Tiger has one priority: beating Nicklaus

Tiger pulled out two weeks ago. Haha.

When Woods opted out of The Players Championship two Sundays ago, criticism came flying towards him like a 330-yard drive.

Why would a guy who has won with a broken leg and torn ligaments withdraw in the final round with what turned out to be a stiff neck?

The answer is simple, Tiger only cares about winning majors.

The guy probably has 10 years left of legitimately contending for major championships. If you count this year, that’s 39 majors left in that span.

The reason he was able to grind it out in the 2008 U.S. Open at Torrey Pines was because it was the U-S-freaking-Open. If you had the clubhouse lead through 54 holes, or tied for the lead after four rounds, would you say “you know what, it’s not that big of a deal,”? No, you wouldn’t, and neither would a guy trailing Jack Nicklaus by five major victories for the all-time record.

When Tiger called it quits on the seventh hole at Sawgrass, he had no idea what was wrong with him. He speculated it could be a bulging disk in his neck. Had that been the case, he could have missed a couple months…a.k.a the U.S. and British Open.

It makes perfect sense why Tiger didn’t want to jeopardize two major tournaments for the chance to finish 25th at The Players.

He only cares about majors. It’s not that complicated. He’s reached a point in his career that he’s won so many times and earned so much money that any more of either is nearly meaningless.

He entered The Open Championship today, which will be played at St. Andrews, site of the 2000 Championship when Tiger won the second of the four-part Tiger Slam.

Don’t call him a wuss for not wanting to finish his round, or second guess his toughness. It’s not about playing through the pain. It is about making sure he is in the absolute best shape possible for a run at Nicklaus and major win number 19.


Tebow in the Steel City? Makes Sense to Me

To all the haters out there, I have to do it. I think I’ve found a way Tim Tebow sneaks into the first round.

Roger Goodell laid down perhaps the most compelling suspension of his short tenure as NFL commissioner Wednesday when he banned Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger for the first six games of 2010.

The Steelers anticipated the move and signed veteran Byron Leftwich earlier in the week as an insurance policy.

Rumors are now swirling that Roethlisberger may be on the trading block if the right offer comes their way.

I don’t know who’d be willing to trade for the guy, considering he’s an elite level talent, which would warrant giving up a heck of a lot to get him, when he is only eligible for 10 games next season.

So I offer up a solution to the Steelers’ predicament.

What quarterback in this year’s draft is big, with somewhat unorthodox mechanics but an uncanny knack for winning just like Big Ben?

Yes, it is Tebow.

And he comes with a bonus!

Unlike Roethlisberger who, between motorcycle escapades, strip club extravaganzas and sports bar bathroom run-ins, has found his way into trouble much too frequently, Tebow comes with a No Baggage Guaranteed plan.

There’s no need to give the Tebow character lecture here; we all know what he brings to the table besides a strong left arm.

But seriously, ever since last year, I’ve drawn the on-field comparisons between Tebow and Roethlisberger.

Both weigh more than 230 lbs., though Tebow’s build is a bit more defined.

Both make a career by making throws on the run – neither could ever disguise for Tom Brady or Peyton Manning, but that’s not what makes them tick.

And lastly – most importantly – no matter how ugly it may look at times, they both win games at an alarming rate.

Tebow’s two national titles in college were a sign of his leadership (he was an integral part of the 2007 title even if he didn’t start, they wouldn’t have won it without him).

Roethlisberger already owns two Super Bowl rings in his career.

I’ve said all along that Tebow belongs with a franchise that plays destructive defense, relies on a power running game and short to mid-level passes. In other words, he belongs in Pittsburgh.

The Steelers own the 18th pick in the draft, which is dangerously high to take Tebow.

If they could somehow trade Roethlisberger and either move down in the first round or get a late first-rounder in return, it would provide the perfect opportunity to take Tebow.

Even if they don’t make a deal involving the suspended star, they can still move around some picks to take Tebow at a more appropriate place in the draft.

They just better be careful, because something tells me some team that covets Tebow is going to freak out that he could go off the board before it’s their turn to take him, and trade up to get him earlier than anticipated.

If Pittsburgh does snatch Tebow up, he could learn quite a bit from the veteran Roethlisberger.

Come to think of it, Roethlisberger could learn a lot about character from Tebow.

Taking the former Heisman Trophy winner from Florida would also send a message from Steelers brass that they truly are serious about a cleaner image than what Roethlisberger has given them in recent months.

The Steelers do have more pressing needs than quarterback, obviously. Leftwich would do a fine job in the first six games of the year; Pittsburgh would likely be no worse than 3-3 with Big Ben returned.

But the dynamic of Roethlisberger and Tebow in Pittsburgh might just be what the Steelers need at the moment.


Finding this year's surefire top 5 pick

Which draft slot is best?

In less than 24 hours, war rooms across the country will be jam packed with the anointed “greatest minds” in all of football, conglomerating to choose a player they think will alter the fortunes of their respective franchise.

More specifically, management in St. Louis, Detroit, Tampa Bay, Washington and Kansas City are in the prime slots to take a player that will rejuvenate such moribund enterprises as themselves.

Or are they?

By breaking down the top five picks from the past 10 drafts, not every top pick was created equally.

I’m on a mission to find out the perfect top five draft pick.

Every year, starting the day after the draft concludes, people begin looking for who will be next year’s Golden Boy franchise quarterback.

It’s quarterbacks that draw ESPN such high ratings to watch Chris Berman, Keyshawn Johnson and Mel Kiper, among others, talk about 40-yard dash times and “upside” for eight hours straight.

Some of those top-five quarterbacks include Joey Harrington, David Carr, Alex Smith and JaMarcus Russell.

Others include Philip Rivers, Eli Manning and Carson Palmer.

The reality of the matter is that 12 quarterbacks have been taken in the top five since 2000. Of those 12, seven have never made a pro bowl, and none have ever been named all-pro.

Only one has even played in a Super Bowl – Eli Manning, who won Super Bowl XLII with the Giants.

