State rivals set to battle in Sweet 16

710124.jpg

State rivals set to battle in Sweet 16

From Comcast SportsNet
BOSTON (AP) -- There are 347 schools playing Division I men's basketball. Thirteen are from Ohio. Four of those are among the 16 teams still playing in the NCAA tournament. Only one calls itself The Ohio State University. The flagship school from the leading basketball state in the nation -- in this tournament, at least -- will play Cincinnati on Thursday night in an East Regional semifinal that is as much a Battle of the Buckeye State as it is a chance to move one game closer to a national title. "What I've felt all along is it's just a tremendous state for basketball," said Ohio State coach Thad Matta, who also coached at Miami of Ohio and Xavier before taking over the Buckeyes in 2004. "I think a lot of times in the high school ranks it gets tabbed as a football state, just all the great players that they've put out. But just in the time that I've been there ... I've got a pretty good understanding of how passionate the fans are. It takes a lot of luck for four teams to get here, obviously. I think it speaks volumes to the level of basketball in the state." Although it is bordered by hoops hotbeds Kentucky (a state with nine NCAA titles) and Indiana (five), Ohio hasn't really been considered a basketball state since placing a team in four straight championship games from 1960-63. (Ohio State won the first, then lost the next two to Cincinnati; the Bearcats returned in 63 and lost to Loyola of Chicago.) Ohio State has won two football championships since then, but its appearance in the basketball title game in 2007 is the only one for the state since the 60s. Even -- gasp! -- Michigan, with three men's basketball championship since then, has more to show from its trips to the NCAA tournament. "Ohio, everybody knows them as a football state. But we have a little bit of basketball talent inside those borders," said Buckeyes forward Jared Sullinger, a Columbus native who is one of three Ohioans among the top four scorers on the team. "It's just finally showing now." And not just at Ohio State. Along with the Buckeyes and Bearcats, Xavier and Ohio have reached the round of 16 this year, with Xavier set to play Baylor in the South Regional semis and Ohio preparing for North Carolina in the Midwest. "I think the fact that you have four Ohio teams in the Sweet 16 is a sense of great pride for our state," Cincinnati coach Mick Cronin said. "In Cincinnati alone we have two, so it's great for our community. ... It's probably good that we're up here in Boston. We don't have to worry so much about the ticket requests for the game." Cronin said there isn't much of a rivalry with Ohio State because Cincinnati is tucked into the southern corner of the state, just over the Ohio River from Kentucky. The city as close to Louisville and Lexington as Columbus, and the Bearcats were in Conference USA with the Cardinals before they both joined the Big East. But there's more to it than that. Despite being separated by a little more than 100 miles along Interstate 71, Ohio State and Cincinnati have met just once since the 1962 championship game. In the meantime, there have been allegations flying both ways of recruiting violations, hiring snubs and scheduling snobbery. "It still kind of has bad blood between the two schools," Sullinger said. "So this one is going to be remembered for whoever goes to the Elite 8, and it's going to be a battle of Ohio." For the winner, though, there's more at stake: A spot in the regional finals, and a chance to bring back to Ohio its first NCAA title since 1962. "I think by us playing here in the Sweet 16, it's not about Cincinnati versus Ohio State. It's about advancing, trying to get to the Elite 8," said Bearcats forward Yancy Gates, a Cincinnati native. "Really we're just focused on trying to get to New Orleans like everybody else here. It's not about whether we're playing Ohio State or Florida State; it's about the task at hand."

