Archive for March, 2015

Well, that stinks. I didn’t look at the start times of tonight’s Elite Eight games, as I took for granted that it would be an 8:00, 10:30 doubleheader. Unfortunately, the games are actually being played two hours earlier, which means the Arizona-Wisconsin game is at halftime as I write this. The biggest bummer? This was the game I was looking forward to preview the most. It’s 33-30 Arizona at halftime, and looks like it’s going to come down to the wire (as expected). But there are still three other games to preview, and they are going to be good one’s. Will the 37-0 team make the Final Four, or will a hot-shooting Notre Dame team shock America? Who’s going to win the matchup between legendary coaches Rick Pitino and Tom Izzo? And can Gonzaga coach Mark Few make his first Final Four or will Coach K and his three likely-one and dones triumph? After the early upsets, the Elite Eight is mostly as predicted, with the exception of the East region, which means there are bound to be good matchups.

Kentucky-Notre Dame: We saw how dominant Kentucky can be in their blowout win over West Virginia. We also saw how dominant Notre Dame’s offense can be in their blowout win over Wichita State. The difference? Kentucky has a great offense and a great defense, while Notre Dame is mediocre defensively. That means that the Fighting Irish has to be even better offensively than they were against Wichita State. They’ll need to hit a bunch of threes, and Jerian Grant needs to penetrate and finish at the rim over Kentucky’s giants. It’s pretty simple, really. Kentucky’s going to score points, it’s just a matter of whether Notre Dame’s offense will be able to keep them in the game. Will they win? Sorry, but I just don’t see it. I’m not going out on a limb when I say it will be closer than the West Virginia game, but I wouldn’t be at all surprised if Kentucky won by 20. I hope I’m wrong and it’s a close game throughout, but I think Kentucky’s length and balance will just be too much for the undersized Fighting Irish. Besides, Kentucky has to at least make the Final Four, right? Kentucky wins 78-64.

Michigan State-Louisville: How did either of these teams make the Elite Eight? Both Rick Pitino’s Louisville and Tom Izzo’s Michigan State struggled throughout the season, accumulating a combined 19 losses. Louisville also lost starting point guard Chris Jones in the middle of the season after Jones was kicked off the team. So the fact that both of these teams have made it even this far is a testament to Pitino and Izzo. This game is a complete toss-up. Even after each team’s tournament run, they still rank just 15th (MSU) and 16th (Louisville) in Kenpom’s rankings. It’s a matchup between a great defense in Louisville and a great offense in Michigan State. But it’s been each team’s weak unit that’s brought them to the Elite Eight. Michigan State has held effective offenses Virginia and Oklahoma to 54 and 58 points. Meanwhile, Louisville shot 46% against Northern Iowa and 50% against NC State after ranking in the bottom half of the NCAA in FG% this season at 43%. So who will be more effective in this game: Louisville’s offense or Michigan State’s defense? I’m inclined to say the latter, mainly because I’m not sure that Montrezl Harrell and Terry Rozier can keep putting up monster offensive weapons. Harrell has scored 38 and Rozier 42 in the last two games, with each putting up a 20 point game. Those two have put up 57% of Louisville’s points in the last two games, and I just don’t think they can keep that up. I have more confidence in Michigan State’s complementary players, like Bryn Forbes, Matt Costello, and Lourawls Nairn Jr, so I’m going to pick the Spartans here. But I picked both of these teams to lose last round, so what do I know? Michigan State wins 65-61.

Duke-Gonzaga: While the other Sunday game features teams who have lost 19 combined games, Duke and Gonzaga have lost just six (four for the Blue Devils, two for the Zags). Much like Wisconsin and Arizona, both of these teams deserve to go to Indianapolis. Both of these teams are tremendous offensively. Gonzaga is first in FG% at 52%, while Duke is third at 50%. It’s experience (Kevin Pangos, Kyle Wiltjer) against youth (Jahlil Okafor, Justice Winslow, Tyus Jones). Duke was pushed by Utah, who neutralized Okafor and was a good Delon Wright game away from defeating the Blue Devils. Meanwhile, Gonzaga led throughout against UCLA and ended up winning by 12 despite scoring their fewest number of points since February. No matter how I look at it, this game looks like a toss up. Okafor will have an advantage down low, but Gonzaga has two bigs, Przemek Karnowski and Domanatas Sabonis, who can at least take some easy shots away from Okafor. Meanwhile, Pangos should have some success against a Duke team that sometimes struggles against great point guard, but the Blue Devils just showed what they could do defensively against Wright. In a tossup, give me the more accomplished coach. Duke wins 78-77.

