Final Four Notes and MLB Preview

OUR JIM SEZ MID-WEEK REPORT IS CHOCK FULL OF HOOP GOODIES WITH QUICK-HITTER NCAA TOURNAMENT NEWS & NOTES ...PLUS OUR BASEBALL 2011 FORECAST IS HERE!!!

By Jim Hurley:

Don't you just love when College Basketball so-called "experts" turn the tables on their audience?

Take ESPN's Dick Vitale, for example: The mouth that roared blasted the NCAA Tournament Selection Committee folks a couple of weeks back for excluding the likes of Virginia Tech and Colorado and instead inviting Virginia Commonwealth ... duh!

Now, Vitale is laughing and joking that he likes VCU to beat Butler this Saturday in the first half of the Final Four from Houston -and he's not the only clown out there who insulted the hard-core College Basketball fans (and there's plenty of them, as you well know) and now is flip-flopping his way through this tourney.

Here's the truth and nothing but the whole truth of the matter:

The NCAA Tournament Selection Committee -as it turned out -did an excellent job this year (we gave 'em some kudos the day after Selection Sunday but must admit they deserve a real round of applause) as the games were ultra-tight and turns out maybe Florida was indeed good enough to be a #2 seed (although we still claim they blew it on Kentucky who should have been a #2 and not a #4 but, hey, nobody's perfect!).

Now, let's hope the Final Four and NCAA Championship Game that's yet to come is as terrific as were the first two full weeks of this tourney.

We'll get to some mid-week quick-hitter comments on the Final Four sides in just a moment plus we have our Major-League Baseball 2011 Preview just for you but first here's a key reminder:

Jim Hurley and his Network of Handicappers and Bloggers have all the NCAA Tournament Final Four/Championship Game, NIT Championship Game, CBI Tournament and College Insider Tournament winners along with the NBA too when you check in with us every day right here online or else at our toll-free telephone # of 1-800-323-4453 -remember that check-in times are after 1 p.m. ET for all weeknight games and after 10 a.m. on Saturday/Sunday. Editor's Note:

  • The NCAA Tournament Final Four is this Saturday/Monday
  • The NIT Championship Game is Thursday (7 p.m. ET) at Madison Square Garden;
  • The best 2-of-3 CBI Tournament continues Wednesday night with Creighton at Oregon;
  • And the College Insider Tournament concludes with the championship game matchup on Wednesday night between Santa Clara at Iona.
    So, don't miss out on all the fun-and-profits as "March Madness" rolls on!

NCAA TOURNAMENT NEWS & NOTES

We'll have complete analyses of the NCAA Tournament Final Four later in the week but here's some thumbnail sketches as to what VCU, Butler, Kentucky and Connecticut all need to do to win this Saturday:

VCU vs. BUTLER -6:09 p.m. ET

VCU (28-11) -It's no secret that the smaller Rams need to take (and make) multiple three-point shots to stay in the hunt for a national crown (VCU famously drained 12-of-25 triples in its 71-61 Elite 8 win against 11 ½-point favorite Kansas) but dig a little deeper here with Shaka Smart's club and you realize the Colonial Athletic Association team must hold up better on the boards. True, VCU extinguished mighty Kansas last weekend but did you realize the Jayhawks sported an 18-to-8 advantage on the offensive glass? If VCU can't box out better here against the Butler Bulldogs, than F Matt Howard (and others) will be scoring a slew of "garbage" baskets and that could be the "diff" in what's expected to be an ultra-tight game in Houston.

BUTLER (27-9) -It's tough to quantify in terms of sheer numbers what this year's Bulldogs need to do in order to get back into a second consecutive national championship game but consider the fact Brad Stevens' club had 13 offensive boards to Florida's 8 offensive rebs in last weekend's 74-71 overtime win in Elite 8 action and you can see how important it is for the Horizon League club to be active here plus don't minimize the fact Butler usually plays its best defense against the other teams' best scorers. Just witness the fact that Gators stars Chandler Parsons and Erving Walker combined to only hit 3-of-19 FG tries in that latest affair with Parsons -the SEC Player of the Year this season -nearly invisible in the second half.

KENTUCKY vs. CONNECTICUT, approximately 8:49 p.m. ET

KENTUCKY (29-8) -Let's ask you a question: Is not enough being made over the fact these young-and-hungry UK Wildcats play ferocious defense? In last Sunday's 76-69 win against North Carolina, John Calipari's kids held the high-scoring Tar Heels to just 43.5 percent shooting from the floor (that's 27-of-62) and you should know that four of UNC's five starters entered this year's NCAA Tournament shooting it at 46 percent or better from the field. Folks, it could all come down to a numbers game when Kentucky plays its Final Four game this Saturday night against UConn: Hold the Huskies to 42 percent or less from the floor and you can very likely pencil in the SEC champs into the title tilt.

CONNECTICUT (30-9) -No doubt the Huskies had "lady luck" on their side when those two late-game Arizona shots (including a wide-open trifecta try) clanged off the rim and allowed Jim Calhoun's crew to click up its heels in that 65-63 hang-on-for-dear life win in the Elite 8 round but there's been a real method to Connecticut's madness here and it includes G Kemba Walker and freshman F Jeremy Lamb getting off the lion's share of shots. The Walker/Lamb duo combined to hit just 14-of-36 field goals in the non-cover win against Arizona and the fact is that dynamic duo attempted nearly 65 percent of UConn's FG tries there (36-of-56 team field goals) and that should be close to the percentage trotted out here against Kentucky but we maintain the Dawgs need a third scorer too.

