Remembering the great Final Fours in New Orleans

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Remembering the great Final Fours in New Orleans

From Comcast SportsNet
NEW ORLEANS (AP) -- Two of the most replayed shots in NCAA tournament history. Two terrible mistakes that are played over and over. Freshmen redeeming the most painful loss in school history. That's what New Orleans has given college basketball fans in the first four Final Fours it has hosted. No. 5 starts Saturday, and as sure as there will be hot sauce in your jambalaya, you can expect New Orleans to add to its tradition of throwing a great party -- on and off the court. To start with the positives, a freshman from North Carolina named Michael Jordan made the first big jumper in 1982. Five years later a junior college transfer from Indiana named Keith Smart hit what turned out to be the game-winner from almost the same spot on the Superdome court. If you haven't seen either shot, just watch the commercials and teases for college basketball. Jordan, still known as Mike then but with his tongue sticking out just a bit, made his with jumper with 17 seconds to go to give the Tar Heels a 63-62 lead over Georgetown. When those 17 seconds ticked off, North Carolina coach Dean Smith had his first national championship. "I'm very blessed for what that shot did, and my name did change from Mike to Michael," Jordan recounted five years ago. "To sit back and think What if?' is a scary thought. There are a lot of other options. I could be pumping gas back in Wilmington, N.C." Smart's jumper with 5 seconds left gave Indiana a 74-73 win over Syracuse, which had a chance to expand its lead when Derrick Coleman missed the front end of a 1-and-1 with 28 seconds to play and none of his teammates along the lane. The national championship was coach Bob Knight's third and last at Indiana, and the loss was a crushing one for Orange coach Jim Boeheim. "If it goes in, it's my shot," Smart, now the coach of the Sacramento Kings said then of his game-winner. "It's a pickup game shot." Jordan's shot was followed by one of the biggest mistakes ever seen in sports. Georgetown's Fred Brown had the ball inside the midcourt line, setting up the Hoyas' chance at a win in their first Final Four appearance ever and first in a three-year span with center Patrick Ewing. Inexplicably, Brown turned and flipped the ball to James Worthy of the Tar Heels who was fouled but missed both free throws. One of the lasting images of that NCAA tournament was Georgetown coach John Thompson hugging a disconsolate Brown after the game, telling him the Hoyas wouldn't have gotten to that point without him. Thompson will be in New Orleans this weekend, this time as a radio analyst. He's glad to be back in the Crescent City, even with that memory from 30 years ago. "I think the moment itself is difficult to deal with as is the case with everybody that got that far," Thompson said Thursday. "You lose, you feel bad, but you put it in perspective. New Orleans was the first city we played in a Final Four in. It was the first city we got to the final two. If you're competitive you're always disappointed when you lose. I don't hate New Orleans because we lost. Just the opposite, I love it because it was the first place we had a chance to play for the national championship." When the Final Four was held in New Orleans in 1993, North Carolina again made it to the championship game, this time facing the Fab Five of Michigan, who were playing for the title for a second straight season. The Tar Heels led 73-71 when Michigan got the ball with 20 seconds to go. Chris Webber, the best of the Wolverines' young team, took off like a runaway train and finally stopped in front of his own bench and called a timeout Michigan didn't have. Under the rules at the time, Michigan was charged with a technical foul and lost possession of the ball. Donald Williams made all four free throws, and North Carolina had another national title in New Orleans that was sealed by another major mistake by its opponent. In one of the most standup news conferences ever, Webber, still a teenager, faced every question thrown at him. "I just called a timeout and we didn't have one and it probably cost us the game," he said. "If I'd have known we didn't have any timeouts left, I wouldn't have called a timeout." Steve Fisher was the coach of the Wolverines then. Now the coach at San Diego State, he said Thursday that the NCAA tournament always stirs up memories of that night. "When they talk about plays in tournament history, that's one of the things they talk about," he said. "It's part of who we are, our legacy. ... I wish it hadn't happened, but it happened to us." Brown and Webber never got a chance to atone for their Superdome transgressions. Syracuse did. In 2003, the last time the Final Four was held here, the Orange were led by freshmen Carmelo Anthony and Gerry McNamara in an 81-78 win over Kansas that gave Syracuse its first national championship. The game was sealed with seconds to play when sophomore Hakim Warrick, appropriately nicknamed "Helicopter," came from out of nowhere to block Michael Lee's potential game-tying shot from the corner. Boeheim, who had left New Orleans 16 years earlier with a tough loss, had the trophy in his hands and a net around his neck. "I was glad we got to go back in '03," Boeheim said Thursday. "We had an opportunity to win, to get to erase the memory. Honestly, it was better than if we won someplace else."

