Best-of-7: Give the better team 5 home games in 2-2-3 format

wildbluesDallas and St. Louis — the two most likely playoff opponents for the Wild, assuming Minnesota holds onto a spot — each entered Thursday night 14 points ahead of the Wild.

They have both been clearly better, at least on a consistent basis, than the Wild has been over the stretch of what is almost a full 82-game season.

And the reward for the Stars or Blues in the postseason will be … four home games in a best-of-seven series, while the Wild gets three.

OK, I’ll admit this is a peculiar way to build a case for the specific argument I’m about to lay out to a fan base that tilts heavily toward the Wild, but here we go anyway: the NHL, NBA and MLB do not offer enough of a home-ice/floor/field incentive or advantage in the postseason, and it diminishes the importance of the regular season in every case.

The Wild, for all of its ups and downs this season, will enter the postseason on nearly the same footing as the team with the best record in the West. If Minnesota can win one of the first two games on the road, the series becomes a best-of-five with three remaining games in Minnesota.

That’s precisely what happened last season when Minnesota, a wild card entry, took Game 1 over the division-winning Blues in St. Louis on the way to a six-game series victory. The year before that, the Wild won all three of its home games before upsetting the higher-seeded Avalanche in Game 7 in Colorado.

Home teams in NHL playoff games have historically won about 59 percent of the time. In the NBA, that number is closer to 65 percent (though it has decreased in recent years). In MLB, it’s around 55 percent.

Those numbers show there is certainly an advantage to being the home team. But one extra home game after proving to be the better team over 82 games (NBA or NHL) or a whopping 162 games (MLB) is not enough.

Instead, I would love to see those leagues adopt this format for best-of-seven series: five home games for the better seed, and just two for the lesser seed. Distribute the games thusly: Games 1 and 2 at home for the better seed, Games 3 and 4 at home for the lesser seed, then Games 5-7 at home for the better seed.

Giving the better seed ALL the home games goes too far. This way, you still guarantee the lesser seed two home playoff games, providing excitement for those fans, revenue for both teams and a legitimate chance at an upset.

In addition, the current 2-2-1-1-1 format in the NBA and NHL means the venue shifts up to four different times. A 2-2-3 format means just two venue changes, cutting travel in half and keeping players theoretically fresher.

More than anything, though, it would adequately reward teams for the work they do over the course of half a year by giving them a more meaningful advantage in the playoffs.

NCAA admits it mistakenly invited South Carolina to men’s hoops tourney

whoopsFile this under: whoopsie doodle.

South Carolina had an awfully nice men’s basketball season, going 25-9, including 11-7 in the SEC. Many people thought the Gamecocks deserved a spot in the NCAA tournament. South Carolina certainly believed it.

And, for one not-so-shining moment, South Carolina truly believed it had made the field of 68.

That’s because the NCAA mistakenly sent word to the program that it had, in fact, made the tournament. The NCAA owned up to its mistake in a statement made Thursday — more than two weeks after it happened — following a slow trickle of media reports suggesting it had, in fact, happened. Per the statement from NCAA vice president of men’s basketball championships Dan Gavitt:

Unfortunately, during the selection show a junior men’s basketball staff member mistakenly sent a text to a member of the University of South Carolina athletics department staff via an app we used for the first time during the 2016 tournament. The text was supposed to go to all teams, congratulating them for making the tournament. Regrettably, a text meant for another institution went to South Carolina instead. While the Gamecocks were given serious consideration, at no time during the selection process was South Carolina voted in to the field. Ultimately, they were one of the last four teams left out of the tournament. I take full responsibility for this clerical error and apologize to Coach Martin, his staff and team, and the entire University of South Carolina community.”

Full responsibility after first blaming an underling and then technology. Ah, but I digress.

The blame isn’t important. This is just a terrible thing. Imagine being a bubble team — the agony of waiting, the ecstasy of getting into the tournament … and then the blow of finding out it was a mistake.

Could Twins go 1-2-3 in 2016 Rookie of the Year voting?

