Monday Morning Update: March 20, 2017

The first weekend of the NCAA tournament has come and gone, the NHL playoff race is heating up and it’s time to get excited about the Yankees’ youth movement. 

  1. The big dogs in the East don’t hunt


So, everyone thought that the East was the infamous Bracket of Death in the 2017 edition of the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament, and it seems like everyone was right—at least if you’re talking about the bracket’s highest seeds.

It was the tale of two rounds for the East section of the bracket. The first round of games went largely as chalk—the only team to reach the round of 32 as more than an #8 seed in the East was the comeback kids at USC. But the second round saw the biggest upsets of what’s been a somewhat quiet tourney so far, as the region’s #1 and #2 seeds went down in stunning fashion, with Villanova falling to an experienced Wisconsin team surely playing with a chip on their shoulder, while the chip that’s been on Duke’s shoulder all season seemed to be their undoing, as the Luke Kennard and many of the rest of the best Blue Devils were in and out of the game with foul trouble, and couldn’t keep up with the constant attack from South Carolina.

So what’s the result in the former home of the tournament’s #1 overall seed, and what many (including yours truly) thought was perhaps the most talented team in March? It’s a bracket that presents an odd mix of chalk and surprise—there are no double digits seeds remaining after USC’s comeback fell short against Baylor, and the #3 and #4 seeds remain, only they’ll be the favorite in the Sweet 16. It’s also perhaps the most wide-open region in a tournament that’s been largely predictable.

2.But they do down South

While the East has lived up to its reputation as being hardest on the best-ranked teams in its region, the South also lived down to its own tag as the bracket with the easiest path for the best teams. While the East is devoid of its top two teams, perhaps the best (on paper, of course) in the tournament, the South’s last four are its first four seeds.

We talked on last week’s Chin Music Podcast about how easy the ride to the second week of the tournament seemed for North Carolina and Kentucky, and that largely held. The Tar Heels have seemingly yet to be challenged here in March, as they rolled past their opening round opponents Texas Southern by roughly 50 points before handling a late charge from Arkansas and taking the game by seven points. Meanwhile, the Wildcats handled an in-state insurgency in the form of Northern Kentucky in the first round before dispatching with Wichita State in one of the closer games of the tournament—the Shockers were largely doomed by demons outside of their control in this one, including a woefully low seed, but still, you can’t get your shot blocked on the last two possessions of the game.

In the rest of the region, UCLA and its star Lonzo Ball, standing as the tournament’s most entertaining team with the departure of Duke, overcame a rough start to its second round game against the Cincinnati Bearcats to battle it’s way to the Sweet 16. With no Markelle Fultz, Ball has a real opportunity to elevate his draft stock during these weekends in March, and he had a great start to that effort in the first two rounds. And everyone’s old favorite underdog (that now plays in a big conference,) Butler, rounded out the most predictable region of the tourney by knocking off everyone’s new favorite underdog, Middle Tennessee State.

Despite the overwhelming amount of predictability in the South, the outcome of all this may just an incredibly exciting fight for the Final Four, with four bluebloods fighting for dominance.

3. Gonzaga gets some help in its first tournament test, but another looms

WCC Saint Mary's Gonzaga Basketball

The West region was pretty good to March Madness fans on the tournament’s first weekend. It gave them the tournament’s true meme—say hello (and then quickly again say goodbye) yo your 15 minutes of fame, Northwestern crying kid. It also gave fans perhaps the first true controversy of the tournament, as Gonzaga won a six-point contest between against Northwestern after a four-point swinging in which coach Chris Collins, incensed at a missed interference call, came charging onto the court to make that displeasure known, and getting tagged with a technical in the process.

Collins was right to be frustrated by the call—with three referees standing just feet away from the basketball, there’s no excuse for missing that kind of black-and-white rules violation. But as the only member of his team that isn’t a 20-year old, he needs to be able to keep his composure there, and not make a bad situation worse.

Whatever the circumstance, however, the Gonzaga Bulldogs, a team many worried about due to their lack of big game experience this year, survived their first true test in March by defeating the underdog Wildcats of Northwestern. And that’s a big first step—the enduring image most college basketball fans have when it comes to the Bulldogs is Adam Morrison’s tear-stricken face, and it would be tough to add to that with an upset as a #1 seed with a weak schedule, against another famously emotional face.

But the Bulldogs aren’t out of the woods yet—anything less than a Final Four appearance, and fairly or unfairly, the hounds will come out to crow about overrated this Gonzaga team is. And faced up against a West Virginia team that is designed to put pressure and stress on an opposing offense, the Bulldogs will need to prove their mettle once more in the next round.

4. The Wolverines’ Wild Ride Wages On

Hey, everyone! Not sure if you’ve heard, but the Michigan Wolverine men’s basketball team had some plane troubles during the postseason, but they persevered, and in true March Madness fashion “survived and advanced,” and this time in their actual game jerseys to boot.

