Feb 25, 2020

Axios Sports

⚜️ Happy Mardi Gras! Let's sports.

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Today's word count: 1,588 words (6 minutes).

1 big thing: 🏀 Sabrina honors Kobe, makes history

Photo: Cody Glenn/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Hours after speaking at Kobe Bryant's memorial service in Los Angeles, Sabrina Ionescu flew to the Bay Area to rejoin her Oregon teammates — and proceeded to do something never done before in college basketball.

Driving the news: Ionescu became the first player in NCAA history, man or woman, to reach 2,000 points, 1,000 assists and 1,000 rebounds in No. 3 Oregon's 74-66 win over No. 4 Stanford.

"That one was for [Kobe]. To do it on 2-24-20 was huge. We talked about it in the preseason. I can't put it into words. He's looking down and proud of me and happy for this moment with my team."
— Ionescu, per ESPN

Bonus: Ionescu also notched her 26th career triple-double (21-12-12), 14 more than any other player, and helped the Ducks clinch at least a share of their third straight Pac-12 regular-season title. And did I mention she did all of this just 50 miles from her hometown of Walnut Creek?

Why it matters: This monumental achievement cements Ionescu's place among college basketball's all-time greats and puts Oregon in position to write a storybook ending to her career with a national title.

The big picture: Kobe was an ardent supporter of women's hoops, and his 13-year-old daughter Gianna looked destined for stardom. For Ionescu — who will forever be connected to them both — to reach this milestone on the same day millions celebrated Kobe and Gianna's lives is just special.

"[Kobe] didn't see growing the game with girls as his hobby, or as some side project, or as a charity case. He saw it as a movement. And he didn't get involved because he just wanted to be a fan of our movement. He got involved because he wanted to be a part of it."
— Ionescu in The Player's Tribune

So no, I don't think it's a coincidence that Steph Curry showed up at last night's game to make sure he was there to witness women's sports history.

  • It felt like Steph, who was also at the memorial service hours earlier, was stepping up in Kobe's absence to visibly support the women's game — and I have no doubt we'll see more players carry on Kobe's legacy in that way. #GirlDads.

Looking ahead ... The 2020 WNBA season could be its most exciting ever. A chaotic offseason reshuffled the landscape and created new rivalries, 2018 MVP Breanna Stewart is back after missing all of last season and Ionescu will be a world-famous rookie — in New York, no less (Liberty own the No. 1 pick).

🎥 Watch: Sabrina's speech at Kobe's memorial service (YouTube)

2. ❤️ Celebrating Kobe and Gianna

Thousands upon thousands gathered at Staples Center yesterday to memorialize Kobe and Gianna Bryant.

Photo: Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images
"She was thoughtful like him. They were so easy to love. They were funny, happy, silly and they loved life. ... God knew they couldn't be on this Earth without each other. He had to bring them home to Heaven together."
Vanessa Bryant
Photo: Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images
Photo: Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images
"When Kobe Bryant died, a piece of me died. ... He wanted to be the best basketball player that he could be. As I got to know him, I wanted to be the best big brother that I could be."
Michael Jordan
Photo: Mark Ralstron/AFP via Getty Images
"[A]s fans exited the building, many wanted to leave something behind. While they waited for the long lines to lead them out, they wrote emotional messages right on the pavement .... The speakers inside the arena got to tell their memories of Kobe and Gigi and say goodbye one last time; this was a way for fans to say theirs."
— Paolo Uggetti, The Ringer

Go deeper: The intersection of emotion at Kobe Bryant's memorial (ESPN)

3. 🌍 Coronavirus hits Olympics, other sports
Expand chart
Data: The Center for Systems Science and Engineering at Johns Hopkins, the CDC, and China's Health Ministry. Note: China numbers are for the mainland only and U.S. numbers include repatriated citizens.

The novel coronavirus is spreading quickly in cities nowhere near Wuhan, China, and has begun impacting a slew of international sporting events as the window to prevent a global pandemic narrows.

  • Soccer: Four Serie A soccer matches in Northern Italy were canceled, and the government wants future games in areas affected by the outbreak to be played behind closed doors without fans.
  • Athletics: The World Athletics Indoor Championships, set to take place in mid-March in Nanjing, China, has been postponed until next year.
  • Formula One: The Chinese Grand Prix, originally scheduled for April 19 in Shanghai, has been postponed.
  • Table tennis: The world championship to be held in late March in South Korea has been pushed back provisionally to late June.

What to watch: Japanese officials insist the 2020 Tokyo Olympics will go on as planned, but the coronavirus has already begun to affect preparations. Per Intelligencer:

  • "Movement of athletes has been limited, qualifying events have been disrupted, and plans to train tens of thousands of volunteers have been postponed."
  • "There are also emerging questions about how many people will be willing to travel to watch the Olympics. Coronavirus fears have led to a huge drop in tourism to Asia."
4. 🏀 Men's poll: Kansas back on top
Expand chart
Data: AP; Table: Axios Visuals

For weeks, the projected top seed line for the NCAA tournament looked the same: two teams from the Big 12 (Kansas and Baylor) and two teams from the West Coast (Gonzaga and San Diego State).

  • That may still be the case when the bracket is announced, but after a wild weekend that saw three of those teams lose, there's some drama at the top.

