Bob Sparks - 4/63 - SaintPetersBlog

Bob Sparks

Bob Sparks is President of Ramos and Sparks Group, a Tallahassee-based business and political consulting firm. During his career, he has directed media relations and managed events for professional baseball, served as chief spokesperson for the Republican Party of Florida as well as the Florida Department of Environmental Protection and the Attorney General of Florida. After serving as Executive Deputy Chief of Staff for Governor Charlie Crist, he returned to the private sector working with clients including the Republican National Committee and political candidates in Japan. He lives in Tallahassee with his wife, Sue and can be reached at Bob@ramos-sparks.com.

CBS experts say Florida, Florida State ripe for first-round upsets in NCAA Tournament

When the NCAA Tournament pairings were announced on Sunday, the CBS crew of Greg Gumbel, Clark Kellogg and Seth Davis analyzed the 68 teams and picked an upset or two. Davis, as usual, was the most outspoken, calling out two teams of interest to Florida viewers.

Looking toward Thursday’s games in Orlando, Davis emphatically predicted that 14-seed Florida Gulf Coast will knock Florida State out of the West region. In one of the earlier games to be played at the Amway Center, he also feels that 13th-seeded East Tennessee State will crush the hopes of the Florida Gators in the East region.

Davis is not alone. CBS’s bracket wiz Jerry Palm and colleagues Matt Norlander and Dennis Dodd believe the Buccaneers will send the Gators back to Gainesville for good on Thursday afternoon.

In addition to Davis and Dodd, Florida Gulf Coast has fans among CBS experts Chip Patterson, Kyle Boone and Howard Megdahl. The Eagles made their mark with a captivating run to the Sweet 16 in 2013 as a 15 seed.

It is not that such an upset is impossible. Florida Gulf Coast can take comfort in the fact that a 14 seed has defeated a three seed five times over the last four years.

Gator fans can worry about the ability of the 13 seed to wreak havoc. From 2008 through 2013, a four seed lost to a 13 seed at least once each year. Last year, Hawaii knocked out California.

Florida’s other tournament team, Miami, earned much more respect. Of all the CBS experts, only Boone picked the ninth-seeded Michigan State Spartans over the eighth-seeded Hurricanes in the Midwest on Friday in Tulsa.

Despite having a higher seed, perhaps picking Miami is a daring choice. Playing Michigan State in March is always a dicey proposition. Further, Megdahl predicts Miami will dump top-seeded Kansas in the second round on Sunday.

The Gators are 10-point favorites over East Tennessee State, while the Seminoles are a 12-point choice over Florida Gulf Coast. Miami is a two-point pick over Michigan State.

The Florida vs. ETSU game is the second game of the day in Orlando starting at 3:10 p.m. while Florida State vs. FGCU is the final game of the day slated for 9:20.

 

Magic still struggling on the defensive end

The Orlando Magic has lost three games in a row and five out of six. The latest was a highly disappointing 120-115 setback on Monday night at the hands of the Sacramento Kings, a team that had lost their previous eight games.

Orlando has now lost 44 of their 68 games this season after being a competitive 15-18 in December. The calendar is now midway into March, and the last time the team won back-to-back games was around Christmas time.

The shortcomings of this team have been on display at various times throughout the season. Poor shooting has dogged them in several games, especially early in the season. After all, isn’t the objective to put the ball into the basket?

On the other end, the defense has been an even greater problem. After playing well enough early on to achieve the third-best defensive ranking, their defense has been described as “Swiss cheese” by some and a “sieve” by head coach Frank Vogel.

This team has lost three games by 30 points this season, topped by last week’s 40-point embarrassment against the Charlotte Hornets.

When they play bad defense AND struggle shooting the ball, those are the kinds of things that can happen with this team.

The last five games are a microcosm of the season. Despite Elfrid Payton stepping up big time with three triple-doubles during that span, the Magic lost four of those five games.

Payton’s first triple-double came in a home game against the New York Knicks. A fourth-quarter collapse led to a New York win.

