The NBA — Who Do You Like?

SportsAttic’s blog heading today doesn’t refer to “The Association’s” 2021 playoff contenders, but rather to those players we identify most closely with when we think of professional basketball.

The NBA markets its stars harder than any other league, so it stands to reason that when the number of likable players begins to dwindle, the success of the league hangs in the balance.

Hang on, though, because in a way it does always hunt back to the franchise, doesn’t it? As of this writing, there are six teams still alive in the NBA Playoffs, and by the end of the weekend, we should have our Final Four. And truth be told, I’m having a heck of a time choosing a bandwagon to ride because there are so few players I can stand anymore.

The Nets would be the easy one, but as has been discussed multiple times on these pages, this year’s Nets edition is just so damn hard to root for. Maybe if Kyrie stays injured? Yes, that does help, but somewhere along the line Kevin Durant went from this sweet-shooting basketball savant to one of the biggest horse’s asses in professional sports. And even with performances like his other-worldly Game 5, when he played all 48 minutes and went for 49 points, I still can’t get onboard with a franchise where KD is the face.

Okay, then how about the Nets opponent in their upcoming Game 7 today, the Milwaukee Bucks? Nah, I don’t like them either. Giannis just doesn’t do it for me (one-dimensional, and what’s with this insistence on shooting the three when it obviously hurts the team?). Besides, the Bucks are just so damn bland and have been ever since they traded Kareem to the Lakers. Next.

The Hawks or the Sixers? Well ,let’s start with Philly. Okay, we can end there, too. It’s Philly, and I don’t root for any teams from Philadelphia. Besides, I think Ben Simmons may be the most overrated star in the league today, and Joel Embiid won’t truly earn his superstar chops until he puts his teammates on his back and wins a close series all by himself.He has that opportunity in their upcoming Game 7, so talk to me tomorrow. Wait, it’s Philly. Forget it.

The Hawks play more of a team ball system than any of the other eastern conference contenders, and I really like head coach Nate McMillan. But they suffer from the fact that they beat the Knicks in Round 1, and I hated them during that series just because. Throw in that I think Trae Young is a punk (a way more talented punk than I gave him credit for entering the playoffs, but a punk nonetheless), and rooting for Atlanta becomes an impossibility..

Maybe the answer lies in the west? I could easily jump on the upstart Phoenix Suns bandwagon if it weren’t for Chris Paul. He may be the best pure point guard and leader of this generation of players, but I still can’t get over the way he quit on Houston against the Warriors a few years back. Plus he’s chippy as hell and his State Farm commercials run way too often.

As a transplanted Southern Californian, I could plant my flag with the Clippers, kind of the basketball version of my New York Mets. They’ve mostly floundered in a two-team market dominated by the Lakers (nee Yankees), so they fit the lovable underdog bill. But how do I reconcile my disdain for Paul George? Major props do have to be given to George for stepping up with Kawhi out the last two games, so maybe another look is warranted, but PG’s presence and past disappearing acts make the Clips a stretch for me.

All of the above has led to some painful soul searching as I reflect on my 50+-year involvement with the National Basketball Association. Have I unwittingly morphed into that old curmudgeon of a fan? The one that sits around complaining about how today’s players can’t hold a candle to the stars of my youth? I mean, give me Willis Reed and Clyde Frazier all day long over today’s pampered and over-entitled “stars,” but that’s not being crusty, just honest, right?

The reality is, when it comes to my beloved Knickerbockers, I’m mostly rooting for the jersey these days (at least when they wear their traditional blue or white uniforms, not those black abominations). True, I learned to like Julius Randle this year, and Mitchell Robinson is fun to watch. I’m hopeful Immanuel Quickley becomes a modern-day John Starks, providing energy off the New York bench for the next decade. But it’s the franchise I root for, not this group of players (who happen to be the most likable Knicks we’ve seen in the last fifteen years or so).

Thus the question I lead with in today’s rant…who do you like?

I mean, I could write a book on all the present day players I don’t like (hiya, LeBron), but that’s too easy. Really, who are the players I like in today’s Association? Could I build a 15-man team around them?

After a quick scan of NBA rosters, I am relieved to see that there are still several stars I like, admire, respect, and can root for. Of course that list begins with Dame. Damian Lillard may be my favorite baller of the twenty-first century. Tough, talented, selfless and (if there’s a hoops god) soon to be the Knicks franchise cornerstone.

In addition to Lillard, sticking with just the guards for now, I can add the Splash Brothers in Golden State. Steph Curry and Klay Thompson (hopefully fully recovered in time for next season) remain as much fun to watch in their 30’s, for their all-around talent and approach to the game, as they were during the dynasty days. It will be good for the league if the Dubs can add a couple more pieces this offseason and have the Warriors contend in 2021-22.

Moving south, I’ve always enjoyed Patrick Beverley’s tenacious approach and defense-first mindset. Tough as nails and a great teammate, I’ll have no problem rooting for him (checkmark in the Clips column as I continue to scout for my playoff bandwagon). And now that Kemba Walker is shedding his Celtics green I can resume rooting for him–a class act that makes the players around him better. Meanwhile, Devin Booker is only getting better every year out in the desert.

Jae Morant? I haven’t seen enough of him yet, but there’s potential for him on the radar as a guy to root for down the road. Same goes for Luca Doncic if success doesn’t spoil him along the way. The Balls? Sorry, they may be the greatest guys in the world, but their dad killed any potential appeal for me long ago.

In the front court, I’ll root for Anthony Davis the minute LeBron moves on or should The Brow don another jersey. Put him and Mitch at center on my fantasy squad. Kawhi Leonard is another star that’s easy to root for with his disdain for me-first histrionics and a solid grasp of the fundamentals. Here’s hoping he gets back for the conference finals.

What about Zion, you ask? He’s done nothing to make me root against him, but I’m predisposed as a fan to not gravitate toward those to whom much is given. And I”m not wild about the rumblings coming from New Orleans about him already forcing his way out of town.

The Morris Brothers are two glue guys I respect, and even though I can’t keep who’s who straight between the twins, toughness and a willingness to embrace the enforcer role, while also possessing ball skills, are huge pluses for me. Throw in Robin Lopez for more dirty work and his cool hair, and we have the makings of one hell of a team.

I could go on and on here, and that’s really the point, because now I’m appropriately reenergized by my realization that I don’t need to give up on the NBA just yet. And that there remain stars in the league I can rally around, despite what may be my inexorable march toward curmudgeonhood.

As for the SportsAttic picks for the duration of the playoffs? Clippers over the Suns in the west. Sixers and Bucks survive in the east. And look for the Sixers to advance in a seven-game battle. But that will be the end of the line for Doc Rivers and his crew of underachievers.

It’s the Clippers year, and they will ride a healthy Kawhi and a rejuvenated PG to the first title in franchise history.

The NBA — it can still be FAN-tastic!

How to Fix the Knicks — Look to Denver for the Answer

It’s over. I really hope I’m wrong here, and the New York Basketball Knickerbockers have one more unexpected run in them, beginning with Game 5 back at Madison Square Garden on Wednesday.

But let’s face it everybody — it’s over.

This year’s Knicks team has been a fun one to watch and root for. And I do think they’ll pull together and win one more for us in New York before heading for the offseason soon after that. And as we’ve said repeatedly over the course of their 41-31 regular season, it’s been a fun and highly enjoyable ride.

However, the Knicks’ inability to keep pace with the Hawks (who are in no way one of the NBA’s elite) in Round 1 is going to leave Knicks fans with a sour taste in their mouths, and Knicks President Leon Rose facing a critical offseason.

