Sunday, April 29, 2012

Rose Tears ACL, Bulls Win Game One

In a sickening and devastating manner, the Bulls' reigning MVP Derrick Rose tore his ACL late in Saturday's game against the Philadelphia 76ers to open the playoffs.  At the time, the Bulls led by 12 without about 1:20 to play in the contest.  Rose did a jump-stop and lept into the air, and it appeared as he landed on the jump-stop that he really was hurt.  Rose was down and tended to by trainers that helped him off the court.  The Bulls went on to win 103-91, but questions as to the severity of the injury lingered and Rose was taken to a hospital for MRI.  Results showed the worst, as Rose tore his ACL and will be out for the remainder of the season.

This news to me felt like I was punched in the gut as ESPN Radio broke it on my drive home from work. It was a sickening feeling for all Bulls fans to know they will have to go on without their MVP.  Rose missed 27 games this year, and the Bulls went a very good 18-9 in those, but these games were not playoff contests.  Just as the team appeared to be healthy and ready for a deep playoff run after receiving the top seed by going 50-16 in the regular season despite a litany of injury, Rose crumbled to the ground in pain and Bulls fans held their breath.  The worst was realized when news broke that Rose's injury was related to his left knee.  The Bulls will have to move on without him and could/should still win the series against Philly, but their road got a lot tougher.

Let's talk a little bit about the fact that Rose was playing with 1:20 left in the game.  The outcome was never in question.  I know head coach Tom Thibodeau may win his second coach of the year award in a row, but there is absolutely no excuse for having Derrick in the game at this point.  People can say the injury could have happened at any time and it was just a matter of time, but it didn't happen at a different time.  It happened when the guy shouldn't have been in the game.  Yes, he missed a lot of time with injury this year, but I am not giving Thibs a pass on this one especially when Watson and Lucas III are more than capable of keeping the outcome of the game the same.  They have shown brilliant flashes against teams like the Miami Heat, so who's to say they couldn't hold a 12 point lead with just about 80 seconds left on the clock?  Rose should have been resting with a towel on his head and a Gatorade in hand, but now he will begin a painful road to recovery.    Thibs still deserves a lot of blame for riding Rose too hard in this situation.  Some may blame the condensed schedule and Rose's inability to ever fully get healthy from his injury.  This situation is very unfortunate, but I don't want to sit here and pout about it.  The players aren't doing that, and they still have a lot of basketball ahead of them.  Watson and Lucas III are going to be put in the spotlight big time now.

The Bulls can get by the 76ers, but it may not be an easy task.  They know how to win without Rose, but it will be increasingly difficult come second round.  The Celtics look bad today and Rondo will be suspended for bumping a referee, so the Atlanta Hawks could very well be in their way to getting to the Miami Heat.  If the Bulls were to make it that far, I can promise you my passion and intensity for that Heat series would be even greater because of the hatred I possess for them.  If the Bulls could hang with and beat the Heat, this city would erupt.  It all rests on the shoulders of Watson and Lucas III.  The other guys on the roster play their roles, but these two men have to run the offense that Rose did.  They have proven they are capable, so it is just a matter of executing it in the biggest pressure situations of their lives.

It will be interesting to see what these Bulls can do, but I still have faith that they can make a deep run.  A lot of people have jumped off the ship and given up hope on the season, but I am not one of those.  Those aren't true fans right there.  True fans know this will be tough but still have faith that the team can overcome this huge obstacle.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

NFL Draft 2012

We have finally reached the NFL Draft, which starts tonight in prime-time on ESPN.  After hours of analysis and talk about who will land where, the mystery will finally begin to be unraveled tonight from Radio City Music Hall in New York City.  A record 26 players have been invited to the venue, showing just how possible flux is in this draft.  The only locks of this draft are the two men in the picture here, quarterbacks Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin, who are going to be the first and second picks of the draft, respectively.  Luck will heir apparent to Peyton Manning, while RG III will try to get the Redskins on track in the nation's capital. 

