▪ Take 1: How do I win the NCAA tournament bracket office pool, managing to defeat the secretary who picked teams based on their uniform colors or my co-worker who feeds his picks into his computer geek brother’s database on “loan” from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology?
My Take: Here’s one — be sure to take a team with blue as a major part of its color scheme. Twelve of the last 13 national championships have been wearing one shade of blue or another, with Louisville (red and black) as the only outlier. Never put all four No. 1 seeds into your Final Four. That simply doesn’t happen in most years; in fact, a No. 2 seed has made the Final Four 25 times in the past 36 seasons. When looking for upsets, always take a close look at No. 12 seeds over No. 5s. No rhyme or reason to it, but years of tournament watching have taught me to watch that particular bracket for upsets. Stay away from No. 16 seeds beating a No. 1. That’s never happened.
▪ Take 2: Illinois Director of Athletics Josh Whitman finally pulled the plug on former Illini men’s basketball coach John Groce. Who gets the job?
My Take: This is a big hire for Whitman. Whitman went the former pro coach route to hire Illini football coach Lovie Smith and reportedly made overtures to San Antonio Spurs vice president Monty Williams coach about the Illini basketball vacancy before Williams turned him down. This is an Illini team that has missed out on four straight NCAA Tournaments under Groce, but also one that has a strong incoming recruiting class that includes East St. Louis senior Jeremiah Tilmon and Belleville East senior Javon Pickett. A report in the Chicago Tribune suggested that Whitman has up to $25 million to spend on this hire, so Whitman needs to explore all the possibilities and make the best choice. Hopefully one that will do a better job of mining talent from the recruiting hotbeds of Chicago and St. Louis. Wichita State’s Gregg Marshall? Virginia’s Tony Bennett?
▪ Take 3: The St. Louis Blues are 5-2 since trading former all-star defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk. What has changed, and is the team better equipped for the playoffs now?
My Take: The streaky Blues continue to get solid and consistent goaltending from Jake Allen, whose turnaround has mirrored that of the team. The Blues took a five-game win streak into their late game Wednesday in Anaheim, with Allen going 4-0 during that span with a shutout. a .960 save percentage and 1.33 goals-against average during that span. Alex Pietrangelo and Colton Parayko both have taken on larger roles than they had before. One area in which Pietrangelo has stepped up is blocked shots, with 12 in his last five games, and at roughly 27 minutes per game of ice time he’s averaging two more minutes than his season average. He also has six assists in seven games since Shattenkirk’s departure. I thought the Blues’ power play might struggle a bit in Shattenkirk’s absence, but it was 5 for 17 (a robust 29 percent) in the first seven games after the trade.
▪ Take 4: The talent pipeline appears to be flowing toward the upper end of the organizational depth chart again for the St. Louis Cardinals. Who could be here as early as next season?
My Take: The obvious first choice is pitcher Alex Reyes, who was on track to be a key contributor this season before undergoing Tommy John surgery. Reyes should be back with proper rehab, but several other intriguing prospects have made their mark this spring (statistics before Wednesday). Catcher Carson Kelly is on a fast track to the majors, but every inning of experience he gets as a starter somewhere else will be invaluable. I really like center fielder Magneuris Sierra (.387, three doubles), who can track down anything hit his way and displays surprising power. Another is 22-year outfielder Harrison Bader (.346, two homers, seven RBIs), who had a combined 19 homers and 58 RBIs last season at Class AAA Memphis and Class AA Springfield. Third baseman and Illinois State product Paul DeJong (.265, two homers, six RBIs in 14 games) has some pop in his bat (22 homers, 73 RBIs along with .460 slugging average in 132 games last season at Springfield).
▪ Take 5 (the pop culture take): Are rock music bands really “bands” still without most of their original members?
My Take: Some are, some aren’t. In the case of Boston, founding member and MIT grad Tom Scholz engineered most of the group’s multiplatinum-selling debut album in his basement, later adding other musicians and singers. The unmistakable Boston sound included longtime lead singer Brad Delp (now dead) and Barry Goudreau (out of the band), but Scholz’s guitar riffs and organ solos still rule. The Eagles were founded by a group that included front man Glenn Frey, drummer-singer Don Henley and Randy Meisner, juggling a lineup that eventually included guitarists Joe Walsh, Don Felder, Timothy B. Schmit and others. Now Henley wants to go out on the road again after saying previously after Frey’s death that he wouldn’t. What passes for Journey these days includes several original band members, but not iconic lead singer Steve Perry. Instead, Filipino singer Arnel Pineda, who sounds so much like Perry it’s eerie, fronts Journey now. Journey is going into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame later this year, so hopefully Mr. Perry and boys will stop going their “Separate Ways” and get back together for a few songs.