Preparing for more March Madness, including a rematch of a 2021 classic, plus Ja Morant returns
Good morning to everyone but especially to…
THE SWEET 16 TEAMS
Oh, how sweet it is. The Sweet 16 is here, and I could not be more excited. This year’s bunch features several terrific games, but one stands out: Gonzaga-UCLA.
The Bulldogs and the Bruins are atop David Cobb’s Sweet 16 game rankings.
- Cobb: “This is a rematch of the Final Four thriller from 2021 that Gonzaga won on a legendary buzzer-beater from Jalen Suggs. Though a couple of seasons have elapsed, some of the biggest names from that game are still around. Drew Timme is still Gonzaga’s leading scorer, and UCLA stars such as point guard Tyger Campbell and forward Jaime Jaquez are now senior leaders.”
If this game is even half as good as the 2021 version, it will be an absolute treat. And if Gonzaga wants to win, it’ll have to be on the back of Timme. I broke down how the ‘Zags — and every other Sweet 16 underdog — can advance to the Elite Eight.
Timme’s throwback, post-oriented game may never translate to the NBA, but there are plenty of intriguing pro prospects still playing in the Tournament, and our Kyle Boone ranked 16 who could be drafted this summer. Here’s the top five:
Here’s what else to know:
And not such a good morning for…
PAUL GEORGE AND THE LA CLIPPERS
All season long, the Clippers have tried to manage their roster in a way that doesn’t put too much of a burden on their stars. But load management can’t prevent every injury.
Paul George will be re-evaluated in 2-3 weeks after spraining his knee in Tuesday’s loss to the Thunder. He will likely miss the rest of the regular season at least.
- The injury occurred late in the fourth quarter, when George skied to get a rebound and landed awkwardly after being bumped into by Luguentz Dort.
- George — who also missed time earlier this season with a different knee injury — is averaging 23.8 points, 6.1 rebounds and 5.1 assists this year and made his eighth career All-Star Game.
- The Clippers are currently fifth in the Western Conference standings but just 1.5 games out of seventh, which would require advancing through the play-in tournament.
Two weeks from Wednesday — the soonest George will be re-evaluated, much less return — is April 5. The regular season ends April 9, the play-in tournament starts April 11 and the playoffs start April 15. Basically, if/when George does return, he won’t have a lot of ramp-up time to do so.
The Clippers have outscored opponents by nearly nine points per 100 possessions when George and Kawhi Leonard play together this season, an elite rate and by far the best of any duo on the team. Unfortunately for LA, it doesn’t look like they will be playing together any time soon.
Not so honorable mentions
As Ja Morant returns, will winning ease his transition back? 🏀
Ja Morant is back. The Grizzlies star scored 17 points off the bench in a Memphis win in his return from an eight-game suspension. Memphis is now depending on its leader to be reliable on the court and off of it.
Off the court, as Morant said himself, it’s an “ongoing process.” Winning on the court will help that process, opines our Bill Reiter.
- Reiter: “Win, and all will be forgiven and forgotten. Perhaps talent should not trump all, but it does nonetheless. It’s why he’s back, why this brief suspension has felt well-choreographed all around, and why for all the fair questions about Morant the man, it’s Morant the player who has been rushed back to the game. … Winning solves so many things. Maybe it should, maybe it shouldn’t. But it does.”
There have been countless athletes who have overcome issues away from the playing surface and redeemed themselves. Morant, at just 23 years old, has plenty of time to join them. Hopefully, as Bill writes, the suspension proves the impetus for a turnaround.
Why 2023 will be ‘the year of the stolen base’ in MLB ⚾
MLB is going to be faster this season. Not just faster in terms of how long the games take — thanks, pitch clock! — but faster on the bases as well. As one MLB player told our Matt Snyder, 2023 will be “the year of the stolen base.”
Why? Well, the rule changes help, specifically that pitchers can only “disengage” from the rubber twice (that includes both step offs and pick-off throws) per batter — the third time must result in a pick off or else it is a balk. Also of note, bases are 18 square inches, up from 15.
Matt is on board with what the possible effects may be.
- Snyder: “It would be fun to see a big increase in steals. The MLB average in successful stolen bases has been about 0.5 per game from 2015-22. … Stolen bases in Triple-A did spike with the bigger bases when experimented and the players who have shuttled back and forth between Triple-A and the majors recently noted that baserunning was definitely easier with the larger bases.”
I’m excited for that, too. Baseball is better when speed plays a bigger factor. It requires more strategy and more calculated risk-taking and likely results in more excitement. And who doesn’t want more of that?!
NFL offseason: Top 10 moves, plus Jets send Elijah Moore to Browns 🏈
The new NFL season is just over a week old, but it’s been a wild one. There’s the still-unresolved mysteries of Aaron Rodgers and Lamar Jackson, the Panthers‘ blockbuster trade with the Bears for the No. 1 pick, the quarterback carousel spinning, the coaching carousel spinning. My mind is spinning just trying to keep up with it all!
But what moves have been the best? Our Cody Benjamin looked at the top 10 moves — from trades to signings to coaches — this offseason, and here’s his top five:
- 1. Jets (set to*) acquire QB Aaron Rodgers
- 2. Lions sign CB Cameron Sutton
- 3. Bears acquire WR D.J. Moore
- 4. Dolphins acquire CB Jalen Ramsey
- 5. Lions sign S C.J. Gardner-Johnson
I love that two Detroit moves make the top five. The Lions really impressed me down the stretch of 2022 and have now patched some holes in a leaky secondary. With two first-round picks upcoming, the Lions can really go any direction they want. That’s awesome flexibility.
As for another really strong move, the Browns acquired WR Elijah Moore and a third-round pick (74th) from the Jets in exchange for a second-round pick (42nd). The trade came shortly after the Jets signed Mecole Hardman, creating a logjam of sorts at wide receiver.
Both teams earned high marks in Tyler Sullivan’s trade grades, but Cleveland came out on top.
- Sullivan: “Instead of shipping away a first-round pick to acquire Denver‘s Jerry Jeudy (a player Cleveland had reportedly been linked to), they buy low on a former second-round pick in Moore, who has shown flashes in his career. … Moore is also extremely cheap over the next few years, so they don’t have to deal with a cumbersome contract either. A low risk, potential high reward trade for Cleveland here. Grade: A-“
Here’s the fantasy impact of Moore’s move.
What we’re watching Thursday 📺
🏀 We’re watching the Sweet 16. Here’s how.
🏒 Wild at Flyers, 6:30 p.m. on ESPN
🏀 Knicks at Magic, 7 p.m. on NBA TV
🏒 Penguins at Stars, 9 p.m. on ESPN
🏀 Thunder at Clippers, 10:30 p.m. on NBA TV