU and Michigan State at Oregon, there’s a Tennessee-Chattanooga at Alabama. College football teams understand one loss can ruin a dream of the 4-team playoff and a chance at a title. But look at the teams in the final 4, 3 with 1-loss, only 1 undefeated team. You can bet Florida State would have been a higher seed had they played at Baylor and lost a close game than squeaking out wins vs the lowly teams in the ACC all year.

Basketball teams understand that losses early don’t kill their chances. They can boost RPI, Strength-of-Schedule and other metrics the tournament committee loves by scheduling tough games in November/December because they’ll most likely get in the tourney anyway. Now with a playoff system in football, especially one that mostly likely expands to 8 teams, it would benefit all teams, and fans, to play heavyweight opponents early in the year.

Some of the more memorable moments in a season can start early. Also, we’ll have a better gauge on the teams if they play true opponents, rather than FCS and weak FBS teams. Michigan State at Oregon was a huge game early this year. The result gave us a better indication of each team’s true level. Michigan State vs directional Michigan school du jour does not help the committee determine their place among the elite.

I’d love to see college football, especially powers like Alabama, Ohio State, Auburn, Texas, Oklahoma, Oregon, USC commit to games like this. The SEC/Pac 12 football weekend would be epic Can you imagine Alabama having to travel to Eugene in late August, Auburn at USC, Ole Miss at UCLA?!

The 4-team playoff has already taken what makes “March Madness” work (limited participants, controversy, selection shows). Now they just need to create the early-season drama in the same fashion. Get it done, FBS!

Badgers, Gophers Showdown for the West

It’s been a long time since fans could say the rivalry game between Minnesota and Wisconsin meant anything more than the Axe. The longest running rivalry in Division I, now the FBS, hasn’t had many moments like Ohio State-Michigan with the winner having a leg up for the Rose Bowl and/or the Big Ten Championship. But this year the winner will take home Paul Bunyan’s Axe AND a chance at a Big Ten Championship, earning a spot in the title game versus Ohio State in Indianapolis.

Badgers Rolling

Wisconsin is used to this spot. They’ve been the big brother in this rivalry since 1993, constantly beating up on the Gophers and toying with their spirit. They are the prohibitive favorite again. Heisman candidate RB Melvin Gordon has been on fire. But the play of QB Joel Stave has been a difference maker since their early season losses. Connor McEvoy struggled throwing in a marquee match-up vs LSU, but Stave has solidified the QB spot and has been able to keep defenses honest against Gordon and the running game. As usual the offensive line is dominant, as is the defense. The Badgers are #1 in the Big Ten in scoring defense and total defense. They’ve found the tradition of Bucky once again, power running and stalwart defense.

Upstart Gophers

Minnesota is in unusual territory, having a shot at a Big Ten title, a Rose Bowl berth, and at minimum a Jan 1st bowl game. The blueprint for Minnesota’s success is very similar to Wisconsin’s, a pounding ground game and solid defense and special teams. However, none are at the level of Wisconsin just yet. RB David Cobb has been outstanding behind a good offensive line, but Cobb tweaked a hamstring in a 28-24 win at Nebraska last weekend. The improved secondary has been a huge plus for Minnesota. Outside of an ugly loss to Illinois, the Gophers have lost to 2 teams in the FBS Playoff, TCU & Ohio State. Minnesota comes in with an edge and feels they can win in Madison. Flawless execution are going to be needed and perhaps a huge special teams play could be the difference.

Prediction: The Gophers rush defense is 6th and the pass defense is 8th in the Big Ten. However, most fans would rather see the pass defense tested than see a motivated Melvin Gordon. Wisconsin’s defense was stout at Iowa and vs Nebraska in back-to-back wins. Minnesota is more physical than both those teams. The two teams are even in Punt Return and Kick Return avg. But MN has an edge in INTs, Punting, Kick Coverage, while WI has the better FG kicker. I don’t see the pass rush being a huge key because both teams will primarily run the ball. Since the game is in Madison, you have to like the Badgers to make another trip to the Big Ten title game and face Ohio Sate.

