Saturday, March 07, 2009

Young's Town

And so, after losing to just two different teams all season, losing just once in 14 games away from home, the best UConn could do for the Big East tournament is a No. 3 seed.

Tough conference.

The Huskies will play Thursday at around 9:30 p.m., a bane to all deadline-dueling beat writers. We won't even know who UConn will play until Wednesday around 11:30 p.m., when No. 6 seed Syracuse's game with either Seton Hall or South Florida is over.

Things could have been made a lot easier if UConn had won today and clinched the top seed in the tourney. The Huskies couldn't come through, but it shouldn't take away from their accomplishments this season, as Jim Calhoun pointed out.

"For me to blast my team today would be foolhardy," he said.

Indeed, Calhoun took today's loss remarkably well. He seems to realize what his team has done so far this season, and still believes it can do a lot more. No overt criticism of any of his players, even though only five different players scored, Jeff Adrien tried to do too much and played very poorly, Kemba Walker also forced things a bit too much and Hasheem Thabeet went scoreless in the second half. No criticizing the officials, either, like he did following UConn's Feb. 16 loss to Pitt.

"I don't want to be on YouTube again," he quipped.

Rather, Calhoun went out of his way to compliment Pitt – and his own team.

"I don't want to discredit my own team by saying, 'Oh, we just had a bad day.' No, they made us have a bad day … When you're fighting uphill, on Senior Day on somebody else's floor – who happens to be maybe as good a team as there is in the country – it makes it difficult. Do I think we can beat Pitt? Yeah. But, we've played them twice and we're 0-2, so I don't have any graphic evidence to support us."

On Sam Young, who's now scored 56 points in two games against UConn this season:

"The word 'brilliant' comes to mind. He was just special … he seemed to hit daggers, all day long … He can graduate tomorrow, as far as I'm concerned … Sticks should be able to guard him, and he didn't. We tried Jeff on him, and that didn't work. Ten, 11, 12 years back, after he's probably still playing in the NBA, we'll think about how good a player he is … No one this year has given us the problems that he gives us. He plays low and quick, lift-fakes, he's got a great feel for the game. I really love him as a player."

Calhoun even agreed with the foul called on Thabeet, when he and DeJuan Blair collided at midcourt early in the second half.

"Yes, that was a foul on Hasheem, because Blair had better position on him."

No YouTube moments, indeed.

***Here's Thabeet's lowdown on his collision with Blair:

"He fell to the floor and he tried to trip me. I was not going to get punked twice (referring to Blair's Feb. 16 "takedown" of Thabeet, when he flipped the junior center over his back -- and Thabeet got called for the foul). He got me the first time, and the second time, I wasn't having it. He got me once, OK, I'll let you do that, and he tried to punk me twice, and I wasn't having it … I was just reacting to it."

Blair was less descriptive.

"He knocked me on the ground. Nobody's gonna knock me to the ground. Batman (Levance Fields) was there to help me, so I was cool."

Blair's a great personality, but he tried to be a little too cute funny in the postgame presser. When asked about Young's highlight-reel, alley-oop dunk from Fields late in the game, Blair said: "If that's not on Top 10, I'm gonna have to talk to ESPN (pointing at Andy Katz in the back of the room) they're in the house."

Rather, the quote of the day came from the far more reserved Young.

"I see that UConn jersey, my eyes light up."

***It was Fields' groin that bothered him more than his bruised tailbone, leading him to be listed as questionable for the game. Coach Jamie Dixon said it was determined about an hour before tip-off that Fields would play, but Fields noted: "I knew I was going to play. As long as I could at least job, I was going to play. Once I saw the crowd, my leg kept loosening up."

***Pittsburgh Steeler Hall of Famer Franco Harris was in attendance, as were former Pitt basketball standouts Charles Smith and Jerome ("Send it in, Jerome!") Lane.

***The all-Big East team comes out tomorrow. Here's my fearless prediction on what the teams might look like:

DeJuan Blair, Pittsburgh
Sam Young, Pittsburgh
Hasheem Thabeet, UConn
Terrence Williams, Louisville
Jerel McNeal, Marquette
Luke Harangody, Notre Dame
(I'm naming six, since one of the above will be named Player of the Year. Individual award predictions tomorrow.)

