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  1. 2015 NBA Playoffs: Timmy and LeBron in a Finals Reunion?

    The 2015 National Basketball Association playoffs, which to hardcore hoops junkies is the “real” season, are upon us.

    Early results from seven of the eight first-round, best-of-seven postseason matchups – four each from the Eastern and Western conferences – have run true to form in that the favored teams have gone up by a game or two against their series opponents. Only the East duel between four-seed and Atlantic Division champion Toronto (49-33) and fifth-seeded Washington (46-36) has been off-chart.

    In the East, No. 1 seed Atlanta (all-time franchise-best 60-22) is 1-0 against No. 8 seed Brooklyn (38-44, the Nets grabbed a playoff ticket due to a tie-breaking 2-1 season series victory over 38-44 Indiana); No. 2 seed Cleveland (53-29) is 2-0 vs. No. 7 seed Boston (40-42), including a 99-91 Game Two success); No. 3 seed Chicago (50-32) owns a 2-0 lead over No. 6 seed Milwaukee (41-41) and No. 5 seed Washington has won the first two games at Toronto’s Air Canada Centre for a 2-0 edge, including a 117-106 triumph in Game Two.

    Out West, No. 1 seed Golden State (an all-time franchise-best 67-15) owns a 2-0 lead over No. 8 New Orleans (45-37); No. 2 seed Houston (56-26 for the Rockets’ first division title since 1994) went up 2-0 with a 111-99 shellacking of No. 7 Dallas (50-32) in Game Two; No. 3 seed Los Angeles Clippers is 1-0 against No. 6 and reigning NBA champion San Antonio (55-27) going into tomorrow’s Game Two at Staples Center; and No. 5 seed Memphis (55-27) is 1-0 vs. No. 4 seed Portland (51-31) going into the second straight game at Memphis.

    The seeding of teams is a bit tricky since it does not automatically guarantee homecourt advantage in a best-of-seven series. It’s because of a ruling that states that a division winner (three in each conference) cannot finish with a seeding lower than fourth regardless of its win-loss record and will own a higher seeding over a division second-placer.

    That said, however, it’s a team’s win-loss record that determines which gets to play the odd seventh game (based on a 2-2-1-1-1 format) at home.

    The ruling that calls for no-seeding-worse-than-fourth for the division winner was in effect in the Western segment of the four-tier playoffs, shaking up the conference pairings and/or races.

    Portland, being the Northwest king, was seeded higher than Memphis at No. 4 but the Grizzlies, by virtue of a better win-loss card, are enjoying homecourt advantage against the Trail Blazers.

    The ruling somewhat also endangered the title-retention bid of the San Antonio Spurs (55-27).

    Entering the final playdate of the 1,230-game regular wars, the Spurs had a chance to secure the Southwest Division crown and the No. 2 West seed with a victory over the Pelicans in New Orleans. Instead, the Alamo City squad lost to relegate Tim Duncan and company to the No. 6 seed and, in the process, gift the Pelicans (45-37) with the West’s eighth and final playoff berth over Oklahoma City (45-37).

    An early last-day winner, the Thunder got the boot despite an identical record with New Orleans because of a 3-1 season series debacle at the hands of the Pelicans, thereby putting to waste an MVP-type season performance from NBA scoring titlist Russell Westbrook (28.1 ppg and a league-high 11 triple-doubles over Houston’s James Harden’s 27.4 ppg and four T-DS, both second in the majors).

    Note that New Orleans and the four other higher-ranking teams in the Southwest Division finished above .500, duplicating the division’s feat in 2010-11. But unlike before, all five members also made it to the playoffs this time.

    With the Spurs’ loss to the Pelicans, even Memphis (55-27, a final-day victor over visiting Indiana that sent the Pacers to an early vacation) leapfrogged past the San Antone for the No. 5 seed. The Grizzlies and Spurs wound up with identical ledgers but the former was seeded higher because of a better division record (9-7 to 8-8, the second tiebreaker). The head-to-head duel between the two teams had been deadlocked at 2-2. That’s how costly the Spurs 108-103 loss to co-division member NO in their season finale.

    Now the route to a second consecutive title feat (unprecedented since SA never repeated following championships in 1999, 2003, 2005 and 2007) becomes more torturous for the Spurs, who potentially won’t have homecourt advantage throughout the playoffs.

    Granting it survives past the first round, Houston (if it beats Dallas) awaits them in the second turn (conference semifinals); overall top seed Golden State (assuming the Warriors take care of business in their first two series, including against potential second-round foe Memphis) in the third (West finals); and even against Atlanta in the NBA Finals in case the Hawks reach that far.