The Hawks series has been an eye opener, as most (or at least I) expected the Knicks to advance relatively easily. Now with four games in the books to reframe what our expectations perhaps should have been, a few things have become abundantly clear:

  1. The NBA is a star-driven league, and Trae Young is a star who gives the Hawks an insurmountable talent edge every minute he’s on the floor. The Knicks don’t have such a star.
  2. Julius Randle is not an A-lister. That’s not to take anything away from Randle’s stellar season and the feel-good story of his commitment to improving his game. But he’s not someone that’s going to win a game all by himself (and neither is RJ Barrett, while we’re at it) or ever be a franchise cornerstone.
  3. Tom Thibodeau is a terrific coach and we all gratefully applaud the culture of excellence and professionalism he brought back to our Knickerbockers, but he alone can’t win a playoff series (especially when his opposing coach is every bit as good as he is — hats off to Nate McMillan for winning the coaching battle in this series).
  4. The 41-31 regular season crafted by Coach Thibs and this overachieving roster is likely hitting its ceiling, and without major change in the offseason, New York runs the risk of sliding back significantly in 2021-22.

So, if you are Leon Rose assessing the myriad needs that sit below the surface of this unexpectedly successful 2020-21 campaign, you have to be thinking about making bold moves this summer. The Knicks are loaded with draft picks over the next three years and appear to have found their coach for the long-term.

Thibodeau has put in place the culture that most inspires the Madison Square Garden hoops faithful — a defense-first, gritty, selfless group of ballers that play together without egos, creating a whole far superior to the sum of its parts. The Knicks head into the offseason with ample cap space and numerous young pieces that have trade value around the league.

In other words, the time is now. It’s time to go get the difference maker that can turn this franchise into a 50-win title contender. It’s time to go get Damian Lillard.

The first question, of course, is can the Knicks even get him? Good question. Thus for starters, if the idea of seeing Dame in blue and orange (by the way — can we please ditch those shitty black uniforms next year) is as appealing to you as it is to us, make the Denver Nuggets your favorite team for the duration of the playoffs (or at least the first round).

Because another early playoff flameout by the Blazers this year may finally be enough for Portland to pull the plug and begin a massive rebuild. You know the theory — we can’t get to the next level with Dame, so let’s start the rebuild and try again without him.

Lillard signed a $140 million, five-year deal heading into this season, a deal so big that it will limit other moves Portland might make in an effort to improve their roster. That fact can’t be lost on Lillard. And one of the few trade partners out there with enough cap space to take on a contract of Lillard’s size is…yup, our New York Knickerbockers. Couple another early playoff exit with the weight of $40 million per, and maybe, just maybe, Portland starts listening to offers.

So we need a first-round Blazers loss to Denver to push the Portland front office into at least considering what a good return for their superstar might look like. An ouster at the hands of the Nuggets may also push Dame to the boiling point, where he realizes that the clock is ticking on the prime of his career, and he’s unlikely to ever sniff a visit to the finals if he remains loyal to the Rose City.

The Nuggets-Blazers series is currently knotted at 2-2, with Game 5 in Denver Tuesday night. Get on the Nuggets bandwagon, Knicks fans, because if we can’t get Lillard, there isn’t an A-lister in sight that would fit Thibs system, and be able to instantly take us to the next-level promised land of title contender.

Think about it. Do you really believe Bradley Beal is the answer? Beal doesn’t play defense or make the players around him better, so it’s hard to imagine Thibodeau embracing Beal as his new franchise star. Paul George? Puh-lease — winners only need apply for the role of Knicks savior, and George is not that guy. Kawhi Leonard is that kind of guy, but has shown zero interest in New York in the past. Hard to imagine him changing coasts at this point.

No, Damian Lillard is the only answer. So if you are Leon Rose, blessed with draft picks, cap space, and the roster depth that could appeal to a rebuilding club, what do you offer the Blazers for their face of the franchise superstar?

What gets it done? If we were to start with two number ones, a number two, Frank Ntilikina and Kevin Knox, how would Portland respond? Yes, we can hear the laughter all the way from Oregon already, but hey, you have to start somewhere.

To get Lillard, it will take a lot more. Picks, players, maybe both. Ntilikina and Knox are both young, former lottery picks that many around the league see as serviceable role players in the right system. So we leave them in.

For picks, the Knicks have their own number one, plus Dallas’ this summer. Both picks will be in the teens. They have their own in 2022. And in 2023 they have another of Dallas’ in addition to their own. So five number ones (not to mention six second-rounders) over the next three drafts. Is three first-rounders, two seconds, Ntilikina/Knox and one more piece — a starter to help the Blazers save face during their rebuild — enough to pry Dame away from the PacNorthwest? Maybe, maybe not, but there is only one way to find out.

Or is such a package giving up too much? Mortgaging the future? That’s the riddle we are counting on Rose to solve, and in short order.

Who would be the right Knicks starter to include in such a package to get this deal over the top? Because in reality, I don’t think three number ones, two number twos, and two scrubs get it done. Would adding Mitchell Robinson to such a package be enough?

Portland would undoubtedly ask for RJ Barrett. And if I’m Rose, I don’t make Barrett available. What we are shooting for here is a Knicks team that can be in the conversation for a title next year. For that to happen, we need another year of maturation and improvement out of Barrett similar to what we’ve witnessed in 2020-21.

I can also envision our two number ones from a year ago — Immanuel Quickley and Obi Toppin — being major contributors to a winning Knicks squad next year. Both are uber athletic with high ceilings. Try to hold onto them, too. That leaves the high-flying Robinson, who would be painful to let go of. But this is Lillard we’re talking about. You have to give to get.

When we think of the 2021-22 Knicks, how does the following sound: a starting five built around Lillard, but also including Reggie Bullock, an improved Barrett, Julius Randle and Nerlens Noel (resign him, Leon). With Toppin, Quickley, Derrick Rose and Taj Gibson forming the second unit alongside some three-and-D wing we pick up as a free agent.

Does that team beat the Nets and their Big Three in the 2022 conference finals? Brooklyn will be a handful for all comers next year, assuming they stay healthy, but a Knicks team that looks something like the above, led by Damian Lillard certainly would go into such a series with a legitimate shot.

Okay, one last thought. What if Portland feels Robinson is damaged goods, or just not enough of a sure thing to put this deal over the top? How would you feel about including Randle in his place? Maybe take back one of the number one picks, add another two?

I have to say, as much as I like Randle and envision him as an extremely effective co-star at Lillard’s side, I’d still include him if that was what it took to seal the deal. We’d need to bank on Toppin, Quickley, and especially Barrett to improve markedly over the summer months, but all three youngsters appear to have that kind of upside.

Plus, this version of the trade would leave enough cap space (after shedding Randle’s salary) to go out and sign a free agent starter that can score. Yes, do it Leon, if you must.

Bottom line here is this year’s Knicks and their surprise success has whet our appetites for more, Leon Rose. We can’t afford to take a step back after finally returning to the playoffs. And one more time — I hope I’m wrong — but this dud of a playoff effort against Atlanta has just raised the stakes on our offseason to an off the charts level.

Get us Damian Lillard, Leon Rose — at any cost, the Knicks need a superstar.

Five Questions about the NBA Play-In Tournament

Yes, we still hate the play-in concept for determining the NBA’s final four playoff qualifiers. And yes, we hope the NBA will recognize it’s misstep and see to it that this farce doesn’t continue past 2021.

But it’s basketball — a sort of NBA Purgatory for sure — but meaningful hoops in Mid-May nonetheless (even if the NBA insists on keeping up their charade that these are not playoff games). So with the games beginning tonight, what are some of the most riveting and thought-provoking questions that come to mind as we do our best to embrace the fact that in The Association, twenty of the thirty teams keep playing once the regular season has concluded?

Question #1: Are the Lakers healthy? Yes, it appears so. LeBron James has emerged from his bubble wrap rejuvenation routine, and will be a handful for all comers for the duration of the tournament (although it says here he will strategically pick his spots, both in-game, and in-series, to stay fresh). The bigger question is how does The Brow fare? He’s been beaten and bloodied all season long, and despite his professed eagerness to embrace the play-in contest(s), the additional games can’t be good for his long-term health prognosis. The King without AD, or AD without LBJ is a recipe for early elimination. If both big men remain ambulatory for the next month or so, look for the Lakers to emerge from the West (but it also says here that that won’t happen).