A.J. Price, UConn
Scottie Reynolds, Villanova
Wesley Matthews, Marquette
Jonny Flynn, Syracuse
Da'Sean Butler, West Virginia

Levance Fields, Pittsburgh
Jeff Adrien, UConn
Earl Clark, Louisville
Dante Cunningham, Villanova
Jeremy Hazell, Seton Hall

Dominique Jones, South Florida
Weyinmi Efejuku, Providence
Deonta Vaughn, Cincinnati
Greg Monroe, Georgetown

This wasn't easy. A lot of good players left off here. That's what happens in a 16-team conference. By the way, all but two of the seeds for the Big East tourney are now set. Only to be determined now are No.'s 1 and 2, depending on how Louisville does tonight at West Virginia.

Here are the seeds

1. Louisville or Pitt
2. Louisville or Pitt
3. UConn
4. Villanova
5. Marquette
6. Syracuse
7. West Virginia
8. Providence
9. Cincinnati
10. Notre Dame
11. SetonHall
12. Georgetown
13. St. John's
14. South Florida
15. Rutgers
16. DePaul


***Whoa, whoa, whoa, Jimmy's cryin'. Above is what Jim Calhoun will have facing him today at The Pete, about 10,000 of them:

Towels are $2 apiece, and all proceeds go to cancer research, ironically enough.

***Calhoun probably wasn't too ecstatic when he saw today's officiating crew – or at least one name on it: Mike Kitts. The same Mike Kitts whom Calhoun lambasted (without actually calling him out by name) following the Feb. 16 Pitt-UConn matchup.

Apparently, however, it was a mistake. Jim Burr is the head referee, and Kitts is not with this crew. Kitts' name was wiped off the whiteboard and replaced by Burr at about 10 a.m.

***I've seen some long lines outside arenas for UConn games lately (at the Bradley Center in Milwaukee for Marquette, or instance), but not sure I've seen one longer than the one outside The Pete today. This one stretched around the building, up Terrace Street about half a block. Impressive.

***Matchups are starting to take form for the Big East tournament. This much we know: No. 9 Cincinnati will play No. 16 DePaul on Tuesday at noon; No. 10 Notre Dame will play No. 15 Rutgers on Tuesday at 7 p.m. South Florida is the No. 14 seed and Marquette is the No. 5 seed. Everything else is still to be determined.

***Today is Senior Day at The Pete. Sean Brown Tyrell Biggs, Levance Fields and Sam young will be recognized along with a couple of trainers and a manager – prior to the game, rather than after it, like they did on Feb. 26, 2005. Pitt lost that game to UConn, making the postgame ceremony rather anti-climatic.

***No word yet on whether Fields will play today. Just heard a rumor he was on crutches all day yesterday, but that's just a rumor. Still being called a game-time decision. He wasn't shooting around with the team for early pregame warm-ups, for what that's worth.

***Jerome Dyson is here, dressed to the nines in a brown suit. He says his rehab is coming along well, right now limited to leg-strengthening exercises and some light work in the pool. Next week he'll start working out on a stationary bike.

Dyson said he'll stay at UConn over the summer and plans to work out with Marcus Williams, who's slated to be in Storrs to work out for a while. He will travel with the team for both the Big East and NCAA tournaments.

***Jaquon Parker, a 6-4 shooting guard and UConn target out of King's Fork High in Suffolk, Va., will do a year of prep school at the South Kent School.

Friday, March 06, 2009

Yins Ready for a Steel City Showdown?

Greetings to yins from Pittsburgh, home of Dan Marino, Joe Montana, Joe Namath and a bunch of other quarterbacks, Tony Dorsett, Terry Francona, Stan Musial, Josh Gibson, Pirates, Penguins, Steelers and Pisces (remember "The Fish That Saved Pittsburgh"?). Oh, and DeJuan Blair, who grew up in the Hill District, right across the street from the Pitt campus.

Ah, Blair, the Human Quote Machine. The Round Mound of Sound (I just made that up … kinda like it). Tomorrow's UConn-Pitt game could not only decide the Big East regular-season champion but also the league's Player of the Year. Conventional wisdom has Blair and Hasheem Thabeet in a neck-and-neck race, with whoever comes out on top tomorrow earning the award.

If the award was given to the player with the best sound bytes, Blair would already be sporting the crown. While Blair is a sportswriters' dream, full of great quotes, Thabeet is 7 feet, 3 inches of sports clichés.

