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Just a few months ago basketball fans everywhere feared a full season without the NBA. The lockout did shorten the regular season by 16 games, but in the end fans got what they wanted. The playoffs are finally upon us and we are two months away from crowning the next NBA champion.

The Eastern Conference is exactly how many people saw it coming into the season. Chicago and Miami are sitting atop of the conference and are the favorites to represent the east in The NBA Finals. The Bulls are truly a fascinating story because they were without last year’s MVP Derrick Rose for the majority of the season. Tom Thibodeau has to be the favorite to win coach of the year with the amazing job he has done in Chicago. The Bulls play solid fundamental basketball and went through the season without a true star leading the team. The Bulls story is even more unbelievable because they finished ahead of Miami for the second straight year.

Miami finished second in the Eastern Conference last season and still advanced to the finals. This year they were lackadaisical at some points of the season, but that was to be expected. This is a team that is constantly reminded that nothing they do matters until the finals. Therefore, it was not easy for this team to get up for every regular season game. I do believe that when this team is completely healthy they are the best team in the league without question. They will need to turn on the switch heading into the postseason because they are not exactly on fire heading into the playoffs.

The east is top heavy, but there is room for a few surprises. Indiana has coasted through the year sitting in that three seed playing outstanding basketball. They have a great starting five led by Danny Granger and Roy Hibbert, but are also one of the deepest teams in the league. Boston is another team with finals experience who I could see making a serious run. They are a veteran group who has a championship pedigree and an outstanding head coach in Doc Rivers. You cannot count out the Celtics and I would not rule out Indiana.

Atlanta and Philadelphia are talented teams, but will exit in the first round. The Orlando Magic have absolutely no chance to advance now that Dwight Howard is lost for the season and will likely be swept by Indiana in round one. Lastly, the New York Knicks are an extremely talented and dangerous lower seed, but will unfortunately lose in the first round to one of the top powerhouses. The Knicks are a year away from being serious contenders in the east, but this year they will just gain some playoff experience and exit in round one. I am sticking with Miami and taking the Heat over the Bulls in the Eastern Conference Final.

The Western Conference is a lot more wide open than the east is. The San Antonio Spurs veteran group is at it yet again when everyone counted them out. They are followed by the Oklahoma City Thunder who may have the best team in the conference. The Los Angeles Lakers can never be counted out as long as Kobe Bryant is on the court. The Clippers and Grizzlies are also full of talent and are two teams that could make a deep run this postseason. It would also be a crime to count out the defending champion Dallas Mavericks who no one expected to win it all last season. The Nuggets and Jazz have bright futures with their young talented rosters, but they are a few years away from contending in the west.

With this in mind, I think it comes down to the Thunder and Spurs in the west. It will be a battle of youth verse experience to determine who plays in the finals. I think it is Oklahoma City’s year to take that next step and get to the promise land. Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook are the most dynamic young tandem in the league. There speed and athleticism will way down this older Spurs roster in a six or seven game series. I think it will be a battle of the two seeds with Miami and Oklahoma City facing off for the NBA crown.

Who will win their first title Durant or James? What MVP candidate will step up and dominate for his team? In my opinion, I see the Miami Heat getting over the hump in their second year as a team and winning it all. This will be a seven game series that comes down to the wire, but it is time for LeBron to get over the hump and quiet the naysayers. This would be a great NBA Finals matchup and I think it would be one for the ages.        

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NFL Mock Draft (picks 1-10)

1. Indianapolis Colts: QB, Andrew Luck, Stanford

2. Washington Redskins (via projected trade with Rams): QB, Robert Griffin III, Baylor

3. Minnesota Vikings: OT, Matt Kalil, USC

4. Cleveland Browns: RB, Trent Richardson, Alabama

5. Tampa Bay Buccaneers: CB, Morris Claiborne, LSU

6. St. Louis Rams (via projected trade with Redskins): WR, Justin Blackmon, Okla. St.

7. Jacksonville Jaguars: DE, Melvin Ingram, South Carolina

8. Miami Dolphins: QB, Ryan Tannehill, Texas A&M

9. Carolina Panthers: WR, Michael Floyd, Notre Dame

10. Buffalo Bills: CB, Stephon Gilmore, South Carolina

I could see the Bills go in four different directions with this pick (WR, LT, CB, LB). Buffalo could also trade the pick and move back if a team like Dallas wants to move up a few spots to select a player like safety Mark Barron from Alabama. General manager Buddy Nix has made it perfectly clear that this wide receiver class is deep and that he also believes in Chris Hairston at left tackle. I think the pick will either be Stephon Gilmore the cornerback from South Carolina or Luke Kuechly the linebacker from Boston College. Many draft experts envision Buffalo taking Riley Reiff or Michael Floyd, but I think both are long shots. In the end, it is the NFL Draft and anything can happen, but I believe if Gilmore is on the board at pick 10 he will be heading to Buffalo.