Question #2: Does that mean the Warriors have no shot Wednesday night? Yes. Sorry Bay Area hoops fans. But just for fun, here’s hoping Steph Curry has one of those lights out, unconscious shooting nights he’s known for, raining treys from all over the court, including half-court bombs to end each of the first three periods. And for even more giggles, let’s root for a vision of Draymond Green agitating and irritating LeBron every time he touches the ball, to such an extent that midway through the third quarter both players are ejected for their second pair of offsetting technical fouls. And how awesome would it be for this to be a one-possession game when the game clock winds down under two minutes in the fourth quarter? Fairy tale stuff? Yes, probably, but always beware the “puncher’s chance…” Go Dubs!

Question #3: Who’s the most dangerous play-in team in the Eastern Conference? It’s not close. The Wizards closed the season on a 17-6 run, and that was with Bradley Beal gimpy for the season’s final week. Nobody, and we mean NOBODY, wants anything to do with Russell Westbrook in a short series, especially when he’s carrying no pressure on his shoulders. Washington is playing with the house’s money, and should dispatch the Celtics, who spit the bit on this season right around Valentine’s Day, without breaking a sweat. And their easy win in Boston will set up a most exciting Round 2 matchup versus the Brooklyn Nets and a very familiar Big Three. Think the sight of KD and his cohorts might motivate Russ just a bit? Bring it on!

Question #4: If you formed one team out of the best players from both Indiana and Charlotte, could they win a game in Round 2 against the 76ers? Let’s see…Gordon Hayward, Caris LeVert, Domantas Sabonis, Terry Rozier… anyone? Anyone? No, combine the two rosters and they’d still get swept. Both teams are terrible and should not be allowed to play anymore basketball this year. As a protest to the watering down of The Association via this ill-conceived play-in format, hoops fans everywhere should boycott watching this game both in person and on television. That won’t happen, of course, and someone is required to win this matchup — so, let’s throw Michael Jordan a bone and call it a win for the Hornets. However, there is one significant reward for winning the East’s 9-10 Game. That reward is a second play-in game against the very same Boston squad that is about to get waxed by 30 against the Wizards. A Celtics team so disengaged that their players are undoubtedly already lobbying team ownership to let them forfeit this one and get an early start on their offseason. Welcome to the postseason, Charlotte.

Question #5: Who will emerge victorious into the actual playoffs? The West will go according to form, with the Lakers handling the Dubs at home Wednesday night to earn the 7th seed, and the Dubs having enough left in the tank to secure the number eight seed by taking down the up and coming Grizzlies. In the East, the Wizards will pack their bags for Brooklyn after dispatching the Celts, while MJ will get to enjoy two victory cigars as his Hornets send possibly the most boring purgatory-playoff team ever (hello Pacers) back to Indiana before throwing the final pile of dirt on Boston.

NBA Play-In Games — They’re FAN-(sort of)-TASTIC.

Likes, Dislikes and the Universal DH

If change is the only constant in life, then I suppose what we are experiencing in the world of sports today is par for the course.

And while on the subject of overused cliches, how about “change isn’t hard, it’s resisting change, that’s what’s hard.” Yes, my default setting as a sports traditionalist is one who resists even the slightest change to the games I care most about.

So maybe what I need to do is stop overthinking things, and just listen to Casey Stengel, who gave us “it’s a round ball, and a round bat, and you’ve gotta hit it square.”

Because it really seems like, despite all my resisting, the winds of change are swirling more relentlessly than ever in the world of sports right now. In fact, when I really stop and think, the only change I’ve managed to resist with some success over the years has been the adaptation of the Designated Hitter rule by the National League. And while the tradition of pitchers wielding a bat holds on by barely a thread, any satisfaction I may gain from that small victory is tempered when I realize that adaptation of a Universal DH is the one change that would have benefitted my New York Mets in 2021.

But such is life when you are a Mets fan. So anyway, what follows is SportsAttic’s take on some of the more notable changes going on in the world of sports today — we anxiously await your reactions:

*NBA Play-in TournamentDISLIKE — Adding playoff teams never spells improvement to me. And despite protestations from “The Association’s” league office that play-in games aren’t actual playoff contests… c’mon man, then what the heck are they? These are games being played after the regular season has concluded, so to me that constitutes a playoff round. And by adding this extra layer, all we’ve really done is reward a few sub-.500 teams for their abject mediocrity by televising more of their games and bringing them (and the NBA) additional revenues. All for the benefit of seeing the survivors get blown out in the second round of the playoffs by a more deserving squad. I mean, does anyone really anticipate the Charlotte Hornets taking more than a game from the Sixers in Round 2? As bad as this may seem, there is one redeeming quality to the 2021 play-in format. As of this writing, LeBron James and the Lakers appear headed for the play-in contests, where they will likely have to open against Golden State and red hot Steph Curry. Go Dubs! Ah, silver linings…

*NFL Goes to a 17-game Schedule — LIKE — Yes, even a traditionalist like me is willing to accept with open arms more winter Sundays filled with pro football. Especially when the giveback is a couple of meaningless preseason games. I no longer hold season tickets for any pro football teams, but back when I did, I found it ridiculous that we were required to purchase preseason games as part of the package. Moving to 17 games is an improvement for the players (who for years have sought a shorter preseason schedule) and the fans (who get more meaningful games), even if having an odd number of games does feel a bit unsettling as it rattles around my OCD brain (okay, so there used to be 14 games, then it was 16 for a really long time, and now…). But that’s okay — it’s more football. I’ll get used to it.

*MLB Continues its Policies of Seven-inning Double-Headers and Extra Inning Contests Beginning With a Runner on Second — HATE — Sorry, but seven-inning baseball games are bullshit. Full stop. The strategy and cadence of the National Pastime both get watered down and altered in unflattering ways when we shorten the length of play by nearly 25 percent. And if you subscribe (as I do) to the theory that 99% of double-headers end in a split, the shorter game format has the potential to negatively impact pennant races over the course of a 162-game season, should certain teams play more twin bills than other teams in their division. Not to mention it’s shitty for the fan experience, too, as the lineups being tossed out there in Game 2’s around MLB are full of scrubs and recent call ups that should embarrass the responsible franchises and their managers. Yet somehow the new double-header rule isn’t the worst atrocity taking place in Major League Baseball today. The extra inning leadoff runner is an even worse abomination. If we are going to bastardize the rules to get games to a speedier conclusion, why not really go for it. How about if a game ends tied after nine innings each manager selects three non-pitchers to take the mound for his team. Clear the field except for the six chosen position players and each team’s catcher. Then, one by one, all six players get a turn to rear back and fire three pitches as hard as they can, with their speed being monitored by the stadium radar gun. Nine total pitches would be thrown per team, with the player that lights up the gun with the highest velocity fastball earning the win. And here’s the catch — all players must throw with their non-throwing hand. Imagine the fun! Preposterous, you say? Exactly…

Okay, I feel better now. Thanks for playing, and let’s hear your opinions on these and other changes taking place across your favorite sports.

While we wait for your cards and letters, here’s hoping the NBA Gods have a sense of humor and see to it that LeBron stays tethered to that seventh slot in the west.

Cheers!

NFL Draft Notes — C’mon Already!

The NFL Draft was set to begin at 5:00 pacific time. I had somewhere to be at 6:00, so I figured I’d at least get to enjoy the first few picks before having to head out. Not so fast.

Kings of Leon, anyone? Huh? Really?

Then Roger Goodell enters to much pomp and circumstance, with that tired routine of his, encouraging boos from the Cleveland crowd. If that wasn’t enough, next we got Goodell’s armchair? Followed by the prerequisite pontificating from the studio talking heads before the Jacksonville Jaguars were even on the damn clock, for what had to be the most no-brainer of first picks in recent draft memory.