Most quarterbacks that get drafted highly typically sit on the bench at least half of their rookie season, if not the entire first year.

Coaches are scared to throw their $50 million investment into the fire too early and never see them blossom into stars. This thinking may not be all too far off.

Of the seven number one overall picks that were quarterbacks, only three have ever made a pro bowl, and just four are still starters in the league today.

The three that no longer start, all started games their rookie season. JaMarcus Russell, Alex Smith, and Michael Vick were forced to save their franchises in a hurry.

To be fair, Vick had quite a bit of early success, taking the Falcons to the playoffs twice before he turned into a jailbird.

Other teams may wish to take cornerstone tackle to protect a young quarterback.

All in all, it is a bit of a safer bet. Of the eight players taken in the top five since 2000, four have played in a Pro Bowl, and two have been named all-pro.

A couple picks have been home runs. Jake Long has made the Pro Bowl both years in the league, as has Joe Thomas in his three seasons. Chris Samuels made four Pro Bowls in his ten-year career.

The second overall pick in the draft is usually a good place to take non-skill players. In fact, no quarterback has gone number two since Donovan McNabb in 1999.

Only one player taken second overall has paid serious dividends, and that was Julius Peppers in 2002.

Other names under the “2nd overall pick” category include Leonard Davis, Charles Rogers, Robert Gallery, and Reggie Bush (let’s face it- he had megastar written all over him, and it hasn’t happened).

If I had one piece of advice for general managers, it would be to stay the hell away from the fourth pick. That selection has produced zero all-pros, no rookie of the years, and only two pro bowl appearances since 2000.

The only good pick in that spot is Philip Rivers, who was traded from New York for Eli Manning on draft day.

Some (less than) notable names taken fourth include Peter Warrick, Justin Smith, Mike Williams, Dewayne Robertson and Cedric Benson.

Couple that trend with the fact that the traditionally pathetic drafters, the Washington Redskins, have that pick, and it could spell bad news for the nation’s capital.

The fifth pick has also been unforgiving, save for one future hall-of-famer.

LaDanian Tomlinson accounts for four of the six all-pro selections from fifth picks, and five of the nine all-pro selections.

Carnell Williams did earn Rookie of the Year honors with Tampa Bay in 2006.

Jamal Lewis also had a banner year when he topped the 2,000-yard mark in 2003.

Two of the highest-rated players in this year’s draft are defensive tackles. Ndamukong Suh of Nebraska and Oklahoma’s Gerald McCoy are expected to be both taken within the first four picks at worst.

Here are the names of the other three defensive tackles to go top-five in the last decade. Gerard Warren, Dewayne Robertson and Glenn Dorsey.

Dorsey is still young, but clearly using such a high pick on this position does not pay dividends.

Understandably, this draft class is relatively weak at the top, and there are not too many other options with the top picks other than Suh and McCoy, but this is a warning that neither may turn out as great as they were cracked up to be.

The money pick is lucky number three. Only three players have been taken third and not earned some sort of honors in their careers thus far.

Names in that group of third picks include Samuels, Andre Johnson, Larry Fitzgerald, Braylon Edwards, Vince Young, Joe Thomas and Matt Ryan.

Players picked first, second, fourth or fifth have accumulated 31 Pro Bowl appearances in their careers. The third pick has provided 17 appearances by itself in the past decade.

Though Johnson and Fitzgerald were both home runs at no. 3, taking wideouts this high is a risky business. The other receivers to go top five include Peter Warrick, Charles Rogers and Mike Williams among others.

Reflecting on all this list of 50 players, more than half of them struggled to live up to anywhere near expectations as pros.

The safest pick seems to be the third spot, and of all the positions traditionally selected early, offensive linemen have had the most success.

Using this logic, the best player to come out of this draft would be if the Buccaneers took Oklahoma State tackle Russell Okung with the third pick.

How likely is this? Not very, considering most everyone believes the Rams will take Sam Bradford, then the Lions will take Suh, leaving the Bucs to take McCoy.

However, a little look back at recent history could give the Bucs some greater insight on how to get a much greater return on a franchise-altering decision.


Red Sox Spirit Lives On

So much for being defensive-minded, eh Red Sox?

Take your pick from any of the adjectives you’d like that people used to describe the 2010 Red Sox. New-look, reinvented, refocused – whatever.

Runs weren’t hard to come by in the Sox’s 9-7 win over the Yankees on opening night Sunday.

After C.C. Sabathia gave up two runs through 5 1/3 innings, Boston hit its stride, torching the Yankee bullpen for seven runs to take the game.

This game had just about everything a season opener could handle.

Curtis Granderson, the centerpiece of New York’s off-season acquisitions, homered in his first at-bat in the second inning. The Yankees held a commanding lead, and the grumbles of a much weaker Boston offense than usual began to circumvent Fenway Park.

Beginning in the bottom of the fifth inning, Boston proved that while the make-up might be different, they are still the same old Sox.

In typical Sox fashion, Boston erased a four-run deficit over two innings to even the score at five runs apiece. If that was not enough, the Yankees responded with two runs in the seventh inning.

*Pause – during the seventh-inning stretch, Boston had a “very special” guest sing God Bless America. Steven Tyler, the lead singer for Aerosmith, wailed the song like someone was holding an electric leash around his crotch.

In what will surely soon be YouTube famous, Tyler clearly glanced off-camera for every next line of the song. All the while, he was quite affectionate with what I can only hope is his 18-year-old (at least) daughter, who I wouldn’t argue about if Maxim gave her a call.

In recap, so far we have: Red Sox comeback turned choke, followed by a screeching, drunken rendition of God Bless America with a rather tasty brunette just off-center in the frame.

Back to the game…

Boston’s favorite son and 2007 AL MVP Dustin Pedroia made chop suey of a Chan Ho Park change-up, blasting a 2-run shot over the Green Monster to tie the game.

The runner he drove in was Marco Scutaro, who has assumed the shortstop duties for the Sox in 2010, in spite of the fact the position seems to come with less job security than teaching Defense Against the Dark Arts.

