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Submitted by Jim Hurley on Monday, March 31, 2014 at 9:40 AM

THE NCAA TOURNAMENT REPORT: IT’S THE FIRST LOOK AT THIS WEEKEND’S FINAL FOUR AS FLORIDA, WISCONSIN, UCONN & KENTUCKY MAKE UP A STAR-STUDDED FIELD …

PLUS THE NIT SEMIS HIT THE GARDEN FLOOR ON TUESDAY NIGHT AND WE HAVE GAME PREVIEWS … AND WE ALSO OFFER UP A QUICK-HITTER MLB PREVIEW FOR THE 2014 SEASON WITH A CALL FOR THE TB RAYS TO WIN IT ALL!

By Jim Hurley

Go ahead … you can signal for a timeout now!

The NCAA Tournament’s rich history of thrill-a-minute games even outdid itself this past weekend as Wisconsin, Connecticut and Kentucky all squeezed out tight wins against higher-seeded teams (yes, we know Kentucky’s heart-stopping 75-72 triumph over Michigan on Sunday was not an “upset” so don’t get on our case, okay!) while Florida marched on to its 30th consecutive win in businesslike fashion last Saturday versus Dayton and so — following two weeks of epic hoops action — this is what we’ve got come Saturday in Arlington, Texas:

It’s #7 UConn vs. #1 Florida; and #8 Kentucky vs. #2 Wisconsin.

Four different leagues have a shot at bragging rights to win it all and two coaches who’ve already bagged national championships – that’s Florida’s Billy Donovan (with two) and Kentucky’s John Calipari — are hoping to add some more hardware to the school’s athletic trophy cases while it’s the young-and-the-old when it comes to the other two coaches here as UConn’s second-year boss Kevin Ollie is reaching for the brass ring while 66-year-old Bo Ryan is gunning for a national title with Wisconsin.

So, the so-called “experts” – all of whom picked Michigan State to win it all back on Selection Sunday – have to find a new/different team to rally around here in “North Texas” and safe to say this Final Four won’t be lacking for wonderful storylines.

We’ll get you a jam-packed week of news/notes/previews when it comes to Saturday’s Final Four (and the NCAA Championship Game next Monday, of course) all this week right here in Jim Sez but first let’s send out a little reminder of what the “win-it-all” odds were prior to the start of this wild tourney:

NCAA TOURNAMENT ODDS TO WIN ALL (as of March 18th)

(Note: All figures below are based on $100 per-play wagers)

TEAM ODDS TO WIN IT ALL
Florida     + 450
Wisconsin  + 1800
Kentucky   + 4000
Connecticut  + 8000

THE NCAA TOURNAMENT’S FINAL FOUR

Here’s some quick-hitter looks at th Final Four teams with a reminder that we’ll have game previews/team charts/etc. all this week long right here at "Jim Sez":

#1 FLORIDA (36-2) – The Gators finally broke through that three-year schneid of losing back-to-back-to-back Elite 8 games as the 62-52 win against 10-point underdog Dayton featured lots of what we’ve seen throughout this tourney and that’s veteran G Scottie Wilbekin taking over games for periods of time (see 23 points and 0 turnovers in 38 minutes against the Flyers) and some real hardscrabble defense as Florida held yet another opponent to below 40 percent (see 19-of-48 FG makes).

What makes the Gators so tough as we head into Texas is that there’s lots of senior flavor on this team including the aforementioned Wilbekin and muscle-bound C Patric Young, who chipped in with 12 points, 6 rebounds and 4 blocks against Dayton plus he made things miserable in the paint for the Flyers’ finesse-type big men. Young and fellow board-banger Will Yeguete (7 rebs against Dayton) know all the subtle ways to play defense/box out and so if Final Four foe UConn thinks it’ll “have its way” inside then the Huskies might want to think that out a bit more.