And can somebody please tell me why in the world Jacksonville needed to exhaust all ten minutes allotted to them to pick Trevor Lawrence at number one? Or why the Jets needed nearly all of their allotted time to pick Zach Wilson second, especially since they’d been telegraphing this choice without any attempt at deception for weeks?

I smell a rat, and I’m taking aim at ESPN and the NFL Network — doesn’t a longer show allow the networks to air more commercials, and thus rake in the millions of dollars in revenues tied to every additional ad? Yeah, I thought so.

Anyway, delays aside (and I didn’t even make it to the Niners selecting Trey Lance at number three before I had to leave), it was an eventful Day One of the NFL Draft. Here’s a few thoughts while we wait for Round 2 to begin:

  1. Give Aaron Rodgers credit. Two years in a row now he’s been the highest profile NFL star to make headlines on draft night. Will this improve his chances to become the next Alex Trebek one day? Sure it could. Maybe it even accelerates the timetable. Could the Packers actually blink and trade their over-exposed insurance pitchman? Doubtful. However, I do look forward to this high-level game of chicken continuing into the summer months.
  2. Tim Tebow’s making a comeback? Hell yeah, he is. (Oops, sorry Timmy. Heck yeah, he is…) One of the funniest memes I saw yesterday was the one proclaiming that “with the first pick of the NFL Draft, the Jacksonville Jaguars select Tim Tebow of the New York Mets.” Could Tebow make an impact as a Swiss Army Knife type for Urban Meyer this year? I wouldn’t bet against him. Tight end? Sure. Gunner on kick coverage? Why not. Heck, line him up as the punter on those no man’s land 4th and 4 situations from your own 45. The NFL is more interesting with Tebow hanging around, and in the space of 24 hours, the Jaguars just became a highly intriguing franchise to watch this season (did I really just type that sentence?).
  3. Everybody likes to talk about trades that benefit both teams, but actual examples are few and far between. Yet it seems to me that the Bears moving up to get Justin Fields at number 11 last night will be a home run for Chicago, who boast talent everywhere except under center. And at the same time, Dave Gettleman coming away with three additional picks, including the Bears’ number one next year, sets up the Giants to build something special over these next couple of years. And the Gints still got the playmaker they desired at number 20, when they scooped up Kadarius Toney out of Florida. Will the Big Blue O-line keep Daniel Jones upright to enjoy all the weapons he suddenly has at his disposal? We’ll see… we’ll see…
  4. I’m on record as being a Sam Darnold fan. I’m highly skeptical Zach Wilson will ever end up being a substantial upgrade over Sam at the QB position for the Airplanes, and certainly not this year. Yeah, it’s safe to pencil Gang Green in for another year under .500 and out of the playoffs. In fact, since this is the Jets we are talking about, is there anyone out there who would be surprised if somehow the Darnold-led Panthers do something, at some point in the future, to damage their new QB’s old squad? You know, like knock the Jets out of playoff contention? Yes, we could definitely see that. How about, dare I say it — beat them in the Super Bowl? I don’t know, that sure feels like a stretch to the extreme, but something tells me Sam will get the last laugh on this one.
  5. Speaking of Wilson, based on the number of times I’ve now seen the video on social media — the one where ESPN filmed all the rookies in attendance for the draft last night — I guess I’m not the only one who noticed how uncomfortable young Zach looked, awkwardly tugging on his lapel and looking at his shoes with a pained expression on his face. Meanwhile his cohorts preened and mugged shamelessly for the cameras all around him. Luckily for Wilson he’s unlikely to get much media attention in New York City… ruh roh…
  6. Let’s not go giving Bill Belichick any more rings yet just because he drafted Mac Jones. Is it possible that at least some of Jones’ success is attributable to the two wideouts selected before his name was called last night? And I really hate to pile on, but keep your shirt on Mac…it sure looks like Jones was getting second helping on some biscuits and gravy while his Bama teammates were toiling away in the weight room.
  7. Nice to see that the Raiders brought their draft night sense of humor with them to Las Vegas. Alex Leatherwood? Anyone? Anyone? Just reach, baby…
  8. How dysfunctional must it be in Cincinnati’s draft room that they are letting their 24-year-old, injured QB dictate who their first pick will be? Good to know Jets fans aren’t alone at the bottom when it comes to organizational ineptitude.
  9. I’m fully aware it’s become taboo to take a running back in the first round, but it says here that both Pittsburgh and Jacksonville end up big winners taking Najee Harris and Travis Etienne with their late first-rounders.
  10. Apparently the Lions draft room erupted in cheers when the Dolphins took Jaylen Waddle, leaving Detroit free to pick Penei Sewell at number seven. It sure seems like an incredible selection for the Lions, as everybody has Sewell ID’d as a future star. But this is the Lions we’re talking about here, isn’t it? What tragic injury awaits poor Mr. Sewell? Would anyone be surprised if the big tackle slipped in the shower this morning and severed an achilles tendon? I hate even speculating about bad things befalling the young man, but this Lions shit is deep.

And now onward into the second round. Jets picking second. Cornerback, anyone?

The Perfect Sports Day

Could a new day really be dawning for Mets fans?

Let’s take a look at a few facts:

  1. I recently signed up for the MLB package on Cox, a move that normally would send the Mets season immediately into the tank — and they promptly went out and won two out of three in Colorado (and could have swept if not for their manager’s indifference in waiving the white flag during the second game of Saturday’s doubleheader).
  2. The second (and series-clinching) of those wins came on a game-ending caught stealing. Anyone familiar with the Mets bullpen and its penchant for losing games in the most catastrophic ways imaginable, knows such an ending is something we haven’t been able to even consider possible since the days of Tug McGraw and Jerry Grote.
  3. In the first of Saturday’s seven-inning double-header games (and I’m sorry, but a seven-inning game is both a farce and an abomination, especially when my team ends up splitting or getting swept — and given the spate of cancellations the Mets have experienced here in April, fans may as well get used to this seven-inning bullshit), the Mets came from behind to save Jacob deGrom from what appeared to be a certain loss, with a combination of timely hitting and lock down relief pitching. We can all forgive deGrom if he broke down weeping in the clubhouse from the shock of such a reversal of fortune.
  4. As of midnight Sunday night, the Mets occupied sole possession of first place in the National League East.

As Yosemite Sam might ask, “What in tarnation is going on around here?”

But wait there’s more!

What began as a sunny, beach day in Southern California this past Sunday quickly morphed into what can only be described as The Perfect Sports Day. Here’s a quick timeline to provide context into the above statement, which when taken at face value might be viewed as a gross exaggeration:

*11:15 a.m. — a quick check of Yahoo!Sports informs me that the Mets game will be starting at the unusual time of 12:05 out here — something to do with the Mountain Time Zone (if time zones were the Marx Brothers, Mountain Time would definitely be Zeppo…).

*11:50 a.m. — I flip to channel 1681 (yes, that’s really a channel — so much for Mets games only ever being shown on WOR/Channel 9 back in the day), and much to my chagrin, I discover that the MLB package doesn’t include pre-game shows (not to mention I’m going to be forced to listen to the lame Rockies announcers for the second straight day — a HUGE downtick from Gary, Keith and Ron doing the Mets games).

*11:51 a.m. — to kill the time, I quickly scan the other MLB games in progress and see that the Yankees and Rays are on channel 1667. With fingers crossed I flip over and am immediately delighted to see that the Rays are once again in the process of taking the Yanks to the woodshed, leading 3-2 in the 7th inning (love those early east coast starts).

*11:53 a.m. — not wanting to jinx the Rays, I flip the channel to ESPN, the safe haven for channel surfers looking to regroup before formulating longer-term sports viewing strategies. There I am overjoyed to be greeted by Knicks vs Pelicans, in a close one with eight minutes remaining in the fourth quarter. And if that wasn’t enough good news, the great Doris Burke was doing color on the game! I put down the remote, confident I would not be changing channels until the outcome was decided.