Joe Girardi then inserted Damaso Marte on the mound, which led to one wild pitch and another passed ball. That allowed Boston’s Michelin Man, Kevin Youkilis, to advance to home easily.

An inning after the debacle that was Tyler’s act, whoever schedules the musicians at Fenway got it right when Neil Diamond himself led Sox Nation in singing Sweet Caroline.

With the comeback in full swing and the moist crowd swaying away to the old Sox classic, it felt good to be a Sox fan again.

Another Pedroia RBI in the eighth inning should have sealed the deal.

The only thing left was Jonathan Papelbon to close the game with a save. Sox fans had not forgotten his destructive, three-run catastrophe in game three of the ALDS last year against the Angels.

It was the first time he ever allowed a run in the postseason, and Sox fans needed to see a rejuvenated Papelbon to know everything was okay.

Save for a Jorge Posada single to right field, and Paplebon made quick work of the Yanks in the ninth.

Everything just fit. The night was electric, the mood was spectacular. Everybody in red and white went home happy.

Whoever thought this Red Sox team was different, for better or for worse, think again.

Some of the players may change, but Red Sox spirit never will.


Albert Pujols: Triple Crown Threat?

Arguably the best player of this era that hasn’t used performance-enhancing drugs, Pujols is this generation’s best threat to win the Triple Crown. Pujols, 30, led the National League with 47 home runs in 2009. He finished third in the league in both batting average (.327) and RBI (135).

There is no hitter in the major leagues pitchers fear more than Pujols right now. With Matt Holliday behind him in the lineup, teams will be forced to pitch to Pujols.

When the third batter in your lineup has the highest on-base percentage on the team, you know he’s an imposing force.

The Cardinals also play in a division that isn’t exactly stocked with aces on the mound. The Reds, Brewers, Pirates and Cubs and Astros all have less than formidable rotations. The NL Central is a hitter’s paradise.

Pujols’ biggest challengers in the home run category will be Prince Fielder, who hit 46 in 2009, the Phillies’ Ryan Howard (45) and the Padres’ Adrian Gonzalez (40).

The toughest category for Pujols to win will be RBI. If he bats ahead of Holliday, Pujols will have fewer runners on base to drive home. Howard and Fielder tied for the RBI title last year, and will be at the top again this year.

The batting average title will come down to Pujols and Hanley Ramirez from the Florida Marlins. Those two are the clear-cut favorites for that title; anyone who challenges them will be a mild surprise.

Ramirez won the title in 2009 when he hit .342.

The NL has fewer great hitters than the American League, but Pujols is the best of the bunch. There is no Joe Mauer or Ichiro to steal the hitting title away.

When it comes down to the end of the season, chances are Pujols won’t pull off the rare feat, but watching him chase history will be fun.


Urban Meyer's freak out not his best move

Urban Meyer didn’t scream his age or declare his manhood like Mike Gundy, but the Florida coach certainly made waves when he confronted an Orlando Sentinel reporter earlier this week.

Jeremy Fowler quoted Gators’ wide receiver Deonte Thompson in his blog as saying “You never know with Tim. You can think he’s running but he’ll come up and pass it to you. You just have to be ready at all times. With (New quarterback John) Brantley, everything’s with rhythm, time. You know what I mean, a real quarterback.”

Meyer didn’t take too kindly to the story, and during the post-practice confrontation, told Fowler “If (Thompson) was my son, we’d be going at it right now.”

Obviously Thompson has been embarrassed by the remarks, saying he did not mean to take anything away from Tebow.

It’s no secret how close Meyer and Tebow’s relationship became by the end of Tebow’s career, so it’s no surprise that a quote involving the former Heisman winner has Meyer fired up.

Throughout his career, I have been a huge fan of Meyer, dating back to his days as the Bowling Green head coach in 2001.

I even gave him a pass when his retirement-turned-leave of absence-turned-glorified vacation unfolded this winter.

But this time, Meyer may have overstepped his boundaries.

I applaud Meyer for protecting his player, who was obviously disturbed by the situation.

However, Fowler did nothing wrong by using Thompson’s direct quote in perfect context.

Fowler’s blog was supposed to be about Thompson hopefully breaking out after a couple of disappointing seasons in Gainesville.

Where Meyer should have directed his frustration is obviously with the player, and giving the kid a tutorial on word choice.

After Meyer nearly retired due to health concerns stemming from dangerous levels of stress, he doesn’t seem to be pulling any punches already.

This really brings about the question of just how much Urban truly cares about his health.

Whether he admits it or not, getting so frustrated and visibly violent in a situation as petty as this one doesn’t exactly say, “I’m handling my stress issues really well.”

What began as a simple misuse of words by a underachieving junior wide receiver has blown out of proportion, and will turn the eyes of critics far and wide directly to Meyer.


ObaMarch Madness, or the New America's NCAA Tournament

We Americans always seem to be wanting more. More money, more food, more healthcare -- more college basketball.

Debates about whether or not to expand the NCAA Basketball Tournament from its current field of 65 teams have intensified this spring.

Bloggers, fans and anyone else with a laptop computer have poured his or her two cents into the discussion.

The recent bill passed by the United States Congress to provide equitable healthcare to any American signaled a critical shift in the philosophy of lawmakers in this country.

President Barack Obama has endeared himself to the realm of sports fans stretching from Tampa to Spokane. In the past two years, he has made several cameos on ESPN’s “Sportscenter”, attended a number of sporting events (mostly around the nation’s capital), and on the night before he was elected, sharply advocated for a playoff system in college football.

After overseeing the most decisive change to his country’s law in decades, the president has etched his name in the legacy of modern world leaders.

After colluding with the legislative branch to pass such a heavily debated law, it’s only natural he should use his power for a much simpler task: expanding the big dance.

Should it move to 68 teams? Nah.

What about 96? Don’t think so.

124? Why stop there?

