Kelvin Sampson. Bob Levey/Getty Images
What a week. An Astros' season of immense potential is under way with newly contract-extended Justin Verlander very sharp opening day (minus a leadoff homer), the Rockets won a game over Denver that was absolutely essential toward any chance of ascending to the second seed in the Western Conference, and the University of Houston plays a Sweet 16 game for the first time in 35 years.
More on the Cougars first. For the moment it's still about this spectacular season. The second it's over becomes about whether Head Coach Kelvin Sampson is heading for Arkansas or anywhere else. First things first. Kentucky is very good, with substantially more highly regarded talent and most of the NBA prospects. But the teams appear to be pretty even. The outcome could tilt on the availability and effectiveness of UK forward P.J. Washington. The Wildcats' leading scorer and rebounder sprained a foot during the SEC Tournament and didn't get out of a cast until Tuesday. An on his game Washington would team with Reid Travis to give the Cats two 6'8" guys who can both post up and face up. That would be very challenging for UH's stout defense which is stouter on the perimeter than inside. With just Travis to defend, the Coogs are in good position to pull off what would be a very mild upset. The UH-UK winner probably falls to North Carolina Sunday. Or maybe Auburn takes down the Tar Heels first. March Madness!
Now the possible looming gloom and doom. What Kelvin Sampson has done in building the previously moribund University of Houston basketball program is simply spectacular. Alas, he may want to move on. As exasperating as it would be for Cougar rooters to lose another head coach who has done good work, there are realities. I don't think this would be a money play, though while Sampson makes about 1.5 mil at UH, fired Arkansas coach Mike Anderson was over 2.5 mil. Maybe having his name attached to the Sooie Pig gig merely sets a baseline for Sampson's redone UH deal. The SEC is a better league than the AAC with millions and millions of dollars more in prestige and clout. Arkansas has the larger and more rabid fan base. The Razorbacks play in Walton Arena where in an 18-16 season their smallest home attendance was more than 13,000. The first season of Fertitta Center made for a fantastic environment, but capacity was held to barely 7,000 for reasons.
Whatever decision Sampson makes is entirely his to make. I'd scoff at leaving Houston for Fayetteville, but I'm not a rich college basketball coach. At 63 years old Sampson is much closer to the end of his career than to its beginning. If a bigger stage opportunity, challenge, and chance to be THE game in town are what he wants, good for him. Sampson (plus the facilities) turned the UH job into a much more desirable position that if open will attract quality candidates.
One line I would draw if I were UH, is not agreeing to anoint Kelvin's son Kellen "Head Coach In Waiting." Kellen is a promising young assistant, but he is thinly credentialed for what the UH job now is or will be if Kelvin stays and retires at whatever point.
Critical win for the Rockets over Denver Thursday night to take the season series and tiebreaker. If the Rockets win out to finish 54-28, to snatch the second seed they need the Nuggets to lose four of their remaining eight games. The Nuggets are 31-6 at home with four probable wins left in the Mile High City (Wizards, Spurs, Blazers, T'Wolves), but have road games at Oklahoma City, Golden State, Portland, and Utah. On the other side of the coin the Rockets have one more loss than do the Trail Blazers and Portland owns the tiebreaker.
Earlier this week the Bucks beat the Rockets. That game reinforced the reality that any claim that James Harden is the only choice for MVP, is either local yokel boosterism or ESPN's Mike Greenberg sounding silly. Only the biased or ignorant do not find Milwaukee's Giannis Antetokounmpo a wholly legitimate alternative. Harden's offensive season is historic and he is of course worthy of winning MVP again. Ditto worthiness of the "Greek Freak" who is averaging more than 27 points on better than 50 percent shooting (58), 12 rebounds, and 6 assists per game. The full list of players in NBA history to average those numbers for a season: Antetokounmpo. Um, that's historic too. And he's a Defensive Player of the Year candidate, and the dominant star of the team with the best record in the league.
1. Back-to-back Elite 8s for Texas Tech. Over the last two seasons no c-hoop coach has been better than Chris Beard. Gonzaga's O vs.Tech's D should be something Saturday. 2. Hook 'Em! Final Four! Of the NIT. Cue laugh track. 3. Things that go best with peanut butter: Bronze-marshmallow Silver-banana Gold-chocolate of course
Houston Astros skipper Joe Espada wasted no time this week at spring training by answering one of the most talked about questions of the offseason.
Espada revealed that newly-acquired free agent Josh Hader will be the team's closer and will pitch the ninth inning, with Ryan Pressly working as the setup man.
Bryan Abreu will be tapped to pitch the seventh inning, but it wouldn't shock anyone if he had the best season of the three. But after Abreu, things get interesting in the bullpen.
Who pitches the sixth inning?
Astros GM Dana Brown gave Rafael Montero a vote of confidence, saying he's “legit.”
While we have our concerns about Montero after he finished with an ERA over five last year, there's reason for hope. The nature of relief pitchers halving up and down seasons from year to year could work in Montero's favor.
And with the salary that's already committed to him, Brown will likely give him every opportunity to justify his contract. It will be fascinating to see how Espada deploys him early on. You have to think with the boss man backing Montero, Espada will be on board too.
But if he does struggle, will Espada quickly stop using him in critical situations? The good news is, the team won't often have to turn to him in high leverage situations with Abreu, Pressly, and Hader ready to handle those duties.
Be sure to watch the video above for the full discussion about the Astros 'pen, and much more!
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