Dec 6, 2019

Axios Sports

๐Ÿ‘‹ Happy Friday! The last Boston pro sports team to lose at home in regulation was the Red Sox ... on Sept. 28. The Celtics and Pats haven't lost and the Bruins hadn't lost until last night (but it was in OT so "in regulation" still holds).

Today's word count: 1,665 words (6 mins)

1 big thing: ๐Ÿˆ 7 teams, 4 spots, 1 weekend

Illustration: Lazaro Gamio/Axios

Conference championship weekend is upon us. The action begins tonight in Santa Clara, Calif. and continues through Saturday, with the outcomes dictating who makes the playoff and who makes the Bad Boy Mowers Gasparilla Bowl.

Pac-12: No. 5 Utah vs. No. 13 Oregon, 8pm ET (tonight)

  • Lines: UTAH -6.5 | O/U: 46
  • What to watch: The game-within-the-game matchup between Utah's dominant D-line (nation's best rush defense) and Oregon's talented and experienced O-line.

Big 12: No. 6 Oklahoma vs. No. 7 Baylor, 12pm ET

  • Lines: OKLA -9 | O/U: 64
  • Fun fact: Oklahoma is the only school to win at least three straight Big 12 titles (2006-08 and 2015-18), while Baylor is the only other school to win two straight (2013-14).

SEC: No. 4 Georgia vs. No. 2 LSU, 4pm ET

  • Lines: LSU -7 | O/U: 55.5
  • What to watch: LSU has the nation's No. 2 scoring offense, so they should have the advantage if this turns into a shootout. Georgia has the nation's No. 2 scoring defense, so they should have the advantage if it turns into a slugfest.

ACC: No. 23 Virginia vs. No. 3 Clemson, 7:30pm ET

  • Lines: CLEM -28.5 | O/U: 57
  • Fun fact: Virginia is the seventh different ACC Coastal champ in as many seasons, with the first six all losing in the title game (Duke and Georgia Tech lost to FSU, while UNC, Virginia Tech, Miami and Pitt all lost to Clemson).

Big Ten: No. 1 Ohio State vs. No. 8 Wisconsin, 8pm ET

  • Lines: OSU -16.5 | O/U: 56
  • Consider this: If Oregon beats Utah, LSU beats Georgia, Baylor barely beats Oklahoma in a gross game and Wisconsin beats Ohio State 52-7 ... the Badgers could make the playoff! As the great Kevin Garnett once yelled at the top of his lungs, "Anything is possible!!!"

Other conferences:

  • American: No. 20 Cincinnati vs. No. 17 Memphis (-9.5)
  • Mountain West: Hawai'i vs. No. 19 Boise State (-14)
  • Sun Belt: Louisiana Lafayette vs. No. 21 Appalachian State (-6)
  • MAC: Miami (OH) vs. Central Michigan (-6.5)
  • C-USA: UAB vs. Florida Atlantic (-7.5)
2. ๐ŸฅŠ Saudi Arabia and the future of boxing

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Heavyweight champion Andy Ruiz Jr. will try to replicate his stunning victory over Anthony Joshua in Saturday's rematch. It's a compelling sports story and arguably the year's biggest fight, but the controversial location โ€” Riyadh, Saudi Arabia โ€” casts a dark shadow.

Why it matters:ย Saudi Arabia's global reputation was starkly affected by the murder of journalistย Jamal Khashoggiย a year ago, and the country has been accused of hosting sporting events to divert attention away from that story and other human rights abuses, while rebranding itself and boosting tourism.

  • In addition to boxing,ย WWE wrestling, ATP Tour golf, Formula E racing and the Italian Super Cup (soccer) have all recently been staged there.
  • In the next month alone, it will host the Dakar rally, the Spanish Super Cup, an international tennis event and a European Tour golf tournament (Tiger Woods and Rory McIlroy turned down multi-million dollar appearance fees).

What they're saying: Joshua's promoter Eddie Hearn sees nothing wrong with hosting the fight in Saudi Arabia. "The Saudis want a more positive image worldwide by bringing in events. But isn't that what they should be doing? They have got to change, and they are changing."

  • "The plan is to make Saudi Arabia the home of mega boxing," Hearn added. "All due respect to Las Vegas, but this place has the ability to bring any fight they want here. ... I also believe that no one has the right to tell a fighter how and where they can earn their money."