If the president wants to be truly consistent –a trait each of his predecessors strived to be, successfully or not – he should make an immediate motion to include all 347 teams.

Rejoice Chicago State University! Your six-win, 22-loss season won’t withhold you from the fruits of the postseason any longer.

Under this new plan, everybody wins.

Before we get ahead of ourselves and sign this bill into law, we should really look at why the tournament is held to only 65 teams today.

By allowing the 31 conference champions to automatically qualify for the dance, we reward the outstanding effort those teams put forth in becoming the absolute best in their respective leagues. If your program recruits good players, keeps them eligible, molds them into a strong team, keeps them out of legal trouble, and graduates them, you have a strong formula for success and an increased likelihood of punching a ticket to the dance.

This also includes the 34 best teams not included in the group of conference champions. By allowing other teams that worked very hard to create a strong team and succeeded, it creates an extremely competitive environment for the three-week spectacle that the tournament is in its current state.

No team that allowed players to join the order of power that is the National Collegiate Athletic Association illegally has the opportunity to play in the postseason.

Pay recruits to come to your school, and you’re toast. Allow your players to fall short of the (insanely lenient) academic requirements, and they are history.

But all that can change with the new era of American justice, which only makes sense to extend to the most entertaining month-long spectacle this country has to offer.

The tournament, which will now quintuple in size, comes with some further stipulations of course.

The non-conference season, including early-season tournaments that reward strong programs with increased revenue and exposure, must be eliminated. With a postseason that will take more than two months to complete, there is not enough time to allow those games to take place. The NCAA, and only the NCAA, will tell every team when and where each game will be played. No more scheduling your own opponents for the benefit of your players, fans, and university – that’s way too much freedom.

In addition, there will be no more sanctions handed down by the NCAA that would bar teams from playing in the tournament. Illegal recruiting will go unpunished, and academic failures will have no impact on a team’s standing with the tournament selection process. As long as you have enough players to suit up on the court, you’re in like Jonny Flynn.

The regular season will take place from mid-November, and conclude at the end of January.

Once that is complete, the field of 347 teams will be arranged based on a set of pre-existing criteria. It’s impossible to assume the Seeding Committee can see every team play. It would be unfair to the less exposed teams when they were put through the seeding process unless there was a list of specific criteria the committee had to follow when placing teams. The phrase “that’s why the games aren’t played on paper” will soon be rendered obsolete. It’s now statistical comparison at its finest.

Once the teams are placed in the field, there will be three weeks of preliminary play, in which the top 64 teams have no games, instead are rewarded with a lengthy idle period.

So, in essence, the teams that would currently be the only ones to make the field would now be forced to wait while other teams who never deserved to make the postseason before are given permission to see what the big dance is all about.

Does it matter that those teams are the only ones that really deserve to be playing? Not at all.

This is not your father’s older brother’s America, after all. This is a nation where the playing field is even, and life’s regular season isn’t that important. The Syracuses and Kentuckys of the world would not have any motivation for winning upwards of 28 games during the year. In the end, everyone will be on the same grounds anyway.

Maybe now Chicago State can brag about winning an NCAA opening round game against Bryant University. At least it’s something more than simply being Kanye West’s (see: West’s multiplatinum album “College Dropout”) former school.

We are in the midst of an era of change in America, and here’s hoping the powers that be leave no stone unturned in revamping a country that has thrived as the world’s most powerful for more than two centuries.

*Ali Farokmanesh 2012!*


Tiger's not out of the Woods yet

Sunday evening, ESPN’s Tom Rinaldi did what even Oprah Winfrey could not: be the first person interview Tiger Woods one-on-one since November 2009.

I came away from the five-minute segment with mixed feelings.

As usual, Tiger left me with many questions still about what has transpired in his life in recent months, and even years.

He did, however, give some perhaps unanticipated answers.

This was better than last month for Tiger, when he gave a woefully unemotional speech in front of a room of people he selected with more care than a 5-year-old girl constructs her dollhouse.

I won’t say I saw the “real Tiger,” because quite frankly I don’t know who that is. And neither does anyone else, including Tiger.

“I was living the life of a lie…and stripping away denial and rationalization you start coming to the truth of who you really are and that can be very ugly,” Woods said.

Now he’s getting somewhere.

He finally admitted he was a fraud. It’s one thing to say he’s had “multiple transgressions” and admit to any other wrongful acts, but for him to admit his behavior was fraudulent to even those who care about him most, spoke to me about his character now.

But back to his marriage. How the man has been able to keep his wife from abandoning him already is better than any seven-iron shot out of the rough he’s ever made.

When asked to answer specifically what happened on Thanksgiving night last year, when Woods’ car was found crashed into a tree and the media frenzy that was his life ensued, he said that beyond the legal documents it was a private matter.

He wouldn’t describe a single part of that night, including why he lost control of the car before he even left the driveway.

That’s his bad. If he wants to eliminate speculation from the minds of millions, he’d better come clean on what really happened that night. That doesn’t mean he has to give a play-by-play of what happened, but by holding silent it leads us to believe whatever happened could not have been much worse than we can imagine.

Rinaldi concluded the interview by asking Woods “how do you reconcile what you’ve done with (the love with his wife)?

To which Woods replied, “we work at it.”

How much work are we talking here, Tiger?

Clearly the issues between Elin and himself are far from resolved, yet he is already back in the game of golf, set to play in the Masters two weeks from now.

Tiger Woods doesn’t play golf like you and I play golf. He doesn’t slap a few balls around on the range 10 minutes before his tee-time and ride around in a cart with a cooler stocked full of beer in the back for a couple hours once a week.

Tiger Woods spends anywhere from six to ten hours a day on the practice course, refining a skill so rare that it changed the way the very sport was revered.

That’s a hell of a lot of work. Now he says that to repair his marriage and family, it will require work?

It seems to me like the true priorities of Tiger Woods have not changed all that much.

Let’s face it: when Accenture and Gatorade withdrew their sponsorships of Woods, it didn’t exactly put him in the poor house.