I will not be able to watch most if not all of the first round live coverage tonight because I have a night class.  However, I will be following it when I can on my computer and keeping up with the picks.  For me, the NFL Draft is great and all, but personally I see more excitement in the NBA draft.  With the NFL draft, there are too many players, scouting reports, and things to keep up with.  Unless you are a Mel Kiper Jr., Todd McShay, or just an avid college football junkie, it is impossible to watch all the game tapes, combine performances, and interviews for this draft class.  I am willing to venture in saying that I have seen a lot of the first round draft picks play and can speak a little bit to their skills, but I don't claim to be an expert on the matter.  With college basketball, it is much easier to see these guys play.  You would have to own multiple TVs and watch countless hours of college football in order to be able to truly know the players for this draft class.  Kiper and those guys get paid to do that, but personally I don't have the time or energy to invest my life into that.   College football's draft also spans seven rounds and three days, while the NBA draft only has two rounds and finishes up in just one night.  That's probably why I'm drawn to the NBA one just a little more, but the intrigue of the NFL draft is on my mind today.

ESPN and other networks do a great job of providing all the analysis and player reports.  I have looked at some mock drafts, but none of those will hold true to form as trades between teams will certainly throw this first round for a loop.  The only certainties are those first two picks, and rumors about teams moving up or down have been plentiful in these past few weeks or so.  I am not going to pretend I know a ton about every player who will be drafted tonight.  I'd rather just sit back and watch the action unfold rather than just making up wishy-washy analysis that won't serve a purpose.

I want to address my Chicago Bears in this blog entry.  Before the acquisition of Brandon Marshall, it seemed the Bears were certain to draft a wide receiver for Jay Cutler to throw to this upcoming season and beyond.  However, the pickup made the Bears feeling they didn't necessarily need to target guys like Kendall Wright of Baylor or Michael Floyd of Notre Dame.  Their biggest needs now seem to be on the offensive and defensive lines, as well as possible help in the secondary.  Bears fans also have to worry about Matt Forte's contract status and if a team like the Patriots may swoop in and try to trade for him on draft day.  The Bears' offensive line is still very sketchy and needs definite help, so it would help to address this.  Cutler needs the time to throw the ball.  The line improved a little bit last year, but it is still not good enough at this point.  The defensive line isn't horrible, but they need more than just Julius Peppers in order to have a good push rush.  The secondary has been all right, but a real playmaker would help this defense out a lot.  Phil Emery seems to have a handle on his stuff more than Jerry Angelo, so it will be good to see what type of approach he takes in this draft.  This draft will certainly be instrumental in the team's success for years to come.  It is obvious that he's the type of guy to not divulge strategy and picks, but he has an agenda to win and wants to do what he can to put a great team on the field.

The first round is sure to be full of surprises tonight.  Let's enjoy the ride and see who drafts who, who trades out of picks, and who reaches for players. 

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Fantasy Sports

For many sports fans, fantasy sports are a great way of keeping interest in the world of sports.  In the fantasy world, players draft teams of guys and watch to see how they do in real life.  Their real life performance dictates how the fantasy owner does on a week-to-week basis.  For me, fantasy sports has been something I've been a part of for about 8-9 years now.  It has brought up and downs, but I think it is a good way of paying attention to sports because it forces you to watch games that you would have no interest in otherwise.  The only problem comes in the possibility of diminishing or tainted loyalty towards one's favorite teams.  If you play fantasy, you will almost certainly have guys who will have to perform against your favorite teams.  Do you root for your team no matter what, or do you pull for your guys to do well in order to earn a fantasy win?  The naive person says you root for your team no matter what, but in the fantasy world there may be a lot of pride or money at stake.   The decision may not be as easy as one would think.  I have been put in this situation before and must say I'd rather see my team win then my fantasy players do well, but part of me is still rooting for my team to win and those fantasy guys to do well in a loss.

I am finishing up a fantasy basketball league now and have begun my fourth week of fantasy baseball this season in a league with all of my friends.  In my future posts, I will definitely talk baseball, but I may talk about my fantasy team/league here and there because it is something I enjoy doing. 

Do you participate in fantasy leagues?  Why or why not?  Let me know what you think...