The other side: Amnesty International has warned that the Saudis are using this fight to "sportswash" their image.

  • "All over the world, countries are using sport to promote a welcoming picture on the international stage, which often masks a very different reality for ordinary people living in those countries โ€” and when the media circus rolls out of town, things go back to being as bad as they ever were."

The bottom line: "Another lucrative new frontier has emerged in the world of sport. But it may present those tempted to come here with as many quandaries as it does opportunities." โ€” Dan Roan, BBC

Go deeper:

3. โšพ๏ธ Strasburg or Rendon?

Photo: Alex Trautwig/MLB Photos via Getty Images

Nationals owner Mark Lerner told NBC Sports Washington yesterday that the team can't afford to re-sign both Stephen Strasburg and Anthony Rendon (both expected to command upwards of $200 million).

"We really can only afford to have one of those guys. They're huge numbers. We already have a really large payroll to begin with."

By the numbers: The reigning champs have ranked in the top seven in payroll four of the last five seasons and already have ~$129 million committed for 2020.

  • If they want to stay beneath the tax threshold for a second straight year and avoid paying overage fees, signing both players would take up almost their entire budget โ€” and they'd still need a first baseman and bullpen help.
  • "But if they were willing to exceed the threshold ... bringing back Rendon and Strasburg becomes increasingly realistic," writes WashPost's Jesse Dougherty.

The bottom line: "It's rarely a question of what a team can 'afford' in free agency. It is much more often a question of how much it's willing to spend."

P.S. ... Who would you choose?

  • Strasburg, 31, led the National League with 18 wins and was named MVP of the World Series.
  • Rendon, 29, finished third in National League MVP voting after hitting a career-high 34 HR and a league-leading 126 RBI.
4. ๐Ÿ“ธ Yesterday in photos
Photo: Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

CHICAGO โ€” Mitchell Trubisky threw three TD passes and ran for a score in the Bears' 31-24 win over the slumping Cowboys. That's four wins in five games for Chicago.

  • By the numbers: The 6-7 Cowboys have the second-best point differential in NFL history by a team with a losing record through 13 games (+67).
Photo: Sean Gardner/Getty Images

NEW ORLEANS โ€” Devin Booker scored a season-high 44 points and Ricky Rubio added 15 assists as the Suns beat the Pelicans in OT, 139-132.

Photo: David Cannon/Getty Images

NASSAU, BAHAMAS โ€” Tiger Woods shot a bogey-free 66 in the second round of his tournament, the Hero Wold Challenge, to move into a tie for fifth at six-under. His Presidents Cup teammate Patrick Reed is the leader at 12-under.

5. โšฝ๏ธ College soccer: UNC looks to return to glory

Alessia Russo (No. 19) and Brianna Pinto (No. 8) are both semifinalists for the MAC Hermann Trophy (nation's best player). Photo: Andy Mead/ISI Photos/Getty Images

The UNC women's soccer program has won 21 of the 31 NCAA tournaments contested, but the Tar Heels currently find themselves in the midst of a title drought, having last won in 2012.

  • This weekend marks their third trip to the Final Four in four seasons. Will they finally get over the hump and deliver coach Anson Dorrance his 22nd national championship?
  • Standing in their way are three Pac-12 schools: fellow No. 1 seed Stanford, No. 2 seed UCLA and this year's "Cinderella," unseeded Washington State.

Tonight: The semifinals take place tonight in San Jose, Calif. (ESPNU), and the winners will meet in the national championship on Sunday.

  • 7pm ET: UNC (23-1-1) vs. Washington State (16-6-1)
  • 9:30pm ET: Stanford (22-1) vs. UCLA (18-4-1)

Meanwhile, for the men: The Final Four is still a week away, but the quarterfinals start tonight.

  • Tonight: No. 7 Stanford vs. No. 2 Clemson (6pm ET); No. 1 Virginia vs. No. 8 SMU (7pm)
  • Tomorrow: No. 3 Georgetown vs. No. 6 Washington (12pm); UC Santa Barbara vs. No. 4 Wake Forest (5pm)

Go deeper:

6. ๐Ÿ€ The undefeated club
Screenshot: @jloose128 (Twitter)

Here's a cool map showing the closest undefeated men's college basketball team to each U.S. county.

