27 Mar

Ranking today’s best games, plus last-minute bracket advice

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🏀 Good morning to everyone but especially …

With No. 16 Grambling State (over Montana State) and No. 10 Colorado (over Boise State) winning Wednesday to wrap up the First Four, the first round of the men’s NCAA Tournament is officially upon us.

As much fun as filling out your bracket is, watching the madness unfold, no matter who you chose, is awesome. Plain and simple. David Cobb ranked the first-round games 1-32, and the top three are all today.

“(5) Gonzaga vs. (12) McNeese — Gonzaga is seeking to reach a ninth straight Sweet 16. McNeese, coached by the once-disgraced Will Wade, is seeking its first-ever NCAA Tournament victory. These Zags have less zip than usual, and the Cowboys have the talent and path needed to win more than once in this tournament.”
“(4) Kansas vs. (13) Samford — The Jayhawks are perilously light on depth and must face a Samford team that is the deepest in the tournament and determined to press on every possession.”
“(3) Kentucky vs. (14) Oakland — Oakland upset Xavier on the road and played competitive games with Ohio State and Illinois. Considering Kentucky lost to UNC Wilmington at home this season, the Wildcats aren’t 100% trustworthy against a team of this caliber.”
If you’re still debating who to pick, our experts have picked all of today’s games, and of course we have our expert brackets and my 63 picks in 63 sentences.

If there’s one more thing you cannot miss, it’s Matt Norlander’s annual collection of numbers and stats to know. Here are a couple of my favorites.

Norlander: “0: Infamously, no team has lost its first conference tournament game and then won a national title. This year, you should be suspicious of Alabama, Creighton, Kansas, Kentucky, Tennessee and Duke. … 10-15: Pick at least one double-digit seed to reach the Sweet 16, because it has happened all but two years since ’85 (1995, 2007). And 16 times there have been at least three double-digit seeds that made it to the regional semifinals.”
Here’s the best of the rest of our most recent content:

Full preview of today’s action
Guards win in March. Here are 10 of the very best.
Speaking of guards, Braden Smith is the key to Purdue’s redemption.
Every team has flaws … even the No. 1 seeds.
I handed out superlatives among the tournament teams.
And if you’ve missed anything or want to read anything — really, anything, because we have covered it all — here’s all of the outstanding work our college basketball writers have put in. Enjoy the madness!

👍 Honorable mentions
Kevin Durant passes Shaquille O’Neal for eighth in the NBA’s all-time scoring list.
Caitlin Clark leads the way in the women’s AP All-America team.
The (16) Presbyterian and (12) Vanderbilt women won their first First Four games.
Caleb Williams had a (likely) future teammate at his pro day: Keenan Allen.
Jon Rahm’s Masters Champions Dinner menu looks delicious.
Mitchell Robinson practiced fully for the first time since December.
The Browns signed D’Onta Foreman.
Alex Rodriguez found funding for the final payment of his purchase of the Timberwolves.
The USMNT faces Jamaica in a Concacaf Nations League semifinal on Paramount+. Here’s our preview.
Here are the Olympic soccer draws for the USMNT and the USWNT.
😳 And not such a good morning for …
Getty Images

Shohei Ohtani’s season is off to one of the strangest and scariest starts we’ve ever seen away from the diamond. One day after being the target of a bomb threat ahead of the season opener, Ohtani has allegedly been the victim of “massive theft” in the range of millions of dollars, his attorneys say. The alleged thief is none other than his longtime interpreter, Ippei Mizuhara, whom the Dodgers fired Wednesday in light of the allegations. Mizuhara had been by Ohtani’s side, literally, since Ohtani joined the Angels in 2017.

That’s just the start.