Hey, Donovan’s won those two titles in 2006 and ’07 and his team just won an Elite 8 game in which it shot only 18-of-48 from the floor with just five triples … in other words, the Gators find plenty of ways to win and you can expect their smash-mouth style to star here but Florida’s only gonna survive-and-advance to the title tilt if G Michael Frazier II (10 points and just two treys against Dayton) heats it up a bit from deep – got it?

#7 CONNECTICUT (30-8) – The post-Jim Calhoun Era was supposed to be some dark/dreary times in the Nutmeg State, but instead the Huskies have been re-born behind boss-man Ollie who right now qualifies as “coach of the tourney” based on his club’s wins against St. Joe’s (in OT), Villanova, Iowa State and Michigan State.

No question Sunday’s brass-knuckle 60-54 triumph over the 5 ½-point favored Spartans proved you never count out a UConn club and you better get someone in G Shabazz Napier’s grill or he’s gonna march this American Athletic Conference club straight to a second title in four years.

Napier poured in a game-high 25 points in that upset win against Sparty and he shook off a bloodied nose to shine at Madison Square Garden and how about his (and UConn’s) exquisite free-throw shooting as Napier drilled all nine of his charity stripe tosses while the Huskies nailed 21-of-22 from the line, and the one stat we saw last night claimed UConn’s hit 81 of its last 94 foul shots overall … wow!

The truth of the matter is UConn would have bashed M-State by 15-to-20 points had usual smooth-stroking swingman Niels Giffey been on target but he missed 8-of-10 FGs in all (and all five of his wide-open triples) and so you wonder if Giffey gets open like that this weekend, will it be a different story?

Connecticut was buoyed by 16 Michigan State turnovers in that Elite 8 tilt – many of ‘em self-inflicted jobs as Sparty’s Keith Appling was awful with four turnovers – and you do wonder if Florida will be so careless in this Saturday’s game … odds are the Gators will protect the rock better and allow fewer free looks for Napier, Giffey and mates.

#2 WISCONSIN (30-7) – Wonder what the odds were heading into last weekend that the Big 10 would go one team into this year’s Final Four, and it wouldn’t be Michigan State or Michigan! Okay, so the Wisky Badgers wound up being the lone Big 10 weekend survivor as last Saturday’s nail-biting 64-63 overtime win against 3 ½-point fav Arizona was the stuff of legends for big man Frank Kaminksy, who not only scored 28 points to go along with his 11 rebounds but he also survived a post-game interview with marble-mouthed TV studio analyst Charles Barkley!

Kaminsky’s ability to score both inside and out – he finished off the U of A ‘Cats with 3-of-5 triple makes while ‘Zona canned just five trifectas in all – was special but so too was the ball movement that may not have been as splashy as was the case in the Sweet 16 blowout win against Baylor but gotta love the way Ryan’s crew shares it and there’s a real trust factor on this team that not everybody has in this tourney.

Okay, so maybe the mushy Ryan gets a little too much media credit at times – this is his first Final Four and the school’s first since the Dick Bennett days of 2000 – but now that the Badgers have been “through the wars” in this tournament there is something to be said that maybe now they’ll play free-and-easy in the Lone Star State.

What we would like to see from this Wisky bunch is a little better touch ‘round the rim from guys other than Kaminsky as both F Nigel Hayes (2-of-8 FG shooting for 4 points against Arizona) and F Sam Dekker (2-of-5 FG shooting against the ‘Cats) sure seem to miss lots of in-close gimmes, and that simply can’t happen this Saturday if Wisky wishes to KO Kentucky.

#8 KENTUCKY (28-10) – Hey, let’s not hear any noise from the peanut gallery in terms of NCAA Tournament “seeding” here as we’ll strongly suggest the committee folks blew it on many fronts, but not with these UK ‘Cats!