    Be that as it may, the Spurs ...
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  2. US NCAA Basketball: Duke vs. Wisconsin in Finals/Kentucky 38-and-done

    April 7, Manila time, is D-Day (Decision Day) in the 2015 U.S. National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) Division I men’s basketball tournament as the upset-conscious University of Wisconsin Badgers (36-3) taken on the University of Duke Blue Devils (34-4) in the championship game at the 71,000-seat Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis, Indiana.

    Wisconsin is in the finals for the first time since 1941 when the school beat Washington State to capture its lone national title so far.

    Duke has won the NCAA diadem on four occasions – 1991, 1992, 2001 and 2010 – all under 68-year-old Blue Devils head mentor and Team USA bench boss Mike Krzyzewski, the winningest men’s coach in NCAA Division I history.

    Coincidentally, Indianapolis, a city that is famous for its 500-mile auto race (Indianapolis 500), has been extra special to the Blue Devils, who won it all for the first time in 1991 in Indianapolis. When Duke snared its most recent championship in 2010, it was again accomplished in the same city.

    Wisconsin is bannered by 7-foot senior Frank Kaminsky, the lone unanimous selection on the 2014-15 Associated Press All-America First Team who also is AP’s College Player of the Year awardee with averages of nearly 19 points and eight rebounds per game for the Big Ten Conference regular season and tournament champion.

    “Frank the Tank,” as the fuzzy-haired Caucasian Kaminsky is fondly monikered, is the first Badger to earn the College POY honor, which was established in 1961.

    Duke is anchored by 6-11 freshman Jahlil Okafor, a first-team AP All-America pick who is a potential No. 1 overall selection in the National Basketball Association (NBA) draft in late June. An American of Nigerian descent and a distant cousin of former NBA player and University of Connecticut standout Emeka Okafor, Jahlil has normed around 18 points and nine boards an outing this season.

    During the Final Four (national semifinals), Wisconsin upset the erstwhile unbeaten University of Kentucky Wildcats, 71-64, and Duke shellacked the Michigan State University Spartans, 81-61.

    Kaminsky collected 20 points and plucked down 11 rebounds during his 22nd birthday as the Badgers avenged last year’s 74-73 Final Four loss to Kentucky. It was the Wildcats’ first setback of the season and their 38-0 start is now merely a footnote in U.S. college basketball annals.

    Instead of hoping to become the first team since the University of Indiana Hoosiers in 1976 to finish as a unbeaten champion, Kentucky joined Larry Bird’s Indiana State (1979), University of Nevada at Las Vegas (1991) and Wichita State (2014) as unbeaten teams that lost in the NCAA tournament and the first since the 1991 Running Rebels unit to take an unblemished mark into the Final Four but slip in the semifinals.

    The 2015 NCAA titular contest between Duke and Wisconsin will be the second time that the two teams will be facing each other this campaign.
    Last December, the Blue Devils whipped the Badgers, 80-70, in Madison.

    Significantly, Wisconsin has been installed by the oddsmakers as a one-point favorite to defeat Duke in the NCAA finals.
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  3. US NCAA Basketball: Kentucky Leads Final Four Cast

    Two more victories. That’s all the nationally top-ranked and unblemished University of Kentucky Wildcats need to become the first team in U.S. National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) Division I men’s basketball history to capture the national championship with a record of 40-0.
    No team has ever gone unbeaten in at least 40 games en route to the NCAA tournament crown.

    In the 2015 NCAA Final Four (national semifinals) to be held on April 4 (April 5, Manila time) at the Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis, Indiana, it will be the University of Duke Blue Devils (33-4) vs. the Michigan State University Spartans (27-11) and the Kentucky Wildcats (38-0) vs. the University of Wisconsin Badgers (35-3).

    Kentucky, Wisconsin (ranked third nationally) and Duke (rated fourth in the country) were No. 1 seeds in their respective regional competitions while Michigan State is a seven-seed.

    During the regional finals of this one-loss-and-you’re-out tournament, Wisconsin beat No. 2 seed and nationally fifth-ranked University of Arizona, 85-78, in the West to earn back-to-back Final Four berths for the first time in school history; Kentucky squeaked past University of Notre Dame, 68-66, in the Midwest; Michigan State upset the No. 4 seed Louisville Cardinals, 76-70, in overtime in the East; and Duke topped the No. 2 seed Gonzaga Bulldogs, 66-52, in the South to claim the 16th Final Four ticket in school history and allow 68-year-old head coach and Team USA bench boss Mike Krzyzewski (who is seeking his fifth national title) to duplicate the feat of UCLA’s Hall of Famer John Wooden with 12 Final Four appearances.