Sweet 16 Preview: Friday Games

Posted: 03/27/2015 by levcohen in NCAA

There were some exciting moments in last night’s games, but in general I was a bit disappointed by them. The Kentucky-West Virginia game was enjoyable at first because we got to see how utterly dominant Kentucky can be, but that got boring quickly. In the end, the Wildcats became the first team to double up their opponents in a Sweet 16 game (78-39). I thought there might be some tense moments in the first half, but the score at halftime was 44-18. Meanwhile, the other Wildcats were pushed a bit more than I thought they would be, but Arizona was never in grave danger of losing to Xavier. The Musketeers were just too offensively inconsistent, and T.J. McConnell was able to take over the game (again) in a 68-60 win. The biggest disappointment of the day was probably the Wichita State-Notre Dame game, which was supposed to go down to the wire but instead ended in a double-digit Notre Dame win. The Fighting Irish were extremely impressive, resulting in an 11 point win that felt more like 30. The best game of the night was Wisconsin-North Carolina, which went just as I thought it would. UNC held a slight lead for most of the game before the Badgers again shifted to another gear, one that seems to be just a little bit better than any other non-Kentucky team’s best. The silver lining? We are getting two potentially juicy matchups in Kentucky-Notre Dame and Wisconsin-Zona. The former could turn into a classic if ND can stay hot from deep, while we’ve all been looking forward to the latter, a rematch of last year’s elite eight matchup, since the bracket was unveiled. Hopefully we get more exciting games tonight as the East and South regions are decided.

Duke-Utah: To me, this is clearly the game of the night. Sure, the spread (5 points) is higher than it is in either of the East regional semis, but this game is a matchup between two of the three best teams (aside from Gonzaga) playing tonight. Kenpom rates Duke as the sixth best team in the country and Utah at #8. That’s how good these teams are. Utah is the type of balanced team that could easily defeat Duke. In order to beat Duke, you have to be able to defend Jahlil Okafor without double-teaming him too aggressively and leaving three point shooters open. Defending Okafor 1-on-1 is obviously no easy task, which is why he’s averaging 18 points per game and shooting 67% from the field. But if anyone can defend Jahlil, it might just be future first round pick Jakob Poeltl, who has the rare mix of athleticism and 7 footer-ism. In the tournament, Poeltl is averaging three blocks per game to go along with 12-13 shooting. He’s been a menace both offensively and defensively. Another thing you could do with Okafor is foul him when he seems likely to score. He’s shooting just 51% from the free throw line, which is absolutely atrocious for a go-to scorer. But Utah doesn’t want Poeltl getting in foul trouble, so it might make sense to use guys like Dallin Bachynski and Chris Reyes to rack up fouls. Delon Wright is a tremendous defender as well as ball handler, so he should be able to bottle up Tyus Jones. Meanwhile, I think Jordan Loveridge will be able to do a good enough job on Justice Winslow (at least in the half court defense) to limit Winslow’s opportunities to get hot. I think Utah has the personnel and pedigree (#7 in Kenpom defense) to keep Duke from hitting their offensive stride.

On the other side of the ball, Utah needs to stay hot from deep. They’re the best shooting team in the Pac-12, with Brandon Taylor, Loveridge, and Dakari Tucker all capable of lighting it up from beyond the arc. 38% of their shots come from deep and they shoot 41% from behind the line, so they will certainly rely on the trey against the #1 seed. But the offense really hinges on Wright’s ability to penetrate a defense that has had its troubles against great point guards. Duke has two losses to Jerian Grant’s Notre Dame, and Wright’s height and driving ability are very similar to Grant’s. Wright, a 52% shooter on the season (83% from the line), has hit just 4-14 in his first two games but has gone 15-18 from the line. Even if his shot isn’t working, he can get guys like Jones and Quinn Cook in foul trouble, a problem for a shallow team like Duke.