It’s purely revisionist history to think Calipari’s club was better than, say a #7 or #8 seed while heading into this “Big Dance” as 90 percent of the Wildcats’ momentum has been gathered here with the wins against Kansas State, Wichita State, Louisville and Michigan … and how ‘bout knocking off both of last year’s national championship game participants, huh?

The thing about this Kentucky team is each/every game it takes giant steps forward plus – as what generally happens on championship-type teams – someone new is always stepping forward to make major contributions.

Sure, uber-talented G Aaron Harrison banged home the tie-breaking triple with 2.3 seconds left to beat 2 ½-point underdog Michigan 75-72 in Sunday’s Elite 8 bash but it was the off-the-bench play of seldom-used F Marcus Lee (10 points and 8 boards with a batch of rim-rattling put-back dunks) that saved this SEC team that played without injured Willie Cauley-Stein. The ‘Cats were ferocious on the offensive glass all game long with 15 boards on that end (it really seemed like more!) and Julius Randle (16 points and 11 rebs) continued his double-double mastery and we’re wondering when someone is gonna make him go right!

If this so-called “one-and-done” Kentucky team is headed en masse to the NBA after this 2013-14 season ends, then they sure are making this a March to remember with Sunday’s win highlighted by 53.4 percent field-goal shooting (that’s 31-of-58 from the floor) against a good Michigan team and don’t forget what we wrote in our previews last weekend that the Wolverines had to score at least 12 treys to win and this sticky perimeter defense held the maize-and-blue to just seven made triples in all.

Now, the object of Kentucky’s “affection” this weekend will be the aforementioned Kaminsky, who probably will have to face a handful of lengthy Kentucky defenders here … still don’t think this ‘Cat team is Fab Five-ish?

* Take note that the NCAA Tournament Betting Favorites are a composite 29-30-4 ATS (against the spread) with one pick ‘em game too as we head into Final Four action and keep in mind here Final Four teams currently sport an overall pointspread mark of:

*  Florida is 2-1-1 ATS in this tournament while Wisconsin, Connecticut and Kentucky each are 4-and-oh spreadwise and so that makes this Final Four group a collective 14-1-1 versus the vig for a .933 winning rate … wow!

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NCAA TOURNAMENT POINTSPREADBREAKDOWN CHART

Note: We’ve included all conferences/leagues that have two-or-more pointspread decisions in this year’s NCAA Tournament:

Conf/League  Record Pct.
America East     2-0-0 1.000
Ivy League  2-0-0 1.000
SEC   9-1-2 .900
American Athletic  6-4-0 .600
Big 10 6-6-2 .500
Pac-12    7-7-0  .500
Mountain West  2-2-0 .500
Atlantic Sun  1-1-0 .500
Big West 1-1-0 .500
Missouri Valley 1-1-0 .500
Southland  1-1-0 .500
Summit 1-1-0 .500
ACC 5-6-1 .454
Atlantic 10 3-5-2 .375
West Coast 1-2-0 .333
Big 12 4-10-0 .286

NIT –

It’s worth noting that all four of the teams playing in the NIT semifinal round this year all stayed put with back-to-back-to-back home games in this tourney – true, there were scares for Clemson, SMU, Florida State and Minnesota but all survived to get to New York City.

In Tuesday’s NIT semifinals at Madison Square Garden, it’s…

CLEMSON (20-12) vs. SMU (23-9) 7 p.m. ET, ESPN

The numero uno story of this whole NIT “Final Four” is the return of SMU head coach Larry Brown to his native New York – the Hall of Fame general was a school-boy star in Long Beach, Long Island but he prefers to forget about his dismal one-year stint as coach of the Knicks! – and now here’s a shot for Brown and Company to prove they’re the best of this NIT field after getting snubbed badly by the NCAA Tournament folks.

If SMU’s fiery G Nic Moore can light up the Garden here, then 2 ½-point underdog Clemson will be in major trouble plus stat-sheet stuffer Markus Kennedy (19 points and 10 rebounds in last week’s last-second 67-65 non-cover win against California) must bang the boards against a physical Clemson team that can defend and board – but can’t shoot it very well.