You could say playing golf is an escape for Woods, but do you really expect Woods to tee it up at Augusta for the autonomy of it? If he’s playing in any tournament, it’s because he wants to win.

Put yourself in Tiger’s shoes. He’s taking one heck of a risk by playing in this tournament, even if it is within the fortified walls of Augusta National. He’s facing endless ridicule, not to mention constant pinpoint scrutiny for the duration of his stay in the competition.

Of course he plans on winning! If he doesn’t, the week will all in all be a failure for him. He’s returning to a course where he has won four times in his career in convincing fashion.

A win at the Masters would lift the pressure of the world off his shoulders, and serve as a giant “take that!” to all the critics out there that say he’s lost his luster as maybe the greatest golfer ever.

He has something to prove. If he wanted to play golf as an escape from a living hell, he’d call up a buddy or two, and hit the course every now and then to get his mind off things. Don’t expect Tiger to hack around Augusta for four days and finish in 15th, only to hear him say anything akin to “I’m very satisfied with the week I had.” It’s not coming, so don’t hold your breath.

I am glad it was Rinaldi that conducted the interview, but I can’t help but wonder what more there is to know about the nature of Tiger’s rehabilitation, his true standing with Elin, and why he thinks he can compete at the highest level of professional golf and repair a marriage that seems so irreversibly damaged at this point only a miracle would save it.

Then again, he’s made a career out of defying the odds.


Three-point play (and-one): NCAA Tournament first day


1. The Big Least

The conference widely regarded as the nation’s most powerful was a late Villanova miracle away from losing all four teams that played Thursday. The Wildcats were the only team from the Big East to win on the tournament’s first day when they beat 15-seeded Robert Morris in overtime. Scottie Reynolds waited until the extra period before he hit his second shot of the game. He finished with 20 points, but 15 of them came from the foul line.

If anyone thought the Wildcats’ near loss was embarrassing, it was nothing compared to Georgetown’s blowout defeat at the hands of Ohio. Ohio finished the season with a 7-9 record in the Mid-American Conference, and had to win four straight games in the conference tournament to even make the big dance. The Bobcats shot 13-for-23 from behind the three-point line, and Georgetown couldn’t keep control of the ball. A week after knocking off Syracuse in the Big East Tournament, the Hoyas turned it over 18 times in a 97-83 loss.

Marquette blew a 15-point second half lead against Washington to lose by two points to the Huskies. Quincy Pondexter’s runner with 1.7 seconds left gave the Huskies the 80-78 win. Washington was hardly an underdog in this game. Marquette won most of its games by fewer than 10 points, and Washington is playing its best basketball of the season.

Notre Dame provided one of the best finishes of the day. Carleton Scott’s three-pointer as time wound down found its way halfway through the net before rattling out, and Luke Harangody’s put back made no difference as the Irish still lost to Old Dominion 50-49. The Irish were in relative control most of the game, but went ice cold from the field late. As they continued to miss from behind the arc possession after possession, it was clear the Irish were going to live and die by the three no matter how long they stayed in the tournament. ODU was able to score just enough to edge Harangody and company, sending them home packing after a strong finish to the season landed the Irish in the dance in the first place.

2. Murray State didn’t waste any time giving us this year’s “One Shining Moment”

With one Danero Thomas 15-footer, Murray State went from virtual unknown to America’s favorite Cinderella. Thomas’ shot at the buzzer lifted the Racers over Vanderbilt for the tournament’s first major upset, 66-65.

What’s not to love about the Racers? They play an uptempo style that makes for entertaining basketball, and just won their first tournament game in 22 years.

They led virtually the entire game over the fourth-seed Commodores, who lost for the second time in three years as a no. 4 in the first round; they also lost to Siena in 2007.

Butler handled UTEP in the second game of the pod, setting up a mid-major showdown in round two, at least on the surface. Both teams hail from small conferences, but Butler is a perennial top-level team, while the Racers are anything but. It will be another contrast of styles when those two teams meet, as Butler loves to rely on breaking its opponent down in the halfcourt and hitting power forward Matt Howard in the post.

The Racers, meanwhile, will force the issue by pushing the ball on every possession, looking to get fouled as much as possible and hopefully hit three’s in transition. It’s not out of the question to say the Racers could pull off a second upset. Definitely tune in for that game.

3. Jimmer Freddette steps up for BYU

Many of you know Freddette as the player who has stolen my heart with his sweet shooting stroke and remarkable shot selection. He strongly reminds me of Steve Nash, and he scored 37 points today in the Cougars’ double-overtime win over Florida.

The man I profoundly proclaimed to be this year’s Stephen Curry didn’t disappoint. After scoring only eight points in the first half, Fredette kept BYU in the game after the Gators stormed back from a double-digit deficit in the second half.

He got some much needed help from reserve guard Michael Loyd Jr., who scored 26 points. Loyd hit several runners in the lane and also pulled off some magical spin moves to get to the rim.

BYU has the makings of a bona fide Cinderella. With a player like Fredette and a plethora of deadly outside shooters, the Cougars could make a deep run in the dance.

And one! 4. March madness hits the ground running

The insanity got started early, when all three of the initial games came down to the wire within minutes of one another. Between two CBS channels and my laptop, I feverishly tried to watch Villanova come back against Robert Morris, BYU escape Florida, and ODU stun Notre Dame. Two of those three went into overtime, while the Notre Dame game was decided at the buzzer.

The optimist in me hoped that the early going was a sign of things to come, while the realist in me wasn’t so sure.

It was a good day to be an optimist. In the second wave of games, Murray State pulled off the unthinkable with the heart-pounding win over Vanderbilt.

Just a short while later, Northern Iowa and UNLV went down to the wire as well. Ali Farokhmanesh nailed a three-pointer longer than his last name to put the Panthers ahead 69-66 with four seconds to play. It held on to be the game-winner, and Northern Iowa helped in carrying on the chaos.

In the night session, it was crazier still. Ohio, which less than one percent of America picked to win on ESPN.com, dominated Georgetown, who beat the Big East regular season champions exactly a week ago.