Ben Zobrist, Daniel Murphy and a new Mr. October for Cubs?

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Ben Zobrist, Daniel Murphy and a new Mr. October for Cubs?

Ben Zobrist never made it to the sit-down his camp had scheduled with the Washington Nationals at the winter meetings, which took place at the Opryland Hotel in Nashville, Tennessee, not far from his offseason home. 

The Cubs were quietly hitting their multiple bank shot, trading Starlin Castro to the New York Yankees for Adam Warren and getting Zobrist to Chicago for the physical to finalize a four-year, $56 million contract.   

The Nationals found their Plan B for second base by Christmas Eve, agreeing to a three-year, $37.5 million deal with Daniel Murphy, the new Mr. October who crushed the Cubs during the National League Championship Series.

Murphy and Zobrist intersected again on Thursday night at Wrigley Field, the Cubs winning Round 1 of this four-game series between National League heavyweights by a 5-2 score. 

The fans booed Murphy for last year’s NLCS MVP performance with the New York Mets, while Zobrist drew first blood with a two-run single in the fourth inning and a going-for-the-jugular two-run homer in the eighth. At 21-6, the Cubs are dominating every phase of the game after winning the offseason.   

“We knew that we were going to be good,” Zobrist said, “but sometimes you start slow. We got off well the first week and we kept it going. There’s something to be said for getting the ball rolling in the right direction early. And that makes a huge difference.”   

The Cubs wanted Zobrist’s steady presence on defense, his leadership in the clubhouse and a different dimension for their lineup. Zobrist earned his championship ring with the Kansas City Royals, handling New York’s power pitching in the World Series.  

Murphy cooled off by that point after a ridiculous four-homer power surge during the NLCS sweep, which included his memorable momentum-shifting swing against Jake Arrieta in Game 2. Murphy reached so far down for that Arrieta curveball that his left knee almost scraped the dirt, lifting it out toward Citi Field’s right-field seats for a two-run homer and a 3-0 first-inning lead.   

“There’s not enough adjectives to explain how good Jake has been over the last year-and-a-half,” Murphy said. “I think he just put together – I was reading – (something) like the best 25-game stretch of anybody ever. So I was able to get a pitch that he probably felt like he executed pretty well. 

“I didn’t hit it great. I just happened to wrap it around the pole. With Curtis Granderson and David (Wright) in front of me, they had really good at-bats, and our pitching was throwing the ball really well. Fortunately, that kind of ended up being enough for us.”

Something clicked for Murphy, who after an 0-for-4 night is still hitting .382 with four homers and 17 RBI for a first-place Washington team (19-9) the Cubs might face in the playoffs. 

But the Cubs now believe they might have their own Mr. October, who didn’t go that far down the road negotiating with the Nationals. Zobrist turned down four-year, $60 million offers from the Mets and San Francisco Giants for the chance to make history in Chicago. 

“There’s a great mix of the way guys are playing,” Zobrist said, “the way they’re feeling, the way they’re having conversations with each other. It’s the way that they’re just out there having a good time. We celebrate well together. We battle well together.

“That’s great on May 5th to get that feeling already. Sometimes you won’t get that feeling of a good team until later in the season. We’re going to have to weather some storms. We know that. But right now, we’re just trying to play great baseball.”

Cubs' Dexter Fowler still steaming after first-ever ejection

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Cubs' Dexter Fowler still steaming after first-ever ejection

Three hours after being ejected, Dexter Fowler was still fuming.

Fowler - who leads Major League Baseball in on-base percentage - only got two at-bats Thursday night against the Washington Nationals before he was directed to hit the showers by home plate umpire Vic Carapazza.

Fowler struck out looking in his first two times to the plate and expressed his frustration with Carapazza on the field after his third-inning at-bat.

It didn't take long for Carapazza to give Fowler the boot.