The Magic were able to beat the Chicago Bulls in the next game. Chicago’s 12 made three-pointers were not enough to overcome another triple-double by Payton.

Charlotte shot 60 percent and made 10 three-pointers in the game from hell, while the Cleveland Cavaliers shot 50 percent and made 15 threes in a competitive loss at home.

On Monday, the Kings shot 54 percent and made 16 of 30 three-point attempts, thwarting another triple-double by Payton. Allowing a team to shoot that well means there are open threes as well as some layups and dunks.

“We’re giving up the three-point line now,” Vogel said following the loss to the Kings. “The last three games there are a high number of threes going up, and we’ve got to get that under control.”

While he praised the team’s improvement with their defense “in the paint,” he pointed out that “the transition defense really hurt us.”

That is what leads to layups, dunks and high shooting percentages.

If Vogel and the Magic are concerned about giving up three pointers, they have two days to work on it before heading to Oakland on Thursday night to play the three-point happy Golden State Warriors.

Orlando hosts Florida-flavored NCAA Tournament first round

For NCAA Tournament organizers, their desire to fill seats at the eight first and second round sites, Orlando should be gold for them. With the Florida Gators, Florida State Seminoles and Florida Gulf Coast Eagles coming to the Amway Center in Orlando on Thursday, fans of all three teams will not have far to travel.

Florida’s other NCAA Tournament is Miami. The eighth-seeded Hurricanes will open play on Friday in Tulsa against the ninth-seeded Michigan State Spartans.

The team traveling the furthest is the Xavier Musketeers from Cincinnati. Two familiar teams will be there as well.

The Virginia Cavaliers of the ACC and the Maryland Terrapins, formerly of the ACC, but now in the Big 10 will both be there. The other two teams are the East Tennessee State Buccaneers and North Carolina Wilmington Seahawks.

While Florida Gulf Coast was expected to be seeded 14th, Florida State was thought to be falling below the three seed they earned. That prompted a first-round matchup between the Seminoles and the Eagles.

Florida was also thought to be dipping below the fourth seed after losing their final three games. The committee kept them at four, leading to an interesting matchup with the Buccaneers.

Florida State and Maryland are on pace to meet on Saturday if the Seminoles get by FGCU and Maryland can handle Xavier. Florida and Virginia are bracketed together if the Gators defeat the Buccaneers and the Cavaliers can beat the Seahawks.

Orlando is hosting NCAA first round games for the first time since 2014. That year, the Gators started their Final Four run in Orlando with victories over Albany and Pittsburgh.

Florida State is making their first tournament appearance anywhere since 2012. Florida Gulf Coast had the magical run to the Sweet 16 in 2013 before the 15th seeded Eagles were finally ousted by the Gators.

Starting Thursday, the Amway Center will be the place to be.

Florida, Florida State falling in final day “Bracketology”

When the field of 68 NCAA tournament teams is announced on Sunday there is certain to be a surprise and a snub or two. What does the “Bracketology,” say about which bubble teams will make it and who will remain at home?

We know the names of the four Florida teams that will be called, but where will they go to open the tournament and what seed will they receive? If Joe Lunardi, the foremost expert in tournament projections is right, conference tournament performances have hurt some of them.

According to Lunardi, the swami of Bracketology, Florida will earn a fifth seed, but quite possibly a six. Florida State has fallen to a four, but the committee could take them down another spot.

Miami played well down the stretch to earn a No. 7 seed. Florida Gulf Coast, winners of the Atlantic Sun Conference Tournament will likely enter the tournament as a 14 seed.

Two weeks ago the Gators had a legitimate shot at a three seed. Unfortunately, they finished the season on a three-game losing streak.

Florida can blame their plunge on Vanderbilt. They lost to the Commodores twice in the span of seven days, who wound up beating the Gators three times this season.

Despite having a Ratings Percentage Index (RPI) ranking of 10th, the selection committee looks at different factors, including how well your team played over the final month. Losing three times to a team (Vandy) with 15 losses does not help your case.