Meanwhile, Washington came back from a 15-point deficit with 13 minutes to play to beat Marquette 80-78. The Huskies moved on after Quincy Pondexter nailed a runner on the left-hand side of the lane with just less than two seconds left.

The final wave of games may have been the best of the day.

Tennessee emerged from a deadlocked battle with San Diego State with some clutch free throw shooting in the final minute. The Volunteers escaped to move on and face Ohio in the second round. Once a team in turmoil with three players kicked off mid-season, the Vols now sit in prime position to make a Sweet Sixteen appearance.

As the final seconds were ticking down ever so slowly in that game, Texas and Wake Forest were also headed to a memorable finish. After Texas tied the game with a late three-pointer, the Horns took an eight point lead right off the bat in overtime. Wake came storming back, and after Gary Johnson missed two free throws with ten seconds left, Wake rebounded the ball down by only a point. Ishmael Smith dribbled coast to coast before he pulled up from 16 feet to bury the game-winner.

It was the third overtime game of the day. In 2009, only two games went to extra minutes throughout the entire tournament.

On the west coast, New Mexico was holding on for dear life against 14-seed Montana. I’ll admit, I nearly picked the Grizzlies to pull off the stunner. The Lobos made all but two free throws in the final 90 seconds, which proved to be vital in their 62-57 win.

At the end of the day, more double-digit seeds advanced today than in 20 years in the tournament’s opening session.

I’m no longer listening to that realist side of my conscience…I’m playing the fool and hoping for an equally thrilling Friday.


Swing Games – East and South Region

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It’s getting closer to tip-off and the tension is building…

East – (5) Temple vs. (12) Cornell

Cornell would beat every other fifth seed in this tournament. They simply got screwed over by the selection committee when they matched the Big Red up with the best perimeter defense team in the country. Cornell earns it keep with deadly perimeter shooting. They struggled the most this season against teams that play at a slow pace and play great defense. Princeton gave Cornell a lot of trouble this season.

Fran Dunphy and the Owls are probably underseeded at five after winning a very good Atlantic 10 conference this season. Because of the style both teams play, it won’t allow for a wide margin of victory. Temple simply isn’t a good match up for Cornell, which is why I give Temple, but it could go either way easily.

Pick – Temple -2.5

(6) Marquette vs. (11) Washington

Marquette has played with fire most of the season, winning eight games by five points or less. Lazar Hayward is a star that nobody has really heard of. He averages 18.1 points and 7.7 rebounds per game.

Watching Hayward go up against Huskies’ star Quincy Pondexter will be thrilling. Pondexter scores 19.8 points and 7.5 rebounds per game. Washington also enjoys a stronger backcourt, led by Isaiah Thomas.

Because Marquette plays every team so tough and has a knack for close games, it’s not crazy to think this game will be tight until the end. The Huskies are red hot – they enter the game on a seven-game winning streak.

Pick – Washington -2

South – (7) Richmond vs. (10) St. Mary’s

Just like Temple-Cornell, these are two teams I would have loved to be able to pick to win their first-round games. Instead, they face each other.

Spiders’ point guard Kevin Anderson is a hidden gem, and he pairs with David Gonzalvez for a great backcourt, which I love to rely on when picking teams in March.

St. Mary’s features a dominant big man in Omar Samhan, who averages a double-double. All five of the Gaels’ starters average double figure scoring, and they are fresh off a 19-point win over Gonzaga in the West Coast Conference Finals.

The Gaels also have a tough backcourt, and are probably deeper than the Spiders.

I think the Spiders won’t have an answer for Samhan. Picking a team because of a big man goes against all my prior values, but I can’t go back now. Take the Gaels.

Pick – St. Mary’s -1.5


Swing Picks – West Region

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My ulcers haven’t gone anywhere yet. Fackkkkkk…

(4) Vanderbilt vs. (13) Murray State

Under coach Kevin Stallings, the Commodores (24-8) have been consistently good; never have they been great.

Vanderbilt enters the game as losers in two of its last three games. Both losses were against non-tournament teams.

The Commodores are extremely deep. Nine players average more than 12 minutes per game, while only one averages more than 30. A.J. Ogilvy is the most recognizable player on the team. The Australian center was a breakout freshman in 2008, but has not really improved much since then. He has good shooting touch but is not very physical in the paint.

The Racers (30-4) are also extremely deep. All five starters average double-digit scoring. As a team, the Racers score at a rapid pace (77 points per game), which leads me to believe they are more than ready for an up-and-down game with a slower Vanderbilt team.

The Commodores play bad defense at times, quite frankly. They allow nearly 70 points per game on average.

However, Murray State doesn’t have that signature win I’d like to see from the regular season that proves it can play with the big boys.

The Racers opened the season with a five-point loss to California, but other than that they never played anyone else that is still playing basketball.

Pick – Murray State -1

(5) Butler vs. (12) UTEP

I really, really like Butler. The Bulldogs had no fear in scheduling a brutal slate in the non-conference, and claimed wins over Ohio State and Xavier in the process. All five starters from 2008-09 returned this season, and they ran the table in the Horizon league, going 18-0 and also took home the conference tournament.

Gordon Hayward (15.4 ppg), Shelvin Mack (13.9 ppg) and Matt Howard (12.3 ppg) form one of the best trio of players this side of Durham.

The selection committee did them no favors (surprise, surprise) by matching them up with Conference USA regular season champion UTEP in the first round.

The Miners (26-6) dominated its somewhat unusually pedestrian conference, but lost to Houston in the league championship in surprising fashion.

If UTEP is able to pull off the upset, it will be because of guard Randy Culpeper. Culpeper scores 18 points per game, and has scored more than 30 points three times. In a win against East Carolina in February, Culpeper lit up the Pirates for 45 points.

The Miners just haven’t beaten anyone very impressive. Their record against teams in the NCAA Tournament is 3-4. Those wins were against a 16-seed, 12-seed and a 13-seed. It’s hard to say they can hang with Butler, but they just might.