You know where this is going. I’m picking Utah. As much as I hate picking against the team with the second best offense in college basketball, the second best player in college basketball this season, AND a team coached by Mike Krzyzewski, I think the Utes can slow Duke’s high-flying offense down and win the game. If the Blue Devils get out in transition it could be a long night, but I like Utah in an exciting (please!) game. Utah wins 74-70.

NC State-Louisville: The 2014-15 Louisville team is another one I just can’t stand. It’s not just Montrezl Harrell, a good player who must be really annoying to play against, who irritates me; it’s the fact that a team who has scored more than 60 points just twice since February 14th not only makes it to the Sweet 16 but also gets to play an eight seed. I also can’t stand North Carolina State because they knocked Villanova out, although they certainly deserved the win. All of this means that I really don’t want to write much about this game. Based on what I’ve seen, the Wolfpack are the better team. They have many more scoring threats that Louisville, who relies on Terry Rozier (who had a tremendous game against UNI but probably won’t repeat that) and Harrell. NC State has gotten key buckets from Trevor Lacey, Ralston Turner, Anthony “please don’t call him Cat” Barber, Kyle Washington, Abdul-Malik Abu, and, in the first round win over LSU, Beejay Anya, who hit a buzzer beater over the Tigers. That’s a lot of depth and balance. NC State also beat then #9 Louisville 74-65 in Louisville earlier this season, which might not mean much but is another sign that Vegas is underrating the Wolfpack (Louisville is a 2.5 point favorite). Then again, NC State also has losses to Clemson, Wake Forest, and Boston College, two of which were by double digits, so I get where Vegas is coming from. Anyway, I like NC State in a low scoring game that sees both teams struggle to crack 40% from the field. It’s a risky pick because Louisville’s defense will likely be the best unit on the court, but NC State wins 64-59.

Michigan State-Oklahoma: Do I go with the team with experience, a proven elite coach, and the better recent performances, or should I pick the team that has been better throughout the year? I was faced with the same dilemma in picking the Notre Dame-Wichita State game and chose wrong. This time, I’m going with the team that has been better all year. Because Oklahoma plays fast and had a tough schedule, their defense is underrated by the traditional stats, as they rank just 74th in points allowed per game. But when you take into account schedule and pace, they are the sixth best defense in the country. They also have Big-12 POY Buddy Hield on their side. Hield is very inconsistent and shoots just 41% from the field (34% in the tournament), but he compensates by making 2.6 threes per game and shooting 82% from the line. If the Sooners want to unlock MSU’s suddenly-stingy defense, they’ll need Hield to shoot better than 20%, which is what he’s been shooting in the tournament, from deep. The rest of their starting lineup is pretty darn good too. Isaiah Cousins, another of OU’s three starting guards, has also been quiet in the tourney but shoots 45% from three on the season while hitting a couple threes per game. It’s also pretty impressive that the Sooners have advanced this far without good games from their top two scorers. Down low, TaShawn Thomas is Oklahoma’s best post scorer. Now a senior, Thomas averaged 17 points per game as a sophomore but now is more of a complimentary scorer. He’s still hitting 52% from the field, though, and is averaging 13.5 points per game in the tournament. Oklahoma’s biggest problem is depth. The starters played 83.5% of the minutes against Dayton and have played an average of 78% of the minutes this season. That means they’re going to need to get a lot of scoring from their starters.

Michigan State is on a high right now after returning to the Sweet 16 with an upset win over Virginia. Travis Trice led the Spartans in that game but Trice has a lot of help; Denzel Valentine and Branden Dawson can also carry the team at times. But it’s important to note that Michigan State was on the bubble for much of the season. They have 11 losses which is just one more than Oklahoma but in a much lesser conference. They’ve lost to Texas Southern, Nebraska, Minnesota, and Illinois. They also shoot just 63% from the line, which will be a factor in what looks likely to be a close game. I understand why Sparty is favored. Tom Izzo is a fantastic game, they have a lot of offensive talent, and they are coming off a huge win. But I’m not going to make the same mistake I made yesterday. I’ll take Oklahoma 68-61.

