Fast Five: Memorable Sports Farewells

I’ve attended academic classes for five days a week, nine months a year from the time I was three years old, through two years of preschool, 13 years of K-thru-12, and four years of college.

But last week, I walked out of a college classroom for the last time, ahead of my graduation from Anderson University this Saturday.

As the sports aficionado I am, I couldn’t help but compare myself leaving school–retiring from school, in a sense, after what amounts to a 19 year academic “career”–to many of my athletic heroes in recent years walking away from the game.

Sure, the conclusion of my school years has come with much less fanfare than many of the highly-publicized retirements, such as Chipper Jones, David Ortiz, Tony Stewart, Alex Rodriguez, Paul Pierce, Landon Donavan, and even broadcaster Vin Scully, over the last several years in the sports world (in addition to some of the athletes listed below).  But, like many of these stars, I am also unsure of what is next.

But while the finish of my last final exam was as mundane as me handing it to the professor and quietly walking out the door, these athletes had more memorable farewells:

Honorable Mention:  Jeff Gordon

The four-time NASCAR champion’s final season came alive when he won at Martinsville in The Chase for his 93rd career win, clinching a spot in the Championship Round.  Gordon was one of four drivers to compete for the title at Homestead in the season finale, when he finished 6th behind champion Kyle Busch after leading nine laps.  The roar of the fans when Gordon took the lead could be heard over the roar of the engines in the race’s broadcast.  While Gordon has returned as an injury replacement for Dale Earnhardt Jr., his final full season was a memorable and successful farewell in a sport where many stars’ careers have ended either in mediocrity or by injury/death.


Honorable Mention:  David Ross

Ross, a “role player,” was never a household name, playing mostly as a backup or platoon catcher during stints with the Dodgers, Pirates, Padres, Reds, Red Sox, Braves and Cubs.  In his final season with the Cubs, “Grandpa Ross” hit 10 home runs in 67 games in the regular season, most often getting playing time as Jon Lester’s personal catcher, and was a leader of the 103-win Cubs team.  But his farewell will be remembered for his playoff performance.  Ross hit .250 in the postseason with two home runs, with a .400 batting average in the World Series.  In his final at-bat, Ross became the oldest player (39) to homer in a World Series Game 7, helping the Cubs to their first championship since 1908.


5.  Kobe Bryant

The Black Mamba played his entire 20-year career with the Los Angeles Lakers, and by the final season was playing reduced minutes in most games as his body was less durable than in his prime.  But on his final night in the NBA, Bryant played 42 minutes and exploded for 60 points, the most by any player in a game in the 2015-16 NBA season.  Bryant made 22 of his 50 shots, including six threes, and was 10-for-12 on free throws.  Bryant outscored the opposing Utah Jazz 23-21 in the fourth quarter, helping the Lakers to a 101-96 win to eliminate the Jazz from playoff contention.

The only thing that could have made this farewell better was if it were in a game that counted for the Lakers.  But as Bryant ended a career that included five NBA championships, his Lakers struggled to a 17-65 record.


4.  Ted Williams

Teddy Ballgame was one of the greatest hitters in MLB history.  His .482 career on-base percentage is the best of all-time, and he is the last player to hit .400 or better in a season (.406) in 1941.  Williams hit .316 with 29 home runs and 72 RBI in his final season in 1960 with the Boston Red Sox, where he played his entire 19-year career.

The final home run, the 521st of his career, came dramatically, in his final at-bat at Fenway Park on September 28, 1960.  Williams never acknowledged the crowd during his career, but later said he almost tipped his cap while running around the bases after the home run as the fans roared.  The Red Sox’ final three games of the season were in New York, but Williams played in none of them, making the Fenway home run the final at-bat of his illustrious career.


3.  Peyton Manning, John Elway and Jerome Bettis

This group of two Hall of Famers and Manning, who will be a first-ballot Hall of Famer when eligible, each culminated their careers with a Super Bowl title, with each overcoming the criticism of not being able to win “the big one” over the course of their careers.

Manning won Super Bowl XLI with the Colts, but also lost Super Bowls XLIV with the Colts and XLVIII with the Broncos.  He was able to finish with a second championship by winning Super Bowl 50 with a 24-10 win over the Panthers (although it should be noted the defense had more to do with the championship than Manning’s tired arm).  Manning didn’t announce his retirement until weeks later, although fans and the media alike could sense that Super Bowl 50 was very likely his final game.

Elway lost three Super Bowls early in his career (XXI, XXII, XXIV), but reached two more Super Bowls (XXXII, XXXIII) in his final two seasons and finished with back-to-back titles.  After beating the Packers in Super Bowl XXXII for his first championship, Elway led the Broncos to a convincing 34-19 win over the Falcons in Super Bowl XXXIII, his final game, and finished his stellar career by winning Super Bowl MVP.  Like Manning, Elway didn’t officially announce his retirement until after the season.

Bettis, the lone player in this group who played running back instead of quarterback, played his final 10 seasons with the Steelers after playing for the Rams his first three years.  Super Bowl XL was the first Super Bowl appearance of his career, which included six Pro Bowl appearances and the 2001 Walter Payton NFL Man of the Year Award.  After Bettis’s Steelers won the Super Bowl with a 21-10 defeat of the Seahawks, Bettis announced during the post-game trophy presentation that “the last stop for ‘The Bus'” would be with the NFL title won in his hometown of Detroit.

2.  Derek Jeter

The Captain, whose jersey will be retired this Sunday night by the New York Yankees, was one of the most beloved players throughout his career as the Yankee shortstop.  The .310 career hitter, who hit .308 in the playoffs in his career while leading the Yankees to five World Series titles, announced before his 20th season in 2014 that he would retire at season’s end.

Through eight innings of Jeter’s final home game at Yankee Stadium on September 25, 2014, Jeter had a double, two RBI, and a run scored.  But after the Yankees blew a 5-2 lead in the top of the ninth, Jeter got an additional at-bat in the bottom half, with the game tied and pinch-runner Antoan Richardson at second.  Jeter delivered one of the great moments in recent MLB memory, collecting a walk-off single to right field in his final home at-bat for his third RBI of the game, giving the Yankees a 6-5 win.

But the season still had three games remaining, which were played in Boston.  Jeter played DH–he wanted his final game at Yankee Stadium to be his final game at shortstop–and on September 28 earned an RBI infield single in his final at-bat, before being pinch-run for by Brian McCann.  As dramatic as his final home at-bat had been, his final overall at-bat in Boston showed how respected Jeter is, as he left the field to a standing ovation from the fans of the Yankees’ archrivals.


1.  Lou Gehrig

Gehrig was the “Iron Horse,” a durable player who was twice American League MVP as the Yankees first baseman, was a part of six World Series titles, and is one of 12 modern-era players to win a Triple Crown.  But Gehrig’s performance began to diminish in late 1938, and by the beginning of the 1939 season, it was clear something was physically wrong.  On May 2nd, Gehrig took himself out of the lineup, ending a streak of 2,130 consecutive games over the previous 14 seasons, a record that would stand until 1995.

Gehrig was diagnosed with ALS (nicknamed Lou Gehrig’s Disease), on June 19, and officially retired on June 21.  On July 4, the Yankees held Lou Gehrig Day.  Between games of a doubleheader, after Gehrig’s #4 became the first number retired by a team in MLB history,  stirring tributes were given by Babe Ruth, New York mayor Fiorello La Guardia, and Yankees manager Joe McCarthy, among others.

Once Gehrig stepped to the mic he was, at first, too emotional to speak.  But once he did, he delivered a speech that has long been remembered beyond the realm of baseball:

“Fans, for the past two weeks, you’ve been reading about a bad break. 

