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Juggernauts: College Hoops End and Baseball Begins

By Bill Peterson · April 4th, 2007 · Sports
Jerry Dowling

One of the best elements of the college basketball season is that it ends on the same day the Major League Baseball season begins. Thus a moment of finality is really a transition from a lesser game to a better game, which salves a finality so firm as Florida's 84-75 win over Ohio State for the national collegiate basketball championship on April 2.

The basketball championship earned more than the usual natural interest from the Cincinnati area, as the 21st century goes. Over the final 30 years of the past century, some school from within a couple hours of Cincinnati -- be it UC, Ohio State, Indiana, Kentucky, Louisville or Western Kentucky -- went to the Final Four 20 times. But this decade has seen only three teams from the area in the Final Four.

Interest this time ran much deeper than merely putting a team in the final, since the Big Blue kingdom sees the lord of its future in Florida Coach Billy Donovan. Reports say the University of Kentucky is prepared with an outrageous offer to bring in Rick Pitino's prized pupil, who now has surpassed the teacher with two consecutive national titles.

Today college basketball fans in two states twist in the wind while Donovan works out his future plans. Only 41 years old, he already has little to pursue but his place in history. And he's already got a place.

The only question is which way will take him to the very top, if that's where he wants to go. And, at this point, where else would he want to go?

Two men stand at the top of college basketball's coaching pinnacle: John Wooden for his 10 national championships and Bob Knight with 889 career victories.

At 41, Donovan has two titles and 296 wins. He's slightly behind the pace Knight set when he won his 300th game and second national championship at 40.

From the outside looking in, one might think Kentucky has more than Donovan riding on his decision. If he accepts, UK is ratified as a prestigious destination in college basketball, the place so exalted that a coach can win two straight titles somewhere else and still think the UK kingdom is better.

If Donovan rejects an offer from UK, then the Big Blue is in a true blue bind, trying to fill a very important position without an obviously attractive candidate.

But Donovan has a lot riding on this, too. He can stay in Florida and grow his local legend. Almost certainly, despite a reputation for fickleness, Florida fans would forgive Donovan a few down years after winning two national titles.

But if you take two coaches of equal ability and energy -- putting one at Kentucky and the other at Florida -- the guy at UK will win more often simply because Kentucky brings more passion and commitment to basketball. One might expect Donovan to make that calculation. The Kentucky program gives him an "in" with posterity.

All that considered, it seemed likely to many that Donovan had coached his final game at Florida as he cut down the nets in Atlanta. At the same moment, Ohio State's freshman center, Greg Oden, probably took off the scarlet and grey for the last time. Oden figures to be no worse than the No. 2 choice in the upcoming NBA draft, if that's what he wants to do. If so, one can't say he didn't give Ohio State his best.

The Buckeyes made a nice showing with several young players in key roles. Entering the NCAA Tournament as the nation's top-ranked team, they squeezed through their region as the miracle team, coming from well behind to beat Xavier and Tennessee. Finally they came up against a force too strong for young talent. Florida not only defended the national title from 2006 -- they defended it with all the same players.

So the championship game never generated much heat. After Oden made two free throws to bring the Buckeyes within 66-60 with 5:03 left, Florida responded with nine of the next 11 points. Florida knew when and how to put its foot down.

Oden, who struggled to score for most of the tournament, found more open spaces for 25 points, 12 rebounds and no foul trouble in the final. But the Buckeyes couldn't support him from behind the three-point line (2-for-21 until the game was out of reach).

Hours before Ohio State and Florida closed the college basketball season, the Reds opened their season with a 5-1 win against the Chicago Cubs. Though Opening Day isn't predictive about the season to follow, the Reds, in this case, played a blueprint game, demonstrating the character of events that will repeat themselves frequently if they are to contend this year.

Aaron Harang pitched seven sweet innings, throwing 75 strikes out of 113 pitches and giving up no earned runs. The Reds played a nice defensive game as Junior Griffey handled right field and Ryan Freel took a nice running catch in center field. The new shortstop, Alex Gonzalez, made a diving play on a grounder up the middle, keeping it in the infield.

With a little more experience, Freel should calm down and at least make his wild throw to third on the infield side so the pitcher backing up can make a play on it.

That batting order makes a strange kind of sense, starting with Freel and following with Adam Dunn, Brandon Phillips and Griffey. On the face of it, Dunn isn't your ideal hit-and-run man in the two hole, and one hopes Phillips doesn't lap him on the bases sometime this year.

But with Freel on base in front of him, Dunn should see a lot of fastballs in the strike zone, and the enlarged hole on the right side could make him a .300 hitter. That's the kind of remark one doesn't mind making on Opening Day.

One also doesn't mind saying the Reds stand a chance in an NL Central, where five of the six clubs stand a chance. If Donovan stays at Florida and Oden stays at Ohio State, we might even figure the Reds are still playing when college basketball practice begins on Oct. 15.



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