Some Odds and Ends from the world of current sports that are rattling around my head:
* NCAA Tournament Picks: I know, I know, we all fill out our brackets, and we’re all experts and we’re all genuises on Tuesday before the games begin. For what it’s worth, here are my predictions. All four Number 1 seeds will NOT make the Final Four again this year (as they did last year for the first time ever). As impressive as Louisville is, winning both the Big East regular season and tournament titles, something tells me they’ll get tripped up before they see Detroit. I am an ACC homer-for-life, and the Big East was the best conference in the land this year, but I’m going to pick Wake Forest to upset the ‘Ville in the Sweet 16 and advance to the Final Four over West Virginia. There is always a team that looks awful in their conference tournament that comes back to life in the Big Dance, and I think it’s Wake this year. Thanks to the Deacons’ lackluster effort on Friday night in Atlanta, Maryland squeezed into the field. I say Wake has too much talent to play like that again. That loss will re-focus them and make them play with more intensity and cohesion.
I’m taking UConn in the West. They are the most complete team in the region, and if Thabeet is not in foul trouble, they will roll past all comers out there. Yes, I like the Terps to win Thursday (and it’s an unbelievably good draw getting any Pac 10 team, but especially Cal, with their lack of inside play). The season ends Saturday against Memphis though. Too many athletes for Maryland to keep up with there. Memphis gets to the Elite Eight before UConn topples them.
Pitt wins the East, almost too easily. Of all the 1 seeds, the Panthers drew the best possible bracket. Their inside dominance is unmatched by any of the other schools in this bracket. Two certainties here: Villanova, playing in Philly the first weekend, goes to the Sweet 16, as does Duke, playing their first two games in Greensboro, N.C. (Gotta love this pod system the NCAA cooked up to ensure the power conferences advance).
The South Region is my upset special. Western Kentucky, Temple, Michigan and Gonzaga all are appealing. I’m taking Gonzaga to knock out North Carolina in the Sweet 16 and finally break through to their first Final Four. Ty Lawson’s injured toe will cost the Tar Heels dearly as we saw last weekend. They’re just not the same without their best player, and the effort required to play with turf toe will ultimately catch up to him against deeper teams like the Zags. For what it’s worth, I have Gonzaga beating Temple in the Elite Eight. I absolutely love Dionte Christmas (and I will refrain from any lame puns here).
So my Final Four has Wake Forest vs. UConn and Pitt vs. Gonzaga. I’m taking Pitt over UConn for a third time this season in the National Championship.
Enjoy the games everyone. This Thursday through Sunday is simply my favorite weekend on the sports calendar every year.
* My colleague Rex Snider is a good guy with definite passion for sports and his opinions on them, but he’s dead wrong in his blog about Gary Williams’ “failure” as Head Coach of the Maryland Terrapins basketball program. Gary’s strength has always been as a practice and in-game coach, not a recruiter. He develops talent as well as any coach in NCAA Division I basketball. For all the problems through his twenty years at his alma mater, one constant has always remained: his ability to out-coach the other guy and win with “lesser” talent. For a reminder, just watch the second half of the Terps’ victory against UNC in College Park a month ago. While I agree that recently he has not recruited top tier talent successfully, it is wise to remember that following their back-to-back Final Four appearances at the beginning of this decade Coach Williams brought in several high school All-Americans who didn’t live up to their promise. Nik Caner-Medley, Travis Garrison, John Gilchrist, etc. This was a departure from his previous blueprint of adding a player like Keith Booth or Joe Smith to lesser recruited players and developing a cohesive team concept. Ultimately, it didn’t work out. For whatever reasons. But it’s more than obvious that a team like this year’s suits the Coach best. Workmanlike players with one obvious star (Vasquez) who hustle and press and are highly competetive. As frustrating as they are to watch at times, they are always entertaining.
And Rex, to your point about beating North Carolina and Duke in the standings and the tournament, take note: no other ACC school has won either the conference tournament or the National Championship other than Maryland in the past, oh, twenty years. The ACC has always been dominated by the Tobacco Road schools, most notably UNC, Duke and N.C. State. Yes, Rex, N.C. State used to be really good. Just ask Lefty Driesell. So can I live with Maryland as the third best team in a conference dominated by two schools that can legitimately claim to be basketball royalty? Yes, Rex. Yes I can. Third place in the ACC hoops pecking order ain’t exactly chopped liver.
* I really like the Ravens’ signing of Chris Carr. This strikes me as one of those “under the radar” offseason moves that pays big dividends during the course of an NFL season. Carr is only 25 years old, plays defensive back and is an elite kick returner. With Jim Leonhard’s departure, the Ravens have answered with a younger and possibly better alternative to address the areas of need in both their secondary and their return teams. Kudos to the braintrust in Owings Mills. It’s this type of move that makes me realize (again) that we are blessed here in Baltimore with a truly elite management team that is always searching to upgrade the roster. In Ozzie I trust. Truly.
* Is it ok to admit I really have not watched much of the World Baseball Classic? After scanning the dial last night, I caught a bit of the Venezuela – Puerto Rico game from Miami. Judging by the size of the crowd, I’m not alone in ignoring the majority of this tournament. It just does nothing for me, and I’m a baseball fan for life. The reality is there’s just no good time to hold an event like this, and Spring Training may be the absolute worst time of all to attempt it. But whatever Bud wants, Bud gets. Which, as in most every case of his tenure as Commissioner, is money. Lots and lots of money.
* Happy St. Patrick’s Day to all, but most especially to my mother Ginger! Have a pint tonight and toast your good fortune! Erin Go Bragh!