This was supposed to be a Kentucky-Duke showdown for the national championship. At least that’s what all the preseason magazines were telling us and what experts insisted even as late as March.
The experts thought all those one-and-dones would lead Kentucky or Duke to the title game but instead we’ve had a Final Four defined by seniors and veterans. The only one-and-done in the whole bunch is Zach Collins of Gonzaga and he’s probably coming back for his sophomore year.
And instead of a championship game in which we see who has the best 18 and 19-year-olds we have two teams who have seniors and others who have hung around and improved themselves. We get a championship game between Gonzaga, which has two 5th-year seniors and two 4th-year juniors starting, and North Carolina, which starts two seniors and three juniors.
This is newblood vs. blueblood. Gonzaga is playing for its first national championship ever. North Carolina has five national titles under its belt and lost to Villanova on a last second shot for the title last year. And we were within seconds of a South Carolina-Oregon championship game, two other teams whose seniors and juniors were the studs. Now who would have figured that?
On paper, North Carolina should win this game. Because the Tar Heels are a college basketball blueblood and they’re accustomed to being on the big stage. Roy Williams has won two national championships and played for three others. He knows what this is all about and knows how to get his guys ready to play the game of their lives. He’s got four bigs who can run the floor and rebound, athletic guys on the perimeter and an elite scorer in Justin Jackson who can completely take over a game and dominate it.
The Tar Heels also have the weight of unrealistic expectations on their shoulders. Their fans are like those at Duke, Kentucky and Kansas where any year without a national championship is considered a disappointment. Once these guys get to the big stage they aren’t supposed to lose. If you don’t believe it just ask their fans.
As for the Zags, some think they will wilt under the pressure of finally making it to the championship game. Maybe, but then again, as Charles Barkley pointed out in his analysis on Saturday, the Zags got the monkey off their backs by getting to the Final Four. The pressure is completely off. They handled the pressure very well against South Carolina and showed enormous poise in that they could fend off that fierce South Carolina charge and have enough in the tank to win.
So who wins tonight?
I’m leaning heavily toward Gonzaga because (1) Joel Berry II is not healthy and (2) I think the Zags can match UNC’s size on the inside while at the same time have better perimeter shooters. I think this comes down to 3-point shooters and that means Gonzaga cuts down the nets.
I could be wrong, though. I’ve been wrong before.
SOME THOUGHTS ABOUT SCOTT STRICKLIN
If you watched Mississippi State’s improbable run to the NCAA women’s national championship game, then you should be feeling pretty good about Florida AD Scott Stricklin about now. Stricklin is the coach who hired Vic Schaefer and brought him to Starkville. That was considered a dead end job but look what has happened. Mississippi State is no fluke and will compete for SEC and national championships in the future.
When Stricklin hired Schaefer he had his choice of coaches. Even though it’s Starkville and not exactly the garden spot of the earth, there were plenty of applicants for the job with exceptional resumes. Schaefer was a bust as a head coach in the 1990s (80-110 at Sam Houston State) but after he spent 16 years working for Leon Barmore clone Gary Blair, first at Arkansas and then at Texas A&M (NCAA champs in 2011), he was ready to run a successful program. When it came time to hire, Stricklin saw the same qualities in Schaefer that have made Blair so successful.
The same methodology to hire Schaefer was used to hire Cameron Newbauer as the Florida women’s basketball coach. Yes, there were some glowing resumes out there but just when everyone expected Becky Hammon to get the job, Newbauer was announced. I’ve been told by folks whose information is typically 99% reliable that Newbauer is the coach whose name checked all of Stricklin’s boxes, much the way Schaefer checked all the boxes back in 2011 when he was hired at Mississippi State. Maybe this wasn’t the splashy hire some expected but it’s the kind of hire that could turn Florida into an SEC power.
