The Georgia Bulldogs set a record this year by having 15 players selected in a single NFL draft. LSU was the next most for 2022 with 10 picks.
Then there was the team with nine.
Not Alabama. Not Clemson. Not Ohio State.
Not anyone from the SEC or Big Ten or any “Power 5” conference.
It was Cincinnati. Luke Fickell’s Cincinnati Bearcats.
Nine draft picks in a single class is an astounding accomplishment for any program. Since 2016, only Alabama, Georgia, Ohio State, Michigan and LSU have boasted classes with more. Yet to do it at an American Athletic Conference school with a 40,000-seat stadium is next level stuff.
Put it this way, 13 of Georgia’s 15 draft picks arrived in Athens as either four- or five-star recruits per Rivals.com. None of Cincinnati’s were as highly regarded coming out of high school — each was a three-star or below per Rivals. Only Jerome Ford, who transferred from Alabama and was picked in the fifth round by Cleveland, could be considered a coveted recruit. But he left Tuscaloosa seeking playing time.
The Bearcats’ draft bonanza left NFL front offices buzzing about Fickell’s ability to scout high school talent, develop it at the college level and build a culture of competition.
The success stories included Ahmad “Sauce” Gardner, who Fickell said weighed 158 pounds as a gangly cornerback at Detroit King High School, winding up going fourth overall to the New York Jets. And Bryan Cook, a zero-star recruit who transferred in from Howard only to become a second-round pick at safety for Kansas City.
And, well, any and all of them.
“Obviously your first thought is you’re excited for all the guys and their families,” Fickell said this week, before laughing. “Then you get nervous and worried, ‘Hey, we’ve got to replace nine guys who just got drafted into the NFL.’”
The Bearcats started 13-0 last year and broke a glass ceiling of sorts by becoming the first non-Power 5 program to earn a playoff berth. UC lost 27-6 to Alabama in the national semifinals, but the team accounted for itself well.
Then came the draft, which should eliminate any thought that this UC team just snuck into the playoff simply due to weaker AAC competition. The Bearcats had talent. A lot of talent.
All of this bodes well for the future of the program, especially as it heads to the Big 12. Fickell has constantly recommitted to rather than jump to what he calls programs with “bigger logos or bigger stadiums.” The pride in maxing out a team and seeing players achieve professional opportunities that were no way promised to them carries its own type of worth.
Before taking over at Cincinnati in 2017, Fickell spent 15 seasons as an assistant and interim head coach at his alma mater, Ohio State. He coached and recruited plenty of players where the idea was, “Three years and we’ll get you out of here.”
He says the excitement of seeing a player drafted is mostly the same — be he a five-star or a no-star. There is, however, a little more pride in knowing a lightly recruited player likely had to go through more adversity to make it.
“To see them get through those struggles, to see that evolution,” Fickell said.
Winning tends to help recruiting, and UC is doing that — the Bearcats are 44-7 since 2018. Yet maybe nothing means more to the kind of players you win with than knowing there is a proven path to the next level. It attracts recruits and motivates the players already within the program.
“When we see things it becomes easier to believe,” Fickell said. “I think that’s true for all of us, including the coaches … so now it’s, ‘let’s make this a habit.’”
Besides the character and talent of the players themselves, Fickell points to a few keys to the development. The big one is consistency. UC has had the same strength and conditioning coach and program, the same offensive coordinator and system and until 2022 — when now Notre Dame head coach Marcus Freeman left — the same defensive coordinator. The system didn’t change though as Fickell, a former DC with the Buckeyes, remained heavily involved.
“The consistency gave our kids an opportunity to grow,” Fickell said.
Then it’s creating a twist on what Fickell calls a “family atmosphere.” He wants every player to care about each other, to encourage each other, to love and celebrate the success of each other. However, he also wants them competing against each other at nearly everything.
“Then you have growth,” he said.
It sounds simple. It isn’t. What Cincinnati just did is nearly unheard of in football. Getting one guy to go from a three-star or below recruit to the NFL is an accomplishment. Nine in one year?
