Notes of Note: March Madness, MLB, NBA, Spring Ball, NFL
The end of March/beginning of April is such a great time in sports. March Madness peaking. Major League Baseball beginning. The NBA playoffs looming. Spring football practice underway. NFL draft speculation stirring.
Some random thoughts about all the above:
Villanova: Nice to see a program that does things the right way win it all. Great coaching. Players that stick around. 100% graduation rate. A sixth man scoring 31 points. Wow!
I did have Nova winning it in my bracket, but honestly, that’s about the only thing I got right.
And they’ll be right there again next year.
Women’s Final Four: Three of the greatest basketball games you’ll ever see, male or female. Notre Dame upsetting heavily-favored Connecticut in the semis, Mississippi State holding on to edge Louisville, and Notre Dame winning it on a last second shot by Arike Ogunbowale, the same player whose last second shot beat Connecticut.
Unbelievable stuff. Sadly, despite all the thrills and drama, TV ratings were historically low. One of the semis was down 17% and the final was also down 17% from last year. The slump is due in part to the fact that the games were moved from ESPN to ESPN2 and that the finals were moved out of primetime.
These games deserve a better TV platform and a bigger audience.
UConn coach Geno Auriemma has to wonder what went wrong. For the second year in a row his team finished the season unbeaten and ranked No. 1, destroyed its opponents in the early rounds of the NCAA Tourney and went into the semi-finals with a 36-0 record, only to lose on a last-second three-pointer.
Conference of Champions? The Pac-12 likes to bill itself as the “Conference of Champions,” and that’s certainly true in sports like swimming, water polo, tennis, soccer and volleyball. But in the sports that really matter, it’s been a long, long, time since a Pac-12 team took home all the marbles.
The last Pac-12 national champion in college football was Pete Carroll’s USC team in 2004, some 14 years ago. The last Pac-12 champ in men’s basketball was Arizona in 1997, 21 years ago. The last Pac-12 champ in women’s basketball was Tara VanDerveer’s Stanford squad in 1992, 26 years ago.
Any way you cut it, that’s an embarrassing drought. Several scribes have opined recently that the Pac-12 is now the weakest conference of the Power Five. It’s hard to argue.
Power Outage: The San Francisco Giants’ offense has been MIA through the first two weeks of the season. The team has scored zero or one run in six of its nine games. High-profile acquisitions Andrew McCutchen and Evan Longoria have failed to give the team the expected boost, other than McCutchen’s 14th inning home run to beat the Dodgers. First baseman Brandon Belt continues to lead the civilized world in strikeouts. He’s often caught looking at crucial points in the game.
The Giants are in an extremely competitive division, and with ace Madison Bumgarner out for at least another few weeks, the offense needs to get rolling quickly.
Warriors: The injury bug has hit the defending champion Golden State Warriors—hard!
At times in the last few weeks, the team has had to play without three or even all four of its all-stars, resulting in an uncharacteristic number of losses.
The biggest problem, though, is boredom with the regular season. The playoffs are all that matter in the NBA, particularly when you’ve won it all two of the last three years. The NBA plays 82 games to eliminate less than half of the teams, and most of the non-playoff teams are tanking games to improve their draft position.
It’s way past time for the NBA to shorten the season. In addition to eliminating lots of meaningless games and the embarrassment of teams deliberately trying to lose, it would also reduce the rash of injuries that have kept many of the league’s premier players on the sidelines.
Spring practice: The first game on the 2018 college football schedule is still about five months away, but the season has begun with the arrival of spring practice. If you ask most head coaches what they hope to gain from spring ball, the first thing most of them will say is, “I hope no one gets hurt.”
There’s more to it than that, of course. Typically, spring is the time teams look to fill spots lost to graduation, resolve competition for starting jobs, move players to new positions, and evaluate redshirts and early-admit freshmen.
In certain parts of the country, spring practice is a much bigger deal than it is here in the Bay Area. As longtime University of Texas sports information director Jones Ramsey used to say, “we only have two major sports at Texas—football and spring football.”
In the SEC and Big Ten, huge crowds are commonplace for the spring intra-squad game. Ohio State usually draws 100,000 to its spring game. Alabama, Auburn, Georgia, Penn State and Nebraska routinely draw 75,000 to 90,000. Cal and Stanford are thrilled if 3,000 fans show up.
The feel-good story here in the Bay Area is taking place at Stanford, where walk-on Jack Richardson has been the only healthy quarterback available for the Cardinal. With starter KJ Costello recovering from hip surgery, backup Keller Chryst having transferred to Tennessee, and redshirt freshman Davis Mills out with a knee, Richardson has taken all the snaps.
The walk-on from Salinas is the son of former Stanford linebacker Kevin Richardson, who led his team in tackles in 1987, and former Stanford volleyball star Teresa Smith, the Pac-12 volleyball Player of the Year in ’86.
So the kid has good genes. And by all accounts he’s acquitted himself very well throughout the spring.
“He’s running the team right now more than I am,” head coach David Shaw told Tom FitzGerald of the Chronicle. “If he couldn’t go, I don’t know how we’d have practice.”
Quarterbacks, anyone? As the late great, Howard Cosell used to say, there's a “plethora” of top quarterbacks available in this year’s NFL draft, coming up on April 26. The Pac-12 will be well-represented with USC’s Sam Darnold, UCLA’s Josh Rosen, and Washington State’s Luke Falk. Other top prospects include Wyoming’s Josh Allen, Oklahoma’s Baker Mayfield, Oklahoma State’s Mason Rudolph and Louisville’s Lamar Jackson.
At this point, the draft analysts are all over the place in their rankings. Darnold, Rosen and Allen have all been projected as the possible No. 1, and Mayfield is moving up after strong performances at the Senior Bowl and the combine.
We love Rosen’s accuracy and smarts, but he tends to throw into traffic and has been injury prone. Mayfield is a winner, but has character issues. Our pick would be Darnold, who has the mobility and quick release that is most important in the NFL.