USC, UCLA punch tickets to March Madness

SPORTS DIGEST

By Don Wanlass

Contributing Writer

It’s been two years since sports fans have had the opportunity to enjoy the phenomenon known as March Madness.

The 68-team NCAA Division 1 men’s basketball tournament was one of the first casualties of the coronavirus pandemic last year, when NCAA officials canceled last year’s tournament three days before selection Sunday, the made-for-television event that shows the highs and lows of betting invited to the tournament or not getting an invitation.

This year’s show wasn’t quite the same what with social distancing and other remnants of the pandemic. And there are other changes in this year’s tournament.

The opening week of the tournament used to begin on Tuesday and Wednesday with two play-in games in Dayton, Ohio, each night. All four play-in games will be played March 18 this year, two in Assembly Hall on the University of Indiana campus in Bloomington, Indiana, and two in Mackey Arena on the Purdue University campus in West Lafayette, Indiana.

UCLA faces Michigan State in one of those play-in games.

The first two rounds of the tournament will be played Friday-Saturday and Sunday-Monday this year with all 48 games being played in the state of Indiana instead of eight regional sites scattered across the county.

The Final Four was scheduled this year at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis, so the NCAA decided to keep all the teams quarantined in Indiana. Besides Lucas Oil Stadium (where the Indianapolis Colts play), games will be played at Indiana University, Purdue University, Butler University, Bankers Life Arena where the Indiana Pacers play in Indianapolis and the Indiana Farmers Coliseum on the site of the Indiana State Fairgrounds.

The Sweet 16 round will be played March 27 and 28 with the Elite 8 being played March 29 and 30. The Final Four will be played April 3 with the NCAA Finals being played April 5.

Not your typical NCAA Tournament for sure, but these aren’t typical times. After last year’s bracketology contests were canceled, we should just be happy we have the tournament this year.

We also should be happy that both USC and UCLA are in the tournament this year. The Bruins, particularly, are lucky to get there. They have lost four games in a row, blowing large leads in three of the four losses.

They lost their opener in the Pac 12 Tournament to a lower-seeded Oregon State, but were helped when the Beavers went on to win the tournament and thus punch their own ticket to Indiana.

But the Bruins didn’t get any favors in being placed against Michigan State, a perennial power that slipped to a 15-12 record this year. Of their 15 wins, three have come against Illinois, Michigan and Ohio State during Big 10 Conference play.

Illinois and Michigan are both seeded at the top of their brackets in the tournament. Ohio State is a No. 2 seed.

The Bruins are playing without two of their top players. Guard Chris Smith has been out since January with a knee injury that required surgery and Jalen Hill left the team for personal reason shortly after that.

Kentucky transfer Johnny Juzang and sophomore Jaime Jaquez lead the Bruins who have five players (six counting Smith) averaging in double figures during the season. Juzang led the team, averaging 14 points a game.

Under head coach Tom Izzo, Michigan State is making its 23rd straight appearance in the NCAA Tournament, the fourth longest streak in NCAA history. The Bruins are making their 50th all-time appearance.

The Mighigan State-UCLA game starts at 6:45 p.m. March 18 and will be televised on TBS.

The winner will be an 11th seed in the tournament and will play BYU at 6:30 p.m. March 20.

USC will wait until March 20 to make its debut in the tournament. The Trojans face the winner of another play-in game, Wichita State against Drake at 1:30 p.m.

The Trojans are the sixth-seeded team in their bracket, after losing in the semifinals of the conference tournament to Colorado, which lost to Oregon State in the finals.

The Trojans second-round game will come against the winner of the Kansas-Eastern Washington game. That game will be played March 22.

The Trojans have been led all season by freshman Evan Mobley, the Pac 12’s Offensive Player, Defensive Player and freshman of the year. Mobley averages 16.8 points and 8.6 rebounds a game and is expected to be among the top 3 picks in the NBA Draft this summer. He will carry the Trojans as far as he can take them.

USC Coach Andy Enfield made his name in the 2013 tournament when he took Florida Gulf Coast to the Sweet 16 round as a 15th seed.

