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Anticipating The Coming AL Central Race

The time for baseball is coming, with spring training having opened and exhibition games beginning. When we last left baseball, Madison Bumgarner was reminding us of just how extraordinary the game can be sometimes with his once-in-a-lifetime performance in the San Francisco Giants’ World Series win over the Kansas City Royals. Now it’s a time for a fresh season and fresh storylines and the one that has me most intrigued is the AL Central race.

The Detroit Tigers have won this division each of the last four years, but the gap is clearly narrowing—most obviously by the fact that it was Kansas City who went storming through the American League playoffs. Detroit also has to keep an eye on the Cleveland Indians, who made the playoffs two years ago and posted a winning record last year under the leadership of Terry Francona.

rp_Baseball-150x150.jpgThis post isn’t intended to be an exhaustive preview of the AL Central, merely a tone-setter for what we have to look forward to. Each of the three teams have unique angles and reasons why they can win:

*Kansas City may have lost staff ace James Shields to free agency, but the Royals still have the most dynamic collection of young talent in the game. Last September and October they finally put it all together and rather than being a fluke, I think that was the “real Royals” finally coming to life before our eyes.

Now they’re battle-tested and know they can win. The loss of Shields’ innings are going to be missed, but manager Ned Yost still has an extremely deep and talented bullpen.

*Detroit is still the four-time defending champs, the only team that has proven they can do it over a 162-game haul, however much potential and October success Kansas City has enjoyed. But the Tigers now have to do it without Max Scherzer, who left for Washington. And they don’t have the kind of bullpen KC has to fall back on—which is putting it mildly.

The biggest key to the Tigers is going to be whether Justin Verlander can regain his form after getting knocked around in 2014, to the tune of a 4.54 ERA in one of the best pitchers’ parks in baseball. It’s also fair to wonder how much wear and tear is on the body of Miguel Cabrera, who has finished each of the last two seasons playing through health problems. I’m deeply skeptical that Detroit will make it five in a row.

*Now we come to Cleveland, more under the radar this season after failing to reach the playoffs last year. I would submit, however, that finishing with a winning record last year was a very quiet sign that the Indians are here to stay. They had almost everything possible go wrong from an injury standpoint and still won more games than they lost and produced a Cy Young winner, in Cory Kluber. What happens if things break their way this season?

There’s precedent for this. In 2008, the Tampa Bay Rays came out of nowhere to reach the World Series, in much the same way the Indians of 2013 just splashed onto the scene and made the playoffs. The Rays of 2009 slipped back and missed the playoffs, winning 84 games. But the quiet winning season established that the magic of the previous year wasn’t just a one-year wonder before a fall back into oblivion. And Tampa Bay stayed a contender through 2013.

Or consider the Baltimore Orioles, who came blazing out of nowhere to make the playoffs in 2012. The Orioles missed the playoffs in 2013, but finished with a winning record. What happened the next year? Established as a winner, they won the AL East.

The cycle is clear—come out of nowhere and make the playoffs. Then have a fallback year where things don’t go your way, but establish yourself as a winner. Then rev it back up for big Year 3. Cleveland is now in Year 3 of that cycle under Francona and we’ll see if that same pattern holds.

I’m pulling for the Indians and for Tito. I haven’t made a prediction yet, other than this—as a subscriber to the MLB Extra Innings package, I intend to enjoy the entire AL Central race this year.

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Don’t Sleep On Wichita State Basketball This Year

A year ago at this time, Wichita State basketball was the talk of the nation, as they were preparing to take an undefeated record into the NCAA Tournament. Those hopes ended with a crushing loss to Kentucky in the Round of 32. Wichita State is more under the radar this year, but don’t sleep on these Shockers—they still have what it takes for a Final Four run.

Gregg Marshall’s team still has the solid backcourt trio of Ron Baker, Fred VanVleet and Tekele Cotton that helped push them last season. Baker is the leading scorer at 15 ppg and the team’s best three-point shooter. VanVleet is the playmaker, and a good shooter himself, chipping in 13 ppg. Cotton is more the third wheel, but can step up if you lose track of him defensively.

