• Pick against the top two seeds at your peril. There’s a reason John Calipari was so wound up this time of year, one season after another. The path to the tournament’s second weekend is considerably shorter and straighter for teams that must face seeds no higher than seventh in the second round. Surviving that first weekend — and the nerves it brings, particularly for first-time players — is an obvious but critical hurdle to leap.
• Top seeds are earned. You may love upsets, and some pools reward a pick that has the likes of Richmond or Rhode Island — to name a pair of Cinderellas from days gone by — beating the likes of Indiana or Syracuse. But you can all but count on a top seed reaching the Final Four. (Of course, this means you have a 25-percent chance of nailing the pick if you limit yourself to one, so be careful.) Over the 31 years the NCAA has seeded teams, only twice — in 1980 and 2006 — has the Final Four been devoid of a numero uno.
• If you want to tempt the fates, look at the 15th seed in each bracket. No 16-seed has ever won a game at the NCAA’s (since the field was expanded to 64 in 1985). But four 15-seeds have pulled upsets (Richmond in ’91, Santa Clara in ’93, Coppin State in ’97, and Hampton in ’01). The lowest seeds to reach the Final Four, by the way, were 11th: LSU in 1986 and George Mason in 2006.
• Look at last year’s winner ... and forget them. Literally, this year. North Carolina ran roughshod through the field a year ago, but with Tyler Hansbrough and Ty Lawson now cashing checks in the NBA, the Tar Heels didn’t even make the field (first time since 2003). Two years ago, history was made when all four top seeds reached the Final Four (including Derrick Rose’s Memphis Tigers). This month, only one of those programs — Kansas — will be dancing. College basketball has taken on the collective shape of its biggest stars: one and done. So pay absolutely no attention to last year’s results.
• Star power matters; experience, not so much. Greg Oden and Mike Conley played one year of college hoops, and took their Ohio State Buckeyes to the national finals in 2007. Rose needed only one season at Memphis to make himself a national star (and ultimately the top pick in the NBA draft) as he led the Tigers to the 2008 finals. Carmelo Anthony won a championship as a one-and-done force for Syracuse in 2003. Mike Bibby was a freshman when his Arizona Wildcats won it all in 1997. And who can forget Michigan’s Fab Five going to the Final Four as freshmen and sophomores (1992 and ’93). So . . . look long and hard at this year’s Kentucky Wildcats, with freshmen John Wall and DeMarcus Cousins sharing the role of Calipari’s annual one-year-wonder.
• Just fill out the bracket! Don’t be shy. Expertise during March Madness is highly overrated. (Just count the number of sportswriters who have retired on their success in Vegas.) There are 9.2 quintillion possibilities in a 64-team bracket, and somewhere among those possibilities is “one shining moment” we all await when the nets are finally cut down on a Monday night in early April. Have fun. And when in doubt, always bet on the team with an animal nickname.
A few hoop thoughts on my mind this week, so let’s get right to them:
• The last month of Grizzlies basketball has been nothing short of bizarre. An eight-game losing streak at home (hard to do) and a six-game winning streak on the road (hard to do). But if you look at the results, the twin streaks shouldn’t be all that shocking, as the disparity between opponents Memphis has faced on the road and at FedExForum is pronounced. The only three bottom-feeders have come away from home (New Jersey, Washington, New York) and the only four teams that can call themselves title contenders (Lakers, Atlanta, San Antonio, Phoenix) have been at FEF. Nonetheless, if the Grizzlies are playoff caliber, they take a game or two from fellow “bubble” teams Miami, Charlotte, or Portland on their home floor. The home drought will certainly end tonight (against New Jersey), right?
• I just finished reading Pistol, the fine biography of Pete Maravich by Mark Kriegel. One of the best sports biographies I’ve ever read, it’s almost certainly the saddest. Kriegel rightfully identifies Maravich as the bridge between Bob Cousy and Magic Johnson, the basketball savant essentially programmed — from age 3 — by his father to change the game. (Sound familiar, Tiger Woods fans?) The fact that Pistol Pete performed at the level he did, both in college and the NBA, with a heart pumping well short of capacity is beyond comprehension. The fact that his brilliance on the hardwood came at the expense of every other facet of a normal life makes the tale one of heartbreak. (Sample line: “He was damned to play a role scripted by the wants and needs of others.”) The word “legend” is overused in sports, but Pete Maravich is a legend, indeed, only confirmed by this book.
• My new peeve: When an NBA guard — playing for a team that’s trailing — allows an in-bound pass after an opponent’s score to roll toward midcourt, ostensibly saving precious seconds on the game clock. Pro guards can dribble the length of a basketball court in less than five seconds. This “technique” of intentionally not touching the ball saves, at the most, a pair of seconds on a possession. And I’m convinced any gained time is lost by the guard having to recover the ball and establish his dribble (while not running up the floor). If one game has been won via this gimmick, let me know and I’ll reconsider my stance. Until then, I await the day the rolling ball is stolen by the winning team and jammed through the rim for the game-clinching points.
