NCAA Basketball

The 10 best days on the sports calendar

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USA Today Images/David Butler II

The 10 best days on the sports calendar

Today is typically one of the best days on the sports calendar — the first full day of the NCAA Tournament. Games all day from noon to midnight, each one brimming with the suspense and drama that accompanies the one-and-done format of the tournament that determines college basketball's national champion. But we won't get that today, not this year. With the sports world shutting down due to the coronavirus crisis, the 2020 NCAA Tournament was cancelled. It's the first time in 82 years that the tournament won't be contested. 

Losing one of the best days in all of sports is a bummer. It also raises the question — what are the best sports days on the calendar? Here's my own personal list. 

1. First day of the NCAA Tournament
Being a huge college basketball fan, nothing beats the first full day of the tournament. Every year I take the day off, have a bunch of friends over and just watch basketball all day. It's the best — 16 games in 12 hours. There's always one or two big upsets, always a local team to root for, always a bunch of brackets already busted on Day 1. When you factor in the second day of the tournament, you get a total of 32 games in a 36-hour span. It's a dream come true for college basketball fans. I'm already looking forward to next March.

2. MLB Opening Day
Opening Day means so much to so many people. Winter is over. Brighter and warmer days are ahead. Baseball's boys of summer are back to remind us how much we love our national pastime. It's a great opportunity to take off from work or school and head to the ballpark. There's always so much hope on Opening Day, even for teams not expected to contend for a playoff spot. Everyone is in first place and anything is possible. 

3. Super Bowl Sunday
Super Bowl Sunday gets bigger every year. It's come to symbolize so much more than just football. It's a day of entertainment, parties, food, gambling, commercials and so on. Super Bowl Sunday has become such a huge party that a lot of people have suggested moving it to Saturday so everyone has the next day off from work to recover. But this day still comes down to football for die-hard fans who follow the NFL for 12 months a year. It's the biggest game our country's biggest league has to offer.

4. NBA Christmas Day
The NBA takes center stage on our most popular holiday. Five games featuring the best teams in the league, playing straight through from noon until well after midnight. The NBA's biggest superstars put on a show for a national audience. Families open their presents in the morning, then gather to watch basketball all day and night. It's the biggest day of the regular season and there are some who want it to be the first day of the regular season. It will be interesting to see if that idea gains any traction, particularly with the NBA's calendar being in flux at the moment.

5. First night of Stanley Cup playoffs
The NHL has arguably the best postseason of the four major sports. The intensity of the Stanley Cup playoffs is unmatched. It's tough to beat overtime in a playoff hockey game or a Game 7 in a playoff hockey series. The first night of the Stanley Cup playoffs signifies what lies ahead over the next two months — a grueling journey to see which team can survive four separate best-of-7 playoff series for the right to raise Lord Stanley's Cup. 

6. Masters Sunday
I'm a big golf guy, so this may be a little higher on my list than others. But I love everything about Sunday at Augusta. The best players in the world competing for the Green Jacket, golf's most coveted prize; world-class golfers battling their own nerves in addition to all of the physical challenges that Augusta National presents. As my good friend and NBCSP colleague Casey Feeney likes to say, the Masters doesn't start until the Back 9 on Sunday. Those two hours are as good as it gets for golf fans like myself. 

7. CFP Semifinal Day 
A new addition to the list, the College Football Playoff semifinals were introduced in 2014 as part of the sport's new postseason format. It provides college football fans with a doubleheader featuring the four best teams in the country. And there's more to semifinal day than just those two games — there are other bowl games earlier in the day to whet the appetite for the big games later in the afternoon and evening. This past year was particularly awesome. Penn State and Notre Dame played in separate bowl games before the national semifinal matchups of LSU/Oklahoma and Clemson/Ohio State, with the latter turning out to be one of the best college football games in recent history.

8. NFL Championship Sunday
Speaking of great football doubleheaders, the NFL's Championship Sunday always makes for terrific theater. You can make a case there's more pressure playing in these games given the heartbreak of falling just short of reaching the Super Bowl. The two best teams in each conference go toe-to-toe for the right to play in the Super Bowl and experience everything that comes along with that opportunity. Fans can sit back and enjoy for seven uninterrupted hours of high-level football.

