September 2023 Sports Calendar:
Six Events/Themes Worth Watching

By David Glenn
North Carolina Sports Network

In a November 2022 poll of American adults, the only team sports/organizations that had fan followings of at least half the respondents were the National Football League (69%), Major League Baseball (54%), college football (51%) and the National Basketball Association (50%).

With that in mind, at least three of this month’s six viewing recommendations will come as no surprise.

However, one non-NBA basketball event offers at least some intrigue (and is already nearing its conclusion), and two other events (one already underway) beyond the “Big Four” also could present some fascinating storylines.

In chronological order, then, we present “Six Events/Themes Worth Watching” for American sports fans as the calendar turns to September:

#1 — FIBA World Cup, men’s basketball (underway)

This event, already underway in the Philippines, Japan and Indonesia, is essentially the Triple A championship of international hoops, with the Summer Olympics offering the ultimate test in that regard.

There is no doubt that the United States is the best basketball country in the world. The USA has by far the best professional league, with the NBA, and it’s famous for its college basketball, especially March Madness, too.

At the Summer Olympics, Team USA has won 16 of the 20 all-time gold medals on the men’s side, and the Americans have captured nine of the 12 all-time gold medals on the women’s side.

Basically, with few exceptions, when the United States competes at one of these major international basketball events, it is expected to win. Indeed, the betting favorite entering this year’s World Cup, as usual, was Team USA.

The FIBA World Cup, which used to be called the World Championship and — like the Olympics — is played only once every four years, now serves as a qualifier for the Olympics and gradually has become less predictable because of the relatively unpredictable nature of its individual participants.

Whereas Team USA won the World Cup in 1986 (when the team’s guards included Duke’s Tommy Amaker, Wake Forest’s Muggsy Bogues and UNC’s Kenny Smith), 1994, 2010 (under Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski) and 2014 (also under Coach K), the former Yugoslavia (three) and Spain (two) also have multiple World Cup titles over the last 40 years.

It has become interesting to see which top NBA players agree to participate (for Team USA or otherwise) in this event, because even with the Olympics, many of the biggest stars have been saying “no thanks” much more often than they did decades ago. In fact, among the top 20 scorers in the NBA last season, only three are playing in the 2023 World Cup: Luka Doncic (Slovenia), Shai Gilgeous-Alexander (Canada) and Lauri Markkanen (Finland).

Among the top NBA players who opted out of playing for Team USA, for a wide variety of reasons (including injuries in some cases), were — in alphabetical order — Bam Adebayo, Devin Booker, Jaylen Brown, Jimmy Butler, Stephen Curry, Anthony Davis, Kevin Durant, De’Aaron Fox, Draymond Green, Kyrie Irving, LeBron James, Damian Lillard, Khris Middleton, Donovan Mitchell, Julius Randle and Jayson Tatum.

Golden State Warriors coach Steve Kerr is the head coach of Team USA at this year’s World Cup, and his players include 2023 NBA All-Stars Anthony Edwards (Timberwolves), Tyrese Haliburton (Pacers) and Jaren Jackson Jr. (Grizzlies), former Duke stars Paolo Banchero and Brandon Ingram (Kinston’s own!), former UNC star Cameron Johnson and one-time UNC player Walker Kessler.

Along with the USA, Australia, Canada, Germany, Serbia and Spain have the most highly regarded teams at this year’s World Cup.

#2 — US Open, men’s and women’s tennis (underway)

Men’s tennis has been dominated for basically 20 consecutive years by the so-called “Big Three” of Roger Federer of Switzerland, Rafael Nadal of Spain and Novak Djokovic of Serbia. They are the top three guys on the all-time major victories list: Djokovic with 23, Nadal with 22, Federer with 20.

That’s made it a little less fun for many American tennis fans, who haven’t seen an American male win a tennis major since guys like Pete Sampras in 2002 and Andy Roddick in 2003. That’s a long time ago.

But now Federer (42 years old) is retired, and Nadal (37 years old) has missed most of the 2023 season with injuries. Djokovic is 36 years old but clearly still one of the best in the world, but he’s actually the #2 seed at the US Open, behind Carlos Alcaraz, a 20-year-old sensation from Spain who already has won two majors — the US Open last year and Wimbledon earlier this year.

A possible Alcaraz-Djokovic final at the US Open would be an absolute sight to behold; they have split their four previous matches, with Alcaraz beating Joker in the Wimbledon final earlier this year. Just two weeks ago, though, Joker beat Alcaraz in the final of the Cincinnati Masters, in another exciting match.

For anyone looking for American angles at this year’s US Open, the best bets are #9 seed Taylor Fritz, #10 Frances Tiafoe, #14 Tommy Paul, #28 Christopher Eubanks (a former Georgia Tech star) and fast-rising 20-year-old Ben Shelton on the men’s side, plus #3 seed Jessica Pegula, #6 Coco Gauff and #17 Madison Keys on the women’s side.

#3 — Major League Baseball (final month of regular season)

Each team has only 22-25 games remaining in MLB’s 162-game regular-season marathon, and at least two of the league’s six divisions remained up for grabs entering September.

The Atlanta Braves are going to win the National League East, and the Los Angeles Dodgers are going to win the National League West. Beyond that, the Baltimore Orioles appear to be in control of the American League East, and the Minnesota Twins seem in command of the American League Central.

That leaves the AL West (Astros-Mariners-Rangers) and the NL Central (Brewers-Cubs-Reds) truly up for grabs, plus the recently expanded Wild Card races, which also include extremely dangerous teams such as the Tampa Bay Rays in the AL and the Philadelphia Phillies in the NL.

