The National Hockey League's battle for Lord Stanley's Cup is about to begin.
The Chicago Blackhawks will represent the Western Conference after defeating the reigning champion LA Kings in five games. The clincher was a thrilling double overtime victory, but the entire series really showed why and how the Blackhawks managed the best regular season record in the entire NHL. They appear to be primed for their run to the top.
In the Eastern Conference, the Boston Bruins swept the Pittsburgh Penguins, destroying the chances of the up-and-down all-season Pens in thorough fashion. Sidney Crosby, of the Penguins, might still be the best player in the NHL world, but the real story here was the defense of the B's, which was particularly strong in this series, but has stood out for the entirety of the playoffs. After their back and forth series with the Toronto Maple Leafs and a remarkable Game 7 comeback, the Bruins have set themselves apart from their opponents with stifling defense and a stingy goalkeeper in the form of Tuukka Rask.
The finals, set to begin tonight on NBC at 6 MST, represent the first meeting between two of the Original Six NHL teams since 1979. While both clubs, then, obviously have long histories, Boston's is a bit more decorated, with 6 championships, stretching back to 1929. Chicago has a mere 4, with its first coming in 1934. However, both teams have had recent success with the Blackhawks winning in 2010 and the Bruins following them up in 2011. With the defending champs out the way, a new king will be crowned and either way they'll have a familiar taste.
The NBA Finals begin Thursday night when the San Antonio Spurs play in Miami against the Heat. The Spurs, idle for nine days after sweeping the Memphis Grizzlies will fight against the idea that they've had too much time to rest. The Heat, who rested only for a third of that time,after grinding out a game seven victory over the Indiana Pacers, look to repeat after winning the Larry O'Brien championship last year.
There are tons of potential plot lines going into these finals, but there's little concrete evidence to aid in a prediction. The teams played only two games during the regular season and they both have enormous asterisks next to their results. Coach Gregg Popovich—himself one of the most interesting subplots insofar as his brusque interview style during games—sent most of his starters home, without notifying the NBA in due time, before the Spurs' visit to Miami on November 29. Then, the JV lineup for the Spurs nearly beat the Heat. And Pop, officially for not giving notice in time, but ostensibly for throwing a nationally broadcast game with the reigning champs, was fined $250,000. David Stern, commissioner of the NBA, said the Spurs organization did a, "disservice to the league and our fans." Fans of the Spurs, on the other hand, saw their second-stringers nearly beat the best team in the league, on their court.
Given the hubbub surrounding their previous match up, when the Heat visited San Antonio four months later, the national media's interest was piqued. This time, the Spurs were near full strength, missing only Manu Ginobili, who sat out with a strained hamstring. The Heat, however, were not. With LeBron James and Dwyane Wade both out, the Heat still managed to eke out a two-point win in the AT&T Center. It's worth noting that James and Wade were definitely hurt as they had played in the previous game but did not play in the Heat's next, at New York. Coach Pop, feigning surprise and hostility at the news of James and Wade missing the game, was gracious enough to not comment on the fact that the Heat were not fined when their players missed the game.
So, the regular season games are tossed out the window, if not taken with an enormous chunk of salt. What does that leave prognosticators with? James has faced the Spurs in the Finals before. In 2007, when he was still with the Cleveland Cavaliers, his team was swept by the Spurs. He has acknowledged that he'd love revenge for the loss that came so early in his career. But James was a completely different player and these Heat are not only geographically different from those Cavs - the presence of All-Stars, in Wade and Chris Bosh, a former Finals MVP, again Wade, and the small ball revolution that the Heat fully embraced during last year's championship run - the past history seems just as invalid.
Looking at the paths both teams took results in just as much confusion. The Western Conference was seen as vastly more competitive. But the Spurs swept both their first round opponents, the Lakers, and their Western Conference Finals opponents, the Grizzlies. The Heat were far and away the best team in the East, almost universally assumed to come out on top. After sweeping the first round against the Bucks, though, they gave away a game to Chicago and fought for a five-game victory in that series. Then came the Pacers, who took the Heat to seven games, and had some pundits believing in Indiana's ability to take the series.