Ohtani and his representatives say Mizuhara stole funds from Ohtani in order to place bets with an illegal bookmaker. That bookmaker, Mathew Bowyer, is the target of a federal investigation. The Los Angeles Times had been investigating the matter, and when Ohtani’s name came up, Ohtani’s lawyers looked into things and discovered the alleged theft.
Bowyer’s lawyer said Bowyer has never met with or talked to Ohtani. Ohtani is not facing any sort of discipline.
Mizuhara, however, had a different explanation. He said he asked Ohtani to cover more than $4.5 million in gambling debts, and Ohtani did so. Mizuhara added he thought bets placed through Bowyer were legal and Ohtani had no involvement with the betting.
Mizuhara then changed his story, saying that Ohtani didn’t know about Mizuhara’s gambling and that Ohtani never transferred money to Bowyer’s associate. Mizuhara then added he never betted on baseball, which is prohibited for MLB team employees by the league.
👎 Not so honorable mentions
Draymond Green was involved in another scuffle.
Yoshinobu Yamamoto got shelled in his Dodgers debut
Ausar Thompson’s season is over due to a blood clot.
Matt McLain (shoulder) is likely out for Opening Day.
Asa Lacy (Tommy John surgery) is out for the year.
Did James Harden really try to block an in-game shot attempt by Kawhi Leonard?
🏀 The 15 NBA teams that can win a title, broken down into tiers
Getty Images
I know college basketball is all the rage right now, but the NBA playoffs are less than a month away. Bill Reiter says 15 teams belong in the title conversation, and he broke those 15 down into six tiers. The Celtics and Nuggets are in a tier by themselves, and rightfully so. I think the tier that intrigues me most is …

Reiter: “Tier 4: They have a shot despite real question marks — The New York Knicks. The Cleveland Cavaliers. The Los Angeles Clippers. The New Orleans Pelicans. … The Pelicans have been sneaky great. They’re also in the top 10 in offensive and defensive rating, Zion Williamson has been healthy and in great shape, and .. have won seven of their past eight. … Zion, and the Pelicans, have felt like fool’s gold the past few years, but there’s belief in New Orleans they may be close to cashing as a team they’ve always believed could be, contenders if only their superstar could stay on the floor.”
🏈 NFL rule proposals: Changes to tackles, kickoffs coming?
Wednesday, the NFL submitted proposals for multiple rule changes for the 2024 season.

The first regards making “hip-drop tackles” 15-yard penalties. Here are the details, via Cody Benjamin.

Benjamin: “The proposed definition of an infraction is as follows: When a player ‘grabs the runner with both hands or wraps the runner with both arms’ and ‘unweights himself by swiveling and dropping his hips and/or lower body, landing on and trapping the runner’s legs at or below the knee.’ The penalty would also grant the opposing team an automatic first down.”
Sources told our Jonathan Jones that NFL officials believe they can call it correctly, but the NFLPA isn’t so sure. It’s already so hard to tackle correctly. I don’t love this one.

I like the potential change to kickoffs much more. Let’s set the stage:

Teams kick off from the same spot — their own 35. The 10 players on the coverage team, though, line up at the receiving team’s 40, and nine players on the return team would line up in the “setup zone” between the 35- and 30-yard line. Neither unit can move until the kick hits the ground or a returner.
The returning team has up to two returners in the “return zone,” which stretches from the goal line to the 20-yard line.
There are no fair catches.
As for the kick itself …

If the kick fails to reach the return zone, the returning team gets the ball at its own 40.
If the kick goes through the end zone or is downed inside the end zone on the fly, the returning team gets the ball at its own 35.
If the kick lands in the return zone and then travels into the end zone and is downed in the end zone, the returning team gets the ball at its own 20.
If the ball is fielded in the return zone, it must be returned.
Here it is in picture form.

Basically, we’d get way more action, it would be safer, and there’d be a lot more strategy involved. It would be a fun new element. I’m in favor.

📺 What we’re watching Thursday
🏀 We’re watching the men’s NCAA Tournament … All. Day. Long. Here’s how to do it.
⚽ USMNT vs. Jamaica, 7 p.m. on Paramount+
🏀 Pelicans at Magic, 7 p.m. on NBA TV
🏀 No. 11 Arizona vs. No. 11 Auburn (W), 7 p.m. on ESPN2
🏀 No. 16 Holy Cross vs. No. 16 UT Martin (W), 9 p.m. on ESPN2
🏀 Hawks at Suns, 10:30 p.m. on NBA TV
🏒 Kraken at Golden Knights, 10:30 p.m. on ESPN

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