Monday, April 23, 2012

My First Cubs Game of the Season

I have been meaning to do a Cubs 2012 preview for weeks now, but I haven't had the chance to get around to it.  With the awful start to the season for the Cubs, it has most fans already giving up the little hope they had.  I went to my first game of the year with my girlfriend this past Saturday at Wrigley Field as they played host to the Reds, and for some reason they always seem to play well when I am there.  Additionally, it was her first visit to Wrigley Field ever, so she seemed to bring some luck with her as well.  Last year, they were 6-1 or so in games I attended, and this year I was off to a 1-0 start as the Cubs won 6-1 and snapped a six-game losing streak.

The weather was around 45 degrees and windy, to be expected for April baseball in Chicago.  The warm temperatures of this spring has brought ivy to the outfield wall earlier than usual.  Nothing quite matches the smell of hot dogs and grilled onions at the Friendly Confines.  While the temperature was about 45, it felt closer to 35 because my seats were in the shade for the entire day.  Even with a pair of thermal socks and two layers of pants, my lower body took a good amount of time to thaw out after the game.  The Cubs threw Paul Maholm on the mound opposing Mike Leake.  The Reds put a run up on the board in the first inning, and most fans probably thought we'd be in for another long day.  However, the Cubs answered with one in the first and four in the second inning to take a 5-1 lead.  They pounded out 14 hits on the day and added one more run for good measure in the 6-1 win.  Maholm looked poised on the hill, going six innings while only giving up one run and strike out five.  His first few starts of the season were very rough, but he pitched nicely on Saturday and earned the win.

Things got a little dicey in the seventh inning when Tony Campana lost a ball in the sun and had some questionable judgment on another fly ball that David DeJesus somewhat misplayed.   This left guys on second and third base with no outs, but James Russell was not fazed and retired the next three guys in succession without giving up a run.  Marmol looked in command of his pitches in the ninth to preserve the win in a non-save situation.

Catcher Steve Clevenger and Darwin Barney both had  great days at the plate, each going 3-for-4 with an RBI.   Starlin Castro, while sometimes prone to waving at bad pitches, went 2-for-5 with an RBI triple.

I must say this is the biggest cast of no-namers I can remember for a Cubs lineup in years.  They got the job done Saturday, but they play one good game to every three bad games and often look like a minor league team.  Theo Epstein knows this process will be arduous, but I trust that he is committed to bringing a winner to Chicago.  He has the pedigree and resume with two championships to get the job done.  He wouldn't come to the Cubs if he didn't think there was a possibility to turn things around in such a big market.  There are very few pieces to build around right now and things will take time, but I think the Cubs will reap the benefits of the Theo era in due time.  The lineup is pretty weak, the starting pitching is average at best, and the bullpen is shaky.  This is well-known and while it may be a rough year for the Cubs, they will gain experience, learn, and grow from it.

Because I know tickets will not be too expensive for most of the year, I'm sure I will be back on a warm and sunny day sometime this summer.  I was recently offered a media relations internship with the Rockford Riverhawks baseball team in Rockford, Illinois.  They are providing housing as well, and I am very grateful for the opportunity to get a start with my professional career as I will spend the summer at the ballpark with the team, writing and doing whatever else they need me to do.  I am very happy and hopeful that this opportunity will launch me into a career down the road. 

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

NHL Playoff Preview by Steve Benko

A returning guest blogger, Steve Benko previews the NHL playoffs for us.  I have not used a guest blogger in quite some time, but I am bringing it back.  A look at the NHL Playoffs from Benko:

Finally, the best time of the year is upon us.  Nothing beats playoff hockey and the next two and a half months are the best grind that sports has to offer.  The battle for the Stanley Cup begins tonight and will carry on until the early weeks of June until a champion is crowned.  There are plenty of great teams in the playoffs but only a select few can really be considered contenders to challenge for Lord Stanley.  Let’s start with the Hawks.

Since my last column here, in which the Hawks were  in the midst of a disastrous 9-game losing streak in February, the team has finally turned a corner which is quite shocking considering that captain Jonathan Toews has been out since the end of February.  The trade deadline came and the Hawks primary move came when they traded two draft picks for defensemen Johnny Oduya from the Winnipeg Jets.  While it was not a very popular move at the time when the Hawks had more pressing needs such as a physical defensemen and #2 centerman, as well as costing them the chance to drop an offer sheet on top RFA’s like Ryan Suter, Zach Parise and Corey Schneider this summer.  Even so, since the move for Oduya the Hawks have gone 12-2-4 while Oduya has helped the Hawks transition game and has helped fill the void to an extent that Brian Campbell helped fill, at a steep price, while he was in Chicago.