So what does it actually come down to? The Heat have the best player in LeBron James. There can be no denying that. But Tim Duncan, the rock of the Spurs for the last sixteen years, is just as good now as he was in the early championship days. The Heat have home court advantage, but the format shifts in the Finals to a 2-3-2, wherein the lower seed gets three games in a row at home. It's a matter of debate who this actually benefits. The Heat will look to run more than they got to against the Pacers, but Tony Parker, point guard for the Spurs, has looked incredible at all speeds. The Heat have the Vegas odds on their side, as well as the majority of the expert picks. They won last year and are a mere four games away from repeating. The Finals start tonight at 7 MST and all games are broadcast on ABC.
When Jason Collins came out, there were signs that his announcement might have been the drop that precipitated the flood. And on Sunday evening, the rumors regarding Robbie Rogers, who had in fact already came out of the closet, but wasn't actively playing in the MLS, became reality.
This is a big deal and it's a cause for celebration for those who have fought for equal rights for all. However, there are two rather important caveats that should be noted. Firstly, after the heap of press that Collins received for his announcement, there were many stories about Glenn Burke—a man whom I knew nothing about but seemed to break open the gendered-orientation barrier much earlier than it was ready to fall. As a result of his bold, out stance, Burke was rewarded with … silence. The piece in the Atlantic details how people on his team and in the media went out of their way to collectively ignore a perspective that it seems the world was not ready for.
Secondly, the LGBT community may be united in fighting for equal rights regardless of gender or sexual identity, but it's crystal clear that the American public is nowhere near that level. This is illuminated by looking at the list of openly out female athletes who have already competed. The WNBA is replete with shining examples such as Seimone Augustus, Sue Wicks, Michelle Van Gorp, Sheryl Swoopes, Amber Harris, Jessica Adair, Chamique Holdsclaw and, most recently, number one draft pick, Brittney Griner. The women's national team, successful on the pitch, has also notched more than its fair share of barrier-breakers: Lori Lindsey, Megan Rapinoe and Natasha Kai, amongst others.
The current crop of women who are openly out and playing in major league sports also ignores such ground-breakers as Billie Jean King and Martina Navratilova. All of which serves to set up the question: If we as a society are so far ahead, so well-enlightened, as Collins and Rogers' bold moves make it seem, why are we ignoring at least half of the equation?
Part of that answer has to do less with sexuality and more with our gender biases in general. It's hard to imagine that more people know Hillary Clinton served a vital role in President Obama's previous Cabinet as Secretary of State than are aware of her based on the Texts From Hillary meme.
The line of thinking here, of course, is not to diminish Rogers or Collins' bravery, nor their important place in advancing the cause of equality in sports. It is, however, worthwhile to acknowledge that others have been fighting the same fight for much, much longer. Undoubtedly, everyone engaged with this struggle welcomes all the support they receive.
In the National Basketball Association, the country may not get quite as mad as the NCAA Tournament, but we are down to the final four, and there is plenty to pay attention to. The NBA Playoffs have delivered their fair share of surprises (The Bulls taking game one against the Heat) as well as caveats and disappointments (Russell Westbrook's injury in the series against the Houston Rockets), but they've wound down by this point to the Conference Finals.
On Sunday, the Memphis Grizzlies got smacked around in their first game at San Antonio against the Spurs. The Grizz had a tough path in making their very first Conference Finals, taking down the Los Angeles Clippers in round 1 and the Westbrook-less Oklahoma City Thunder in round 2. Their defense, touted all season, has looked strong and will give the Spurs a serious test. The Spurs, meanwhile, defeated the disappointing Los Angeles Lakers in a round 1 romp and the upset-minded, young star-studded Golden State Warriors in round 2.
In the Eastern Conference, the Miami Heat have rolled through the Playoffs as most suspected they would. After blanking the Milwaukee Bucks in round 1, they were surprised by the Chicago Bulls for a game, but ended up sweeping the remainder of the series. They'll start the conference finals on Wednesday against a team that is the Eastern Conference mirror of the Grizz, the Indiana Pacers. The Pacers haven't made the Conference Finals since 2004, and many did not figure them to be back here this year, with the absent Danny Granger and his uncertain status during various points of the season. However, the Pacers have clearly found their way forward without their star player, recommitting to defense and grinding games out that may not be beautiful, but give them the win. They defeated the Atlanta Hawks in round 1 in 6 games and then did the same to the New York Knicks. In each series for the Pacers, home-court advantage has seemed to matter. They will not have it against the Heat, and the vast majority of sports pundits are picking LeBron James and company to beat the Pacers.