Wichita State basketballBaker and VanVleet were only sophomores last year and perhaps in retrospect, that lack of experience is something that should have been considered, with the heavy spotlight they were under. Now everybody is a little more toughened up, and the spotlight is down.

The big missing piece from last season is forward Cleanthony Early, a tremendous talent, who could play down low and also step outside. But while Darius Carter isn’t Early, the 6’7” senior is still pretty good, averaging 12 points/5 rebounds.

Wichita is coming off a 74-60 thumping of a good Northern Iowa team last Saturday, a game that gave the Shockers their second straight Missouri Valley Conference title and the third in four years. Both Wichita and Northern Iowa are headed for seeds anywhere in the 3-6 range pending the outcome of this weekend’s conference tournament in St. Louis.

I’m not suggesting that this year’s Wichita team is actually better than last year’s—the departure of Early and the fact that this year’s team has lost three games, preclude that claim. What I am suggesting is that they’re still awfully good, they’re experienced and they’re in a spot which is much more palatable to teams from lower-profile conferences, and it’s being able to sneak up on people.

We also know that Marshall can coach in March, having reached the Final Four in 2013. I don’t know where I’ll pick Wichita in my bracket, since so much of this year depends on where one is in relation to Kentucky. I can say that I’ve got them high on my list as the dark horse team to make the Final Four.

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How March Madness History Evolved To What We Know Today

The ramp-up to March Madness is in gear, with conference regular season championships being finalized this week, the league tournaments going next week, fights for at-large bids and seeding in full-force and finally Selection Sunday going on Sunday, March 15. As we get set for another great college basketball run, here’s brief look back on the seminal moments in the development of March Madness history as we know it.

TheSportsNotebook.com sees the modern era of college basketball as essentially beginning in 1976. It was the first year after John Wooden retired. The UCLA legend had captured his 10th national title in 12 years in 1975, and his retirement opened the door for parity. Thus, we can consider the first non-Wooden March—won by Bob Knight’s undefeated Indiana Hoosiers—as the first step of the new era.

March Madness historyA forgotten point about Knight’s Indiana team is that they faced a stacked regional. The three opponents in the regional (Alabama, Western Michigan and Marquette) were all ranked in the final AP Top 10. We don’t know what order they were seeded in, because…well, there weren’t any seeds at that time.

The stacked bracket of the 1976 Mideast Region would certainly not happen today—Marquette was ranked #2 in the nation and we had a 1 vs. 2 battle in the round of eight. What’s even less remembered is that Alabama had Indiana seriously in the ropes in the final two minutes of their Sweet 16 game before Scott May rescued the Hoosiers.

That means the next step in the NCAA Tournament’s evolution is to implement seeding and bracket balance. That happened in 1979.

1979 was the most important year in the development of March Madness history. There was seeding and of course there was the legendary Magic Johnson vs. Larry Bird showdown in the championship game. The highest-rated college basketball telecast ever didn’t live up to expectations, as Magic’s Michigan State team handled Bird’s Indiana State with room to spare. But the buildup to the game put college basketball on everyone’s radar.

Still two other things happened in 1979. The first is an occurrence that’s commonplace today, but was unheard of in ’79, and it’s a gutted bracket. The East Regional had North Carolina and Duke as its top two seeds. They were both upset in the second round on the same court in Raleigh, a day still called “Black Saturday” in the state. The two lowest-seeded teams in the bracket, 9th-seeded Penn and 10th-seeded St. John’s, ultimately met to go to the Final Four. Penn won.

The second is that the field expanded from 32 teams to 40 teams. By pushing past the five-round format, the NCAA had created the structure where eventually everyone would be playing on the Thursday/Friday of the first week.

It’s one thing to have a gutted bracket, but how about a gutted Final Four? We got that in 1980. While Louisville, a 2-seed, made it to Indianapolis and won the national championship, the other three participants were seeded #5 or lower in their respective regionals.

