After eliminating 64 teams over the previous two-plus weeks, we’ve determined the regional champions and have moved on to Saturday’s Final Four in New Orleans. The evening of semifinals at the Superdome features an awesome and historic rivalry and a fantastic, evenly matched game I’ve been looking forward to all week with dynamically talented players. If you’re still reading this, you probably want to hear about the games. So here they are.
Kentucky vs Louisville- The Rivalry
Very few things are constant in this world. One of those things are Kentucky and Louisville playing each other in heated basketball games each season representing one of the three or four greatest rivalries in college basketball. Rick Pitino has a history in both schools and the teams genuinely dislike each other. Both teams have a rich championship tradition, with the Cardinals playing second fiddle to the iconic UK Wildcats. You could read Dave Kindred for the rest of the rivalry story, let’s dive into the matchup.
Kentucky is the more athletic team with better players and more talent and handled Indiana and Baylor last weekend with relative ease to win the South region and make their way to the Big Easy. AP Player of the Year Anthony Davis will be a load to handle inside, and the unenviable task will fall on Gorgui Deng and Chase Behanen to handle who averaged a double-double and 4.6 blocks per contest.
Louisville possesses a good deal of balance in the backcourt, and the experience of Peyton Siva at point guard need to be an advantage for the Cardinals against UK’s Marquis Teague. If it’s not, the trio of Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Terrence Jones and Doron Lamb will be too much for Louisville. Kyle Kuric, Russ Smith and Chris Smith have to have tremendous games for the Wildcats not to run away with this one. Tip-off is at 6:09 p.m. eastern on CBS.
Kansas-Ohio State- The Game
Boy are these teams evenly matched and well coached. How many coaches other than Kansas’ Bill Self would unleash a triangle and two defense to hold North Carolina to 20 second half points in an Elite Eight win in the Midwest Region final? Thad Matta’s defense last Saturday held the deep and potent Syracuse offense in check and led the Buckeyes to the East Region crown and a trip to NOLA.
The battle begins inside with two of the top three or four players in the country: Thomas Robinson of Kansas and Jared Sullinger of Ohio State. The war will be mainly waged inside, but a great individual matchup will be found at point guard, where the dynamic Tyshaun Taylor will go up against defensive stalwart Aaron Craft. How will Ohio State deal with an emerging star in big man Jeff Withey? How will the Jayhawks combat DeShaun Thomas and Willie Buford on the wings? Can Elijah Johnson step up his game for Kansas?
Expect an absolutely spectacular game of basketball on Saturday evening at approximately 8:49 p.m. eastern on CBS.
NEW YORK– By Daniel Friedman
When Pierre Gauthier replaced Bob Gainey as GM of the Montreal Canadiens, the consensus was that, surely, Gauthier couldn’t possibly do any worse than his predecessor. Considering that Gainey was directly responsible for the Scott Gomez trade and ensuing fiasco, theoretically, that line of thinking should have held true.
How wrong we were.
Gauthier’s demise did not necessarily stem from the fact that Montreal stumbled out of the gate. It had more to do with Gauthier’s inability to stop the bleeding. Not only that, Gauthier managed to rub salt in his team’s many wounds, and in doing so, he managed to turn a slump into an all-out catastrophe.
He completely mishandled the situation, no matter what angle you want to view it from. He fired assistant coach Perry Pearn just a few hours before game time and his decision to axe head coach Jacques Martin backfired tremendously. To me, this was a general manager who sensed his impending downfall and therefore vowed to take everyone else down with him.
I will say that Gauthier did make some very solid moves, signing free agent Erik Cole and acquiring Lars Eller for Jaroslav Halak. Having said that, he failed to solve the most gaping hole in the Habs’ lineup, on defense, opting to re-sign the oft-injured Andrei Markov instead of going out and signing a reliable, top-tier blueliner.
The Canadiens have become a sideshow, both on and off the ice, and Pierre Gauthier is the one most-responsible for that.