9. First day of NBA free agency
The NBA and NFL have both been wildly successful in making their leagues relevant for 12 months a year. The first day of NBA free agency — typically July 1, but most likely later this year — has provided tremendous entertainment in this era of player movement and super-teams. As soon as the NBA season ends, fans turn their attention to all the big-name free agents and where they might end up next season. That buildup and excitement continues all the way up until July 1, when a flurry of news and signings make for a fascinating 24 hours. 

10. First night of NFL Draft
I could have singled out the start of NFL free agency as well, but chose to go with the league's showcase offseason event. No one does marketing like the NFL and the league's annual draft is great evidence of that. It's grown into a three-day event, with the first round kicking things off over a four-hour span in prime time. The league recently started moving the draft around to different cities and venues, adding to the spectacle and overall fan excitement. This year's draft, whenever that might be, is scheduled to take place in Las Vegas. 

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What can we expect from the Villanova Wildcats next season?

What can we expect from the Villanova Wildcats next season?

This was supposed to be a big week for Villanova. They were supposed to be preparing for their 15th trip to the NCAA Tournament in the last 16 years. They likely would have been a 2- or 3-seed in the 68-team field, one of a handful of teams with a legitimate shot of winning a national championship.

The Wildcats were playing at a high level entering the postseason. They won seven of their last eight games to secure a share of the Big East regular-season championship. Considering the lack of dominant teams in college basketball, Villanova had every reason to think it could capture the program's third national title in the last five years.

But with college basketball and the rest of the sports world shutting down indefinitely, Jay Wright and co. can only look ahead to next season. And next year could be special. With no scholarship seniors on this year's roster, there's a chance everyone could return for the 2020-21 season. If that happens, Villanova should begin the season ranked in the Top 5.

But several key questions must be answered before the Wildcats and their fans can start dreaming of another national championship.

Will Saddiq Bey return for his junior year?

Bey is coming off a tremendous sophomore season. He led Villanova with 16 points per game and shot 45 percent from three-point range. He was named to the All-Big East First Team and is one of five finalists for the Julius Erving Award, given annually to the best small forward in the country.

At 6-foot-8, he has the size and versatility to be a very good NBA player. He's also an outstanding defender. Not surprisingly, he's projected as a first-round pick in the 2020 NBA Draft. Wright has a history of encouraging his players to leave early for the NBA if they are guaranteed to be a first-round pick. Bey would seem to fall under that category.

Odds are that Bey has played his last game in a Villanova uniform. But there's always a chance he decides to come back. Maybe he wants to settle some unfinished business from this season being cut short. Maybe he wants the opportunity to compete for a national championship with his teammates. Time will tell. But if Bey comes back to school, Villanova will be on everyone's short list of national title contenders.

Can Bryan Antoine have a breakout sophomore season?

There will be a big opportunity for Antoine if Bey leaves for the NBA. Antoine was the headliner of Wright's star-studded 2019 recruiting class. But surgery last spring to repair a torn labrum in his right shoulder cost him the entire offseason leading up to his freshman year. He wasn't cleared to play until right before Thanksgiving. Antoine showed some promise early on but was never able to fully catch up to the point where he could perform at a consistently high level. He did not play in eight of the final 11 games of the season.

Antoine's situation is a popular talking point among Villanova fans. Is he unhappy with his lack of playing time? Will he transfer to another school? Both Antoine and Wright seemed to accept the situation for what it was — unfair to ask Antoine to play at a high level after he missed all of the team's offseason and preseason workouts.

Now, he has a full offseason to work out, get stronger and better grasp Villanova's system. Don't be surprised if he returns to the form that made him one of the best high school players in the country.

Will Jeremiah Robinson-Earl and Justin Moore make the leap from good to great?

