Thursday, March 26, 2015

Mike's March Madness Mulligan

Those who golf with me know I'm not a big mulligan taker. I mean, if I shank my drive into the woods, re-tee, hit one down the middle and make a birdie, who am I fooling? I know I didn't really get a birdie. So why bother? I'd much rather scramble after a horrendous drive and hack my way to a "good bogey" than pretend I got a birdie. But hey, maybe that's just me.

So even if I go 15-0 with the March Madness Mulligan I'm about to take, I promise I won't pretend I did anything special.

Before getting to the MMM, I'll allow myself a couple of back-pats ... but only a couple: Nice job on N.C. State and Wichita State. OK, that was quick. I'd have had more success with my bracket if I had let my pooch Simmie make predictions with tail-thumps.

Now, here goes ...


Kentucky easily over West Virginia ... Notre Dame's luck runs out against Wichita State ... The Wildcats chew up overmatched Wichita State.


Wisconsin survives a challenge from North Carolina ... Arizona crushes Xavier ... Bucky Badger beats Arizona in a thriller.


N.C. State pulls off another upset, this time against Louisville ... Michigan State keeps getting better and beats Oklahoma ... Sparty goes to another Final Four after a narrow win over N.C. State.


Duke struggles but holds off Utah ... Gonzaga finally gets a second-weekend win, beating UCLA ... The Dookies have too much firepower for the Zags.


So our new, improved Final Four is Kentucky, Wisconsin, Duke and Michigan State. Three No. 1 seeds and a No. 7 ... but not your run-of-the-mill No. 7. It's kind of funny that Michigan State is suddenly an underdog darling, no?


In one national semifinal, Kentucky and Wisconsin put on a sensational show, with Kentucky's superior interior defense prevailing. In the other, Duke has too much offensive balance for Michigan State.

One thing hasn't changed from my original bracket: Kentucky still ends up 40-0.

Translation: "Bet everything you have on West Virginia to beat Kentucky on Thursday night."

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Don't Bet Against Kentucky Going 40-0

In 1973, Secretariat was the 1-to-10 favorite to win the Belmont Stakes. It had to be tempting to bet on just about any other horse in the race.

Kentucky isn't a 1-to-10 favorite to win the NCAA basketball tournament; the Wildcats' odds are 6-to-5 according to online gambling site Bovada. Then again, there are 64 teams in the field (no, I don't count the losers of the "First Four" contests) vs. only 5 horses in the '73 Belmont starting gate, so 6-to-5 is pretty overwhelming.

The team Bovada assigns the next-best odds to is Arizona, which wasn't even given a No. 1 seed. Those Wildcats face 15-to-2 odds. The other No. 1 seeds and the odds: Wisconsin, 17-to-2; Duke,  9-to-1; Villanova, 10-to-1.

Anyway, I used this introduction to talk about my search for the team capable of running down the Secretariat of college hoops teams. Is it even possible? Let's go region by region ...

In the WEST, I really like Wisconsin. When I say that, I don't mean I actually like Wisconsin; as a Marquette alum and diehard fan, I'm prohibited by law from liking our instate rivals. But I have a tough time hating this particular Wisconsin team: intelligent, athletic, disciplined, experienced, unflappable, well-coached.

Here's how the West will be won: Wisconsin over Coastal Carolina ... Oregon over Oklahoma State ... Wofford in the upset over Arkansas ... North Carolina over Harvard ... Mississippi takes down Xavier ... Baylor over Georgia State ... Ohio State beats VCU ... Arizona over Texas Southern. In the next round, Wisconsin over Oregon ... UNC ends Wofford's dream ... Baylor is too tough for Ole Miss ... Arizona over Ohio State. Wisconsin advances to the Elite Eight by beating UNC, and Arizona gets there by downing Baylor. And Wisconsin's balance and precision will produce a victory over Arizona and a second straight Final Four trip.

Let's end the suspense about Wisconsin's Final Four opponent right now: It will be Kentucky. The Wildcats will dominate the MIDWEST Region the same way they dominated college basketball all season.

Kentucky over Hampton ... Purdue over Cincinnati ... West Virginia over Buffalo ... Maryland over Valpo ... Butler over Texas ... Notre Dame over Northeastern ... Wichita State over Indiana ... Kansas over New Mexico State. In the next round, Kentucky pounds Purdue ... Maryland handles West Virginia ... Butler takes down ND ... and Wichita State stuns Kansas. Kentucky moves on by beating tough but overmatched Maryland while Butler beats Wichita State in the battle of underdogs. In the region final, Butler is game ... but Kentucky is Kentucky. Game over!

In the EAST, so many pundits have chosen Northern Iowa as their "surprise pick" that it's no surprise at all. So, naturally, I'm going to pick UNI to get upset by 12th-seeded Wyoming in its first game. Take that! And that's not my only surprise in the region. After opening with a win over LSU, 8th-seeded North Carolina State will make Villanova the first No. 1 seed to exit stage right. Also, Louisville over UC-Irvine ... Providence over Dayton ... Oklahoma over Albany ... Michigan State over Georgia and Virginia over Belmont. Joining NC State in the Sweet 16 will be ... Louisville over Wyoming ... Providence over Oklahoma ...and Virginia over Michigan State. NC State pulls off yet another upset, this time over Louisville, and Virginia handles Providence. Going to the Final Four, it's Virginia with a tough win over ACC foe NC State.