*12:17 p.m. — Knicks point guard Derrick Rose, looking nothing like the Derrick Rose who was a disaster in his first stint as a Knick a couple of years back, drives the lane with the Knickerbockers down three and only a few seconds to play. He draws two defenders and deftly dishes to Reggie Bullock in the corner. Bullock drains the three-pointer and we have overtime — yes!

*12:47 p.m. — With the Knicks having successfully vanquished the Pelicans, stomping New Orleans by ten in the extra period for their sixth consecutive win (SIX IN A ROW — THE KNICKS??), I return to channel 1681, where the Mets are out to an early 2-0 lead over the Rockies. Mets starting pitcher Marcus Stroman, looking nothing like the Marcus Stroman who was barely pedestrian in his 2019 cameo with the Mets before completely spitting the bit on the entire 2020 season, is in the process of baffling the Rockies bats while spinning his second consecutive gem of a start.

*1:43 p.m. — I check Yahoo!Sports again and see that the Yankees have officially been swept — at home — by the Rays, marking their fifth consecutive defeat. This sweep leaves them at 5-10 on the season, good for the worst record in the entire American League (I would subsequently learn that never before in the history of planet earth had the Knicks experienced a five-game winning streak at the same time the Yankees were experiencing a five-game losing streak — this is like cats mating with dogs, or, you know, something really unlikely…) and second-worst in all of Major League Baseball. There is much rejoicing.

*2:17 p.m. — I reluctantly have to leave my post on the couch for a pre-planned family beach jaunt. The Rockies have tightened things to 2-1 in the seventh, and Stroman is beginning to show signs of tiring. I assume as I leave the house that Mets Manager Luis Rojas (I still say Rojas looks way over his head much of the time, but we are in first place, so I’ll swallow my tongue on that topic — for now) will turn to his pen for the latest in a series of high wire acts designed to torture the Mets fan base and ensure another season of missing the playoffs.

*3:21 p.m. — through a confluence of positive vibes and good fortune I get a smidgen of cell service at the beach, just long enough for me to make out the sight of a video airing on InstaGram showing Mets catcher James McCann throwing a runner out attempting to steal second. It appears the play may have ended the game, but I lose my cell signal before I can be sure.

*4:11 p.m. — back at street level, my cell service returns and I am able to see the video (multiple times) and confirm via my trusty Yahoo!Sports app that the Mets indeed did hold the 2-1 lead and win the rubber match of the series in Colorado. On a game-ending caught stealing no less! There is more rejoicing.

So to recap. We’ve got high 80’s temps in Southern Cal and a glorious, April beach day. As a backdrop to that, we’ve got the Knicks on national television, coming from behind to win an OT thriller for their fifth consecutive victory. And somehow the Knicks’ success is being built on a foundation of discipline and tenacious defense, with mostly the same group of guys that didn’t defend a lick or seem to care only a year ago. Cue The Garden’s organ and those deafening chants of “DEE-FENSE.”

Add to that the Evil Empire getting punched in the face (for the second season in a row) by the small market Rays, who, last time I checked, lost all of their best pitchers in the offseason. Sure it’s only April, but the Bronx Bombers in the cellar with a .333 winning percentage? Yeah, cartwheel time!

And to all that we attach the ultimate exclamation point. A Mets victory on the road, where our skipper didn’t over-manage us out of a late game lead, actually allowing his starter go eight innings. And when our fragile-as-an-eggshell closer put the tying run on base in the ninth? We send Mets fans to their Happy Recap with a walk-off caught stealing — our new, free agent catcher doing the throwing, and our new, superstar shortstop applying the tag.

Surely our new, billionaire owner was smiling.

Perfect sports day? Youbetcha…

Exagerration? Notevenalittlebit…

Lightning Round — March Madness Recap and Quick Trip Around the World of Sports

So much to cover, but where to start?

Okay, for starters, which insurance company does Flo represent? And she and Jaime are frenemies and colleagues, right? At least when Jaime isn’t out doing a safe drivers test for some unknown reason, and picking up free wood on the side of the road.

Am I the only one that can repeat every March Madness ad in his sleep after the least couple of weeks?

I mean, we’ve got Chuck, Spike and Samuel L. back for Capital One, and somehow now they’ve got Jim Nantz, Magic Johnson and some random viking along for the ride, too? I enjoy Charles Barkley in just about everything he does, but after a few weeks of loop after loop…enough already!

And we haven’t even gotten into the young lady sitting at the AT&T info desk. She got more airtime than Gonzaga throughout March Madness this year. And sure, she’s no Flo (Aflac?), but I suppose there is a certain sweet charm that some ad exec somewhere decided we needed heavy doses of until we all agreed to convert to AT&T just to make it stop. And how in hell did David Robinson get mixed up in that??

Along those lines, I hope somebody in Buick’s executive offices is comparing sales increases versus their advertising spend. I get it — it parallel parks itself. And the one with the young lady driving, with three clones of herself as passengers? Interesting I guess, even if I don’t really get what they are after there. But is anyone really looking at their spouse or significant other after one of those ads and saying, “gee honey, maybe we really do need to go test drive a Buick this weekend?”

But enough already, as the continuous loop of the same ads was a small price to pay for an incredible tournament. Maybe my enthusiasm is in part due to not having the tournament a year ago, but it seems to me that even with the final ending in a blowout, this year’s March Madness from start to finish was one of the best in years.

And even more importantly, the conclusion of the tournament kicks off one of the best seasonal runs for sports fans everywhere. One where we have things to enjoy, debate and look forward to in every major professional league. Let’s take a look, starting with a Big Dance post-mortem:

MARCH MADNESS

*Looking back, it all ended for Gonzaga when Suggs banked in that incredible, 40-foot, game-winner to advance the Zags into the finals. Not only was a letdown from that exuberance unavoidable, the invincible mystique was gone. UCLA’s effort showed the Bulldogs to be human, with flaws, and eminently beatable, which all came true two nights later.

*But what a shot by Suggs! It immediately goes into the bank of All-Time great moments in NCAA Tournament history, and also served as the opening shot of how sports is a proxy for life. In a matter of 48 hours, we got to see that young man experience the height of exuberance, following his buzzer-beater, only to then taste extreme levels of the agony of defeat, as cameras caught him sobbing uncontrollably in the closing seconds of Gonzaga’s finals lost to Baylor. Powerful stuff, and here’s hoping we see more of that young man going forward.

*Shout out to Baylor, while we’re at it. Have we ever seen dominance so profound in both the national semis and finals of this tournament? Tenacity at both ends of the floor. Size in droves, speed, physicality and shooting touch. How did the Bears lose two games this year?

BASEBALL

*Hope springs eternal for fans of nearly every MLB team this time of year, but I can’t remember Mets fans being more hopeful on Opening Day than we were this year. But then, new owner and all, a very Mets thing happened, and the entire opening series was cancelled thanks to Covid. So we cooled our heels a few days and waited to open in Philly. Which we did, and like clockwork the pen peed all over a deGrom masterpiece, the manager was being vilified for pulling Jake too soon, and mumbles of “same old Mets” began to seep into social media posts everywhere. Yeah, same old Mets.

*And while we’re on the Mets (you didn’t really expect this to start anywhere else, did you?), I’m sure Kevin Pillar is a fine fellow. Good defensive outfielder with some pop at the plate. But did we really have to lead him off in the opener? And in so doing, relegate our best hitter from a year ago, Dom Smith, to the bench? Kind of deflating, Mr. Cohen. And I know our new owner isn’t approving lineup cards (at least not yet), but didn’t somebody besides Luis Rojas at least put eyes on the optics of that one? Yeesh…

*With the Mets idle and waiting out the Nationals quarantine down in D.C., it brought on for Mets fans an earlier than usual version of our annual “root against the Yankees, since the Mets are out of it” time-killing activity. And thank you to the baseball gods for not piling on further, and giving us a Yanks loss in their opener, with the added cherry on top of it being a Gerrit Cole start.

