Good morning, I’m Dan Gartland. MLB Opening Day lived up to all my expectations. Be sure to scroll down and check out the 10 best highlights from a great day of games.
In today’s SI:AM:
🌟 The most highly anticipated Final Four game
🔮 Chris Mannix’s bold NBA Finals prediction
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Underdogs on one side, powerhouses on the other
This weekend’s men’s and women’s Final Fours couldn’t be more different. On the men’s side, it’s an unprecedented Final Four without a No. 1, No. 2 or No. 3 seed. Three of the programs in Houston are making their Final Four debuts. On the women’s side, you have two 1-seeds, a 2-seed led by the national Player of the Year and a 3-seed led by a coach who has won three national championships.
March Madness has lived up to its billing this year, and the final weekend should be just as thrilling as the first two. Let’s take a closer look at each of the four games.
No. 1 Virginia Tech vs. No. 3 LSU (7 p.m. ET tonight on ESPN)
LSU has proved its doubters wrong throughout this tournament by reaching its first Final Four since 2008. A nonconference schedule that featured five opponents from the Southland Conference didn’t do much to convince observers that the Tigers deserved to be taken seriously. The Hokies, too, were overlooked—sort of a forgotten 1-seed among a crop that also included teams with stronger women’s hoops pedigrees (South Carolina, Stanford and Indiana).
Kim Mulkey has been in this position before, but few expected her to reach the pinnacle of the sport so quickly after leaving Baylor for LSU two years ago. As Emma Baccellieri writes, Mulkey credits the transfer portal with helping her turn the Tigers’ program around so quickly.
The most interesting matchup to watch will be on the inside as LSU’s star forward Angel Reese goes toe-to-toe with 6'6" Virginia Tech center Elizabeth Kitley. Reese is second in the nation in rebounding this season with 15.7 per game, while Kitley has averaged a very respectable 10.7. The other player to watch out for is Virginia Tech guard Georgia Amoore, who has been on fire since the end of the regular season. In conference and NCAA tournament play, she’s averaging 23.0 points per game while firing at will from long range. After going 5-for-8 from three in the Hokies’ first-round game against Chattanooga, Amoore has attempted 19, 14 and 14 threes in the three subsequent games. During the tournament, she’s attempting more than twice as many threes as twos.
No. 1 South Carolina vs. No. 2 Iowa (9 p.m. ET tonight on ESPN)
This is the game of the weekend. The Gamecocks are the defending champions and the undisputed best team in the country. They’ve won 36 games this season, all but five by double digits. But they haven’t faced a player as good as Iowa’s Caitlin Clark. Clark, who beat out South Carolina’s Aliyah Boston for national Player of the Year honors, had one of the best games in college basketball history her last time out, posting the first 40-point triple double in men’s or women’s tournament history in Iowa’s Elite Eight win over Louisville.
But South Carolina’s defense is elite. The Gamecocks have allowed just 51.1 points per game this season, third best in the women’s game. Iowa has the best offense in the nation at 87.6 points per game but will have to battle for every point against a stingy South Carolina D that has allowed more than 70 points only three times this season.
No. 5 San Diego State vs. No. 9 Florida Atlantic (6:09 p.m. ET tomorrow night on CBS)
Can you believe one of these teams will be playing for a national championship Monday? Both of these schools are unlikely Final Four participants but far from undeserving. San Diego State is one of the most experienced teams in the country, with all nine of its top scorers either juniors or seniors. The Aztecs won both the regular-season championship and conference tournament in an underrated Mountain West Conference that sent four teams to the Big Dance. FAU also won the regular-season and tournament titles in Conference USA, which looks more impressive after two CUSA schools reached the men’s NIT final. (North Texas beat UAB last night in that game.)
Though they share similar résumés, tomorrow night’s game will be a clash of styles on the court. As Pat Forde and Kevin Sweeney explain, SDSU prefers to slow things down and play a physical game that relies on its stout defense, while FAU would rather open things up and pick up the pace. The biggest single factor could be whether the Owls can shoot the three like they want to. FAU is one of the most three-point-happy teams in the nation, with 44% of its shots coming from beyond the arc. The Aztecs, though, are elite at defending the perimeter. Their opponents shoot just 27.8% from three, the second lowest in the nation (behind Tennessee, a team FAU already beat during this tourney run). Forde and Sweeney think San Diego State will prevail in a tight one.
