March 31, 2006
South Carolina:
"We're No. 66 ... again!" Gamecocks become the first team in more than 60 years to repeat as NIT champs. (But back in 1943-44, it meant something.)
 
 
 
The Lead Item
Two Words For You:
FINAL.  FAVORITE.

Day 5 of Mason Mania!

Everyone is rooting for George Mason.

(Unless you're a Florida fan like me, in which case you're stuck rooting against the greatest Cinderella story in college hoops history. Yes: Rah.)

But will the Mason Miracle continue? Will the Patriots actually beat the Gators, setting up what would be the most anticipated title game ever? (Amazingly, no matter who they play!)

After the way GMU has beaten Michigan State (however overrated), UNC (however too young), Wichita St. (however tapped out) and UConn (however underachieving), you'd be crazy to doubt GMU -- yet again.

But the way fans predict the game playing out, hearts and heads diverge:

Nearly 59 percent are picking the Gators to win.

(Maybe the real news is that more than 40 percent are taking George Mason -- unthinkable three weeks ago.)

Why the disconnect? Because fans can cheer on the Cinderella while still recognizing a few things:

Maybe fans feel like making the Final Four is enough for Mason. Maybe they see the Gators' size and athleticism advantages. Or that Florida is playing better than any of GMU's previous opponents.

Normally, I bank on the aggregate fan opinion, but when nearly 50 percent of fans picked zero Final Four teams, you have to wonder about their judgment on this one.

At this point, no one can say with any certainty how the Final Four will end; that's part of what makes GMU's story so compelling -- they keep defying expectations.

If GMU's ride is over, it's one that fans will never forget. If it rolls on into Monday, you better believe it's only getting started.

Mason Mania Recap
If it all comes to an end Saturday night, we'll always have "The Week of Mason Mania":

Monday: Best Cindy Ever!
Tuesday: Shattering wisdom
Wednesday: Can there be another?
Thursday: What if they lose?

And let me offer you a preview of the universal reaction if the Patriots beat Florida on Saturday night and advance to the title game:

"YYYYYESSSSS!!!!!"

LSU vs. UCLA
Fat is fabulous: If it weren't for Mason, LSU would be the overwhelming fan favorite of this Final Four, thanks to the irrepressible charm of star Glen "Big Baby" Davis.

It's impossible to root against Big Baby. It's almost as hard not to get Homer Simpson to drool over Tyrus Thomas. And how can you deny a team of homegrown Louisianans as a sentimental favorite a mere half-year after Katrina?

It's not that there isn't a lot to like about UCLA. They play defense better than any team in the country. They have a youth movement to match LSU. And how can you not love anything connected to the grandfatherly John Wooden?

But as the Wizard of Westwood says in those Hartford insurance ads on TV during tournament games, trust is the key ingredient to success. And as tight-knit as UCLA's youth movement seems to be, these LSU kids are playing with a higher level of trust in their abilities and themselves.

And I trust my gut that UCLA will keep it close in a grinder, but LSU has the momentum (and frontcourt) to move on.

(Fans agree: More than two-thirds have LSU beating UCLA, and LSU is the most popular Final Four pick to go all the way.)

CHECK OUT THE QUICKIE EVERY WEEKDAY MORNING!
WHO'S GOT THE MOMENTUM ...
Victor Conte: Released from jail; denies he gave BB 'roids
Reggie Miller: Pacers retire his "31" (then lose to Suns)
Rich Harden: Trendy AL Cy pick allows 3H (6 IP) vs. A's AAA
... AND WHO'S GOT NO MO'
Ben Sheets: Brewers ace will start the season on the DL
Adam Eaton: Rangers new SP out for months (finger sprain)
Julian Tavarez: Gets 10-game ban for fighting Gathright
 
Women's Final Four
All about Ivory: UNC's Latta (ESPN.com's women's hoops player of the year) is the most exciting player to watch in either the men's or women's tournament (close second: LSU's Tyrus Thomas).

But if any team can beat UNC, it's Maryland, which gave the Heels their only loss this season.

Bad week for Duke? The Duke women can thank the men's lacrosse team for turning the name on their jerseys into a national disgrace.

The worst week in the school's athletic history can be at least partially redeemed with a win over LSU. I don't see it: There's some Final Four mojo going on for the two teams from Louisiana.

Graham Hays has a must-read to get you up to speed, answering the four biggest questions of the women's Final Four.