BASEBALL 2011 PREVIEW

Okay, so sue us! In last year's Jim Sez Baseball Preview we predicted that the New York Yankees would beat the Colorado Rockies in the World Series -of course, neither got there as the San Francisco Giants downed the Texas Rangers in one of the more unlikely Fall Classic matchups in history. Still, we've back for more prognostications and we'll get to 'em shortly after some brief comments on the American League and National League in division-by-division looks:

AMERICAN LEAGUE

EAST
It remains the most potent division in all Baseball and the $64,000 question is could we possibly get three 90-win teams here? No doubt Boston's the betting favorite after all those juicy additions to its lineup but count us among the folks who wonder if 1B Adrian Gonzalez will a superstar player now that his every on-field movement will be analyzed. The New York Yankees have some serious back-end-of-the-rotation problems with fossil-like RHP Freddy Garcia just named the team's #5 starter while Tampa Bay may have waved bye-bye to its entire bullpen and LF Carl Crawford (now in Boston) but Joe Maddon's crew could get major mileage from veteran sticks Manny Ramirez and Johnny Damon.

CENTRAL
Most experts believe the Chicago White Sox will cop this division but can anyone guarantee RHP Jake Peavy will stay in one piece all year long? Plus, wait till the Sox fans see how many times DH Adam Dunn strikes out with men on base. Meanwhile, both Minnesota and Detroit appear to be 85 win-or-better teams and unquestionably the single-most important everyday player in this division remains Tigers slugger Miguel Cabrera who remains plagued by his own personal demons. The Twins could be the climb-up-the-charts winner should LHP Francisco Liriano look as good as he was last week when he struck out nine batters in three innings in an exhibition tilt in Arizona.

WEST
In one of our Jim Sez comments a year ago, we advised you to "watch out" for the Texas Rangers but much of our reasoning had to do with hurlers not named Cliff Lee. Now that the defending American League champs are without Lee for good, it'll probably be a three-team dogfight for divisional honors and the key players we're watching here are Oakland's LHP Dallas Braden (he's got to win more than 11 games with his no-hit stuff) and the Los Angeles Angels 1B Kendry Morales who's trying to make it back after that freakish celebration injury at home plate last year. The Seattle Mariners -sporting Cy Young winner Felix Hernandez (13-12, 2.27 ERA) -won't be dealing off their veteran pieces this summer despite calls to do so by their fans.


NATIONAL LEAGUE

EAST
Let's just say this: If the 2011 Philadelphia Phillies don't win this division by double-digit games, than there ought to be an investigation! No doubt everyone realizes the abundance of riches here in terms of starting pitching as RHPs Roy Halladay and Roy Oswalt plus lefties Cliff Lee and Cole Hamels each could get Cy Young votes this season but just how many innings will this fab four log and what can be expected from bullpen arms Ryan Madson and Jose Contreras? If Atlanta has the "old" Nate McLouth at the top of its lineup, than the Braves will be a 90-plus win team and snag a wild card while Florida will discover what life's like without 2B Dan Uggla (now on the Braves) and everyone's curious to see whether the Fish can survive with five righthanded starters in their rotation.
 
CENTRAL
No doubt this division is a major toss-up with Milwaukee improved by the acquisition of RHP Zack Greinke (though he'll miss the early part of this 2011 season) and Cincinnati ready/willing to let lefty reliever Aroldis Chapman get unleashed 70-plus times but look for the real key to winning this thing to be whether or not St. Louis can piece together 25-to-30 wins from guys named Kyle McClellan and Jaime Garcia now that RHP Adam Wainwright's gone for the year. If the Chicago Cubs stay healthy, they could spring a 90-win season and all eyes will be on SS Starlin Castro who hit .300 last year while playing in 125 games. Down-the-road prediction: Houston will deal off a key starter (maybe LHP Wandy Rodriguez) just to further stockpile the farm system.

WEST
Not since 2001 had the NL West produced a World Series champion but the 2010 San Francisco Giants were a magical group and there's lots of "experts" who believe that they'll be even better this time around. Note that RHPs Tim Lincecum and Matt Cain (a combined 29 wins in the regular season) figure to get a bit more bat support this year with slimmed-down 3B Pablo Sandoval a factor after he was MIA last season. Both the Los Angeles Dodgers and San Diego Padres have budgetary constraints that could cause him both to take a pass on some big arms later in the year but here's a vote for LA's righty Chad Billingsley to have a 20-plus win season after going a meager 12-11 last year. Colorado is keeping fingers crossed that RHP Ubaldo Jimenez gives 'em another 33 starts.

THE 2011 JIM SEZ BASEBALL FORECASTS
Okay, so it is once again prediction time and here's how we see things:

  • In the AL, the division winners will be the Red Sox, Twins and Angels and we'll say the Yankees grab the wild card.
  • In the NL, the division winners will be the Phillies, Cardinals and Giants with the Cubs nabbing the wild card.
  • The 2011 World Series ... we say it's the Phillies over the Angels in 6 games.

In terms of individual awards, it's the following:

  • AL MVP -Alex Rodriguez, New York Yankees
  • NL MVP -Ryan Howard, Philadelphia Phillies
  • AL Cy Young -David Price, Tampa Bay Rays
  • NL Cy Young -Chad Billingsley, Los Angeles Dodgers
  • AL Manager of the Year -Mike Scioscia, Los Angeles Angels
  • NL Manager of the Year -Mike Quade, Chicago Cubs

NOTE: Catch our NIT Championship Game Preview plus lots more in the next edition of Jim Sez.

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