The final day of MLB’s regular season is Oct. 1.

#4 — National Football League (first month of regular season)

In the NFL, the preseason favorites include the Chiefs, Bengals, Bills, Jaguars and Ravens in the seemingly loaded AFC, and the Eagles, 49ers and Cowboys in the possibly more manageable NFC, which of course also includes the Carolina Panthers.

The Panthers, at least for now, are viewed more as part of the large could-go-either-way category of NFL teams, especially in the NFC South, which may not have a great team among the Panthers, Saints, Falcons and Buccaneers.

What’s exciting is that the Panthers have a new head coach, Frank Reich, who was a key part (as offensive coordinator) of a Super Bowl champion six years ago with the Philadelphia Eagles and then had three winning seasons — and two playoff trips — in his five years as the Indianapolis Colts’ head coach.

Does Reich have enough talent on this Carolina team to mold a great offense? Maybe not, but it should be a more fun story to watch than the mostly miserable three-year Matt Rhule era, which extended the Panthers’ playoff drought to five consecutive seasons.

What’s also exciting is that the Panthers have a new quarterback, after trading wide receiver DJ Moore and multiple draft picks to the Chicago Bears in order to move up to the #1 overall pick, which of course they used to take Bryce Young, who won a Heisman Trophy in 2021 and started for the last two seasons under legendary coach Nick Saban with the Alabama Crimson Tide. Young also was the backup to Mac Jones on the Tide’s 2020 national title team.

In the preseason, under some difficult circumstances, including very vanilla game plans, Young didn’t put up huge numbers, but he showed confidence, poise and an understanding of the playbook that impressed the coaching staff and his veteran teammates.

Will 33-year-old Adam Thielen and the rest of the Panthers receiving corps be enough? Will the offensive line be able to minimize the ridiculous number of miscues that unit committed in the preseason? Those answers obviously will impact Young’s rookie season in really big ways.

Defensively, thanks to guys like Brian Burns on the edge and Shaq Thompson at linebacker, the Panthers actually could be pretty good.

Especially in the NFC South this season, “pretty good” may be enough on some Sundays, although few are predicting a playoff bid for the Panthers this season.

Everyone will get their first regular-season look at this 2023 Carolina team on Sept. 10, when the Panthers visit the Falcons. In Week Two, the Panthers will get an early look at another divisional rival, when the Saints visit Bank of America Stadium.

#5 — NCAA football (first full month of regular season)

Please follow our extensive coverage of college football here at the North Carolina Sports Network by checking out our new website, YouTube channel and podcast.

That coverage includes extensive coverage of ACC expansion and exclusive, 1-on-1 interviews with Clemson coach Dabo Swinney, Duke coach Mike Elko, NC State coach Dave Doeren, Wake Forest coach Dave Clawson and Appalachian State coach Shawn Clark, plus “classic” interviews with legendary coaches Lou Holtz and Steve Spurrier.

Additional NCSN features include the weekly “Old North State Tailgate & Traveling Sports Circus” podcast, featuring host Chris Edwards and veteran college sports analyst David Glenn every Friday night/Saturday morning, and the weekly “Wild Dogs & Hogs” podcast, with long-time college football coach Jimmy Collins and long-time college athletics administrator Mike Waddell.

#6 — Ryder Cup, men’s golf (begins Sept. 29)

This event doesn’t actually begin until the very end of September, in Italy this time, but it’s one of the few items remaining on my personal sports bucket list as a spectator.

The Ryder Cup has evolved over the years into something that brings as much excitement and drama as anything in the history of golf, including the four major championships.

In fact, many top golfers these days — who are almost all multimillionaires — say that the team element and match-play aspect of the Ryder Cup, plus representing your country in the case of Americans or representing your continent in the case of the Europeans, combine to make this event even more nerve-wracking and pressure-packed, at least in emotional ways, than just about anything, even a multi-million-dollar putt in a major championship, when they’re playing “only” for some combination of themselves, their caddies, their families and their bank accounts.

It’s just different, and it has not always been that way.

There was once a 50-year(!) stretch of the Ryder Cup — from 1933, soon after it was created, all the way through 1983 — when the European side won only a single time, over those five decades. Remember, this event is played once every two years, so that’s an awful lot of American victories, one after another after another.

However, listen to these numbers, starting in 1985: 11 wins for the Euros, 6 wins for the Americans, and one tie.

In these last 40 years now, Team USA has won only a single Ryder Cup held on European soil; that was way back in 1993, or 30 full years ago. That’s a long time, especially for the country that dominated this event for so long.

Zach Johnson is the US captain this time, and he does have the #1-ranked golfer in the world, Scottie Scheffler, on his side. But golfers #2, #3 and #4 in the world rankings — Rory McIlroy, Jon Rahm and Viktor Hovland — will be representing the other side.

Americans Patrick Cantlay, Xander Schauffle, Max Homa, Brian Harman and Wyndham Clark also are among the top 10 players in the world rankings, although they’re not viewed in the same way as guys such as Tiger Woods or Phil Mickelson were perceived when they were representing Team USA, and Clark, Harman and Homa will be playing in the event for the first time.

With his captain’s picks, Johnson recently selected Ryder Cup veterans Jordan Spieth, Brooks Koepka, Collin Morikawa, Rickie Fowler and struggling-of-late Justin Thomas, plus first-timer Sam Burns.

Of the Americans’ eight experienced Ryder Cup golfers, all but Fowler have a winning record in the event. That sounds like a nice starting point as the Americans, long-time favorites turned perhaps unlikely underdogs, try to make a different kind of Ryder Cup history in late September and early October.