There’s something paradoxical about Spring Training. It feels great at first. We have pitchers, catchers, and sun shining on outdoor sports again. The season is full of hope. Then we get to the actual games … a whole lot of games that do not count. After a week or so, the novelty can wear off. We just hope for a few fun plays and fewer injuries. Indeed, the epitome of Spring Training’s paradox couldn’t be demonstrated better than Asdrubal Cabrera’s rundown last week:
The NCAA basketball tournament falls right in the middle of this lull. I never cared about it growing up. I was raised in a baseball household. Then I won a lottery for incoming UCLA freshmen and got full season tickets. Since then, March Madness has symbolized a natural transition from winter’s indoor sports season to baseball season. I’ll pay some attention to Spring Training, fill out a bracket, draft a fantasy team, and then watch the NCAA tournament. When UCLA loses, I don’t feel so bad because I can immediately switch over to baseball and the beginning of the Mets’ season. With the tournament coming up this week, I thought it might be fun to ask everyone to compare the Mets to a college basketball team. — Noah Grand (@noahgrand)
If you fill out your brackets by choosing cute mascots, go with Puddles, the Oregon Duck. With his goofy hat and big white head, you won’t find a college mascot that looks more like Mr. Met.
The Ducks just finished second in the Pac-12 tournament, just like the Mets finished second in 2016. Both teams have shown flashes of success over the years. (Oregon won the first NCAA Championship in 1939.) Both teams have struggled to sustain success, although the current regime provides the most hope in over a decade. The Ducks rely on a star scorer (Dillon Brooks), roster depth, and an elite defense fueled by athleticism. The Mets also have an offensive star (Yoenis Cespedes), a surplus of bats, and elite power pitching. Both teams have veteran leaders facing career-threatening injuries. Sadly, both Oregon and the Mets have shown a willingness to overlook players’ off-field violence – at least for a while – if it helps them win — Noah Grand (@noahgrand)
Los Angeles is, first and foremost, a Lakers town, with UCLA basketball sitting comfortably second. That leaves the Clippers and, in a distant fourth, USC.
The Mets can definitely relate, with the bothersome popularity of the Yankees overshadowing almost anything the Amazins do from year-to-year. Even the recent surge behind baseball’s most promising rotation coincides with a masterful Brian Cashman rebuild that has the Yankees set to be a powerhouse for the foreseeable future.
Besides being the younger brother in Los Angeles college sports, USC’s basketball program is not even the most popular varsity sport at the school. The legendary football team is what USC is known for — with good reason — so basketball often gets overlooked. Like the Mets, USC has relatively limited postseason accomplishments, but with a pair of Sweet Sixteen appearances since 2000 – the first two since the middle of the 20th century – the Trojans are trending upward. Yet Southern California still can’t escape UCLA’s larger shadow. — Joshua Burton (@Josh_Burton1)
Let me know if I’m doing this right, because the only college basketball I watch all year is the NCAA tourney. The Mets are the generic 4-seed in your bracket.
Typically, 4-seeds are well-known schools from powerful conferences. The past few years, the ranks of 4-seeds included UCLA, Michigan State, Louisville, Maryland, North Carolina, Georgetown, California, Kentucky and Duke. These brand-name schools were seeded fourth notwithstanding their pedigree because they were not considered favorites to emerge from their region, let alone to cut down the nets after winning the championship.
Such are the Mets. PECOTA is the most optimistic Met-projection system, expecting our boys to win 89 games and eke out the NL East by one game over the Nationals. However, Fangraphs drops the Mets six games behind a 91-win Nationals team, and Vegas set the Nationals as -140 favorites to win the division while making the Mets +160 underdogs.
So that’s our team. Big media market. Great name recognition. Sweet, classic uniforms. And, at least this year, tempered expectations. MLB’s own 4-seed. — Scott D. Simon (@scottdsimon)
UC Berkeley, once a college basketball powerhouse, hasn’t made it to the Sweet 16 since 1997, when they were led by Tony Gonzalez (yes, that Tony Gonzalez). There was hope last season, when head coach Cuonzo Martin brought in two of the best high school players in the country, Ivan Rabb and Jaylen Brown. Along with senior point guard Tyrone Wallace, this team was supposed to bring Berkeley back to the promised land of college basketball.
