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‘The Plug’ podcast: ‘The Madness Begins’ feat. Jenisha Watts (episode 14)

All things March Madness, Odell Beckham Jr., LeBron Sr. playing with LeBron Jr., and more

2:12 PM

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Thanks to Mother Nature making sure we felt the effects of winter one last time before spring, we had a delayed recording this week.

It’s no worries, though. The show was still lit. Jenisha Watts, an editor with espnW, joins Terrika, Kayla and me (and later Tes) to talk about Ryan Coogler’s letter to Ava DuVernay, Cam Newton and much more. From there, the crew chops it up on Odell Beckham Jr.’s recent video controversy, whether or not LeBron James Sr. will actually stay in the NBA long enough to play with LeBron Jr., the validity of Tiger Woods’ latest impressive showing and, of course, all things March Madness.

We’re back on our regular schedule next week — provided it doesn’t snow another 10 inches again next week, of course. Rain, sleet, ice, snow or heat wave, you can always subscribe to The Plug via the ESPN App. But you knew that already, didn’t you?

Justin Jenifer went from can’t-miss 10-year-old to starting guard at Cincinnati

Baltimore product has remained levelheaded through it all

11:16 AMNASHVILLE, Tennessee — When most Baltimore kids would have been happy making weekend trips to the Inner Harbor or playing games with their friends at Chuck E. Cheese’s, here’s what was going on in Justin Jenifer’s 10-year-old life:

  • AAU coaches across the nation were offering to fly him in for games.
  • A shoe company was sponsoring his team, seeking brand loyalty.
  • High school powerhouses were beginning to recruit him.

“It was a fun time in my life,” said Jenifer, a junior guard with No. 2 seed Cincinnati. “But growing up and having a target on your back for years, it’s hard going out there and playing when you have that pressure on you.”

Has Jenifer, who was profiled by The Washington Post when he was 10, emerged as the superstar player everyone expected him to be 12 years ago? Not quite, considering he’s not a household name.

But Jenifer is starting for the Bearcats, one of the nation’s top teams, who will take on No. 7 seed Nevada on Sunday. Jenifer averages 4.9 points and 2.5 assists in just under 20 minutes.

“I watched the NCAA tournament when I was young, so this is exciting to be here and be a part of this in college,” Jenifer said. “To be here and to be representing a city that doesn’t get a lot of opportunities, this is special.”

Jenifer’s not the first in his family to play in the NCAA tournament. His cousin, Keith Jenifer, played his first two years of college at Virginia before transferring to Murray State. In 2006 he was the starting point guard for the No. 14-seeded Murray State team that lost to No. 3 seed North Carolina, 69-65, in the first round of the NCAA tournament. Keith Jenifer had led the Cavaliers to three straight wins over the Tar Heels before transferring to Murray State, where he was coached by Mick Cronin, now the head coach at Cincinnati.

“He was one of the Baltimore guys I looked up to growing up, along with guys like Will Barton [of the Denver Nuggets], [former NBA point guard] Muggsy Bogues and [former Maryland guard] Sean Mosley,” Jenifer said. “There’s a lot of talent in Baltimore, including people in my family.”

Jenifer enjoyed seeing No. 16 seed University of Maryland Baltimore County (UMBC) upset top-seeded Virginia on Friday.

“Anytime a team from the Baltimore area does something, it’s great,” Jenifer said. “I was really happy for them.”

Five things to know about UMBC, the first 16 seed on the men’s side to take down No. 1

Jairus Lyles knows a little something about top competition

10:03 AMWhere were you the night No. 16 University of Maryland Baltimore County (UMBC) took down No. 1 Virginia, the overall top seed?

At almost exactly the stroke of midnight, the Retrievers’ Cinderella story was in full swing as they blew out the Cavaliers, 74-54. UMBC came into the game with a 1.5 percent chance to upset the top team in the nation and dropped 53 points (which was the average points per game UVA allowed its opponents to score) in the second half to advance to the round of 32 against Kansas State.

It took 136 attempts, but a 16th seed finally prevailed, and here’s exactly what should you know about UMBC and its leading scorer, Jairus Lyles, after the team’s remarkable display Friday night.

Also, Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan called game.


This 16 seed was a remarkable kind of bad over the years

In the previous seven seasons, UMBC won a GRAND TOTAL of 41 games. In fact, just last year, the Retrievers finished 7-25 and dead last in the America East Conference. UMBC lost by 44 points to Albany this season.