Pick – Butler -3.5

(6) Xavier vs. (11) Minnesota

The Musketeers (24-8) finished tied for first place in the rugged Atlantic 10, a noteworthy accomplishment. That fact alone leads me to think they will succeed in the big dance. However, their record against tournament teams is subpar. In nine games against teams that made the field of 65, the Musketeers were 2-7.

Minnesota (21-13) turned a Big Ten Championship game run into an at-large bid, after nobody thought they had a chance to make the tournament a week and a half ago. In the conference tournament, they beat Purdue and Michigan State, who are four and five seeds respectively in the NCAA Tournament.

The Golden Gophers have proved they can beat the nation’s elite. They beat Ohio State, Wisconsin, and Illinois during the regular season. They have a solid backcourt with three good guards in Lawrence Westbrook, Blake Hoffarber and Devoe Joseph. Their balanced lineup allows them to play at a variety of speeds.

The Musketeers should win this game – they have the more talented team at least – but Minnesota has played better in games against better competition. This will be one of the closest games in the first round.

Pick – Xavier -1


Midwest Region Swing Picks – games that can make or break your bracket

I’ve covered the locks, now it’s time for the games that will continue to give me ulcers right up until tip-off. These are not my big upset picks, rather they are the games that will be the absolute closest games of the first round. Give a moment to vomit once again, and we’ll begin…

Ok I’m ready.

Midwest – (8) UNLV/(9) Northern Iowa, (7) Oklahoma State/(10) Georgia Tech

I know it’s awful cliché to peg an 8/9 game as a close call. I know, I’m risky… but this game involves two teams I thought could have made some noise in the tournament.

UNLV (25-8) finished as the runner-up in the Mountain West Conference Tournament, one of the toughest leagues in the country. The Rebels beat BYU twice, San Diego State once, and Louisville – all teams with very good backcourts.

Tre’Von Willis is the leader for UNLV. The 6’4’’ shooting guard averages 17.3 points per game.

Northern Iowa is a very dangerous team that was probably underseeded at eight. The Panthers (28-4) don’t have a star player like Willis to rely on, but they do have an experienced and balanced bunch. They did lose to lowly DePaul, but it was the second game of the season, so I don’t put any stock in that.

They do boast wins over Siena, Boston College and Old Dominion. All three of their conference losses were on the road, but they cruised in the Missouri Valley Tournament, winning all three games by an average of 15.6 points.

Pick – Northern Iowa -4

My eraser was worth the investment because of the Oklahoma State/Georgia Tech matchup alone. I constantly flip-flop who I think can win this game between two inconsistent teams with plenty of talent.

The Cowboys (22-10) rely heavily on two things: a) James Anderson, the Big 12 Player of the Year, and b) the three-point shot.

In the Cowboys’ two biggest wins of the season (Kansas State and Kansas), Anderson averaged 28.5 points. However, he turned it over eight times combined in those two games. There were five games this season where he turned it over at least five times.

Obi Muonelo and Keiton Page round out the perimeter for the Cowboys. Muonelo shoots 43.3 percent from three, while Page shoots 37.4 percent. With three good shooters like that, it’s hard to count the Cowboys out of any game.

Georgia Tech (22-12) is a mirror image of Oklahoma State. The Jackets’ premier players are all in the frontcourt, including freshman sensation Derrick Favors, who has an outside shot at being the top overall pick in the NBA Draft.

Along with Favors, Gani Lawal and Zach Peacock round out a fearsome trio. All three are physical players who own the boards. Oklahoma State does not really have an answer for that.

The guard play is what scares me away from Paul Hewitt’s squad though. Iman Shumpert could score 20 points, or he could go 0-for-10 from the field on any given night. He also turns the ball over far too often.

Georgia Tech ran through the ACC Tournament all the way to the finals, where it almost beat Duke. The only impressive win during the tournament run though was against Maryland.

Typically, the team with better guard play gets the edge when I make my picks, but the Cowboys don’t take care of the ball well enough to make me think they can overcome the Jackets’ post dominance.

Pick – Georgia Tech -3.5


Interesting historical trends that could change your bracket

· West Virginia is a hot pick to make the Final Four. Only one Big East Tournament champion has made the Final Four in the last five years (Georgetown 2007)

· No team with a freshman starting point guard has won the championship this decade. Sorry Kentucky…

· 13 is the new 12. The vaunted 12th seed is always the popular spot to call for first-round upsets. In the last four years, 13 seeds have won four times in the first round, including three times in the last two years. Maryland, Vanderbilt, Wisconsin, and Purdue: you’ve been warned.

· Despite having some of the most talented teams in the country, West Virginia coach Bob Huggins is 23-17 lifetime in the NCAA Tournament. On average, his teams are knocked out in the second round.

· In three tournament appearances with Georgetown, coach John Thompson is 7-3, including the Final Four run in 2007.

· As head coach at Butler, Xavier and Ohio State, head coach Thad Matta has made the NCAA Tournament seven times. Only twice has he made it past the second round.

· Not-so-unknown fact: Siena has won a first round game two years running. Bad news for a reeling Purdue team.

· Gonzaga has been bounced from the big dance in the first round twice in the last three years.

· Maryland has not lost in the first round of the NCAA Tournament since 1997. Too bad for Houston.

· They have an easy road, but history is not on the Duke Blue Devils’ side. Coach K’s teams have not beaten a team seeded fifth or higher since 2001.

· Baylor, the third seed in the South region, was the 2009 NIT runner-up. The last time the defending NIT second-place team was in the field was 2008, when fifth-seeded Clemson was upset in the first round.

NCAA Tournament First Round: Who are the locks?

As poorly constructed as this year’s bracket is, there are far fewer first-round games I look at and say, “Without a doubt, team X will win this one.”

There are a number of teams seeded highly that just aren’t that much better than the rest of the field. Also, many of the lower seeded teams are either a) red-hot mid-majors, or b) teams with one star that can carry a team to an upset.

