Monday, April 06, 2009

Seasons change in early April

College basketball season ends tonight (men's) and tomorrow (women's [yawn, another UConn rout]) and baseball season is underway. And for the first time in about five years, the Yanks are built for more than just the regular season -- they have the starting pitching depth to win a post-season series.

First, the end of the college basketball season. Even though my prediction of where it would finish was wrong, my comment about Michigan State was right -- it's the only Big T(elev)en team capable of succeeding in a non-Big T(elev)en style game against top teams. Big Ten basketball is dreadful: the game resembles a rugby scrum -- low scoring, jaw-smashingly physical, slow paced. Three teams play a style that resembles decent basketball: Minnesota, Ohio State and Michigan State. On Saturday, Michigan State did the same thing to UConn that it did to Duke in reaching the 2005 Final Four -- outran the opponent in the full court and outbanged it in the half court. UConn made the fatal mistake of continually pounding the ball inside and seeking no offensive balance. Michigan State had breakouts with the four players who had jammed the middle of the defense turning and running full court the other way for transition baskets. And Izzo just outcoached Calhoun.

Ultimately, MSU's win is a good for college hoops as a whole -- UConn is in line for some severe sanctions from the NCAA and the worst outcome would have been for a UConn title to be vacated by the NCAA. Other Final Four teams have had their appearances vacated by the NCAA -- officially removed from the records -- but not a champion. The roll of dishonor: runner-ups Villanova ('71), UCLA ('80), Michigan ('92, '93) and semifinalists Memphis State ('85), UMass ('96) and Ohio State ('99).

As for the other national semifinal -- UNC has shown throughout the Tournament that its pre-season #1 ranking is well-deserved. UNC has faced two mild tests in five games -- from LSU in the second round before Ty Lawson took over, and early in the second half Saturday, before the team regrouped and throttled overmatched Villanova. UNC whupped Michigan State 98-63 at Ford Field earlier this year and no matter what other extenuating circumstances existed (tired MSU team after early-season tournaments, center didn't play), it's hard to envision MSU reversing that result. If Carolina rolls again by 10+, it will be the first team since 2001 Duke to roll all six Tournament opponents by double digits -- and with a 21-point win over Gonzaga, not-that-close 12-point win over OU and yawner of a 14-point win over 'Nova, ROLL is definitely a proper term.

Second: it's time for some baseball. The Monk likes three decisions the Yankees made in the offseason: (1) sign Sabathia; (2) sign Texeira; (3) move Gardner into centerfield. The Monk is completely neutral to displeased about the signing of Burnett -- a prima donna who is prone to getting hammered and who performs best in his walk years. The Yanks are old with some rare spots of youth (Gardner, Joba, Hughes, Cano), have solid overall talent, and have the other two best teams in baseball in their division. Yipes.

Think about it: the Rays, RedSawx and Yankees are the three best teams in baseball. The Mess? Starting rotation is too weak. The Phillies? Same issue. Cubs? Same issue. Dodgers? Hitting is weak. D'Backs? Also weak hitting. Twins? Lack of hitting, lack of pitching depth. Angels? Bullpen now worse, getting old, lost Texeira, play in crappy division (just ask how that helped them prepare for another beating from the RedSawx). This makes the road to the World Series easier for every team in the playoffs because one of the three best teams in baseball will be eliminated by October 4 -- the last day of the season. Think 1978, when the second-best team in baseball didn't make the playoffs.

Predictions? Yanks, RedSox and Rays will finish within 5 games of each other and I think the Rays will be the odd one out -- the Yanks won 89 after losing Wang before the 1/2 way point, lacking #4 and #5 starters, and with weak hitting years from their regulars and a loss of Posada. Think about all that went wrong for the Yanks and realize this: they would have won the AL Central with their record. Add CC and Burnett and a full season from Wang and Pettitte as a No. 4 starter instead of an overworked No. 2, and the team should be in the 95+ win range. The RedSawx have the top 1-3 rotation in baseball and added depth in the off-season (Smoltz, Penny). I don't think they need Manny to compete, especially because his absence in left field constitutes a defensive upgrade.

Twins should win the Central. They have good defense as always and four young starters who are capable. The ChiSox go three deep in the rotation and fall off. The Tigers are a dumpster fire, mentally, but may have added character to the clubhouse by dumping Sheffield. The Indians' No. 3 starter is Carl Pavano.

The Angels have enough ability and talent and managerial skill to win the West, but the Rangers and A's will improve a lot. And the Mariners will still stink.

In the NL, the Mess and Phils should take two playoff spots. The Marlins have the capacity to do more than just beat the Mess in September and allow the Phils to take the NL East crown; ditto the Braves (added Lowe and Vasquez -- and the AL to NL switch for Vazquez should cut his ERA from 4.67 to the 3.80-3.90 range, especially with those spacious NL East yards).

The Cards are the best challengers for the Cubs, but the Broohas have two solid young pitchers in Gallardo (the next Lester/Beckett?) and Bush and decent vets like Suppan and Looper -- they could challenge and pull in 85-90 wins. The Reds are improving; the Astros and Pirates stink.

The one team I'd like to see do well is the Giants: they're in a socialist country (California) but privately financed their own stadium. They have good young starters (Lincecum, Cain), a veteran retread (Johnson), a refurbishment project that may work out (Zito -- from 3-12, 5.99 on June 30, 2008 to 10-17, 5.15 overall), and Sanchez could be serviceable if he finds the strike zone. The Dodgers have Manny -- a reason to root against them. But they have Torre, who is a master of getting as much as he can from questionable players even if they're not his "guys". The D'Backs have serviceable No.3 and 4 starters after a dynamic top two, and good young talent.

Divisions: RedSawx/Yanks, Twins, Angels; Phils, Cubs, DBacks
Wild Cards: RedSawx/Yanks, Mess

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