The Whims and Foibles of Sports...
Random thoughts while wondering if the Falcons are going to limit the Saints’ options and pick Kentucky’s master pass rusher Bud Dupree at No. 8...
You can bet the Saints are lining up their boards and making last-minute telephone calls to the teams ahead of their No. 13 slot to ask the question: “If our guy is there when you pick, would you be willing to trade down?” It worked last year when the team traded up from 27 to 20 with Arizona and took WR Brandin Cooks. That same thing could also happen on April 30, but I suspect the more likely scenario is for the Saints to hold at No. 13, where a number of quality players should be available, and then try and trade up from No. 31 if they see a bargain player who has dropped beyond their rating.
We’ll look at the draft in more detail next week, but I am already prepared to make one bold prediction: Tampa will not pick Jameis Winston No. 1 unless they’re stupid. I know he’s a Florida State guy, and it would be big news in Tampa and Lovie Smith sees himself as a role model who can straighten out wayward youth in his charge. That’s all well and good, but you don’t spend the No. 1 pick in the draft when character issues are afoot. Winston’s own agent said this week that he will have a difficult time adapting to more money and more freedom. But in the draft, you can hate a guy at No. 1 and love him at No. 6 which is why I believe Winston could fall to the Jets at No. 6, barring another team trading up.
Should that make a difference to the Saints? If I were scheming next season’s Saints game plan against Tampa, I would much rather face a rookie at quarterback, especially one who could implode, than facing a defense which isn’t that bad bolstered by a defensive tackle like Leonard Williams of USC or Dante Fowler of Florida ...
The Pelicans should feel right at home tonight in Game 2 of their first-round NBA playoff series with a lineup weakened by injuries. Tyreke Evans might miss the game after bruising his left knee in a collision with Golden State forward Andre Iguodala in Game 1. Evans said Sunday an MRI showed a deep bone bruise, and he is questionable for Game 2. The Pels have been there before, leading the league in games missed by their top six players. Jrue Holiday was out for 40, Eric Gordon and Ryan Anderson out for 21 each and Anthony Davis was down for 14. Just when they get Holiday back, Evans is nicked after missing only three games during the regular season. It might not matter. The Warriors have the best record in the league and are odds-on favorite to come out of the Western Conference unscathed. But, dammit, wouldn’t you like to see the Pels at full strength? They defeated the Warriors 103-100 on April 7 and made a late run in Game 1. Anthony Davis is playing phenomenal basketball, and the role players such as Quincy Pondexter and Norris Cole have provided valuable minutes. They can play with those guys. They just need all hands on deck.
I always attend the Zurich Class of New Orleans, which tees off on Thursday at the TPC of Louisiana. Reigning Fed Ex Cup champion Billy Horschel picked up his first PGA tour victory two years ago at the Zurich, and he is slated to be joined by four others among the top 20 in the current world rankings. No. 5 Jason Day, No. 6 Dustin Johnson and No. 10 Justin Rose, who tied for second at the Masters last week, are highest on the list. Steve Stricker will make just his second start of 2015, coming off a tie for 28th at the Masters on the rebound from back surgery.
I am picking Johnson to continue his solid play and get his second victory since a six-month leave from the tour to battle personal problems. Johnson, one of the long hitters on the tour, beat J. B. Holmes by one stroke to win the WGC-Cadillac Championship at Trump National Doral in Miami on March 8, and he finished tied for sixth last week in the Masters. If Johnson is in the mix on the weekend, local fans might even get to see Johnson’s fiancée Paulina Gretsky and her dad, hockey legend Wayne Gretzky, in the gallery. Go Dustin!
All you really need to know about Jordan Spieth, golf’s new wunderkind, is to flash back to the 14th hole of Sunday’s final round of the Masters. Spieth was 18 strokes under par and hit a decent drive, while Justin Rose, his closest competitor at 14-under, had splayed his drive to the right into the pine forest. Spieth put his approach shot on the green and had an easy two-putt for par, while Rose faced a shot off a packed dirt surface, an overhanging pine branch that obstructed his view of the green and a sand trap begging to swallow his ball. They were starting to pop the champagne corks in Spiethville.