Even still, there are 16 games that I’m positive won’t drain my bank account. Here are the teams I guarantee will make the second round:

Midwest – (1) Kansas, (2) Ohio State, (3) Georgetown, (4) Maryland, (5) Michigan State.

All of these teams should feel comfortable getting through the first round. The Spartans face New Mexico State, who shocked Utah State in the WAC Tournament, the only way it would have made the field. The Aggies would barely have made the NIT if they hadn’t won the conference championship.

Maryland went one-and-done in the ACC Tournament, but prior to that game the Terrapins were playing their best basketball of the season. They beat Virginia Tech on the road and Duke at home in the final week of the regular season. Houston stunned Memphis and UTEP in the Conference USA tournament, but neither of those teams are anywhere near the Terp’s level.

West – (1) Syracuse, (2) Kansas State, (3) Pittsburgh, (5) Butler, (7) BYU

I love BYU. I think the Cougars were the most tournament-ready team in a ridiculously underappreciated Mountain West Conference. Jimmer Fridette looks to me like the Stephen Curry of the 2010 Tournament. He lights teams up from behind the arc, shooting 45 percent. They play a Florida team that struggled against the better teams it faced, and isn’t known for its perimeter defense.

It’s not crazy to think Butler could have trouble with Conference USA regular season champion UTEP, but the Bulldogs are prepared to make a deep run in this tournament. Brad Stevens has put this team through a grinding non-conference schedule, and he has an experienced bunch that pointed to this season and next as potential Final Four years.

I’m not in love with Pittsburg, but Oakland won’t take down the Panthers. This could be a game that is close at halftime. Oakland may even have a lead, grabbing the attention of the country, before Pitt closes the game out in convincing fashion.

East – (1) Kentucky, (2) West Virginia

This is the bracket where we’ll see the most first-round upsets. Both of these teams are safe, no doubt. Enough said. More on what should be the craziest region later.

South – (1) Duke, (2) Villanova, (3) Baylor, (13) Siena

You read correctly, Siena is a lock to move on to the second round, and anyone who watched the debacle that was Purdue’s loss to Minnesota on Saturday knows why. The Boilermakers are a shell of their former selves after Robbie Hummel was lost for the season to a torn ACL. Here are Purdue’s wins after losing Hummel: Indiana, at Penn State, and Northwestern, three bottom-feeders. Here are its two losses: Michigan State and Minnesota. Any team that has guards who can dribble with both hands can beat Purdue.

Three point play: give me five minutes to rant, please.

I’m calling for a citizen’s arrest, because the Selection Committee for the NCAA Tournament just robbed everyone. There might be more than three points below, but I’m going to try to fit all my frustration into just that many phases. We’ll see how it goes…

1. Duke as the third number one, and its cupcake region.

The only thing I said after looking at the South Region was “are you kidding me?”

Not only did Duke ascend to the third spot in the god forsaken S-Curve ahead of Syracuse, but the Devils’ region is easy peasy. Villanova, which has lost five of its last seven games, is the second seed, with an impressively unimpressive Baylor team seeded third, and a Robbie Hummel-less Purdue fourth.

How Duke is ranked third and Villanova earned a two seed is anyone’s guess. The committee valued Duke’s late-season run to the ACC Championship (which consisted of wins over Virginia, Miami, and Georgia Tech – all seeded seventh or worse in the ACC), and used that to give them the bump to third.

However, the Wildcats have fallen from grace over the last three weeks, and in no way resemble one of the eight best teams in the country. They will face either Richmond or Saint Mary’s in the second round, and I’ll go ahead and say I smell an upset.

2. Kansas and its murderer’s row of a championship path

Poor Bill Self. He finally has a team that is unquestionably the best in the country, and he gets jipped by the selection committee by placing Ohio State and Georgetown in the same bracket. Both of those two teams could arguably be one seed line higher than they are. The Buckeyes won the Big Ten championship game by thirty points and got placed as the fourth-best two seed?

Not only that, but Maryland, the second place team in the ACC, is the fourth seed. Ignore the Terps’ early exit in Greensboro, they are dangerous in a Sweet Sixteen game. That’s if they get there. Michigan State, which struggled without injured point guard Kalin Lucas mid-season, but are at full strength now, are the fifth seed.

Now get this: the six and seven seeds are Tennessee and Oklahoma State – the only two teams to beat the Jayhawks this season. How’s that for poetic injustice? Kansas is far and away the most championship-caliber team in the field, but if they make it out of that hell-hole of a region, it will be miraculous if they have anything left in the tank.

3. Florida and Minnesota in the field, Illinois and Virginia Tech out

If the committee sat down and laid out why the Gators and Gophers made the field, it would make sense, it really would. But when you compare them to the Illini and Hokies, it’s harder to make a case.

The biggest beef I have is with Minnesota over Illinois. “But Minnesota made the championship game?” you ask? They murdered a Purdue team without its star player, Robbie Hummel, and already played only six players before his injury. The Gophers then turned around to be pasted by 30 points against Ohio State.

How did the Buckeyes get to the championship game in the first place? By beating Illinois. In double overtime. After overcoming a double-digit second half deficit. Seriously, do the people making this bracket even watch the games, or just use a bunch of fancy calculations on sheets of paper.

Virginia Tech and Florida were in similar positions. Neither team did much to wow the committee, but both had solid seasons and were deservedly on the cusp of making or missing the big dance. However, the Gators went 9-7 in an unimpressive SEC, while also posting awful losses to South Alabama and Georgia.

Yes, the Hokies played a weak nonconference schedule, but they didn’t lose to any bad teams. Neither the Hokies nor the Gators had any wins over great teams that would separate one from the other. With Florida’s losses being worse, it just made a little more sense to include the Hokies.

There, I managed to stick to three. There is so much more about this bracket that just puts me to shame, but I will have to shove my bitterness to the backburner, suck it up and enjoy another year of March Madness. Plenty more bracket breakdown to come this week, keep checking back.

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