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March Madness grips Rays clubhouse

Kevin Kiermaier, Mike Zunino among those taking an interest in NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament
 
David Nichols and his FSU teammates couldn't wrest away the ACC Tournament title from Zion Williamson and Duke, but Rays outfielder Kevin Kiermaier likes the Seminoles to make the Final Four. [AP Photo/Chuck Burton]
David Nichols and his FSU teammates couldn't wrest away the ACC Tournament title from Zion Williamson and Duke, but Rays outfielder Kevin Kiermaier likes the Seminoles to make the Final Four. [AP Photo/Chuck Burton]
Published March 19, 2019

PORT CHARLOTTE — Some of Kevin Kiermaier’s equipment had spilled over into the adjacent, unoccupied locker on Monday.

In it sat a couple of batting gloves, a pair of bats, some workout clothes – and a brightly colored basketball emblazoned with the logo of this year’s NCAA Women’s Final Four that Tampa will host April 5-7.

Kiermaier used the ball to help promote the Tampa Bay Sports Commission’s Dribble to Work today, a Twitter campaign to build momentum towards Monday’s release of the women’s bracket.

In a casual conversation, the centerfielder begins to break down the tournament, mentioning various teams and boldly saying that top-seeded Duke can be beaten. He names players, cites statistics and speaks glowingly of his team, Purdue.

“We all love March Madness,” Kiermaier said. “I think I'm speaking for any athlete: NFL, MLB, NBA. I mean, what sports fan doesn't like watching it? It's so much fun. The first Thursday and Friday of the tournament are the best two days of sports all year, if you ask me.

“I can't wait for it. I love the upsets. I love the 13-4 upsets, the 12-5 upsets. Those are the best ones and those games are so close. It just kind of gives you a glimpse of what the tournament could be like.”

Kiermaier filled out a bracket with WTSP-Ch. 10 sports anchor Justin Grant. While he would like nothing more than to see his Boilermakers win it all, he’s predicting an all ACC Final Four with fourth-seeded Florida State serving as a bit of surprise and joining North Carolina, Duke and Virginia.

“I got Florida State as my dark horse,” Kiermaier said. “The more I watched them in the ACC tournament and the last part of the regular season, I really liked the depth they have and the talent they have on their team.

“Even with that last game versus Duke, they made it respectable and Duke kind of made a run there at the end. They definitely have the personnel to make a run.”

Asked if catcher Mike Zunino knew of his new-found appreciation of FSU, Kiermaier smiled and said, “Oh he knows.”

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Zunino, who played in college at the University of Florida, found time to watch his Gators over the weekend. He was disappointed they didn’t get a last-second call in the Southeastern Conference semifinal against Auburn, but happy UF earned a 10th seed in the West Region.

Rays catcher and former Gator Mike Zunino will be rooting for Florida coach Mike White and the UF basketball team to do well in the NCAA Mens Basketball Tournament. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)
Rays catcher and former Gator Mike Zunino will be rooting for Florida coach Mike White and the UF basketball team to do well in the NCAA Mens Basketball Tournament. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)

“I watched the selection show yesterday,” Zunino said Monday. “They threw in as one of the last teams over there that West, but I'm hoping we make a little runway. We played good down the stretch.”

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Zunino said as the tournament nears, he’ll starting to see more of his fellow players sizing up their brackets and trying to make an educated guess on will advance. Maybe you should call it base-ketball.

“It's going to be fun,” Zunino said. “It's always a fun time of year to watch a lot of good basketball games.”

A lot of what appeals to the fans also appeals to the players: underdogs and upsets. And after the Rays won a surprising 90 games last year, why wouldn’t they embrace the lower seeds?

“The thing about this tournament is anything can happen on any given day,” Kiermaier said. “For the first time ever, we saw a 16 seed beat a one seed last year. And I always root for the underdog. I enjoy watching that sleeper team making a run. We'll see who that team is this year like Loyola Chicago last year.”

Manager Kevin Cash recognizes that the team follows the tournament closely, and he’s right there with them. Asked if he would be filling out a bracket, the manager simply said, “I’ll have multiple.”

Contact Ernest Hooper at ehooper@tampabay.com. Follow @hoop4you.

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