But Rose did what the world’s best golfers do in that situation, hitting a wedge under the branch, over the trap, through the windmill, under the lighthouse and then backed up his spinning shot to a tap-in birdie. Spieth’s margin was down to three strokes with four holes to go, the type of situation where he might have crumbled last year under just such an assault when matched with Bubba Watson. But Sunday, Spieth simply smiled, looked over at Rose and gave him a thumbs up, which signaled “Great shot, Justin!” What it did not say was “but I’m gonna kick your ass anyway!” And he did.
Spieth birdied the next hole and held on as his pursuers ran out of holes. And what a parade of golf royalty tried! In addition to Rose, who will be the highest ranked golfer at the Zurich Classic in New Orleans in two weeks, the pack included three-time champ Phil Mickelson, No. 1 in the world Rory McIlroy, the sweet-swinging Hideki Matsuyama and former Masters champ Zach Johnson. The likes of Paul Casey, Ian Poulter, Dustin Johnson, Hunter Mahan, Henrik Stenson and Sergio Garcia all ended up in the Top 20. Even Tiger Woods flashed his former brilliance and showed that he isn't done competing for major championships just yet.
But the 2015 Masters clearly belonged to the 21-year-old Spieth at a time when America needs a successor to Woods and Mickelson. The 2014 Ryder Cup meltdown accented the fact that U.S. golf is struggling for a new champion and a new era of dominance. Tiger ruled. Arnie and Jack ruled. Tom Watson ruled. Lee Trevino won six majors. With five majors, Phil has spent his time on the throne. But today, American golf is loaded with .300 hitters who will never win a batting title.
Of those Americans who have flashed most recently, Bubba has won big but not consistently. Dustin Johnson has the physical skills so long as he can keep his head together. Rickie Fowler nearly had his fifth consecutive top-five finish in a major, and he seems like he's on the brink of breaking through. Russell Henley and Patrick Reed both finished well and ended up in the Top 25, and as they mature on and off the course figure to challenge for major titles. Billy Horschel was the hottest golfer on the planet last fall but has been average this year and did not even make the Masters cut.
So if Spieth uses the 2015 Masters as a launching pad, we might be on the verge of a new era of dominance in American golf. McIlroy, just 25, and Spieth now sit 1-2 in the World Golf Rankings and could be the stars of golf for decades to come. And that could not come at a better time for American golf.
This is the week my golf game improves. Honest! Happens every year! And I give due credit to the Masters Golf Tournament, which teed off this morning at Augusta National. The Masters is the only golf tournament I will watch from tee to green for 72 holes, and when you watch that much golf from the world’s greatest players, you can’t help but be inspired. Not to mention picking up a few tips, free of charge!
Every shot is instructive. Watching the players, their timing and their tempo, how they manage a dynamic course, their actions and reactions, their course management along the way, how they play those long winding putts off that bikini wax surface. Everything they do can give even a duffer something that helps his game. And they don’t throw their clubs when they make a bad shot! Wow, what a novel concept! I am not billowing smoke into your ear.
There is something about the imitative spirit that breeds confidence. The same thing would happen when I was a kid watching baseball games on television. In those days, we watched the Game of the Week with Dizzy Dean and Buddy Blattner, and then Ole Diz with Pee Wee Reese in 1960, coming to you in the name of Falstaff Beer. Watching the fluid motions of a Luis Aparicio at short or the turn of Nellie Fox at second or the majesty of a long Ted Williams’ shot into the right-field stands. It made a pre-teen baseball nut want to go out and do the same things, and it worked. The ball just seemed easier to catch after watching Mickey Mantle or Willie Mays glide under a high fly.
Such confidence on display, even in black and white, was compelling, and I’ve tried to transfer that to golf, thanks to the Masters. After immersing myself into all things Augusta, my game improves enough to drop my handicap to a 14, which makes for an enjoyable spring and summer of "Baja 90" golf. The problem is that the Masters muscle memory fades the deeper into the season I go. By the time the crisp autumn air turns frigid, I’m done until next year.
My primary contribution to the Wussification of America is that I don’t like cold-weather golf. I am not talking really cold-weather golf, but cold-weather golf as it is practiced in the Gulf South. A 50-degree day in Lexington puts more golfers outdoors in the spring than racehorses, but when New Orleans gets 50 degrees, usually in January and February, it is accompanied by a 20 mph wind coming off the lake, and my game goes into hibernation. Any rounds I can squeeze in between Christmas and Easter typically wind up in the low- to mid-90’s. That’s not good when you play with a regular group, as I do on Wednesdays, and you’re still shackled to a 14 handicap because you haven’t played enough bad rounds to kick it up to where it belongs.
