SportsPen October 23, 2017

Sam Ali joins Blake in studio to talk about the MHSAA playoffs and who has the best chance to make a deep run; Should the Packers sign another quarterback during the bye week? Sam puts Jim Harbaugh on the “warm seat” and says expectations shouldn’t be any higher next season either.


Detroit Tigers season preview: playoffs? – April 3, 2017

Today is the day.

Opening Day.


Is there reason for optimism for these Tigers? Of course there is. This is virtually the same roster that came within a hair of the wild card last year. But their core superstars of Victor Martinez, Miguel Cabrera, Justin Verlander and Ian Kinsler are an average age of 35 and will be making a combined $85 million, or nearly half of the Tigers’ payroll. What does that mean? This could be the last chance this group has to win a World Series before Al Avila breaks up the party. It could be too late already.

I talked about the pitching in the last blog, now I’ll talk about everything else.

Budding superstars?

Nicholas (not Nick anymore!) Castellanos is poised to have the best season of his career. He was pegged early on as a potential superstar, destined to be the next great Tiger ever since he was drafted. Now is the time for him to take on that role.

Castellanos posted a .285/.331/.885 split last year (batting average, on base percentage, on base plus slugging percentage, or OPS) with 18 home runs, all of which were career-highs. Castellanos missed 52 games last year however, mostly due to a fluke injury when he was hit by a pitch right on his hand, breaking it. He missed just 20 games the previous two seasons combined, so I expect him to return to that.

Look for Castellanos to be an All-Star. He’s got the power, now he’s hitting for average and he’ll play a full season this year. If his fielding can improve (he was -11 in defensive runs saved according to FanGraphs), then he can become a bonafide superstar within a year or two.

JD Martinez is also right on the cusp between good and great, but injuries will be the difference. He’s already on the disabled list, an ominous start to the season considering his injuries last season. The Tigers desperately need him to stay healthy this year, considering the sad state of center field. If he can match or surpass his 2015 numbers (38 HR, 102 RBI) then the rest of the lineup will benefit. But his health will remain a concern until he proves that it’s not.

Will the real Justin Upton please stand up?
Which Justin Upton will show up this year? The one who struck out at an astonishing rate and got benched, or the one who caught fire and belted 22 home runs in the final 68 games? I have no idea. Past performance would indicate the latter, but past performance really doesn’t mean much, does it?

Final prognosis
Everyone on the team realizes that the playoff window is rapidly closing. I think that desperation will drive the Tigers to make the playoffs. No selling at the trade deadline, but they won’t be loading up either. They’ll be healthier than last season, which is pretty easy to do. I see a wild card appearance in their future, but not much else. After this season, we could be in for a few lean years as Avila rebuilds the roster and the farm system. Enjoy this last ride

Record: 87-75
Playoffs:Wild Card
All-Stars: Nicholas Castellanos, Ian Kinsler, Miguel Cabrera, Michael Fulmer

World Series: Cleveland Indians vs. Chicago Cubs – Indians win in 6 games

Linda Forte, Comerica’s chief diversity officer, to retire after 42 years

Linda Forte’s 42-year career at Comerica Bank will come to a close in August.

Based in Detroit and a longtime community activist, the senior vice president of business affairs and chief diversity officer announced Thursday that she will retire from the company.

Nathaniel Bennett, senior vice president of talent acquisition, will add the title of chief diversity officer after Forte’s retirement. He will continue to be based in the bank’s headquarters city of Dallas.

“I have been blessed with a career in which I could fulfill my passion to empower others,” Forte said in a statement. “It has been a privilege to help raise appreciation and support for the diverse members of our community, as well as make our communities stronger through corporate contributions and volunteerism.”

Forte has been actively involved in the city of Detroit, serving on boards for the Economic Development Corp., Local Development Finance Authority, Neighborhood Development Corp., Henry Ford Health System, New Detroit and Downtown Detroit Business Improvement Zone. Forte was also appointed as a commissioner for the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department in 2011 by Mayor Dave Bing.

“Under Linda’s leadership, Comerica has contributed millions of dollars to nonprofits in the communities we serve, provided our colleagues meaningful community volunteer opportunities, and driven our diversity program forward, making it one of the best and most recognized in the country,” Ralph W. Babb Jr., chairman and CEO, said in a statement.

Forte has earned several awards during her career at Comerica, including the 2014 Michigan Roundtable for Diversity and Inclusion Annual Humanitarian Award, the 2014 Michigan Women’s Foundation Woman of Achievement and Courage and was recognized in 2016 byBlack Enterprises’ “Top Executives in Diversity,” according to the release.

She was named to Crain’sMost Influential Women list in 2007 and 100 Black Business Leaders list in 1998.

Bennett, 44, became vice president of corporate human resources in 2009 and has been included in Comerica’s diversity program since then. He was promoted to senior vice president in 2010, making him responsible for all talent acquisition at Comerica. He graduated from Rice University with a degree in political science.

“When I joined Comerica, I recognized immediately the robustness and vigor around our diversity and inclusion efforts, and I am very enthusiastic about carrying that baton forward,” Bennett said in a statement.

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Road-Weary Spartans Drub Illini

The road-weary Spartans (15-1, 2-1 Big Ten) finally returned to the friendly confines of the Breslin Center Thursday night to face Illinois (8-8, 0-3).

“We’ve been on the road for so long, I think everyone was ready to be home to play in front of our home crowd,” said senior guard Bryn Forbes.

MSU spent nearly a month and four games away from home, going 3-1 in the stretch. Tom Izzo’s squad was certainly beat up after dropping an ugly game to Iowa then winning an uglier game at Minnesota, both without star Denzel Valentine.

To make matters worse, pesky Illinois was next on the schedule. In the previous nine meetings, MSU was just 4-5, including two home losses. The Spartans did catch a rare lucky break when it was announced that Illinois star Kendrick Nunn would miss the game for the birth of his son. That left the Illini without 18.5 points and 5.5 rebounds.

The scoring was sparked largely by Eron Harris early on, who scored seven points in the first five minutes to give MSU a 16-7 edge.

“Eron Harris had his best half of basketball the first half without doing a lot offensively,” said Tom Izzo after the game. “Defensively he was much better than he’s been.”

Illinois guard and second leading scorer Malcolm Hill was taken out of the game after just three minutes due to foul trouble. Harris, who has struggled defensively this season, was matched up with Hill and locked him down for the most part.

“Just the fact that he [Izzo] put me on their best player today tells me something about my abilities and I already know my abilities,” said Harris. “Makes me feel good that he has that trust in me.”

MSU blew the game open with an 16-2 run late in the first half to go up 39-18, capped off by the Kirk Cousins “YOU LIKE THAT?!” They took a 47-22 lead into the break, thanks in large part to 61 percent shooting. Hill was held in check, only converting one basket in five attempts.

“Remember Illinois is missing a good player, and of course so are we,” said Izzo. “We jumped on them early and that was the difference in the game.”

The second half was much like the first for MSU. They hit five of their first six shots and extended their lead to 30, never looking back. State ruled the paint with an iron fist, outscoring the Illini 50-20 down low and outrebounding them by 19. The game mercifully ended at 79-54.

Forbes led all scorers with 17 points on 7-13 shooting. He has assumed a more aggressive scoring role with his backcourt mate Valentine sidelined with a knee injury.

“Defenses are playing me a little different, so that makes it more difficult,” said Forbes. “But I’ve had a lot of his help, him telling me ‘try this, try this, this will get you open,’ and it’s been working. I think it made me a little bit better, made me do a little bit more and lead a little bit more. I’m ready for him to be back though.”

The Spartan scoring was incredibly balanced, with nine players scoring four points or more. Matt Costello continued his career-best streak, putting up nine points and nabbing 14 boards. He is now averaging 13.3 points and 11.8 rebounds in his last four games.

One of the keys to the victory was the transition game. MSU outscored Illinois 17-4 on the fast break.

“We got our running game going and were getting out in transition and moved the ball real well,” said freshman Matt McQuaid. “The wings were running and it opened up a lot of stuff. Offensively we moved the ball real well and got great ball movement and it paid off.”

A trip to Happy Valley is up next, as the Spartans will take on Penn State Sunday afternoon. The Nittany Lions are no cellar dweller; they nearly knocked off Maryland on the road earlier in the season. Tip-off is scheduled for noon and can be seen on the Big Ten Network.

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Emotional, Gritty Win for Spartans

Bodies were flying all over, emotions were running high, the Izzone was getting restless. This was supposed to be an impressive victory to show off to the 2000 National Championship team. Instead it was a dogfight. Florida held a one-point lead with 7:16 to play. With emotions running so high for the Spartans, there was no way they were going to lose.

“We weren’t hitting shots tonight so it was a dogfight, we had to really battle,” said Mark Clark Jr. “I think where they were kind of lacking where we had was strength and that showed on the boards.”

Matt Costello knocked down a jumper to regain the lead, then Bryn Forbes buried a three to take a four-point edge with six minutes left. The Gators’ Devin Robinson sunk a jumper on the very next possession to silence the crowd. That about summed up the game flow.

Two straight stops for MSU led to a Marvin Clark Jr. tip in to extend the advantage to six with 150 seconds remaining. Casey Hill took the ball in transition after a Forbes miss and scored to keep the lead at four just under a minute left. But a pair of free throws by Valentine would ice the game as MSU survived the Gator scare 58-52.

“Florida came in here and they were on a mission to try to play as physical and upbeat as they can and they did a good job of that,” said Denzel Valentine. “It was a low scoring game, we didn’t do our best offensively, but at the end of the day you have to find ways to win and that’s what we did tonight.”

The first half was even more of a defensive battle. Florida turned up the pressure and forced nine first half turnovers for nine points. Both teams struggled to shoot the rock as well, combining to shoot 2-20 from distance.

“I’m not so sure Mo [Peterson] would have missed some of those wide open shots, but it was a knock-down, drag-out, very physical game,” said Coach Izzo.

Florida big man John Egbunu picked up his fourth foul in the first three minutes of the second half, sidelining him for most of the game. He was the biggest player on the court in the few minutes he managed to play. He eventually fouled out without making a single basket.

“We’re a different team when he’s out there,” said Florida head coach Mike White. “It’s just disappointing, and I wish he would have gotten the opportunity to play.”

Valentine led all scorers with 17 points, but struggled to find his rhythm. He shot a paltry 3-11 from 3-point land and 5-17 overall. But his free throws late in the game helped seal the victory for his Spartans.

“‘Zel still had 17 tonight but that’s not the normal ‘Zel that we see every day,” said Clark, who tallied five points and six rebounds. “For our team to be able to bounce back and everybody come in and give something, I think that shows a lot. Especially if we’re not shooting the ball well I think that shows a lot that we’re able to tough it out, play defense and rebound and still get a win.”

Izzo called Forbes his “star of the game,” despite shooting just 1-7 from beyond the arc. He finished with 12 points and added a season-high six rebounds.

“He missed every good shot he took, and I thought he took all good shots. The job he did in tracking down loose balls and playing hard and going and getting rebounds and things we’ve been pushing on him, really, really proud of Bryn.”

The 2000 National Championship team was honored at halftime, with nearly all members in attendance. They defeated Florida 89-76.

“It was definitely a blessing having them in the building and in the locker room before the game,” said Tum Tum Nairn. “There were a lot of emotions flowing through us before the game. I just think it was a special atmosphere tonight.”

The Spartans get a well-deserved break now with a week off before a trip to Northeastern.

“This is gonna be a good break for us now,” said Izzo. “I thought Zel looked really worn and a couple of the other guys did, but it’s been a really good three of four weeks. Now we get a break for finals.”

Harris Breaks Out of Slump in Hawk Smackdown

Ah, it’s good to be on top.

The Spartans played their first game as the top-ranked team in the nation since this time two seasons ago. Maryland-Eastern Shore was the sacrificial lamb for Wednesday’s contest, entering the game with a 1-7 record. They would leave the Breslin Center with a 1-8 record, falling to MSU 78-35.

State went on a 22-4 run midway through the first half, sparked by eight straight points from Denzel Valentine. The Hawks ended the half on a woeful 2-16 shooting streak. The Spartans weren’t much better however. Their half ended with a scoring drought of over five minutes, yet they still controlled a 33-16 edge. Sharing the ball was a priority, as MSU assisted on all but two buckets in the entire game. This comes as no surprise, considering State leads the nation in assists.

UMES was simply outplayed in every major category, and the worst was yet to come. The Spartans constantly extended their lead through the entire second half, thanks in large part to 25 percent shooting from the Hawks in the frame.

One major difference between the two squads was the strength of the bench. MSU’s bench not only outscored the Hawks bench, it outscored their entire team 40-35. Nine Spartans scored at least four points, compared to just four Hawks.

“We got the deepest bench in America right now,” said Marvin Clark Jr. “With the rotation we got right now, it’s gonna wear teams down and that’ll help us in the long run.”

Clark turned in his second solid game in a row, picking up nine points and three boards. The sophomore missed the first two games of the season due to a foot injury and had played more than six minutes in a game only three times.

Another player who found his shot was Eron Harris. He put up 12 points, his best in a Spartan uniform. But what was most encouraging was his perfect shooting from beyond the arc. In his last three games, Harris was only shooting 33 percent from the field and 20 percent from deep.

“I’ve been trying to get up a lot more shots off the court,” said Harris. “I told myself I need to start shooting and hitting my shots. Today I just felt in the rhythm, feeling more confident. I’ve been preparing better before the game. My ability on defense is also getting me ready to play better on offense.”

Player of the Year frontrunner Valentine notched his fourth double-double of the season in the victory, picking up 11 points and 10 rebounds to go along with six dimes. Solid numbers considering he was feeling under the weather.

