Ranking This Weekends Sporting News

This weekend four major sports stories dominated: Butler beat Michigan State to reach the NCAA Men’s finals, the Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees opened the MLB season, Tiger began taking practice swings at Augusta in preparation for the Masters, and Donovan McNabb was traded to the Washington Redskins. That is actually quite a bit to handle, but this begs the question, how do these stories rank?

Top Story: The Mid Major Makes the Finals

Sure a superstar that defines a sport went back to work, arguably the biggest sports rivalry in the U.S. kicked off the baseball season, and a Pro Bowl caliber quarterback was traded to a division rival, but this is a story that goes back to the Old Testament, David vs. Goliath.

I just deleted a three paragraph rant about how this is about conferences far more than about the teams. The fact is that Butler was ranked in the Top 25 throughout the 2009-10 college basketball season. They hardly came out of nowhere in terms of team play, but they came out of nowhere in terms of conferences. This is as much the Horizon League vs. the ACC or the Mid Majors vs. the Power Conferences as it is about Butler and Duke.

That is why this is the top news story and Final Four tickets will sell for Monday’s game. Saturday’s win over an ailing, respected college basketball program set up the ultimate challenge to the perception that the power conferences should get at least six or seven schools in the tournament each year or that the field should be expanded to 96 to get more power conference teams into the March Madness. This is like Neo taking on the Mr. Smith, it challenges everything we know to be true because it is not a lower seed from a major conference advancing like in 1983 and 1985, but a lower seed from a conference many have not even heard of taking on the hierarchy of college basketball.

Just Below the Sidebar: Donovan McNabb moves from Philly to D.C.

Quarterbacks, ahem, Pro Bowl caliber quarterbacks, rarely ever move in the NFL. They may see their career wane like Kurt Warner, and find the elixir of youth resuscitating their career on another team. But quarterbacks do not move before they well exceed their shelf life in the NFL, especially to a different team in their own division.

The Philadelphia Eagles are embarking on a new course laced with land mines as Kevin Kolb begins his time as the number one quarterback now. The problem is that Michael Vick is right behind him on the depth chart and his unbridled athleticism will look to attractive to waste the moment Kolb hits a rough patch.

Meanwhile the Washington Redskins have a quarterback they know can complete a long bomb and a halfback screen. He has the touch, arm strength, and experience to engineer a two minute drill to perfection. In short, with new coach Mike Shanahan and new quarterback McNabb the Redskins have become a terrifying wild card in an already competitive division. Sure the offensive line, wide receivers, and tight end are worse in Washington, but this opportunity for revenge or a career revival has to terrify the Cowboys, Giants, and Eagles.

The move not only affects the NFC East, it also changes the draft. Suddenly there is one less terrible team in the hunt for a quarterback. This changes just about every draft prospects value outside of the two top rated defensive tackles. Now, every mock draft is null and void and every team has to scramble to decide that they will do in the first few rounds.

Page Two: Boston Red Sox beat the New York Yankees

Baseball kicked the season off right with its most universally appealing regular season series. This is bigger than Tiger watch because this game actually counted. The Red Sox came back from 7-6 down in the seventh inning to immediately put the Yankees season in doubt. Is this a ridiculous overstatement? Of course, but reality has no place in a rivalry.

The Red Sox were supposed to be offensively challenged but beat up on C.C. Sabathia and Job Chamberlain. Conversely, the pitching and defensive oriented Red Sox allowed seven earned runs. These numbers from a single game mean little over the course of 162 games, but with just one games played in all of MLB they speak volumes to the possibilities that lie ahead.

On the Back Page by the Classifieds: Tiger’s Swinging His Golf Club in Augusta

Sorry, practice shots mean little compared to one America’s favorite tournaments, a league-changing trade, and the beginning of the baseball season. If he wins the Masters, then that becomes a major story.

My Love for the Big Ten and Big Upsets in the Tournament

Last year around this time I was eagerly awaiting the normal insanity brought about by the first two rounds of the Men’s Tournament only to find a rather lame series of results. Nine and ten seeds do not get upset status in the first round. So, there were five upsets in the first 32 games. That was not a very exciting development.

The second round had some promise with Davidson pulling off another amazing win and West Virginia blowing by the hated Duke Blue Devils. As much as my second condition for a great tournament (Duke folding early) was satisfied, my first (at least five complete shockers in the Sweet 16) was sadly not. The rest of the tourney limped along with four number one seeds making the Final Four.

