By Bill Campbell:

Admittedly, I thought Ohio State was the best team in the big NCAA basketball show. I wrote last week that I would be disappointed and surprised if the Buckeyes failed to make it to the Final Four, particularly after watching them handle George Mason. Frankly, I was shocked when they were eliminated.

And I acquired some new-found respect for the coaching ability of John Calipari, which I have doubted for years. I’ve known of his abilities as a recruiter ever since John Chaney once threatened to “deck him” many years ago. But the Kentucky mentor has accomplished much over his coaching years and has earned my grudging respect. Kentucky is the third different team Calipari has taken to the Final Four. He did it with an experienced team at Massachusetts, again at Memphis and with an almost all-Freshman team last year at Kentucky. This year’s Wildcats team is a combination of both.

Ohio State had impressed me at both ends of the floor. Yet Kentucky got more than a few open opportunities against the Buckeyes and continued to get a few more against North Carolina. Perhaps good coaching had something to do with that. Kentucky lost 5 first-round draft picks last year. Almost everyone began to write Kentucky off on the belief that you can’t win with young players — which in our area, at least, was probably proven at St. Joe’s this season. But it’s difficult to argue with Calipari’s comment after his big win over North Carolina when he said, “If it’s a choice between talent or experience, I’m taking talent.”

Any recapitulation of the NCAA tournament would be unforgivable without a sentence or two about VCU. The Rams were really a 12th seed, but became an 11th because of all the bracket rules that keep teams from playing each other. If the NCAA in its questionable wisdom had not expanded from 65 to 68 teams this year, VCU, which finished 4th in the Colonial Athletic Association, wouldn’t even have been in the tournament. VCU lost 11 games this season but became the third number 11 seed to get to the Final Four. LSU did it in 1986 and, in more recent memory, another team from the CAA, George Mason, did it in 2006. But who could possibly have picked VCU over Kansas? Bill Self, the Kansas coach, said, “They not only beat us, they completely outplayed us.” The most unlikely team to ever reach the Final Four is there.

A day seldom passes on the sports beat without some high-priced athlete somewhere getting into some kind of trouble. Usually its drugs or a DUI or some more serious errant behavior. Check the sports pages, it’s on the record almost every day. It’s enough to make one wonder why it takes these guys so long to realize how blessed they are. And, unfortunately, some never learn. Ask Michael Vick, who tried to transport the message to over 1,000 prisoners at a state prison in California a week or so ago. You wonder why professional sports doesn’t produce more guys like Phil Mickelson, who is preparing for another Masters Tournament in Augusta in little more than a week. Here in his own words is Mickelson’s thinking on his status in life: “After all that’s happened, I have even greater appreciation for my wife, my kids and the fact I get to play golf for a living.” Isn’t that refreshing?

In Mickelson’s life, whether winning or losing by a shot, he somehow manages to keep everything in perspective, even in those troublesome times last year when his wife, Amy, was diagnosed with breast cancer. And two months later the same diagnosis was applied to his mother, Mary. Mickelson will always remember pulling into Magnolia Lane in Augusta seeking his third green jacket and, after winning, celebrating the occasion with Amy with the longest televised kiss and hug in the history of the PGA and CBS combined. Phil said the victory just came at a perfect time. He remembered what a close friend once told him, “That your old life is past, there is a new normal. And it would have been almost impossible to get it back to how it had been before.” Amy and Mary now have good long-term prognoses. Phil says he plays golf now completely without fear, almost bullet-proof like. He and Amy always said they wanted to grow old together, they just didn’t know that “old” was going to be somewhere about 38 or 40. He said that his family makes him feel special regardless of how he plays.

The most controversial topic remains Chase Utley’s ailing knee. And Utley did nothing to relieve the anxiety when he met with the media last Monday. Prior to that session, he had not spoken publicly since March 9th – not even to identify the doctors or rehab practitioners he had consulted. He has seen more than a few doctors without identifying any. When asked why the secrecy, Utley replied, “I don’t know. You guys know me by now, right?” At any rate, surgery is not on Utley’s calendar, at least in the foreseeable future. He plans to play some time in the 2011 season. He is presently able to take light ground balls, but no running. “If surgery was the answer and I could be back on the field in six weeks guaranteed, it would be a no-brainer,” Utley said. “I want to take as many steps as I can to avoid that surgery and see what happens.” He does not believe he will have to deal with the injury for the rest of his career. But like everything else involved with Chase Utley’s knee, it’s a gamble that the second baseman and the Phillies have decided to take.