MLB Season Opener
Indians at White Sox (Sun., 8 p.m. ET, ESPN)
Here's what we know about these two teams, based on the way last season went down:

161 games from now, this one game might determine not only who wins the AL Central, but who beats back the Yankees or Red Sox or A's or Angels for the AL wild card.

"Take 'em one at a time?"
Yeah, right.

Anna Benson: Divorce!
Perhaps sensing that her husband's Q-rating plummeted in the move from New York to Baltimore, Anna Benson reportedly has filed for divorce.

Actually, I'm betting she realizes her own marketability skyrockets as a minx of a divorcee, making the rounds squiring D-list actors, rather than as a mere baseball wife.

And the grounds crew at Camden Yards gently weeps...

MLB 'Roids Probe
With all the hoo-ha about George Mitchell's supposed "conflict of interest" as head of MLB's steroid investigation and as a director of the Red Sox, there might be an upside:

At first the probe will look at MLB 'roid use since September 2002, when testing for performance-enhancing drugs began. Critics seem to think Mitchell might pull his punches because he has an existing affiliation with a team. But here's an alternate theory:

What if he bends over extra-far the other way to show that he's as independent as his commission is supposed to be?

(Of course, then there's the "conflict of disinterest," which is what happens to all the Bonds critics when, yet again, fans prove they don't really care about the issue.)

Meanwhile, Bonds' agent told Jayson Stark that the investigation "is not going to cause Barry to retire."

"Barry won't retire until his skills decline to the point where he's not able to play at the highest level," agent Jeff Borris said. "But right now, that's not the case."

NBA Banning Tights?
The NBA fashion police have gone too far this time.

Rovell and Stein report that the NBA is considering banning those full-length tights that a handful of players have been wearing this season.

But it hasn't just been any players; in fact, they've been worn by some of the top stars, like LeBron, Kobe and Dwyane. I'd trust the star players to not do anything to embarrass themselves or the game.

I tried the "tights look" myself back in the winter when Kobe first sparked the craze. I did look stupid. They did feel uncomfortable.

But banning tights makes as little sense as banning ankle wraps, compression shorts (which can be seen under NBA shorts) or headbands. Calm down, NBA.

Wrigley Sells Out
"The Bud Light Bleachers?": Anheuser-Busch bought the "naming rights" to the most iconic section of seating in all of sports.

The MBA in me thinks that the move was inevitable (particularly since they'd never sell the naming rights to Wrigley Field).

The Wrigleyville alumni in me thinks that it's a defilement of one of the most sacred spots in American culture.

And the pragmatist in me splits the difference:

Fans will enjoy an upgraded section from a renovation (cost presumably defrayed by the sellout), but don't expect the name to catch on.

MLB Predictions
Continuing the '06 preview:

American League:
AL East: Yankees
AL Central: Indians
AL West: A's
AL Wild: White Sox
AL Champ: A's
AL Rookie: Delmon Young
AL MVP: Travis Hafner

National League:
NL East: Mets
NL Central: Cardinals
NL West: Giants
NL Wild: Brewers
NL Champ: Mets
NL Rookie: Prince Fielder
NL MVP: Albert Pujols

World Series: Mets over A's.

Duke Lacrosse:
If convicted, offending players can expect up to 16-20 years in prison. And you can only imagine the treatment a Duke lacrosse player will get in "Oz."
 
 
Today on ESPN.com
Quickie: Live!
NCAA Tourney
Page 2 Index
 
Men's Final Four
Defensive X Factors
Joakim Noah
Foul trouble is the key
 
Luc Mbah a Moute
Keep Tyrus T. in check?
 
Jai Lewis
Handle Noah and Horford?
 
Darrel Mitchell
Must contain UCLA's Farmar
 
Lee Humphrey
Can't guard GMU backcourt?
 

NFL: Eagles are apparently not interested in trading for WR Eric Moulds; instead, he'll likely end up with Houston. Plus: Jets sign CB Dyson

More MLB Probe: Predictably, Rose investigator John Dowd, who has become the nation's resident MLB crime crank, doesn't like the Mitchell pick.

NBA Draft: Another day, another junior jumping in. San Diego St. F Marcus Slaughter joins the pool. Another guy with a bright NBDL future.

One more MLB Opening Night game note: Keep an eye out for Peter Gammons, who is joining Miller and Morgan as game analyst, sitting in the stands.

Congrats to my Page 2 colleagues, Neel and Simmons, for being nominated for Sports Emmys: Eric for his John Wooden E-Ticket piece and Bill for the SG cartoon.



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