Gophers and Bracketology: They’re a 3 seed

From the way-too-early-to-be-relevant department, ESPN’s Joe Lunardi has Minnesota as a No. 3 seed for the NCAA men’s basketball tournament, aka March Madness. Lunardi’s latest round of Bracketology pits the Gophers against No. 14 Davidson out east in an opening-round matchup (or Round 2, after the play-in games, as it were).

Thank goodness Stephen Curry has used up his eligibility.

According to this week’s Associated Press poll, which features Minnesota at No. 12, a 3 seed seems about right. Obviously, with more than a month remaining in the regular season, this stuff’s in perpetual flux, but it’s a “talker,” nonetheless.

The Gophers, coming off a challenging stretch that featured games against Michigan State, Illinois, Indiana and Michigan, have showed an ability to hang around with — and beat — the big boys. Slow starts, though, have doomed Tubby Smith’s squad (15-3, 3-2 in the Big Ten), and the Gophers need to rectify that weakness if they want to make a serious run through March.

The next five games on the schedule:
• Wednesday at Northwestern
• Saturday at Wisconsin
• Tuesday vs. Nebraska
• Feb. 3 vs. Iowa
• Feb. 6 at Michigan State

One thing that’s been very encouraging about the Gophers has been their depth, as evidenced by the five players averaging double figures: Andre Hollins, Rodney Williams, Austin Hollins, Joe Coleman and Trevor Mbakwe (technically at 9.7 PPG, but we’ll round up). Now, we could delve into Tubby’s shortcomings as an in-game manager and his wholly unimaginative offense, or the early second-half no-show against Michigan last week (when the game was lost), but we’ll save those thoughts for another day and instead focus on the positive.

One more thing: Lunardi’s bracket has the Big Ten and the Big East leading the way with seven tournament selections apiece. I can’t ever remember the Big Ten being this loaded. There’s really not many “nights off” in this conference.

• Say this about Minnesota Wild fans: They sure are quick to forget. Saturday’s season opener against Colorado drew the sixth-largest home crowd in Wild history, and it was the highest-rated Wild game ever shown on Fox Sports North. Sunday’s win over Dallas also topped the previous record for FSN, a Dec. 13, 2011, game against Winnipeg.

• Vikings tight end Kyle Rudolph was added to the NFC Pro Bowl roster on Tuesday in place of Atlanta’s Tony Gonzalez.

Twins rotation: Then and now

As news trickles in that the Twins actively are pursuing another bargain-bin scrapheap special in lefty pitcher Joe Saunders, we got to thinking about how improved — if at all — the 2013 Twins starting rotation figures to be compared to the 2012 edition.

Let’s go with the six most prominent starters of a year ago:
• Scott Diamond: 12-9 with a 3.54 ERA and a WHIP (walks plus hits per innings pitched) of 1.243 in 173 innings
• Francisco Liriano: 3-10 with a 5.31 ERA and a WHIP of 1.440 in 100 innings
• Nick Blackburn: 4-9 with a 7.39 ERA and a WHIP of 1.713 in 98 2/3 innings
• Cole De Vries: 5-5 with a 4.11 ERA and a WHIP of 1.209 in 87 2/3 innings
• Liam Hendriks: 1-8 with a 5.59 ERA and a WHIP of 1.547 in 85 1/3 innings
• Sam Deduno: 6-5 with a 4.44 ERA and a WHIP of 1.544 in 79 innings

Now, let’s look at the six starters most likely to comprise the 2013 rotation — at least initially — and the stats they compiled last year:
• Diamond: see above
• De Vries: see above
• Hendriks: see above
• Vance Worley: 6-9 with a 4.20 ERA and a WHIP of 1.511 in 133 innings while pitching for Philadelphia
• Kevin Correia: 12-11 with a 4.21 ERA and a WHIP of 1.298 in 171 innings while pitching for Pittsburgh
• Mike Pelfrey: 0-0 with a 2.29 ERA and a WHIP of 1.424 in 19 2/3 innings while pitching for the New York Mets (had Tommy John surgery on May 1)

Other names to consider include promising prospect Kyle Gibson (coming off Tommy John surgery), Rich Harden (signed to a minor league contract) and Saunders (a free agent).

