Hoop Screams

Hoop Screams

Thursday, March 11, 2010
10:32 PM

Winters over! Well, sort of. Were still going to have temperatures in the 30s here (probably until May!), but THE event that signifies that spring, on the calendar anyway, has arrived, is upon us: The Big Dance, a.k.a., March Madness has begun. This takes over the bar unlike any event of the year. Thats because everyone is in to it. Why? One word: brackets. Everybody has one. In fact, some people have more than one. While I frown on that practice, a MAN only needs ONE bracket, youve gotta do whatever you think it takes to win. Winning is the only thing that matters.

If youre like me, its been less than a stellar year for watching college basketball. Between my fantasy football addiction, the Blackhawks, (who knew that watching EVERY Hawks game on TV could be so much fun?) the Winter Olympics and the fact that locally the teams arent that good and nationally not that compelling, Ive spent less time this year watching college hoops. Thats about to change, big time! No matter what, I lock in during this weekend every year. Although they arent always an accurate barometer, watching the major conference tourneys is a good way to prep for the madness thats about to ensue. I especially like watching the Big East games, since its this years best conference and the fact that the games are at Madison Square Garden. Theres always a great energy in games played at the hoops Mecca. For as long as I can remember, the conference tournament that you needed to watch was the ACC on Tobacco Road, well now I think the one in New York is the one that you must tune in to. The teams Ill be watching are Villanova, go figure, and West Virginia. The Cuse has the ranking, the Ville has the momentum and Pitt always seems to flex their muscle there, but Nova and W.V. have me intrigued as to how far they can go.

In fact, the two seem to be heading in opposite directions of what I expected only a month ago. Im hoping theyll give me a clue this weekend as to what to expect from them when the games really matter. And thats the big thing to remember about this weekend. Winning this weekend looks good on the banner that you get to hang in your gym, but winning during the next three weekends is what everyone will remember, or care about. Winning conference tournaments usually takes so much out of a team, because of the compressed schedule and level of play, that they have nothing left. So I usually temper my enthusiasm about the winners, and dont hold it against some of the good teams if they exit early.

If that sounds like Im hedging my bet, then youre catching on, because as much as I study and watch, I sometimes think, I can do just as well picking all of the games by throwing darts at a board or using a monkey. There are no style points on a bracket. Pick the winner! Some wins are better than others obviously. Picking a correct upset can give you an advantage for several rounds, but what if youre wrong? You know that a team thats not expected to win matches up well with the one that is. Do you pick them? My favorite is when I pick the upset, and the game is close for 39 minutes, then the higher seed wins the game at the end, just like 96 of the people Im playing against have picked. It makes me understand why Phil Hellmuth, when after a bad beat, has uttered: If luck wasnt involved, Id win every time!

Ive had enough. So this year, while everyone is pondering bubble teams and whos this Joe Lunardi guy and where did he come from? (Philly! Hes the Mel Kiper Jr. of braketology!) Im coming up with a new strategy, new for me anyway. Why knock myself out? I need less stress in my life, not more, so if you cant beat em, join em. Just call me Chalk Boy! The numbers dont lie: In the last three years the number 1 seeds have made it to the Elite Eight every time. They made it to the Final Four eight out of twelve times. The other four slots were filled by three 2s and a 3. That doesnt sound like there were a lot of upsets. Well there were a few last year, you had a 13 beat a 4 and three(!) 12s beat a 5, but at the end, ALL of the 1, 2 and 3 seeds made it to the sweet sixteen. Add to that two 4s and Chalky had fourteen out of the sixteen teams last year without even trying. (I had plenty of people at the bar bragging that they had fourteen and Im thinking, Your telling people you picked all of the favorites? Arent you embarrassed? But that was last year!!) So while upsets are fun, because we love when David beats Goliath and know what it can do to everyones brackets, if the good teams are there at the end, where the biggest points in your bracket are to be had, why pick them? The 12 against 5 is always the popular upset, especially after last year, but will that happen again? More than likely, it will only happen once like it almost always does. The trick is which one? Guess right and youre in the lead, guess wrong and now youre missing two 5s and are playing catch up. If you dont take any, youve only lost one 5 and should be in the same position as almost everyone else. Sounds simple enough!

So while I listen at the bar to everyone saying that this year is wide-open, that there are no dominant teams, that its going to be like 2006, when no 1 seeds made the Final Four, I just smile. Knock yourself out. History says thats not going to be the case, and This Guy is going to ride the trend! So instead of debating the merits of Butler, New Mexico, Northern Iowa, Murray State, Oakland and Sienna, teams in the past that would pique my interest, then break my heart after I picked them, Im going to play it safe. Bring on Kentucky, Syracuse and my pick to win it this year, Kansas. Nothing like living on the edge! But alas, I can only go so far, because if Duke ends up a 1, I cant go there. Some habits are hard to break.

After winter of taking heat, Cubs still have Joe Maddon's back

After winter of taking heat, Cubs still have Joe Maddon's back

MESA, Ariz. — It only took 21 minutes into spring training — or the first press conference on the day pitchers and catchers officially reported to Arizona — before Joe Maddon listened to another question about all the heat he took for his World Series Game 7 decisions.

