Mike Szostak

Sports Blogger

Mike Szostak covered sports for The Providence Journal for 36 years until retiring in 2013. His career highlights included five Winter Olympics from Lake Placid to Nagano and 17 seasons covering the Boston Celtics. His beats  also included tennis, skiing and college sports, especially Brown and URI football.

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On the college sports calendar in New England, spring feels like 3 o’clock in the morning, when all is quiet, when nothing much happens. Spring is the dead zone between March Madness and final exams.

Sure, there is college baseball. And softball, tennis, golf, lacrosse, rowing and outdoor track, all worthy endeavors cheered by hard-core fans. But not one can match college football in the fall or college basketball in the winter for crowd appeal.

Forget about Opening Day of the baseball season this week. How about Closing Nights of the college basketball season? If you did not stay up to watch the end of North Carolina-Villanova game for the men’s NCAA Division I Championship Monday night, you missed a gem of a game and a finish that nobody, and I mean nobody, could have imagined.

An instant classic. A game for the ages. The most fantastic finish of any game in any sport. Ever.

That’s what you missed.

Another of the selfless volunteers who made the R.I. Giant Slalom Championships the highlight of the state’s winter sports calendar for decades has died. Tom Payne, the Cranston dentist who doubled as race chairman for 16 years in the 1980s and 1990s, died last Saturday, March 26, in Naples, Fla., where he had retired after a 46-year career.  He was 91.

John Bender / RIPR

March Madness has hit Rhode Island. Providence hosts six games in the first and second round of the NCAA Men’s Basketball championship this week.

Eight teams square off at the Dunkin’ Donuts Center. Two double-headers will be held on Thursday. The winning teams will move on to a double-header on Saturday.

Providence College is going to the NCAA basketball tournament for the third consecutive year. That’s the good news.

The eighth-seeded Friars (23-10) will play ninth-seeded Southern California (21-12) in the first round of the East Regional Thursday night in Raleigh, N.C. If they win, they will most likely face top-seeded North Carolina (28-6) in the second round. That’s the bad news. The Tar Heels will be heavy favorites in their opener against the Florida Gulf Coast-Fairleigh Dickinson play-in winner.

March Madness is on hold for Providence College and has ended for Johnson & Wales University. March Melancholy has set in at the University of Rhode Island. And at Brown, anticipation is the word.

Second-ranked and top-seeded Villanova beat Providence, 76-68, Friday night in the semifinals of the Big East Championship at Madison Square Garden in New York. While the 29-4 Wildcats will play Seton Hall for the title, the 23-10 Friars will sit home and wait for the NCAA Tournament selection show Sunday at 5:30.

Bud Collins, the incomparable tennis chronicler whose colorful prose matched his colorful wardrobe, died Friday at his home in Brookline, Mass. He was 86 and had been in declining health for a few years.

NCAA Tournament-bound Johnson & Wales is reaping the rewards of a record-breaking men’s basketball season. The 26-2 and 14th-ranked Wildcats boast the Great Northeast Athletic Conference player, defensive player and coach of the year and three all-conference players after voting by the league’s coaches. JWU won the GNAC title on Feb. 27 and earned an automatic bid to the tournament.

They’re going to the NCAA Tournament. The Big Dance. March Madness.

Buddy Cianci, the longest serving mayor in the history of Providence, 21 years, and one of the most colorful and controversial politicians in the history of Rhode Island, will take his final spin through the city he loved on Monday en route to St. Ann’s Cemetery in Cranston, where he will be interred. Leaving from City Hall, diagonally across from the outdoor skating rink he championed, the funeral cortege will pass within blocks of sports venues, real and imagined, that figured prominently in his career.

The Patriots did not lose to the Broncos Sunday because kicker Stephen Gostkowski missed a point after attempt in the first quarter.

Allow me to repeat.

THE PATRIOTS DID NOT LOSE TO THE BRONCOS SUNDAY BECAUSE KICKER STEPHEN GOSTKOWSKI MISSED A POINT AFTER ATTEMPT IN THE FIRST QUARTER.

All last week, Sports World focused on the rivalry between quarterbacks Tom Brady and Peyton Manning. Brady vs. Manning. Manning vs. Brady. Their 17th, and possibly final, game against each other when Brady and the New England Patriots tackle Manning and the Denver Broncos Sunday for the AFC Championship and a trip to Super Bowl 50.

Call them The Questionables because there was just a 50-50 chance they would play in their AFC divisional playoff game Saturday.

Questionable Rob Gronkowski, he of the back and knee injuries, caught seven passes for 83 yards and two touchdowns and recovered an onside kick with 1:13 to play. Questionable Julian Edelman, he of the broken foot, grabbed 10 passes for 100 yards. Questionable Chandler Jones, he of abdomen and toe issues and a shirtless foray to the Foxboro Police Department six days prior, forced a Chiefs fumble that became the Patriots’ third touchdown.

Yellow caution flags should flutter over Gillette Stadium Saturday when the New England Patriots and Kansas City Chiefs kick off their AFC divisional playoff game. Why worry? Let us count the reasons.

The Chiefs, winners of 11 consecutive games, are the hottest team in pro football. They launched their postseason run last weekend with a 30-0 rout of Houston, a convincing performance by the seventh-best defense in the NFL.

Deflated footballs proved more newsworthy than a Super Bowl trophy, NCAA hockey championship hardware and the bill of sale for a beloved minor-league baseball franchise this year. Eleven months after the New England Patriots used underinflated footballs in the first half of the AFC Championship game against the Indianapolis Colts, Deflategate drags on. That’s why it is without question THE sports story of 2015 in Rhode Island and the rest of New England.

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