“Today… I consider myself… the luckiest man… on the face of the earth.  I have been in ballparks for seventeen years and have never received anything but kindness and encouragement from you fans.

“When you look around, wouldn’t you consider it a privilege to associate yourself with such fine-looking men as are standing in uniform in this ballpark today?  Sure, I’m lucky.  Who wouldn’t consider it an honor to have known Jacob Ruppert?  Also, the builder of baseball’s greatest empire, Ed Barrow?  To have spent six years with that wonderful little fellow, Miller Huggins?  Then to have spent the next nine years with that outstanding leader, that smart student of psychology, the best manager in baseball today, Joe McCarthy?  Sure, I’m lucky.

“When the New York Giants, a team you would give your right arm to beat, and vice versa, sends you a gift – that’s something.  When everybody down to the groundskeepers and those boys in white coats remember you with trophies – that’s something.  When you have a wonderful mother-in-law who takes sides with you in squabbles with her own daughter – that’s something.  When you have a father and a mother who work all their lives so you can have an education and build your body – it’s a blessing.  When you have a wife who has been a tower of strength and shown more courage than you dreamed existed – that’s the finest I know.

“So I close in saying that… I might have… been given a bad break, but I’ve got an awful lot to live for.  Thank you.”

Gehrig’s remarks were followed by a two-minute standing ovation from the sellout Yankee Stadium crowd.

Gehrig was immediately elected into the National Baseball Hall of Fame, as the writers who vote waived the typical five-year waiting period for eligibility due to Gehrig’s illness.  Gehrig died of ALS on June 2, 1941.

Fast Five: Sentimental Favorites in the Sweet 16

As the NCAA Tournament enters its second weekend, certain teams always seem to capture the hearts of fans, many of whom are looking for another rooting interest after their own team has been eliminated.

This year there are not necessarily any “Cinderella” teams, but there are still a fair share of teams who can be sentimental favorites as the Sweet 16 begins tonight.

Honorable Mention:  Arizona (32-4, 2-seed, West Region)
Sweet 16:  Tonight vs. #11 Xavier, 10:09 pm ET, TBS

It’s odd to include a traditional power like Arizona on this list (that’s why they’re an honorable mention), but a potential Wildcats run to the title has its share of storylines, considering the Final Four is in Phoenix, and Arizona is celebrating the 20th anniversary of their last national title in 1997.

Honorable Mention:  Whoever is playing UCLA
Sweet 16:  Friday vs. #2 Kentucky, 9:39 pm ET, CBS

The sports social media world keeps buzzing over the crazy things Lavar Ball, the father of Bruins point guard Lonzo Ball, has said.  I’m all for parents being involved in their kids’ lives and athletic careers, but Lavar Ball is completely over the top, considering at this point he’s making headlines on almost a daily basis.  If UCLA loses, maybe he’ll shut up–at least until his other two sons are playing college basketball in the near future.

5.  Gonzaga (34-1, 1-seed, West Region)
Sweet 16:  Tonight vs. #4 West Virginia, 7:39 pm ET, TBS

It’s strange to put a team on this list who is a 1-seed, and has participated in every NCAA Tournament since 1999.  However, the Bulldogs are still the little brother to fellow 1-seeds North Carolina and Kansas, and many aren’t even favoring the Zags to win the regional, since they may face Arizona in the regional final.  To even get there, they face a tough matchup with 4-seed West Virginia in tonight’s regional semifinal.

Gonzaga reaching the Final Four would be a feel-good story because they have come close but fallen short in their previous tournament runs.  Mark Few has led the Bulldogs to eight Sweet 16 appearances and two Elite Eights (1999, 2015), but have yet to reach the Final Four, despite having one of the most consistent programs in the nation.

The Zags play in the West Regional in San Jose, and the Final Four is in Phoenix, should they reach it; both locations should allow their fans to join them.

4.  Butler (25-8, 4-seed, South Region)
Sweet 16:  Friday vs. #1 North Carolina, 7:09 pm ET, CBS

The Bulldogs have been the sentimental favorite before–they were back-to-back national runners-up in 2010-11, losing national finals to Duke and UConn–and now they return to the list seeded higher than either of those years (Butler was a 5-seed in 2010 and an 8-seed in 2011), as they make their first Sweet 16 appearance since the 2011 run.

But despite their recent success, the Bulldogs are still far and away the least accomplished team in the South Regional, which also includes North Carolina, who Butler meets Friday night, as well as Kentucky and UCLA.  Those three schools have combined for 24 national championships and 54 Final Four appearances.

Few expect Butler to make any noise in Memphis, but the Bulldogs program has been in this situation before.

3.  Xavier (23-13, 11-seed, West Region)
Sweet 16:  Tonight vs. #2 Arizona, 7:39 pm ET, TBS

The Musketeers are on this list at the lowest-remaining seed.  Xavier has reached the Elite Eight twice, in 2004 and 2008, but has lost in the Sweet 16 four times since that 2008 appearance.

Xavier, who has been a near-perennial NCAA Tournament team for the last two decades, has had tough luck losing good coaches to jobs at bigger programs:  Skip Prosser (Wake Forest), Thad Matta (Ohio State) and Sean Miller (Arizona).

Now current Xavier coach Chris Mack will face former coach Miller in the Sweet 16.  Miller, who was coach the last time Xavier reached the Elite Eight, left in 2009 to succeed Hall of Famer Lute Olson at Arizona.

This will be a tough test for Xavier; the Wildcats are one of the favorites to win it all, and the game is in San Jose, which should give Arizona a crowd advantage.  Even if Xavier wins tonight, the Gonzaga-West Virginia winner would be no easier of an opponent on Saturday.

2.  Michigan (26-11, 7-seed, Midwest Region)
Sweet 16:  Tonight vs. #3 Oregon, 7:09 pm ET, CBS

On Wednesday, March 8, as the Wolverines were departing Ann Arbor to head to Washington D.C. for the Big Ten Tournament, their team plane (with the team, coaches, family members, band and cheerleaders aboard) skidded off the end of the runway due to high winds.  Miraculously, no one was injured in the accident.

Michigan flew to Washington early the next morning to play their noon opener in the Big Ten Tournament, where they wore practice uniforms since their game jerseys were on the crashed plane.  The Wolverines beat Illinois comfortably that Thursday, before beating Purdue, Minnesota and Wisconsin to remarkably win the conference title.

After starting their NCAA Tournament with a 92-91 win over Oklahoma State, the Wolverines upset 2-seed Louisville on Sunday (and became a further sentimental favorite by knocking the scandalous Louisville athletic department out of the field), advancing to their third Sweet 16 in five years.

Since the accident, the Wolverines have seemed to play more loosely, and have no doubt played better than before.  Tonight, they face an Oregon team that lost its best player, forward Chris Boucher, in the Pac-12 Tournament.  Should the Wolverines advance to the Elite Eight, they would either encounter a Big Ten title game rematch against Purdue or a rematch of their classic 2013 comeback win over Kansas in the Sweet 16.

Sure, the Michigan program has had tremendous success in the past–the Wolverines have reached five Final Fours, including 2013, and won the 1989 national title–but the story of this team in their run to the Sweet 16 has been incredible.  Now, as they face an uphill climb as the lowest seed in the Midwest Regional, the Wolverines will try to continue to play out this movie-like scenario and write their Hollywood ending.

1.  South Carolina (24-10, 7-seed, East Region)
Sweet 16:  Friday vs. #3 Baylor, 7:29 pm ET, TBS

Sure, the Gamecocks happen to be a team I pull for, but that’s not why they are at the top of this list.