16 undefeated teams:

  • Ranked: No. 1 Louisville, No. 3 Maryland, No. 6 Ohio State, No. 12 Arizona, No. 14 Auburn (barely survived Furman last night), No. 16 Colorado, No. 24 Butler.
  • Unranked: San Diego State, West Virginia, DePaul (yay!), Arkansas, Indiana, SMU, Liberty, Duquesne, Delaware.

ICYMI ... Women's hoops was awesome last night. Unranked Ohio State took down No. 2 Louisville, No. 13 NC State upset No. 9 Maryland, No. 8 FSU beat No. 19 Michigan State and No. 24 Michigan held off unranked Syracuse in OT.

7. Dec. 6, 2018: ๐Ÿˆ Henry makes history

Photo: Wesley Hitt/Getty Images

One year ago today, Titans running back Derrick Henry exploded for a franchise-record 238 rushing yards and four TD in a 30-9 win over the Jaguars.

  • Highlight: Henry's 99-yard TD run in the second quarter tied him with Hall of Famer Tony Dorsett for the longest run in NFL history.

One year later ... In each of the Titans last three games (all wins), Henry has topped 140 rushing yards and scored at least one rushing TD.

  • Since the 1970 merger, no running back has had a longer such streak, and only five had a streak as long (Adrian Peterson, Larry Johnson, Ricky Williams, Eric Dickerson and O.J. Simpson).

Go deeper: Stay out of Derrick Henry's Way (FiveThirtyEight)

8. The Ocho: โ›ท Alpine Ski World Cup

American skier Travis Ganong during a training session on Wednesday. Photo: Alexis Boichard/Agence Zoom/Getty Images

The International Ski Federation Alpine Ski World Cup arrives in Beaver Creek, Colorado this weekend for its annual Xfinity Birds of Prey races.

  • How it works: Think of the Alpine Ski World Cup like the PGA Tour, but for skiing. Each weekend during the winter, the world's best skiers travel to venues all over the globe.
  • Tour stops: After opening races in Austria and Finland, the men's tour goes to Lake Louise, Alberta around Thanksgiving, while the women's tour goes to Killington, Vermont. Then the men come to Beaver Creek and the women go to Lake Louise. After this, they'll be in Europe for the rest of the season.

Disciplines: Downhill and super-G are speed events, while slalom and giant slalom are technical.

  • Downhill: Longest course, fewest gates, highest vertical drop. You get one run.
  • Slalom: Gates are closer together than any other discipline, requiring skiers to zig and zag quickly. You get two runs.
  • Giant slalom: Gates are spaced farther apart than in slalom but not as far as in super-G. You get two runs.
  • Super-G: Gates are spaced the furthest apart, and because its a speed event, it has a higher vertical drop than the slalom or giant slalom. You get one run.
9. โšพ๏ธ MLB trivia

Only four players in MLB history have recorded at least five straight 40-homer seasons.

  • Question: The first three are Babe Ruth, Alex Rodriguez and Sammy Sosa. Can you name the fourth?
  • Hint: He struck out 2,379 times in his career (third-most in MLB history).

Answer at the bottom.

10. ๐Ÿ“š Good reads


๐Ÿ’ A journey to discover the 'secret' of Ovik (Joe Smith, The Athletic)

"There are more Art Ross Trophy winners coming out of this [Swedish city of 30,000] than any other in the world, with Peter Forsberg and Canucks twins Daniel and Henrik Sedin."

๐Ÿˆ Can Georgia's offense smash-mouth its way past LSU? (Mark Schlabach, ESPN)

"Compared to the offenses of other College Football Playoff contenders ... Georgia's might feel more like a Sunday drive in your grandfather's Cadillac. With former LSU coach Les Miles behind the wheel."

๐Ÿˆ The pastor, the porch, and a father's fight with faith (Greg Bishop, SI)

"A man of God and man of football, Vernon Shazier was tested as never before two years ago, on the night his oldest son lay motionless on the field."

Have a great weekend,

Kendall "Strasburg" Baker

Trivia answer: Adam Dunn (update: this question/answer is incorrect. Sorry about that!)