The Trojans hired him away from Florida Gulf Coast after that tournament run and he has been trying to duplicate it ever since. He has one tournament win in eight years at USC.

LAKERS NOTES: The Lakers will take a back seat for the next three weeks while the NCAA Tournament dominates the sports world. The Lakers are finding ways to win while Anthony Davis (and others) get healthy.

One benefit of the injuries and illnesses that have affected the Lakers’ roster recently is the additional playing time for Talen Horton-Tucker, a second-year player out of Iowa State.

Horton-Tucker played in only six games as a rookie last year. He is averaging 18 minutes a game this year and is now up to 7.7 points a game after scoring 16 points in 26 minutes March 16 against the Minnesota Timberwolves. He combined with Kyle Kuzma and Montrezl Harrell to score 57 points off the bench in the win over the Timberwolves. The Lakers’ starters scored 69. …

HALL NEWS: While still on the subject of the Lakers, one of the stars of the Showtime era Lakers in the 1980s, supersub Michael Cooper, has been nominated for the Basketball Hall of Fame. Cooper is one of nine-first-time finalists for the 2021 class despite being a backup for most of his career.

A Pasadena High graduate who played college ball at New Mexico, Cooper joined the Lakers a year before Magic Johnson. He, Johnson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar won five championships for the Lakers in the 80s.

He was a five-time first-team NBA All-Defensive Team, a two-time second-team selection and the league’s Defensive Player of the Year for the 1986-87 season.

Another first-time finalist of note is Paul Pierce, who starred at Inglewood High School before attending Kansas and playing 19 years in the NBA, most with the Boston Celtics.

Three other first-time finalists for the hall have Southland ties.

Marianne Stanley was the USC women’s basketball coach from 1989-93 and a Los Angeles Sparks assistant coach in the 2000, 2008 and 2009 seasons.

Rick Adelman played at Pius X High School in Downey and Loyala Marymount before a seven-season NBA playing career and 23-season NBA head coaching career.

Yolanda Griffith played for the Long Beach Stingrays of the defunct American Basketball League during their lone 1997-98 season.

Former Crenshaw High and UCLA standout Marques Johnson was one of the five repeat finalists, who is overdue for hall recognition.

The Hall of Fame’s Class of 2021 will be announced May 16.

RUGBY, ANYONE: Los Angeles will welcome its newest professional sports franchise this week when the LA Giltinis rugby team begins play at the Coliseum. The team’s first match is March 20 against the New England Free Jacks.

The Giltinis were announced as one of 12 Major League Rugby franchises in May 2020, pretty gutsy starting a new franchise in the middle of a pandemic.

My exposure to rugby came 40 years ago when it was one of the featured sports on a fledging ESPN, which was struggling for sports content at the time. Australian rules football was another popular ESPN sport at the time.

According to Major League Rugby, the Rugby World Cup is the third biggest sporting event on the planet (soccer’s World Cup and the Olympics must be one and two), although pledgesports.com ranked the Rugby World Cup at No. 7 as recently as 2019.

“The game of rugby is built upon a rich history,” said Adam Freier, the Giltinis’ general manager and a former Australian Wallabies player. “It prides itself on its values and tradition, but continues to look at ways to innovate. This is exactly why we are partnering with such an iconic and celebrated sporting arena in the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, ‘The Greatest Stadium in the World’ as it is widely tagged.

“Many would agree that Los Angeles is the sporting capital of the world so it became imperative for this city to have its very own rugby team,” Giltinis added.

“I’m very excited to have rugby return to the L.A. Coliseum for the first time in 65 years,” Coliseum general manager Joe Furin said.

The league said the team and Coliseum officials have reached “a landmark stadium agreement of five-plus years.”

Major League Rugby was founded in 2018, and its 13 franchises include the San Diego Legion. Its 2020 season was cut short due to the coronavirus pandemic.

The Giltinis — named after a cocktail — are owned primarily by Loyals Rugby, a rugby investment company founded in Australia.

The full 2021 season schedule can be found at www.giltinis.com. For more on Major League Rugby, see www.majorleague.rugby.

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