Archive for March, 2012

This Final Four of bluebloods should belong to the Big Blue

Pay attention to that man behind the curtain: Ohio State's Jared Sullinger. (AP photo)

Pay attention to that man behind the curtain: He's Ohio State's Jared Sullinger. (AP photo)

There are no mystery guests at this Final Four. The march of the mid-majors has, at least for this round of March Madness, been halted. Convening under the Superdome roof will be four programs from power conferences, four teams that began the season ranked in the top 13 of The Associated Press poll.

It’s the first time since 2007 — when Florida, Ohio State, UCLA and Georgetown gathered at the Georgia Dome — that a Final Four is guaranteed to produce a national champ that has been a national champ. These four schools have claimed 13 NCAA titles.

For all the charm that mid-majors bring, there’s also a satisfaction that comes from seeing Big Names in Big Games. This Final Four is so stacked that the semifinal carrying a frothing subplot — Kentucky against Louisville as coached by Rick Pitino, who once coached Kentucky — isn’t even regarded as the prime-time game.

Much ink has been spilled …

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The Falcons in 2012: The same players under better coaching

John Abraham didn't spread his wings and fly away. (AJC photo by Curtis Compton)

John Abraham didn't spread his wings and fly away. (AJC photo by Curtis Compton)

The Atlanta Falcons have told us what they think of themselves. They’ve told us they like their roster and have liked it all along. They’ve told us, tacitly if not flat-out, that they don’t believe a lack of manpower has stopped them short of the Super Bowl.

Otherwise they wouldn’t have spent the past three weeks re-upping nearly every free agent of consequence. John Abraham, Kroy Biermann, Thomas DeCoud, Harry Douglas, Todd McClure, Chris Redman, Jason Snelling: They’re all coming back. So is Brent Grimes, tagged as a franchise player. Yes, the Falcons did lose middle linebacker Curtis Lofton to New Orleans and kick returner Eric Weems to Chicago, but still …

If we’d known a month ago that the Falcons would keep eight of their 10 key FAs — and that Grimes and Abraham would be among the eight — wouldn’t we have said, “Job well done”?

Some of us would have. Others would have wondered, and are …

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Our 25th Bracket Fiasco champion has his roommate to thank

Fiasco winner John Mitchell. (Photo courtesy of J. Mitchell)

John Mitchell, our winner. (Photo courtesy of J. Mitchell)

The 25th edition of Bradley’s Bracket Fiasco was won by a 23-year-old college student smart enough to pick with precision and pliant enough to yield to friendly persuasion. John Mitchell wanted to pick North Carolina to win the Midwest Regional, but roommate Ricky Staebler happens to be a Kansas fan. Staebler’s lobbying carried not just the day but the whole darn Fiasco.

“I had to change it around because of the grief he gave me,” Mitchell said Monday. “That was the biggest toss-up to me. Outside influence made the biggest difference.”

Of 5,174 Fiasco entrants, five picked the correct Final Four. Mitchell prevailed on the second tiebreaker, tabbing 11 of the Sweet 16 correctly. This marks the first time since 2009 that any Fiasco participant has nailed the Final Four, which goes to show the difference not having a Butler or a VCU can make.

Mitchell lives in Powder Springs and set to finish college at Kennesaw State …

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Who’s afraid of Louisville and Pitino? Not Calipari’s ‘Cats

The pressure seems to be getting to these guys, don't you think. (AJC photo by Curtis Compton)

The pressure seems to be getting to these guys, don't you think? (AJC photo by Curtis Compton)

In the mind of Kentucky fans, there could be no greater indignity than the thought of these mighty Wildcats arriving at the 2012 Final Four and being undone not just by Louisville but by a Louisville team coached by Rick Pitino. It would be worse than Christian Laettner undoing the Unforgettables as coached by Pitino. It would be …

It would be like Laettner’s school (Duke) losing to North Carolina in the Final Four — with Mike Krzyzewski coaching the Tar Heels.

Even before the delicious match was officially made, Pitino — who coached Kentucky to the sixth of its seven NCAA titles — was waxing evocative. “There will be people in Kentucky who will have a nervous breakdown if they lose to us,” he told reporters Saturday after his Cardinals overhauled Florida to take the West Regional. “They’ve got to put the fences up on the bridges.”

The days leading to Saturday’s Final Four …

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As Indiana learned, Kentucky is a different breed of ‘Cat

The nation's best player isn't above diving for a ball. (AJC photo by Hyosub Shin)

The nation's best player isn't above diving after a loose ball. (AJC photo by Hyosub Shin)

To view the faces of the Indiana Hoosiers early Saturday morning was to see incredulity on parade. They’d made 52.2 percent of their shots against an opponent that on average had limited teams to 37 percent. They’d made eight turnovers in 40 frenzied-yet-focused minutes. They had, as coach Tom Crean kept noting, scored 90 points.

And they’d lost by 12. They were like Sham in the 1973 Kentucky Derby: They’d run the race of their lives, but they’d run it against Secretariat.

Said John Calipari, Kentucky’s coach: “Indiana played great. We just happened to play a little better.”

Indiana was ready for Kentucky — the Hoosiers had beaten UK in December, so they knew what was coming — and they got big performances from everyone. (Five starters in double figures.) They scored 90 points against a team that hadn’t yielded even 75 this season. As noted, they lost by 12.