The Hawks open the playoffs in Phoenix this Thursday as the 6 seed in the Western Conference.  Toews status for the playoffs is still in doubt although he has been practicing with the team for the better part of the past two weeks.  The makings of a serious run for the Cup will depend on his health so whether or not he is able to come back and play effectively remains to be seen.  Phoenix goaltender Mike Smith has been as hot as any goalie in the league the past month and can play a big role in Phoenix winning this series if that keeps up.

Now on to the predictions:

Eastern Conference:

New York Rangers vs. Ottawa Senators:

Rangers have been extremely consistent throughout the season and have Vezina trophy favorite Henrik Lundqvist in net.  Ottawa has been a fairly big surprise this season as many experts had them picked dead last in the East this year.

Prediction:  Rangers in 6

Boston Bruins vs. Washington Capitals:

The defending Cup champs have cooled off the past month or so but had a few dominant stretches throughout the year.  Washington has struggled for a good majority of the year and I feel they are lucky to even be in at this point.

Prediction:  Bruins in 5

Florida Panthers vs. New Jersey Devils

The Panthers shocked the hockey world by winning the Southeast Division this year with a massive spending spree by former Hawk GM Dale Tallon this offseason.  New Jersey will be relying on forwards Ilya Kovalchuk and Zach Parise to carry them in this series.

Prediction:  Devils in 7

Pittsburgh Penguins vs. Philadelphia Flyers

This series will definitely be the most intense and probably most entertaining of all the first-round bouts.  All eyes will be on Pens captain Sidney Crosby and how effective he will be after sitting out the majority of the year with concussion-like symptoms.  Philadelphia has a younger team that will be tough as hell to out in the first round with the likelihood of this series resting on goaltender Ilya Bryzgalov who has been known for his playoff shortcomings in the past.

Prediction:  Pens in 7

Western Conference

Vancouver Canucks vs. Los Angeles Kings

Well I think it’s fair to say we all know who the pressure is on in this series.  Roberto Luongo will get another crack at avoiding the pressure in the postseason that he is so infamous for wilting under at the most crucial times.  Daniel Sedin is expected to be back right in time after he recovered quite quickly from his concussion that he suffered while getting elbowed in the head by Duncan Keith in a game against the Hawks back in March.  Jonathan Quick has been great for LA this year and could very easily steal this series against a Vancouver team that will be under extreme pressure from a psychotic and unstable fanbase.

Prediction:  Vancouver in 7

St. Louis Blues vs. San Jose Sharks

St. Louis has been a surprise story this year as they had been in contention for the President’s Trophy since new coach Ken Hitchcock took over earlier in the year.  San Jose has largely disappointed this year and were just able to claw into the playoffs during the final week.

Prediction:  St. Louis in 5

Phoenix Coyotes vs. Chicago Blackhawks

This series is hard to call right now with the impending return of Jonathan Toews still up in the air for the Hawks.  With or without him I still think they have more depth and talent to overcome what has been relatively inconsistent goaltending from Corey Crawford this year.

Prediction:  Hawks in 7

Nashville Predators vs. Detroit Red Wings

Nashville is a team that I feel can make a deep run this year with a solid defense and Vezina candidate Pekka Rinne in net.  Detroit is all too banged up right now and have a poor record away from the Joe this year.

Prediction:  Nashville in 6

Second Round

Rangers over Devils in 6
Penguins over Bruins in 6

Canucks over Hawks in 7
Predators over Blues in 6

Third Round

Rangers over Pens in 6
Canucks over Predators in 5

Stanley Cup Finals

Rangers over Canucks in 6

It’s 1994 all over again.  Vancouver riots in the streets again as the deeper, more mentally stable team in New York takes the Cup for the first time since this series went 7 games 18 years ago.  However, I really feel the Hawks could wind up in the finals which is largely contingent on how healthy Toews is and if he does indeed return from his concussion.  With a healthy Toews there really is no telling what could happen.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Bubba Watson Wins an Epic 2012 Masters

No Tiger or Rory on Sunday?  No problem.  In dramatic fashion, Bubba Watson captured the title of Masters champion on Sunday evening, winning the tournament on the second playoff hole of South African Louis Oosthuizen.  Both players played remarkably and hit the two most memorable shots of the tournament on Sunday.  Let's take a look at how this all came to be.

