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What an amazing night of basketball on Saturday . . . after Butler edged Michigan State to continue its Cinderella story. Then again, at least sitting through the second half of the first national semifinal and the long stretches of offensive ineptitude therein (lowlighted by the Bulldogs going almost 11 befuddled minutes without a field goal) enabled me to avoid watching the Bulls' early fourth quarter follies. Those were especially special considering they included numerous big plays from former locals turned Bobcats such as Larry Hughes and Tyrus Thomas. By the time I really focused on the local professional franchise during the break between national semifinals, the team, which had led by double-digits for much of the second and third quarters, had reached its nadir. It was down six with about five minutes remaining.
It is still a long shot that the Bulls will pull ahead of Toronto, which beat the bad 76ers in overtime earlier Saturday to improve to 38-37, for the eighth and final playoff seed in the Eastern Conference. The home team has six games remaining, the Torontonians have seven. But the Bulls' first victory over a playoff team in more than a month was simply a thriller.
Then it was Duke and Northbrook's Jon Scheyer (a game-high 23 points) playing their best game of the season against West Virginia. My wife Julie noted during the Butler game that she wondered if the Bulldog and Spartan shooting was suffering from the lack of depth perception that comes with holding basketball games in football stadiums containing acres of relatively flat spectator space behind the glass backboards. That clearly was not a problem for the Blue Devils and it would seem to bode well for them in tonight's final.
Early last week was dominated by the incredible news that just about all observers believe the NCAA will almost certainly make fundamental changes to the tournament the next few seasons. They will essentially add a third wing to the golden goose, cramming 31 more teams into the event, probably the year after next.
Obviously the powers that be are doing this to increase revenues and increase revenues only but we're only talking about two more afternoons and evenings of basketball. And those rounds will be played on a Tuesday and Wednesday (after the traditional first weekend of first- and second-round play first involving the bottom 32 seeded teams and then the whole field).
Is the relatively small amount of additional television money that will result (in the next big deal the NCAA will almost certainly sign with ESPN and ABC during the coming offseason) really worth making a major change to an American sporting institution that is so clearly hitting its stride? It is not difficult to argue that this year's tournament is the best ever - so the response is to totally water it down and almost certainly diminish the level of overall play?
One group that loves the idea of 96 teams in the tournament is the coaches. They support the change because, quite simply, many more of them would be able to take their teams to the tournament and therefore be less likely to get fired. And then there is that increased revenue.
And of course there wasn't a word about any sort of compensation for the basketball players who make it all happen, the ones who too frequently don't even graduate and when they do, too frequently receive substandard educations.
The pathetic mouthpieces the NCAA loves to trot out at times like this, the ones whose entire salaries are paid by the revenues that flow from the efforts of "amateur" athletes, yammer about things like the other "88 championships" the NCAA runs for other sports. But last I checked, basketball players are too busy with year-round training to even think about playing in any of those other sports.
Sox vs. Cubs
Happy Opening Day everybody! Its an almost bee-you-ti-ful day for baseball and let's dive right in. How can the White Sox not be the consensus pick to win the AL Central? What am I missing? Yes there are bullpen questions, particularly about Bobby Jenks. But what American League team has a better set-up one-two punch than Matt Thornton and J.J. Putz? If Jenks struggles, the White Sox have not one but two flame-throwing potential replacements.
As for starters, no one in the AL Central has a big four that even comes close to Jake Peavy (2007 NL Cy Young), Mark Buehrle (13-10, 3.84 ERA in 2009), Gavin Floyd (11-11, 4.06) and John Danks (13-11, 3.77). The Twins' top four projected starters are Scott Baker (15-9, 4.37), Carl Pavano (14-12, 5.10), Nick Blackburn (11-11, 4.03) and Kevin Slowey (10-3, 4.86). Francisco Liriano is a wild card. He has wicked stuff when he's on and he pitched well over the winter and during the spring. But last year he was injury-plagued and eventually 5-13 with a 5.80 ERA.
As for the Tigers, they have stud Justin Verlander up top, but he isn't as much of a stud as Peavy. And the same goes for No. 2 Rick Porcello (versus Buehrle) despite the fact that he is a very promising young pitcher. And then they drop way off to Max Scherzer (9-11, 4.12 for the Diamondbacks last year) and Jeremy Bonderman, who hasn't had a decent season since 2006.
There are clearly concerns about the White Sox lineup but an average year from Paul Konerko in the clean-up spot and a bounce-back performance from Carlos Quentin in the three-hole will give the Sox substantial production. Third baseman Mark Teahan and the three-year contract he signed with general manager Kenny Williams are a mystery. (Three years Kenny? Who were you bidding against, teams from the Moon League?) And the sooner the White Sox get Juan Pierre out of the leadoff spot and bring up Jordan Danks to take his place the better. But I have the Sox winning this division handily.
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The big problem for the Cubs is that if one of their presumptive late-inning guys - John Grabow, Sean Marshall (Grabow gets right-handers out better than lefties so he could actually be the guy to take on the tough right-handed bats in the seventh and eighth innings while Marshall faces the lefties) and Carlos Marmol - falter, they are in big trouble. There isn't the interchangeability there that is apparent on the other side of town. Jeff Samardzija will not be an effective late-inning guy. The sooner they send him to Triple A and have him start starting again, the better.
Tough to draw too much of a conclusion about anything about the Hawks after Sunday's latest cakewalk over a Calgary team that long, long ago on ice far, far away was last competitive with the home team.
This year the Hawks had knocked off Calgary by a combined 10-2 in their two previous meetings and the 4-1 win on Sunday was not that close. So perhaps a simple congrats on their first division title in 17 years is in order .
Jim Coffman rounds up the sports weekend every Monday in this space. He welcomes your comments.