The Gamecocks are a sentimental favorite because of their program’s history (or, really, a lack thereof).  This tournament marks just the ninth appearance in the NCAA Tournament for the program, and the first since 2004, after the Gamecocks were snubbed from the field last year.  Before last year’s NIT bid, the program had just one winning season since 2006.

After a first round win over Marquette–their first NCAA Tournament win in 44 years–the Gamecocks shocked the world and beat Duke 88-81, eliminating one of the biggest favorites to win the national title.

Beating Duke is enough by itself to make the Gamecocks a sentimental favorite for some, but especially when the win got South Carolina to the Sweet 16 for the first time since 1973.  Now, the Gamecocks face Baylor (you know, that school that turned a blind eye to sexual assaults committed by student-athletes) as they try to reach their first Elite Eight in program history.

The East Region, at Madison Square Garden in New York, is wide open:  3-seed Baylor is the top remaining seed, and 4-seed Florida meets 8-seed Wisconsin (who beat 1-seed Villanova) in the other regional semifinal.  South Carolina, led by SEC Player of the Year Sindarius Thornwell (21.4 PPG, 7.3 RPG, 2.9 APG), have arguably the best player on any team in the East Region.

South Carolina is trying to complete a unique trifecta for its state:  Coastal Carolina won the baseball national championship in June and Clemson won the football title in January.  Schools from one state have not held all three titles simultaneously since 1975.

 

 

Sweet 16 Schedule (all times ET)

Midwest Region (Thursday, Kansas City)
#3 Oregon vs. #7 Michigan, 7:09 p.m., CBS
#1 Kansas vs. #4 Purdue, appr. 9:39 p.m., CBS

West Region (Thursday, San Jose)
#1 Gonzaga vs. #4 West Virginia, 7:39 p.m., TBS
#2 Arizona vs. #11 Xavier, appr. 10:09 p.m., TBS

South Regional (Friday, Memphis)
#1 North Carolina vs. #4 Butler, 7:09 p.m., CBS
#2 Kentucky vs. #3 UCLA, appr. 9:39 p.m., CBS

East Regional (Friday, New York)
#3 Baylor vs. #7 South Carolina, 7:29 p.m., TBS
#4 Florida vs. #8 Wisconsin, appr. 9:59 p.m., TBS

Fast Five: Double-Digit Seed Sleepers to Reach the Sweet 16

As the first round of the NCAA Tournament gets underway, everyone tries to pick the big upset or two, in an attempt to say “I called it!” if it actually happens.

But in this year’s bracket, there are multiple teams with double-digit seeds who have a realistic chance at winning not just one, but two games, and advancing to the Sweet 16.

These Cinderellas haven’t just been invited to The Big Dance; they may still be on the dance floor when the tournament enters its second weekend.

While I did not pick all of these teams in my bracket (in fact, I only picked one to advance to the Sweet 16), they are the teams that have the best opportunity to make a run through the first two rounds, based on both matchups and their own abilities.

 

Honorable Mention:  Marquette (19-12, #10 seed, East)

Marquette’s draw is tough, against South Carolina in the Palmetto State, then potentially against Duke, but consider this:  South Carolina has lost five of seven and hasn’t won a tournament game since 1973, while Golden Eagles coach Steve Wojciechowski was an assistant under Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski, and teams led by Coach K proteges tend to play well against Duke.

5. Florida Gulf Coast (26-7, #14 seed, West)

I know they’re a 14-seed, but this wouldn’t be fun without one really low seed on the list.

In 2013, FGCU captured the nation’s hearts with an improbable run to the Sweet 16, upsetting 2-seed Georgetown and 7-seed San Diego State, advancing further than any 15-seed in tournament history.  Here’s the thing:  this team is actually better.

The 2013 Eagles actually didn’t win the Atlantic Sun regular season title, but won the league tournament to reach the NCAA Tournament.  This year, FGCU did win the regular season title with a 12-2 league record, and the team is 19-2 since Dec. 17, including seven straight wins.  The 2013 team, nicknamed “Dunk City,” had 148 dunks, but this year’s edition has 157, while this year’s team also has two more wins entering the tournament than the 2013 Eagles did.

They have their work cut out for them against Florida State, the 3-seed in the West Region, but while the Seminoles have had a great year with some really big wins, they also have been slightly inconsistent.  The ‘Noles are an impressive 7-3 against the Top 25, but have four losses against teams that missed the NCAA Tournament.  The game is in Orlando, so both teams will have a large fan turnout.

Looking ahead to a potential second round matchup, the Florida State-FGCU victor will face either 6-seed Maryland or 11-seed Xavier, and either will be beatable.  Maryland enters the tournament having lost four of their last six, while Xavier lost six straight from Feb. 11 to Mar. 1 after point guard Edmond Sumner was lost for the season with an injury.

4. Vermont (29-5, #13 seed, Midwest)

The hottest team no one is talking about entering the tournament is Vermont, who has the nation’s longest winning streak at 21 games.

The champions of the America East Conference, the Catamounts have not lost a game since Dec. 21, and three of their five losses on the season came to fellow tournament teams.

Purdue is the regular season champion of the Big Ten, although this has been a “down year” for the historically strong conference, and the Boilermakers were one-and-done in the Big Ten Tournament.  Purdue also has a knack for inability to finish games in the tournament; the last two years they have blown big leads late to lose in overtime in the first round.

For a team to stop Purdue (34th in nation with 80.1 PPG), they need a good defense, and Vermont has it (61.6 PPG allowed is 11th nationally).  One would imagine Vermont will have to overcome adversity to beat a team like Purdue, but that will be no problem for coach John Becker–before Vermont, he coached at Galludet, the nation’s leading university for the deaf.

5-seed Iowa State, the Big 12 Tournament champions, are a possible matchup for Vermont in the second round, although a potential defeat of the Cyclones by 12-seed Nevada is a trendy first round upset pick; such an upset would set up a second round matchup of two double-digit seeds should Vermont beat Purdue.

3. UNC Wilmington (29-5, #12 seed, East)

The regular season and tournament champions of the Colonial Athletic Association enter the NCAA Tournament having won 18 of their last 21.  Last year as a 13-seed, the Seahawks played 4-seed Duke close, losing 93-85 after leading at halftime, and this year they will play 5-seed Virginia in the first round.

When people think Virginia, they think defense, and rightfully so:  the Cavaliers allow a national-best 55.6 PPG.  However, the Seahawks have the offense to match, ranking 10th nationally at 85.2 PPG.  Devontae Cacok is shooting 79.9 percent from the field, a mark that is over five points better than the existing NCAA single-season record.

Virginia has, at least theoretically, underachieved in the last three tournaments as a 1- or 2-seed, and they have also lost their last three tournament games when they were a 5-seed or lower.  The Virginia-UNCW game will tip at 12:40 pm ET this afternoon, and early afternoon games have a knack for producing upsets.

The winner of Virginia-UNCW will face the winner of Florida-East Tennessee State in the second round.  While 4-seed Florida would be a tough matchup for the Seahawks (as they would be for anyone else in the field), it is within the realm of possibility that East Tennessee State could upset the Gators, as the Buccaneers are dangerous with four senior starters.  Either way, UNC Wilmington has the tools to potentially compete with either team and threaten to make the Sweet 16.

2. Middle Tennessee State (30-4, #12 seed, South)

Last year, Middle Tennessee State pulled off arguably the biggest upset in NCAA Tournament history, shocking 2-seed Michigan State 90-81.  Even after three players from that team graduated, this year’s Blue Raiders are even better, winning the C-USA regular season title (last year’s team did not), then backing it up with the league tournament title.

The Blue Raiders have won 20 of their last 21, led by four seniors and three players averaging at least 14.5 PPG (JaCorey Williams, Giddy Potts, Reggie Upshaw).  The Blue Raiders rank 11th nationally in field goal percentage; their first round opponent of Minnesota ranks 213th.

