For Sports Fans, This is the Best Fortnight of the Year
If you're a sports fanatic, I'm not telling you anything you don't already know. The next fourteen days will see some of the best action, the best competition, and the most sublime events of the year.
1. The stretch run to the playoffs for pro hockey and pro basketball.
With fewer than 10 games to go in the National Hockey League season and less than a dozen National Basketball Association games left, teams are jockeying for playoff positioning and several are fighting for their playoff lives.
Both leagues play 82 games, which makes for too long a season for some. But these next two weeks will decide who keeps their championship dreams alive and who goes golfing.
Hockey has a new playoff format that includes several wild card teams that is supposed to make the process more fair. We'll see. The top three teams in each of the 4 divisions automatically advance to the playoffs. The remaining 2 teams to make the playoffs from each conference will be determined by the best record regardless of division. As of today, there are 7 teams still with a shot of making one of the four wild cards.
The NBA still maintains its format of the top 8 from each conference going to the playoffs. In the West, there's a ferocious battle for the final spots with 4 teams within two games of 6th place. In the East, the battle is for 3rd place and home court advantage for at least the first round of the playoffs. Three teams are within 2 games of each other.
Teams from both sports are ratcheting up the intensity. For many, the playoffs have already started.
2. Opening Day of the baseball season
Technically, the season opened last week in Australia where the Los Angeles Dodgers played two games with the Arizona Diamondbacks. But the "official" opening day is Monday with most teams in action.
I'm old enough to remember Opening Day being the one day of the year that the Sisters of Mercy largely turned a blind eye to the transistor radios hidden in our desks and let us update the class every once and a while. But even though baseball has lost its luster as our national pastime, there is a feeling associated with Opening Day that isn't duplicated any other day of the year.
Hope, anticipation, a sense of rebirth -- if you live in the Midwest, Opening Day is confirmation that the long, brutal winter is ending and spring has arrived (if not temperature-wise). It doesn't get any better than this.
3. The Final Four
After an exciting weekend of Regional Finals, the survivors will play on Saturday night with the winners advancing to Monday's championship game. The match-ups are intriguing. Top ranked Florida will play Connecticut in the first game, and the Gators are already 6 point favorites -- a heavy spread for a Final Four game. Meanwhile, Kentucky is a 2 point favorite over Michigan in the late game. This is no doubt a reflection of how well Coach John Calipari has those Wildcats playing.
UConn appears to my eyes to be outmanned, but the history of the Final Four is replete with Davids slaying Goliaths. The Huskies have had a great run, starting as a 7th seed, they should definitely not be counted out.
The Kentucky-Wisconsin match-up should be a war with two big, tough frontcourts going at it. The Wildcat's young bigs are athletic and can score at will, while the Badger's Frank Kaminsky is a beast underneath. I hope the refs let them play and not call a bunch of ticky-tack fouls.
I see an all-SEC final with Florida winning a close one over Kentucky.
4. The Masters golf tournament
There are tougher courses in the world, but none more beautiful -- especially this time of year. Bobby Jones' masterpiece, Augusta National, has bedeviled, befuddled, and driven players crazy since it opened in 1933. The postage stamp greens are cut so short it's like putting on your garage floor. The beautiful dogwoods, magnolias, and azaleas, are exploding in all their spring colors. The hillside behind #12 appears cartoonish in the splash of its many-hued plants and bushes. It's worth watching on your big screen just to enjoy nature's beauty.
Golfers don't have the chance to do that, however. They're too busy trying to navigate the 7245 yards of treacherous real estate designed to make them weep. The undulating greens make approach shots absolutely key. Where the ball lands on the green spells the difference between birdie and bogey.
It's a tournament that's usually competitive with the top golfers vying for the Green Jacket. There are richer tournaments. There are harder courses. But there's only one Masters Tournament and it will be played April 10-13.