MARCH MADNESS TIPS OFF THIS WEEK

The madness has already begun as college basketball fans dropped everything and started filling out their brackets earlier this week for the 2019 NCAA Men’s Tournament which began last night at Dayton, Ohio when Prairie View A&M met Fairleigh Dickinson followed by a pair of No. 11 seeds in Belmont vs. Temple.

No. 16 North Dakota State hooks up against No. 16 North Carolina Central while 11th-seeded Arizona State plays No. 11 St. John’s today (Wednesday) in another pair of games to fill out the normal 64-team bracket.

Full first-round action takes place Thursday and Friday with 16 games played each day as the field gets whittled down to 32 teams that will play in the second round Saturday and Sunday to determine the Sweet Sixteen.

Oddly enough, three of the four No. 1 seeds—Duke, North Carolina and Virginia- come from the Atlantic Coast Conference, which ties a tournament record, while Gonzaga, with an enrollment of only 5,200, has one of the nation’s strongest rosters.

The Duke Blue Devils, at 9-4 to win it all, get the nod as the top team of the 68 vying for the national championship, thanks mostly to 6-8 Zion Williamson, who according to the Boston Globe can play forward, guard or center “with the breadth of Charles Barkley, the hops of Dominique Wilkins, the inside moves of Kevin McHale and the passing ability of Magic Johnson.”

Duke’s head coach Mike Krzyzewski, a fan favorite for many decades, has plenty of other talent, including potential NBA first-round picks Cam Reddish and RJ Barrett.

North Carolina, who played one of the toughest regular-season schedules, should feel comfortable playing against these tough teams in their Midwest Regional such as Kentucky, Houston and Kansas. The Tar Heels’ pair of freshman guards—Nassir Little and Coby White—are NBA prospects.

Virginia returns as No. 1 seed for the fourth time in six years and needs to make up for being the first-ever No. 1 seed to lose to a No. 16 in an NCAA opener.

           The Cavaliers are the second overall No. 1 seed behind Duke and are back in the South Regional after losing to Maryland-Baltimore County (UMBC) a year ago. The Cavs are still looking to reach their first Final Four with Head Coach Tony Bennett.

The tourney will be one of the first times that Gonzaga is finally healthy. The Bulldogs played most of the season without forward Killian Tillie because of foot injuries but still beat Duke in the Maui Invitational and had a perfect regular-season run through the West Coast Conference.

Gonzaga has been to the NCAA Tournament 21 times and is the No. 1 seed for the third time in seven years.

Since 1985, the combined record of No. 1 seeds vs. No. 16 is 135-1 or 99.3 percent. No. 2 seed vs. No. 15 has a 94.1 winning percentage of 128-8. In comparison, No. 8 vs. No. 9 is exactly 50 percent with a 68-68 record.

No. 1 seeds since 1985 have a won-loss record of 455-115 with 56 Final Fours and 21 national championships. The No. 2’s are 321-131, 16 Final Fours and 5 championships. Oddly enough, no No. 5 seed has ever won a championship.

Five Lone Star State teams are competing in this year’s tourney with three in the West Regional–No. 16 Prairie View, No. 9 Baylor and No. 3 Texas Tech—and two in the Midwest Regional—No. 3 Houston and No. 15 Abilene Christian from the Southland Conference.

Unfortunately, the Texas Longhorns and their 16-16 record was overlooked by the NCAA but was snapped up in an instant by the NIT. The ‘Horns hosted South Dakota State (24-8) last night in the Erwin Center.

The South Regional 13th-seeded UC-Irvine Anteaters have some good genealogy with guard Max Hazzard the grandson of UCLA legend Walt Hazzard and guard Spencer Rivers son of coach Doc Rivers.

I’ve been a Dukie for a long time, probably because of my fellow countryman Coach K, and will be rooting them on again this tournament.

KWICKIES…I was hoping that Jim Furyk’s lead in the clubhouse of last weekend’s Players Championship golf tournament would hold up but I’m not upset that he was overtaken by Irishman Rory McIlroy on St. Patrick’s Day, who pocketed a whopping $2.25 million while the 48-year-old Furyk took home $1.35 million, which has to be some kind of record for second place.

Major League Baseball announced changes for the upcoming season by stating that all trades must be made by July 31 with waiver trades beyond that date eliminated. In 2020, pitchers must face a minimum of three batters, unless one or two suffice in ending the inning. Rosters expand to 26 players through August, but the traditional 40-man roster of September is reduced to 28.

And speaking of baseball, former West Orange-Stark star pitcher Chad Dallas fired a one-hit shutout over Angelina giving Panola an 8-0 victory. The talented freshman had a perfect game going for six innings in racking up his third straight victory without a loss.

And on a personal note, Army has had a busy spring break, coming to Texas and losing three games to the University of Houston by a total of six runs, sweeping Stephen F. Austin 5-4 in 12 innings and 8-5. My grandson, Logan Smith started Wednesday’s game on a sloppy field, but limited the Lumberjacks to three hits and two earned runs in five innings of work. He left the game with a lead, but his relief wasn’t so fortunate and didn’t hold it, depriving Logan of the victory. Army played Ohio University last weekend, winning two and losing one. They stood at 9-8 for the young season before returning to West Point to defend their 2018 Patriot Conference championship against Hofstra today.

Johnny Manziel has found a team either desperate for a quarterback or doesn’t know about his life as a disruptive playboy as he signed an Alliance of American Football contract with the Memphis Express. The Canadian Football League terminated his contract during the off-season claiming Manziel violated his agreement with it, but offered no specifics.JUST BETWEEN US…Like I said in last week’s column, it wouldn’t take very long for a team to give Orange’s Earl Thomas what he was looking for in a new NFL contract. The Baltimore Ravens signed the All-Pro free safety to a four-year, $55 million deal, with a whopping $32 million guaranteed. The Ravens needed someone to protect the middle of the field and that happens to be Earl’s specialty.