Minnesota is 24-9, but has lost two of their last three, and a five-game losing streak in January is a dark spot on their resume.  The Golden Gophers are coached by Richard Pitino, the son of Louisville coach Rick Pitino (the pair are becoming the first father-son duo to coach in the same NCAA Tournament, although they cannot meet until the Final Four).

Minnesota is over-seeded, at least in my opinion, while Middle Tennessee State is under-seeded; as a result, even though this is a 5-vs-12 game as seedings go, ESPN’s BPI gives Middle Tennessee State a 46 percent chance to win.  That’s the fourth highest percentage for any double-digit seed, and by far the highest for any team seeded 12 or worse.

As far as a potential second round matchup, the Minnesota-MTSU winner will face the winner of Butler and Winthrop.  Butler is a heavy favorite, and is responsible for two of Villanova’s three losses, but have shown they are beatable with a trio of “bad losses.”  Winthrop is a heavy underdog, but may have the best player on the floor on Thursday in Keon Johnson, a 5-foot-7 guard who scores 22.5 PPG.

1. Rhode Island (24-9, #11 seed, Midwest)

Rhode Island enters their first NCAA appearance in 18 years with wins in eight straight games and 12 of their last 14, having played their way onto the tournament bubble, then off of it by winning the Atlantic-10 Tournament (and automatic NCAA bid).  The Rams are looking to repeat the success of the last time they were an 11-seed:  in 1988, they went to the Sweet 16.

The Rams’ first round opponent is Creighton.  The Blue Jays started the season hot, but are just 8-7 since losing guard Maurice Watson Jr. for the year, with half of those wins coming against the bottom three teams in the Big East.

An intriguing individual matchup to watch is on the inside, between Creighton’s Justin Patton and Rhode Island’s Hassan Martin.  Patton has a decided height advantage (7-foot to 6-foot-7), but Martin plays bigger than his height and has led the A-10 in blocked shots four straight seasons.

Creighton is a 61 percent favorite in ESPN’s BPI, and just a 2-point betting favorite, despite the 6-vs-11 seeding of the matchup.

In the second round, the Rams could potentially meet Oregon or Iona.  Oregon is without post-man Chris Boucher, who blew his knee in the Pac-12 Tournament and dealt a big blow to Oregon’s chances at a deep run.  The Ducks won the first NCAA Tournament in 1939, but haven’t been back to the Final Four since.

14-seed Iona is capable of upsetting Oregon if leading scorer Jordan Washington (17.9 PPG) can stay on the floor; he averages just 21.7 minutes per game.  Whether Oregon or Iona wins, the potential second-round matchup would play to Rhode Island’s favor.

 

 

NCAA Tournament

East Region
#1 Villanova vs. #16 Mount St. Mary’s (Thursday, Buffalo)
#8 Wisconsin vs. #9 Virginia Tech (Thursday, Buffalo)
#4 Florida vs. #13 East Tennessee State (Thursday, Orlando)
#5 Virginia vs. #12 UNC Wilmington (Thursday, Orlando)
#3 Baylor vs. #14 New Mexico State (Friday, Tulsa)
#6 SMU vs. #11 USC (Friday, Tulsa)
#2 Duke vs. #15 Troy (Friday, Greenville)
#7 South Carolina vs. #10 Marquette (Friday, Greenville)

West Regional
#1 Gonzaga vs. #16 South Dakota State (Thursday, Salt Lake City)
#8 Northwestern vs. #9 Vanderbilt (Thursday, Salt Lake City)
#4 West Virginia vs. #13 Bucknell (Thursday, Buffalo)
#5 Notre Dame vs. #12 Princeton (Thursday, Buffalo)
#3 Florida State vs. #14 Florida Gulf Coast (Thursday, Orlando)
#6 Maryland vs. #11 Xavier (Thursday, Orlando)
#2 Arizona vs. #15 North Dakota (Thursday, Salt Lake City)
#7 Saint Mary’s vs. #10 VCU (Thursday, Salt Lake City)

Midwest Region
#1 Kansas vs. #16 UC Davis (Friday, Tulsa)
#8 Miami (Fla.) vs. #9 Michigan State (Friday, Tulsa)
#4 Purdue vs. #13 Vermont (Thursday, Milwaukee)
#5 Iowa State vs. #12 Nevada (Thursday, Milwaukee)
#3 Oregon vs. #14 Iona (Friday, Sacramento)
#6 Creighton vs. #11 Rhode Island (Friday, Sacremento)
#2 Louisville vs. #15 Jacksonville State (Friday, Indianapolis)
#7 Michigan vs. #10 Oklahoma State (Friday, Indianapolis)

South Region
#1 North Carolina vs. #16 Texas Southern (Friday, Greenville)
#8 Arkansas vs. #9 Seton Hall (Friday, Greenville)
#4 Butler vs. #13 Winthrop (Thursday, Milwaukee)
#5 Minnesota vs. #12 Middle Tennessee (Thursday, Milwaukee)
#3 UCLA vs. #14 Kent State (Friday, Sacremento)
#6 Cincinnati vs. #11 Kansas State (Friday, Sacremento)
#2 Kentucky vs. #15 Northern Kentucky (Friday, Indianapolis)
#7 Dayton vs. #10 Wichita State (Friday, Indianapolis)

 

Fast Five: Biggest Storylines Entering 2017 NASCAR Season

The 2017 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series season starts tonight, with the Advance Auto Parts Clash at Daytona, a non-points event with an all-star field.

As always, there are a plethora of storylines entering the new season and Daytona Speedweeks.  Here are the biggest subplots entering the new year:

5. Johnson Goes For Championship Eight

After winning his record-tying seventh Cup Series championship in November, the 2017 season is Jimmie Johnson’s first chance to win an unprecedented eighth title and break the record of Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt.

Johnson has won his seven titles over the last 11 seasons, while Earnhardt won his seven over 15 seasons and Petty won seven over 16 seasons.  Even if Johnson, 41, does not win his eighth title in 2017, he is expected to have several competitive years left to try to break the record.

4. Daniel Suarez enters Cup, replacing Carl Edwards 

Carl Edwards’ retirement at 37 came as a surprise to everyone in the NASCAR garage.  His replacement, however, was not as surprising to insiders, although it is a name casual fans may not recognize.

Daniel Suarez, 25, replaces Edwards in the #19 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota after winning the XFinity Series championship in 2016, becoming the first minority champion in any NASCAR national series, and the first born outside the U.S. (Mexico).

The very talented Suarez will immediately be a threat to win races and qualify for the playoffs, and joins a rookie class that also includes Erik Jones (#77 Furniture Row Racing Toyota) and Ty Dillon (brother of Austin, #13 Germain Racing Chevrolet).

3. Changes at Stewart-Haas Racing

Tony Stewart also retired after the 2016 season, and is replaced in the #14 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford by Clint Bowyer.

SHR, which consists of Bowyer, Kevin Harvick, Kurt Busch and Danica Patrick, is changing to Ford for the 2017 season after the last 14 seasons (eight with Stewart as co-owner) with Chevrolet.  The move allows SHR to become one of the two co-leading teams with Ford (alongside Penske Racing), after spending their tenure with Chevy in the shadow of Hendrick Motorsports.  With the move, SHR also had to change engine providers; after using Hendrick engines for their entire history, the company now moves to Roush-Yates Engines.

The team is also is fighting a developing legal battle with ex-sponsor Nature’s Bakery.  The company ceased its sponsorship of Patrick after the first year of a three-year contract, as the small company was struggling to pay for their sponsorship.  As a result, SHR has sued Nature’s Bakery for a breach of contract, and the company has countersued.  Patrick will still be sponsored for 2017 by TaxAct and Aspen Dental, the latter of which extended their sponsorship to fill some of the void left by Nature’s Bakery.