Villanova's senior class next season will be rock solid. Collin Gillespie should be one of the best players in the country. Jermaine Samuels — arguably the Wildcats' most clutch player — will return for a third season in the starting lineup. Dhamir Cosby-Roundtree will be back as a key bench player and valuable leader.

But next season's sophomores will be the key to just how good Villanova can be. Robinson-Earl had a terrific rookie year that ended with him being named Big East Freshman of the Year. He finished a half-rebound shy of averaging a double-double. His footwork and touch around the basket are excellent. The challenge this offseason will be improving his perimeter jump shot.

Moore was arguably the second-best freshman in the Big East. He was Villanova's third-leading scorer at over 11 points per game. He is a dynamic scoring guard who fits perfectly in Villanova's offense. With a little more consistency, he should develop into one of the best guards in the conference.

Factor in Antoine's upside, and you can see the tremendous potential of next season's sophomore class.

Can the new guys help?

At this point, Villanova isn't expected to have any actual newcomers to the program. Eric Dixon will be a red-shirt freshman after sitting out this past season. Caleb Daniels will be a junior after transferring from Tulane. Both Dixon and Daniels should have the opportunity to earn significant playing time next season.

Dixon was the Pennsylvania High School Player of the Year as a senior at Abington HS. He's a big, powerful forward who hopes to follow in the long line of Villanova players who have benefited from a red-shirt year.

Daniels was Tulane's leading scorer as a sophomore at just under 17 points per game. He's a physical, playmaking guard with a skill set tailor-made for Villanova's system.

Wright will have lots of talent at his disposal next season. The sting of having this season cut short won't subside for a while. But it's easy to get excited about what lies ahead for the Villanova basketball program. 

NCAA Selection Sunday turned Social Distancing Sunday

NCAA Selection Sunday turned Social Distancing Sunday

Today is supposed to be a day about dreams coming true. Today is supposed to be a day about hard work paying off. Today is supposed to be a day about why you signed that letter of intent as a 17-year old kid in high school. Unfortunately to no one’s fault, dreams have been cut short, the hard work has come to a stop, and no one will get their moment to shine. Today just won’t be the same.

Instead of Selection Sunday, it’ll be more like Social Distancing Sunday. Teams and student bodies won’t be hovered around televisions awaiting to hear their school name called by CBS’ Greg Gumbel. Teams and student bodies won’t be holding their breath hoping they’ve done enough to impress the selection committee to receive an invite to “The Dance”. We all know the Kansas’, Kentucky’s, and Duke’s of the world were locked into the field of 68.

Even around our neck of the woods it’s a mere formality for Jay Wright and his Villanova Wildcats to see their name on one of the brackets. No doubt it’s a shame those kids won’t get the chance to live out their dream while seniors had their college careers come to a screeching halt.  

However, my heart goes out to schools and fan bases like Penn State and Rutgers. The Nittany Lions were on their way to their first NCAA tournament appearance since 2011 while the last time the Scarlet Knights put their dancing shoes on, “The Silence of the Lambs” was the number one box office movie (1991). Today, silence will be the voice of the college basketball community. No euphoria for finally getting over that hump and proudly pumping your school’s name on your chest. I know the feeling of being a lesser known basketball program who earns the chance to be loud and proud.

I take you back to 2013. My school, La Salle University, had a fantastic regular season (21-9) including two wins in the same week against top-20 opponents. Then came Selection Sunday and what an agonizing hour I endured. Was their resume enough to punch their ticket? 66 teams announced. One matchup to go. When La Salle’s name was revealed, to say I was excited was an understatement. My kids had no idea why I was yelling and screaming in the house. La Salle made the First Four in Dayton and turned their invite into a trip to the Sweet 16. What a ride those couple of weeks were as I got to experience March Madness with a horse in the race.

Yes, basketball and all sports are secondary at this time. Family and health are the top priority while filling out brackets and block pools are simply an afterthought. The feeling of uncertainty is like a dark cloud hovering around all of us everyday. I just wish it didn’t wash away the dreams of the student athletes and their respective fans who don’t always experience that “One Shining Moment”.