Wisconsin 27

Minnesota 21

Packers Take Place Atop NFC North

Thanks to another huge day from QB Aaron Rodgers and the defense, the Green Bay Packers have moved into a 1st-place tie with Detroit in the NFC North.

The offense set the tone early, the defense took over and the Packers dismantled the Philadelphia Eagles 53-20. The Eagles had come in leading the NFC in scoring average and with a 7-2 record. But with Mark Sanchez leading the offense in a frigid Lambeau Field, I was shocked the line was only GB -5.5. The Packers jumped out to a 30-6 halftime lead and never looked back. Rodgers finished 22-for-36 for 341 yards and 3 TDs. Randall Cobb and Jordy Nelson both went over 100 yards receiving. Rodgers has yet to throw an interception at home this season. I repeat: RODGERS HAS YET TO THROW AN INTERCEPTION AT HOME THIS SEASON.

The Lions lost at 9-1 Arizona Sunday in a defensive slugfest to drop to 7-3, tied with GB. So who has the advantage heading into the final 6 games of 2014? Here are 3 reasons GB will win the NFC North (though I do think both will make the playoffs):

1. Experience – GB has all the experience when it comes to winning games in December, earning playoff spots, and winning playoff games. Detroit has none of those. Rodgers, Matthews, Peppers, Nelson and maybe more importantly, Coach Mike McCarthy has loads of experience in tough, cold games when a win gets you in.

2. Power Running Game – Eddie Lacy hasn’t had a stellar year, but he is the epitome of ground and pound. His size and power will be important in cold games, when weather is a factor and the opponent is tired and battered from a 16-game season. Detroit’s Joique Bell is another physical runner, but the Lions primary back is Reggie Bush when healthy. I trust Lacy to get me 3 yards when I need 2 more than Bell.

3. Schedule – Detroit now has to go to red-hot New England for a date with one of the AFC’s best. They follow that up with a relatively easy stretch with 3 straight at home vs CHI, TB and MIN. However, if they come out of that at 10-4, the Lions finish the season at CHI and at GB to end the year. The Lions will most likely be 10-6, maybe 11-5 if they win at CHI. The Packers get the Patriots at home after traveling to Minnesota this weekend. Their final stretch includes vs ATL, at BUF, at TB and vs Detroit. I don’t see them losing any of those final 4. At worst the Packers go 11-5. At best, they win out and finish 13-3, easily winning the division.

5 Things I Like: Gopher Hoops Preview

Here is my quick look ahead at the 2014-2015 Minnesota Golden Gophers Basketball squad.

In Richard Pitino’s 2nd year he looks to build off an NIT Championship with 4 starters returning. He’ll need that experience to play well and the newcomers to grow up in the pre-conference schedule to make the NCAA’s out of the rugged and deep Big Ten.

Here are 5 things I like about the Gophers heading into their season tip-off versus #8 Louisville in Puerto Rico.

1. Backcourt – Returning your starting backcourt is always a good thing. More experience for Deandre Matheiu and Andre Hollins should help against bigger backcourts in the Big 10. Pitino likes the smaller, quicker guard comobs, not unlike his father’s teams at Louisville. Matheiu and Hollins have to cut down on the turnovers and Hollins has to stay healthy for this team to really take off.

2. Young Guns – Sophomore guard Daquein McNeil might be the most improved player on the team. He showed an assertiveness in the exhibition games unseen last season. McNeil’s defense can be counted on. Freshman Bakary Konate, a 6’11” center from Mali, plays like former Louisville and current Timberwolf center Gorgi Dieng, but is further along than Dieng was as a freshman. His wingspan and shot-blocking will be helpful when Elliot Eliason comes off the court. Konate may not be ready immediately though. Watch for 6’1″ freshmen guard Nate Mason and 6’8″ forward Josh Martin to improve and fight for minutes off the bench, especially against early-season cupcakes.

3. Squirrel – Junior college transfer Carlos Morris is the real deal. He’ll fill Austin Hollins’ spot in the starting line-up but plays a little different. Morris will provide a little more explosiveness on offense. If he can get after it on defense as well as Hollins, the Gophers should be tough to score against.