    It will be a Final Four rematch between Kentucky and Wisconsin. A year ago, the Hall of Fame-bound John Calipari-coached Wildcats, an eighth seed, edged the Badgers, 74-73, but subsequently a 60-54 decision to the seventh-seeded University of Connecticut Huskies in the finals. The Huskies were the highest seed to win it all since Villanova, an eighth seed, upset Patrick Ewing and the heavily favored Georgetown Hoyas, 66-64, in the 1985 finals.

    Michigan State is making its ninth Final Four appearance, and the first since 2010 when the Spartans lost to Butler in the finals.

    The four schools’ NCAA championship hopes rest on the shoulders of their respective All-Americans.

    Making it to the 2014-15 Associated Press All-America First Team are Wisconsin’s 7-foot senior Frank Kaminsky (the lone unanimous selection), Duke’s 6-11 freshman Jahlil Okafor (a distant cousin of former NBA player and UConn standout Emeka Okafor, an American of Nigerian parents), and Kentucky’s defensive-minded 7-foot junior Willie Cauley-Stein (the first first-team All-America pick to average less than 10 points per game at 9.3 ppg).

    On the All-America Second Team is Cauley-Stein’s freshman teammate Karl-Anthony Towns. The Third Team includes Kaminsky’s sidekicks Kyle Wiltjer and Kevin Pangos.

    Michigan State, which along with Wisconsin belongs to the Big Ten Conference, is led by senior guard Travis Trice.

    Kentucky owns the second most number of NCAA Division I men’s basketball championships with eight (most recently in 2012 under Calipari). The University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA) Bruins tops the list at 11.

    Duke has four national titles – most recently in 2010 – all under Krzyzewski. Michigan State (1979 and 2000, the latter under current Spartans head coach Tom Izzo). Wisconsin’s lone NCAA championship came in 1941.
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  4. US NCAA Basketball: Remembering Austin Carr

    Austin George Carr never reached legendary status in the professional National Basketball Association but his offensive exploits during his collegiate tenure at the University of Notre Dame were simply amazing and worth recalling.

    Carr, a bull-strong 6-4, 200-pound guard, owns five of the 11 highest individual scoring performances in the history of the NCAA Division I men’s basketball tournament, including the all-time top mark of 61 points.

    On March 7, 1970, the Washington, D.C. native, then a sophomore, exploded for 61 points in the Notre Dame Fighting Irish’s 112-82 victory over Ohio University in a first-round game in Dayton, Ohio. Note that the three-point shot was yet to be invented at the time.

    Carr had 20 points in the first nine minutes and 35 at halftime. Overall, he shot 25-for-44 from the field and 11-for-14 from the free-throw line.

    “It’s a good feeling to have the record,” said Carr recently of his 61-point feat that has withstood various rule changes, tournament expansion, advancements in technology, and more sophisticated defenses for more than four decades. “But at the same time, I always told records are made to be broken so I don’t get caught up in that. But I’m amazed that it has lasted that long.”

    Carr also tallied 52 markers vs. Kentucky in 1970 – fourth-highest behind Princeton’s Bill Bradley’s 58 vs. Wichita State in 1965 (the most points in a Final Four game although it was accomplished in the third-place game against Wichita State, a consolation game that has since been discarded), Cincinnati’s Oscar Robertson’s 56 vs. Arkansas in 1958.

    As a junior in 1971, he again scored 52 against Texas Christian University.

    Navy’s David (The Admiral) Robinson was the only other player to reach the 50-point plateau in an NCAA tournament game, collecting exactly 50 against Michigan in 1987.

    There have been seven 45-to-49-point performances and Carr again owns two of them – 47 vs. Houston in 1971 and 45 vs. Iowa in 1970. The others were registered by Houston’s Elvin (The Big E) Hayes, 49 vs. Loyola (Illinois) in 1968, Temple’s Hal Lear, 48 vs. Southern Methodist in 1956, DePaul’s Dave Corzine, 46 vs. Louisville in 1978, Washington’s Bob Houbregs, 45 vs. Seattle in 1953, and Loyola Marymount’s Bo Kimble, 45 vs. New Mexico State in 1990.

    Carr averaged a stunning 52.7 points in the 1970 NCAA tournament. His career tournament scoring clip of 41.3 ppg (in seven games) remains the highest ever until now. Bradley is next at 33.7 ppg.

    Carr hit at a 38.1-point clip in 1969-70 and 38.0 ppg in 1970-71 (when he earned College Player of the year honors). In those two seasons, he made at least 1,000 points each time to join “Pistol” Pete Maravich of Louisiana State University in the select group. For his three-year career, Carr normed 34.6 ppg, totaling 2,560 points in 74 games that ranked him fifth all-time in U.S. college basketball history at the time of his departure.