That’s right—everyone’s favorite storyline this March is still alive and well. And I don’t mean to suck all the fun out of this one, because it is a genuinely heart-warming story, especially when you consider the fact that Michigan is actually, you know a good basketball team.

That team was led by a pair of different players in their first two games. It was Derrick Walton Jr., the senior Michigan point guard, with a hot start to his March Madness, shooting over 50 percent as he led a Michigan team I thought might wilt under the spotlight and pressure of another March run over a talented Oklahoma State team, potting 26 points to go along with 11 rebounds and five assists, proving himself to be the best player on the floor, as Michigan needed every ounce from Walton to win that game by just one point.

He was slower to get going on Sunday, but was outstanding when it mattered, and managed to put up 10 points including a game-saving, falling down, high-off the glass layup that had me off my couch (not a common sight this weekend.) Meanwhile, it was his German teammate, Moritz Wagner, who earned player of the game honors in this one, collecting a career high and game high of 26 points and getting a chance to say hi to his family overseas afterward.

Michigan now faces off against the best of the best in the rest of their region, as they’re joined in the Sweet 16 by three of the top four seeds in the West (#1 Kansas, #3 Oregon and #4 Purdue.) I may not have had them going too far when the tourney tipped, but don’t count out the Wolverines yet.

5. Parsing the psychic’s predictions

As we round out our look at the first weekend of March Madness, let’s take a peek at how your friendly neighborhood psychic predictor fared this weekend.

All told, 10 of my chosen Sweet 16 teams did advance to the second round, meaning I picked right with about 63 percent of my picks, with a little thanks to the magic of rounding. And I’ll almost always take that—but it seems plenty of my gut predictions were wrong.

I didn’t think Michigan would have enough magic left to keep the run going in March—that’s one in the loss column there. I may not have believed in Villanova enough tho choose them to repeat, but I was pretty confident they’d survive until a matchup with Duke. Oh, and about Duke—I called them the most talented team in the tournament, and even picked them to win, only to end up with the same look on my face that Luke Kennard had on his late Sunday night. Meanwhile, I knew all along that Florida State would be upset—I chose picked the wrong horse to beat them.

But like I said, ending up on the right side of 50 percent is pretty good, even if it does mean my national champion got bounced. But that’s the thing about making picks in March—you’d almost always rather be lucky than smart.

Will I have learned anything by the time it comes to picking this weekend’s slate? You’ll have to tune in on Thursday to say for sure, but my guess is probably not.

6. Islanders watch: falling in place

It’s been a long 12 months or so for Islander fans—exausting, even. If you turn the clock back to the Islanders opening round playoff tilt with the Florida Panthers and look at the time since,Brooklyn-bound have been through: a few overtime playoff games, including a pair of multi-OT affairs, their first playoff round win in more than two decades, a win in Game One of the following round against last year’s conference champion, before suffering four straight losses and seeing a trio of well-known and well-loved players

If you turn the clock back to the Islanders opening round playoff tilt with the Florida Panthers and look at the time since,Brooklyn-bound have been through: a few overtime playoff games, including a pair of multi-OT affairs, their first playoff round win in more than two decades, a win in Game One of the following round against last year’s conference champion, before suffering four straight losses and seeing a trio of well-known and well-loved players during the offseason in center Frans Nielsen and wingers Kyle Okposo and Matt Martin head for greener pastures and more opportunity.

Then the season started and, suffice to say, it didn’t start off too well. The additions brought in to replace Nielsen, Okposo, and Martin in Andrew Ladd and Jason Chimera sputtered and stalled, rookie additions Matthew Barzal and Anthony Beauvillier’s performance was up-and-down at best, and even John Tavares looked human as the Islanders sank to the very bottom of the league standings. It seemed to reach a new low when the poor place cost Jack Capuano his job shortly after the start of the New Year.

But then, signs of life. New head coach Doug Weight led the Islanders on a surge, earning points in their first handful of games under Weight and fighting their way back to the final playoff spot in the East. The team went largely silent at the trade deadline, despite the pleas from fans and rumors that bounced every which way.

That’s quite a year.

So as we near the anniversary of John Tavares’ OT, series winning, wrap-around backhand winner and the relief that Islander fans felt in the seconds, minutes, hours and days that followed, where are the Islanders? They’re punching to stay alive in that last playoff spot, and currently are hovering just outside of it, down one point to the Toronto Maple Leafs, who still have an extra game on their schedule.