4. Frontcourt Balance – Eliason is a shot-blocker who has grown more athletic thanks to Pitino’s strength coach. Walker asserted himself offensively last year at times, including against preseason All-America Frank Kaminsky of Wisconsin. As long as those two stay healthy, the experience, size and off/def balance should present problems for opposing teams and advantage when matching up for Minnesota. A big test looms tonight, 11/14, in the first match-up against Louisville and their athletic bigs. Junior Joey King can be counted on to make shots from the outside and play outstanding defense. He’ll need to improve his rebounding to elevate his game personally.

5. Coach Richard Pitino – I’ve been a huge fan of Pitino’s since his first summer on the job. You could instantly see a difference in recruiting efforts, specifically in NY and other areas MN was not present. The physical demands and expectations he placed on his players made a difference in Eliason, Walker, Joey King and more. His style of play, not unlike his mentors (Rick Pitino and Billy Donovan) is uptempo and demands a lot of his guards. In today’s basketball landscape, guards dominate and win games in March. Pitino is preparing his team as such and I like what I saw in year 1.

Is the Soldier Field nightmare nearly over?

The Minnesota Vikings come out of their bye rested, rejuvenated and with a chance to get back to .500. The only thing standing in the way is the Chicago Bears. But the 2014 Bears have been letting anyone and everyone walk, run, pass and do pretty much whatever they want.

You’d think this would be the best opportunity for the Vikings to win at Soldier Field for the 1st time since 2007. The Bears defense is awful. Jay Cutler is giving the ball away. And the offensive line is letting Cutler get hammered.

But Vikings fans know all too well not to get too haughty. Yes, the Bears are down, but they still have more offensive talent than Minnesota. And Vegas oddsmakers have the Bears as favorites. Even with how bad the Bears have looked recently, I can’t say I would favor the Vikings either. If anything it’s a pick ‘em game.

So what is it about Soldier Field that gives the Purple so many troubles? Is it the long, poorly manicured turf? Is it simply Chicago has had better teams than the Vikings?

Whatever it is, it could be over Sunday. Or it could be the 7th straight defeat in the Windy City against the worst Bears defense in years.

5 Things I like: MN Timberwolves

The NBA season has started. Sometimes it’s hard to notice amongst the ever-growing NFL coverage. And even among NBA teams, it’s hard to follow teams without Cavaliers, Lakers, Knicks and Bulls on their jersey. The Timberwolves went through a whirlwind of changes in the off-season. The Kevin Love saga is over, 1st overall pick Andrew Wiggins is here, Ricky Rubio still can’t shoot, and Flip Saunders is VP of Basketball Operations, Head Coach, and probably cooks the food in Target Center.

Here are 5 things I’ve liked thus far in the 2014-15 edition of the Timberwolves (currently 2-2):

1. 4th Quarter Defense. The demise of the team last year was their inability to get stops at the most important part of the game. The Wolves horrible record in close games was an obvious flaw because of their porous end-of-game defense. Part of the problem was personnel. Kevin Love was immune to defense, Kevin Martin had a hard time getting stops on 2-guards. Nikola Peckovic is a bruising center, but not a rim protector. But they didn’t have a player who could guard the 2 or 3 position where most of the best NBA players play (Carmelo, LeBron, Durant). Andrew Wiggins provides much more athleticism, albeit raw ability. He should become a key defender late in games. For some reason, former coach Rick Adelman also didn’t like having Rubio in late in games because of his inability to hit big shots. But taking him off the court removed a solid defender, a top 3 steals guy, from the defense. Saunders seems content to let Rubio roam defensively late in games.

2. Anthony Bennett & Shabazz Muhammad. These two gained notoriety for their physical transformations. But their overall improvement on defense, shooting and conditioning has been a surprise to me. Bennett looks more like what Cleveland expected with the 1st overall pick in the 2013 draft. Injuries and health problems gave him fits in his only year with the Cavs. ‘Bazz is providing some scoring off the bench. His true asset to this team is his ability to provide a spark on offense. However, I’m impressed with his overall effort on defense and in rebounding. So far Muhammad has exceeded my expectations in his year + with the Wolves.