Latest bracket projection:

  • No. 1 seeds: Kansas, Baylor, San Diego State, Gonzaga
  • Last four in: Oklahoma, USC, Providence, NC State
  • First four out: Richmond, Stanford, UCLA, Mississippi State
  • Next four out: Memphis, Georgetown, Alabama, South Carolina

Most projected bids: Big Ten (10), Big East (7), Pac-12 (5), Big 12 (5), ACC (5), SEC (4), American (3), West Coast (3), Mountain West (2), Atlantic 10 (2)

5. 🏀 Women's poll: Quiet at the top
Expand chart
Data: NCAA; Table: Axios Visuals

Oregon's win over Stanford impacts the race for the four No. 1 seeds in the women's NCAA tournament, with the Ducks cementing their case and the Cardinal falling slightly out of the picture for now.

Latest bracket projection:

  • No. 1 seeds: South Carolina, Baylor, Oregon, Maryland
  • Last four in: Western Kentucky, UCF, Georgia Tech, James Madison
  • First four out: West Virginia, Bradley, St. John's, Oklahoma State

Most projected bids: Big Ten (8), SEC (7), Pac-12 (6), ACC (6), Big 12 (4), Big East (3), Missouri Valley (2), American (2), Conference USA (2), Colonial (2)

6. 📊 By the numbers
Photo: Bradley Collyer/PA Images via Getty Images
  • 🥊 45 pounds: Deontay Wilder is blaming the 45-pound costume he wore into the ring for weakening his legs and contributing to his loss against Tyson Fury. Don't get me wrong, Wilder's legs did look wobbly from the jump on Saturday night — but this is an all-timer of an excuse.
  • 🏀 108 points: Bradley Beal became the first player since Kobe to score 50 points on back-to-back nights when he dropped 55 on the Bucks last night after scoring 53 against the Bulls on Sunday. The Wizards lost both games.
  • ⚽️ 18 straight wins: Liverpool beat West Ham, 3-2, yesterday to equal Manchester City's run of 18 straight Premier League wins and remain undefeated (26 wins, one draw). The Reds have taken 109 of the last 111 available points and sit 22 points clear of second-place City in the standings.
7. Feb. 25, 1964: 🥊 Ali wins first title
Photo: Bettmann/Getty Images

56 years ago today, a lightly regarded 22-year-old boxer from Louisville named Cassius Clay upset Sonny Liston in seven rounds at Miami Beach's Convention Hall to win his first world heavyweight title.

  • By the numbers: Liston, who had won 35 of his 36 pro fights, was an 8-to-1 favorite. Most boxing pundits didn't think Clay would last more than two rounds. In a pre-fight poll of 46 writers, only three picked "The Louisville Lip."
  • The backdrop: In the 1960s, boxing was one of America's most popular sports and received more media coverage than pro or college basketball. The fight was broadcast on TNT, but most Americans listened on ABC Radio, with Les Keiter and a not-yet-famous Howard Cosell calling the action.

The big picture, per SI's Richard Rothschild:

  • "Liston's story came to a sudden end when his wife found him dead in their Las Vegas home on Jan. 5, 1971. Police ruled the death a heroin overdose even though Liston was not known as a substance abuser. Many of Liston's associates said he was the victim of a mob hit."
  • Meanwhile, Muhammad Ali "converted to the Muslim faith, changed his name and successfully defended his title nine times .... He was a symbol of black aspirations and independence, a man of conviction who proved athletes could discuss subjects outside the arena."

15 months later ... Ali knocked out Liston in the first round of their rematch, which produced one of the most iconic photographs of the 20th century.

Photo: Bettmann/Getty Images
8. The Ocho: 📸 Photos 'round the world
Photo: Red Bull Content Pool

NEW ORLEANS — Today, New Orleans turns into a giant Mardi Gras celebration, but the party got started early this week for BMX athlete and Nola-area-native, Broc Raiford, who busted out his skills among the parade floats.

Photo: Ryan Pierse/Getty Images

PERTH, Australia — Ashleigh Gardner poses before an Australian Women's T20 (shortened version of cricket) training session at Murdoch University. Love this photo. Good job, Ryan Pierse.

Photo: Etsuo Hara/Getty Images

KAWASAKI, Japan — In the land of the rising sun, New Japan Pro Wrestling (NJPW) is as big as WWE is in America.

9. 🏒 NHL trivia
Photo: Andy Marlin/NHLI via Getty Images

Patrick Marleau and Ilya Kovalchuk have combined for 1,003 career goals and zero Stanley Cups, but after being moved at the NHL trade deadline (Marleau to Pittsburgh, Kovalchuk to D.C.), both have as good a shot as they've ever had.

  • Question: Outside of Marleau and Kovalchuk, which active player has the most career goals without having won a Stanley Cup?
  • Hint: Made one appearance in the Stanley Cup Final last decade.

Answer at the bottom.

10. 💬 Tweet of the day
Screenshot: @Joe_Burrow10 (Twitter)

Hand size SZN is upon us, and Joe Burrow — who only has nine inch hands, according to his combine measurements (gasp!) — had the best response ever to the dumbest measurement ever.

Talk tomorrow,

Kendall "Tiny hands" Baker

Trivia answer: Steven Stamkos (422 career goals)