2. Dale Earnhardt Jr. Returns

Dale Earnhardt Jr. missed the last 18 races of the 2016 season after suffering a concussion, one which he says is at least his fourth such injury in racing.

The son of Dale Earnhardt, who was killed 16 years ago today in the Daytona 500, has been voted NASCAR’s Most Popular Driver for 14 straight seasons, capitalizing on both his father’s popularity and his moderate Cup Series success.

The 42-year old Earnhardt Jr., who married on Dec. 31 and enters a “contract year” in 2017, returns at arguably his most successful track, as he will make his first start of any kind since July in next week’s Daytona 500.  He will not race in the Advance Auto Parts Clash tonight; Alex Bowman, who earned a spot in tonight’s field by winning a pole at Phoenix last year, will drive the #88 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet.

Earnhardt Jr. is a 26-time Cup Series race winner, and has finished in the top five in points four times, including a third-place points finish in 2003.  He is one of 11 drivers with multiple Daytona 500 wins, and can become just the sixth with three or more with a win next Sunday.

1. NASCAR’s Changes for 2017

NASCAR in 2017 will look different from any NASCAR season in the past, for multiple reasons.

First, the Cup Series has a new title sponsor.  What was the Sprint Cup Series in now the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series, as the energy drink company signed a “multiyear deal” with NASCAR back in December.

A new identity for the Cup Series made this offseason natural timing for other changes, and NASCAR has made several.

The biggest change is the new race format:  races will be divided into three segments, called “stages,” with points being awarded to the top 10 after each stage in addition to the full field at the race’s completion.  Stage winners will also recieve bonus points for the newly-named playoffs (formerly “The Chase”), as will the top 10 in regular season points, and those bonuses will carry through all the way until the Round of 8 (previously, bonus points only applied to the initial round, the Round of 16).

Many say the result will be better racing throughout the entirety of the event, although there are many skeptics, myself included.  Tonight’s 75-lap exhibition has no stages, so we won’t see the new format in action until next week’s Daytona 500.

In addition, NASCAR announced a new damaged vehicle policy for 2017.  Teams will no longer be allowed to replace major parts on damaged cars, and while they will be allowed to fix damage on original parts, they will only be allowed five minutes on pit road to perform such repairs.  Any car that has to go behind the wall or to the garage will be out of the race.

This rule is a safety initiative by NASCAR, as often times in the past when teams have sent patched-up cars back on the track they have caused accidents.  How much it affects the racing–and how much attrition goes up–are a big unknown right now; this change will potentially be seen in tonight’s Advance Auto Parts Clash (i.e. a hypothetical “big one” takes out 14 of the 17-car field).

How all these changes affect the competition, including driving styles and strategy, will be a big storyline throughout the entire 2017 season.

Fast Five: Reasons The Patriots Will Win Super Bowl LI

Tonight, the New England Patriots will meet the Atlanta Falcons in Super Bowl LI in Houston.

I’ll be honest:  as someone who has lived one-third of Atlanta sports heartbreak (Braves) and who has never liked the Patriots, I’ll be rooting for the Falcons to win tonight.  But objectively, I think the Patriots will win their fifth Super Bowl.

While there are several stats being around favoring the Patriots that are truthfully irrelavant (the team wearing white jerseys has won 11 of the last 12 Super Bowls, the Patriots are 7-2 with referee Carl Cheffers, the Falcons haven’t won a playoff game outside Atlanta since 2002, etc.), here are five legitimate reasons why the Patriots will hoist the Lombardi Trophy tonight:

5. Trends Favor New England

There are several stats that, while based on games in the past, show overall trends that favor the Patriots.  For instance, the Patriots are 12-0 in the playoffs in the Belichick/Brady era against teams they didn’t face in the regular season (compared to 12-9 in rematch games).

The Patriots, who are tonight’s betting favorite, are 15-3 against the spread this season, compared to underdog Atlanta, who is 12-6.

Sunday is Falcons coach Dan Quinn’s first meeting as a head coach against Bill Belichick; previous coaches making their debut vs. Belichick are 3-22.

The Patriots are 16-0 in games Dion Lewis has played since he signed before the 2015 season, while they are 7-0 since losing star tight end Rob Gronkowski for the season to injury.

4. Experience

An experience factor can sometimes be overblown, but it may have legitimately played a role in last year’s Broncos victory over the Panthers.  The Patriots are clearly the more experienced team, with players on the current roster having appeared in Super Bowls XXXVI, XXXVIII, XXXIX, XLII, XLVI, and XLIX.

Patriots QB Tom Brady has appeared in six previous Super Bowls, while the entire Falcons roster has appeared in five previous Super Bowls combined.

Quinn has actually coached in two of the last three Super Bowls before tonight, as Falcons defensive coordinator in Super Bowls XLVIII and XLIX, but this just his 35th game as an NFL head coach, finishing his second season with Atlanta.

3. Defense

Both teams enter tonight’s game with a strong offense, but the Patriots clearly have the stronger defense.

Atlanta’s offense is second in total yards (New England is fourth), and has scored the most points per game (33.8) in the NFL.  Meanwhile, the Patriots defense has allowed the least points in the league, while the Falcons rank 27th of the 32 teams.

This Super Bowl is the seventh between the stingiest defense and the highest-scoring offense–in the previous six, the team with the top defense is 5-1.  Perhaps there really is something to the old adage “defense wins championships.”

While these two teams are the top two in the league in the offensive efficiency metric, the Patriots (7th) defensively outrank the Falcons (22nd) by far.  Some will point to the fact the Patriots have played nine games against seven of the league’s nine worst offenses (which may why their defensive efficiency isn’t even higher), but their defense was very strong two weeks ago, holding the explosive Steelers offense to 17 points in the AFC Championship.

2. Tom Brady

While Falcons QB and NFL MVP Matt Ryan has had a phenomenal season in his own right, throwing for 4,944 yards and 38 touchdowns and a historically good 7-0 touchdown-interception ratio in the playoffs, many (including me) expect Tom Brady to embrace the moment, as he always seems to do, and have the better game.

Brady threw for 3,554 yards and 28 touchdowns this season, even after missing the first four games due to the “Deflategate” suspension, and his 28-2 touchdown-interception ratio is the best for a single season in NFL history.  He’s done this at the age of 39, and doesn’t seem to be slowing down at an age when many players have already been retired for a few years.

In six previous Super Bowls, Brady has thrown 13 touchdowns against four interceptions, averaging 267 yards per game, including 328 against Seattle (and Dan Quinn’s defense) two years ago.  With a win, Brady would become the second-oldest Super Bowl-winning quarterback, and would be the winningest quarterback in Super Bowl history with five titles.  Brady has three previous Super Bowl MVPs, and a fourth would be a record, breaking a tie with Joe Montana.

1. It’s Not Wise to Bet Against The Belichick-Brady Patriots

Since taking the Patriots head coaching job in 2000, Bill Belichick’s team is 201-71 in the regular season (including a 5-11 debut before he got things turned around), and 24-9 in the playoffs with four Super Bowl titles, with every playoff game coming during Brady’s tenure.  The Patriots have basically ruled the NFL since 2001, and if not for two New York Giants upsets of New England in Super Bowls, they would have six titles in the Belichick/Brady era.

Every Super Bowl the Patriots has played has been close, and in they have shown their ability to win the game in the clutch, especially offensively, on the biggest stage in American sports.

