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2014 shapes up as a big year in Tampa Bay sports

Tthe Lightning is in much better shape than in 2011 when it went on a surprise run to the conference final, Tom Jones writes.

DIRK SHADD | Times

Tthe Lightning is in much better shape than in 2011 when it went on a surprise run to the conference final, Tom Jones writes.

Start with 2003. That was a good year. Probably the best year.

The Bucs won the Super Bowl that year. When it comes to sports, it doesn't get much better than winning the Super Bowl.

2004. That was a pretty good, too. The Lightning sipped from the Stanley Cup.

Anytime you get a baseball team, that's a memorable year. That happened here in 1998.

In these parts, we've enjoyed memorable trips — to the World Series and the Final Four. We've enjoyed memorable awards — from Heismans to MVPs. We've hosted some of sports' premier events — from Super Bowls to All-Star Games and Final Fours. We've celebrated college national championships.

Look back over your shoulder and you'll remember plenty of magic moments and special years.

But right now might turn out to be the good old days. It might turn out to be the best of times.

Are you paying attention to what is going on?

It's only February, but this year — 2014 — has a chance to go down as the best sports year in Tampa Bay history.

Just two months in and we already have a championship. Florida State and Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Jameis Winston went out to California and brought home college football's national championship.

University of Florida fans probably didn't get a kick out of that, but now is their time. Their basketball team is the top-ranked team in the land and headed to a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament. If all goes as expected, the Gators will be booking a trip to the Final Four.

Hockey season cranks up again this week and the Lightning returns with one of the best records in the NHL. The playoffs seem like a sure bet.

An awful lot of people who know an awful lot about baseball are predicting the Rays to do an awful lot of good things this year, like maybe even winning a World Series.

That's about the time FSU will be defending its national title by being the favorite to win another national championship.

So will this year be the best ever?

Let's start with the Gators.

Florida has three things going for it: experience, defense and coaching. Know what wins come March? Experience, defense and coaching.

This version of Billy Donovan's Gators struggles offensively. They play in a lousy conference, which makes it hard to put a whole lot of stock in their gaudy record. They play way too many tight games against far too many inferior teams, also a sign that this team might not be as good as its ranking.

But in a college basketball season full of a lot of really good, but not great, teams, Florida is as good as any. And if all things are equal, I'll take experience, defense and coaching.

Next up, the Lightning.

Tampa Bay has three things going for it: goaltending, timely scoring and steady coaching from Jon Cooper. Know what wins come playoff time? Goaltending, timely scoring and steady coaching.

Assuming Marty St. Louis and GM Steve Yzerman can co-exist, the Lightning should be in good shape come playoff time as long as goalie Ben Bishop stays healthy. Steven Stamkos is just about back from his broken leg and his return is like trading for a 60-goal scorer at the trade deadline. No team will get more of an impact player for the final stretch.

There are several Stanley Cup contenders in the East and it's probably not fair to lump the Lightning's chances up there with the Penguins or Bruins. But the Lightning is in much better shape than in 2011 when it went on a surprise run to the conference final.

The Rays?

As usual, the Rays' strength is pitching and defense. Know what wins over a long baseball season? Pitching and defense.

They didn't trade David Price. They brought back James Loney and David DeJesus. They improved their catching, patched up their bullpen and, last time I checked, still have the sharpest mind in the game filling out the lineup card every day.

Ultimately, I'd rather have the Red Sox lineup and the Yankees limitless payroll. Even if the Rays get by those two — as well as the Orioles and Blue Jays, which should not be dismissed — they would then have to fight their way past the Tigers, A's, Rangers or maybe even the Royals or Angels or Mariners just to get to the World Series.

But if the Rays can get to October and manager Joe Maddon can march out a rotation of Price, Alex Cobb, Matt Moore and Chris Archer, they have a great chance.

The Gators? They'll be a Final Four team. The Lightning? It will win a series or two. The Rays? They'll get to the playoffs. FSU? Hard to imagine the 'Noles losing anytime soon under Jimbo Fisher.

Put that all together under the steady hands of Donovan, Cooper, Maddon and Fisher and you have the makings for the best sports year in Tampa Bay history.

Heck, even a new coach and, perhaps, a new quarterback give the Bucs some hope in 2014.

And USF?

I said it would be a good year, not a perfect one.

2014 shapes up as a big year in Tampa Bay sports 02/25/14 [Last modified: Tuesday, February 25, 2014 5:53pm]

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