Morning Update: Cubs pick up win No. 101, Sale leads White Sox past Rays

cubs_101.jpg

Morning Update: Cubs pick up win No. 101, Sale leads White Sox past Rays

Preview: Arrieta, Cubs aim to stay hot vs. Pirates Wednesday on CSN

Preview: Blackhawks open preseason against Penguins Wednesday on CSN+

Fire continue road trip Wednesday at improved Seattle on CSN

Cubs keep cruising vs. Pirates as future playoff foes battle injuries

Chris Sale ties career-high 17 wins as White Sox power past Rays

Three starting points for the Bears to salvage their 2016 season

Fred Hoiberg, Jimmy Butler rave about Rajon Rondo's voice, basketball IQ

Stan Bowman likes Blackhawks prospects' potential to fill holes

Why Kris Bryant is such a money player for this Cubs team

If roster stays the same, Adam Eaton believes White Sox can compete in 2017

John Lackey sees Cubs lining up for World Series run: ‘It’s all here’

John Lackey sees Cubs lining up for World Series run: ‘It’s all here’

PITTSBURGH — The Cubs have so much going for them, all this blue-chip talent, a clubhouse mix of young players and grizzled veterans, arguably the best manager in the game, an impactful coaching staff and a front office that blends scouting and analytics as well as anyone.

So, no, John Lackey is not at all surprised by the way this clicked into place, 101 wins and counting for the machine built with October in mind.

“Not really,” Lackey said after Tuesday night’s 6-4 victory over the Pittsburgh Pirates. “I had some pretty good offers from other people, and I chose this one for a reason. It’s all here.”

But to win the World Series — and get the jewelry Lackey talks about — you still need some luck, good health and the guts to perform in those Big Boy Games. That reality of randomness and matchups made a pregame announcement some 250 miles away from PNC Park so telling.

Washington Nationals catcher Wilson Ramos tore the ACL in his right knee, ending his MVP-caliber season. The National League East champions will lose a .307 hitter with 22-homer power from the middle of their lineup and a veteran presence for a playoff rotation that will likely be without injured ace Stephen Strasburg (right elbow) in the first round.

“That’s a tough one when you lose your catcher, a guy who’s that significant for the pitching staff,” Cubs manager Joe Maddon said. “Think about the pitching staff — it’s so different when you know the guy back there is your guy and he knows what’s going on. The communication’s different. The trust factor, all that stuff is different.”

[SHOP CUBS: Get your NL Central champions gear right here]

Within that big-picture context, the Cubs survived as Lackey limited the checked-out Pirates (77-80) to one run across five innings in his fifth start since recovering from a strained right shoulder and coming off the disabled list. Maddon then used six different relievers — staying away from Pedro Strop, Hector Rondon and Aroldis Chapman — during a three-hour, 49-minute game that felt more like the Cactus League.

After defecting from the 100-win St. Louis Cardinals team the Cubs bounced out of last year’s playoffs, Lackey finished the regular season at 11-8 with a 3.35 ERA and 188 1/3 innings.

“I’m going to get to 200,” Lackey said.

Beyond wins and losses, Lackey called this season his career best in terms of “those numbers that they’ve made up in the last few years” like WHIP (1.04) and opponents’ OPS (.646) and whatever. And, no, he doesn’t know his WAR, either: “Not even close.”

Yes, the Cubs got the old-school attitude they wanted when they signed Lackey to a two-year, $32 million deal before the winter meetings. For all the talk about the pitching deficit and the New York Mets after their young guns swept the Cubs out of last year’s NL Championship Series, the Cubs are getting their money’s worth with a guy who will turn 38 in October.

The amazing Mets have lost three of those frontline starters — Matt Harvey (thoracic outlet syndrome), Jacob deGrom (nerve damage in his right elbow) and Steven Matz (bone spur in his left elbow) — and are still holding onto the first wild-card spot, which says something about this playoff field.

This doesn’t guarantee anything in October, but the Cubs are just about as close to full strength as they could reasonably hope now. Instead of the silence that would have come with losing an irreplaceable player like Ramos, the sound system in the postgame clubhouse blasted Snoop Dogg, Dr. Dre and Notorious B.I.G. after their 101st win.

“Yeah, we lost Dexter (Fowler) for a bit,” Maddon said. “We lost (Kyle) Schwarber all year. Otherwise, when a couple pitchers got banged up, whether you’re talking about Rondon or Strop, I don’t think that our injuries have been as magnified because we’ve covered them pretty well.

“We still had our moments, like everybody else has. But when you get to right now, we’re getting well, and hopefully that trend continues. But to lose somebody of that magnitude for them, that’s got to be difficult.”