20 years later the men caught up to the women

Let’s be very clear: UMBC is the first 16 seed to drop a No. 1 in the men’s tournament, but not overall. The first happened 20 years ago when the Harvard women’s team defeated Stanford, 71-67. Stanford sent its condolences to UVA, while UMBC was clear to make sure everyone writing about its amazing achievement put it in proper perspective and paid respect to what Harvard’s team did.

Lyles played with some ballers in high school

Not to brag, but as someone from Prince George’s County and the state of Maryland, we produce the best basketball players in the country. One of the top programs in the country is DeMatha Catholic, where Lyles played his high school hoops.

How was he able to step up and drop 28 points, 4 rebounds and 3 assists on the Cavaliers? He wasn’t new to this. As a freshman he was going against the likes of Quinn Cook, Jerami Grant, Jerian Grant, Mikael Hopkins and Victor Oladipo. So at 14, Lyles had to practice against juggernauts in a program that demands you step up no matter who your opponent is. It’s no wonder that he would lead UMBC to this upset.

Lyles just upset his PARENTS’ alma mater

Jairus’ father, Lester, was so good at football that The Washington Post‘s Michael Wilbon penned a few words about his decision to spurn his home state (Maryland) and commit to a struggling Virginia football program. Lyles had his pick of football programs — the Terps, North Carolina, Wisconsin, etc. — but the strong safety opted for UVA.

Lyles spent his first two years on the bench watching the team win three of 22 games before UVA surprised the ACC and football world in 1984 with its 7-1-2 record. Lyles was given credit for the school’s turnaround. Thirty-four years later, his son did the same thing, picking a program not known for success and leading it to the biggest upset in men’s tournament history.

Jairus’ mother, Carol Motley, also attended UVA, where she met Lester.

Shoutout to the chess team, though

After the game, UMBC’s basketball team was asked where it got its drive to win, and the team shouted out the school’s most prestigious competitive unit, the chess team. How good is the chess team, you ask? It went to 16 consecutive Final Fours. And if anyone was really paying attention to the game, UVA was playing checkers while UMBC was out there playing chess.

O.J. Simpson says Colin Kaepernick ‘made a bad choice in attacking the flag’

The Juice leaves much of America with the choice of agreeing with Kaepernick or him

3:23 PMFormer NFL running back O.J. Simpson said he disagrees with Colin Kaepernick’s decision to kneel during the national anthem, calling the gesture “a bad choice in attacking the flag.”

In an interview with The Buffalo News on Friday that ranged in topics from his playing career with the Buffalo Bills to his time at Lovelock Correctional Center and brain injuries, Simpson seemed most opinionated about the former San Francisco 49ers quarterback and his 2016 protests.

While Simpson said he appreciated Kaepernick’s message against police brutality and racial inequality, he thinks the quarterback “made a mistake” in choosing the American flag and national anthem as his vessel.

“I thought he made a bad choice in attacking the flag,” Simpson said. “I grew up at a time when deacons were in the KKK. I don’t disrespect the Bible because of those guys. The flag shouldn’t be disrespected because of what cops do. The flag represents what we want America to be.”

Simpson went on to say, leaving much of America with the choice of agreeing with Kaepernick or him, that he’s a “firm believer of doing what you think is right,” but — even after being accused of abusing his former wife (of which he was never charged), a gruesome double murder (of which he was acquitted), and robbing and kidnapping memorabilia dealers (of which he was convicted) — he “would always stand for the flag.”

In the rest of the interview, Simpson covered a variety of other topics.

On being the first running back in NFL history to rush for more than 2,000 yards in a single season:

“From the moment that happened, I knew I was a part of football forever. I was the first guy to gain 2,000 yards and nobody could beat that, like being the first to hit 60 home runs or run the four-minute mile.”

On whether he would have voted for Donald Trump, whose wedding he attended in 1993, as president:

“Somebody asked me if I’d have voted for him. Probably not, but I only know two of my friends I’d vote to be president. Some of my best, best besties I would not vote to be president. That has no bearing on it, you know?”

On if he thinks he has chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE, a debilitating brain disease:

“Well, I don’t know. I feel all right. But I have days when I can’t … I lose words, and I can’t come up with a simple word. I can’t remember a phone number, so forget that.”