What was that? I like the college basketball tournament because the four top-polling teams do not end up in the Final Four. If I wanted such lack of imagination I would be watching a college bowl game.

This season the tournament was decided by a lot more conference tournament action than years past. This season I get to bring my Big Ten pom-poms out and root for the Wisconsin Badgers to make an improbable run ala 2000. I get to keep the cheers going when I realize that I do not believe in the University of Louisville. I think this stems from the fact that I believe it is unnatural for a team from Kentucky to be playing in the Big East. I have to begrudgingly pick against the University of Illinois Illini because of the absence of Chester Frazier.

Enough with my Big Ten hopes and dreams though. The reality is that I think the Final Four will have Michigan State taking on the Memphis Tigers and the University of Pittsburgh taking on the UNC Tar Heels. I know the Tigers dominated a junior conference, but I think their athleticism will be rewarded and any rough play will whistled by the always overly cautious Men’s Tournament refs. In the championship the Memphis Tigers will be dismantled by Pittsburgh, who will get more than their share of calls thanks to the number one seed.

My single hope for a double digit elite eight team is Mississippi State University or Maryland, but both of those squads are in the weak West region. This also gives the Purdue Boilermakers a chance, but I think they will foul out their starting backcourt in the Sweet Sixteen (those boys play rough and rough does not go over well on national television). Sadly my March Madness picks are not as mad ass they generally are, but I have a feeling last season’s top seed heavy tourney has spoiled my appreciation for a 65-team single elimination tournament.

This Year The Madness Precedes March Madness

A week ago the number one seeds in the NCAA Tournament seemed pretty much set. UNC, Pittsburgh, UConn, and Oklahoma were on their way to leading the regions, but then a little funny thing happen called Championship Week. First Oklahoma lost in the Big 12 quarterfinals to Oklahoma State, then Pittsburgh lost in the Big East quarterfinals to West Virginia, and most recently UConn lost a ridiculously fantastic six-overtime game to Syracuse a few hours later. Meanwhile UNC is set to take on Virginia Tech with out star guard Ty Lawson. So, what is the seeding committee thinking?

Andy Katz over at ESPN found former committee member Craig Littlepage (the Viginia athletic director) and he said that this year the tournaments will play a bigger role in placement than in years past.

So, with the all of the top four potentially down, who is going to move in to fill the void? The new contenders are Memphis, Louisville, Michigan State, and Wake Forest or Duke.

The fact that the Memphis Tigers, a year after losing Derrick Rose, Joey Dorsey, and Chris Douglas-Roberts could repeat as a number one is amazing. The reality that Michigan State could live down a 35-point loss to North Carolina and make the committee ignore the fact that they play in the Big Ten is almost revolting. The realization that the Big East has a shot for a third team, Louisville, as a number one is profound. The mere thought that I might have to see Duke as a number one seed again is terrifying.

For any of those scenarios to happen the new contenders still have a long way to go. Memphis is the most likely to get in. They are already ranked in the top four in both the AP and the ESPN/USA Today Poll. They only have to finish off the rest of Conference USA (the only major conference consistently worse than the Big Ten). They only need a few more wins to relegate Oklahoma to the second seed.

The Michigan State Spartans have to get through the brutal Big Ten tournament that started yesterday. This league play is vicious. This is real “two man enter, one man leave” territory at the Conseco Fieldhouse in Indianapolis. Michigan State has to get through Minnesota in order to play the winner of Wisconsin and Ohio State. Pretty much the entire middle of the conference believes they are a bubble team so the semifinals will be a bloodbath.

Duke always has some March Magic left no matter how bad they are supposed to be. Remember, this team was not supposed to be a top-10 team, yet they are…again. Right now they have to leap frog UNC and Wake Forest to defy expectations again, but never doubt Coach K.

Louisville is another long shot. Despite Pittsburgh and UConn’s losses, they have been battling for the number one ranking all year long, and UConn’s six overtime loss is compelling enough of a case for them to keep a number seed regional seed, just probably not in the East.

Thankfully I have the rest of the weekend to catch up on a season of college basketball and search desperately for March Madness tickets to watch my Illini bow out ungracefully in the first round.

March Madness Mania Begins With These Favorites

I am a University of Illinois college basketball fan. If I am watching a game and the Fighting Illini are not playing, then I am a Big Ten fan. However, I have to give props to a couple of Big East teams.