Florida State had a luckluster February and never regained the magic that saw them in the top 10 before five double-digit road losses in the ACC. The Seminoles are still rated 13th in the RPI, but their finish keeps them from earning anything higher than a four seed.

Miami brings in an RPI rating of 42 and played well in the season’s second half. They are perfectly suited to the No. 7 seed Lunardi projects.

Florida Gulf Coast carries an RPI rating of 85, meaning they would be nowhere near the Big Dance without winning their conference title.

For those not aware of Lunardi, he has a sterling track record. Last year he picked 64 of the 68 teams in the field and either the spot-on seeding or within one spot of 60 teams. In 2015 he predicted 66 of the 68 teams with 61 of the 68 seedings being perfect or within one spot.

The bottom line is that fans of Florida’s four tournament teams can pretty much bank on their seed. It is tough to project where teams will open up, but Lunardi makes the case for Florida State playing their first and second games (if they win) at the Amway Center in Orlando. He has the Gators heading to Milwaukee, with the Hurricanes and Florida Gulf Coast off to Indianapolis.

All of the Bracketology becomes official Sunday afternoon at 5:30 p.m.

Kevin Cash, other managers apprehensive about WBC

Major League Baseball managers and front offices are less than thrilled with the semi-annual World Baseball Classic (WBC), but they understand the attempt to promote the game across the globe. The two problems major league teams confront is the disruption of spring training and injuries.

The disruption can last for a few days or for two weeks, depending on how long a player’s team lasts in the tournament. The WBC begins Monday in certain venues around the world.

First round games in Miami featuring the United States, Canada, Colombia and the Dominican Republic begin Thursday. The finals are set for Dodger Stadium from March 20-22, a little more than one week before opening day.

Injuries can happen at any time, anywhere, especially to pitchers. That is why Tampa Bay Manager Kevin Cash exemplifies the apprehension managers feel toward key players competing in the event.

While Enny Romero (Dominican Republic) and Jose Alvarado (Venezuela) will compete, starting pitcher Chris Archer (U.S.) and closer Alex Colome (Dominican Republic) are the Rays’ highest profile players competing in the WBC.

“You just worry that they’re competing against All-Stars all over the country, all over the world,” Cash told MLB.com. “It will probably take away from spring training because it is such a hyped event. So you worry about that.”

For his part, Archer says he is prepared to contribute in the first round. His status beyond that is uncertain.

“I’ve known I was going to play for six months now,” he said. “We’re going to have to make it work. Just because the pitch count is 65, I don’t have to throw 65 pitches.”

Cash and the Rays’ brain trust desperately want Archer in tip top condition by opening day. Only a healthy Archer can overcome last year’s 9-19 record. Where would they have been without Colome?

Everyone had better get used to the WBC because its popularity is growing. While not all of the Miami games will be packed, the U.S. vs. Dominican Republic game is already a sellout.

The U.S. has never finished better than fourth place, partly because the biggest stars have not played. That is changing this year with more American stars are buying in.

Superstars such as Colorado’s Nolan Arranado, Arizona’s Paul Goldschmidt, Pittsburgh’s Andrew McCutchen, Miami’s Giancarlo Stanton and San Francisco’s Buster Posey have all signed up to play.

That is no guarantee the U.S. will seriously threaten or win the title (check out the Dominican Republic’s roster of stars), but they are favored to advance to the second round along with the Dominicans.

Cash his counterparts want their players to do well, but their wish list is short.

Come back to camp healthy.

FSU/UF rise while Miami joins AP Top 25

Both Florida and Florida State moved up in this week’s Associated Press Top 25 poll. The Gators earned the 12th position, up from 13th last week, while the Seminoles climbed four spots to claim the No. 15 ranking.

Florida moved up despite a loss at No. 9 Kentucky on Saturday. While they played the Wildcats tough in the 76-66 loss on the road, the Gators were impressive in their 81-66 takedown of a good South Carolina team.

The Seminoles’ rise came on the strength of a victory over an overmatched Boston College team on Monday and a rare road win on Saturday. Their 76-74 escape at Clemson was only their second win away from home over the past seven games.