Even though we had seen one regional gutted by upsets and a Final Four filled with darkhorses, the whole notion of “the magic of the upset” that defines March Madness for so many, hadn’t yet taken hold. Let’s move on to 1981.

Eight of the nation’s top 16 teams lost on the first weekend, but it was the way it all went down that captured everyone’s imagination. DePaul, the top-ranked team in the country, lost to St. Joe’s on a last-second basket. The TV networks quickly moved to Louisville-Arkansas, where the Razorbacks won by a point on a half-court desperation heave from U.S. Reed. There was no time to catch your breath before NBC took us to the West Regional, where top seed Oregon State fell to Kansas State on a baseline jumper from Rolando Blackman with two seconds left.

In a matter of minutes, the country’s two best teams, along with the defending national champion, had been eliminated on last-second shots. That’s March Madness.

There was still one thing missing, and it was a Cinderella national championship. Enter Jim Valvano and N.C. State. The footage of Valvano’s 1983 N.C. State team winning on a last-second dunk is right up there with Christian Laettner’s game-winning shot in the 1992 Duke-Kentucky game as the most iconic image of March Madness. N.C. State concluded an improbable run from the 6-seed to win it all.

1985 completed the evolution. The field expanded to 64 teams, creating the bracket structure that we all know today. Villanova stunned Georgetown in the championship game, winning the crown as an 8-seed and further validating the notion that March was a place where everyone had a chance.

The decade of 1976-85 were the transformational years of March Madness. Wooden’s retirement paved the way for parity. The bracket was seeded, the field expanded, there was an epic Magic-Bird finale, and the magic of the upsets started rolling in at every level of the tournament. Our March would never be the same.

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The National Championship Chances Of Wisconsin Basketball

The Wisconsin basketball team clinched a share of the Big Ten title yesterday with a 68-61 win over Michigan State, in the atmosphere of a noisy Kohl Center, of which I was in attendance for. In a college basketball culture that has mostly lost interest in conference championships, the Big Ten still cares. Nobody left their seats for the trophy presentation and subsequent video tribute to the four graduating seniors, including Player of the Year candidate Frank Kaminsky.

But now let’s get to the question typical fans around the rest of the country do care about—can this Wisconsin basketball team win the national championship?

Frank KaminskyI see Wisconsin’s situation as very combustible in March. I like the way they match up with the top teams in the country, including undefeated Kentucky.

However, we also know that nationally elite teams (seeded #1 or #2 in their regional come tourney time) get taken out in March all the time. I see Wisconsin as perhaps the likeliest of the top seven or eight teams to get their hearts broken on the tournament’s opening weekend.

Let’s start with the latter assertion. Wisconsin is not a great defensive basketball team, as they’ve often been in years past under Bo Ryan. They rank 47thth in defensive efficiency, which measures points per possession (essentially adjusting defense for pace of play and better measuring a team’s ability to get a stop when they really need one). More than anything else, that leaves you vulnerable by the Saturday/Sunday game of the NCAA Tournament’s first weekend.

By the time you narrow the field down to the best 32 teams in the country, everyone has players who can shoot. What’s needed is the ability to put those shooters under serious duress, something Kentucky and Virginia can both do at an extremely high level. Those teams are in position to survive a poor shooting game themselves because no team seeded in the 7 thru 10 range (where all the opponents for the top two seeds will come from) will put up a lot of points against them.

Wisconsin can’t say that, and it’s going to require a top offensive effort each time out in the NCAA Tournament. The good news is that the Badgers are the best in the nation at offensive efficiency, and even on the defensive side, they don’t commit fouls. I’m not saying that an upset is likely, just that the Badgers do have a vulnerability here that some other elite teams don’t have.

Another thing that concerns me is the hidden intangible of NCAA basketball and it’s plain old luck, and getting the right bounce in close games. Wisconsin survived two hair-raising games en route to the Final Four last season.