*And yes, I smiled when the fans started booing Giancarlo Stanton before the first series of the year had concluded.

*I’m considering making the Angels my new A.L. team to root for. I live a half hour from their ballpark, which is an unsung stadium in this golden era of awesome baseball parks. And of course there’s Mike Trout, who is easy to root for.

*But the real story for the Angels is Shohei Ohtani. This guy is so cool. Takes the mound Sunday night, and his first pitch is clocked at 98. He touches 100 before the inning is over, and then picks up a bat and steps up to the plate hitting in the two-hole. First pitch he absolutely destroys, sending it on a line 450 feet into the right-field bleachers.

*But it wasn’t all 100 MPH heaters and dingers for the two-way star, and this is where the Mets fan in me has to be careful about fully embracing the Angels. The way Ohtani’s evening ended on Sunday had a very Mets-ian feel to it. He cruises into the 5th, and has two outs and a man on, needing one more out to qualify for the W. Then disaster strikes. He sends a pickoff attempt into the right and the runner advances to third. Next thing you know he’s got the bases loaded after hard-fought walks to Abreu (who’s a beast by the way) and Moancada. Credit to Joe Madden for leaving him in to battle for the win and get out of the mess (he was still touching 100 for crying out loud — are you listening, Luis Rojas?), and he does get out of it, getting a strikeout with a nasty splitter to end the inning. But not so fast…the ball eludes the catcher, who sails one-hops his throw past the first-baseman as the runners are merry-go-rounding the bases. The second-baseman picks up the errant throw and sails his throw to the plate trying to catch the second runner advancing, and now Ohtani is covering the plate as the catcher futilely tries to catch runner number three with a late toss back to the plate. Where Ohtani is cut down at the knee by the runner, and ultimately leaves the game limping. I’m not sure I’m cut out for all of this. I may need to stick with just the Mets for the time being.

NFL

*I know it is the conspiracy theorist in me, but anyone else wondering if DeShaun Watson may have pissed off one too many important people in the Houston front office? Coincidental that all these charges of improprieties come flooding out shortly after the young QB flipped the bird to the entire Texans organization? Regardless, hard to see this one ending well for Watson. And should even a smidgeon of what’s out there turn out to be true? Then good riddance. The Texans just finished a season where they were terrible with him under center. Surely they can do it again without him.

*On the other side of the QB coin, this Jets fan is sorry to see Sam Darnold take his exit. I happen to agree that this outcome was best for all parties involved at this point, but here’s hoping that Sam can experience a turn around in Carolina and win a lot of games with an actual supporting cast around him and a coaching staff that puts him in a position to succeed.

*As for the The Airplanes? I like all the moves the Jets have made so far this off season, but their lack of talent was so glaring it’s hard to imagine a return to competence coming any time soon. Especially with another rookie QB coming to town, no matter how talented he may be. I hope I’m wrong… I hope I’m wrong… I hope I’m wrong…

*With the NFL draft coming up, it reminds me of nearly a year ago when that was all the sports entertainment we were going to get in the entire second quarter. Maybe for nostalgia’s sake we can sequester Roger Goodell in his basement again this year. I’d tune in for that.

NBA

*We are about to learn an interesting lesson on the importance of culture and familiarity in The Association. The Brooklyn Nets will head into the playoffs with far more talent than any other calendar this side of LeBron and AD. But it’s talent that due to injuries and in-season acquisitions will not have had much time together on the court prior to the playoffs beginning. How much does that matter? It says here that talent overcomes all, and should the Nets get all of their stars (and frankly I don’t include Blake Griffin in that statement) on the floor together, in reasonably good health, they will make the finals. Culture and familiarity be damned. Either way, it should be darn interesting to watch and find out.

*Assuming LeBron and AD make it back on the court for the postseason (and is there anyone out there who doesn’t think that will happen?), is there a team out west with a legitimate chance of dethroning them? Utah? They’ve been outstanding all season, but I still don’t see them coming away victorious over the Lakers in a 7-game series. The Clips? Maybe, but then I remember they have Paul George. Next? Damian Lillard is always my sentimental choice to find a way, but sadly I just don’t think they have the horses behind him up in Portland to mount an actual threat. Nope, pencil the Lakers back in the Finals.

AIRPLANE

*No, I can’t resist immediately tuning in anytime I see the classic comedy airing as I spin around my cable guide. Did it again the other day, and as many times as I’ve seen it now (gotta be well into double-digits) I still laugh out loud every time I see Kareem get bent out of shape on the kid in the cockpit who tells him his dad says the Lakers great loafs on defense. Priceless.

Not So Sweet 16

The South Region and the Midwest Region sit together on the “right” side of my March Madness bracket. Those two regions have worked like clockwork in the NCAA Tournament thus far, sending eight teams to the Sweet 16, just as the rules state they are supposed to.

I have correctly guessed the identity of one of those eight teams in the bracket I’ve submitted for a pool set up with a few friends from work. My lone correct guess on that entire side of the draw is Baylor, the number one seed in the South, and a pick that millions of other March Madness fans have also selected correctly in their brackets.

So what that means, is that my Baylor pick, the only thing I’ve gotten right through two rounds on that side of my bracket, will do absolutely nothing to improve my chances. And even if the Bears advance to the Final Four (as I have them doing), it will do absolutely nothing to elevate me from the pack.

In other words, I’m toast.

On the “left” side of my bracket I’ve fared slightly better, having three of the eight remaining teams still alive on my official sheet — USC, Florida St., and Alabama. The prognosis is slightly better for me on this side of the draw, as I have all three of those teams winning their Sweet 16 matchups and advancing to the Elite 8.

Building on that small glimmer of hope, I actually have USC winning out from here all the way until the finals, which means I possess the March Madness version of a “puncher’s chance” to pull off a miracle should everything go right for me and my selections from here.

Only in March Madness could such a dreadful performance be so much damn fun. And that’s really the point of filling out all those little boxes every year, isn’t it?

If we use recent history as our guide, my 4-12 record heading into this weekend’s games would indicate it is highly unlikely I will suddenly become a college hoops Nostradamus, but hey — that’s why they play the games, right? And therein lies the excitement of the greatest sports tournament in the world.

It feels like there’s been more upsets than the norm this year (a statement I make every year right around this time, by the way), so perhaps others are suffering similar, painful reactions when they look at their brackets dotted with red “X’s” and alternate winner names scribbled into the margins. C’mon, there’s a reason Warren Buffett offers a million bucks every year to anyone who can put together a perfect bracket — picking winners in March is damn hard to do!

But here we are every year, trying to identify the next upset candidate from the likes of Grand Canyon, Iona and Hartford. Then again, is there a better feeling in the world of fandom than being the one who knew Abilene Christian would take down Texas in the first round? Methinks not.

Speaking of upset specials, I failed to mention where my predicted USC run would conclude in my tattered 2021 bracket submission. That would be in the finals against Midwest Region number one seed Illinois. The same Illini team that was summarily dismissed by eighth-seeded Loyola-Chicago in the second round, a loss that sent bracket-busting shock waves across the nation’s NCAA pools.

The Loyola-Chicago upset feels a bit unfair to me (mostly because I didn’t call it, but I digress), as I’d completely forgotten about that cool nun who comes to all the Loyola-Chicago games and roots them on. Sister Jean was a television sensation and mainstay of the March Madness fun three years back, when the Ramblers made their Cinderella run to the Final Four.

But who remembers such things? Shouldn’t there have been an asterisk next to the Ramblers slot in this year’s brackets, warning of the potential for divine intervention and to bet against Loyola-Chicago at your own risk? Some things you just can’t plan for…

Most years I’ve felt that in order to have a chance to take home the winner’s share of whatever bracket pool you may be a part of, you need to be at least 12-4 heading into the Sweet 16, maybe 11-5 if your Final Four remains intact. So yeah, at 4-12, I may not be officially dead, but let’s just say a mirror has been strategically placed under my nose and local clergy is being summoned to my bedside.

