Thursday, April 10, 2014

Masters Preview

It's the best week of the year folks!  Let's take a stroll down Magnolia Lane and get ready (albeit a few hours late) for the 2014 Masters.  One huge difference this year is that Tiger Woods will not be in the field for the first time since 1994.  While this no doubt hurts the Masters hysteria in the media, most golf fans will still be glued to the television over the next four days.  And while Tiger was no doubt a favorite to win, the field still has about the same chances with Tiger out.  The fast and firm conditions will most likely only keep the world's top-20 in contention for this year's Green Jacket.  With that said, let's take a look at who's got a chance to win it all this week.

Lefties:  Augusta National has proved advantageous to lefties over the last 15 years or so.  Five lefties have donned the Green Jacket since 2003.  In the other three majors combined, there have only been three left-handed champions ever (I think).  For that reason alone, you have to like Bubba Watson, Phil Mickelson and the veteran Mike Weir.

Repeat Champions: While it has been very difficult to defend a Masters championship as of late, we have seen many Masters champions win a second green jacket in the 5-8 year range after their first.  Have a look:

Bernhard Langer: 1985, 1993
Nick Faldo: 1989, 1990, 1996
Jose Maria Olazabal: 1994, 1999
Tiger Woods: 1997, 2001, 2002, 2005
Phil Mickelson: 2004, 2006, 2010

Based on that evidence, keep an eye out for Phil once again, Zach Johnson, Trevor Immelman and Angel Cabrera.

Hot players:  Several players have been playing very well the past few weeks, and have vaulted up the power rankings for this week.  Matt Kuchar is a top-10 machine, Adam Scott has played well recently and is the defending Masters champ, and Dustin Johnson seems to have all the tools to win a major (except maybe the brain).

Sleepers: The Masters always has a random mix of old guys, Asians, and guys that seemingly came out of nowhere at the top of the leaderboard over the weekend.  Don't sleep on guys like Marc Leishman, Fred Couples, KJ Choi or a random Brit.

Prediction:  Like I said earlier, I think with the conditions as they are supposed to be this Masters will be won by a top-20 player.  Approach shots and putting will be crucial as always, and because of that there are a few guys I like this week.  Keep an eye on Fat Phil, Jason Day, Zach Johnson and Rickie Fowler.  They are my picks for the 2014 Masters.  Above all though, enjoy the best sporting event in the world.  I say that with no exaggeration.

NCAA Championship Reactions

The UConn Huskies hoisted their fourth NCAA Championship in the last 15 years on Monday night.  An impressive feat for a team that was all but unknown until the 1990s.  During our time they have always been known as an NCAA basketball powerhouse.  As a young grad school intern, I worked on a blog that focused on Huskies basketball, and wrote a few articles on incoming freshman Shabazz Napier.  Needless to say as a husky supporter, and a Boston resident, I was overjoyed to see Shabazz and the boys take the tournament by storm and win the whole damn thing.  However, if you were none of those things you still should have been rooting for the Huskies.  It was as clear as night and day that the Huskies stood for all that was good in college basketball, while the Kentucky Wildcats represented the dark side of the NCAA on Monday night.

Let's start by taking a look at the rosters for each team:

Ryan Boatright: Junior
Shabazz Napier: Senior
Deandre Daniels: Junior
Omar Calhoun: Sophmore
Niels Giffey: Senior

Julius Randle: Freshman
Aaron Harrison: Freshman
Andrew Harrison: Freshman
James Young: Freshman
Dakari Johnson: Freshman

Right before the Final Four games, ABC (I think?) aired the ESPN 30 for 30 film "Requiem for the Big East" which chronicled the height of Big East basketball in the 80s, 90s, and 2000s.  The keys to the success of the Big East were the rivalries, the unity of the conference, and the athletes.  Kentucky's basketball team is a slap in the face to that documentary and exactly why we will never see that kind of must see TV in college hoops anymore.  Freshman that will all be gone next year, Coach Calipari bolting for the next high paying gig whenever the time is right, and conferences based more on football than basketball.  Meanwhile, the senior-led Huskies stayed in the Big East when everyone else abandoned ship, their players stuck together, and their reward for not being a football powerhouse was an NCAA Championship.  Furthermore, I hope everybody appreciated the irony of Shabazz Napier's rant after the game about UConn being banned.  Yes, UConn was banned from postseason play last year for not having a high enough graduation rate amongst their athletes.  Look at the rosters above and tell me which team you think should receive that penalty.

UConn has been through the ringer the past few years trying to continue fighting for what we love about college basketball.  We love rivalries like the ones the Big East used to have every night.  Now teams change conferences every year, looking for the best TV deal.  We love watching players develop into superstars, whether we root for or against them.  Now players are there for a year, then off to the NBA.  We also love the college spirit that used to be present in college sports.  Now we have Drake partying in the Kentucky locker room and Coach Calipari probably giving each player he recruits a bag of cash when they arrive on campus.  UConn tried to play it the old-fashioned way and got left by the wayside in conference re-alignment.  The times have changed.

What hasn't changed is that a basketball team isn't made over 30 games.  It takes years for a player to understand the game, and his teammates.  Fundamentals will also never die.  Sure alley-oops and off-balance game winning threes are great, but free throws win games.  Talent can only go so far.  For Kentucky, it took them to the finals this year.  UConn (as well as teams like Wisconsin & Michigan St) carries their program the way it should be, the way it used to be, and they deserved to win on Monday night.  Good triumphed over evil for one night.