We have a variety of topics to cover here, but a hard-and-fast deadline: the NCAA tournament (the real part, after the play-in games) begins in a couple of hours. Our ethics don't permit us to post "predictions" after the event has occurred, so that piece has to get out. So, I will split the spring sports post into two parts, with the second focusing on baseball and soccer.
There's a lot of noise in the sports pages about football (which I will refer to as "American football" in the future, so as not to confuse my international readership). This is not football season, so I will only make this comment: the NFL owners act as though they are horse breeders: inordinate pride of ownership (it's the horses doing the work), possessions that they can freely trade, send to the glue factory, or cosset like prized stallions (the "franchise tag"). Maybe it's more like in the middle ages, when they would prepare their cavalry charges to get armored and quite possibly slain in battle. I feel sorry for the people who play football at the highest level: they love the game, but they are treated like chattel--disposable, at that. It's becoming apparent that the several hundred million buyout proposal the league made for the concussed players was a lowball bid.
College Basketball (mostly Men's)
The great gem of college-level American sports is the March/April basketball tournament--the men's, but also the women's (which has largely the same format). Single-elimination and a deep tournament field (the men's has now expanded to 68 teams) provides for great drama, and lots of it, over a three-week period. It has gone down just to 64 teams today, but will go to 32 before Saturday, and to 16 after this weekend. So, now's the time to make predictions, though I will follow up with a couple of comments after 76% or so of the teams have been eliminated to validate the quality of my predictions for the first two rounds (I don't buy that the round of 64 is the "Second Round"--nice try, NCAA).
The Committee which finalizes the at-large invitations (about half the field, with the other half earning their spots through winning their conference tournaments, or in the case of the Ivy League, its regular season title--I think they are the only ones) and the seeding for the brackets has a complex and difficult job to do. Generally everyone defers to the Committee's judgment in the end, though there is a lot of huffing and puffing about the last ones in, the first ones out--the borderline of invitation is about team #45 in the rankings (depending on how many conference favorites win their tournaments)--this is so much better than any other sporting event that I don't have too many qualms about that, and those that don't quite make the cut shouldn't, either. Many factors are carefully considered--key wins, bad losses, strength of non-conference schedule, strength of conference, and recent performance.
It's this last one, though, that I think was not properly considered this year in the seedings and bracket assignments. I will accuse them of being lazy--they had more-or-less figured it all out before the last weekend, with a couple of contingencies built in--and they didn't make all the right adjustments. So, for example, they needed a fourth #1 seed (after Florida, Wichita St., and Arizona--the first two were clearly the stars of the regular season, while the latter had their spot locked up through strong conference play and a tough non-conference schedule, so their loss in the tourney final was discounted. That's OK, I think, though we all know teams from the Pac-12--or whatever they call themselves these days, I don't think they have 12 teams but that doesn't matter, as we know--we all know that Pac-12 teams haven't distinguished themselves much in the men's NCAA tournament since John Wooden left UCLA about 30 years ago). The Committee had penciled in for the fourth #1 something like "winner of a tournament: Big East, ACC, Big 10, or Big 8--or Big 12, or whatever that prairie-state conference which now includes West Virginia is called", but not just any winner: the possible choices were, respectively, Villanova, Virginia, Wisconsin, or Kansas. As it turned out, Virginia won, the other three got eliminated early, so Virginia got the #1. OK, but I question the #2 for two of the other three given their late-season fades (Wisconsin earned theirs, but its history in the NCAA--see Pac-12 above....)