What’s a hoops fan to do from here you ask, his bracket a shambles, but still a couple of weeks of tournament action remaining?

Well, for one, you could do as I did and go enter a new pool that commences with the Sweet 16. For $10 bucks I bought my way into one of those, where eight of us “draft” two of the final 16 teams, and teams advance using a point spread system. If your team wins and covers the spread, you advance. But if you fail to cover (even if your team wins), you are out, and your opponent who owned the loser (but managed to cover the point spread) “steals” your team and advances to the Elite Eight, and so on.

I doubled down on my USC bet in this new pool, giving two points to Oregon this Sunday night. I stayed with the Pac-12 for my second selection taking Oregon State, where I’ll go up against Loyola-Chicago and Sister Jean again, this time aided by the 6.5 points the Beavers are getting.

Which begs the question, does God care about point spreads? I’m hoping no, and that way I can advance by stealing Loyola-Chicago (and all 101 years of the good Sister’s karma) when the Ramblers eke out a close one.

Another alternative for the fan looking to keep things fresh, is to root hard against whoever your closest friend with a legitimate chance of winning the pool through the first two rounds happens to be (this is a strategy familiar to Mets fans, typically deployed against the hated Yankees around the middle of August every year). For me in 2021, that means pulling for things to start going wrong for Fairhaven Mike, who’s off to a resounding start in our pool, and appears a lock to come away with the winner-takes-all prize.

But… (and there’s always a “but” when it comes to March Madness, which is part of the experience) if FairHaven Mike suffers a Baylor meltdown at the hands of Villanova this weekend, there will be a slight crack in the door. And such an opening could be exposed by either TechTitan Joe (who’s still wondering how he remains in contention after picking North Carolina to make it to the Final Four) or Bay Area Brian, who has ridden the Oregon State upset bus to a tie for second on our leader board heading into the weekend.

Both TechTitan Joe and BayArea Brian also possess an advantage that up until now has remained secret — FairHaven Mike somehow neglected to pick a winner in his Final Four matchup between Gonzaga and Alabama. A gaffe of this magnitude is the bracket-busting equivalent of Chris Webber calling that timeout he didn’t have back in ’93, costing Michigan’s Fab Five a shot at the title. Ah, the possibilities…

Saturday morning can’t get here fast enough for us hoops fans, and here’s hoping this weekend’s eight games are as exciting and unpredictable as what we’ve seen in the tourney thus far.

March Madness, indeed.

An Idiot’s Guide to the Big Dance

You ever have one of those dreams where you are heading to a final exam, and as you are walking you realize that you haven’t attended any of the classes that semester? Then you remember you’d intended to drop the class, but just never got around to it?

That’s how I’m feeling heading into March Madness this year. The empty brackets are my final exam, and somehow I’ve skipped the entire school year, having barely payed attention to anything related to college hoops. I have no good excuse. The part of my brain assigned to NCAA basketball shut down a year ago, when the tourney was cancelled on account of an oncoming global shitshow. I’ve been unable to jump start it back up ever since.

To my horror, I’ve become that guy in my office I used to ridicule come NCAA Tournament time. You know him, the one who filled out his brackets based on which school had the cooler nickname, or required higher SAT’s for admission.

But it’s March, and the games start in a few days, so ready or not we must fill out our brackets. We’re going in cold, too. No cramming via USA Today’s special March Madness section, or any of the thousands of tournament breakdowns currently available via the internet. Nope, this will be on instinct alone, guided by a lifetime of watching the tournament, along with a cursory awareness of what’s transpired over the past couple of weeks as conference championships were decided and the local tournaments played out.

So what follows are a series of data points, vague indicators, and pure shots in the dark that when strung together fall under the category of throwing shit at the wall to see what sticks. Here goes!

We’ll begin out WEST:

*Gonzaga won’t win it all. And that is despite the selection committee’s apparent attempt to give the Bulldogs an easy path to the Final Four (I heard someone on ESPN make that observation on Sunday, so I’m running with it). But really, this is an easy call, since undefeated teams don’t win the Big Dance anymore. Too much depth around the country, plus the target on the back of the jersey that comes with being the number one overall seed (not to mention the fact that Gonzaga isn’t supposed to ever win this thing), will conspire to take out the unbeaten favorites.

*It is perfectly okay to run with personal biases, logic be damned. AtticDaughter1 is a proud USC graduate, and I did one semester of a grad school program at Southern Cal a few years back, so saddle up the bandwagon folks, it’s winning time! Look for a deep run from the Trojans (at least the Sweet 16), and after that, who knows, maybe this is our year?

*Doesn’t it suck when two teams we traditionally like to root for meet up in the first round? We all have our go-to’s that we like to ride every year as we search for that differentiating early upset, and when two of our dark horses randomly collide, early bracket peril is certain to ensue. That’s Oregon versus VCU for me this year. I’ve had success riding both schools to unexpected runs in dances of years past, and would like nothing more than to ride them both again this year. But should I choose the wrong horse in this Round 1 tilt, the price could be blowing up an entire quarter of my bracket. What the hell, give me VCU.

*Am I the only person that didn’t know a school by the name of Grand Canyon existed prior to this year’s tournament?

Then head EAST:

*Karma matters. And for that reason, Michigan will be the first Number 1 seed to go down this March. Isn’t it interesting how in a matter of a few seconds of testosterone-fueled bedlam, Wolverine coach Juwan Howard went from one of the year’s surprise, feel good stories, to a villainous bully? Well he did, which further reinforces the old adage “never threaten to kill your opposing coach.” The hoops gods don’t forget.

*Look for any angle that connects to your favorite pro franchise and make a big bet. For Knicks fans, that’s riding Patrick Ewing and his Hoyas all the way to the Sweet 16 following their surprise Big East Tournament title. And here’s hoping that NCAA security is properly briefed that the big, scowling 7’2 guy heading their way is, indeed, the Georgetown head coach.

*One of the 11-seed, play-in game winners always makes a run (at least it seems that way, or maybe happened once?) once they’ve kicked their way into the main draw. The problem is, this year’s two most likely suspects, Michigan State and UCLA, face one another. This is a bracket conundrum (see Oregon vs VCU above) that will wreak havoc should we misstep. However, look to the hoops gods once again for a clue here. Michigan State selling out on their team name last week, shamelessly adding “Presented by Rocket Mortgage” as a caboose to their long-standing Spartans nickname, makes this selection a simple one. Go Bruins!

*As tired as I am of seeing Iona coach Rick Pitino taking yet another school to the Big Dance, it says here that Alabama will have their hands full after drawing the Gaels in the first round. Look for Bama to survive, but take the points, Iona fans, take the points.

And what about down SOUTH:

*Only the two biggest upsets of Round 1! Look for both to take place in the South Region’s first round:

-Winthrop will take out Villanova (quick, what state is Winthrop located in?)

-and…

-Colgate sends Arkansas packing

(SportsAttic Aside — is there a better feeling in the entire world than when you make a preposterous upset call in the first round and it actually happens?)

Last but not least, what happens in the MIDWEST:

*Look for any connection that will justify claiming a seat on the bandwagon of a top seed, no matter how remote. SportsAttic Nation Resident Sage, Geno the Sawx Fan, has three sons, the oldest of whom happens to be a badass crew man at Illinois. A couple of months back, AtticBro received his very own Illinois Rowing t-shirt in the mail, which means… you betcha — give us the Illini on a glide path to this year’s Final Four!

*Sentimentality is okay. As former residents of the Garden State, we tip our hat to the legions of rabidly faithful hoops fanatics that attended Rutgers University. Back at the Big Dance for the first time in 30 (thirty!) years, the Scarlet Knights will delight their hardcore fans by advancing all the way to the Sweet 16. But then, quicker than you can say “which exit,” the Knights will awaken and recapture their enduring legacy of alumni torment, blowing a double-digit lead in the last five minutes to San Diego State, costing themselves a berth in the Elite Eight.