UCLA-Gonzaga: Nobody’s paying much attention to this game, and it’s not just West Coast bias. The Zags are 8.5 point favorites, but I think they should be favored by double digits. They defeated UCLA by 13 as the away team. They are coming off a 19 point win over Iowa, one of the hottest teams in the country heading into that game. Their offense, ranked #4 by Kenpom, has put up no fewer than 79 points in their five tournament (WCC and NCAA) games. They average 79 on the season and lead the nation in FG% at 52.4%. They are also a much better defense than  recent Mark Few teams have been, as they are 37th defensively. They have a guy (Kyle Wiltjer) with a NCAA championship with Kentucky. Wiltjer leads the team at 17 points per game and Gonzaga has five other big offensive threats (Kevin Pangos, Przemek Karnowski, Byron Wesley, Domanatas Sabonis, and Gary Bell Jr.). Most importantly, they’re playing against a 22-13 team that shouldn’t have made the tournament, won on a goaltending call against SMU before getting an easy win over #14 UAB (a rematch of the last place game in the Battle 4 Atlantis tournament, which is really sad). Sure, they beat up on Washington, Washington State, and USC at the end of the season, but this team just isn’t that good. Do they have a lot of talent? Yes, including a likely top-10 pick in Kevon Looney. Can they win? Yes. Will they? Not unless they play their best game of the year and Gonzaga plays its worst. Gonzaga win 81-66.

Sweet 16 Preview: Thursday Games

Posted: 03/25/2015 by levcohen in NCAA

I decided not to preview the first weekend of the NCAA tournament because there are just so many games and I knew I wouldn’t be able to preview them all in depth. I also thought there would be so many weird, stats and logic-defying upsets that my predictions would become moot almost right away. The first day justified my decision; two three seeds lost, a game was decided by a (probably wrong) goaltending call, and a record five games were decided by a single point. There were a few bad games on Thursday, but the majority of them went down to the wire. Teams like Notre Dame, UCLA,  North Carolina, and NC State, all of whom survived the first weekend, were legitimately close to bowing out on the first day. Two three seeds, Iowa State and Baylor, fell to upstarts UAB (who desperately needed something positive after the recent news that they were getting rid of their football team) and Georgia State. Compared to that first day, the rest of the weekend was a letdown. There weren’t any big Friday upsets, and three of the four regions still look rather favorite-heavy. The exception? The East region, which saw #1 Villanova and #2 Virginia fall in the second round. But while the restoration of normalcy over the weekend wasn’t exciting in the moment, it does mean that the games this weekend will likely be much better. We’ll (hopefully) see titans like Arizona and Wisconsin face off in the Elite Eight, depending on what happens tomorrow night and Friday night. What’s going to happen tomorrow night? Let’s go through each matchup one by one.

Wichita State-Notre Dame:
The first game of the night might be the best one. It’s not the most important one from a Final Four standpoint, because the winner of this game will likely fall to Kentucky in the regional final, but, given the talent on each side, it should be an exciting game that comes down to the wire. Wichita State, the #7 seed, will likely close as a favorite for the third straight game despite playing traditional powers Indiana (#10 seed), Kansas (#2), and now the Fighting Irish (#3). While their regular season wasn’t as good as it was last year, when they went undefeated and got a #1 seed, the Shockers have gotten hot at the right time, just as they did two years ago when they made the Final Four. Coach Gregg Marshall has again done a terrific job and has been rumored in connection with both the Alabama and Texas jobs. First, though, he has to worry about Notre Dame. Wichita State is led by guards Ron Baker, Fred Van Vleet, and Tekele Cotton, each of whom were key cogs in the undefeated (until they faced Kentucky) team last year. It’s shocking that players like Baker and Van Vleet were passed over by bigger-budget basketball schools, because those guys aren’t just stiffs; each likely has professional basketball in his future. Baker has unlimited range and shoots 38% on threes, but he also has a sneaky ability to drive and score off the dribble. When his shot wasn’t falling against Indiana (0-5 from three), he compensated by getting to the line and hitting 9-10 of his free throws. Meanwhile, VanVleet has gotten to the line 19 times in the tournament, hitting 16 of his freebies. He wasn’t Wichita State’s go-to scorer in the regular season, but he has been in the tourney, as he’s averaged 22 points thus far. The matchup between VanVleet and Notre Dame’s star point guard Jerian Grant, who has five inches on VanVleet, could be vital.