No. 4 UConn vs. No. 5 Miami (8:49 p.m. ET tomorrow night on CBS)
While the three other teams in Houston have scratched and clawed their way through the tournament, UConn has breezed through the bracket with relative ease. FAU, SDSU and Miami have each played at least two games decided by seven points or fewer. Meanwhile, here are the margins of victory for each of the Huskies’ four wins: 24, 15, 23, 28. It’s an impressive turnaround for a team that, as Sweeney writes, hit rock bottom in January when it lost five out of six games. The biggest issue during that stretch, UConn coach Dan Hurley explained, was that the Huskies weren’t hitting their three-pointers. That isn’t an issue right now, though, particularly for sharpshooter Jordan Hawkins, who’s shooting 51.6% from three during the tournament. When UConn is hitting its shots from the perimeter, it opens up other areas of the offense. The Huskies have been head and shoulders above the competition in this tournament, and, if Miami wants to pull off another upset, it will probably boil down to denying quality looks from beyond the arc.
The best of Sports Illustrated
- For today’s Daily Cover story, Emma Baccellieri took a closer look at the highly anticipated showdown between Caitlin Clark and Aliyah Boston.
- Opening Day showed that MLB’s new rules are just what the game needed, Tom Verducci writes.
- Stephanie Apstein was at the Yankees’ opener, where Aaron Judge picked up right where he left off.
- Chris Mannix is convinced the Lakers—yes, the Lakers—are going to reach the NBA Finals.
- After Anthony Richardson’s pro day yesterday, Gilberto Manzano argues that the Florida quarterback would be a perfect fit for the Lions or Seahawks.
- The Rockies put closer Daniel Bard on the injured list due to anxiety.
- Rafael Devers became the first batter to strike out because of a pitch clock violation.
- Want proof that the pitch clock cut down on the length of games? Here’s how long each of yesterday’s 15 games took.
- Damar Hamlin met with President Biden at the White House.
The top five...
… highlights from MLB Opening Day (because five isn’t enough):
10. Oneil Cruz’s deep home run off the Reds’ Hunter Greene.
9. Greene’s 105 mph fastball.
8. Adley Rutschman’s sportsmanship after accidentally kicking Christian Arroyo in the face.
7. Anthony Volpe, who grew up a Yankees fan, kissing the logo on his jersey during his first Yankee Stadium roll call.
6. Aaron Judge’s long home run to center field on the second pitch he saw.
5. Cardinals pitcher Adam Wainwright singing the national anthem at his final Opening Day as a player.
4. The Dodgers fan who ran onto the field to propose to his girlfriend and got leveled by a security guard. (She said yes.)
3. A’s rookie Esteury Ruiz’s diving catch in center.
2. Matt Brash’s back-foot slider that sent José Ramírez tumbling to the ground.
1. Hunter Renfroe’s unbelievable (if not quite fundamentally sound) no-look catch.
After Wayne Gretzky, which NHL player has scored the most goals in a single season? (Hint: He scored his 86th goal in his final game of the season on this day in 1991.)
- Teemu Selanne
- Mario Lemieux
- Brett Hull
- Alexander Mogilny
Yesterday’s SIQ: After the Mariners snapped their 21-year playoff drought last season, which two AL teams are now tied for the longest postseason drought in the majors? (Hint: They both most recently made the playoffs in 2014.)
Answer: Tigers and Angels. The last time the Tigers made the playoffs, Max Scherzer, Justin Verlander, Rick Porcello and David Price were still teammates. That Detroit lineup also featured Torii Hunter, Victor Martinez and a young Nick Castellanos, in addition to the great Miguel Cabrera. Mike Trout had just turned 23 the last time the Angels played a postseason game. He won his first MVP that year, beating out Martinez for the award after finishing as the runner-up behind Cabrera the previous two seasons.
Angels fans—and really any baseball fan who wants to see the two best players in the sport (Trout and Shohei Ohtani) play meaningful games—are rightfully upset with the franchise’s repeated failure to field a winning team, but it could be worse. In the eight years since their last playoff appearance, the Angels have a cumulative .475 winning percentage. The Tigers are even worse over the same time frame, with a .421 winning percentage.
Detroit’s postseason drought probably won’t end this year. FanGraphs gives them just a 4.1% chance of making the playoffs, the second worst in the American League. The Angels are closer to snapping the streak, though. FanGraphs gives them a 48% of making the postseason, but the AL West is going to be a competitive division this season, with the defending World Series champion Astros, the Mariners expected to pick up where they left off and the Rangers taking a step forward after the signing of Jacob deGrom.