??????Michael Baumann, who writes for Baseball Prospectus, on Tuesday tweeted out his predictions for award winners, division champs and other such things for the upcoming 2016 MLB season. He did so a little tongue-in-cheek and perhaps only half-seriously (going with the Giants to win the World Series as part of their even-year dominance, among other picks that certainly aren’t 100 percent logic or math-based).

But even if Baumann wasn’t being completely serious, he had an intriguing pick for American League Rookie of the Year that caught my eye and perhaps warrants further discussion. Going three deep with the pick, Baumann listed Byron Buxton … then Jose Berrios … then Byung Ho Park.

Yes, all three play for the Twins.

While it’s unlikely to happen that one team would go 1-2-3 in the ROY voting, it’s not ridiculous to thing the Twins could at least threaten to do so this year — particularly when one considers that Max Kepler, another prospect who could break through, isn’t even in that list of three.

It would require an above-average impact from Buxton, a solid adjustment by Park and some electric stuff from Berrios if and when he gets called up to the big club.

Those three things happening would be pretty strong signs that the Twins were a contending club.

And yeah, it would be pretty cool as a thing on its own. As Baumann tweeted in a follow-up, “I’m having fun imagining them all standing on the podium like the U.S. snowboarding team.

Limegrover: ‘I made way more money than probably anybody should’ at U

limegroverIt’s been four months since Tracy Claeys, in one of his biggest decisions after getting the permanent head coaching job with the Gophers, decided to fire Matt Limegrover — an assistant who had worked alongside former head coach Jerry Kill and Claeys for 17 season, including 15 in which he doubled up as offensive coordinator and offensive line coach.

One of the primary reason for the switch, Claeys said, is he didn’t like the workflow involved with having the same coach dealing with the line and the entire offense. He preferred a QB coach who doubled as offensive coordinator — and the Gophers hired such a person in Jay Johnson.

Limegrover latched on as offensive line coach at Penn State in mid-January (AP photo of Limegrover working with new players earlier this month) but has been relatively silent about the breakup at Minnesota until a recent ESPN.com Big Ten blog post in which he opened up with some pretty interesting quotes. Among them:

“The best title I could have is offensive line coach; that’s what I was put on this Earth to do. So I’m in such a good place right now, both physically and mentally.”

That speaks to the notion that Limegrover was stretched thin with the Gophers and was, in his words, “working myself sick” with 3:45 a.m. wake-up calls to handle his many duties. As such, he at least frames Claeys’ decision to make a change as one he agreed with in principle.

“With Tracy making the decision, I understood because I felt I wasn’t giving what each side needed to have, as far as being a coordinator and being an offensive line coach,” Limegrover said. “I felt that way.”

Limegrover clearly took a pay cut at Penn State, and that’s where the “money” quote about, well, money comes from. The full quote is probably less sensational than it sounds, but it still has already raised some eyebrows among Gophers fans who pay attention carefully to dollars and cents. Here’s Limegrover talking about getting the offer to coach at Penn State:

“He goes, ‘Well, I want to offer you the job’ — and he didn’t even get the ‘j’ in job out,” Limegrover added with a laugh. “I told him I’d take it. I’m good. Whatever you’re going to pay me, I’m fine. … I didn’t need a lot of money. I made way more money than probably anybody should make when I was at Minnesota.”

Limegrover made $566,000 with the Gophers last season and got a $47,167 bowl bonus on top of that even though he was fired before the bowl game. The context of the full quote makes it clear that Minnesota paid him well enough that he wasn’t in search of a bigger paycheck in his next role — not that he was overpaid with the Gophers.

Anyway, the upshot is this: Limegrover seems happy. Claeys seems to have the staff he wants. A breakup that seemed like it had the potential to be messy on the surface has been smoothed over pretty nicely with both longtime Kill coordinators taking the high road.

Four pitchers who made opening day starts for Twins are among MLB’s all-time leaders

bertHere’s a wonderful bit of trivia that I stumbled onto Tuesday afternoon thanks to the Baseball Reference Twitter feed.