The Masters has always intrigued me for other reasons, maybe because in a lifetime of peripatetic sporting memories, it is the only major sports event that I have wished to attend but never had the opportunity. The closest I came to attending the Masters was this year when I bought a $100 chance from my nephew who is a member of the Fore Kids Foundation that sponsors the local Zurich Classic PGA tour stop. The winner and a guest would win a week in Augusta. I guess I should stop waiting for the call that I won?
So, as I sit down to another four-day seminar on proper golfing technique, I turn you over to my good friend, Dr. Dennis McSeveney, a semi-somewhat-almost-nearly retired professor and administrator at the University of New Orleans who gives us the following story depicting man’s fascination with the Masters:
An older man had two tickets for the Masters. As he sat down to watch the opening rounds, a younger man came along and asked if anyone was sitting in the vacant seat next to him. "No," says the older man. "The seat is empty." "This is incredible!" said the younger man, "Who in their right mind would have a seat like this at the biggest golfing event of the whole world, and not use it?" "Well,” the older man said, taking a deep breath. “Actually, the seat belongs to me. My wife always would come with me to the Masters, but she passed away. This is the first Masters we haven't attended together since we got married."
"Oh, I'm sorry to hear that,” said the younger man. “That's terrible. I guess you couldn't find someone else to take her ticket? A friend or relative or even a neighbor?" The older man shook his head. "No. They're all at the funeral."
We Kentucky basketball fans have our lives back this morning, although we would have preferred to extend the agony of expectation a few more days. But, after our 38-0 Wildcats got taken to the woodshed by a deserving, well-coached Wisconsin team on Saturday night, all we’ve got left is the comforting vibes of the eminent philosopher Willie Nelson, who wrote: “Regret is just a memory written on your brow, but there’s nothin’ I can do about it now.”
There is still good and bad residue, the bad coming from Andrew Harrison’s uncharacteristic and stupid slur against Wisconsin’s Frank Kaminsky, and the good from John Calipari’s induction into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame Monday morning. But for the most part, our lives are once again our own, unshackled by our devotion to an exhilarating and frustrating passion. Once again, we can do most anything we want without the restraint of sports schedules or other obligations. Better we should put the worst of April behind us and look ahead to what actually is one of the great months of the year for sports and entertainment fans.
I wrote most of this on Easter Sunday, that great day of hope and renewal for much of the civilized world. That familiar theme - hope and renewal - applies to sporting fans in April. All fans might not agree on basketball, but few will disagree that the opening of Keeneland Race Course is a cherished rite of spring. The fabled Lexington tract opened Saturday to begin the meet that culminates in the Kentucky Derby the first Saturday in May.
Speaking of opening day, another example of April’s hope is opening day of the Major League Baseball season when every team is 0-0, all the off-season trades and free-agent signings have improved their teams, and, well, it’s baseball, for crying out loud! We can live and die with our favorite college or pro basketball or football teams, but baseball still trumps all the others when it comes to history and optimism.
Speaking of tradition, the Masters Golf Tournament, sports’ greatest show on bent grass, is this week. Sure, the Masters is snobbish and even the broadcasters are a bit self-righteous, but it’s the first sporting event of the spring where the players are rivaled by the beauty of the venue. Azaleas bloom throughout the course, songbirds sing in the tress and viewers can almost smell the jasmine. Devine! Competing with the Masters this weekend, at least in New Orleans, is the free French Quarter Festival which rocks the Quarter with outstanding live music and great Creole and Cajun foods.
Local sports and entertainment fans have even more big events the following week. The Zurich Classic PGA tournament is a favorite for up-and-coming players to make their mark. In recent years, Jason Dufner and Billy Horschel won their first tournaments at the Zurich Classic. The Zurich conflicts with another major event in New Orleans, the Jazz and Heritage Festival, which is not exactly a sporting event until you begin to measure the endurance of some fairgoers. Anybody who attends more than two or three of the seven-day music festival spread over two weekends is an athlete in my book!