A sampling:

Blair, getting all third person on us: "I hope (Thabeet) shows up with an 'I'm going to kill DeJuan' attitude', because DeJuan already has that attitude for him. It should make for a beautiful game."

Thabeet: "I'm going to go over there and be ready, play aggressive … we're looking forward to the next challenge on Saturday."

Blair: "Yeah, he made me eat the ball (on one play), but I made him eat it right back. People talk bout him blocking shots. Of course he's going to block shots, he's 7-foot-3. But that doesn't mean you have to be afraid of him. I was like, 'OK, you blocked my shot, now you have to stop me again.' I don't think anyone can stop me twice in this country."

Thabeet: "If you go there just trying to prove a point, you end up in foul trouble. People are expecting me to take it personal … it's not about Hasheem vs. Pittsburgh, it's about UConn basketball. I'm going to go there with my team, and we're going to be ready for challenge."

Blair: "It's March, c'mon. March is when big players step up. I'm here … I’m not scared of anybody. I just hope the refs let us play. I hope Thabeet is on the court all day, and I hope I am, too. That's what the crowd wants to see."

Thabeet: "I'm really not looking to talk about stuff off the court. I'll go there, play basketball and prove this stuff on the court. All this will be the talk of fans, media, writers – all I need to do is go play ball. They can talk all they want. On Saturday, it's UConn vs. Pittsburgh."

Game, set, match. Of course, talk is cheap. As Thabeet said, it's all about proving it on the court. Right now, Blair has to be the frontrunner for conference player of the year. When Pitt beat UConn on Feb. 16, he had 22 points and 23 rebounds; Thabeet had five points and four rebounds before fouling out.

But a big effort tomorrow by Thabeet could change all that.

***If you're wondering (like me) when the league's coaches are supposed to have submitted their awards ballots by … well, it was supposed to be today. However, the league offers coaches the opportunity to make conditional selections – "If this happens, this guy's the Player of the Year … if that happens, this guy's the Player of the Year," etc.

Sounds like that might be what Jim Calhoun's ballot looks like.

Calhoun believes the winner of both the Coach of the Year and Player of the Year awards should come from the regular season champion – with one exception. "We were picked No. 1, so exclude me. But I think anyone else who wins the title probably deserves to be coach of the year – either Rick (Pitino) or Jamie (Dixon)."

As for Player of the Year: "I think the game at noon and the game at 9 p.m. (Louisville at West Virginia), the player of the year will come out of there."

Calhoun can't vote for Thabeet, but told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette: "It's tough to make the argument that (Blair) isn't the MVP of our league."

***Interesting stat from today's Post-Gazette: Only six schools have defeated the No. 1 team in the nation twice in the same season (Georgia Tech has done it three times).

They are: North Carolina (beat Duke twice in 1998), Georgia Tech (beat UNC twice in 1994, beat Duke and UNC in 1993 and beat Kentucky twice in 1955), Missouri (beat Kansas twice in 1990), Oklahoma (beat Mizzou and Kansas in 1990), Duke (beat UCLA twice in 1965) and, of course, CCNY (beat Bradley twice in 1950 … did they beat the spread, too?).

Pitt will try to add to that list tomorrow at noon.

***Thabeet needs nine blocks to catch Patrick Ewing as the all-time block leader in Big East history. Ewing swatted away 247 shots in 62 career games; Thabeet has 238 in 51 contests.
***UConn has won 15 conference games for the sixth time in school history. No other Big East program has ever won 15 more than once.

Thursday, March 05, 2009

New Twist to All-Big East Team

There will be a twist to the all-Big East team this season: rather than a 10 or 11-man first team, a 10 or 11-man second team and a handful of honorable mentions, there will be three five-man teams (chosen by merit, not by position) and about four or five honorable mentions. (Not sure if Player of the Year also makes one of the teams, or if he's in his own category).

Makes it even tougher to choose an all-conference team in by far the biggest and best conference in the country.

Or put it this way: the NABC All-District team was announced last night, and neither Jeff Adrien, DeJuan Blair, Sam Young, Dante Cunningham nor Da'Sean Butler made the first team. They all made second team. First team was Hasheem Thabeet, Jerel McNeal, Terrence Williams, Luke Harangody and Jonny Flynn.