BR tweeted out a list of the 23 pitchers who had made the most opening day starts in MLB history — all of them that had nine or more such starts. Digging through the list revealed an interesting nugget: four of them made opening day starts for the Twins.

One of them is probably pretty obvious: Bert Blyleven. He got the call on opening day 12 times in his career, six of them coming with the Twins, with the first time being April 15, 1972 against Oakland. Those 12 opening day starts put Blyleven No. 7 all-time in baseball history.

Another one might be reasonably obvious if you (correctly) guessed that Jack Morris got the opening day nod in his one and only season with the Twins in 1991. Morris was lit up in that start on April 9, 1991, by Oakland, giving up 8 hits and 5 walks in just 4.2 innings of a 7-2 loss. The Twins started that season 2-9 before, of course, rallying to not only make the playoffs but win the World Series. Morris’ final start of the season was somewhat better than the first: 10 innings, 0 runs in Game 7 of the World Series. Morris is tied for second place on MLB’s all-time opening day starts list with 14, most of them coming with the Tigers.

Then it gets a little sneaky with the third name you might plausibly guess: Brad Radke. By a combination of default (not having much competition), competence (actually being a good pitcher on a bad team for many years) and veteran presence, Radke was the Twins’ opening day starter nine different times — all of them in a 10-season span from 1996-2005. The Twins went 7-2 in those starts. And those nine opening day starts put Radke in a nine-way tie for the 15th-most all-time.

If you got the fourth, you get a gold star for the day. I only had an inkling there might be a Twins connection when I saw Baseball Reference’s initial list, and even after that I had to look it up to be sure. But yes, in 2008 — the year after Johan Santana was traded to the Mets — Livan Hernandez was the Twins’ opening day starter. Hernandez pitched quite well in that March 31, 2008 opener at the Metrodome, going 7 strong innings in a 3-2 victory over the Angels. Like Radke, Hernandez finished with nine opening day starts in his career, putting him in that nine-pitcher logjam and squarely in the top 23 all-time.

Other nuggets from the list of 23:

*Tom Seaver is the all-time leader with 16 career opening day starts, while Randy Johnson and Steve Carlton are tied with Morris for second place with 14.

*Two of the pitchers on the list are still active: the Yankees’ CC Sabathia (11) and the Blue Jays’ Mark Buehrle (9).

*Outside of Radke, the other somewhat surprising name on the list of 23 — more than half of whom are in the Hall of Fame — is Steve Rogers. Like Radke, he spent his whole career with one team, hurling for the Expos from 1973-1985 and drawing an opening day assignment in nine of those 13 seasons.

Is the national spotlight about to shine brightly on the Wolves?

lavinerubioLittle trickles of praise for the Timberwolves have started to flow from prominent national media members, the most notable of which might have been Bill Simmons — ESPN Sports Guy turned ESPN empire-maker turned ESPN-free digital vigilante, all the while tending to ridicule the Wolves and specifically the David Kahn era — tweeting on Monday night, “The Timberwolves are starting to feel a little 2009 Thunder-y.”

That’s a comparison that has been made before, but hearing it from Simmons — and seeing him blast it out to his nearly 5 million Twitter followers — gives rise to the notion that these Wolves might be on the verge of a flood of praise instead of just a trickle. Simmons is a lot of things, not all of them good, but two on the positive side of the ledger: he knows hoops, and he can spot trends.

The 2008-09 Thunder, if you’ll recall, started the year 3-29, which is terrible. They finished 23-59, which isn’t good but means they went 20-30 over their final 50 games — a marked improvement sparked by the development of emerging stars Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. James Harden was drafted the next year, and the Thunder jumped to 50 wins and has been a Western Conference contender ever since.

The Wolves have been compared optimistically to that Thunder team because of their young core of Karl-Anthony Towns, Andrew Wiggins, Zach LaVine and “older” young players Ricky Rubio and Gorgui Dieng. That starting five has helped the Wolves go from 14-36 at one point this season to 25-49 — again, a modest jump but an 11-13 stretch that shows promise.