• “A pair of athletes thrown together by the cosmos to compete.” So says narrator Liev Schreiber near the end of HBO’s documentary Magic & Bird: A Courtship of Rivals. My family moved to Orange County, California, in 1979, the same year Magic Johnson arrived and somehow became the biggest celebrity in a city of celebrities. I later went to college in Boston during the latter half of Larry Bird’s sublime career with the Celtics. (I spent some preschool years in Atlanta when Maravich was a Hawk, but can’t reflect in the same way on that proximity.) HBO’s film manages to document what may be the most significant sports pairing of the last 50 years. And that’s really what Bird and Magic were: a pairing. Sure, they battled in an NCAA championship and three times in the NBA Finals, but together, they saved the NBA while at the same time serving as talking points for subjects as challenging as race, fame, politics, even disease. Having grown up in the Eighties — especially having lived in each of their neighborhoods for a period of time — I find this tandem’s influence profound when it comes to my view of modern athletes, and the struggle among so many of them to balance celebrity with the will to be a champion. Early in the film, Bird says people will be talking about his rivalry with Magic 100 years from now. And he’s right.
March means spring. And spring means baseball. And in these parts, baseball means the St. Louis Cardinals. As the defending National League Central champions shake off the rust in Jupiter, Florida, this month, four primary issues have been stealing headlines and stirring debate within Cardinal Nation. Let’s take a look at all four.
• Who will man the hot corner? Joe Thurston and Mark DeRosa played the most innings at third base last season for St. Louis, and neither player is back. With Matt Holliday signed to a contract that pays him $16 million a year, the Cards’ new third baseman will come from the bargain rack. Could be David Freese, a standout two years ago in Memphis (26 home runs) who missed much of last season with an ankle injury before helping lead the Redbirds to the Pacific Coast League championship. Freese was arrested for DWI this winter and has since given cleaning up his personal life the same priority as winning the third-base gig for the Cardinals. Other options include Joe Mather (like Freese, injured most of last year after a fine 2008 season) and maybe Allen Craig (.322 and 26 homers in Memphis last season on his way to the franchise’s Minor League Player of the Year award). It’s unlikely all three of these prospects will make the big club, which means the Redbirds should land a solid, veteran bat in the middle of their lineup.
• Who is the fifth starter? If Adam Wainwright, Chris Carpenter, Kyle Lohse, and Brad Penny stay healthy, it’s going to be a good season at Busch Stadium. Each hurler has won at least 15 games at least once in his career. But unless Tony LaRussa turns into Earl Weaver before Opening Day, someone new will have to take the ball every fifth day. (Joel Pineiro and Todd Wellemeyer have moved on.) Former Cub Rich Hill was invited to Jupiter to earn a spot, having pitched fewer than 80 innings the last two seasons combined. Three young starters will also contend for the role, a spot in the Memphis rotation awaiting if they don’t make the cut. Blake Hawksworth went 5-4 for Memphis last season before going 4-0 with a 2.02 ERA in 40 innings for St. Louis. Mitchell Boggs went 6-4 as a Redbird, 2-3 as a Cardinal. The best stuff probably belongs to 23-year-old lefty Jaime Garcia, the Cardinals’ second-ranked prospect and another hero of the Redbirds’ PCL title run last fall.
• Who will come off the bench? Among reserves, the most at-bats for the 2009 Cardinals went to Rick Ankiel, Joe Thurston, Chris Duncan, and Khalil Greene. They’re all gone. (A member of the Cardinals’ system since 1998, Ankiel signed with Kansas City so he can play every day.) The only holdovers on the bench are catcher Jason LaRue and infielder Julio Lugo. Which makes the signing last weekend of former All-Star Felipe Lopez significant. Lopez can capably play second, short, and third, invaluable versatility under a manager like LaRussa who likes to keep his players fresh (and motivated) by moving parts and positions within his lineup. Along with Freese, Mather, and Craig, infielder Tyler Greene and outfielder Jon Jay (both Memphis Redbirds in ’09) will compete for roster spots with the big club. With starting shortstop Brendan Ryan rehabbing from wrist surgery, the musical chairs on the Cardinal bench have become especially hot. As with the rotation slot, those players who don’t fit LaRussa’s needs will be on their way to AutoZone Park . . . and with a chip on their shoulder.
• Who’s that behind the batting cage? The hiring of Mark McGwire as hitting coach is dubious at best, a public-relations tsunami at worst. And it’s starting to look like the latter. (When your own brother publishes a book disparaging your use of steroids, it may be time to reevaluate a career in the public eye.) The return of McGwire to Busch Stadium is sure to have its warm elements. It’s been only 12 years since he made St. Louis the center of the baseball universe with his juiced assault of Roger Maris’ single-season home run record. Fans will get their number-25 jerseys out of the attic and make the former slugger feel a part of the family again. But for the 81 games the Cardinals must play away from home? For a team suiting up the game’s most fearsome slugger — three-time MVP Albert Pujols — adding a confessed steroid user to the clubhouse is a bit like asking a recovering alcoholic to lead tours at Anheuser-Busch. Here’s hoping — somehow — the baseball played on the field will be the story of the upcoming Cardinal season. * * * * * * * *
• One of the more underrated annual events on the Mid-South sports calendar is the Gulf South Conference basketball tournament, to be held this week (March 4-7) at the DeSoto Civic Center in Southaven. (Both the men's and women's tournaments will be held.) The top-ranked men’s team in Division II — Arkansas Tech — will be favored, with another top-10 squad (Valdosta State) in the field. A pair of top-10 teams (Delta State and Arkansas Tech) will be vying for the women's title. Check it out.