Either way, the all-conference team will be announced on Sunday afternoon. On Monday, Defensive Player of the Year, Sixth Man, Most Improved Player and Sportsmanship Award winners will be named. And on Tuesday around 5:30 p.m., in between sessions of the Big East tournament's first round, the Player of the Year, Coach of the Year and Rookie of the Year will each be honored.

Wednesday, March 04, 2009

Big East Title Scenarios ...

With wins by Louisville and Pittsburgh tonight, we head into the final weekend of the regular season with the Cardinals and UConn both 15-2 and the Panthers 14-3. Here are the scenarios of who can win the Big East regular-season title, and who gets what seed for next week's Big East tournament:

***If UConn beats Pittsburgh and Louisville loses later that night (9 p.m. start! Ugh!!!) at West Virginia, the Huskies are Big East champs and, naturally, top seed for the tourney. Louisville would be the No. 2 seed and Pitt the No. 3.

***If UConn beats Pitt and Louisville beats WVU, the Huskies and Cardinals are co-champs but UConn gets the top seed by virtue of its 68-51 victory on Feb. 2 at Freedom Hall. Pitt would be the No. 3 seed.

***If Pitt beats UConn and Louisville loses to WVU, the three teams share the regular-season title but Pitt gets the top seed, Louisville the No. 2 seed and UConn the No. 3 seed for the tourny. Why? In their "mini-conference," Pitt will have gone 2-1, Louisville 1-1 and UConn 1-2.

***If Pitt beats UConn and Louisville beats WVU, Louisville is the regular-season champ, Pitt gets the No. 2 seed and UConn the third seed.

So, UConn will either get the No. 1 or No. 3 seed for the Big East tourney. The Huskies will begin play in the quartefinals on Thursday, March 12, either at noon (if they're the No. 1 seed) or at about 9 p.m. (if they're No. 3).

Thabeet on SI's Octuplet Cover

Here's the story by Phil Taylor and Mark Beech that appears in this week's Sports Illustrated that talks about the intensity of this year's Big East and how UConn is one of three teams from the conference (along with Pitt and Louisville) that the magazine picks for the Elite Eight.

Oh, and a pretty cool cover photo, too.

In a season in which it seems every team but your Thursday-night rec-league squad has tried and failed to hold on to the No. 1 ranking, there's a simple reason Memphis coach John Calipari and his players never worry about how they would handle the top spot in the polls. They're absolutely certain that the voters will never let them get there.

Never mind that the fifth-ranked Tigers had a 20-game winning streak through Sunday, the longest in the country, or that they advanced to last year's NCAA title game and to the Elite Eight the two seasons before that. Their status as the powerhouse of Conference USA, in which they haven't lost a league game since March 2006, counts little in the eyes of some pollsters. One voter ranked Memphis 12th in last week's AP poll.

"Those guys will give up a kidney before they put us Number 1 in the country," says Calipari. "Maybe two kidneys. We aren't allowed to lose a game."

If the 26-3 Tigers seem more amused than irritated by their treatment in the polls, maybe it's because they realize the voters are doing them a favor. Ever since North Carolina's seven-week run at No. 1 ended with a loss to Boston College on Jan. 4, the throne has come equipped with a whoopee cushion. Pittsburgh (twice), Wake Forest, Duke, Connecticut (twice) followed the Heels as the top-ranked team, none of them for more than three weeks. Four times, teams that were voted into the top spot lost their very next game.

"My only prayer at night is 'Please don't let us move up,' " says Louisville coach Rick Pitino of the No. 1 ranking.

The constant shifting at the top is the last thing anyone expected when the season began. The Tar Heels were widely considered to be the kings-in-waiting, blue bloods advancing toward their inevitable coronation. What we have instead is a big, juicy hamburger of a season, deliciously messy and hard to get a grip on, with No. 1 teams dropping like plops of ketchup, unpredictably and often.

There is still the very real possibility that North Carolina will have the mess all mopped up by the end of the championship game in Detroit four weeks from now. But the 25-3 Tar Heels, like every other elite team in this marvelously competitive season, have been bloodied a bit, more than was expected last June, when three key players, guards Wayne Ellington and Ty Lawson and forward Danny Green, ended their flirtations with the NBA and decided to rejoin reigning Player of the Year Tyler Hansbrough for another season at Chapel Hill. That meant all the major contributors to last year's 36–3 Final Four team were returning, and the only issue for the Tar Heels seemed to be who would hold the ladder when they cut down the nets in the Motor City.