It leaves the Wolves in a good spot: improving and winning while still likely to get another impact player in the draft — or able to package that pick in a deal to get a more experienced impact player. Lest you worry that all this winning is hurting their draft position, that’s not likely to happen. Minnesota has had the fifth-worst record for a while now and would need an even hotter finish to sprint past New Orleans (which is 2.5 games up on the Wolves with just eight Minnesota games remaining this season). More than likely, the Wolves will go into the lottery in the No. 5 spot — able to move into the top 3, not able to fall any worse than No. 8.

OKC drafted Harden No. 3 overall in 2009, setting the franchise on its competitive course — though even with Harden gone now, the Thunder is a contender. If the Wolves can land a similar impact player (hello, Buddy Hield!) the comparisons to the Thunder could become even more apt. And the love from the national media, which I expect to flow more freely soon, could start pouring out like water from a fire hose.

Here’s a weird item about Kevin Love and Ric Flair’s WWE daughter

Ric Flair  Kevin Love wants Charlotte s digits   SI.comLet’s back up from the headline for a minute.

I don’t know why, exactly, SI.com was interviewing Ric Flair and his daughter — Ashley Elizabeth Fliehr, who wrestles as Charlotte and is the WWE Divas champion — for a video recently. I don’t know why the conversation was steered toward athletes who are fans of Charlotte.

But it happened. And it also happened that daddy Flair jumped in on the question and said that Kevin Love “wants her digits.”

So here we are.

Flair goes on to explain that he’s a huge Cavaliers fan and met Love, who said he’s a huge fan of his daughter.

Poor Ashley/Charlotte keeps rolling her eyes, seemingly hoping that the conversation will be steered back to a somewhat normal place and — around the 52 second mark — lets out a heavy sigh.

Ric Flair jumps back in to sing the praises of Love, saying, “He’s single, he makes a lot of money and he’s a man.”

Hard to argue with that logic.

And then the whole thing wraps up a graphic of Love and Ric Flair’s daughter encircled by a heart (screen grab via SI.com).

I’m as confused as you are by all of it, and I’m stuck somewhere between deeming this awkwardly endearing and uncomfortable, but definitely patriarchal (Flair’s daughter, after all, is almost 30).

But relationships have started in weirder ways. Maybe if Love shows up to her house with a white basketball, he can woo her?

What teams should Minnesotans adopt in Final Four, Frozen Four?

minnesotamapIf you’re a Minnesotan gearing up to watch the men’s college basketball Final Four on Saturday and next Monday, followed by the men’s college hockey Frozen Four the following weekend, chances are you’ll need a team to adopt.

No teams from the area made the Final Four, which instead is occupied by three teams out east (Villanova, Syracuse and North Carolina) and one down south (Oklahoma). The Frozen Four has two teams from the old WCHA — North Dakota and Denver — but no Minnesota schools. Boston College and Quinnipiac round out the Frozen Four.  Here are some reasons to consider casting your allegiance in various directions:

FINAL FOUR

North Carolina: The Tar Heels are the prohibitive favorite as the only No. 1 seed to reach the Final Four and arguably the most impressive overall team in the tournament so far. If you want to latch onto a likely winner, this is your best bet.

Oklahoma: The Sooners have Buddy Hield, who is not only worth watching all on his own but also figures to be a high lottery pick that the Timberwolves could possibly have a chance to draft if they so choose. Hield is the most dynamic player left standing and makes Oklahoma a good pick.

Syracuse: The Orange made it to the Final Four as a No. 10 seed, a rarity in college basketball. If you want to align yourself with an underdog — even one from a major conference — here’s your chance.

Villanova: This mostly anonymous group embodies the team concept better than any of the other four left in the mix. If you like a team built on grit instead of stars, this is your squad.