Here's the rundown of the conversation, according to the Cubs's leadoff hitter:

Fowler: Was that pitch at the top of the zone?
Carapazza: Yes.
Fowler: Are you going to call them away, too, and down? What are we doing? I wanna know the strike zone.
Carapazza: That's enough.
Fowler: Enough of what? I'm asking you a question.

"And he threw me out," Fowler said. "I was surprised he didn't answer the question. He just walked away and said, 'That's enough.' I said, 'You're not gonna answer my question?' And he threw me out.

"I figure I got two more at-bats; I wanted to know the strike zone. Are you gonna call them up? Are you gonna call them away? Whatever. Just let me know. That's all."

Fowler said he has never been ejected from a game in his life at any level.

He admits he's said more than that before and hasn't gotten tossed. And he's also occasionally asked umpires where their strike zone is.

"People have answered my questions and I walked off," Fowler said. "That's all you want is an answer. ... Everybody knows I'm respectful. I wasn't being disrespectful at all. I just asked a question. It sucks I got thrown out of the game."

Fowler has been the Cubs' most productive offensive player this season, but his teammates still found a way to earn a 5-2 victory over the Nationals in his absence.

Joe Maddon was on his way out to argue when Fowler was tossed, but the Cubs manager wasn't as interested in getting into the whole ordeal after the game like his centerfielder was.

"I was arguing that we are a team that does not expand our strike zone," Maddon said. "That was my argument."

Why Dusty Baker believes these Cubs are better positioned than his Kerry Wood/Mark Prior teams

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Why Dusty Baker believes these Cubs are better positioned than his Kerry Wood/Mark Prior teams

The Washington Nationals PR guy made sure a red backdrop spelling out the team’s website and Twitter handle framed Dusty Baker’s pregame media session for the TV cameras. But you could still see an even bigger blue screen covered with Cubs logos and Wintrust advertising inside this corporate conference center.  

There are so many layers to Baker, so much history with a guy who’s spent almost 50 years in professional baseball, building a resume that’s probably one bullet point away from the Hall of Fame and shouldn’t be defined by Kerry Wood and Mark Prior.   

“Boy, this is different than the old interview room,” Baker said Thursday at Wrigley Field. “Look at this place. Before, I was in kind of like the dungeon over there around the corner. And then I walked in here and I saw the lights and stuff and I was ready to ‘Saturday Night Fever.’”

Inside their state-of-the-art clubhouse, the Cubs now have a Celebration Room, which they got to use after a 5-2 victory over the Nationals that pushed their best-in-baseball record to 21-6 with an absurd plus-96 run differential.  

Back managing a star-studded first-place team after two seasons away from the game, Baker knows all about huge expectations after guiding the 2003 Cubs to five outs away from the World Series, and then missing the playoffs with a 2004 team that won 89 games and might have been even better on paper.

So far, the 2016 Cubs are even better than the hype, and Baker believes they will be better positioned to withstand the attrition that wrecked what once looked like a great foundation.   

“I know they have more depth than we had,” Baker said. “They have a better bullpen than we had then, which is no consolation, but that’s why I had to stretch out my starters longer than I even wanted to, because we didn’t have the bullpen. Not to say we didn’t have a good bullpen, but at that time we had to make a big trade in order to make that push.”

A media/fan-driven narrative unfairly labeled Baker as a bad caretaker for young pitchers, and the way it ended with a last-place finish in 2006 probably helps explain the occasional shouting from the stands on Thursday night: “Dusty sucks!”  

“What kind of upset me a little bit is how much money they spent as soon as I left,” Baker said. “But I had to also realize that the Cubs weren’t spending money then because we were in the middle of the transition for the Tribune Company to be sold. 

“When you look back on things, ‘How come you didn’t do this?’ Or, ‘How come we didn’t do that?’ And then again, baseball takes a backseat to baseball business.”        

Baker is a three-time Manager of the Year who has won 1,690 games and already guided three different franchises to the playoffs. Cubs-Nationals would be a fascinating matchup in October.   

“Sometimes people appreciate you more when you’re gone than when you’re there,” Baker said. “On the other hand, I think many times about how I wanted to be the guy that won it in Chicago. We were close. 

“Now I’m in a similar situation in D.C. (The Nationals) haven’t been in existence that long. But baseball’s been in D.C. for a long period of time. This is the third try at baseball in D.C. since I’ve been alive. So now I got a new goal – to be the first guy to manage a team, take it to the World Series and win in D.C.”