So the probable match-up is the Spurs vs the Heat. This would be a callback for James, as the first Finals he made, while he still played for the Cleveland Cavaliers, was in 2007, against the Spurs. Those Spurs destroyed that Cavs team, sweeping them out of the Finals in an unceremonious manner. James certainly remembers that and may use it as motivation if the two teams do meet. However, a player of his caliber is certainly not over-looking his current series and it's worth thinking about the possibility of the Grizzlies and the Pacers meeting. Memphis and Indiana are first and second in defense respectively and they'll both give their opponents more than a cursory spat in their Conference Finals games. San Antonio, known for its defense for seemingly decades, sits at a mortal 11th place in that category this year, but is balanced by the fourth-ranked offense. Again, the Spurs are the favorite in their Conference Final. But sitting above all other teams, in both esteem and odds, reign the Miami Heat. With both the fifth-best defense and offense they look, at times, unstoppable.
We'll find out about the Heat and the Pacers tomorrow. The Grizzlies and the Spurs, meanwhile, are off to a terrific start. All of the remaining Western Conference games can be seen on ESPN, while the Eastern Conference games will be broadcast on TNT.
On Monday morning Jason Collins penned a first-person essay that was released in Sports Illustrated coming out as the first active player and openly gay man in one of the four major sports leagues of North America.
While the chatter about breaking the barrier for sexual orientation has focused on the possibility of four NFL players, Collins said, "I didn't set out to be the first openly gay athlete playing in a major American team sport ... if I had my way, someone else would have already done this. Nobody has, which is why I'm raising my hand." By taking this mantle up for himself, Collins has both inspired people and courted controversy, even if some people see that as not totally justified.
The NBA family, at least those who have spoken out publicly, have done an admirable job welcoming this news into their lives. There are certainly going to be more opinions, though, whether they get expressed or not, that fall into the category of fear or disdain. In fact, just earlier this month, Phil Jackson, seen by many in the NBA as one of the most open-minded individuals, spoke out in a manner that was very difficult to understand. Was Jackson dismissing the possibility of the disdain that individual would face?
With so much regarding the gay population of America in turmoil these days and a Supreme Court case to be decided this summer, there's a lot to be said about stepping out into a leadership position on this issue. There will be no lessening when it comes to these kinds of issues, only an intensification. The quicker that individuals can set themselves up as leaders, the easier it will be for the next domino to fall.
While the attack at the Boston Marathon is still being investigated, the stories have already started rolling in concerning the human cost, putting names and faces with the sobering numbers.
In the aftermath of an event like this, there are so many angles to take. And while there are reporters who are digging into the whos and whats of motive, perpetrators, and so on, it can be somewhat reassuring to see the kindness of people in uniting to overcome. There were the initial reports of people running straight from the finish line of the marathon to the hospital to give blood (something that is always in short supply after a tragedy. There was Patton Oswalt's reminder that mankind's goodness has almost always outweighed those who would do harm. And there was, of course, a nod to Mr. Rogers.
This taking place at a sporting event, though, there were uniting factors beyond the above-mentioned. The Boston Bruins have postponed their next game, originally scheduled to take place on Monday night. The Boston Celtics have canceled their last home game of the season, originally schedule for Tuesday night. And more than the logical steps of Boston stepping up security and delaying or canceling events, there have been showings of support from near and far.
Chicago—no stranger to misery in regard to sports, nor in terms of tragedy in their own streets—showed unity in their newspaper. New York had monuments that were displayed quickly and will, presumably, show much more support, both emotionally and financially. Even the London Marathon, amidst worries of their own, showed mental fortitude.
When disaster strikes, whether man-made or nature-related, there are so many different ways in which people react. It's incredible to see the world of sports doing what they can to contribute to the good.
On Monday night, the Louisville Cardinals defeated the Michigan Wolverines for the NCAA men's basketball championship. Rick Pitino, the coach of the Cardinals, has now won his second title, and the University of Louisville captured their third overall. On the same day that coach Pitino was elected to the Hall of Fame, he became the first coach ever to win national championships with two different schools.
Much was made of the talent of the Wolverines, including Glen Robinson III and Tim Hardaway Jr., but the Wolverines simply could not keep up with the number one overall seed, Louisville.
Louisville had its own superstars, notably in Peyton Siva, who led the team in heart, if not in statistical categories, and Luke Hancock, who was named most outstanding player of the Final Four, and finished the game with a team-high 22 points. However, there's no denying the impact that Kevin Ware had on the Louisville team. Sitting courtside and being interviewed as the last player for the Cardinals, his words represented the will of a team that refused to lose.
In the first half, Michigan led by as many as 12 points. There was a special significance to the event for the Wolverines, as it brought about a reunion of one of the most heralded teams of all time. With the Fab Five in attendance, it seemed as though the circumstances might be ripe for a cathartic forgiveness for the voided Final Four appearances 19 and 20 years ago. Instead, those five ceded the spotlight—as people might hope they would have done had Michigan won, too—and let the new champions have their one shining moment.
While the Cardinals won the game and deserve the accolades that Hancock and Siva accumulated, it's worth noting that, aside from the progeny of former NBA stars, the Wolverines have a player who's been touted as an example for all athletes for his recent diet and exercise regime, Mitch McGary. The teams also possesses the player of the year, Trey Burke, who sat out of the last twelve minutes of the first half due to foul trouble. At the time, it didn't seem like too much of a problem, thanks to Spike Albrecht, who hadn't missed a three pointer in the entire NCAA Tournament and started the championship game by going 4 for 4 from deep, before finally missing one with 11:23 left in the game. Averaging only 7.5 points per game for the season, McGary had 9 points before the first half was halfway through.
When the game was over, though, the Cardinals were the victors, Pitino added another notch to his coaching resume, and Americans who'd gasped for breath upon seeing Kevin Ware's traumatic injury were able to breathe a sigh of relief.
The news started pouring in on Saturday morning, first broken by Andy Katz via Twitter. The University of New Mexico men's basketball head coach Steve Alford will resign his job at UNM to take the reins at UCLA. Andy Katz, for those who might not remember, has a history in Albuquerque and seems like a natural voice to break this sort of news. Alford had, merely days before, signed a contract extension with UNM, furthering his time in Albuquerque by a decade. As the rumors flew back and forth regarding buyouts, betrayal and hurt feelings all around, both UCLA and UNM moved quickly to offer their official statements. Alford held a noontime press conference to get his side of the story out and it became official.
In the ensuing days, Athletic Director Paul Krebs named former assistant coach Craig Neal as the interim head coachand people have begun to speculate. Will Neal get that interim tag removed and become the next head coach of the Cherry and Silver? There are rumors that prized center Alex Kirk has told the University that he will transfer to UCLA if that's not the case. Of course, there are always clamors from all over the city to hire a big name.
The biggest question, beyond the next coach and the impact that will have on which players leave and which players stay, though, is the effect this will have on the team and its relationship with the city. Lobo fever was near its all-time high as the NCAA Tournament rolled around this year. People who hadn't cheered for the Lobos in years picked them as a Final Four team and bought tickets to the newly-renovated Pit in record numbers, averaging 11,000 season tickets sold per year. After yet another disappointing early exit from the post-season and the departure of a nearly uniformly revered coach, how will the fan base handle the change? Alford has already confirmed that he will take his son, Bryce Alford, with him to UCLA after graduation from La Cueva High School. And the reigning MWC player of the year, Kendall Williams, was himself plucked from UCLA by Alford, after the Bruins pulled his scholarship. In fact, the only other player, so far, to have committed to UNM for next year comes from California.
While UNM begins its search for the next person to guide the men's basketball team, Alford will be moving on to what he called, "the premier basketball program in the country." No matter how hurt any fan's feelings may be today, Alford should be recognized and commended for the job he did in establishing a winning culture in Albuquerque. As a fan of basketball, it should be acknowledged that this is probably a step up for him. As a fan of the Lobos, I'll look for a continuation of the success that Alford reignited in our city. And with a little bit of a grudge, I'll look forward to a UNM-UCLA match up.
The University of New Mexico Lobos received a number 3 seed in the NCAA Tournament on Sunday. Selection Sunday was a huge occasion in Albuquerque this year, asthousands of people flocked to the Pit to watch the Lobos receive their placement in the Big Dance. The Lobos were rewarded with a ranking of 10th in first AP poll of the postseason. As a top 16 tourney team, the Lobos were placed in the West division of the NCAA, meaning they will play the vast majority of their early games (assuming they continue to win) near home.
The Lobos will play their first game against 14th-seeded Harvard on Thursday, March 21 in Salt Lake City. The game will be nationally broadcast on TNT, and regional preferences will almost assuredly guarantee that New Mexicans will see the majority of the game, unless something extremely dramatic happens in one of the other games scheduled around 7:50 PM MST.