Now, you never know how coaches are going to work out until they’re on the job. Not everyone is a good fit. Carolyn Peck seemed like an awesome choice and she was a bust. Amanda Butler was a definite improvement over Peck and she probably got the UF program as far as she could before she was fired. Now it’s Newbauer’s turn and we won’t know for awhile how he’s going to work out, but you have to trust the process in which he was hired. He’s been mentored by Andy Landers (Georgia) and Jeff Walz (Louisville). He’s proven he can win big at a school (Belmont) with higher academics and fewer resources than were in the rest of the Ohio Valley Conference.
Hiring Newbauer is only the latest move I’ve seen by Stricklin that tells me Florida has found the right athletic director to take the program to new heights. Stricklin has impressed the big money boosters to open their wallets again and he’s making impressive gains with corporate boosters. For all that UF is, there are still so many untapped resources.
I think we have the right guy to lead Florida athletics into the future.
BREAK OUT THE BROOMS
The road was finally kind to Florida’s 11th-ranked baseball team (20-9, 5-4 SEC), which swept Missouri (21-7, 4-5 SEC) in Columbia. The Gators went into the weekend 1-6 on the road overall, 0-3 in SEC road games.
After taking out Mizzou, 4-3, Friday night, Brady Singer pitched a 3-hitter and went the distance as UF pulled out a 2-1 win. The Gators scored both runs in the fourth inning on a Jonathan India homer and a Christian Hicks RBI single and from there Singer closed the door on the Tigers. Sunday, JJ Schwarz hit a homer and Ryan Larson hit a run-scoring double in the second inning and four Gator pitchers combined for a 7-hitter as UF earned a 2-1 win for the sweep. Jackson Kowar pitched the first five innings to get the win with Austin Langworthy, Garrett Milchin and Michael Byrne holding the Tigers to 1 hit over the final four.
The Gators will be home all week with Stetson coming to Gainesville for a non-conference game on Tuesday and Tennessee (15-10, 1-8 SEC) arriving on Friday for a 3-game SEC series.
BREAK OUT THE BROOMS, PART II
It was pure carnage in Fayetteville as the 2nd-ranked Gators (33-2, 10-1 SEC) swept Arkansas (22-12, 2-10 SEC). Florida outscored the Razorbacks, 20-2, over the weekend as the Gators stayed a game ahead of 5th-ranked Texas A&M (31-3, 9-2 SEC) in the SEC standings.
Kelly Barnhill (13-0, 0.26 ERA) picked up two of Florida’s wins over the weekend while Delanie Gourley (12-2, 0.82) got the other one. Kayli Kvistad went 5-9 over the weekend with a pair of walks, a home run and 4 RBI while freshman Jordan Roberts was 5-8 at the plate with a home run and 6 RBI.
The Gators have outscored opponents 245-34 this season and have a team ERA of 0.74.
GATOR GYMNASTS OFF TO ST. LOUIS
Florida’s 3rd-ranked gymnasts weren’t at their best Saturday night, but they got a methodical Gainesville Regional championship that sends the Gators to the NCAA Championships in St. Louis April 14-15. Florida’s 197.125 score was only the 5th best in the country, but it was enough to get past second place Georgia (196.775). In St. Louis, the Gators will be in the evening rotation on the first day along with 2nd-ranked LSU, 6th-ranked Alabama, 7th-ranked Michigan, 10th-ranked Georgia and 14th-ranked Nebraska. The afternoon rotation will feature #1 Oklahoma, #4 Utah, #5 UCLA, #8 Oregon State, #9 Denver and #13 Washington. Three teams from the each rotation will advance to the Super 6 on Saturday night that will decide the national title.
IN OTHER GATOR SPORTS …
Lacrosse: The 3rd-ranked Gators (9-2, 3-0 Big East) bounced back from their midweek loss to #1 Maryland with a 16-6 Big East Conference win over Vanderbilt (5-4, 2-1 Big East). The Gators opened the match on a 14-0 run. Mollie Stevens paced the Gators with 4 goals and 2 assists).
Men’s Golf: The 5th-ranked Gators won their fifth team title of the season by winning the Mason Rudolph Tournament in Nashville by a single stroke over Alabama. This marks the first time since 2011 that the Gators have won five tournaments in a season and it’s the eighth time in school history. Sam Horsfield shot a final round 66 to win the individual title by 3 shots. Next up for the Gators is the SEC Championships at St. Simon’s Island starting April 21.
Women’s Golf: The 5th-ranked Gators finished third at the Clemson Invitational, 3 shots off the pace for tournament champ and 4th-ranked Florida State. The Gators will next play in the SEC Championships in Birmingham beginning on April 21.
Women’s Tennis: The #1 Gators (18-1, 8-1 SEC) were 2-0 vs. the state of Alabama over the weekend, taking out Alabama, 4-0, on Friday and 11th-ranked Auburn, 4-0, on Sunday.
Men’s Tennis: The 12th-ranked Gators (13-7, 6-2 SEC) had their 5-game winning streak ended Saturday at Kentucky. Bad weather forced the match indoors where the Wildcats came away with a 4-1 win.
SOUTH CAROLINA WINS WOMEN’S NATIONAL TITLE
The year of living large in South Carolina continued this weekend even with the South Carolina men’s basketball team coming up short against Gonzaga in Glendale. The South Carolina women made it three national titles for the state in the last year by taking out Mississippi State in an all-SEC national championship game in Dallas. Coastal Carolina won the NCAA baseball title last June and in January, Clemson won the national championship in football. Throw in Dustin Johnson winning the World Match Play title last week and it’s been quite a run for the state.
What makes South Carolina’s run to the national title so impressive is that All-SEC Alaina Coates (12.9 points, 10.7 rebounds) was lost to an ankle injury in the SEC Tournament. That forced coach Dawn Staley to shuffle her lineup and go smaller but it paid off with A’Ja Wilson and Kaela Davis taking on more of the scoring load to lead the Gamecocks to 7 straight wins (over Mississippi State in the SEC title game and then 6-0 in the NCAA) and a national title.
ANOTHER TIGER-LESS MASTERS
Tiger Woods will miss his third Masters in the last four years. His practice round at Augusta National last week lasted all of five minutes and he knew he couldn’t go. I have serious doubts he will ever play again at a high level after so many back and knee surgeries. The game will go on without Tiger Woods, but when he was at his best the galleries were huge and the television ratings outstanding in any event in which he was entered. I don’t think any one golfer is going to dominate the way Tiger did, but I do hope we’ll get some rivalries going. When I was growing up in the 1960s we had Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player. Then in the 1970s we had Nicklaus, Tom Watson and Lee Trevino. I keep hoping a rivalry between Jordan Spieth, Rory McIlroy and Jason Day will heat up and keep interest in the PGA Tour at a high level.
If you watched any of the women’s Final Four games, then you know exactly what I am talking about. Doris Burke ranks right there with Jay Bilas as the best analyst in all of college basketball. When she talks she will fill your ears with why games are won and lost and she doesn’t give you the Dick Vitale schtick with all those worn out nicknames. Doris does both men’s and women’s games for ESPN and now that the NBA playoffs are here, she will do analysis and sideline reporting. If she’s working a game, I’ll be watching.
If you watched Frank Martin’s post game press conference Saturday evening then you understand why the kids who have played for him dating all the way back to his Miami High days are so loyal. I’m a Gator and if I had a son who could play Division I basketball I would want him to play for Mike White at UF, but my second choice would easily be Frank Martin.
Adrian Peterson is going to visit the New England Patriots today. If he’s more concerned about winning than he is personal stats, he’ll sign with the Pats and give Tom Brady another huge weapon. As if he needs it.
Mike McQueary, who blew the whistle on Jerry Sandusky and the scandal at Penn State, has been awarded $1.7 million to pay his legal fees on top of the $7.3 million he received for defamation of character.
QUESTION OF THE DAY
It’s the Zags vs. the Tar Heels for the national championship. Who wins it?
MUSIC FOR TODAY
I am a huge Norah Jones fan. Her new “Day Breaks” album is off the charts. Today’s music is a 2016 concert she performed in Switzerland.