Three Florida teams now reside in the top 25 with Miami’s ascension to the 25th spot. During the week the Hurricanes beat then-No. 14 Virginia on the road and followed that up with a 55-50 win at home over then-No. 10 Duke.

Florida State finishes out the regular season with a game at Duke on Tuesday and a home game against the Hurricanes on Saturday. Florida hosts surging Arkansas on Wednesday and travels to Vanderbilt on Saturday. Miami is at Virginia Tech on Monday night.

Following Gonzaga’s loss over the weekend, the Kansas Jayhawks are the top-ranked team this week. Despite losing at home to No. 13 Butler, Villanova stayed at No. 2 while UCLA climbed to third and Gonzaga fell to fourth.

Butler made the biggest jump by leaping nine spots with two road wins, including at Villanova.

With Miami joining the top 25, the ACC placed seven teams in the poll. Somehow, the voters continue to believe in No. 23 Virginia, who continues to struggle and now has nine losses.

Kentucky and Florida are the only two SEC ranked teams, while the Big 12 has four and the Pac 12 three. The Big 10, Big East, West Coast and American Conference placed two each, while the Missouri Valley Conference has one.

 

Despite loss to Wildcats, Gators still can win SEC Tournament

Although the Florida Gators lost to the Kentucky Wildcats in Lexington on Saturday, they still have a good opportunity to gain the automatic NCAA Tournament bid in two weeks. Kentucky overcame a 12-point first half deficit to beat Florida, 76-66, snapping the Gators’ nine-game winning streak.

Florida’s defense is often good enough to get them a victory when they shoot poorly, but not on Saturday. Very few come into Rupp Arena and leave with a win, especially those who can shoot only 37 percent from the field, which the Gators did on Saturday.

When Florida makes a respectable amount of their shots, they are extremely difficult to beat. On February 4, they shot 48 percent and throttled the Wildcats 88-66 in Gainesville.

Kasey Hill shot lights out at home against Kentucky, but scored only four points on Saturday. Canyon Barry had 14 points three weeks ago, but only three on Saturday.

As a team, the Gators were more impressive on their home floor than the Wildcats were on theirs. With the SEC Tournament set to be played on a neutral court in Nashville, Tenn., Florida would have every opportunity to beat Kentucky should they meet.

Of course they will have to do a better job of containing prized freshman Malik Monk, who exploded for 30 points in the second half to almost singlehandedly lead his team to the victory. He finished with 33.

“He took the game over. He was amazing,” said Florida Coach Mike White. “It was probably the best performance against us all year.”

Kentucky (14-2 SEC) has all-but-clinched the top seed in the tournament and the Gators (13-3 SEC) are in good shape to earn the second seed. Make no mistake that Big Blue Nation will be well represented at the Bridgestone Arena, but nowhere near the 23,000-plus that crams into Rupp Arena for Wildcat home games.

A UF/Kentucky matchup is no certainty. South Carolina or Arkansas, Florida’s next opponent, will have something to say about it. Georgia played the Gators tough both times they squared off this year.

One thing Florida or Kentucky would wish to avoid is a matchup with the tournament host, Vanderbilt. If the season ended today, Vanderbilt would have the seventh seed, meaning a potential quarterfinal matchup with the Gators. Both teams have road dates with Vandy still remaining before the regular season ends.

While the Gators certainly miss the presence of big man John Egbunu, out for the season with a knee injury, their good defense has seemed to get even better. It needs to stay at this high level for them to have a chance to win the tournament, and earn the automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament that comes with it.

Many questions remain to be answered, but not matter what happens this week, Florida and Kentucky will be favored to meet again in two weeks.

March Madness is almost upon us.

Clemson’s 46-point improvement not enough to beat Florida State

Any team would be pleased to make a 46-point improvement in the span of three weeks. On Saturday, the Clemson Tigers did just that, but still lost to the Florida State Seminoles.