It’s hard to imagine that this year’s starting rotation could be any worse than what the Twins trotted out in 2012. Then again, this year’s collection of arms isn’t inspiring anyone to start printing AL Central Division champion T-shirts quite yet. But options are good, and the Twins — at the very least — have more options than they did a year ago, including a couple reliable veterans.

Potential Ponder replacements (even though Ponder isn’t going anywhere)

As the Vikings wrapped up another championship-less season (the only kind they know), it was clear that coach Leslie Frazier and Co. consider Christian Ponder the team’s starter at quarterback. Barring something drastic, Ponder again will be handed the keys to the offense next fall.

That, however, won’t stop us from considering the alternatives — and there are a few intriguing ones. In no particular order, this is our list of potential Ponder replacements should the Vikings choose to go in another direction or, at the very least, open up the position for competition (highly, highly unlikely):

• Michael Vick — likely on his way out of Philadelphia
• Matt Flynn — signed to a huge deal in Seattle last offseason, Flynn is behind Russell Wilson, who is firmly entrenched as the Seahawks’ slinger/cult figure
• Alex Smith — was having an excellent year before losing his job — via injury — to Colin Kaepernick in San Francisco
• Tim Tebow — looked relatively solid on the punt coverage unit for the Jets
• Kirk Cousins — has shown flashes of brilliance while filling in for RG3 in Washington

Again, probably a pointless pursuit given the Vikings’ commitment to Ponder, but that doesn’t mean we can’t play a little what-if.

Are we missing any?

Expected Wild depth chart

I’m well aware of the flagrant time lapse between posts.

How long’s it been?

Well, for starters, the Vikings didn’t expect much from Adrian Peterson in 2012, rather they crossed their fingers hoping Peterson could stay healthy for 16 games.

Also, we still fully expected the NHL to resolve its labor dispute without losing any regular-season games, and Denard Span and Ben Revere appeared to comprise two-thirds of the Twins’ long-term outfield.

Yeah, it’s been a while.

Anyways, I felt the urge to pass this along, from a St. Paul Pioneer Press story on the Wild. It’s their presumed depth chart with training camp soon to open (just look at that first line):

WILD DEPTH CHART

Forward lines

• Dany Heatley-Mikko Koivu-Zach Parise

• Matt Cullen-Mikael Granlund-Devin Setoguchi

• Pierre-Marc Bouchard-Kyle Brodziak-Cal Clutterbuck

• Darroll Powe-Zenon Konopka-Torrey Mitchell

Defensive pairings

• Ryan Suter-Jared Spurgeon

• Tom Gilbert-Marco Scandella

• Clayton Stoner-Justin Falk or Nate Prosser

Goalies

• Niklas Backstrom

• Josh Harding

Spares

• Stephane Veilleux, Matt Kassian, Jake Dowell, Nick Palmieri

Notes: Bouchard not yet cleared to play; Scandella out with groin injury; Palmieri not yet signed. Defensive prospect Matt Dumba also has been invited to camp.

ESPN, MLB agree that only games featuring Yankees, Red Sox should be broadcast

ESPN and Major League Baseball extended their TV contract Tuesday, and it’s a whopper of a contract — ESPN will fork over some $700 million a year over eight years, through 2021.

Without getting into all the numbers and nuances, we’ll simply point out this uh-oh sentence from an Associated Press article:

(The deal) also gives the network more flexibility to show games involving popular teams.

In other words, those Sunday Night Baseball games are about to become even more saddled with the following four teams: Yankees, Red Sox, Mets and Phillies.

What the “experts” say about Vikings

The Associated Press came out with a ranking of all 32 NFL teams today, based on voting and comments from a diverse panel of “experts.” The Vikings, as you might guess, didn’t fare real well. They’re ranked 29th, while those pesky Packers are slotted — gulp — No. 1.

Here’s what the panel had to say about the Vikings, who are coming off a 3-13 season (each panelist’s ranking is in parentheses):

Cris Collinsworth (NBC Sports, 27): Jared Allen’s incredible year lost on poor season in killer division.

Rick Gosselin (Dallas Morning News, 27): Adrian Peterson and Jared Allen are two of league’s best players at their positions. Problem is other 20 spots in starting lineup.

Dan Pompei (Chicago Tribune, 27): Vikings need Christian Ponder to come into his own, and Adrian Peterson to heal quickly.

Bob Glauber (Newsday, 28): We weren’t sold on Christian Ponder coming into last year’s draft. No change in 2012.