3. Gorgi Dieng emergence. Dieng is the perfect complement to Peckovic. He’s a rim protector, shot blocker, and can make the 15-18′ jump shot. These are all opposite to what Peckovic excels at. Dieng provides flexibility and depth to Saunders’ frontcourt. If he needs a shot blocker in at the end of games, Dieng can provide that. If the Wolves need to stop the pick n roll, Pek is better served on the floor. I love Dieng as the future center for the Wolves, but right now he feels the perfect, and much-needed role off the bench.

4. Kevin Martin seems rejuvenated. Martin was a disappointment in my mind in 2013-14. He was apathetic on defense and didn’t provide as much scoring as one would have hoped. Some of that could be due to Love’s insistence to be the primary scorer on a bad team. But Martin has changed. It appears he has a renewed interest in defense and knocking down key shots. His late-game performance against the Bulls brought back memories of Sam Cassell. He dropped 26 points in a road win Wednesday night vs the Brooklyn Nets and is emerging as the offensive leader this team needs and expects.

5. Mo Williams. Williams is a crafty veteran player who has made big shots wherever he’s been. He’s the combo guard the Wolves thought JJ Barea would be, but he’s much better distributing as point guard, and taking good shots as the off guard. Williams veteran leadership will go a long way with Rubio, Wiggins, Zach Lavine, and Anthony Bennett. I love his game. He can be paired with Rubio at the end of games because he can take the big shot that Rubio can’t, while not losing much defensively. He’s a key cog in the development and success of the 2014-15 Wolves.

I could probably make a list of 10 things I don’t like about the Wolves this season, but hey, it’s early and they’re 2-2. Lot of optimism on this Wolves team. If Flip can push the right buttons, keep Pek healthy, and bring the kids along this could be a very exciting team. Even Bill Simmons has them high on his “Must Watch” list. Optimism is high at Target Center…at least for now.


My early-season League Pass MVPs are Minnesota and Phoenix. I'm sending 2 Ewing Theory committee members to 'Sota on Monday.

— Bill Simmons (@BillSimmons) November 2, 2014

Young Vikings Turn the Tables

The Minnesota Vikings have played a tired song for their fans the past few years. It goes something like this.

We’ll tease you with a solid defensive effort for 58 minutes.Our offense will be conservative because we don’t trust our QB. We’ll allow our opponent to hang around just long enough. Then, we’ll turn the Boyers, Ortons, & Glennons of the world into Montana, Unitas, & Elway and you’ll beat us with a fine 2-minute drill.

This script played itself out again Sunday, as the Vikings let a game-long lead slip away with 2:02 on the clock. After a dominant 56 minutes the Vikings defense wilted to future Hall-of-Fame candidate Mike Glennon. The Buccaneers are terrible, especially when RB Doug Martin left with an injury, but they looked awfully explosive and took advantage of some penalties to take a 13-10 lead with just over 2 minutes to go.

But this time it was different. It took the youngest players on the Vikings roster to assert themselves, to will the team to victory. It wasn’t Chad Greenway, Brian Robison or Greg Jennings making the big plays. It was Teddy Bridgewater throwing to Cordarrelle Patterson to move the ball close enough for Blair Walsh to kick the game-tying FG. And in OT, even though Tampa won the toss and got the ball first, it was Anthony Barr stripping the ball and returning it for a game-winning TD.

The song and dance have become tiresome for Viking fans. “Same ol’ same ol’ Vikings,” they say. Sunday was different. The team feels different with Teddy at the helm. He’s not a finished product, but at least you feel he’ll stay composed long enough to move the ball. Bridgewater did get lucky when a Buccaneer DB dropped an INT chance on the final drive. However, he made the throws when he had to. Barr, on the other side of the field, had a relatively quiet day until the final play. His size, speed and strength are foreign to observers of the Vikings LB spot in the last 25 years.

For at least a day, the young kids turned the course of Vikings football on its head. For at least a day, it wasn’t the “same ol’ Vikings.”