Masters Sunday is always highly anticipated, and this particular Sunday produced some spectacular moments.  Peter Hanson and Phil Mickelson made up the final pairing, but those two were upstaged by Watson and Oosthuizen.  On the second hole, Oosthuizen hit a beautiful iron onto the front of the green of the par five, and then watched as it rolled 90 or so feet into the cup for a double eagle 2.  This was the first ever double eagle on this hole in Masters history as well as the first ever double eagle in Louie's career.  The roar was unprecedented and put the South African in the early lead at 10-under.  He stayed pretty steady throughout the day, making clutch par putts when he needed them the most.  As the day went on, Phil Mickelson basically shot himself out of it on the par-3 fourth, where he made a messy triple bogey after taking two right-handed swings from the woods.  He charged back nicely, but couldn't make an eagle on the back nine to get him up to the lead.  Peter Hanson didn't play horribly, but he simply couldn't make many birdies.

Matt Kuchar and Lee Westwood made noise as well.  Kuchar eagled the 15th hole with an immaculate approach, and this got him into a tie for the lead.  However, a poor iron into 16 gave him a bogey and he could not close the gap on the final two holes.  Westwood had many opportunities to make big putts, but he could never quite do it.  He finished at 8-under as well.  I think he hit the ball best of anyone all week, but his putting once again let him down in some big moments.  Ian Poulter surged up the leaderboard on Sunday, but he would have needed to go very low to catch the leaders. 

This brings us to Watson and Oosthuizen and their epic duel.  Watson strung together four straight birdies on the back to tie him with Louie at 10-under, and both men came to 18 tied at that total.  Oosthuizen hit a good iron shot into the green, but it did not funnel down to the hole and left him with a devilishly fast putt that would be good to two-putt.  Watson had a relatively flat, 15-footer ahead of him.  Oosthuizen ran his about five feet past, and Watson missed his putt.  Oosthuizen sank the comebacker to force the playoff, starting the real drama.

Both players were in perfect position off the tee on the first playoff hole (18), and Louie hit his to about 15 feet while Watson ended up just eight or so feet away.  Oosthuizen hit a good putt, but it did not fall.  Watson had his to win The Masters, but it broke the opposite way of what he thought it would.  The men would move to a second playoff hole, the 495-yard par-4 tenth hole.

Watson teed off first, and he went way right into the trees, just as he had done earlier in the day.  Oosthuizen, seemingly having the advantage, took 3-wood off the tee, but he also went right, with his ball caroming off the trees and getting a break with a bounce into the right rough.

Oosthuizen had 233 yards to the flag, a long way back despite the lucky break.  He came up just short of the green, and this set the stage for Bubba Watson to pull off the unthinkable from 156 yards.  He hit a 40-yard hook shot with his gap wedge from 156 yards, the ball came out perfectly, and sailed onto the green, side spinning and stopping about 10 feet from the hole.  This shot was incredible and to any golf but Bubba, not even attemptable.  His creativity and ability to hit any shot in the book gave him the most memorable shot of The Masters, even more memorable than Oosthuizen's double eagle. 

Oosthuizen failed to get up-and-down for par despite hitting a great putt, and Watson easily two-putted for an emotional victory and his first major.  He broke down while hugging his family, and the emotions spilled over into the congratulations he received from his family and friends.  He and his wife recently adopted a boy, and Bubba was just happy to be able to go back and play with his boy.  This feel-good story shows just how great the game of golf is.  Watson's ability to hit the ball a mile, be amazingly creative with working shots, and his touch around the greens make him a worthy Masters champion.

Personally, I was pulling for  Bubba in this playoff. Oosthuizen is already a major winner and played great, but I wanted to see the big lefty get the job done and cement his place in Masters lore.  It was quite an amazing win, and it also proved that drama in golf doesn't necessarily have to revolve around Tiger.  As much as I love Tiger the golfer, it was still thrilling to see such a wonderful finish to the greatest golf tournament in the world.  It proves that The Masters is truly a tradition unlike any other.