EAST BRUNSWICK, N.J.– By Sruli Szpigiel
Spring training is almost over, and that means one thing: Opening Day is near. It’s the day that every baseball fan looks forward to. The day when months of waiting for meaningful baseball is over and we can finally listen to the National Anthem, watch someone kind of famous person throw a crappy first pitch, and “Play Ball!” With this exhilarating day comes hope of a bright season, along with many questions and concerns about my team, the New York Mets.
It’s hard to ignore the terrible things that are posted all over the major websites; article after article talking about their monetary problems, the tough division, and the hopelessness that is the 2012 season. Yes we have money problems, but as fans we just want to watch a team compete every day and play hard. The back office stuff doesn’t concern the people in the stands, at the bars, or on the couches. And yes, our division is getting better. All four other teams will have a shot to compete for either the division or at least a playoff spot. Watching players like Mike (or is it Giancarlo now?) Stanton and Stephen Strasburg grow into All Stars is part of what makes the game great. But that doesn’t mean that watching our team has no value.
With the walls moved in, the Mets players should see some more balls leave the field of play this year. Last year’s home run numbers were horrible, and seeing that apple in center field go up is one of the best parts of watching a game. David Wright, Lucas Duda, and, most of all, Jason Bay should benefit from the closer walls, and it would be great to see these guys go yard a lot this year.
On the pitching side, there is also a lot to watch for. Johan Santana has had a pretty strong spring rehabbing from his surgery. It’s going to be interesting to see whether he can not only pitch a full season, but start back on the path toward his Cy Young self. R.A. Dickey is now the only knuckleballer in the league, and we’re going to see if he can have a year like last. Dillon Gee is also an exciting player, having a breakout year last season. We have a new closer and setup man, which will make close games even more exciting. No more Bobby Parnell blowing saves. Finally, we have Zack Wheeler and Matt Harvey, our two top pitching prospects. We may have to wait a few months, but tracking them through the minors gives us something else to look forward to.
Yes, we have to worry about the money. We have to worry about the competition, about losing Jose Reyes, about the injuries, about the lack of star power. There’s a lot to worry about going into the new season. But that doesn’t mean that there isn’t a lot to look forward to as well. As the weeks turn into days, I find myself constantly checking how long until the season starts, until all the waiting comes to an end. Play Ball indeed.
With the regular season headed towards the home stretch, let’s head out to the west coast to hear what SprungOnSports NBA writer, and L.A. native, Aron Jacobowitz has to say about the burning issues around the league.
1) Which Los Angeles team is in worse shape and why?
I don’t know if either of the teams are in bad shape really. I mean, granted, all the hoopla surrounding Mike Brown benching Kobe Bryant, and then Andrew Bynum the following night, have dominated the headlines and make people want to believe that there is trouble in LaLa Land. But come on, unscripted controversy is not new to LA. For instance, Kobe & Shaq circa 2004. They have received a jolt at the PG position with Ramon Sessions and he is flourishing while surrounded by the towers and Kobe. He gets into the lane, draws and kicks just as well as anyone else. However, I think they’re only 4-4 since the trade. So, who knows if it’s really helping in the long run. Bynum better not hoist any more threes, because then the Lakers will definitely be worse off.
The Clippers, however, despite three consecutive wins, still have one glaring problem: head coach Vinny Del Negro. Clearly the team has responded to the rumors swirling around his firing and their three-game losing streak last week, but it just overshadows the fact that their offense too often is stagnant, they lack anyone who can set a traditional pick, and their defensive effort is inconsistent.
Having said that, they have been playing very well as of late. They blew out the Phoenix Suns last night in a game they very much needed to win after dropping the first two meetings. Blake Griffin has finally responded to all the hard foul he has fallen victim to by throwing down another Mozgov-style flush on Channing Frye. Those plays inject something into this club – it remains to be seen if they can continue this hot stretch with back-to-back games vs. Portland and Utah this weekend.
Who’s worse off? Right now, it’s the Lakers. They are only two games ahead of the Clippers and it seems as though they are growing up while the Lakers are falling victim to their immaturity.
2) The Knicks have won eight of nine game under Mike Woodson and are now just 2 1/2 games behind Philadelphia for the Atlantic Division lead. Is New York the third best team in the Eastern Conference behind Chicago and Miami? Explain.