Syracuse's fade was so bad and so obvious--they went from 25-0 to finish the pre-NCAA at 27-5--that it couldn't be ignored in their seedings: they saw that one coming and took the right actions (a #3). A couple of teams that look really dangerous, on the other hand, didn't really get rewarded for their late-season form: Louisville (won both a tough conference and their tourney, but got only a #4), Kentucky (overrated early, with a squad full of freshmen, they are rounding into form late and almost took out national #1 Florida in the tourney final, which would likely have wreaked havoc on the brackets--as it is they should have better than a #8), and my pet peeve, New Mexico. The Lobos have a very dangerous squad and battled (#4 seed) San Diego State to the end for the conference title, then beat them in the tourney, but got a #7 and tough matchups (Stanford in the first round, potentially Kansas in the next). One of my top rooting interests is for New Mexico to last longer than UCLA (#4, in the same regional)--Steve Alford deserted UNM to go to UCLA for more money. Both, though, are in a tough bracket--the South, with Florida as #1. New Mexico, to be fair, has a history of performing well going into the tourney and going out early, and the most probable outcome is something similar (but I'm going contrarian and picking them to beat Kansas in a significant second-round upset).
The big beef is that the brackets are lopsided, with two very tough ones full of strong finishers with proven NCAA credentials and two with fairly lame contenders. The tough ones are the South--with Florida, Syracuse, Kansas, and UCLA as seeds and strong lower-seeds like VCU, Ohio St., New Mexico, and Stanford) and the ridiculously packed Midwest (besides Wichita St. and their difficult second-round opponent, Kentucky or Kansas St., there are Michigan, Duke, St. Louis, Arizona St., and--Louisville, the defending national champion, a team I would rate in the top 5 nationally going into the tournament). Clearly, they wanted to pose a challenge to Wichita St., which is 34-0 and was basically untested during the season, but I think they went too far.
In the two weak brackets, there's the East (Virginia's), which has an obvious choice in perennial tourney over-performer Michigan State (President Obama's choice for national champion--the Spartans showed themselves in form by cruising to the Big 10 tourney championship); and the West (Arizona's), which is wide open with no proven tourney teams or world-beaters and a lot of pretty-good ones. I'm leaning toward the sentimental favorite, Creighton (now moved up into the Big East--geography note: Creighton is in Nebraska, but the vacuum of all the teams leaving the conference left a nice spot for it), with its All-American Doug McDermott, though I could see good arguments for Wisconsin or Arizona. The point is, someone will win the bracket, there will be lots of good first- and second-round games, and the NCAA Committee will seem to be vindicated, though the fact that there will be two great, proven teams and two that slipped through into the Final Four will not be viewed as a weakness but as a validation of the "democratic" nature of the tourney. It is, mostly, fair, but not without some blemishes this year--ones which probably only enhance the telegenic nature of the early round coverage, which arguably is what really matters.
We are heading toward the end of the regular season, and there is some jockeying for position but the outlook is fairly clear. As always, there is a hole at the bottom of the East, and some team will get into the playoffs with a winning percentage around 40%--but they will get the #1 team, either Indiana or Miami, for their troubles, and a quick exit. It would also be important not to finish #7 and get the other one of those two. There is a close contest for positions 3,4, and 5 in the East (Toronto, Brooklyn, and Chicago), but it probably doesn't matter so much--a competitive first-round match awaits 4 and 5, while any of the three can only look forward to a beatdown from numbers 1 and 2, one would presume. I do think that Brooklyn has the capability to pull off a surprise, though; they started poorly but have come on strong.
In the West, it's the usual: a lot of good teams, but two standout playoff performers (San Antonio and Oklahoma City) sit at the top and should be expected to make the Conference finals. The wild card is the LA Clippers, which have been erratic but are capable of beating everyone when their core--Chris Paul and Blake Griffin--is healthy and productive. There is a close contest for the #7 and #8 spots between three teams (Memphis, Phoenix, and Dallas), but the two winners get only some bragging rights and a really tough first-round matchup.
The expected Conference finals are Miami-Indiana and San Antonio-Oklahoma City, with Miami and San Antonio having the track record to make them favorites for the finals. I believe in those probabilities (maybe 20% of one of 7-8 other teams making one of the final spots, maybe 2% that two of them don't), but I'm not ready to make a prediction for the NBA Championship opponents or winner just yet--I want to see their playoff form (are the Big 3 all healthy for the Spurs? Dwayne Wade for the Heat?)