Sunday, April 8, 2012

Final Round of the Masters Comes on Easter Sunday

Through three rounds of captivating action at this year's first major, unheralded Swede Peter Hanson sits atop the leaderboard after a dazzling 65 yesterday, good enough to put him at 9-under 207 for the tournament and hold a one shot lead over surging Phil Mickelson, who worked magic to shoot a back nine 30 yesterday to cap off a round of 66.  Hanson hit precise shots all day and putted brilliantly all day on the slippery Augusta greens.  Mickelson, on the other hand, played a steady front nine, but tore up the back side of Augusta, making birdie on 10, followed by another one at 12, and then an eagle that produced a thunderous roar from the crowd.  He birdied the 15th hole after a great flop shot after being over the green in two, and then he capped off his day with a birdie on 18 for the third straight day after pulling over a 30 yard hook shot to get the ball on the green.  His 66 put him in prime position for a fourth green jacket. 

The leaderboard was in constant flux on Saturday, as leaders Jason Dufner and Fred Couples fell off the pace eventually due in large part to their balky putting.  They both hit it all right from tee to green, but neither of them could master the tricky greens that they had navigated so well the first two days.  Both men shot 75, and barring an incredible Sunday, will probably not be putting on a green jacket come tonight.  Louis Oosthuizen, the former British Open champ, shot a 69 to put himself two back of Hanson.  This sweet swinger can hang with the leaders today if he just plays steady and shoots a few under par.  He will be paired with long hitting Bubba Watson, who at 6-under is right in contention for his first major and green jacket.  He birdied the 18th hole yesterday to move up the leaderboard, and he appears to have the confidence to get the job done despite his past jitters in these big events.  Matt Kuchar sits at 5-under while Westwood, Harrington, Stenson, and Mahan all lurk at 4-under.  Any of these guys is capable of putting together a Sunday charge and capture the green jacket.  The heat will be on all of them, but I think at least one of them will surge up the leaderboard on Sunday.  They have the pedigree and experience to envoke some roars come this afternoon.

Looking at the final pairing, Hanson seems like a likeable guy to me.  He gave a good interview after his round yesterday and doesn't seem to fazed by the enormous pressure on him.  I have no doubt he will be feeling it today, but he seems pretty calm and focused on the mission.  Phil Mickelson has been in this position many times before and is brimming with confidence.  Both players need to get off to a steady start, and the fireworks will really begin on Augusta's rollercoaster of a ride that is the back nine. 

Oosthuizen and Watson are capable of winning this thing, too.  Both can get hot and string birdies together, so it wouldn't surprise me to see them at the top at the end of the day.  I have not seen the pin placements yet, but I'm sure they will be in their traditional Sunday spots.  These two men do not have the pressure of being in the final group, but they will certainly feel it on Sunday. 

I haven't mentioned Tiger yet, but he is already playing as I write them.  I picked him to win as I always do, but I am obviously disappointed as he started the day 12 shots back.  He was playing great coming into this week, but he has been all over the place and his putting has not been very good either.  His struggles on the par 5's has been brutal.  He birdied zero par 5's in the last two rounds because he couldn't hole putts and his driver often left him out of position off the tee. 

Sunday is sure to provide thrills like usual.  Sit back and enjoy the ride, and have a safe and Happy Easter.


Wednesday, April 4, 2012

"Oh Wow! In your life have you seen anything like that?"

Masters Preview

Every year around this time, I begin to get giddy for the start of The Masters.  The only sporting events, for me, that rival this are the NCAA Tournament and maybe the Super Bowl.  ESPN began playing commercials a few months ago, but the anticipation is about to end.  The Masters is returning to Augusta National, the greatest natural arena for a sporting event each year.  The other majors are great and have their drama, but they switch venues every year.  The U.S. and British Opens are rich in tradition as is the PGA Championship, but none do it quite like The Masters at Augusta National Golf Club in Augusta, Georgia.  The azaleas are in full bloom (except this year because of an early spring) and the immaculate golf course, known for its beauty and lightning-fast greens, will be open for competitive play beginning bright and early tomorrow morning.  This, my friends, is The Masters, a tradition unlike any other.  Magnolia Lane, Butler Cabin, Jim Nantz welcoming us in, Dave Loggins' "Augusta" playing melodically, and holes beautifully named and designed beckon us.