Saturday’s 76-74 FSU victory was a far cry from the 109-61 pasting administered on Clemson three weeks ago, on February, but the Seminoles were still able to escape with a vital road win. The victory was only the second win for the Seminoles away from home in their last seven road games.

The problems befalling FSU during road games did not occur on Saturday. The team lost its poise before, but they withstood multiple Clemson runs throughout the game. In fact, the Seminoles trailed by three points with 2:24 remaining, but closed the game on a 7-2 run.

Florida State also suffered from free throw woes during their road skid, but that was not a problem on Saturday. The Seminoles converted 23 of 28 attempts from the line.

During the bad old days, the turnovers mounted, leading to several easy baskets by opponents. On Saturday, they turned the ball over only 10 times.

They clearly did not shoot as well as they did during the February 5 romp, but that was a once-in-a-season type of effort. They did the little things well and did just enough to win.

Xavier Rathan-Mayes played with poise, leading the team with 15 points and seven assists while committing only one turnover. Jonathan Isaac had 14 points and Dwayne Bacon 12.

“Knowing we can get down on the road and win in tough situations and play the way we did is definitely optimistic for us,” said Rathan-Mayes.

A vital defensive effort came in the final eight seconds, when Clemson had a chance to tie or win. The Seminoles were able to keep the ball out of the hands Tigers’ star Jaron Blossongame, who led all scorers with 24 points. Instead, Marcquise Reed missed the final shot at the buzzer.

With the win, Florida State temporarily moved into second place in the ACC with an 11-15 conference record. They are 23-6 overall.

This is a very important win for us,” said FSU Coach Leonard Hamilton. “It keeps pace and gives us the opportunity to control our destiny.”

On Tuesday, they travel to Duke to take on a Blue Devils team intent on revenge. Florida State blitzed Duke 88-72 last month in Tallahassee.

If the Blue Devils can improve on their performance by 15 points, Seminole Nation will be pleased.

 

Gators, Seminoles to face teams seeking revenge for earlier blowouts

The Florida Gators and Florida State Seminoles men’s basketball teams face somewhat similar challenges on Saturday. Both will be on the road to face teams they hammered at home just a few weeks ago.

Let’s be honest; the 13th-ranked Gators have the more difficult task, but the way FSU has played on the road over the last month, they will have their hands full as well.

Florida heads to Lexington, Ky. for a 2:00 p.m. tipoff to face a Wildcat team itching at the chance to get at them. The Gators humiliated Kentucky 88-66 on February 4 at the O’Connell Center.

Florida, especially Kasey Hill, shot lights out during the game prompting Kentucky Coach John Calipari to comment about guys like Hill “being better than they are.” Hill, his teammates and Coach Mike White know the challenge before them.

“I think we can go up there, and if we play really well, have a chance to win,” said White after Tuesday night’s victory over South Carolina. “I do. I think that. I think our guys think that, but everybody has got to be a little bit better.”

Few teams come into Rupp Arena and escape with a victory. The 11th-ranked Wildcats have lost two home games this year, but both were to top-10 teams UCLA and Kansas.

The stakes could not be higher. Both have identical 23-5 records and both are 13-2 in the conference. With only three SEC games remaining, the winner will likely become the league’s top seed in the SEC tournament.

“It will be difficult, and everybody’s better at home,” said White. “It’s a difficult challenge.”

For 19th-ranked Florida State, any road game is a monstrous challenge. At noon, they will face a Clemson squad they defeated by 48 points in Tallahassee just three weeks ago.

FSU was raining three-pointers on the Tigers in that game, but the shots have not been falling away from the Tucker Center for the Seminoles. Making free throws has also been a challenge.

While the crowd at Littlejohn Coliseum at Clemson is not Duke’s Cameron Indoor Stadium (FSU’s next stop next week), they can make it a tough place to play. This Clemson team has beaten a good Wake Forest team twice, won at South Carolina and lost a heart breaker at Duke just days after the debacle in Tallahassee.

“I’m glad we’re playing a game on the road this Saturday,” said Seminoles Coach Leonard Hamilton. “Let’s see if we can go on the road and play with that same level of confidence that we did (Monday).”