Even monied programs that routinely get the pick of the best recruits struggle to develop talent — the University of Texas, for example, had zero draft picks this year.
Fickell said that one of the keys for UC, especially as it heads to the Big 12, is maintaining its identity. He’ll gladly take talented players, but he wants them to have the same mindset.
“We aren’t going to do anything different than we have done,” Fickell said. “We are going to recruit the same kids with the same general philosophy.”
He can point to it working.
“It might open a door,” Fickell said of the recruiting benefits. “It might crack a door. Where in the past we had to pound on that door or kick that door in, now recruits are welcoming us in. That part gets a bit easier.”
Picking the right players and the right personalities and then coaching them up is the hard part.
Cincinnati just made it look easy this year.
Al Horford, Marcus Smart won’t be available for Celtics in Eastern Conference Finals Game 1; Heat will be without Kyle Lowry
The Boston Celtics say Al Horford and Marcus Smart are both out for Game 1 of the NBA Eastern Conference Finals against the Heat, who will also have Kyle Lowry (hamstring) out of action, on Tuesday night in Miami.
Horford is in the league’s health and safety protocols, the team announced. And Boston is prepared for the likely scenario of him remaining in the protocols through Game 2 on Thursday, sources told ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski.
Smart won’t play due to a midfoot sprain suffered in Boston’s Game 7 win against the Milwaukee Bucks on Sunday.
Smart, the NBA Defensive Player of the Year, had been listed as questionable for the series opener, with coach Ime Udoka saying Monday that the veteran guard’s foot was “tender and sore” and that he was set to receive round-the-clock treatment for it before testing it ahead of Tuesday’s game.
Horford’s absence, meanwhile, comes as a surprise — and it’s a significant one. He had a big series against the Bucks, including 30 points in a Game 4 win. And he contested 159 shots as the closest defender in the series, the highest mark for any player in a series since Second Spectrum began tracking the stat in 2013-14.
This marks the third time Horford has been placed in the league’s health and safety protocols. He tested positive for COVID-19 during the preseason, and then was placed in the protocols again in December.
Boston will have Robert Williams III available. The center has blossomed into a huge part of Boston’s team this season, playing 61 games while averaging 10 points and 9.6 rebounds — all career-highs. But he missed the end of the regular season and the beginning of the playoffs after undergoing surgery on his left knee, and then missed time against Milwaukee with a bone bruise in the same knee. He was available for Game 7 against the Bucks but did not play.
Sources told Wojnarowski that Williams had a couple good days of practice and should be able to play significant minutes in Game 1 on Tuesday night.
News of the absences of both Smart and Horford had an immediate sports betting impact. The Game 1 point spread moved from Heat -2.5 to Heat -4 at Caesars Sportsbook.
Charles Barkley picks Mavericks over Warriors for interesting reason
Barkley’s interesting reason for picking Mavs over Warriors originally appeared on NBC Sports Bayarea
Charles Barkley made his pick during “Inside the NBA” on Sunday after watching the Mavericks’ shocking Game 7 upset over the Phoenix Suns — and he thinks Dallas is well on its way to another playoff stunner.
But his reason why might surprise you.
“I think the Mavs are going to be better at small ball because of Luka [Dončić]. Nobody can handle that dude one-on-one,” Barkley said. “And if [Jalen] Brunson and [Spencer] Dinwiddie keep playing like they’re playing, this team is going to be tough to beat.
“So I’m going with the upset. I’m going with the Mavs.”
It’s true that the No. 3-seeded Warriors will have their work cut out for them with the No. 4-seeded Mavericks, but Barkley’s assumption that Dallas will prevail when it comes to small ball is questionable at best.
Golden State has been known for its small-ball efficiency not only this postseason but in past years as well, first with the original “Death Lineup” that featured Kevin Durant, Klay Thompson, Steph Curry, Draymond Green and Andre Iguodala — a blend of smaller players who were still versatile enough to hold their own against larger opponents.
That strategy was reborn this season as the Warriors’ high-scoring, small-ball lineup of the Splash Brothers, Green, Andrew Wiggins and Jordan Poole decimated the Denver Nuggets during the opening playoff round.