Damarcus Harrison powered the ACC Tigers past 7-point underdog Belmont 73-68 last Tuesday night with his 16-point performance but for Clemson to snag this one than K.J. McDaniels and Rod Hall must make some noise on the offensive end of the floor.

FLORIDA STATE (19-13) vs. MINNESOTA (20-13) – approximately 9:25 p.m., ESPN

Okay, so we can’t promise that first-year Minnesota head coach Richard Pitino will be slamming any chairs to the Garden floor here – hope you caught his little act in last Wednesday’s 78-75 win against 3-point underdog Louisiana Tech that seemed to rev up the Golden Gopher emotional engines – but we can promise that the lone Big 10 team in this NIT semifinal field will bring in a red-hot Austin Hollins to NYC.

The veteran guard who’s played more games in a Minnesota uniform than anyone in the program’s hoop history poured in a career-best 32 points last Tuesday en route to that 81-73 hang-on win against 5-point pup Southern Miss, and did you know Hollins nailed 6-of-11 trifecta attempts in that latest Gopher win?

On the flip side, Florida State has turned up the offensive volume in last week’s back-to-back wins against Georgetown and Louisiana Tech:

The Seminoles scored a collective 179 points in those two outings and keep your eye here on G Ian Miller, who has drilled a team-high 63 triples this year and note this dude’s hitting his long-ball at a nearly 41 percent accuracy rate!

At last check, this game was a pick ‘em – and it might wind up being a lot higher-scoring than the “experts” believe.

THE 2014 MLB PREVIEW

Here’s the plain and simple fact:

Major-League Baseball has not had a repeat World Series champion since the 1998-thru-2000 New York Yankees dominated the diamond stage with three straight “Fall Classic” titles and that was back in the day when Yanks SS Derek Jeter was a kid – now he’s playing his final season in the bigs and the $64,000 question (okay, maybe more than that) is will Jeter and the Yanks re-create the 2009 season when the pinstripe gang paid a king’s ransom for a slew of free agents and then proceeded to win it all?

The defending World Series champion Boston Red Sox more or less scoffed at all the winter-time signings by the Yanks that included C Brian McCann (Atlanta), OF Carlos Beltran (St. Louis) and RHP Masahiro Tanaka (Japan), but Red Sox Nation ain’t happy the Yankees stole away CF Jacoby Ellsbury and so crank up the volume and intensity of this long-standing rivalry one more time …

But remember that here at Jim Sez we’re not picking either one of these American League East teams to win it all this October/November.

In fact, here’s how we see things shaking out in the American League

The AL East winner … Tampa Bay Rays

The AL Central winner … Detroit Tigers

The AL West winner … The Los Angeles Angels

The AL Wild Cards … Cleveland Indians and Oakland A’s

We’ll say the AL’s Most Valuable Player will be Tampa Bay 3B Evan Longoria;

The AL Cy Young goes to Los Angeles Angels LHP C.J. Wilson;

And the AL Manager of the Year goes to Tampa Bay’s Joe Maddon.

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Now, here’s what we see ahead in 2014 in the National League

The NL East winner … Washington Nationals

The NL Central winner … St. Louis Cardinals

The NL West winner … Los Angeles Dodgers

The NL Wild Cards … San Francisco Giants and Cincinnati Reds

We’ll go with our National League MVP choice as Cincinnati RF Jay Bruce;

The NL Cy Young will go to St. Louis RHP Adam Wainwright;

And the NL Manager of the Year goes to San Francisco’s Bruce Bochy.

When the dust settles in October, we’ll be seeing a World Series between the Tampa Bay Rays vs. the St. Louis Cardinals and the pick is … Rays in 7.

NOTE: More NCAA Tournament Sweet 16 News/Notes in the next edition of Jim Sez.

 

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