But the uberteam that remains head and shoulders above the rest of the crowd all season only arises about once a decade in college basketball. There's a reason, or, rather, multiple reasons, that the 2006-07 Florida team with NBA-bound big men Joakim Noah and Al Horford is the only one in recent memory to maintain an aura of invincibility from Midnight Madness all the way to March Madness. The wide distribution of talent, the distracting dreams of NBA dollars, the unpredictable rate of improvement among still-developing players, and two ever-threatening wild cards -- injuries and the referees' whistles -- all conspire against wire-to-wire dominance.

These days it's almost impossible for a team even to establish control of its conference. The lone exception is Memphis. Through Sunday, the Tigers' average margin of victory in their 14 league wins was 17.1 points, and only two teams, Tulsa and UTEP, had lost to Memphis by less than double digits. But Calipari's team hasn't exactly been a pushover outside the conference, either, with victories over Gonzaga and Tennessee. Their defense is one of the stingiest in the nation and certainly seems capable of carrying the team deep into March. Memphis ranks ninth in scoring defense (58.6 points per game), second in field goal percentage defense (37.1%) and fifth in blocked shots (6.3). In a 68-50 romp over then No. 18 Gonzaga in Spokane last month, the Tigers held the Bulldogs 27.9 points below their season average.

Against Southern Miss last Saturday, playing their second game in less than 48 hours, the leg-weary Tigers gave up just 14 points in the first half and held the Golden Eagles to 29.4% shooting from the field for the game in a workmanlike 58-42 win. "When we shut people down, we can stay in any game," says senior guard Antonio Anderson. The Tigers' defensive prowess is primarily due to their remarkable length. Lanky forwards Robert Dozier (6' 9") and Shawn Taggart (6' 10") both have wingspans in excess of seven feet.

Calipari, a devotee of man-to-man defense, has begun to take further advantage of their size and speed by periodically switching to a 3–2 zone, with stringy 6' 8" freshman Wesley Witherspoon disrupting things at the top. Last Saturday, the scheme thoroughly crippled the Golden Eagles, who struggled to advance the ball inside the three-point line and went 9:45 without scoring.

"They're so long, you can't turn any corners on them," says Southern Miss coach Larry Eustachy. "There are no good shots."

A soft conference schedule certainly didn't hamper the Tigers in the tournament last season, when they fell to Kansas in the championship game. It could work even more to their advantage this season, when some of the traditionally strong conferences, like the Big East and the ACC, are particularly loaded. The intensity of the competition could leave some of those teams burned out and bruised by tournament time.

"The question is, Have we paid too great a price in the regular season?" says UConn coach Jim Calhoun of the Big East grind. "Are we going to be fit enough, is Louisville, is Pittsburgh going to be fit enough to be able to win next month? That is the concern I have."

For some teams, the season seems like one long war of attrition. Michigan State, a presumed title contender last fall, dealt with injuries to center Goran Suton (both knees) and forward Delvon Roe (left ankle), and Raymar Morgan's mononucleosis. Purdue, picked to win the Big Ten title, lost forward Robbie Hummel to a back injury, and went 2-3 in the games he missed.

But it's not just fallen stars who can quickly shift the balance of power. Injuries to key role players and defensive stoppers have diminished several teams. Jerome Dyson of UConn, North Carolina's Marcus Ginyard and Dominic James of Marquette -- fine perimeter defenders in addition to their other talents -- are all injured and lost for the season, and their teams are more vulnerable as a result.

While some teams have been weakened by injuries, others have been strengthened by the emergence of key players. Sixteenth-ranked Washington (22-7) rose from a probable middle-of-the-Pac-10 team to a conference champion largely because senior guard Justin Dentmon improved from a role player into the league's sixth-leading scorer.

"That's what makes it so hard to predict who the best teams are going to be," says Huskies coach Lorenzo Romar. "These are 18- to 22-year-old kids who are still growing and learning. A kid can be a completely different player in February than he was in November, and that can make a huge difference."

All of which is why it seems so foolish now to have thought that North Carolina, or any other team, would waltz through the regular season. But if we drank the Carolina Kool-Aid, at least we were in good company.