Notre Dame is the last true one-dimensional team in the tournament. They are middle of the pack defensively and worse on the glass, but they are 12th in points per game and third in KenPom’s Adjusted Offense (points per 100 possessions adjusted for opponent) behind just Wisconsin and Duke. They also shot 51% from the field during the season, which really illustrates their efficiency. In Grant, Pat Connaughton, Demetrius Jackon, and Steve Vasturia, Notre Dame starts four guys who can knock down threes and facilitate the offense. Grant averages 17 points, seven assists, and 1.6 steals per game, while the other three all hit more than 40% of their threes. The fifth starter? Zach Auguste, who shoots 60% from the field and is the second leading scorer. The scary thing for Wichita State is that Notre Dame has failed to hit 70 points in either of their two games, including one that went to overtime. And they’ve also only shot 8-26 from three over the course of the two games, which is bound to change. Notre Dame normally lives (ACC Tourney Champs) and dies (losses to Pitt and Syracuse, 2 and 3 point wins over Clemson and Georgia Tech) by the three, so the fact that they were able to live without it against a tough team like Butler speaks volumes about their ability to play with toughness.

But while both of these teams are undersized and rely on guard play, Wichita State is much better defensively. They’re the 13th ranked defense (according to KenPom) while Notre Dame ranks 103rd. Given that the Shockers rank ninth overall to Notre Dame’s 10th, a difference that sizable could be the difference in the game. If you tell me this is going to be a blowout, I’d pick Notre Dame, because I think the Fighting Irish can heat up and score in a hurry. But Wichita State rarely fails to slow games down and grind them out, and I think they can do the same here in a relatively low-scoring win. Wichita State win 68-63.

North Carolina-Wisconsin: Full disclosure: I picked Wisconsin to win it all in one of my brackets and UNC to knock them off in another. So I am very conflicted when it comes to this game. But while this was a game I circled as a possible upset last week, I haven’t been too impressed with North Carolina. After barely escaping a weak Harvard team, they beat Arkansas by nine in a frenetic, mistake-filled game. UNC always seems to play down to their opponents. Their team is extremely talented, with athletic freaks like J.P. Tokoto, big men like Kennedy Meeks (questionable for the Wisconsin game), and one of the best guards in the nation in Marcus Paige. But they lost five of eight games at one point and haven’t shown they can consistently defend without lapses against offensive powerhouses. They’ll need to do that against a Wisconsin team that is tops in the nation in offensive efficiency and has three likely first rounders in Frank Kaminsky, Nigel Hayes, and Sam Dekker. Can they do it? I’m optimistic that they’ve figured out how to beat great teams, as they had back-to-back wins over Louisville and Virginia in the ACC Tournament. But the fact that they gave up 176 points in two games against Duke is worrying.

To be fair to UNC, Wisconsin hasn’t been very good in the tournament either. After a 14 point win over Coastal Carolina, they were tied with Oregon late before pulling away and winning by seven. Unlike UNC, though, Wisconsin has lost just three games, so I think we can give them the benefit of the doubt (North Carolina has lost 11). The big three is really hard to stop. Kaminsky can to everything, Hayes has developed into a really scary wing player, and Dekker hits 51% of his shots. Wisconsin is the only team that can rival Kentucky’s size, with Dekker at 6’9 and Kaminsky at 7’0, and talent. In fact, the Badgers are about as good of a Kentucky-killer as you could build, with shooting, efficiency, size, and a star big man who can draw Kentucky’s seven footers away from the basket. But they aren’t playing Kentucky this round, and UNC could cause some matchup problems. the Badgers aren’t that deep guard-wise, and North Carolina happens to have Marcus Paige, who can take over a close game with his shooting (91 threes on the season, 87% from the line). North Carolina can win this game if they can stay focused for the whole game because they have comparable talent to Wisconsin. In a high-scoring game, though, I have to take the more efficient team and the one I trust more. Wisconsin wins 81-77.

