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The Sports Report: SEC, you are the biggest loser

Pac-12 Commissioner George Kliavkoff
(Associated Press)
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Howdy, I’m your host, Houston Mitchell. Let’s get right to the news.

From J. Brady McCollough: For too long, the Pac-12 has served as an almost-willing national punching bag. During the weekend, as passionate college football observers processed the news that the College Football Playoff would not expand before the 2026 season, it was only natural that the sport’s opinion shapers assigned the proverbial clown suit to the West Coast’s Power Five conference.

Once again, based on the narrative being spun from the middle of the country, the league set itself up for ridicule. Pac-12 Commissioner George Kliavkoff had been trumpeting his full support of expansion, his flexibility in hammering out all the minutiae, and yet, when it came to voting, he had said no, along with the Big Ten and Atlantic Coast Conferences. So the Pac-12, which hasn’t been to the four-team playoff since the 2016 season, had somehow refused more access, risking that it might go a full decade without a representative?

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Some of the criticism is fair. Some of it isn’t. But, before we get stuck in the same old pattern of picking on the Pac-12, how about we pose a different question: What if the biggest loser in the failure to expand the CFP was the conference with the most to gain — the one that had been pulling the strings harder than any other the last two-plus years to push the number to 12?

Finally, the Southeastern Conference, winner of the last three national championships and 12 of 16 overall, couldn’t bully its way to victory.

Now, a disclaimer: I believe expansion could be great for college football, and of course it would very much benefit the Pac-12 to have more teams invited to the event. The point I’m about to make is that agreeing to it today, given how the process played out the last six months, would have only increased the SEC’s position of dominance over the rest of the Power Five, even the cash-flush Big Ten.

There are many absurd things about college football that we just sort of accept. A glaring one is that it’s an increasingly professional sport that has no national leadership to govern its dealings, putting aside the regional biases that make the game the beautiful spectacle it is.

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LAKERS

From Bill Plaschke: LeBron James is a giant.

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He’s not bigger than the Lakers.

James will retire as the greatest player in NBA history.

He’s not greater than the Lakers.

James has spent four years in Los Angeles. The Lakers have been here for 62. James has won one championship in Los Angeles. The Lakers have won a dozen.

These are all inordinately obvious statements that should not require recitation, but some people around town have gotten in their heads that the Lakers need to keep submitting to the King’s commands for the franchise to survive.

Honestly? At this point in his career, there really is only one way LeBron James can help the Lakers win a championship.

They must trade him.

It’s their best chance at getting the fastest start on their inevitable rebuild. It’s their last chance to fix the Lakers brand before it sinks into what could be a decade of mediocrity.

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KINGS

Viktor Arvidsson scored his second goal of the game with 3:39 remaining to give the Kings a 3-2 victory over the Arizona Coyotes on Wednesday night.

The Kings have won five straight road games and are 7-0-2 in their past nine, with the last two coming in Arizona. Los Angeles beat the Coyotes 5-3 on Saturday in a game rescheduled from Dec. 27 because of COVID-19.

Blake Lizotte also scored for the Kings, and Cal Petersen made 17 saves for his second consecutive win over Arizona.

Clayton Keller and Loui Erikkson scored for the Coyotes. Scott Wedgewood stopped 33 shots in his second straight start.

The Kings have won their last seven in Arizona and are 7-1-2 in their past 10 games, nine away from home.

BASEBALL

Major League Baseball said Wednesday that the 2022 season will be shortened if no labor agreement has been reached by the end of Monday.

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Management had maintained that was the deadline for a deal that would allow the season to start as scheduled on March 31. Players have not said whether they accept that timeframe, and there remains a sense both sides are awaiting more time pressure to force more major moves by the other.

The declaration from MLB came after another day of minor moves. Major League Baseball’s only new offer to players Wednesday was to increase the minimum salary by an additional $10,000 a year.

MLB upped its proposed minimum for this year to $640,000, with the figure rising by $10,000 in each additional season of a five-year agreement.

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SPARKS

From J. Brady McCollough: Liz Cambage did not have to come back for another season in the WNBA. At 30 years old, she had become more than just a basketball player, starting a vitamin business in her native Australia and continuing her blossoming career as a DJ. Plus, with nearly a million followers on Instagram, her brand was booming.

But there was something deep down, an undeniable urge, that brought her to Wednesday’s big moment, to the stage set up outside Crypto.com Arena where she would be officially introduced as the Sparks’ newest star free-agent acquisition.

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“It was L.A. or out for me,” Cambage said. “There was nowhere else I wanted to be.”

While that notion is somewhat predictable fodder for an introductory news conference, Cambage’s words felt genuine, like this step really was the culmination of a childhood dream.

“Growing up, everyone told me to watch Shaq play, but I was too busy watching Kobe. I should have been studying Shaq’s game,” she said with an easy laugh. “Now I’m studying Shaq’s game and still trying to be Kobe. But growing up, they were the two players I got to see the most back in Australia. If it wasn’t their game, it was in ads on TV, in interviews, in magazines. I wanted to play at Staples. I wanted to play here. I wanted to be a star, Hollywood and the lights.”

SOCCER

Catarina Macario and Mallory Pugh each scored two goals and the U.S. women’s national team beat Iceland 5-0 Wednesday night to win the SheBelieves Cup.

The Americans won the annual four-team tournament, now in its seventh year, for the third straight year.

The United States has 17th straight shutouts on American soil, dating to March 2020. The national team also is unbeaten in 65 straight games at home.

Kristie Mewis also scored in the victory that came as the team celebrated an agreement with U.S. Soccer to settle a dispute over equitable pay with the men’s national team.