The Buffalo Bills have made one of the biggest free agency splashes thus far in NFL free agency. Yes, I said the Buffalo Bills have made a huge splash in free agency. Mario Williams has decided to take his talents to Western New York and join the Buffalo Bills. This franchise had previously been looked upon as cheap and unwilling to spend money in free agency. That mindset has completely changed for fans in Buffalo over the last few weeks.

Senior biology major Steve Strzyzynski said, “When I first heard on ESPN that he was visiting us first I was just shocked, but also assumed that it was still unlikely that he would sign. When he stayed overnight I began to build hope and then his fiancé flew in, which made it clear he was very interested in Buffalo.”

NFL free agency began earlier this month and the Bills made it perfectly clear that they wanted to make a big splash. General Manager Buddy Nix had previously stated that the team would be active in free agency if they could get a game changer that could get the team over the hump. Bills fans were certainly not expecting that playmaker to be the number one defensive free agent in Mario Williams. Williams agreed to board the Bills private jet at 4 PM on Tuesday, March 13 when free agency officially began and flew back with them from North Carolina to Western New York.

Normally free agent visits last one day and then a player will move on to visit other interested teams. Buffalo was not a normal case because they were determined to keep Williams in town until a deal was finalized. He ended up staying in town for three days touring the city, looking at real estate with his fiancée, eating dinner with current players, and even meeting with former players like Jim Kelly. Williams took his time and realized that Buffalo’s family atmosphere was unique. This was somewhere he felt comfortable and reminded people that Buffalo’s negative reputation is far from the truth. The Bills and Williams agreed to a record breaking deal Thursday afternoon that sent the city of Buffalo into “fandemonium” over the news.

Senior Biology major Matt Ascolese said, “I am not from the Buffalo area, but I can tell you that the negative reputation that this city gets is not fair. There are a lot of good people here and extremely passionate sports fans that live and die by their team’s performance.”

The deal is worth up to 100 million dollars over six seasons and it made Mario Williams the highest paid defensive player in league history. Defensive end was the Bills biggest need coming into the offseason, but now it could be one of their most prevalent strengths. One week later the team agreed to terms with former New England Patriots defensive end Mark Anderson. Anderson had 10 sacks last season with the Patriots and will lineup opposite of Williams, which will likely be at the right defensive end position. With dominant interior defensive tackles like Marcell Dareus and Kyle Williams already in place, Buffalo has now built themselves a very serviceable front four heading into the new 4-3 defensive scheme under Dave Wannstedt.

Senior Computer Science major Matt DiCenzo said “I think that the Bills now have to be in the discussion with some of the elite defensive lines in the league. I won’t say that they are the best, but I feel like they have put themselves up there with the best and I am excited to see what they can do this coming season.”

The Mario Williams signing has had just as big of an impact off the field as it will on it. Season ticket sales increased by the thousands immediately after the signing and this fan base instantly became revitalized. The fans here will always support their Bills, but it has been easier said than done over the past twelve seasons. Now that the ownership, management, and coaching staff are all collectively on board fans are beginning to “billieve” again. Every season this fan base goes in optimistic, but this year there are some real expectations.

It has been a long time since Bills fans have expected to win heading into a season, rather than just hoping to. This major offseason acquisition has single handily given both the city and fans something to believe in again. Buffalo is an economy that has been hurt by our current economic situation and the Bills recent struggles have not helped the situation. I do not know of another sports city in America whose fan base is hungrier for a winner than Buffalo’s. On the other hand, things are beginning to look up for this franchise. The Bills have a young core of good character players who have truly bought into the Buffalo way of life. This team showed a glimpse of what they are capable of last year when the team is fully healthy and they hope to build on that for next year.

Buffalo Bills safety Bryan Scott said via Twitter, “There’s something special brewin’ in the city of Buffalo.”

The Buffalo Bills impressive offseason continued yesterday when they signed defensive end Mark Anderson to a four-year deal.  One week ago today Mario Williams was signed to the richest contract ever by a defensive player in NFL history.   Buffalo has certainly upgraded their pass rush heading into next season.  Anderson’s addition adds to a defensive line that is getting stronger and stronger by the day.  He is expected to lineup at right defensive end, since Mario Williams expects to be on the left side.  Buffalo is turning one of their key weaknesses from last year into a strength heading into next season.

This signing crowds Buffalo’s defensive line and it will make for an interesting training camp.  Dwan Edwards and Chris Kelsay are two players that may be expendable now that the Bills have plenty of depth on their defensive line.  Buddy Nix says that it will just create more competition for starting positions and roster spots.  The Bills struggled getting to the quarterback last season and the front office is making sure that they will not struggle next season.

These two acquisitions also give Buffalo more options heading into the draft.  Prior to these two signings it appeared that Buffalo would have to select a defensive end with either their first or second round draft pick.  Now, with added depth at the position the Bills can look at addressing other glaring needs like left tackle, wide receiver, and cornerback.  It has been an active offseason for Buffalo and has people everywhere excited to see what this powerful defensive line is capable of heading into next season.