This is no disrespect to the Falcons, although they will probably play that card with most of the national media picking against them; this is simply an acknowledgement of the Patriots incomparable ability with Belichick and Brady to win, plain and simple.

I’ve picked against New England before because I wanted them to lose, and I have learned it is usually a mistake to bet against the Patriots.

 

 

Super Bowl LI
New England Patriots vs. Atlanta Falcons
Sunday, 6:30 pm ET, FOX
at Houston, Tex. (NRG Stadium)
Patriots:  16-2, def. Pittsburgh 36-17 in AFC Championship
Falcons:  13-5, def. Green Bay 44-21 in NFC Championship
Betting Favorite:  Patriots by 3

Prediction:  Patriots 31, Falcons 27

 

 

For what it’s worth…

Overall Record: 79-54-1
Last Week: 1-1
College Overall Record: 67-48
NFL Game of the Week: 12-6-1

Game of the Week: 10-5
Big Game Guarantee: 3-7
Upset of the Week: 4-6
Closer Than the Experts Think: 4-6
Not Closer Than the Experts Think: 7-3
Overhyped/Bad Spread Game: 5-5
Group of Five Game of the Week: 7-3
Is This Futbol?: 8-2
Is This Basketball?: 8-2
Toilet Bowl: 6-4
Miscellaneous: 5-5

For an explanation of the categories for Twitter Picks, click here.

Fast Five: Reasons Clemson Will Beat Alabama Tonight

Tonight, Clemson and Alabama meet for in college football’s National Championship Game for the second straight season.  Last year’s meeting produced a 45-40 classic, won by the Crimson Tide, and many expect the rematch to be as good or even better.

Experts are split between whether Clemson or Alabama will win this time around, but there are five reasons why I think Clemson will win tonight’s game:

5. Semifinal performances

In the College Football Playoff’s semifinal round on New Year’s Eve, Clemson had the better performance, beating 3rd-seeded Ohio State 31-0 to hand Urban Meyer the worst loss of his coaching career.  Alabama, on the other hand, was facing 4th-seeded Washington, and only led 17-7 early in the fourth quarter before eventually winning 24-7.

Clemson will be a much tougher opponent than Washington, who had a chance entering the fourth quarter despite not playing their best, something that could be troublesome for the Crimson Tide.  From the opposite perspective, Ohio State’s team has a similar makeup to Alabama (even if Alabama is collectively a better team), and Clemson completely dominated every facet of the game in the Fiesta Bowl victory.

4. Jalen Hurts vs. Clemson’s defense

Alabama QB Jalen Hurts is trying to become the first true freshman starting quarterback since 1985 to win a national championship, but will be facing the Clemson defense, the toughest unit he’s met all season.  Hurts struggled in the Peach Bowl win over Washington, going 7-for-14 for just 57 yards.  Alabama’s offensive line struggled protecting Hurts in that game, as he was sacked three times, and now will face a much tougher test against the Clemson defensive line.

That group, led by Christian Wilkins and Carlos Watkins, has the third most sacks in the country (49), and sacked Ohio State’s J.T. Barrett three times in the Fiesta Bowl.  For Alabama to win, both Hurts and his offensive line will have to play their best , something I think Clemson will be able to prevent from happening.

3. Distractions

Alabama has had a huge distraction over the last seven days after head coach Nick Saban and offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin parted ways on January 2.  Kiffin, who was originally slated to stay with Alabama through the Playoff before becoming head coach at Florida Atlantic, got to jump ship for Boca Raton early, and Saban promoted offensive analyst Steve Sarkisian, the former head coach at USC and Washington, to offensive coordinator.

This story has been a huge storyline over the last week, and now the Alabama offense has to prepare to face the Clemson defense with a different coordinator than they have had all season, and one in Sarkisian who hasn’t been an offensive coordinator since 2008.  This would be a big deal if Alabama’s quarterback were a senior; the fact this is happening with a true freshman leading the offense potentially creates even more turbulence.

Clemson, in the meantime, has essentially been distraction-free in the lead-up to tonight’s game, and appears to have a wholly focused approach to the game, which leads to my next point.

2. Motivation

Clemson is completely motivated for tonight’s game, as they attempt to avenge last year’s defeat against the Crimson Tide.  In recent years in sports, when there has been a rematch on a championship-level stage, the team that lost the first meeting has often gotten their revenge in the second, and Clemson has shown more than motivation to do it themselves.

While Clemson wasn’t as impressive in some of their early-season victories as they were in the 2015 season, after their 43-42 loss to Pittsburgh, the Tigers have been a different team, proving their focus with their results.  The team’s defensive leaders even pointed to their “All In” mentality as a big reason for their blowout win over Ohio State, and nearly every player has said they have wanted to meet Alabama again this season, to finish some unfinished business, especially on defense (after allowing 45 points last year).

There is added motivation in addition to just last year’s result.  Clemson is a six-point underdog in the title game, and under Dabo Swinney the Tigers are 5-1 as bowl underdogs, with the only loss coming in last year’s title game.

This point isn’t to say that Alabama isn’t motivated–Nick Saban is a master at motivating his players–but that the Clemson team, which has the talent to match Alabama, is so motivated and so focused that they will be hard to beat.

1. Clemson’s offense

In last year’s game, the Clemson offense put up 40 points against Alabama, and Watson was clearly the best player on the field.  The two-time Heisman finalist threw for 405 yards and four touchdowns, and rushed for 73 yards in last year’s game.  In three career Playoff games, Watson has averaged 284 passing yards, 92 rushing yards, and three touchdowns per game.

Last year, Nick Saban said Watson was the best player Alabama had faced since Cam Newton, and Watson is even better this year, having thrown for more yards and more touchdowns than a season ago, even with less help from the rushing game (175 yards per game this year, 225 last year).

Alabama under Nick Saban has historically struggled, at least by their high standards, against dual-threat quarterbacks, and Watson certainly fits that bill.  These struggles have even continued in second (and even third) games against a player, so I expect Watson to be just as good as last year in tonight’s rematch.

Watson could actually play even better (as hard as that is to believe), because in last year’s title game the Tigers were without wide receiver weapons Mike Williams (who was injured) and Deon Cain (who was suspended).  Their participation in tonight’s game could be very problematic for the Alabama defense.

 

 

#2 Clemson (13-1) vs. #1 Alabama (14-0)
Tonight, 8:00 pm ET, ESPN
at Tampa, Fla. (Raymond James Stadium)
Favorite:  Alabama by 6
Stiles on Sports Ranking:  Clemson- 2nd, Alabama- 1st

Prediction:  Clemson 31, Alabama 23

Fast Five: 2016 Year in Review

*Editor’s Note:  This post was originally scheduled to be published on December 31, but due to personal sickness was delayed until now. 

 

2016 was a crazy year in sports.  From exceptional and historic championship events, to the good and bad of the Olympic Games, to saying goodbye to several big names who retired or passed away.

From the best events of the year to the biggest stories, here is a look back at the year that was in 2016:

Best Events of 2016

5.  Jul. 14-17:  Henrik Stenson wins The Open Championship

The Open at Royal Troon began on Thursday with Phil Mickelson getting hot on the back nine, and eventually facing a putt for a 62, which would have been a record for any major championship.  The putt somehow stayed out of the hole, and Mickelson shot 63, becoming the 28th to do so in a major championship.


Swede Henrik Stenson shot 65 on Friday to pull within one of Mickelson, setting the stage for a fantastic weekend duel.  Stenson shot 68 Saturday to Mickelson’s 70, giving Stenson a one-shot lead entering the final round.