It all adds up to unmet expectations and disappointment for the Islanders. The team has been the “ones to watch” for seemingly the past five seasons, and last season’s drought-breaking victory notwithstanding, have done nothing but get fans excited for an inevitable fall. The team has struggled down the stretch, and while they’ve kept pace for the last few contests, they will need to seriously step it up over the next few weeks–and I’m not sure that’s in the cards, which means the nerves of Islander fans and brass alike will likely be on red-alert, as John Tavares enters his contract season on a team that seems to be somewhere between holding steady and falling down the hole of regression.

Still, when no one imagined even the idea of competing as recently as January, I guess you have to chalk up the past two months as a win. Speaking of that…

7. You’re never quite dead in the NHL

I think hockey fans, and NHL fans, in particular, need to learn a new rule when it comes to watching the playoff race—no more calling a team “dead” until they’ve been mathematically eliminated.

We’ve all heard how a high percentage of teams that end up in the playoffs are in playoff position or are tantalizingly close, at Thanksgiving, and those early indicators are even more reliable come Christmas. But this year, at least, that isn’t the case. The Islanders were declared dead multiple times this year by many, including their own faithful, before that surge in January. The same can be said about the Boston Bruins, who also had to fire their coach to start winning hockey games, and the Tampa Bay Lightning, who people actually applauded for selling at the deadline. Now, one of those teams, the Bruins, look like a pretty sure bet to be playing bonus hockey this year, and there’s a good chance that either the Lightning or Islanders will be joining them.

There are other teams that have made runs this year as well. Take the Florida Panthers, who too fired their coach, seemingly lost the services of some of their best players for a better part of the year, and were pronounced dead. They now find themselves only three games outside of a playoff position and were even closer just a few weeks ago.

With the loser point in the NHL still holding strong, it is undeniably a little tougher to make up ground if you’re a late-charging playoff contender, but let’s not pretend it’s impossible.

8. BC gets left out in the cold

Screen Shot 2017-03-19 at 1.07.58 PM

If you watched the final of the Hockey East tournament this weekend (so, like three or four of you) then you saw som impressive desperation from the Boston College players.

After the Eagles avenged a Beanpot defeat at the hands of their Comm Avenue rivals the Boston University Terriers, the Eagles had a shot to raise the conference trophy and all but assure a spot in the NCAA Men’s Hockey tournament, which limits its field to just 16 teams compared to the 64 (really 68) allowed by the basketball version.

BC entered the third period of that Hockey East Championship game down by a 4-2 score to their opponents, UMass-Lowell, who were looking for their first Hockey East title since winning back-to-back in 2013 and 2014. BC turned on the jets, outshooting UMass 15-2 in the final frame and even putting one on the board to shrink the gap, but ultimately falling just short.

It was a costly loss, as UMass-Lowell’s celebration continued on Sunday when they learned they’d face up against Cornell in the first round of the NCAA tournament. BC’s disappointment also persisted, as the Eagles, to the surprise of many (and to the outrage of ChinMusic’s own hot takes man, Tim Culverhouse,) found out their season ended with that failed comeback attempt over the weekend.

BC fans can bitch and moan about the injustice of it all, and the unfairness of college hockey’s Pairwise system. But while the Eagles seemed to save their best play for Hockey East matchups, they didn’t have the steam to take home the trophy, and when that’s the one boost on your resume, a lack of hardware is going to cost you.

9. The Bronx belongs to the kids

For the first time in a long time, the Yankees and their fans have something to get excited about during Spring Training. Despite the fact that they challenged for a playoff spot last year and squeaked into the one-game playoff in 2015, there hasn’t been a truly contending Yankee team in some time, and neither team really approached that designation.

It’s also been quite some time since there was a likable Yankees team. No offense to the 2009 World Series team—I’ll always have fond memories of cheering on guys like not just Mariano Rivera and Derek Jeter, but players like Hideki Matsui, Nick Swisher, and AJ Burnett. But a team with Alex Rodriguez and Mark Texiera is never going to be very likable, especially for fans of the other 29 teams in baseball.

And while we’re still probably a year or two away from seeing the Yankees truly compete or a championship, that likability factor has made its welcome return. With young guns like last year’s messianic Gary Sanchez,  “Gleybar good” Torres, the newly groomed Clint Frazier or the heavy-swinging Aaron Judge, and plenty more where they came from.

All that means for the first time in a few year,s I’m actually excited to watch Yankee games in the Spring, and I think there are many in and out of the Bronx who would agree with me. There’s plenty of unknown here, and almost certainly, not every single one of these prospects, as high0stature and impressive as they may be at this moment, all won’t work out. As a result, it also almost certainly won’t be too long before the Yankees quit tightening the belts and playing with young, likable and exciting players, turning them in for some reliable, dependable and probably overpriced known names.

But for now, the youth movement is here, and the Yankees don’t seem quite as Evil an Empire anymore—let’s enjoy it while we can.

Thanks for reading, everyone! Stay tuned to, and follow @MurraySportTalk on Twitter for more from yours truly.



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