One of them came in the Round of 32 against Oregon. In spite of playing in front of a home-neutral crowd in Milwaukee, Wisconsin needed to rally from behind and to eventually pull it out on a sequence where they got four straight offensive rebounds and finally a back-breaker trey from now-departed Ben Brust. The other was a one-point overtime win over Arizona in the regional final.

The bounce of the ball is fickle and it’s tough to get it two years in a row—ask Wichita State, who ran to the Final Four in 2012 as a 9-seed, but lost in the Round of 32 last year when they were undefeated. It’s not that consecutive Final Four trips are unthinkable—Louisville did it in 2012-13, even Butler pulled it off in 2010-11 to pick a couple recent examples. But Wisconsin fans should be alert to the fact that we may need to overcome some bad bounces on the way this time rather than getting them.

That’s the negative side of the story, and why I’m exceptionally nervous about that first weekend. But there’s a flip side too, and it’s that I really believe the Badgers match up well with Kentucky if it comes to that—and if they match up well with Kentucky, then UW can match up with anyone.

Kentucky is used to completely locking down teams defensively. But even assuming a solid defensive effort from the Wildcats, is it unthinkable that Wisconsin could score 60 points? It’s certainly not a guarantee, and would be a battle. But the Badgers have size down low, with Kaminsky, helping neutralize some of Kentucky’s shotblockers. Nigel Hayes and Sam Dekker also have good size at forward and Wisconsin can play a big lineup without losing offensive flow.

If the Badgers get to 60, it won’t be easy for offensively challenged teams to match that, in spite of the Wisconsin defensive issues. The fact the Badgers don’t foul, mean opposing offenses will have to earn every point, and a team like Kentucky—and Virginia, who is a poor man’s version of the ‘Cats—have real problems on the offensive end.

I should point out that I don’t think Kentucky is worse offensively than the teams Wisconsin might play in the second game, when I’m concerned about the upset. But in both cases, I’m adjusting for expectations.

It’s going to be extremely interesting to see what happens with the Badgers. But at the very least—at the absolute minimum—this Wisconsin basketball team has a Big Ten championship, and over a two-year cycle they have both a conference title and Final Four trip. Not bad at all.

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The Mystifying Outrage Of Nick Markakis

Nick Markakis was a staple of the Baltimore Orioles outfield for the past eight years, and he had hoped to retire as an Oriole. Given that, I suppose it’s not surprising that he’s upset with his former organization for not re-signing him this offseason. Markakis took a four-year, $44 million deal with the Atlanta Braves. What is surprising is what he chose to be angry about and how he expressed it.

NickMarkakis“Don’t believe a word they say” was the Markakis quote that made it into the headlines and served the purpose of getting me to click on the story and find out what on earth the Oriole front office was saying. As a fan of the Boston Red Sox, I’m used to management media campaigns being used to slander players or managers the team fired, cut, traded or just opted not to re-sign.

The most notorious example was trying to claim Terry Francona was addicted to painkiller meds in 2011.

So what was Baltimore saying about Markakis that we weren’t supposed to believe? Well, Markakis had neck surgery in the offseason. The team said the length of the contract he was offered by Atlanta was their main concern—he’ll be 35 when the deal expires. Markakis said that’s “all B.S.” It’s really his neck they were worried about.

I guess I’m wondering where the smoking gun is in all this. Is Baltimore supposed to be embarrassed about being concerned over a surgery that affects a player’s disc and already his him questionable for Opening Day? Why would they be trying to hide from that? The length of the contract and Markakis’ health are hardly completely different issues. The four years might be an issue because of the neck surgery.

It’s not surprising an athlete who wanted to end his career somewhere feels rejected by the organization’s belief—a correct one in my view—that going to four years is just too big of a risk. It’s not surprising if he plays with an extra vengeance this year. But none of what happened is a reason to “don’t believe anything they say.”

I like Markakis, both his game and the way he carries himself. But he does need to chill a little bit on this subject. He’ll still get a standing ovation when his new team visits Camden Yards this year.

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