I see the SOUTH as wide open, and I'm predicting premature defeat for the top two seeds, Duke and Gonzaga. Early on, it's Duke over Robert Morris ... San Diego State over St. John's ... No. 12 Stephen F. Austin over Utah ... Georgetown survives a scare against Eastern Washington ... SMU over UCLA ... Iowa State over UAB ... Davidson takes down Iowa ... and Gonzaga over North Dakota State. Then, I think there will be four close games, with Duke downing San Diego State ... Stephen F. Austin surprising Georgetown ... Iowa State beating SMU in a great game ... and Gonzaga getting past Davidson. Duke will end Stephen F. Austin's hopes and Iowa State will beat Gonzaga. And then 3-seeded Iowa State will beat Duke to advance to the Final Four.

So our Final Four is set: Kentucky, Wisconsin, Virginia and Iowa State. 

Kentucky-Wisconsin is a rematch of last year's national semifinal, won 74-73 by a young Wildcats squad. Kentucky, not quite as young and even more talented, will prevail again in what should be another thriller.

In the other matchup, it's a great contrast of styles, as Iowa State likes to go-go-go and Virginia likes to milk the clock. Virginia, which fell to Michigan State by 2 points in the Round of 16 last season, will use its defense to reach the title game this time.

In the championship game, the Cavaliers will hang with Kentucky for awhile. The pace will favor Virginia and the Wildcats will get too impatient at times. As the game wears on, however, Kentucky's superior talent will take over. The Wildcats will win by 10 to complete their 40-0 season.

Like Secretariat -- who won the '73 Belmont Stakes by a resounding 31 lengths to sweep the Triple Crown -- Kentucky is just too damn good to bet against.

Sunday, March 1, 2015

An unforgettable basketball journey, with the promise of more to come

On The Scholars Academy website, the most recent addition to the photo rotation is of my middle-school basketball players doing their famed, "Fly, Fly, Fly, Eagles!" cheer after our tournament semifinal victory.

I love this photo because, to me, it captures what sports for kids this age should be about. Look at the smiles on those faces. Can't you feel the joy, the love, the camaraderie, the spirit?

At that moment, these girls felt they could accomplish anything. They especially felt they could win the conference championship.

Unfortunately, in that title game, Back Creek Christian Academy simply played better than we did. They jumped on us early and we never really threatened to make it a game.

They defeated us three times, representing 75% of the losses in our otherwise amazing 15-4 season. Remember how dopey Patrick Ewing used to sound when he claimed his Knicks were better than the Bulls even after Michael Jordan & Co. repeatedly whupped 'em? Well, I'm pretty dopey, but I'm not that dopey.

Back Creek deserved the title, and we have no choice but to settle for having reached the championship game for the first time in our school's 15-year history.

A few days have passed since that defeat, and time is a great healer. On Saturday night, we had our team party. It was a festive event, filled with jokes, reminiscences, anecdotes, awards, gifts, laughs, hugs, photos and food. Oh, and it also was filled with a middle-aged bald dude rambling on about how special these last four months were for everybody involved.

We talked about Ruta, our Rookie of the Year and leading scorer, sprinting the wrong way toward a layup, realizing the error of her ways, and slamming on the brakes as if a deer had just appeared in the middle of the road. And we talked about Sholeh, winner of our Coach's Award for Aggressiveness, stealing the basketball and going in for the basket just a second or two after I told her, "I need a steal." (Now that, my friends, is great coaching!)

We talked about Olivia, winner of our Coach's Award for Leadership, being the classic "coach on the floor" by regularly noticing things I didn't so we could make critical in-game adjustments. And we talked about Sienna, our two-time MVP, playing every position in the lineup (and playing them well) these last two seasons.

We talked about Celeste blocking more shots than any other player in the league, including several resounding two-handers against our smaller semifinal opponent -- an example of how being a bully is sometimes OK! We talked about Beijul's transformation from timid lamb to fierce combatant.

We talked about Malika somehow being able to make baskets with that funky, feet-together, no-knee-bend, line-drive shot of hers. And we talked about how Susanna, the last player to make the team, went on to be an instrumental contributor thanks to her competitiveness, intelligence and unselfishness.

We talked about Ritika, our only sixth-grader, making nine 3-pointers -- many of them "daggers" that turned games in our favor. (It's quite possible that there weren't nine treys made by the other 100 or so players in the conference combined.) And we talked about our captain, Margaret, leading us in scoring down the stretch and then delivering a touching, heart-felt speech before the title game.

OK, so I did most of the talking. (That won't surprise my high school classmates who named me Most Talkative.) The girls and their parents did most of the listening and applauding and laughing and picture-taking.

There also was much talk - and not all of it from me - about the program we're building at Scholars Academy.

My first year we had an incredibly young team filled with players who had little or no experience. We quickly established our identity: We might not beat all of our opponents, but we were going to wear them out with our aggressiveness and effort. We flashed our potential with a stunning comeback victory in the playoffs before losing in the semifinals to the eventual champion.

This season, in Year 2, we brought back five good players and added two high-level athletes as well as three super-solid role players. We used our relentless defense, our quickness and our determination to finish the season with exactly twice as many points as our opponents (28.8 points per game to 14.4 points per game), but we fell one victory short of our ultimate goal.

We will soldier on in Year 3 without three valuable players in Sienna, Margaret and Susanna, but we should return seven -- including six 8th-graders. We will have experience and talent and height and speed. Our defense should be especially good. And it cannot be understated how the trust, respect and love the girls have for each other will translate into still more success.

If the coach doesn't mess things up too badly, the 2015-16 Eagles just might end up fly-fly-flying away with the big trophy.

But enough looking ahead. I'm still basking in the glow of the season that was and of the unforgettable journey we all took together.

Look again at that picture, folks. It really is better than 1,000 words ... so I'll just shut up now and smile.