In the final round, Stenson and Mickelson went back and forth, and Mickelson ended the Open with a bogey-free 65, finishing 17-under par with the best 72 holes he had ever played in a major and 11 shots clear of third place J.B. Holmes.  There was only one problem for Lefty:  Stenson shot 63, joining Johnny Miller as the only players to shoot the mark in the final round to win a major.  Stenson took the lead for good on the 14th hole, birdieing four of the last five holes and 10 in the round to win his first major, beating Mickelson in an Open duel reminiscent of 1977’s “Duel in the Sun” between Tom Watson and Jack Nicklaus.

4.  Jan. 11:  Alabama 45, Clemson 40 (NCAA Football, National Championship Game)

As the clear two best teams in the country fought for the national title, they produced a game that many compared to the legendary USC-Texas Rose Bowl in 2006.  The two teams traded the lead throughout the first three quarters, with Alabama getting two rushing touchdowns from Heisman winner Derrick Henry, and Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson finding former walk-on Hunter Renfrow for two touchdowns.

After Alabama tied the score at 24-24 with 10:34 to go, coach Nick Saban made one of the gutsiest calls of his career, calling for the onside kick, which the Crimson Tide recovered, leading to a touchdown.  After Clemson answered with a field goal, Kenyan Drake returned the ensuing kickoff 95 yards to give Alabama a 38-27 lead.  A Watson-to-Artavis Scott touchdown with 4:40 left pulled Clemson to 38-33, before a long Alabama drive to milk the clock ended with the Tide putting the game away with Henry’s third touchdown.

3.  Apr. 4:  Villanova 77, North Carolina 74 (NCAA Tournament, National Championship Game)

After the Final Four in Houston saw two less than stellar semifinals, with Villanova beating Oklahoma 95-51 and North Carolina beating Syracuse 83-66 to advance to the championship game, the Wildcats and Tar Heels made up for it with one of the best championship games in NCAA Tournament history.

After North Carolina led 39-34 at halftime and by as many as seven points early in the second half, Villanova came back to tie the score at 44-44 and then take a 67-57 lead with 5:29 left.  Then the Tar Heels came back, led by threes from Joel Berry II and Marcus Paige.  After getting as close as 72-71, North Carolina trailed 74-71 in the closing seconds when Marcus Paige hit a contested, off-balance, game-tying three with 4.7 seconds left–given the circumstances, one of the greatest shots I’ve ever seen (honestly, because of the degree of difficulty, even more of a clutch shot than the one that happened next).

After a timeout, NCAA Tournament Most Outstanding Player Ryan Arcidiacono brought the ball up the floor, setting up Kris Jenkins for an open three that will forever live in basketball lore.  Jenkins’ buzzer-beater gave Villanova their second national title (1985) in thrilling fashion, culminating a game CBS Sports’ Matt Norlander called “a thrilling, undeniably heart-stopping, instant classic of a title game.”

2.  Jun. 19:  Cleveland 93, Golden State 89 (NBA Finals, Game 7)

Game 7 had some fantastic storylines beforehand.  The Cavaliers and Warriors were playing a rematch of the 2015 Finals, which had been won by Golden State.  The Warriors had reached The Finals by overcoming a 3-1 deficit to Oklahoma City in the Western Conference Finals, then they led Cleveland 3-1 before the Cavaliers fought back to force a Game 7.  The Cavaliers were trying to become the first Cleveland pro sports team to win a championship since 1964, led by native son LeBron James, and doing so on the road in Oakland.

The largest lead of the game for either side was seven, which Golden State enjoyed at halftime, and the game saw 11 ties and 20 lead changes.  After a Warriors layup by Klay Thompson tied the score at 89 with 4:39 to play, the teams combined to miss 12 consecutive shots, including a phenomenal James block from behind on an Andre Iguodala attempted layup.  Kyrie Irving broke the scoring drought with a clutch three, over league MVP Stephen Curry, with 0:53 remaining, and after Curry missed a three, James was fouled hard on a fast break with 0:10 left, staying on the floor for a few moments before hitting one of the two free throws to give Cleveland a 4-point lead, before Curry missed again and time expired, and James fell to the floor in tears as a champion.

The story of LeBron James returning home to Cleveland and winning the city the championship it so desperately wanted was a great story to watch unfold, even as someone who was (mildly) pulling for the Warriors.  As the city won its first title in 52 years, ESPN broadcaster Mike Breen proclaimed, “Cleveland is a city of champions again!”

1.  Nov. 2:  Chi. Cubs 8, Cleveland 7, 10 inn. (World Series, Game 7)

“Game of the Century” is an overused term in the sports world, but leading into just the fifth Game 7 of a World Series since 2001, I said this was legitimately the biggest baseball game in the 21st century thus far.  But even with the Cubs coming from down 3-1 to force a Game 7 in a series between teams with 68- and 108-year title droughts and the matchups of Kluber-Hendricks and Francona-Maddon, I wondered if it could possibly live up to the hype.  And yet, somehow, it surpassed it.

So many moments from Game 7 were memorable on their own, and together they combined to truly make the greatest baseball game of this century to date, and one of the greatest ever.  Dexter Fowler led off the game with a homer for the Cubs, and Javy Baez added one of his own, giving the Cubs a 5-1 lead.  The Indians pulled to within 5-3 after two scored on a wild pitch, the first such play in a World Series since 1911.  David Ross, in his final career at-bat, homering to make it 6-3.  A furious Indians rally against Cubs closer Aroldis Chapman in the 8th, culminating with a game-tying homer by Rajai Davis, the latest in any World Series Game 7.

Nine innings weren’t enough for this classic, and with the game tied 6-6 and going to extra innings, the whole world got to catch its breath with a short rain delay.  After a Ben Zobrist go-ahead double, the Cubs took an 8-6 lead to the bottom of the tenth, but the Indians didn’t go down without a fight, scoring off of Cubs rookie Carl Edwards.  Mike Montgomery, who had never recorded a save in pro baseball, relieved Edwards with two outs, and got Michael Martinez to hit a soft grounder to third that will become one of the most replayed baseball highlights in history:  the final out of the Cubs’ first championship since 1908.

In my post on the game the next day, I summed up Game 7 this way:  “The Cubs and their fans have literally waited a lifetime to celebrate winning the World Series.  It’s only appropriate that the game of a lifetime put them over the top.”


Honorable Mention

Jan. 16:  Arizona 26, Green Bay 20, OT (NFL Playoffs, Divisional Round)

Jan. 23:  Denver 20, New England 18 (NFL Playoffs, AFC Championship)

Feb. 21:  Denny Hamlin wins Daytona 500 photo finish

Mar. 18:  Northern Iowa 75, Texas 72 (NCAA Tournament, First Round)

Mar. 20:  Wisconsin 66, Xavier 63 (NCAA Tournament, Second Round)

Mar. 20:  Texas A&M 92, Northern Iowa 88, 2OT (NCAA Tournament, Second Round)

Apr. 7-10:  Danny Willett wins The Masters

Jun. 30:  Coastal Carolina 4, Arizona 3 (College World Series Championship, Game 3)

Aug. 11-14:  Olympic Men’s Golf Competition (G: Justin Rose, S: Henrik Stenson, B: Matt Kuchar)

Sept. 30-Oct. 2:  United States wins Ryder Cup

Oct. 1:  Tennessee 34, Georgia 31 (NCAA Football)

Oct. 1:  Clemson 42, Louisville 36 (NCAA Football)

Oct. 4:  Toronto 6, Baltimore 3, 11 inn. (AL Wild Card Game)

Oct. 5:  San Francisco 3, N.Y. Mets 0 (NL Wild Card Game)

Oct. 9:  Toronto 7, Texas 6, 10 inn. (AL Division Series, Game 3)

Oct. 10:  San Francisco 6, Chi. Cubs 5, 13 inn. (NL Division Series, Game 3)