FINAL FOUR

*USC emerges from the West keeping Cinderella alive, beating Alabama to earn their trip to the finals.

*Illinois outlasts Baylor in a slugfest between Number 1 seeds, setting up a David versus Goliath matchup two days later.

AND THE WINNER IS…

*Illinois’ superior talent and depth proves too much for the Trojans, but since we took USC and the points, everybody wins following a close and entertaining national championship game. (Illini, 82-77)

The New (and Improved) New York Knickerbockers — Real or Mirage?

I am only a couple of words in, and already firmly aware that I may be in the process of casting an enormous jinx upon my favorite basketball team.

But persevere I must.

Because it’s March already. We’ve reached the NBA All Star break. Nearly forty basketball games played. And my New York Knicks are above .500 and occupy the fifth seed (FIVE!) in the Eastern Conference and would qualify as a playoff team were the NBA Playoffs to begin today.

We (yes, to further the hex I brew, I am breaking out a whole lot of “we’s” today) finally have an honest to goodness coach; one that preaches defense and fundamentals. And we actually have young talent on the roster that is exciting and fun to watch. Hell, we even have an All Star!

And perhaps most importantly, since it is the Knicks we speak of, let’s not lose sight of what we haven’t done.

We haven’t traded our young talent and/or draft picks for a short-term fix like Victor Oladipo or Andre Drummond. We aren’t sniffing around Blake Griffin. We passed on Chris Paul, Russell Westbrook and James Harden when they were available.

To put it in terms the lifelong diehards can appreciate — we haven’t signed Spencer Haywood, Jim McMillian or Marvin Webster. We haven’t traded for Bob McAdoo, Eddy Curry, Carmelo Anthony, or (gasp) Stephon Marbury.

Last we checked Isiah Thomas was no longer allowed anywhere near the World’s Most Famous Arena. And neither is Big Chief Triangle.

So is the coast clear? Not so fast…

Before declaring a new day has dawned for us long-suffering Knicks fans (last title back in 1973 — I was in second grade for crying out loud), let’s take a look at both sides of this tantalizing coin.

Since it’s the Knicks we are discussing, we’ll begin with the half-empty point of view.

For starters, only a year ago our All Star and best player, Julius Randle, was being roundly booed and ridiculed as a lazy, ball-stopper by the Garden faithful. Randle was the poster child for another last place team, as we slogged through the latest in our interminable string of dreadful, losing seasons.

Our most recent lottery pick, Obi Toppin, is a much bigger project than any of us anticipated on draft night, and other than the occasional fast-break dunk has brought little to the team’s success so far this year. Nor should that surprise, since we seem to be collecting failed lottery picks at the end of our bench, and have for quite some time.

Despite a few surprising wins over top teams, much of the Knicks fast start can be attributed to feasting on the sub-.500 teams around the league. Can we expect that to continue during the season’s second half, or will the law of averages catch up to us?

Will the Knicks be able to handle a full season of Tom Thibodeau’s intensity and heavy workloads? Julius Randle and R.J. Barrett, easily the Knicks’ “Big Two” and most important budding stars, are both among the league leaders in minutes played. We’ve already experienced injuries to starting center Mitchell Robinson and starting point guard Elfrid Payton. While their injuries were not necessarily caused by overuse, losing either Randle or Barrett during the second half would be devastating to any playoff aspirations.

Lastly, James Dolan still owns this team, and we are still the Knicks, two realities that would point to a hole in this franchise so deep that one mildly successful half of a shortened season is unlikely to have filled.

However, there is a half-full view of the New York Knicks that can’t be ignored.

Let’s start with Coach Thibs and our revamped front office. We must give credit where it is due and throw out a hearty “thank you” to top basketball man Leon Rose. His hiring of Tom Thibodeau immediately brought an air of professionalism to what has been nothing short of hoops amateur hour for the past several seasons at MSG. Rose and his sidekick William Wesley (who happens to own one of the great nicknames in the NBA today — Worldwide Wes) have taken several early and necessary steps to rid the Knicks of their stigma as the NBA’s version of Siberia.

In short order, Thibodeau has created an esprit de corps among his youthful charges not seen at The Garden in years, and his defense-first approach and intolerance for selfish play harkens back to the days of Red Holzman. Crank up the MSG organ and get the chants of Dee-fense reverberating off the hardwood floor again. Even with only a couple thousand or so fans in the seats, the positive energy is palpable.

Randle’s story of redemption via hard work and introspection following that difficult first year in New York is a good one, and the type that the hoops-mad New York fans can rally behind. Matching him with the athletic and fast-developing Barrett appears to give us a nucleus around which a winner can be built.

And we have the means to do that, with a deep collection of draft picks over the next couple of years, combined with ample salary cap space. Now it’s on Rose and Worldwide Wes to provide Thibs the pieces needed to pursue long-term excellence while avoiding the big, foolish bets (as much a part of Knicks history as the Willis Reed game in the 1970 Finals) that could cripple our optimism just as we are starting to work up a head of steam.

Rookie Immanuel Quickley looks like an amazing find late in the first-round (a staple of championship organizations is delivering on draft picks outside the lottery — Draymond Green anyone?), and Robinson (like Green, a second-rounder) appears to be a long-term, core piece with an incredibly high ceiling.

Yes, we still have our painful reminders of lottery failures past, but Frank Ntilikina could still learn to contribute with his defense, length and energy on the second unit, and Kevin Knox seems to have somehow maintained trade value around the league. So when Leon and Wes scan the league for trade-deadline opportunities maybe Knox brings us back some value that contributes to a playoff series victory in the spring.

If this were one of those T-charts we draw up on a legal pad, it feels like the “Pros” vastly outweigh the “Cons.” So let’s examine a few “what if” scenarios:

*What if Rose and Wes approach the Rockets before the trade deadline, and rather than making a foolish swap of picks for Oladipo, instead make a run at P.J. Tucker? Could Knox and a second-rounder get that done? A three-and-D guy would fill our biggest hole — shaky outside shooting — that will prove problematic in a short series if left unaddressed. Meanwhile, adding Tucker would also shore up Thibs rotation with a veteran who understands team defense and has a history of winning.

*What if Mitchell Robinson returns as expected at the end of March and picks up where he left off, combining with Nerlens Noel to provide 48 minutes of shot-blocking energy in the pivot?

*What if the Knicks somehow cobble together enough wins to hang onto the five-seed? If the season ended today, we’d be taking on the Celtics in Round One. Think about how much fun that would be for a minute. The Celts are vulnerable this year, and the young, well-coached (am I really describing the Knicks as “well-coached?” Glory be…) Knickerbockers would come into that series with absolutely nothing to lose. There is nothing more dangerous than an athletic, young, up and coming underdog playing with house money come playoff time. Add 5000-10,000 success-starved, hoops lunatics in the stands for the New York home games (are you listening, Governor Cuomo?), and the recipe is there for a first round upset.

*Which could set us up for a conference semifinal against… you guessed it, the Brooklyn Nets. Talk about headline fodder for the New York tabloids, as KD, Kyrie and The Beard take on the Big Apple’s favorite sons. And let’s take this scenario one step further, and say, just for fun, that Thibs whips his young lions into such a frenzy that they go into Barclays Center and steal Game 1, a la Pat Riley and the Knicks of the early-’90’s. Okay, I’m drooling a little…

Sure, a lot has to happen in this season’s second half for these dreams to come true. But for the first time in a very long time, we Knicks fans can dare to dream about such scenarios.

And that’s really all we’ve been asking for since Jeff Van Gundy was last seen roaming our sidelines a couple of decades ago in one of those awful, rumpled suits of his.

Yeah, I know, we are probably a year (or two) away still. But the hope is real and the arrow is pointing up, folks. And we are going on record here at SportsAttic as saying that no hex, jinx, whammy or Starbury can undo the progress being made before our very eyes in 2021.