More than 2,000 miles away at Yankee camp in Florida last week, Aroldis Chapman told the Chicago Sun-Times that he "was just being truthful" when he used the conference call to announce the biggest contract ever for a closer — five years and $86 million — to inform the New York media that Maddon misused him during the playoffs. Nothing lost in translation there.

Miguel Montero finally declared a ceasefire on Monday night, getting the sit-down meeting the Cubs felt should go longer than the standard meet and greet after the veteran catcher's jarringly critical comments on WMVP-AM 1000 (if only because it happened on the same day as the championship parade and Grant Park rally).

"It's such an unusual situation," general manager Jed Hoyer said, "because we won the World Series, and theoretically you think that people would be really happy."

As ex-Cub manager Dale Sveum might say: "Ya think?"

Ending the 108-year drought might lead Maddon's Hall of Fame plaque someday, but it also led to waves and waves of second-guessing and speculation about how it might impact his clubhouse credibility. But with Maddon and Montero declaring their Andreoli Italian Grocer summit a success, gonzo strength and conditioning coordinator Tim Buss cruising onto the field in a Ferrari for the first wacky stunt of 2017 and Cactus League games beginning on Saturday, it's time to remember that the Cubs still have their manager's back.

"Everyone says they don't see or read anything," pitcher Jake Arrieta said. "We see and hear a lot of the stuff. But I just think that critics are going to find holes in something always.

"Joe was our leader all year last year. He obviously set the tone in spring training and gives us all these freedoms that help us play the way we played. So the people that matter — and know what Joe's about — are on the same page with his philosophies.

"The way he expresses himself to us is the most important thing. And we stand behind him. We trust that he's going to do what's in our best interest. And we know that any decision he makes is geared towards trying to help us win."

Within the last two seasons, the Cubs have won 200 games, five playoff rounds and their first World Series title since the Theodore Roosevelt administration. Maddon readily admits that the scouting and development wings of Theo Epstein's front office did most of the heavy lifting and credits the strong coaching staff he largely inherited. Spending more than $475 million on free agents like Jon Lester and Ben Zobrist certainly helped.

But all this doesn't happen without Maddon and the environment he created. The Cubs Way absolutely needed a ringmaster for this circus.

Arrieta developed into a Cy Young Award winner. Kyle Hendricks transformed into an ERA leader. Kris Bryant burst onto the scene as a Rookie of the Year and the National League MVP. Addison Russell became an All-Star shortstop by the age of 22. Maddon didn't prejudge Javier Baez, immediately appreciating the dazzling array of skills and super-utility possibilities.

Surprised by the Maddon backlash?

"Yes and no," All-Star first baseman Anthony Rizzo said. "Because there needs to be a story. But what he did — people who are real involved know that since Day 1, he came in and he set the tone.

"He completely flipped the way people think, the way we believe, and everyone has bought into it. The credit he deserves — he gets a lot of it — but I don't think he gets enough of it. Because he lets me be me. He lets Javy be Javy.

"Willson (Contreras), Kris and Addie — everyone has their different personalities. He understands that. And it's not easy to do."

It's such an impossible job, at times, that even Cubs officials and players have acknowledged their frustrations with some of Maddon's in-game decisions and communication gaps. This can't just be written off as a media creation. But imagine the grumbling if the Cubs didn't have a leader with seven 90-win seasons and three Manager of the Year awards on his resume.

"We have a competitive group of guys," Hoyer said. "Every guy wants to be on the field at the right time. Every guy wants to be on the roster. Every guy wants to pitch in winning games.

"That's not realistic sometimes. It comes from a great place. It doesn't come from a place of selfishness. It comes from a place of: 'I want to contribute to winning.'

"The meetings we've had have been awesome. Our camp is unbelievably focused. We are just as focused as last year. I really don't look at it as a negative."

The last word from Maddon, who turned 63 this month and has a $25 million contract, a wide range of off-the-field interests and the championship ring that will make him a legend in Chicago forever, no matter what kind of heat he took this winter.

"Stuff like that doesn't bother me at all," Maddon said. "Regardless of what people may have thought — like any other game that I worked all year long — I had it planned out like that before the game began. So it wasn't anything I tried to do differently game in progress. Had I not done what I thought I was supposed to do — then I would have second-guessed myself.

"So, no, I have no problem with that. I really don't mind the second-guessing from anybody. I kind of encourage it. Please go ahead and do it, because I'll take that kind of second-guessing after winning a World Series on an annual basis. Thank you very much."

SportsTalk Live Podcast: Is Jonathan Toews' the Blackhawks' MVP?

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USA TODAY

SportsTalk Live Podcast: Is Jonathan Toews' the Blackhawks' MVP?

Chris Emma (670TheScore.com), Chris Hine (Chicago Tribune) and national college football analyst Anthony Herron join Kap on the panel.  The guys discuss if Jonathan Toews is the Blackhawks’ MVP so far this season, whether a Jimmy Butler trade to the Celtics makes sense and why Rob Manfred is focused on shaving seconds off of the length of games.

Plus with Jay Cutler heading out the door, who will replace him?  And should Northwestern be on the NCAA Tournament bubble after losing again to the Illini?