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Sully's Mailbag: March arrives in our great hoop year

Hey, it's March! For me, it's a time of eager anticipation. March Madness is upon us. Conference tournaments already are under way -- the Canisius men play in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference quarterfinals late Friday night in Albany -- and the NCAA tourney bracket will be announced a week from Sunday.

The baseball season is fast approaching. I'm scanning the spring training box scores. The real games begin later this month. Golf season isn't far behind. I can't wait to see how Tiger Woods does in the Masters in early April.

Yes, there are crucial matters in the NFL, like finding out who has the largest hands, but I try my best to ignore it. Could we have a one-day moratorium on Tyrod Taylor and the draft? On to this week's Mailbag.

@Mdipirrobronze asks: Surely this is the most successful Big 4 basketball season heading into their respective conference tournaments? Correct me if I’m wrong!

Sully: You're not wrong. It's by far the best season for the four local Division I men's teams since UB went to Division I in 1991-92. It's the first time that all four will finish over .500 in the same season -- and they're all at least seven games over heading into the weekend!

St. Bonaventure is 23-6, riding an 11-game winning streak and up to 22nd in the RPIs. UB is 22-8 entering  Friday's game at Bowling Green. The Bulls won the MAC East regular-season title Tuesday and will be the top seed in next week's Mid-American Conference tourney for the first time.

Canisius heads into Friday night's MAAC tourney quarterfinals with a 21-10 record. They went 15-3 in conference play, their most league wins ever. Niagara is 19-12 after losing at least 22 games in each of Chris Casey's first four seasons as head coach.

If the Purple Eagles get by Fairfield on Saturday, all four men's teams will win 20 games for the first time. There hasn't been a season when three of the four won 20 in the same year since UB went back to D-I.

There's a good chance of getting multiple men's teams in the Big Dance for the first time since 1970. That year, both Bona and Niagara made the field. Veteran hoop lovers know the grim history. That was the year when Bona legend Bob Lanier got hurt in the regional final and wasn't able to play in the Final Four.

I recall when getting one team in the NCAAs was a dream. After Bona made it in 1978, our college hoop teams suffered a drought similar to the Bills' 17-year playoff dry spell. We went 18 years before Canisius won its only MAAC title and went to the NCAAs in 1996, snapping an 18-year drought for the locals.

The Western New York men have earned just one at-large NCAA berth in the modern era. The Bonnies got an invite in 2000 after losing in the A-10 finals. The St. Bonaventure women got at-large invitations in 2012 and 2016. They reached the Sweet 16 in 2012 and won a game two years ago.

Oh, did I fail to mention the season's top Big 4 success story? The UB women are 24-4, 15-2 in the MAC and 11-0 at home. They'll be the No. 2 seed in next week's MAC Tournament, which they won under coach Felisha Legette-Jack two years ago.

The UB women, who finish the regular season at home on Saturday afternoon against Bowling Green, have been rated as high as 13 in the RPIs. They appear to be a cinch for an at-large bid, regardless of what happens in Cleveland.

@amymoritz asks: We always talk about men’s coaches leaving. Will Coach Jack stay at UB or move on to a bigger program?

Sully: As Bucky Gleason laid out in a recent column on Nate Oats, successful mid-major coaches become hot properties when their teams win. You can bet Legette-Jack has raised her profile by turning UB into a mid-major power.

Legette-Jack coached for six seasons at Indiana before getting fired in 2012. She told me recently that she wants to build UB into a top destination for women's players. It's a noble concept. But I suspect she would like another crack at the big-time, and the lucrative compensation of an elite D-I school.

In her original contract, Legette-Jack made a reported $160,000 a year. After winning the MAC tourney in 2016, she got a five-year extension. So did Oats on the men's side. Keep in mind, college coaches routinely have out clauses that allow them to move on if a larger program comes calling.

Two years ago, the top women's coaches in the Big Ten were being paid between $700,000 and $850,000 a year. College sports are big business in the Power Five leagues. You need to pay to keep coaches at the mid-major level, but a school in UB's position can go only so far.

@lebronstein asks: Who is on your All-Big 4 team, and has there ever been a more difficult year to pick a starting five?

Sully: Big day for college hoops! It's only fitting. I can't imagine a more difficult year for picking a men's five. I think back to 1994-95, when Canisius and St. Bonaventure were both very good. But nothing like this year's group, where you could make an argument for nine or 10 guys to be on the first unit.

Someone worthy has to be left off, unless I take the easy way out and pick six. One of the problems is there are so many guards. Do I have to take big men? The heck with it. If the five best players are guards, so be it.

I'll go with an all-guard first five of Jaylen Adams and Matt Mobley of St. Bonaventure, Kahlil Dukes of Niagara, CJ Massinburg of UB and Isaiah Reese of Canisius. That leaves off Jermaine Crumpton of Canisius, Matt Scott of Niagara, Nick Perkins and Wes Clark of UB, and Courtney Stockard of the Bonnies.

In other years, that second team would have been a fine all-Big 4 team. Crumpton, a senior forward, was the conscience of the Griffs, a guy who slimmed down for his final season and had his best year. That second unit has a lot of toughness. I'm sure they'd like to take their chances against the first team.

@BMatthewsSports asks: Rank your 5 best MLB outfields. I had Boston edging the Yankees. Sure to incite NY fans. Then Angels, Cardinals, Brewers (Braun in LF).

Sully: I'm always willing to tweak Yankee fans. Both teams have ridiculous outfield talent after their big acquisitions (Giancarlo Stanton to Yanks, J.D. Martinez to Boston). Both will likely spend a lot of time at DH.

I give Boston's trio (Mookie Betts, Jackie Bradley Jr., Andrew Benintendi) a slight edge over New York's (Brett Gardner, Aaron Hicks, Aaron Judge) because the Sox guys are a little younger and a bit better defensively overall. Betts and Bradley could be two of the top five defensive outfielders in the game.

The Brewers belong, having added two players (Lorenzo Cain and Christian Yelich) who are quality center fielders. The Cardinals have a case after adding Marcell Ozuna, an elite bat and solid defender. It's hard to argue with Mike Trout but I can't buy the Angels because the other guys aren't consistent enough hitters.

I'd round out my five with the Nationals. If healthy, Adam Eaton and Bryce Harper are elite at the corner outfield spots. Michael Taylor had a breakthrough year in center and looks to be one of baseball's rising stars.

@spyderman1954 asks: Do you want to see the NHL players back to the Olympics in 4 years?

Sully: Yes. The hockey in Korea was dull without them. Once you have the NHL stars involved, you can't recapture the charm of amateurs and lesser athletes. Gary Bettman said the NHL probably won't be in Beijing in 2022. He said it would be better to have hockey in the summer Games. He has a point.

@rmuzz67 asks: What were you feeling when you found out that Checkers had closed?

Sully: Like I'd lost an old friend. I went there after softball games, after the Voorhees Open and the Turkey Trot. I was there the night my son was born. Lots of people have fond memories of the place. Hertel won't be the same without it.

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