Q&A: MLB Stars from Basketball; Wrestlemania Weekend

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It’s pretty well established among sports fans that the best single weekend of the calendar year is the first of the NCAA Tournament, while the best overall month is probably October. October boasts college football and the NFL in midseason form, the start of the NBA season, and the MLB Playoffs.

However, this first weekend of April and the end of March offers plenty of excitement. MLB Opening Day came a bit earlier than usual this year, overlapping with the build-up to the Final Four. In honor of this crossover, The Open Man Q&A brings the two sports together.

Wrestlemania is also on the horizon, so for those of you who want your sports less scripted…don’t watch the NBA Finals. Onto this week’s questions! (And, as always, you can submit your inquiries to kyle@theopenman.com or via Twitter @kensing45.)

5. Robin Roberts

Seven-time All-Star who finished second in the MVP voting one season, Robin Roberts was a surefire choice for the Baseball Hall of Fame. He also starred on the Michigan State basketball team in the late 1940s, leading the Spartans to an NCAA Tournament appearance as team captain. 

4. Kenny Lofton

Arizona gained a reputation as Point Guard U. through the 1990s into the 2000s. Damon Stoudamire, Mike Bibby, Jason Terry and Jason Gardner all earned All-American nominations over an eight-year span, with both Bibby and Stoudamire selected in the lottery round of the NBA Draft.

Before that stellar stretch, Matt Othick had a cup of coffee in the NBA and Steve Kerr spent 15 years in the Association. Kenny Lofton very well could have followed the same path, excelling as a defensive specialist. However, Lofton pursued baseball once his college eligibility elapsed. He didn’t do the Deion Sanders thing, meaning play in two professional leagues, but he and Neon both tried their hand at rapping. 

3. Dave Winfield

The Cooperstown resident Dave Winfield enjoyed a solid couple years playing forward at the University of Minnesota. Winfield contributed to the Golden Gophers’ Sweet 16 and Big Ten championship in 1972, and averaged more than 10 points per game on a 21-game winning team the following season. 

What’s more, Winfield played for legendary coach Bill Musselman, whose son Eric coaches the University of Nevada. 

2. Tony Gwynn

If there was a Mount Rushmore of San Diego sports, the four most likely representatives would be Bill Walton, Tony Hawk, Junior Seau and Tony Gwynn. Of that group, Gwynn is the George Washington, having played his entire collegiate and professional careers in America’s Finest City, before coaching here, as well.

Arguably the greatest hitter of the modern era set the table as a point guard at San Diego State. 

1. Jackie Robinson

Jackie Robinson’s name and image are present within every athletic facility on the UCLA campus, and for good reason. Before breaking Major League Baseball’s racial barrier, Robinson starred as a four-sport athlete at UCLA. Four!

Baseball was obviously Robinson’s best sport, though legend of his exploits on the football field suggest he could have pursued a career on the gridiron. But at a university known for its basketball program, Jackie Robinson became the first legendary name on a laundry list of standouts. 

Loyola need not look far for a reasonable expectation to build from this Final Four run. The Ramblers have the capacity to become in this generation what DePaul was in the Ray Meyer era.

Similarities are obvious: Two Jesuit schools located in the endlessly deep Chicago recruiting pool. And indeed, the accessibility of top-flight talent right outside its front door made DePaul a national powerhouse for more than a decade, and can do the same for Loyola.

Meyer succeeded in building around local products like Mark Aguirre and Terry Cummings. Considering the challenges other programs in Illinois have had recruiting Chicagoland — and, for everyone else reading, Ryan Wooden reported brilliantly on that very topic here — Loyola has a prime opportunity to snag high-quality recruits from its own backyard. The program’s cachet on that front will never be greater.

Loyola faces difficulties DePaul didn’t in its Golden Age, however. For example, when the Blue Demons reached the Final Four in 1979, their schedule the next season included a Top 10 showdown with UCLA at Pauley Pavilion; another ranked matchup on the road at Missouri; and a third marquee date at home against LSU.

Forget a home game hosting a ranked power-conference opponent; that’s a pipe dream, at least for now. But even road dates, like the signature win Loyola scored over Florida in December, become more difficult to arrange once a mid-major enjoys some success. I interviewed Brad Underwood in 2016 while he was still at Stephen F. Austin, and coming off a pair of NCAA Tournament berths — one of which included bouncing one-time Final Four participant VCU — he said power programs passed on matchups altogether, viewing them as high-rish/low-reward propositions.

Loyola won’t have an opportunity to ascend to the No. 1 overall ranking, which DePaul accomplished in the 1979-80 season. However, if the Ramblers become mainstays atop the Valley and in the NCAA Tournament, there’s no reason they can’t become a Midwestern Gonzaga. At that point, and given the tendency of major conferences to pillage successful mid-majors, would the Big East consider a second Chicago program? 

Intriguing to imagine. 

6. Joey Janela vs. Great Sasuke (Joey Janela’s Spring Break 2)

I am not typically a fan of deathmatch wrestling, but the quirky antics of fast-rising indie star Joey Janela and the confounding goofiness of legendary Great Sasuke can’t help but catch my attention. 

Great Sasuke gained notoriety in the 1990s, contributing to the boom of junior heavyweight wrestling in Japan. He had legendary bouts with everyone from Ultimo Dragon…

…to Wild Pegasus…

…and even bringing that influence over to the U.S. and WWF vs. TAKA Michinoku. These days, Sasuke is more renowned for his willingness to take insane bumps from inside barrels. 