    Carr gave up his final year of collegiate eligibility to turn professional in 1971. He was selected by the Cleveland Cavaliers with the first pick in the entire NBA draft that year. He played his first nine seasons in Cleveland, averaging at least 20 points in the first three, and finished his 10-year NBA tenure after the 1980-81 wars while splitting time with the Dallas Mavericks and Washington Bullets (now Wizards) in limited minutes.

    Overall, Carr netted 10,473 points in 682 regular appearances for a 15.4-point norm.

    Long before a certain player by the name of LeBron James joined Cleveland, Carr was known by Cleveland cage fans as “Mr. Cavalier.” His No. 34 is among the seven uniform numbers retired by the NBA franchise.

    Today, Carr serves as the Cavaliers’ Director of Community Relations and also works as a color analyst on the team’s television broadcasts.
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  5. US NCAA Basketball: Alcindor and the Bruins

    In an era where one-and-done (only one year in college then onto the pros) is the norm, basically influenced by the current collective bargaining agreement struck by the U.S. National Basketball Association and its players union which states that a player must be at least 19 years old and one year out of high school to qualify for the NBA draft, many prominent roundball athletes rarely complete their four-year varsity eligibility.

    Consequently, no NCAA Division I men’s basketball player has ever won four national championships. Add to the fact that freshmen were not allowed to suit up for the varsity prior to the 1972-73 season.

    If not for the rule, it could have easily been four-for-four in title victories for Ferdinand Lewis Alcindor Jr., a gangling but dominant center from the University of California at Los Angeles.

    Alcindor, an aloof 7-2 man-mountain out of New York City, powered the UCLA Bruins to three consecutive NCAA tournament championships in 1967, 1968 and 1969. He is one of only four players to have started on three NCAA championship teams – the others being co-UCLA alumni Henry Bibby, Curtis Rowe and Lynn Shackelford.

    On all three title finishes, Alcindor was named the NCAA Final Four’s Most Outstanding Player. It’s a feat that has not been duplicated by any other player in Division I annals until now.

    Had Alcindor been eligible to suit up as a frosh in 1966, he most likely would have secured a fourth ring. Until 1972-73, first-year collegians were barred from competing in the NCAA tournament.

    The 1965-66 UCLA squad also claimed the NCAA diadem when Alcindor apprenticed with the Bruins’ junior varsity squad (freshmen who only played exhibition games).

    In late November 1965, the Alcindor-led freshmen team blasted the school’s varsity contingent, 75-60, in the first game at the Pauley Pavilion, the Bruins’ home arena. Alcindor chalked up 31 points and 21 rebounds in that exhibition contest.

    As a sophomore in 1966-67, the tree-like Alcindor became a dominant figure with his slam-dunking moves. That spurred the NCAA to ban the dunk after the 1967 collegiate wars. It was not allowed again until the 1976-77 season.

    For Alcindor, the ban was a blessing in disguise as he started to develop another potent offensive weapon that later patently became known as the “skyhook.” He was adept at shooting the skyhook with either hand, which made him even more difficult to defend against.

    Alcindor said he learned the move in fifth grade after practicing with the Mikan Drill and soon learned to value it, as it was “the only shot I could use that didn’t get smashed in my face,” meaning it was hard for his defender to block the shot without being called for goaltending.

    In three seasons at Westwood, Alcindor was victorious in 86 of his 88 appearances. He missed a pair of games – both UCLA wins – due to an eye injury.

    During Alcindor’s watch, the Bruins registered an 88-2 record overall – 30-0 in 1967, 29-1 in 1968 and 29-1 in 1969.

    UCLA dropped a 71-69 decision to the Elvin Hayes-bannered Houston Cougars at the spacious Houston Astrodome in January 1968 that halted the Bruins’ 47-game win streak.

    Alcindor performed poorly in the loss due to a blurred vision. He had been poked in the eye and suffered a scratched left eyeball in a previous assignment against California and the injury forced him to sit out back-to-back games against Stanford and Portland.

    Hayes, the Cougars center who later earned national College Player of the year honors, netted 39 points and plucked down 15 rebounds while the injured Alcindor was limited to a measly 15 markers in the first-ever nationally televised regular-season college basketball game.

    UCLA’s only other loss in the Alcindor era came during a 46-44 reversal at the hands of the University of Southern California in the Big Fellas’s senior campaign.

    Alcindor, whose 61 points remain the Bruins’ all-time single-game scoring record until now, earned a Bachelor of Arts degree with a major in history from UCLA in 1969.

    That same year, he was selected by the Milwaukee Bucks with the first pick in the entire National Basketball Association (NBA) draft.

    A former Catholic, Alcindor officially changed his name to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in the summer of 1971 after leading the Bucks to their only NBA title so far.

    Kareem, who would subsequently win five more NBA championships (1980-82-85-87-8 with the Los Angeles Lakers, will turn 68 on April 16.
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