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March 30, 2018

Saturday Sport: NCAA, La Liga, and Arsenal

Saturday marks the beginning of the NCAA final four in the Men's Basketball Tournament.... and then there were four....  

The Loyola-Chicago Ramblings are serving as this decade's Cinderella, the 11th seed which made it to this level, with the help of a nun.  The Michigan Wolverines are the football power, the number three seed who marched through their bracket.  The Villanova Wildcats are the seeming small-school power, make that private, Catholic, university.  They are a power from time to time, and have returned with full force this year, along with their just featured priest chaplain.  The Kansas Jayhawks are the historic "blue blood" involved at this level, this year.  Michigan could also be said to fill that bill, a Big 10 powerhouse, but both public universities in Kansas appear doomed to be considered only basketball powers.   

The Final Four is set, the 2018 NCAA Tournament's end in sight. It has  never looked so compelling.  In the day's second game, the Villanova offense is the best in the nation in many aspects,  averaging 86.6 points per game and producing 436 three-pointers. Meanwhile, Kansas averages 81.4 points and has made 40.3% of its three pointers. The Jayhawks also feature an interior advantage with 7-foot center Udoka Azubuike, whose Villanova counterpart, forward Omari Spellman, is only 6-9. Kansas has thrived on the big stage this season, going 4-0 against teams ranked in the top 10. Villanova is seeking its second national championship in three years and will rely heavily on junior guard Jalen Brunson, the Associated Press national player of the year who also started on the team that won the 2016 title. Kansas' do-everything equivalent is senior guard Devonte Graham, the only player in Division I averaging at least 17 points, seven assists, 1.6 steals and fewer than 3.0 turnovers per game. 

At the end of the evening, we will be said to have experienced a great several hours of basketball. 

In Spanish La Liga Soccer, Barcelona’s attempt to become the first Spanish team to stay unbeaten for an entire Primera Liga season will face its toughest test on Saturday with a visit to Sevilla – the team they will also meet in the Copa de Rey final on April 21.  Barca, who are 11 points clear of Atletico Madrid with only nine games to play, also have to face Real Madrid at home in May, but Sevilla away has long been one of their trickier away games, one where Barca failed to win in their 2014-15 treble season and where they lost the following year.  

Barcelona, who have won their last four games against Sevilla, will be encouraged that both Atletico Madrid and Real Madrid have bested them recently.   Sixth in the standings and inconsistent, the Andalusians pushed Barca hard in a 2-1 defeat at Camp Nou in November. 

Sevilla, however, has other priorities.  Their players are on a high after knocking Manchester United out of the UEFA Champions League with a win at Old Trafford and they will face Bayern Munich in the quarter-finals with the first game at home on Tuesday.  There is a belief that they can win a first ever Champions League, a view not shared by the wider football community.  Fourteen points behind Valencia in fourth, Sevilla will not finish in the top four to qualify for next season’s Champions League.

Barca, are unbeaten in Europe and host Roma next week in the Champions League last 16, have all their players back – although not all in one piece - from international duty. Barca will be hoping that by May he will be basking in the glow of more trophies – and an unbeaten league season.

After a three-week break for some, and two for others, the Premier League is back for the final stretch of eight games that will complete the 2017-18 season.  Chelsea will look to Eden Hazard to inspire them against Tottenham Hotspur.   Liverpool will look for more goals from Mohamed Salah at Crystal Palace this weekend.  

Leicester City's Jamie Vardy will be their main goal threat at Brighton. Brighton have done superbly to be in a position where they are six points clear of the relegation zone with eight games to go. Chris Hughton's men are tough to break down but this could well end up as honours even with Jamie Vardy in good form for Leicester.  

Manchester United, takes on Swansea City, in a game most critics think will go their way.   United are not firing at full cylinders but despite Swansea being rejuvenated the pace of Marcus Rashford and the strength of Romelu Lukaku should mean that Jose Mourinho's men maintain their grip on second place in the Premier League.  

Stoke City takes on the Gunners, and  desperately needs points to avoid relegation.  Arsenal are Arsenal, even if they have disappointed fans the last few years.   Arsenal have built up some confidence with their Europa League success over AC Milan and Mesut Ozil will fancy his chances of doing some damage to the Stoke backline. 

Chelsea realistically must win over the Tottenham Hotspur, to stay in the hunt for a top-four finish in the Premier.  They beat them in August and should be able to do it again. 

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