With the disparity in seedings and overall records for the year, Lobo fans are expecting a big victory. If UNM does win on Thursday, they'll play again on Saturday, again in Salt Lake City, against either the sixth-seeded Arizona Wildcats or the eleventh-seeded Belmont Bruins.
A win over either of those teams would send UNM back to the Sweet Sixteen for the first time since 1974, the first time the NCAA Tournament was strictly a Division I affair, but also a time when the post-season only took in 25 teams. The ESPN preview of the West bracket, written by Robbi Pickeral, says the team is ready. The fans who celebrated on Sunday seem to believe so. But with a run into the Sweet Sixteen, the path gets significantly more difficult.
If the seeding holds up, UNM will match up with Ohio State University in the Sweet Sixteen on March 28 in Los Angeles. OSU is a powerhouse that many feel could have qualified for a number 1 seed. The game is never easy, of course, but this match-up might prove difficult for the Cherry and Silver squad. However, the Lobos aren't without their believers. Sports Illustrated’s Seth Davis says the Lobos will not only defeat OSU, but will be carried into the Final Four.
A victory in the quarterfinals would take UNM—again, if the seeding all holds up and the teams that are supposed to win do so—against the little mid-major that could, Gonzaga. A constant presence in the NCAA Tournament for the last 15 years, Gonzaga's been rewarded for its consistent non-conference play, and the winning they did along with that schedule this year, with a number 1 seed in the West. An Elite Eight appearance would match Gonzaga's best-ever Big Dance record, but it'd be a new one for the Lobos. Both teams, then, will have plenty to fight for, if the match up arises, in order to make the Final Four in Atlanta.
With five teams from the Mountain West conference in to the NCAA Tournament, UNM doesn't have to go to the trouble of scheduling so many non-conference games to toughen up their schedule. In fact, UNM had the second most difficult schedule strength in the nation. And it's clear that the MWC is holding its own during the season. Now is the time, however, for the real stars to shine. If any MWC teams can make deep runs in the postseason, it's good for the whole league. And Burqueños are hoping that it'll be their beloved Lobos that get the chance to shine the brightest, with a possible trip to Atlanta at the end.
The University of New Mexico Lobos basketball team has continued to climb in the national rankings, rising to number 12 this week in the AP top 25. With only two games left in their regular season, now is the right time for the Lobos to be making that climb. On Wednesday, UNM plays at Nevada. While no team should ever be overlooked, nor any game looked past, the Wolf Pack currently sit in the basement of the Mountain West Conference rankings and have only won 12 games all season. If the Lobos can get past Nevada, the Air Force Falcons wait in Colorado Springs on Saturday night for the conference finale. If both of those games fall in the W category, things will look pretty good come Monday, when the next rankings are released, and it would be reasonable to expect a little bump before the MWC Tournament begins in Las Vegas on March 12.
The focus in the team's locker room, of course, will remain solidly committed to the sports cliché of “one game at a time” and never looking past any opponent. But that's not something that we have to pretend to indulge in, so let’s let the speculation run rampant! If UNM does what they should and wins out in Nevada and Colorado Springs, they'll have a clear path to a 1 seed in the MWC Tournament—not to mention the early rumblings of their deserving a 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament. If they can manage to run the gamut of the MWC, they'll earn the automatic berth into the Big Dance, and Selection Sunday will be an interesting day to say the least.
Of course, nothing is automatic. Nothing is promised or guaranteed. But, if the standings stay as they are, UNM will play either Nevada or Fresno State on March 13, followed by either San Diego State or Boise State on March 14. The path to the MWC Championship Game and the automatic berth looks possible. More appealing than the auto-entry to the tournament, though, is the prospect of reeling off all those wins in a row and entering March Madness with all that momentum on the side of the Cherry and Silver. While there will always be anonymous commentators who dismiss any non-major conference team's placement in the national rankings (don't even think about reading the comments on Gonzaga's recent ascent to number one if you want to retain faith in your fellow humans), the numbers are pretty solid on the side of the Lobos in this case. With an RPI of 2 right now, and a strength of schedule of 3, the data-driven amongst the selection committee have to be looking very hard at UNM.
College basketball is a game of runs and momentum. UNM taking care of business in its non-conference schedule was the first step. The Lobos are now close to finished with taking care of business during the in-conference schedule. Next up, the MWC conference tournament. After that, who knows how far these boys could go? With the right momentum, match-ups and seeding, it could be an unprecedented time.