The Buffalo Bills have made the biggest free agent splash thus far in free agency. Yes, I said the Buffalo Bills have made a huge splash in free agency. Mario Williams has decided to take his talents to Western New York and play for the Buffalo Bills. This franchise had previously been looked upon as cheap and unwilling to spend money in free agency. That mindset completely changed in Buffalo over the past 72 hours.

NFL free agency began on Tuesday at 4 PM and the Bills made it perfectly clear that they wanted to make a big splash. General Manager Buddy Nix had previously stated that the team would be active in free agency, if they could get a game changer that would get them over the hump. Bills fans were certainly not expecting that playmaker to be the number one defensive free agent in Mario Williams. Williams agreed to board the Bills private jet at 4 PM on Tuesday and flew back with them to Western New York.

Normally free agent visits last one day and then a player will move on to visit other interested teams. Buffalo was not a normal case because they were determined to keep Williams in town until a deal was finalized. He ended up staying in town for three days touring the city, looking at real estate with his fiancée, eating dinner with current players, and even meeting with former players like Jim Kelly. Williams took his time and realized that Buffalo’s family atmosphere was unique. This was somewhere he felt comfortable and reminded people that Buffalo’s negative reputation is far from the truth. The Bills and Williams agreed to a record breaking deal Thursday afternoon that sent the city of Buffalo into “fandemonium” over the news.

The deal is worth up to 100 million dollars over six seasons and it made Mario Williams the highest paid defensive player in the league. Defensive end was the Bills biggest need coming into the offseason, but now it could be one of their biggest strengths. Mario Williams, Marcell Dareus, Kyle Williams, Chris Kelsay, and a healthy Shawne Merriman could provide the Bills with one of the stronger defensive lines in the league without question. This organization has energized their passionate fan base with this acquisition. Mario Williams has generated a lot of hope for this franchise heading into the 2012-2013 season.

Man On A Mission

Ryan Miller is a man on mission and he is carrying the Buffalo Sabres on his back. Buffalo continues their road trip tonight against the best team in the NHL. The Vancouver Canucks currently have 90 points and are a top of the western conference. These two teams made a huge trade prior to the trade deadline, which adds a little more intrigue to this vital game. The Canucks are trying to win their second straight President’s Trophy, while the Sabres are simply trying to sneak into the playoffs.

Buffalo has been outplayed during its two game winning streak, but that doesn’t matter when Ryan Miller is at his best. Miller has recorded back to back shutouts and has made a combined total of 82 saves during these two games. Buffalo currently is four points out of a playoff spot with 18 games left to play. If Buffalo is going to get into the postseason they are going to have to stay hot. The Sabres may have one of the best goalies in the league, but if they are going to get in they have to help him. They cannot continue to let teams get 40 shots on goal because Miller can’t bail them out every night. Ryan Miller has been sensational and has not allowed a goal in six straight periods. Miller is on a mission and is doing whatever it takes to get Buffalo to the postseason.

Darcy Regier traded Paul Gaustad Monday afternoon, which was expected. The second deal that he made right before the deadline stunned the NHL and was far from expected by anyone. The Sabres sent Zack Kassian and Marc-Andre Gragnani to the Vancouver Canucks for center Cody Hodgson and defenseman Alexander Sulzer. This deal should benefit both teams because each side is receiving enormous upside.

The Canucks made this deal because they desperately need more physical players in their lineup. Last year they fell one win short of hosting the cup and many people pointed to their lack of physical play for why they eventually lost. Kassian is certainly a young physical force, who can also put the puck in the net. On the other hand, Marc-Andre Gragnani is a young defenseman who played well in spurts the past two years. He really emerged against Philadelphia last postseason with Buffalo. With that in mind, the Canucks felt that is was worth trading away one of their up and coming offensive forces to obtain some grit for the postseason.

The Sabres have been desperately trying to acquire a productive center ever since the departure of Danny Briere. That gaping hole in the Sabres offense may have just been filled long term by Darcy Regier. Cody Hodgson is an outstanding young offensive player with a ton of upside at age 22. He has 16 goals and 17 assists this season, while spending most of his time on the third line. Hodgson has played behind star centers like Henrik Sedin and Ryan Kesler, which made him expendable in Vancouver. He will certainly play an extremely bigger role in Buffalo on a team that has lacked star power at the center position for several years. Buffalo did have to give up a couple of good young players to acquire Hodgson, but this could be a home run for the franchise in the long run.

Overall, I give the Sabres an A grade for their trade deadline deals. The moves were made to build for the future, while adding pieces that can also help them make a run at the playoffs now. The franchise is setup to be able to acquire more star power in the draft and free agency in the very near future. The Sabres are certainly heading in the right direction after a very disappointing 2011-2012 campaign.