"In the beginning of the year, I thought that North Carolina was just in a class by itself," says Pitino, whose sixth-ranked Cardinals (23-5) beat Marquette 62-58 on Sunday to remain in contention for the Big East regular-season title. "Now, as it shakes out, you see it's one of quite a few teams. Look at Memphis or Kansas. It wouldn't shock you to see them in the Final Four. It wouldn't shock you to see Clemson [there]-- or Arizona State, Michigan State, Gonzaga. I thought it was just going to be a bunch of us chasing North Carolina. I guess I've changed my opinion."

That's because the best teams keep beating each other up, sometimes quite literally. Oklahoma forward Blake Griffin, who has replaced Hansbrough as the favorite for Player of the Year, saw his Sooners blow a chance at the No. 1 perch after he suffered a concussion in a physical game against Texas. Oklahoma was beaten by the Longhorns and, while Griffin was out, lost to Kansas (which had to replace all five starters from last season's championship team but beat Missouri 90-65 on Sunday and needed just one more win to clinch at least a share of the Big 12 regular-season title).

After Hansbrough had what coach Roy Williams called "one of the worst games he's played all year," with eight points in a 69-65 win over Miami on Feb. 15, it was reported that he too had suffered a low-grade concussion from a blow to the head during the game.

Extending the three-point line this season by a foot, from 19' 9" to 20' 9", was expected to help open up the game and reduce the physical contact, but it hasn't always worked that way. The longer three has encouraged some teams to play more zone defense, packing it in and daring opponents to shoot threes. Players who try to penetrate into the paint or score in the post are met with lots of bodies.

It's hard to quantify the pounding, but it does appear that the Big East and Big Ten's bruising style is spreading to the rest of the country, with the referees' permission. Hansbrough, for instance, attempted 11.4 free throws per conference game last year. This year that average is down to 8.1, and he shot just four free throws in the Tar Heels' 88-85 overtime loss to Maryland on Feb. 21, the fifth straight game in which Hansbrough attempted fewer than 10 in a game.

The officials' willingness to condone some of the banging surely helped Pittsburgh center DeJuan Blair, who's 6' 7", in his memorable low-post beatdown of UConn's 7' 3" Hasheem Thabeet on Feb. 16. Despite his height disadvantage against Thabeet, the 265-pound Blair dominated the 250-pound UConn center with his bulk, finishing with 22 points and 23 rebounds compared with Thabeet's five and four in a 76-68 Pittsburgh victory that knocked the Huskies out of the top spot in the polls.

"That was the most physical game I ever played in," Blair said afterward, clearly of the opinion that it was a good thing.

But one referee's no-call is another one's foul, which the Panthers were reminded of last week after they had moved up to the top ranking. They dropped an 81-73 decision at Providence on Feb. 24, largely because Blair was saddled with two early fouls.

"We wanted to go right at Blair and get him on the bench," says Providence coach Keno Davis. "I saw on film that when teams were successful against Pitt, Blair wasn't on the floor."

Variations in opponents' styles of play also work against establishing overall dominance. A college schedule might call for a team to handle Syracuse's matchup zone one game, followed by Louisville's up-tempo game the next, followed by Pittsburgh's physical style the next.

"It's all about matchups," Pitino says. "In conference play, in the tournament, you can't play the same way every night. You've got to adjust because you've got to understand who you're playing against."

That also works to Memphis's advantage, because Calipari is nothing if not flexible. In addition to modifying his defensive philosophy to fit his players' strengths, he also made a crucial offensive change.

In December, after a 6-3 start that included losses to Georgetown and Syracuse in successive weeks, the coach shuffled his lineup by moving freshman Tyreke Evans to point guard.

Calipari, desperate to find a replacement for the departed Derrick Rose, made the move after consulting with director of basketball operations Rod Strickland, who played the position for nine teams in 17 NBA seasons. Strickland helped convince the coach that it was O.K. to have his best scorer running the point. The move was an instant success -- Evans is the team's best ball handler --making everybody more comfortable in the offense, particularly Anderson, who had been struggling as the point guard early in the season. Both he and Evans immediately began scoring more and shooting better, and so did the rest of the team. The Tigers have even committed fewer turnovers per game with Evans at the point than they did with Rose there last season.

"I've always had the ball in my hands," says Evans. "It's opened everything up."

The race for those four coveted spots in Detroit is equally wide-open, and the Tigers seem quite capable of making a run. Maybe they can't win over the pollsters, but winning the tournament might be a different story.