Closing the month may be the most anticipated event of all, at least for Who Dat Nation, the annual NFL Draft of college players. Draft day is the epitome of optimism where every pick will be a Pro Bowler. The Saints will generate a great deal of interest this year with two first-round picks, a second, two thirds and nine overall. The NFL’s biggest off-season event prompts such interest that fans channel personnel guys, knowing who their favorite team should pick or who they should trade up to acquire, like their favorite team did last year with WR Brandin Cooks.
April might be the cruelest month for some of us, but it also gives us hope that things will get better. So, give me another day or two of grieving, and I’ll join you in the festivities!
Well, three basketball games left until we turn our attention to the Saints' draft prospects, and Kentucky is still unbeaten at 38-0. That alone has made the top-ranked Wildcats the prohibitive favorite in Las Vegas and the logical favorite of the sports media wretches who predict those things for a living. But fans of other contenders itching to see Goliath fall have their own logic on why Kentucky’s dream season will drown in the Indiana rain. As my pal and fellow UK grad Paul Jensen, the former PR guy for the Arizona Cardinals, has said all year: “The haters are out, and haters will hate.”
Two teams who did not make it out of the Elite Eight had their reasons for thinking they could beat the Wildcats. Louisville fans wanted another chance to avenge a 58-50 loss to their arch-rival on their home floor in December. This time, they said, Rick Pitino had his team peaking and surely they would beat UK. But nobody told Michigan State, and the Cardinals couldn’t hit free throws down the stretch in an overtime loss. Likewise, some fans wanted Gonzaga to get the chance so Kyle Wiltjer could light it up against the team he helped win the 2012 title. Wiltjer transferred to Gonzaga in 2013 and sat out a season before becoming the team's leading scorer, but he lost his chance when the Zags were beaten by Duke in the East Regional finals.
Of course, the other three finalists have their own reasons for wanting to stick it to the Cats. Wisconsin is motivated by revenge for their unlikely ouster by 8-seed Kentucky in the 2014 Final Four in Dallas. Aaron Harrison’s shot heard round the Bluegrass gave the Wildcats a 74-73 victory and a trip to the championship game. The Badgers' four best reasons are the four starters back from the 2014 loss, led by national Player of the Year candidate Frank Kaminsky. Wisconsin is one of few teams that line up against Kentucky’s size, and Bo Ryan’s offense is even more efficient than Notre Dame's. But last year, the Kentucky defense allowed Kaminsky only seven shots from the field and four field goals for eight points as Sam Dekker and Ben Brust led the Badger scoring with 15 each. Brust is gone, but Dekker scored 50 points in the two regional games and is a weapon.
If Kentucky gets past Wisconsin, they will play either Michigan State or Duke. Sparty, overlooked for much of the season, takes over the role Connecticut filled to perfection in 2014, a 7-seed that peaked at the right time and beat the Wildcats for the championship. To get that chance, Michigan State first must get past Duke, which most prognosticators say they will not do, leaving Kentucky and Duke in a classic final on Monday night. The Blue Devils also are led by a raft of McDonald’s All-Americans, led by another Player of the Year contender, 6-10 Jahlil Okafor. Six-foot-6 freshman Justise Winslow had the hot hand in the regionals, and at guards senior Quinn Cook and freshman Tyus Jones are quick, can shoot and surely would give the UK guard-by-committee trouble.
Those are some of the reasons the haters have hope, but they should know that Big Blue Nation has heard it before. The most recent, and maybe the best example of Big Blue Confidence came Saturday against Notre Dame's opportunistic offense. After Willie Cauley-Stein missed a tip-in with 12:05 left, Kentucky didn't miss another shot.
There was a lob dunk by Cauley-Stein and a layup by 6-10 Trey Lyles. Then back-to-back backdown baskets by 6-10 Karl-Anthony Towns. UK trailed by six, 59-53, with 6:10 to go in the game, the most they have trailed late in the game this season. Notre Dame Coach Mike Brey decided on the next trip he had to double Towns. Lyles fired the ball to point guard Tyler Ulis on the right wing for a three. No more double-teams. Sharpshooter Aaron Harrison got open for another three. The defense also clamped down. Notre Dame did not score in the final 2:35 and missed all three of its shots.
Kentucky wears down its opponents with its depth and with its height. And in games like the ones coming up this weekend, they force the other team to make extraordinary plays to win. The haters hope they make them, but, so far, nobody has.