Hamilton was referring to Florida State’s last game, a 104-72 rout of Boston College in Tallahassee.

Because of their road woes, FSU has fallen into a four-way tie for second place in the ACC after once sharing the lead with North Carolina. Now standing at two games behind the Tar Heels, a regular season ACC title now seems highly unlikely.

“We’ve kinda dug a hole for ourselves,” said Hamilton. “Now we have to go on the road Saturday to see if we can duplicate (Monday’s) game.”

Headaches and money drain of “Water Wars” nearly avoided a decade ago

An old issue returned to the news last week when a U.S. Supreme Court-appointed special master recommended the Court rule against Florida in the ongoing Water Wars saga. Ralph Lancaster said Florida has not “met its burden” in proving reduced water flows from Georgia into the Apalachicola River are the cause for the harm befalling the region’s seafood industry.

For nearly three decades Florida has tried to ensure sufficient water comes into the panhandle region that houses a good portion of this state’s seafood industry. While the Apalachicola region will suffer the most, Florida taxpayers have a stake in all of this as well.

Since 2001, Florida has shelled out $72 million in legal costs to fight this battle. Of that total, as much as $41 million is coming out of this year’s coffers. Much of this money drain is going to outside law firms.

The price tag is not lost on state lawmakers. It is certainly front and center with the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), who reported a $17 million shortfall in covering current and pending bills.

“I think the price tag is what is raising some eyebrows,” said House Appropriations Chairman Carlos Trujillo, a Miami Republican. “We really want to dive down into the bills, the action items and the cost.”

The litigation, originally begun in 1990, picked up steam in 2004 following the failure of the three states to achieve a negotiated settlement on river flows and consumption. Metro Atlanta’s increased desire/need to tap into Lake Lanier in north Georgia was also a major issue.

Both Florida and Alabama have long argued that Atlanta’s booming growth came without responsible water management. That has left all three states susceptible to catastrophic damage when droughts occur.

Anyone remember the 2006-2008 drought in the south? Apalachicola certainly does.

There was one huge opportunity to reach that cherished negotiated settlement which would have saved all of these millions along with the oysters. The Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint (ACF) River Compact, established in 1997, appeared as though it would achieve its goal of preventing more litigation.

Governor Jeb Bush was personally involved in working out an agreement with his counterparts, Gov. Don Siegelman of Alabama and Gov. Roy Barnes of Georgia. Then-DEP Secretary David Struhs and his team were involved in the nuts and bolts.

The compact was extended numerous times, but shortly before it would finally expire in 2003, a tentative understanding was reached between the states. Florida negotiators indicated all that remained was literally putting the final details on paper.

But it was not to be. At the last moment, Florida negotiators said Georgia blew up the agreement.

Teri Donaldson certainly remembers it. As DEP’s General Counsel from 1999-2004 and a former federal prosecutor, she was significantly involved in the negotiations with Georgia and Alabama.

I remember being in her office the next day. As DEP’s spokesman, I had to ask the inevitable question of “what happened?” I won’t forget her response.

“Georgia moved the goal posts,” she said.

Georgia’s decision to back away effectively, but not officially, marked the end of sitting around the table to make a deal. After 2004, the parties would still be seated at tables, but on opposite sides in courtrooms.

More than a decade and $72 million later, this is where the water wars stand. Florida, especially Apalachicola, is worse off since the day the tentative agreement collapsed.

It is tough to see how things get better.

Florida lawmakers may be asking for some of that money back. At issue is the presentation of Florida’s case, which did not include the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Lancaster prominently mentioned this in his recommendation to the Court.

The Corps controls water flows coming from Georgia and has basically taken Georgia’s position. How could they not be named as a defendant?

That’s exactly what House Speaker Richard Corcoran wants to know. According to a report in the News Service of Florida, the legislature may “aggressively” seek refunds for this “failure to include an indispensable party.”

The water wars will continue and apparently the legal wars will soon begin. Legal wars are not cheap either.

We were so close to avoiding all of this.

 

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