FROZEN FOUR

North Dakota: Fans of pretty much any Minnesota college hockey team might think it’s sacrilege to thrust their support behind the rival Fighting Hawks, but there is also an element of sports fandom that believes it’s best to cheer for the closest remaining team to keep it in the “family,” so to speak. If you are of that mind, you will also be heartened by this: North Dakota lists eight Minnesota natives on its roster, meaning if UND wins it all there figures to be a mighty contribution from the State of Hockey.

Denver: Then again, if you’re on the “anybody but North Dakota” bandwagon, cheer for the Pioneers. Denver faces UND in the semifinals and has a chance to send the Fighting Hawks home from the Frozen Four disappointed once again. This is North Dakota’s eighth Frozen Four appearance in the past 12 season. But in each of the previous even, UND failed to win a championship — and only once did the Fighting Hawks make it past the semifinals.

Quinnipiac: You might think of this ECAC school as an underdog, but the Bobcats were the No. 1 overall seed and have been in the NCAA tourney four consecutive years (with two Frozen Four berths in that time). They also have five Minnesotans on the roster.

Boston College: This is the seat of power in college hockey. The Eagles are making their 25th Frozen Four appearance and are in search of their fourth championship since 2008. This is a team and program that tends to rise to the occasion.

Wolves fans: Here are possibly lottery picks to watch in NCAA tourney

buddy hieldBased on the NBA standings as of now, the Timberwolves stand a very good chance to finish with the fifth-worst record in the league. Indeed, Basketball Reference puts their pre-lottery odds of being in that No. 5 spot at 84 percent. The lottery, though, means a lot can happen.

The Wolves’ most likely outcome will be to pick fifth, but they really could finish anywhere between 1-8, except for No. 4, assuming they finish the year in that fifth position (teams can only jump into the top three, and teams can only fall three spots from their expected slot).

As such, there are a wide variety of players that could end up being on the Wolves’ radar. Here is a look at seven of them who are playing in this year’s NCAA men’s basketball tournament — a sort of guide to watching the tourney if you pay more attention to the pro game and specifically the Wolves.

*Brandon Ingram, SF, Duke: At 6-10, 196 pounds, Ingram is long and thin for a small forward. But the freshman is also extremely athletic and can shoot the ball — entering the NCAA tournament hitting 41.3 percent of his three-pointers, with 74 makes on the season. The Wolves would likely have to jump into the top 3 to have a shot at Ingram, a projected one-and-done player. Duke survived a scare in Thursday’s opening round against UNC Wilmington to advance to the round of 32 Saturday.

*Jaylen Brown, SF, Cal: At 6-7, 221 pounds, Brown has a more developed NBA body than Ingram even though he, too, is a freshman. He’s more of a slasher and rim finisher than Ingram but must improve his shot. It’s hard to say if his skill set fits what the Wolves need, but he might be available in that 3-8 range. Cal plays Hawaii at 1 p.m. Friday.

*Jamal Murray, SG, Kentucky: Another freshman who just turned 19 and, like Andrew Wiggins, hails from Canada. Murray, 6-5, projects as a combo guard who is comfortable handling the ball. He can shoot the 3 and doesn’t appear to have a lot of holes in his game. Again, the question for the Wolves would be is Murray too much of a duplication of a player they already have in Zach LaVine? Murray projects as a top-5 pick, so he might not be there when the Wolves pick anyway. Kentucky plays late Thursday, 8:40 p.m. vs. Stony Brook.

*Kris Dunn, PG, Providence: Dunn has good size and strength (6-4, 220) for a point guard, but for as good as he is he didn’t improve much from last year to this year. A junior who could be there when the Wolves pick, Dunn would be an interesting choice. Much of it would depend on what the Wolves think of Ricky Rubio’s long-term future with the team. Providence faces USC at 8:50 p.m. Thursday.

*Jakob Poeltl, PF/C, Utah: A 7-footer who can block shots and rebound, Poeltl would be an intriguing name depending on where the Wolves end up picking. The end of this season has shown the Wolves have precious little depth among big men, and Poeltl could be a valuable addition even though he lacks offensive polish. Utah faces Fresno State at 6:27 p.m. Thursday.