To put it simply, No. First of all, if last night’s blowout win is the reason for all of this speculation, then quit it. NOW! Orlando is known for throwing you a dud after playing relatively well for a long stretch. They have the fifth best record in the league. I’d take Orando in a seven-game series over New York. I’d even take Boston over New York.
Carmelo Anthony has yet to prove in his career that he can be ‘the guy’ to lead a team. Paul Pierce is a guy who has proven it over and over again. And if I had to put money on the team taking the Atlantic, I’d take both Philadelphia and Boston before New York. Also, with the glaring hole they’ll have at PF now and when Amare’ Stoudemire is a mere shell of himself when he attempts to come back from the bulging disc too soon, it’ll answer this question just as easily as I did now.
The Knicks are not the third best team in the East, they’re the eighth. You are only as good as your record. Yes, as of late they have won eight of nine and are playing with effort and energy since the resignation of Mike D’Antoni, but come on. Third best in the East? Hell no.
3) Minnesota big man Kevin Love is averaging over 31 points and 14 rebounds per game in March while shooting over 45 percent from three. How many players are actually better than Kevin Love right now?
Man, that’s tough. Kevin Love is K.I.L.L.I.N.G. it. He’s no longer arguably the best PF in the league, he IS the best PF in the league. In this day and age, however, you are judged solely by your team’s results. And Minnesota is a measly 4-8 in their last 12. But in terms of better players right now? There are probably only two, and coincidentally, those two lead the MVP ballot: Kevin Durant and LeBron James. Yes, LeBron is having in a bit of a lull, but I can guarantee he breaks out of it tonight versus Dallas. And even with that recent slide in production, he’s still posting incredible March numbers: 25 points, nine boards, six assists, 2 1/2 steals, one block and 50 percent shooting. So yes, LeBron James.
As for Durant? He’s only putting up 28, 8, 4, 2, 1 on 48 percent from the field in March. Plus he gets to the line eight times a game, hitting 89 percent.
But this shouldn’t take away from what Love is doing. In his last four games? 37.5 points, 16.3 boards and 53 percent from three. Staggering. Unreal. He could just end up being a much better version of Dirk Nowitzki in as soon as a few years.
Besides for the MLB Network dropping the ball on not giving us live coverage for the opening game between Seattle and Oakland from Japan (what is this, NBC tennis?), we had ourselves a well pitched extra inning game with several things to draw from the Mariners’ 3-1, 11 inning win,
Brandon McCarthy is going to break out- With Trevor Cahill in Phoenix and Gio Gonzalez in DC, McCarthy is the ace of this Oakland staff. After greatly improving his ground ball rate last year to 46.7 percent, he recorded 12 ground ball outs against the Mariners to only five fly ball outs. He allowed just a run over seven sterling innings, a good sign for a stellar 2012 season. And the best part? He’s probably going to be facing this awful Seattle lineup at least a few more times this season.
Ichiro looks comfortable in three-hole- Maybe it was his familiar Japanese surroundings that made him more comfortable at the dish this morning, or perhaps he’s more motivated now after an uncharacteristically awful 2011. Either way, Ichiro had four hits and looked refreshed and rejuvenated in his home country. Perhaps a sign of things to come…
Watch out for umpire fatigue- Whenever these opening Japanese excursions happen, people always talk about how the two teams could come home tired and slump to start the regular season. I wonder if this jetlag and fatigue affects the umpires as well. It has to, no? Let’s see if some odd things happen with Tom Hallion, Jeff Nelson, Marvin Hudson and Dan Bellino early on. I’ll be keeping my eye out…
Ackley strives away from Safeco- Seattle put Dustin Ackley in the two-hole today and promptly factored into all three Mariner runs. He homered in the fourth off McCarthy for the season’s first run, had the eventual game-winning RBI single in the 11th and subsequently scored on Ichiro’s RBI single. Hitting ahead of Ichiro and getting on base will definitely increase Suzuki’s RBI opportunities, but he has to sustain that success at home as well. His home and road splits from 2011 are pretty different, and more consistency at home could give the Seattle offense somewhat of a fighting chance this season.
|Dustin Ackley 2011 Splits|
|Seattle||Plate Appearances||Slash Line||XBH|