5. Kota Ibushi vs. Hangman Page (ROH Supercard of Honor)

Prior to last week’s Strong Style Evolved show in Long Beach, I’m not sure my feelings on Hangman Page could be described as ambivalent; of the Being The Elite crew, I feel that way more toward Marty Scurll, who has had some tremendous matches (November’s IWGP Jr. Heavyweight Championship vs. Will Ospreay in particular) but also overuses spots I find grating.

No, I was largely apathetic toward Page. I watched much more Ring of Honor in the mid-2000s than I do now, so my exposure to him was limited to rare NJPW appearances. It wasn’t until that most recent NJPW appearance, challenging Switchblade Jay White for the IWGP United States Championship in Long Beach, that I realized Hangman’s full potential.

Kota Ibushi, meanwhile, has put on classics with wrestlers of far lesser caliber than Hangman demonstrated at Strong Style Evolved (Three letters: T. J. P.). If Hangman performs at the level he brought to the Switchblade match, these two can pull off the sleeper hit of the weekend. 

4. Adam Cole vs. EC3 vs. Killian Dain vs. Lars Sullivan vs. Ricochet vs. Velveteen Dream – Ladder Match (NXT TakeOver: New Orleans)

So this is essentially Money In The Bank, albeit for the newly created secondary title rather than a guaranteed World Championship shot. Of the six wrestlers, only Ricochet has the skill set that screams Ladder Match Participant, but that only adds to the intrigue.

Lars Sullivan has been a destroyer, but plays a fish-out-of-water. The same is true to a certain extent for Killian Dain, a super-heavyweight in his own right, but who’s demonstrated a willingness to take high risks in prominent matches.

Adam Cole and EC3 are excellent heel characters and ring tacticians, either of which I can see stealing the title. Add Velveteen Dream’s outstanding character work, and this has the ingredients to steal the show at Wrestlemania Weekend.

3. Zack Sabre Jr. vs. Tomohiro Ishii (RevPro Live in New Orleans)

The low-key gem of NJPW’s inaugural American show last July featured these two in a semifinal for the IWGP United States Championship. Ishii went onto face Kenny Omega in the weekend’s main event, and the two put on an unforgettable match one could argue deserved 5-star designation. That sort of overshadowed these two, though on most other cards they’d have had the Match of the Night. 

Ishii’s power-based offense jells nicely with the submission style ZSJ has adapted from the classic British chain wrestling. Sabre is also starting to present himself with a bit more of a main-event air, which should enhance the styles clash against the workmanlike Ishii. 

2. Kenny Omega vs. Cody (ROH Supercard of Honor)

Arguably the greatest in-ring wrestler in the world right now, Kenny Omega is also embroiled in multiple storylines with layers of complexity and years of backstory. Omega’s reunion with longtime partner Kota Ibushi took almost four years to complete.

At the same time, reforming the Golden Lovers has caused strife with the Young Bucks — Omega’s closest friends since his emergence as the top gaijin of NJPW. Meanwhile, at the center of it all, is Cody.

There are other wrestlers with whom Omega could perhaps have a higher quality match, but in terms of story arc, Kenny vs. Cody is as good as it gets. Cody is the best heel in wrestling right now, operating both on shows and the YouTube series Being The Elite with a snake-tongued cowardice you can’t help but hate.

Add that he looks like an anime villain, and Cody is the perfect bad guy. His showdown with a good-guy Kenny has been built steadily since the summer, when Cody tried throwing in the towel on Omega’s behalf at NJPW Dominion. 

1. Johnny Gargano vs. Tomasso Ciampa (NXT TakeOver: New Orleans)

Speaking of well-told stories with long, intricate arcs, the rivalry between Johnny Gargano and Tomasso Ciampa reaches a climax teased for nearly three years. The duo were paired together in the inaugural Dusty Classic, NXT’s tag-team tournament, in 2015. At the time, it seemed to me as a viewer that there was no rationale beyond both being excellent in-ring talents, recently brought in from the indies, with minimal character development.

Though the team initially felt makeshift, the duo made it work — both in the ring and on social media. DIY was more than just a name, as they continued to evolve as a tag team: It perfectly captured the essence of their success.

Their match at the 2016 Cruiserweight Classic was the tournament’s best, save only Kota Ibushi vs. Cedric Alexander. The possibility of split was teased then, with the hot-blooded Ciampa getting aggressive against the upstart Gargano. But their eventual break-up permeated in the background of a memorable run to the top of the tag-team division. The turn came after 10 full months, a title reign and a heartbreaking string of losses. 

Ciampa’s injury was certainly unfortunate, though it has benefited the build to this showdown. Sending almost 11 months on the shelf allowed Gargano to follow a path of failure, to redemption, before ultimate failure again in his championship match against Andrade Cien Almas (an instant classic and true 5-star bout). Throughout Gargano’s failures, the wraith of Ciampa’s betrayal lingered, brilliantly setting up the return and eventual showdown. 

I won’t lie to my audience and pretend to know much about collegiate wrestling. Professional wrestling? I’m encyclopedic, which I can only assume is why my current wife started dating me back in college. 

But, until Kyle Snyder make the leap to WWE, my knowledge of the NCAA and Big Ten wrestling scene is limited. I decided instead to outsource this mailbag question to a good friend who is well-versed in the B1G wrestling landscape, Adam. You can follow him on Twitter @adamstar83