“He didn’t play with the same vigor that he plays with,” said Izzo. “He still played good, he’s just a little sick. Last night and during the pregame walkthrough today, I could really notice it.

The win over the Hawks moves the Spartans to 10-0, which ties the program’s second-best start ever. Valentine, the undisputed leader of the team, won’t let that No. 1 ranking get to the heads of any players.

“It’s tough because there are a lot of distractions but we need to be a team that can handle distractions when there are other things that are going on,” said Valentine. “I think this will be a lesson for us and will teach us not to let distractions hurt us.”

As usual, Coach Izzo found something to get upset about, even in a 43-point victory. Tonight, it was offensive rebounding.

“We’re just not sending the guys to the boards,” said Izzo. “As I think about our reunion team coming in, hell they had more offensive rebounds getting dressed than our guys get in the game.”

MSU’s next game is on Saturday, when the Florida Gators will come to town. The 2000 National Champion team will be honored during the game. Tip-off is scheduled for 6 p.m.

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Sluggish Spartans Survive Cardinal Scare

Don’t you hate it when the airline loses your luggage? Well Michigan State must’ve lost their legs in baggage claim, because they were dead on their feet in the first ten minutes.

Louisville was faster and straight-up dominated the Spartans early on. The Cardinals looked hungry to avenge their Elite Eight loss at the hands of MSU last season.

Before all the fans were in their seats, the Cardinals had an eight point lead. MSU didn’t hit a field goal until almost nine minutes into the game. The Cards capitalized on State’s fatigue and pressed early and often, forcing 11 first half turnovers.

Denzel Valentine and company finally woke up from their coma 12 minutes into the first half. An 8-0 run cut the Louisville lead to four and brought the crowd back in the game. Valentine put an exclamation point on the first half with an acrobatic lay-in as time expired. State never led in the and trailed by three going into the break.

“They brought the toughness and intensity to us early on and we didn’t like that,” said Valentine. “Our motto is players play and tough players win. We didn’t show that in the first half.”

Izzo must have handed out espresso shots to his team at halftime because they finally looked alive and like the No. 3 team in the nation. The two squads traded punches through the first few minutes, neither team able to gain any ground. A Valentine layup tied the game for the first time with 10 mins to go. Kenny Goins hit a turnaround jumper with 6:35 to go to take the first Spartan lead.

Bryn Forbes put the Spartans on his back in the second half, draining three after three from the corner. After the game, Valentine called him the “best shooter in the nation.” Forbes finished 5-9 from range for 20 points.

With just under five minutes to play, Tum Tum Nairn made the play that turned the tide for MSU. He stole the ball from Trey Lewis and pushed it up the floor, getting it to Valentine who served up an alley-oop to Deyonta Davis. Five-point lead for the Spartans and all the momentum heading into the final four minutes.

Lewis hit a trio of free throws to cut the deficit to two with just under a minute to go. The Spartans responded with a pair of their own from Valentine. The Cardinals were forced to foul and MSU came up clutch at the stripe. Valentine nailed two more to keep the lead at four with 5.7 seconds left, essentially icing the game. MSU survived 71-67. They drilled 12-14 free throws in the second half, quite the departure from last season.

“I was like man, Coach is gonna lose it tomorrow on that film if I miss these,” said Valentine. “I’m not trying to hear that. We wouldn’t have been in that position if I made plays early on in the game, so I figured I had to step up and make those plays to make up for it.”

“White knuckler right down to the end,” said Izzo. “I feel fortunate to win. I almost feel like we stole it, and you got to do that in order to have a great season. I wouldn’t say we didn’t deserve to, because we fought back, but I thought they played awfully well for a long period of time in that game.”

“They gave us their best punch and we took it, but we can’t do that,” said Nairn. “We have to be able to hit first. We fought back and responded and got the win.”

Nairn seemed to have left his shot in California after stroking the ball well in the Wooden Legacy. He was 0-5 from the field and 0-2 from distance.

“I shot the ball with confidence and they just didn’t go in,” said Nairn. “I’m gonna keep shooting.”

Valentine led all scorers with 25 points, making it three out of his last four games dropping at least 25. But he struggled with his shot early, just as the rest of the team did. He was perfect from the charity stripe at 8-8.

Goins was the surprise of the game for MSU. The former walk-on, who is recovering from hernia surgery, grabbed a game-high 13 rebounds in 18 minutes to go along with the clutch jumper late in the game.

“I give a lot of credit to Kenny because he’s a hard working guy,” said Nairn. “Comes in and works hard every day and never complains, he’s humble. But I’m so glad he had a breakout rebounding game this particular game against a lot of giants. It was special to see I’m happy for him.”

Michigan State’s next game is on Saturday against Binghamton. Tip-off at the Breslin Center is scheduled for noon.