The Opening Pitch: Well, you HAVE to be rooting for Butler.
Let's start with that basic premise: How can you not? If Butler wins the national championship -- beating Duke in the process (which isn't without either its symbolism or its schadenfreude) -- it would join Texas Western and Villanova on the very short list of greatest stories in college hoops history.
I would go so far as to call it the most intriguing champion -- in any sport -- in recent memory. (That we could get the Saints and Butler in the same three-month stretch is incredible.)
But even if Butler loses -- and, lamentably, I think they will -- I think they come away the winner.
When we look back on the 2010 college basketball season, we won't remember that Duke won the national title. We will remember Butler's run to the title game.
This treatment is exceedingly rare in sports. In college basketball, I can think of only two instances in the "64" Era that might qualify: George Mason going to the Final Four in 2006 and the Fab Five making the title game in 1992.
Butler is a championship-worthy team. They have proven that over and over throughout this tournament. But their mid-major backstory and baby-faced coach and backyard title run elevate them to endearing 'dogs. (Bulldogs! Don't call 'em underdogs!)
Regardless of how things turn out tonight, this Butler team will be remembered -- and its run cherished by fans everywhere.
Alas, I'm picking Duke to win: Butler plays sick defense, but their offense against Michigan State was atrocious -- and Duke plays even better D than the Spartans. Meanwhile, Duke's offense buried a very tenacious West Virginia team in an avalanche of 3s, many made possible by Brian Zoubek's impressive offensive rebounding.
Duke has dispatched two straight teams with profiles precisely of the kind that have given the Dukies fits in recent Tournaments; Butler is more like a poor man's Duke, which this year's Duke -- a fiesty, almost likeable edition (I said "almost!") -- will not have a problem beating.
(There is one wrinkle: The last time Tom Izzo lost to a team in the Final Four that would go on to face Duke in the title game, Izzo dropped enough hints that Jim Calhoun was able to thoroughly out-coach Coach K for the '99 title. The counter-wrinkle is that Butler C Matt Howard is iffy -- and even if he plays, potentially limited.)
But don't cry for Butler: Beyond the lifetime of goodwill they have earned from college basketball fans, Brad Stevens has said that he always saw next year's Butler team as the one with national-title potential. If everyone (read: Gordan Hayward) sticks around, make them a preseason Top 5 pick.
One Shining Moment: The most stirring moment of the Tournament wasn't Ali's dagger to topple Kansas; it was Bob Huggins hunched over a crumpled Da'Sean Butler, stroking his cheek and whispering words of consolation. It single-handedly changed my previously dismissive opinion of Huggins -- and instantly became the defining moment of Huggins' career. Oh, and here's to a complete recovery for Butler.
(Speaking of "One Shining Moment," I'm very excited to hear Jennifer Hudson's rendition, which has the potential to be the best yet. I have always had a fondness for the late-80s instrumentals, though. Doubtful they restored those.)
Bracket Update: What an interesting scenario -- few enough folks in your pool likely have Butler that whoever is in the lead right now, presuming they didn't pick Duke to win it all, are in a position to ride inertia to a pool championship. Meanwhile, if you have Duke winning it all, you are poised to leapfrog a bunch of folks FTW.
Heading into tonight, my bracket is in the 37th percentile. It appears I will avoid last year's 18th. (My wife's bracket is in the 99th percentile -- would you like to know her secret? She used the KenPom.com efficiency ratings to inform her picks, with an emphasis on offensive rebounding percentage. Make a note for next year.)
President Obama's bracket is treading water in the 51st percentile. If Butler wins, he could stay there; if Duke wins, he will likely dip below into negative territory. And if you used the National Bracket, you'd be in the 61st percentile -- hardly "wisdom" from the crowd.
NFL: Donovan McNabb traded to Redskins. Surprised that Philly would trade him to a division rival -- this is right up there with Favre going from Green Bay to Minnesota.
I expect Redskins fans will embrace McNabb fervently, but will judge this based on making the playoffs. Let's also presume this takes the Skins out of the market for a QB in the 1st round of the Draft. (The Eagles? Rebuilding/reloading mode.)
NBA Talking Points: The Thunder have locked themselves into the Western Conference playoffs, culminating one of the most impressive one-year leaps in NBA history. I wouldn't want to play them in the 1st round of the playoffs; they remind me a little of last year's Bulls, who took the Celtics to the limit -- and derailed their title defense.
(Speaking of OKC, Kevin Durant broke the single-season scoring record for the franchise -- a little more impressive when you realize that includes the decades the team spent in Seattle.)
MLB Opening Day: Well, that settles it! The Red Sox will be winning the World Series this year. (Wait: We're not supposed to take Opening Night frenzy between the Yankees and Red Sox as be-all-end-all? For the rest of the country and their Opening Day today: Halladay! Holliday! Heyward! Enjoy.)
Tiger and the Masters: His press conference today at 2 should be a circus -- although it will be mitigated by two factors: (1) Augusta National will keep the clamps on it, and (2) mainstream sports media has proven itself almost entirely unwilling to engage Tiger on much more than "Um, how soon can we NOT talk about this anymore?"
(BTW: Yesterday, Tiger was seen with a bottle of Powerade, the direct competitor to Gatorade, the brand that dropped him in the wake of the scandal. Ooh!)
Women's Final Four: How good is UConn? The Final Four matchup with Baylor was arguably their closest game of the year -- and UConn still won by 20. (That's 77 wins in a row, for those who enjoy keeping count.)
Tuesday's final sets up nice drama: Either UConn affirms itself as the greatest women's team of all time ... or they lose in the biggest championship-game upset in the history of women's college basketball. (Watch Stanford's Nnemkadi Ogwumike, who had 38 and 17 in Stanford's win over Oklahoma.)
CFB Spring Games: Texas QB Garrett Gilbert has a heck of a legacy to follow, but Gilbert has more championship-game experience than Colt McCoy (zing!) -- and is a better pro prospect. Gilbert will come closer to a national-title in his remaining 3 (2?) years than McCoy did.
The Last Word: PleasenotDukepleasenotDukepleasenotDuke.
Dan Shanoff writes The Wake-Up Call every weekday morning for SportingNews.com and blogs daily at DanShanoff.com. Got any comments, questions or feedback? Email Dan at shanofftsn-[at]-gmail-[dot]-com. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/danshanoff.
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