The college basketball scene has been in disarray since Garnett jumped directly to the pros. Talent, especially really tall talent, abandoned the “academic” game to get paid millions based on potential. Then the NBA forced in coming draftees to play at least one year of college basketball by raising the age minimum to 19 (or bag groceries or play in Europe as Brandon Jennings is experimenting with).

Each year flashy schools advanced deep into March Madness with players that were one and done. Schools like the UNC Tar Heels simply overwhelmed most schools with their talent and athleticism. Some schools, like the Duke Blue Devils, are able to get talent to stay, but each season comes to a close with the question of who Coach K will get back.

UConn is in first place with a team led by four veteran college players. Two seniors, forward Jeff Adrien and guard A.J. Price, and two juniors, center Hasheem Thabeet and guard Jerome Dyson, are leading the big name school in a big conference (the Big East) into the most exciting tournament in sports with a defense only an experienced team can play.

This is not just a team that has a coach that preaches defense and keeps the games moving at a criminally slow pace, but a team that can score as well. The Connecticut Huskies score a very respectable 78.6 points a game (which is 26th in a field of over 300 Division I teams). There is just something about watching a poised team that plays well together instead of simply serving as a showcase for a future lottery pick to display his superior athleticism.

I was surprised to find that I am starting to enjoy watching the Pittsburgh Panthers play. They used to grind out games and I used to find that watching them was like watching the death of basketball. Now not only can the team defend, but it can score too. The Panthers are 35th in the nation at 77.7 points per game. I think that this team is going to surprise a whole lot of people come tourney time.

In fact fans that only start to let college basketball on their radar are going to be surprised by a few teams. Marquette, Clemson, Xavier, and Butler are all shooting for a top three seed in the regions.

I have to officially proclaim that the Butler Bulldogs are no longer allowed to be considered a Cinderella team. They are going to make it to the field of 65 for the third straight season and have been flirting with a top ten position in the polls. They went out in the second round last year, but that was considered an upset. The year before they were a breakout team that made it to the Sweet Sixteen.

This college basketball season is quickly coming to an end. Each team has a handful of games left before their conference tournaments. In two months America’s version of the World Cup is going to start, so if you want to win your office pool you better start paying attention now.

Sports On the Frozen Tundra

It seems like the winter wasteland that blankets the top half of this country is so intense that few things can bring a solid group of sports fans together. There is the Super Bowl, which is on February 1st this year, but little else seems to excite a nation that lives to love sports.

It confounds me as a basketball fan that I often hear more about pitchers and catchers reporting for spring training than this lovely little game developed back in 1891. The very concept of this sport was developed by Dr. James Naismith to combat the urge to gorge oneself on hot, fattening potato-based food and hibernate for half the day (the other half is spent at work or in traffic trying to get to work).

The conference schedules have already begun in men’s college hoops. I am sure Dick Vitale (the ACC Whore) loves that Wake Forest, Duke, and UNC are in the top five in the AP poll and the top 10 in the ESPN poll. The top 25 in most polls is littered with familiar names from huge conferences, along with the obligatory Gonzaga appearance.

There are some surprise mid-major and truly small school names in the mix too. Butler is coming close to Gonzaga status in the polls after a couple of very strong years, but ESPN has a school by the name of St. Mary’s at Number 22. I did not know anything about these either, but apparently they play in the WCC and are led by an Australian guard by the name of Patrick Mills.

If you want to have any idea who to pick in your office’s March Madness brackets, now is the time to start setting aside your Saturday afternoon and Wednesday nights to catch some top-25 college action and find out who these players are on the court that could be earning you bragging rights and a trip to Outback Steakhouse.

Over in the NBA recent woes have dropped the Boston Celtics from the best record in the league to the third best in the Eastern Conference. Yes, now the Orlando Magic have the best record and the Cleveland Cavaliers have the second best record thanks to the best player in the league, LeBron James.

If you missed highlights from the Cavs-Lakers game on Monday, LeBron and Kobe went head to head. The Lakers ended up winning, but everybody won when it came to a highlight reel that featured James looking like a half man/half beast capable of swatting shots and smoothly dunking the ball after taking off ten feet from the rim in traffic. Bryant was hindered by an ailing team and a dislocated finger, but managed to hit jaw-dropping jump shots while falling out of bounds and seemingly spinning out of control.

This winter while you stay inside and avoid getting together with the guys to celebrate beer and men who are simply taller, stronger, and quicker than, avoid fixing the house and doing anything productive by watching some hoops and daydream that you were once that good at putting an orange leather ball into an metal hoop.

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