Enough with the sentimental plug to watch The Masters, though I feel that even people who are not golf fans will find this week's action particularly captivating.  The guys have already put in their practice time in preparation for the biggest test of their lives.  The Par Three Contest has come and gone with weather issues today, with Paddy Harrington and Johnathan Byrd sharing top honors in the rain-shortened event.  Players have brought out their kids, grandkids, and wives to bask in the sunshine that seems oh-so-different at Augusta National.  I have never attended this event because of the near-impossibility in getting tickets, but I plan on going some day because of the sheer beauty of the landscape.  The golf over the years has been great, but I'm sure I would probably soak in the amazing views and be the most annoying tourist on the planet if I were to attend.  I'll say it again, this tournament is a tradition unlike any other.

That last paragraph may have been a little sentimental again.  Wait, it definitely was.  All right, now we need to get down to business and start talking about the tournament itself.  The golf course sits at 7,435 yards in length and plays to a par of 72.  The front nine is a good test of golf, but it is talked about far less than the back nine, where all the fireworks seem to happen every year.  Players try to make some early birdies and hold their round together, but when they make the turn they know there is huge boom or bust potential when it comes to their play.  The rough at Augusta National is not particularly long, but players will still have to be spot-on with their irons in order to give themselves some reasonable looks at birdie and to prevent the possibility of three-putting.  Amen Corner (holes 11-13) will be the sight of some wild events, as a brutal par-4, intimidating, short par-3, and risk-reward dogleg par-5 await the players.  Holes 14-18, however, are no slouches either, as players must play these holes well to have a chance at a green jacket. The 18th hole, an up-hill, dogleg right, 465-yard par-4, will be the final chance for players to capture the title of Masters champion.  Players will walk over the Hogan Bridge, skillfully play shots over Rae's creek, and hear the roar of the masses as they gut it out for this prestigious title.

Looking to the field, it is easy to pick out names such as Woods, McIlroy, Westwood, Mickelson, and Donald as favorites because of their current play and history at Augusta National.  Tiger is fresh off a dominating victory at Bay Hill and appears to be back to winning form.  McIlroy is hungry to prove his choke last year won't happen again.  Westwood wants his first major and would love it on a stage like The Masters.  Mickelson is playing well and seeking his fourth jacket.  Donald is #1 in the world and also needs a major to bolster his resume.  These guys all have what it takes to win, but they also have flaws that could cripple them down the stretch at Augusta.  With these flaws creeping in, other players certainly have the potential to steal this thing.  The great thing about the game of golf right now is that there is so much talent across the board.  So many guys have a realistic shot to win if they are at the tops of their games.  Not to discredit what Tiger did years back, but many feel that his competition 10 years ago was significantly weaker than all the amazing talent in the game right now.  Guys like Mahan, Day, Schwartzel, Rose, Poulter, McDowell, Kaymer, Scott, etc. all have the talent and drive to win this tournament.  There is so much parity in the game right now that anything can happen this week.

 I am obviously pulling for Tiger Woods to get it done and win a fifth green jacket, but it would not surprise me in the least bit if a player like Brandt Snedeker were to win this thing.  While I am a huge Tiger fan, I am not ignorant to the fact that other guys can win this thing.  Most people would be surprised if a player like Snedeker won, but I feel like those who feel that way aren't true golf fans.  As a true golf fan, I have studied dozens of players, watching them week in and week out. I do not catch every shot of every round by any means, but I feel my base of knowledge gives me proper grounds to not feel shocked when a darkhouse wins a big tournament.  Every year, analysts say there are about a dozen or so players that can realistically win it, but I feel that is being a bit unfair.  I feel that every other year someone who is expected to win it does, but in those off years a guy like Charl Schwartzel emerges from the field the victor out of left field.  Although it would be smart to bet on a favorite to take this thing home, one cannot count out guys who can get hot at the right time.

How awesome would it be to see a final pairing of Woods and McIlroy on Sunday?  I can see it now:  Woods and McIlroy share the lead at 11-under par coming into Sunday.  The Tiger Woods supporters so desperately want to see Tiger magic in red on Sunday, while the Rory supporters and Tiger bashers stand in the other corner of the camp, hoping that McIlroy squelches Tiger's resurgence.  The two players trade blows until a winner is crowned and the sun sets on the 2012 Masters.