Instead, Brown fell apart down the stretch and Wallace broke his hand in the last practice before the Bears’ opening NCAA tournament game, leading to a first round loss to the Hawaii Rainbow Warriors. The story was much the same this season, as the Bears collapsed over the last two weeks of the season and lost their tournament bid. Just as the Mets always find a new and innovative way to let fans down, the Golden Bears continually discover novel methods to deliver misery. — Lukas Vlahos (@lvlahos343)
During my final year at the University of Florida, I lived in an on-campus apartment across from the baseball stadium (it was also the closest student housing to the journalism building, but I had my priorities straight). From August to May, an entire school year, my roommates and I complained that it sounded like someone was bouncing a basketball on the floor above us. A constant thud at all hours of the night, relentless and mindnumbing. When I moved out a week before graduation, lugging my fridge down two flights of stairs, three pairs of hands stopped to help me: the UF basketball team, who, it turned out, lived above me and had, in fact, been bouncing basketballs all year. I was infuriated, and rightly so. But also I never would have gotten that fridge to my car on my own. Ten months of misery and then a glimmer of hope. Of course, when I got home, I realized they’d broken the handle. — Kate Feldman (@kateefeldman)
Heading into the season, Arizona faced myriad injury concerns (forward Ray Smith) and eligibility issues (guard Alonzo Trier and center Chance Comanche). Sound familiar? The Mets have injury questions of their own this spring, particularly in their starting rotation, and uncertainty surrounds the Jeurys Familia domestic violence case. For what it’s worth, the Wildcats overcame their obstacles to win the Pac-12 championship and push their way into a prominent spot in the tournament. Last year, the Mets walked the injury tightrope into the playoffs, and hope to match Arizona’s success again this season. Both teams’ depth plays in their favor, and the Mets appear to be able to absorb some injuries to their starting rotation with Gsellman, Lugo, and Szapucki waiting in the wings. — Zane Moran
Virginia Men’s Basketball is ranked No. 21 in the AP poll this season. Much like the Mets with their impressive pitching staff, it’s hard to score against Virginia. In fact, University of North Carolina scored just 43 points on Feb. 27 — the fewest they’ve scored in a game since 1979.
Last season, Virginia made the Elite Eight despite not winning its conference. Likewise, the Mets made the National League playoffs as a wild card team even though they didn’t win the division. Tony Bennett, who became the Virginia coach in 2009, has done a great job turning around a program that hadn’t made the NCAA Tournament since 2007. In 2014 and 2015, Virginia won the ACC regular season. Similarly, Mets manager Terry Collins (hired in 2010) has done a good job getting this team back on track as well.
New York made the postseason in 2015 and 2016. And if Virginia’s success is any indication, they’ll be back again this year too. — Bryan Kalbrosky (@BryanKalbrosky)
With a hat tip to my far more basketball-savvy colleague Tanya Bondurant, Syracuse best represents the Mets. There’s the obvious orange tie-in, but there’s more. Despite some fantastic seasons, they’ve both spent most of the last decade-and-a-half trying to match the legacy of their elusive championship teams (2003 for ‘Cuse, ’86 and ’69 for the Mets).
Right now, while they’re both poised for postseason play thanks to their two big names (Tyler Lydon and Andrew White for ‘Cuse, Noah Syndergaard and Yoenis Cespedes for the Mets), it just doesn’t seem like there’s enough around them to win a title. — Andrew Mearns (@MearnsPSA)
The Mets and the Kentucky Wildcats have similarities in their starting fives. (The Mets’ starting five is their rotation; for UK, it’s their starting lineup). In 2006, the NBA began restricting draft eligibility to players at least one year out high school. The University of Kentucky has become the face of the “one and done,” where players go for a year before making the leap to the NBA. The past few seasons, Kentucky’s best players have mainly been freshmen, who play their one year as required.
The have a dominant young starting rotation that is yet to be eligible for free agency. Once they hit free agency I am sure they will cash in, similar to how Kentucky players cashing in when they join the NBA. Another strange similarity is their ability to get close to a championship without winning despite such a good set of starters. Kentucky has come close but has not won the NCAA Tournament since 2012. Likewise, the Mets have reached the World Series twice this century but have yet to win it. Maybe 2017 will be the year both of these teams finally win it all. — Seth Rubin (@sethrubin)
Photo Credit (That’s Brooklyn native and current St. John’s basketball coach Chris Mullin throwing out a first pitch in 2015): Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports