SPORTS DIGEST: UCLA, USC open tournament with high expectations

By Don Wanlass

Contributing Writer

Don’t expect UCLA and USC to make a major splash in the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament, which opens play March 10.

Last year, the Bruins and Trojans surprised most people by advancing to the Final 4 and Elite 8, respectively.

It could happen again this year — both teams have been ranked among the top 25 for most of the season — but the odds are against either team advancing that far this time.

Last year, USC and UCLA surprised a lot of people. This year, their opponents won’t be looking past them.

A year ago, the Bruins had to win a play-in game to make the final 64-team field as an 11th seed. They beat Michigan State in overtime in the play-in game and defeated BYU in the opening round.

The Bruins then got a break when Abilene Christian upset Texas in the first round. The Bruins slaughtered Abilene Christian in round two and then defeated No. 2 seed Alabama in the Sweet 16 round and edged Michigan 51-49 in the East Regional Final to advance to the Final 4.

There the Bruins’ Cinderella ride ended as Gonzaga won 93-90 in overtime on a last-second three-pointer by Jalen Suggs.

USC’s great post-season run last season also ended with Gonzaga, which beat the Trojans in the West Regional Final. The Zags overwhelmed the Trojans in the second half and went on to win, 85-66.

The sixth-seeded Trojans made a huge splash last year by knocking off No. 3 seed Kansas in the second round, 85-51. In that game, the Trojans jumped out to a 40-21 lead at halftime and coasted to the win with five players scoring in double figures, led by Isaiah Mobley with 17.

Mobley, Drew Peterson and Chevez Goodwin return from that team to lead the Trojans again this year.

The Trojans open play in this year’s tournament March 11 at noon against the Miami Hurricanes. The Trojans (26-7) lost three of their last four games of the season and fell to a seventh seed this year.

Miami (23-10) is a 10th seed, one of four teams from the Atlantic Coast Conference to make the tournament.

A win over the Hurricanes would pit the Trojans against probably Auburn, the second-seeded team in the Midwest Regional and a team that was ranked No. 1 in the country earlier this season.

If the Trojans get past Auburn, they could face a rematch against No. 1 seed Kansas, who they beat by 24 points last year. Auburn and Kansas are a tough hill to climb and the Trojans are going to need to play better against them than they have been playing lately if they are to go farther this year in the tournament.

The Trojans will need top performances from Mobley, Peterson and point guard Boogie Ellis and play solid team defense if they are to make an impact on this year’s tournament.

As a No. 4 seed, UCLA has an easier path in the tournament than the Trojans, but not that much easier.

The Bruins open the tournament at 6:45 p.m. March 10 against Akron, the winners of the Mid-American Conference Tournament. The Zips are 24-9 and have won eight of their last 10.

Although the Bruins lost in the Pac 12 Tournament finals to Arizona, this may be the healthiest they have been all season.

Johnny Juzang, who missed three games before the tournament with an ankle injury, appeared to find his range against Arizona. He was the most outstanding player in last year’s East Regional and is a key member of the Bruins’ J Connection (Juzang, Jaime Jaquez Jr., Jules Bernard and Jaylen Clark).

If the Bruins get past Akron, St. Mary’s, which has one of three victories over Gonzaga this season, awaits. If the Bruins get past the second round, No. 1 seed Baylor could be their opponent in the regional semifinal next weekend.

One key for the Bruins will be keeping centers Myles Johnson and Cody Riley out of foul trouble. Arizona wore the Bruins out inside after both Riley and Johnson picked up their fourth fouls midway through the second half of the conference title game.

Under coach Mick Cronin, the Bruins play great defense most of the time, and defense often wins close playoff games. Look for the Bruins to survive the opening weekend and advance to the Sweet 16 again.

PLAY BALL ALREADY: Now that the people who run Major League Baseball have come to their senses and agreed on a new labor contract, it’s time to play ball. Spring training games start as early as March 17 and the season begins April 7, about a week later than originally scheduled.

If the players can get ready for the season over the next three weeks, why does spring training last for six weeks most years. Just asking.

Baseball will squeeze in the six or seven games postponed by the lockout during the season, probably in the form of doubleheaders.

Once upon a time, that was an advantage for fans (two games for the price of one ticket), but baseball doesn’t give anything away these days and doubleheaders are scheduled as day-night affairs with each game requiring separate tickets. Got to pay those players somehow.

With the lockout over, free agency has restarted and the Dodgers are in the market for first baseman Freddie Freeman, who was last seen helping the Atlanta Braves knock the Dodgers out of the playoffs last fall on their way to a World Series championship.

Freeman would replace Corey Seager’s bat in the lineup now that Seager is a Texas Ranger. The Dodgers did manage to keep Clayton Kershaw from joining Seager in Texas.

The Dodgers signed him to a one-year contract last week, which will pay him at least $17 million this year, with incentives giving him an earning capability of another $5 million. No one knows for certain if Kershaw’s left arm is healthy after he missed most of September last year with an elbow problem.

Kershaw is at the point of his career where he is more rotation depth than ace. Walker Buehler and Julio Urias are now the aces of the pitching staff, but, if healthy, Kershaw can still be a better-than-average pitcher.

The Dodgers’ roster still isn’t set with closer Kenley Jansen still on the free agent market, but if the Dodgers can sign Freeman, their batting order should be set, even with the addition of the designated hitter to the National League this year.

The Dodgers still have questions about the starting rotation after Buehler, Urias and Kershaw, the bullpen (who will close if Jansen signs elsewhere) and the bench, but those things can sort themselves out in the next three weeks.

The Dodgers had their streak of eight straight division championships halted last year by the Giants, but the Giants lost catcher Buster Posey to retirement over the winter and the San Diego Padres may be missing shortstop Fernando Tatis Jr. for three months due to a wrist injury, so the Dodgers could be on their way to another division title before the season even starts.

The season starts April 8 in Colorado.