The Dubs were forced to go big in the semifinal round, however, in order to power past the Memphis Grizzlies and advance, with Kevon Looney stepping up in a huge way to bully and bash his way to a game-saving 22 rebounds against the Ja Morant-less lineup in Game 6.
And while it remains to be seen how Golden State’s new small-ball lineup will fare against the Mavericks — if the five see the court together at all — Barkley would be smart to remember the Warriors’ reputation when it comes to big things coming in small packages.
As far as “nobody” being able to handle Dončić, the Warriors are up for the challenge no matter who’s on the floor.
Liverpool beat Southampton to take title race to final day
Jurgen Klopp rated Liverpool’s chances of winning the Premier League as “not likely but possible” after the under-strength quadruple chasers took the title race to the final day of the season with a 2-1 win against Southampton on Tuesday.
After Liverpool defeated Chelsea on penalties in a gruelling FA Cup final just three days earlier, Klopp took a gamble with nine changes at St Mary’s.
Despite effectively fielding a reserve team and trailing to Nathan Redmond’s early strike, Liverpool hit back through goals from Takumi Minamino and Joel Matip.
The Reds are just one point behind leaders Manchester City, with both teams having one game left.
A title race for the ages will go City’s way if they win against Aston Villa at the Etihad Stadium on Sunday.
Klopp insisted at the weekend that he does not expect City to drop points against Villa.
But Liverpool would be crowned champions for the second time in three seasons if they beat Wolves at Anfield and City fail to win.
“Of course it is unlikely because City play at home against Aston Villa, who play only on Thursday. It is possible, not likely but possible. That is enough,” Klopp said.
“It is our last home game of the season, the atmosphere will be outstanding, and we will try to use it.
“Of course it could happen. Football is a tricky game sometimes. The only chance we had tonight was to win. We did our job. We never give up.”
Klopp’s side will be expected to do their part of the equation against Wolves, especially now their refreshed key players can return to the team.
Sadio Mane, Luis Diaz, Andrew Robertson, Thiago Alcantara and Trent Alexander-Arnold were among those left out against Southampton, while Mohamed Salah and Virgil van Dijk were sidelined with injuries suffered at Wembley.
“I never had a group like this. They push each other constantly. In the end, it is absolutely outstanding and tonight is really special,” Klopp said.
“We would have had much more problems today if we’d played the guys who played 120 minutes on Saturday.
“If it hadn’t worked out, it would have been 100 per cent my responsibility. Now it worked out and the boys should be really proud of that.”
– History bid –
City boss Pep Guardiola said he planned to watch the game on television and if he tuned in, it would have made for frustrating viewing as Southampton squandered the lead.
But it was Riyad Mahrez’s missed penalty in the final minutes of City’s 2-2 draw at West Ham on Sunday which had given Liverpool renewed hope of catching the leaders.
And the Reds, hoping to become the first English club to win all four major trophies in one season, will settle their bid for historyin the last two games of their incredible, marathon campaign.
First, Liverpool will try to avoid a repeat of 2019, when they beat Wolves on the last day but were still pipped to the title by City.
Then they head to Paris to face Real Madrid in the Champions League final on May 28.
Liverpool were hit on the break when Ralph Hasenhuttl’s side took the lead after 13 minutes.
Redmond sprinted away down the left flank, cutting inside to the edge of the area and unleashed a fierce strike that took a deflection off James Milner as it flashed into the far corner.
With their title hopes in jeopardy, Liverpool showed the desire and character that inspired Klopp to label them “mentality monsters”.
Japan forward Minamino made the most of a rare Premier League start with a brilliant equaliser in the 27th minute.
Joe Gomez fizzed a pass into Jota and his perfectly weighted lay-off reached Minamino, who beat Alex McCarthy at the near post with a ferocious rising drive.
Liverpool’s relentless pressure was rewarded in the 67th minute.
Matip and Kyle Walker-Peters challenged for Tsimikas’s corner and the ball looped in over McCarthy, forcing City to keep the champagne on ice for now.
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