It felt close, but really it …

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The brightly clad Baylor Bears barge into the South final

An Acy-Deucy trap: Baylor's Quincy Acy and Deuce Bello. (AJC photo by Hyosub Shin)

An Acy-Deucy trap: Baylor's Quincy Acy and Deuce Bello. (AJC photo by Hyosub Shin)

If this NCAA tournament comes down to which team can function the best if the power fails, Baylor’s your champ. The Bears wear yellow uniforms that could pass for landing lights at Hartsfield-Jackson.

(Officially the Baylor colors are green and gold. I don’t care. These uniforms are gold in the way that Tennessee wears burgundy.)

(Update: I’m told the Bears’ look has been dubbed “Electricity.” Was I right about a power failure or what?)

Remember those Power Ranger Pro Combat togs the Georgia Bulldogs sported against Boise State last September? They’ve been eclipsed as the most garish uniforms ever worn by a team under the off-white roof of the Georgia Dome. But give the Bears this: They showed up and played a heck of a lot better than Georgia did.

Baylor hit Xavier so hard so fast that the tournament-tested Musketeers didn’t know whether to spit or call timeout. Oddly enough, Xavier coach Chris …

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Fearsome forecast: SI rates Braves fourth-best in the NL East

SI's preview cover. Note: Albert Pujols does not play for the Braves.

Sports Illustrated's preview cover. Note: Albert Pujols does not play for the Braves. (Photo by Robert Beck)

Well, here’s a cheery note. Sports Illustrated picks the Atlanta Braves, who had a lot of things go wrong last season and still won 89 games, to win 82 in 2012. (I’d offer a link, but SI.com hasn’t posted one yet.) This total, in SI’s estimation, will enable the Braves to finish fourth in a five-team division.

SI’s projected National League East finish:

  1. Phillies, 94-68
  2. Marlins, 89-73 (wild card)
  3. Nationals, 84-78
  4. Braves, 82-80
  5. Mets, 75-87

More glad tidings: SI sees the Braves finishing with the 10th-best record in the 16-team National League and the 17th-best (tied with the Kansas City Royals, actually) in baseball. I believe I can speak for us all when I say: Yikes.

I’m on record as believing the Braves’ spring-training record — after a 1-10-1 start, they’re up to 6-13-3; if this were hockey, they’d have 15 points — means less than nothing, but Ken Rosenthal of Fox …

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Kentucky’s John Calipari: A big winner in dire need of a title

John Calipari enjoys Thursday's open practice. (AP photo)

John Calipari enjoys Thursday's open practice. (AP photo)

Kentucky’s coach comes equipped with not one Hot Button, but two. The first: Is John Calipari a cheater — two of his three Final Four runs were vacated — or not? The second: Has his recruit-a-new-team-of-lottery-picks-every-year cheapened the college game? (Ready, set, discuss.)

Today, for variety’s sake, we take the road less traveled. We ask: Can the nation’s highest-paid coach really coach?

The answer: Yes, with one pesky asterisk attached.

Calipari has had eight 30-win seasons. By way of contrast, Mike Krzyzewski has had 12, Tom Izzo three. Only once since 2005 has a Calipari team not won 30 games, and that was last season’s Kentucky bunch, which won 29. He’s the nation’s best recruiter by three miles, and Wildcats center Anthony Davis figures to be the third Calipari product drafted No. 1 overall in five years.

And yet: Davis, who could be the national player of the year, has taken the fourth-most shots among …

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Saying thanks to Chipper for safeguarding our memories

The Chipper of yesteryear. (AJC file photo)

The Chipper of yesteryear. (AJC photo by David Tulis)

I was getting worried. I’d always figured Chipper Jones would be the exception who proved the rule: The great athlete who knew exactly when to quit. But the more I saw and heard, the more I wondered if pride and ego and general cussedness hadn’t gotten hold of him the way it grabs most of the greats.

And that, for possibly selfish reasons, troubled me no end. I like and respect Chipper Jones. He might have been OK with being an occasional and lessened presence on the field, but it would have bothered the heck out of me. I didn’t want to watch Chipper flail or fail or limp around like Walter Brennan in a ballcap. I wanted him to go before – paraphrasing T.S. Eliot – the moment of his greatness flickered.

And now he will. Good for him, I say, but better for me and all of those like me: Those who came to know Chipper as the everyday anchor of a team that did nothing but finish first for more than a decade, as the one …

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The Sweet 16: Even for the No. 1 seeds, survival isn’t a given

The Hurryin' Hoosiers: Back in Atlanta to rock the tournament favorite? (AP photo)

Hurryin' Hoosiers: Back in Atlanta to rock the NCAA favorite? (AP photo)

Survive and advance. In the NCAA tournament, that’s supposed to be all that matters. Jim Valvano coined the phrase in 1983, the year his North Carolina State Wolfpack survived Pepperdine and Jim Harrick in double overtime, UNLV and Tark the Shark on a Thurl Bailey tip-in, Virginia and Ralph Sampson on Lorenzo Charles’ free throws and Houston and Phi Slama Jama on the most serendipitous air ball in the history of the sport.

But now, 29 years later, we ask: When is surviving and advancing not enough?

Maybe when your point guard suffers a broken wrist, as happened to North Carolina. Maybe when your starting center is gone for the duration, as is the case with Syracuse. Those four No. 1 seeds who looked unassailable only a week ago. Two have been weakened, and the other two had nervous moments in the Round of 32. Michigan State nearly blew a lead against St. Louis, and Kentucky was tied with Iowa State in the …

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