Clifton Brown (Sporting News, 28): Once again, Jared Allen’s sacks total should far exceed Vikings’ win total.

John Lynch (Fox Sports, 29): Second-worst record in league last year and you start season (at least) without your best player in RB Adrian Peterson.

Clark Judge (CBSSports.com, 30): Biggest problem: division where Vikes are fourth-best team.

Pat Kirwan (SiriusXM NFL Radio/CBSSports.com, 30): Christian Ponder probably starts season without Adrian Peterson and WR Jerome Simpson. Winnable games are in Weeks 1 and 2.

Alex Marvez (Foxsports.com, 30): Health of running back Adrian Peterson (knee) leads list of offensive questions.

Ira Kaufman (Tampa Tribune, 30): Double trouble: trapped in tough division with erratic passing game.

Rich Gannon (CBS Sports/SiriusXM NFL Radio, 30): Win more than the three they won a year ago but not more than seven.

Chris Berman (ESPN, 31): Hard to climb in tough division with Adrian Peterson hurt.

Twins should trade Liriano ASAP

Memo to the Twins: Trade Francisco Liriano. Pronto.

Liriano’s next turn in the rotation comes Sunday against Cleveland. If his most recent performance offers any indication, the Twins need to salvage some sort of value from Liriano and dump the left-hander before teams lose interest in him — Bad Frankie, the guy we watched in April and May, seems ready to make a return.

Liriano’s last start, Monday against the White Sox: In 2 2/3 innings, he yielded seven earned runs on seven hits, including three homers.

Obviously, one start does not a season make. Still, if we’ve learned anything about Liriano in his five-plus seasons with the Twins, it’s that he’s prone to peaks and valleys. And this is not the time for the lefty to go into a funk. Another bad start prior to next week’s trade deadline could seriously deter interested teams, thereby severely hampering what Liriano could bring in a trade.

Thus, here’s to hoping Twins GM Terry Ryan doesn’t give Liriano the chance to further damage his trade value and pulls the plug on a deal sometime between now and Sunday.

Capps back to DL, trade value plummets

We know the Twins haven’t proven all that adept at winning games this summer. Turns out, they’re not all that good at getting injured, either.

Closer Matt Capps is headed back to the disabled list with shoulder discomfort. The right-hander figured to be a nice little bargaining chip for the Twins as the trade deadline approaches. But with Capps on the shelf, it’s hard to fathom teams lining up with attractive offers.

Ideally, Capps, who just came off the DL last week, would have bounced right back into the mix, pitching effectively while enticing contenders looking to shore up their bullpen. After all, Capps serves little purpose for the Twins, who are all but mathematically eliminated from playoff contention.

Now, it’s up to Francisco Liriano to pitch well and bring back a blue-chipper or two in a trade with a playoff wannabe.

Twins’ rotation, 2013 edition

A quick thought on how the Twins’ rotation could shake out in 2013 (that’s right, we’re pretty much closing the book on 2012 at the All-Star break … thanks, fellas).

Let’s assume Francisco Liriano is frustrating fans in a new city, and that Carl Pavano is allowed to walk as a free agent. We’ll also pencil in the inevitable trade of Nick Blackburn for a sack of sunflower seeds, leaving us with:

1. Scott Baker
2. Scott Diamond
3. Kyle Gibson
4. Brian Duensing
5. Free agent X

We don’t want to see any of these young guys that keep getting called up from Rochester filling that No. 5 spot and, frankly, with a payroll in the $100 million neighborhood, the Twins should be able to go out and land a bona fide starter — especially with the contracts for Pavano and Liriano (presumably) coming off the books.

The four aforementioned starting pitchers are wild guesses at this point. Baker is injured and will miss all of 2012, Diamond has been fantastic but still is unproven (tiny sample size), Gibson dealt with the Tommy John surgery and is expected to start throwing sometime in the second half and Duensing keeps getting flip-flopped between the rotation and bullpen.

Still, it’s a decent front four, should things play out according to our plan (doubtful).

The straw that stirs the pot

Reggie Jackson recently was banned from the Yankees.

He probably won’t be welcome in the Twins’ clubhouse any time soon, either.

Jackson told Sports Illustrated’s Phil Taylor that Kirby Puckett and Bert Blyleven have no business in baseball’s Hall of Fame — as recapped by Yahoo! Sports here.

Two questions: Why is Reggie so grumpy and why does he hate the Twins?