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Many of the veterans from the national team, including Alex Moran, Megan Rapinoe, Christen Press and Tobin Heath, were not on the roster for the SheBelieves Cup as coach Vlatko Andonovski looked at younger players ahead of World Cup qualifying this summer.

UCLA BASKETBALL

From Ben Bolch: Some considered it the best AAU team to ever lace up sneakers. Those Compton Magic players couldn’t throw a pass in the summer of 2018 without it touching the hands of a future Pac-12 star, the roster featuring eventual NBA first-round draft picks Evan Mobley and Onyeka Okongwu as well as future college standouts Johnny Juzang, Jarod Lucas and Isaiah Mobley.

As he prepared to excitedly bound into the gym as a fringe member of this collection of all-stars, nearly everyone else a year or two older, Jaylen Clark received a sobering directive from his father.

“I want you to go in that gym and I want you to play defense 94 feet,” recalled Cornelius Clark, himself a former hard-nosed defender who had played one season at Modesto Junior College. “Nobody in AAU plays defense 94 feet, Jaylen. On that team, you’re never going to see the floor. You’re on the team, but you’re not going to play because they don’t need you, you’re the youngest kid and they’ve got all kinds of firepower.

“You play defense, you’re going to force your way on the floor.”

Looking back, it was as if the elder Clark had foretold his son’s basketball destiny. Jaylen played defense. He forced his way onto the floor. He became an essential part of the team.

A similar story arc has played out at UCLA, where Clark might be the hardest player to take off the floor near the end of his sophomore season. He has become a two-way force after persevering through a series of concussions and illnesses, combining lockdown defense with an emerging offensive repertoire for a team that badly needed an infusion of both.

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USC BASKETBALL

From Ryan Kartje: In the aftermath of one of this season’s strangest victories, Andy Enfield peered down at USC’s statline last Sunday, perplexed.

“This,” the USC coach said, “is a unique box score.”

USC had given up 15 three-pointers to Washington State, five more than any game all season. The Trojans had nearly twice as many turnovers (14) as assists (eight). They were outrebounded 41-34 and scored just 62 points, among the fewest they’d earned in a game all season. And in spite of it all, they came away with the win, thanks to a terrific defensive effort and a Boogie Ellis buzzer-beater.

It was an especially odd path to victory, one USC would probably prefer not to venture down again as it heads to Oregon and Oregon State this weekend for its final road trip of the regular season. But as the Trojans have soared to 23 wins, good for their best start since 1974, they’ve gotten pretty used to winning in unusual — and often, ugly — ways. And with the postseason fast approaching, those otherwise unseemly victories along the way may just help keep USC alive come March.

THIS DATE IN SPORTS

1960 — Bill Cleary’s four goals lead the United States to a 9-1 victory over West Germany in the hockey championship round of the Winter Olympics in Squaw Valley, Calif.

1967 — Wilt Chamberlain of Philadelphia shoots 18-for-18 from the field against the Baltimore Bullets, an NBA record for field goals in a game without a miss.

1978 — Kevin Porter of the New Jersey Nets sets an NBA record with 29 assists in a 126-112 victory over the Houston Rockets.

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1980 — The United States hockey team wins the gold medal with a 4-2 victory over Finland at the Winter Olympics in Lake Placid, N.Y.

1985 — Jim Kelly of the Houston Gamblers passes for a USFL-record 574 yards and five touchdowns in a 34-33 comeback-win over the Los Angeles Express. Kelly completes 35 of 54 passes, including three for touchdowns in the final 10 minutes.

1988 — An unprecedented winner of the 90-and 70-meter individual events, Matti Nykanen becomes the Winter Olympics’ first triple gold medalist in Nordic skiing when Finland wins the new 90-meter team ski jumping event.

1993 — Steve Yzerman of the Detroit Red Wings scores his 1,000th career point with two goals and two assists in a 10-7 loss to Buffalo Sabres.

1994 — Lipscomb’s John Pierce becomes college basketball’s career scoring leader with 33 points in his regular-season finale, a 119-102 win over Cumberland. Pierce’s 4,110 points break former roommate Phil Hutcheson’s record of 4,106.

2002 — Svetlana Feofanova breaks the pole vault indoor world record for the fourth time this month, clearing 15 feet, 6 1/2 inches at the Gaz de France meet.

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2002 — Canada beats the United States 5-2 for the gold medal in men’s hockey at the Winter Olympics. It’s the seventh time Canada has won the gold in its national sport, but the first since 1952.

2006 — Julia Mancuso earns a stunning victory in the giant slalom to salvage a disappointing Olympics for the U.S. women in their final Alpine event of the Turin Games. Mancuso gives the American women their first Olympic Alpine medal since Picabo Street’s gold in the super-G at the 1998 Nagano Games.

2012 — Missy Parkin becomes the first woman to reach the match play finals in the 69th U.S Open at Brunswick Zone-Carolier. Shafer, a 25-year Professional Bowlers Association Tour veteran, completes the 26-game qualifying portion of the U.S. Open with a total of 5,825 pins - averaging at a 224.04 pace.

2018 — Ester Ledecka wins the second leg of an unheard-of Olympic double, taking the gold medal in snowboarding’s parallel giant slalom to go with her surprise skiing victory in the Alpine super-G earlier in the games. The Czech star is the first to win gold medals in both sports.

2018 — The United States wins the Olympic gold medal in men’s curling in a decisive upset of Sweden. John Shuster skips the United States to a 10-7 victory for only the second curling medal in U.S. history.

Supplied by the Associated Press

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And finally

The U.S. men’s hockey team wins gold in 1980. Watch and listen here.

Until next time...

That concludes today’s newsletter. If you have any feedback, ideas for improvement or things you’d like to see, email me at houston.mitchell@latimes.com, and follow me on Twitter at @latimeshouston. To get this newsletter in your inbox, click here.

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