(Simpson believes longtime friend and man-who-was-willing-to-take-a-bullet-for-The-Juice-before-he-was-famous Al Cowlings may be affected: “I see [Cowlings] short-tempered now. A guy who has never been short-tempered. I see he’s struggling just a little bit.”)

On returning to the Bills someday, a team he played for between 1969-1977:

“I like the Buffalo Bills. So I will, the minute I can travel, request once or twice maybe next season to go to Buffalo, visit some friends, meet some of the boys. I thoroughly enjoy coming back. But it will not be through the Buffalo Bills.”

On his legacy as a football player:

“Anybody that saw me play will remember me as a football player. I like to think I played the game with a lot of passion and love. … I like to think I left a lot of those runs out there. I don’t think that once you see it, you’ll ever forget it.”

LeBron James unleashes vicious dunk on Portland’s Jusuf Nurkic

Nurkic joins a long list of others who entered The King’s airspace and lost

11:00 PMIf this were the ’90s, we’d all be in a panic trying to persuade our parents to get us the poster to put on our walls. In the first quarter of Thursday’s night’s primetime showdown between the Cleveland Cavaliers and Portland Trailblazers, LeBron James and Jusuf Nurkic met at the rim. It didn’t end well for Nurkic.

The dunk sent social channels into a tizzy — instantly taking over conversation that had been reserved for late-night March Madness games and Atlanta. As our own Martenzie Johnson pointed out, the folks at Nike must be thrilled as James had rolled out a new colorway for his LeBron 15s. (Related note: The dunk taking place in Portland, Oregon, not so far from Beaverton, where Nike’s worldwide headquarters is located, couldn’t have hurt either.)

Whether the force of LeBron’s dunk had the power to allow him to singlehandedly enter Wakanda’s force field is a topic for another day. But one thing’s for certain. Nurkic just joined the illustrious company of Damon Jones, Tim Duncan, John Lucas III, James Johnson, Jason Terry, Ian Mahinmi and Ben McLemore — all who tried to enter The King’s airspace and found out the hard way that’s not exactly the best business decision.

Teddy Bridgewater’s long climb back continues in New York

Quarterback will compete with Josh McCown

9:18 PMTeddy Bridgewater is headed to the Big Apple.

The former Minnesota Vikings quarterback, who overcame a gruesome leg injury and grueling rehab to get back into the game, reached an agreement with the New York Jets on a one-year contract. He’s expected to compete with Josh McCown, who returned to the team he led last season on a one-year, $10 million deal.

Because of his injury, Bridgewater missed the entire 2016 season. Last season, he appeared in only one game. After signing former Washington Redskins quarterback Kirk Cousins, the Vikings moved on from the 25-year-old Bridgewater, who was once their franchise passer. Now, we’ll see whether Bridgewater can make it all the way back.

During practice on Aug. 30, 2016, Bridgewater’s left leg essentially snapped in two after he planted his foot awkwardly on a noncontact drill. He suffered a dislocated knee and torn ligaments, prompting fears he could lose his leg. As Bridgewater lay on the ground, many of his shaken teammates dropped to one knee and prayed. The harrowing scene was all the more painful for the Vikings and their fans because the personable young man embodied the organization’s hope for the future.

As a rookie in 2014, Bridgewater completed 64.4 percent of his passes – the third-highest total for a first-year passer. Future Hall of Famer Ben Roethlisberger tops the list at 66.4 percent.

Late in his rookie season, Bridgewater showed significant signs of progress: He completed 101 of 140 passes, a mark of 72.1 percent. In 13 games (12 starts), Bridgewater passed for 2,919 yards and 14 touchdowns with 12 interceptions. No quarterback in his draft class had higher quarterback or passer ratings.

In his second NFL season, the Vikings’ 2014 No. 1 draft pick (32nd overall) directed the team to an 11-5 record and the NFC North title. The Vikings believed they were set for a decade or so at football’s most important position before the injury. As soon as doctors cleared Bridgewater to begin rehab after major surgery, he began the long climb.

With the Jets, Bridgewater will work under Todd Bowles, who’s one of only eight head coaches of color in the NFL. Although the Jets went 5-11 and finished last in the AFC East last season, Bowles earned high marks from longtime league observers because the team was surprisingly competitive despite having one of the league’s weakest rosters. Late in the season, Bowles received a two-year extension, keeping him under contract through 2020. Moving forward, it’ll be interesting to watch Bowles manage the team’s new quarterback dynamic.