This would make for unmatchable drama on the biggest stage of them all, The Masters at Augusta National.  Again, my friends, it is a tradition unlike any other.

I have Tiger Woods to win this thing.  Who are you taking in this year's Masters?

Monday, April 2, 2012

NCAA Tournament Reaches Its Pinnacle Tonight

While my blogging has been lagging in recent days/weeks, I've still had the chance to catch most of the NCAA Tournament.  It has been an exciting one this year, and tonight's game will be for all the marbles between Kentucky and Kansas, college basketball's two winningest programs.  Let's take a look at how we got here and also preview tonight's contest. 

Kentucky had to go through Western Kentucky, Iowa State, Indiana, Baylor, and finally in-state rival Louisville to reach the championship game.  The first two were easy, but the game against Indiana was their first true test.  They beat the Hoosiers 102-90 as both teams played a wildly up-tempo pace.  The Wildcats were too much on the offensive glass and slowed down the Hoosiers just enough to earn the victory.  They took on the Baylor Bears, who had been playing well, in the Elite 8.  It was a complete domination of the Bears, and the Wildcats went on to win despite a few injury scares with Anthony Davis.  The Wildcats then faced Louisville in New Orleans Saturday night, a matchup that had the whole state of Kentucky hyped up in the days leading up to it.  The Cardinals scratched and clawed back in the second half to tie the game with about nine minutes left, but Kentucky was just too much in the end, holding on to win 69-61. 

Kansas had to beat Detroit, Purdue, NC State, North Carolina, and Ohio State to reach the title game.  Only in one of those games (vs. Detroit) did KU lead at half.  They showed amazing resiliency and played some great second halfs, especially on the defensive end.  In the game vs. UNC, they pulled away late and really shut down the Tar Heels in the second half.  The Final 4 matchup against Ohio State was a thriller, as Kansas overcame a 13-point first half deficit to come back and beat the Buckeyes 64-62.  Withey and Robinson limited Sullinger to 5-19 shooting from the floor, and guys like Releford and  Johnson played huge roles in the Jayhawks' victory.  The Jayhawks haven't always looked pretty getting wins this year or in the tournament, but Bill Self is on the verge of a second national title if his Jayhawks were to win tonight. 

Other great games this tournament that I have not discussed in my blog posts: The VCU-IU game was a great one as Indiana edged out Shaka Smart's squad on a late Will Sheehey bucket to lift the Hoosiers 63-61.  Ohio reached the Sweet 16 and nearly beat Roy Williams and UNC, falling 73-65 in overtime.  Ohio had chances to win in regulation, but the Tar Heels had too much firepower in overtime for the Bobcats.  Wisconsin gave Syracuse all it could handle, but they fell 64-63 to the Orange with some very questionable decision making in the final seconds.  The Badgers had the Cuse on the ropes, but they choked in a big situation.  In the Elite 8, Louisville closed on a 23-8 run to beat Florida and advance to the Final 4.  Florida went ice cold in the closing minutes, and the Cardinals surged to victory in the closing minutes. 

Looking ahead to tonight, I expect to see a great game.  Not to brag, but I did have Kentucky and Kansas in the title game, with Kentucky winning this one.  I look for a key matchup to be Anthony Davis vs. Jeff Withey and Thomas Robinson.  The battle inside will be a good one and may decide the outcome of this one.  However, I think how Johnson and Releford for Kansas play may make the biggest difference in the outcome.  Kansas will need multiple guys in double figures to have a chance, and these guys need to bring their best.  Kentucky is simply too skilled for Kansas to win with just Robinson and Taylor doing all of the scoring.  Kansas needs to continue to hang in the game late and hope the young Wildcats wilt under the biggest pressure stage.  With a win, Bill Self will continue to add to his legacy as one of the great coaches of all time.  With a win, Calipari will get his first title and start to establish himself as an all-time great.  I am taking Kentucky in this one.  The Wildcats will cut down the nets and prove to be the best in the country this year.

Who do you have winning this one?  Will it be the dominant Wildcats or the resilient Jayhawks?