*Buddy Hield, SG, Oklahoma: Hield shot 46.4 percent from three-point range in the regular season and averaged 25 points, making him a player to watch this season — and a player to keep an eye on as the draft approaches. He’s athletic, and his 6-9 wingspan belies his 6-4 height. But he might be undersized and exploitable on defense at the NBA level. Oklahoma plays Cal-State Bakersfield at 3 p.m. Friday.

*Denzel Valentine, SG/SF, Michigan State: The senior is just an all-around excellent basketball player with a high hoops IQ. Draft experts are all over the map with him, though, because he doesn’t project as an elite athlete. He feels to me like a player a lot of teams will end up regretting not picking, but he also could be too “safe” of a pick for the Wolves to take as high as they will end up. Michigan State, a trendy pick to go all the way, plays Middle Tennessee State at 1:45 p.m. Friday.

Mike Wallace just the latest ex-Minnesota athlete to take a parting shot

percyharvinMike Wallace stopped short of calling out Teddy Bridgewater in his introduction to Baltimore reporters after signing with the Ravens on Tuesday, but his comments about quarterbacks still raised plenty of eyebrows back in the Twin Cites.

Said Wallace, according to the Baltimore Sun, “When this process started, I knew that I wasn’t going back to Minnesota. I was like, ‘I need a good quarterback.’  … I need a quarterback who I know is proven and can get things done.”

It sure sounded like a parting shot at Bridgewater and their #MissedConnections last season. If it was, Wallace would hardly be the first former Minnesota athlete to sound off after his playing days here were done. Here are some (in)famous other examples:

*The closest parallel is probably Percy Harvin who, after being traded to Seattle in 2013, had this to say: “I’m very blessed to know that this doesn’t come around often to play with an up and coming quarterback like Russell (Wilson), who guys are comparing preparation-wise to Brett Favre. When I hear that, and hear people comparing him to Brett Favre, I listen.

Coming on the heels of unnamed sources saying Harvin didn’t like playing with Christian Ponder, many viewed this as a shot at Ponder. It’s quite possible they weren’t wrong.

*David Ortiz has perhaps the most notable beef with his former team, the Twins, complaining in many different places — including this lengthy 2007 Boston Magazine piece — that the Twins tried to alter his hitting style and make him take the ball the other way (his words were much more colorful than that).

Ortiz does have 1,457 career hits that went either up the middle or to the opposite field — including 648 extra base hits (232 of which were home runs). So the approach maybe wasn’t a bad idea?

*Former Wild defenseman Clayton Stoner, after signing with Anaheim in the 2014 offseason, sounded off about all the playing time given to a particular defenseman in Minnesota (Ryan Suter, though he’s not mentioned by name). Said Stoner: “I didn’t like the way it was run in Minnesota. They kind of just give one defenseman all the minutes and the rest suffer. And I wasn’t happy there. I don’t think the minutes displayed how I was playing. It was more of the just the way things were run there.”

Stoner, it should be noted, has averaged 16 minutes, 49 seconds of ice time with Anaheim after averaging 16:12 in his Wild career. It is my sincere hope that he is enjoying those extra 37 seconds.

*More recently, ex-Wild player Zenon Konopka had a pair of tweets about the Wild’s slump, including this one: “The Minnesota Wild have so much talent. All the pieces to be Stanley Cup champs — wasting years isn’t fair to the players or fans .”

Yeo was fired a few days later, though it is doubtful Konopka (or his bunny) had an influence on the decision.

*Vance Worley, who was awful for the Twins in 2013 before being quickly dispatched back to the National League, had some unkind words for his former team in 2014 while he was in the midst of a much better season for Pittsburgh. Worley said the Twins missed a flaw in his mechanics that the Pirates spotted quickly. “When I went over to the Twins, that was something they never noticed. I was flying open, and then you can see everything out of my hand. I changed the mechanics; the next thing I know, I’m in Triple A.”

Feel free to add some other examples you can think of in the comments.