Oct. 13:  L.A. Dodgers 4, Washington 3 (NL Division Series, Game 5)

Nov. 12:  Pittsburgh 43, Clemson 42 (NCAA Football)

Nov. 20:  Jimmie Johnson wins Ford 400 and NASCAR Sprint Cup championship

Nov. 26:  Ohio State 30, Michigan 27, 2OT (NCAA Football)

 

Biggest Stories of 2016

5.  Retirements

Every year has its fair share of retirements, but it seemed 2016 had more big names saying goodbye than most years.  Peyton Manning retired as a Super Bowl champion.  David Ortiz was an MVP candidate at age 40 in his farewell.  Kobe Bryant scored 60 points in his final game.  David Ross homered in Game 7 of the World Series in his final career at-bat.  Alex Rodriguez and Mark Teixeira walked away from the New York Yankees.  Vin Scully said goodbye after an unfathomable 67-year run as a Dodgers broadcaster.  Fellow broadcaster Dick Enberg said “Oh my!” one final time.  Tony Stewart won one of the year’s best races at Sonoma as part of his final season.  Family man Adam LaRoche walked away from millions after his son was unwelcome in the White Sox clubhouse.  The accolades for this list seem endless, and they have given us many moments we’ll never forget.


4.  Rio Olympics

Entering the 2016 Summer Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, the host city was a major story, with concerns about the water quality in Rio, trash in the streets, and risk of Zika virus.

Once the games began, there were some excellent performances by the best athletes in the world, including a successful games for the United States team.  Michael Phelps became the most decorated Olympian of all-time, while fellow swimmer Katie Ledecky was utterly dominant in setting multiple world records.  Simone Manuel stunned everyone, becoming the first African-American woman to ever medal in swimming when she won gold in the 100m freestyle.  Simone Biles won five gymnastics medals, with four gold, as the “Final Five” obliterated the competition to win gold going away.

Outside the American delegation, Jamaican Usain Bolt finished his career with a third gold in the 100 meter dash.  Fiji’s rugby team won gold to score the nation’s first Olympic medal ever.  Brit Mo Farah fell down and recovered to defend his gold medal in the 10,000m run.  Golf returned to the Olympics for the first time since 1904, with Great Britain’s Justin Rose and South Korea’s Inbee Park winning gold.

There were still some controversies, both within and outside of competition.  Shaunae Miller dove across the finish line, and while I wrote I had no problem with it, many did.  The water in the diving pool mysteriously turned green.  12-time medalist Ryan Lochte claimed he and three teammates were robbed at gunpoint, before it turned out a drunk Lochte had vandalized a gas station bathroom and fabricated parts of his story.

While the 2016 Summer Olympics were not perfect, but fascinated with these storylines and many more.

3.  Cavaliers end Cleveland title drought

The career of LeBron James has created some of the top stories in years past, as the Akron native left his hometown Cavaliers to play for the Miami Heat in 2010, and after two titles in Miami, signed back with Cleveland in 2014.  After an NBA Finals loss to the Warriors in 2015, the Cavaliers looked destined for another loss to the Warriors in 2016, trailing 3-1, but came from behind to win three straight games, including two on the road, and the title, clinching in a legendary Game 7.

But while this championship was the first for the Cavaliers franchise, this story was about more than just one sport in Cleveland, but all of them, as the city won its first championship in any sport since 1964, ending a drought that led The New York Times to once call Cleveland “the capital of sports heartbreak.”

The Cavaliers fell victim to Michael Jordan playoff buzzer-beaters twice, then lost James in the controversial announcement program “The Decision.”  The Browns lost playoff games on a late interception (“Red Right 88”), an infamous fumble (Earnest Byner), and John Elway’s “The Drive,” before leaving town entirely in 1995 (becoming the Baltimore Ravens), only to be reborn as an expansion franchise in 1999.  The Indians were two outs away from the 1997 World Series title, before a costly Jose Mesa error led to an extra-innings loss to the Marlins.

The Cavaliers title ended the heartbreak, but may also have started a sustained run of athletic success for the city.  While the Browns did go 1-15 in the 2016 season, the Indians reached the World Series, and will have an even better roster in 2017, while the Cavaliers currently have the best record in the NBA’s Eastern Conference as they try to defend their title.

2.  Deaths

Many people of influence in all facets of American and global culture passed away in 2016, but the year seemed to especially hit the sports world hard.  Muhammad Ali, the boxer who was named Sports Illustrated Athlete of the Century in 1999, died after a long battle with Parkinson’s, while Pat Summitt, the longtime Tennessee women’s basketball coach who is the winningest coach in NCAA history, succumbed to dementia.  Arnold Palmer, “the king” of golf, and Jose Fernandez, a young star pitcher for the Miami Marlins, died just hours apart on September 25.

The list also includes broadcasting legends Craig Sager, Joe Garagiola and John Saunders, football coaches LaVell Edwards, Dennis Green and Buddy Ryan, former Heisman winner Rashaan Salaam, basketball legends Nate Thurmond and Pearl Washington, NHL Hall of Famer Gordie Howe, baseball trail blazer Monte Irvin, and dirt racing champion Bryan Clauson.  71 people, including 19 players from Brazilian soccer team Chapecoense and numerous other team staff and media, were killed when a plane carrying the team to a championship match in Medellin, Colombia crashed, while only three players survived.



1.  Cubs win first World Series since 1908

Entering 2016, it was no secret that the Cubs had a great chance to break their curse of 108 years and finally win the World Series, and before the season I picked them to win.  Even still, the way it played out makes this one of the biggest and best sports stories of my lifetime, and one that many veteran baseball writers called the best story they have ever covered.

Coming back from a 3-1 deficit and capturing a thrilling Game 7 to win it all, the Cubs finally rewarded the waiting of their long-suffering fans, some of the most loyal anywhere, with their first championship since 39,466 days before, when Theodore Roosevelt was president.  The resulting reactions from jubilant Cubs fans, nearly all of whom were experiencing their first championship, were expectedly emotional, with many brought to joyous, relieved tears.

The North Side rode the monumental triumph–and, in many cases, disbelief–for days after Game 7, including the Cubs’ victory parade and rally two days after the victory, which saw 5 million people–the seventh largest crowd in human history–pay tribute to their baseball heroes, the unit of Cubs who finally ended sports’ most famous championship drought.

After seeing the Cubs end a historic period of futility in such dramatic fashion, and the depth of the celebration that followed in Chicago and throughout the country, I named the Chicago Cubs my 2016 Stiles on Sports Sportsmen of the Year.


Honorable Mention (in generically chronological order, with yearlong stories listed first)

Athletes get politically involved (Colin Kaepernick, Curt Schilling, ESPYs cold open, etc)

Player conduct (Draymond Green, Grayson Allen, Vontaze Burfict, etc)

Performance-enhancing drugs (Dee Gordon suspension, al-Jazeera report)

Louisville basketball escort scandal

The Rams relocate to Los Angeles

Baylor football sexual assualt scandal

The end of Deflategate

John Scott voted to NHL All-Star Game, wins MVP

Golden State Warriors set NBA regular-season wins record

Leicester City beats 5000-1 odds to win English Premier League

Kevin Durant signs with Golden State Warriors

Dale Earnhardt Jr. sits out with concussion, Jeff Gordon returns

The resurgence of the Dallas Cowboys and Oakland Raiders

Tim Tebow plays baseball, signs with New York Mets

Jimmie Johnson wins 7th title, ties Petty and Earnhardt

New collective bargaining agreements in MLB and NBA

The rebirth of Penn State football

Major college football coaching changes (LSU, Texas)

Tiger Woods’ injury and return

Wake Forest game plans leaked to opponents (WakeyLeaks)