Kentucky-West Virginia: Let’s save some words: West Virginia is a fascinating team to watch because they run a suffocating press. They beat a good team in Maryland last round and could cause Kentucky matchup problems because the Wildcats haven’t been amazing against pressing teams (in a small sample size). They also can crash the boards and score second-chance points. This could be a single digit game. But if Kentucky loses here, it’s because they’ll have laid a complete egg. West Virginia just doesn’t shoot well enough to push Kentucky when the Wildcats play even their “B” game. There could be some exciting moments early, but I expect Kentucky to win by double digits. Kentucky wins 73-58.

Xavier-Arizona: Yeah, this matchup seems like it’s just as lopsided as the Kentucky one. Start with the fact that this game will be played in LA, so Zona will have pseudo-home court advantage. Arizona also probably has the six best players in this game, and I expect Matt Stainbrook and Xavier to get pummeled down low. And if Stainbrook can’t get easy buckets down low, it’s tough to imagine the Musketeers getting anywhere near enough offense to topple Arizona, who rank as the seventh best offense and third best defense on KenPom. And on the other side of the ball, I expect Stanley Johnson to bounce back, T.J. McConnell to rack up assists, and the Wildcats to get to the line often. Another blowout here. Arizona wins 68-52.

A few weeks ago, I didn’t think I’d ever be writing this post. For most of the season, the Boston Bruins held the comfortable lead in the race for the last playoff spot in the Eastern Conference. Given that they also have the most talent and experience of any team competing for the last wild card spot, it seemed likely that the Bruins would pull away. But this time a month ago, the Bruins had lost seven in a row and picked up just two points in that time. Suddenly, the Panthers and Flyers, the latter of whom had picked up 18 points in their last 12 games, were closing in on the Bruins. I was about to write a post about the suddenly-enthralling race for the eighth seed, but I was halted by Boston’s convincing 6-2 win over the Blackhawks in Chicago. I figured that the big win over Chicago would lift the Bruins, and I was right; they picked up 15 points in their next nine games (7-1-1). At that point, the Bruins had 82 points, the surging Ottawa Senators had 77, and the Panthers had 76. It wasn’t over, but it was pretty close. Since then, though, the Bruins have picked up just two points, both in shootout losses, in four games. Two of those losses came against the teams directly behind them in the standings. Meanwhile, Ottawa, 3-0-0 since the Bruins’ tailspin began, is on an absolute tear; they have won six straight and are 14-1-1 in their last 16. And Florida, who dropped four straight near the end of February, have rebounded to post a 6-3-1 record in the month of March. With all that said, here’s where we stand right now:
Boston: 84 points, 72 games played
Ottawa: 83 points, 71 games played
Florida: 80 points, 72 games played

With just 10 games left for Boston and Florida and 11 for Ottawa, now’s the perfect time to handicap this race.

The first thing to mention is that Boston and Florida still have two matchups against each other in the final three weeks of the season. Given that both of the games between the two have gone into overtime, those two should be thrilling games that will help determine who makes the playoffs. Florida also has a game in Ottawa, while the Senators do not play the Bruins again this season. I’ll start with the team I still think has the best chance to make the playoffs, the Boston Bruins:

You would think that a team led by two-way center Patrice Bergeron, scoring wing Brad Marchand, bruising wing Milan Lucic, skilled, 6’9 defender Zdeno Chara, and top-echelon goalie Tuukka Rask would be comfortably in the playoffs. It hasn’t happened, though, for a number of reasons. First and probably foremost, Chara, the team’s leader and best player over their many playoff runs over the past decade, has declined steeply. In 5-on-5 play, his points/60 minutes is just .57, down from .87 last year and 1.15 three years ago in his prime. So he’s contributing half as many points per 60 minutes when both teams are full strength, which is meaningful considering he plays well over 20 minutes per game. His power play stats look even worse; his 2.31 points per 60 on the power play is a full two points lower than any other Bruin defender and 59th of 67 defenders with at least 100 minutes on the power play. Chara averaged 5.02 points per 60 on the power play last year and 5.22 three seasons ago. It can be argued that he is the biggest reason that Boston’s power play has declined from 21.7% last year (third in the league) to 17.7% this season (19th). The biggest indicator that something’s wrong with the 38-year-old Chara is his +/-. After he posted a +25 last season, +14 two years ago in 48 games, and +33 in each of the two years before that, he’s at -1 this year. That’s a huge decline for the team’s #1 defenseman and indicates that he just hasn’t been effective this season. Overall, Boston is still a talented team, but they are nowhere near as good with the new Chara. They are 11th in Corsi for at 51.7%, which is still ahead of Florida (51.1%) and Ottawa (50.3%).
Schedule: Boston’s next three games are super tough: @Tampa Bay (95 pts), vs Anaheim (99 pts), vs Rangers (97 pts). In all, the Bruins have six games against surefire playoff teams, two against the Panthers, and two against cellar-dwellars in their final 10. Not too easy.
Chances: 45%

Where did Ottawa come from? This was a team that finished tied for 10th in the Eastern Conference last year with 88 points and were on their way to nabbing a top five pick… and then they started winning. And winning. And winning. Most of the plaudits should and will go to stud defenseman Erik Karlsson. Karlsson has a team-leading 58 points while playing 27 minutes per game, third most in the NHL. But 22-year-old Mark Stone, who played just 19 games last season, has exploded onto the scene, picking up 50 points in 69 games and posting a +15. And 25-year-old Mike Hoffman, who scored just three goals last season, leads the team with 25 goals this year and a +20 this year. But nobody’s stepped up more than goalie Andrew Hammond, who has taken over the starting job over the last month and is an amazing 13-0-1 with a .947 save percentage. No offense to Craig Anderson or Robin Lehner, both of are good goalies, the Senators would not be in the position that they are in without Hammond. Their chances in the last few weeks depends on whether Hammond can keep up his outstanding play, because if he can, the Senators, who are +19 on the season, better than both Boston (+5) and Florida (-20), have a great shot at making the playoffs.
Schedule: The Senators have one game left against the Western Conference, and luckily get a struggling team (San Jose). Like Boston, six of their final 10 games are against surefire Eastern Conference playoff teams, and they also have a game against Florida. The final three games are against dead-to-rights Toronto (x2) and Philadelphia, so, combined with their game in hand, it’s fair to say that their schedule is slightly easier than Boston’s.
Chances: 40%

Roberto Luongo came back at the perfect time, didn’t he? Luongo, who was injured against Buffalo at the end of February, is back after missing eight games. His first two games back? 3-1 and 2-1 wins in which he posted a .960 save percentage. Pretty good. With Luongo back in the net and the aforementioned two games left against the Bruins, the Panthers have a chance to sneak into the playoffs. They’ll need the Senators to slow down and the Bruins to continue to drop points, but it’s certainly more possible than it seemed when Luongo got injured. The Panthers are a very young team, as their leading scorers are 22, 21, 31, and 19 years old. And that 19-year-old, Aaron Ekblad, is having quite the season. He’s in the Calder trophy (given to the top rookie) mix, which is amazing when considering that he’s a teenage defenseman, which is about the most difficult position to be in. But put the heroics of Ekblad and Luongo aside and you’ll find a very flawed team who were bad enough to have the #1 pick in last year’s draft (Ekblad). I think Florida is the worst team of the three, but they also have the hottest goalie right now in Luongo, and that can mean everything.
Schedule: 4 games against Eastern Conference playoff teams, two against Boston, one against Ottawa, three against non-playoff teams. The friendliest of the three, since they have just four games against surefire playoff teams and three chances to pick up points against Boston and Ottawa.

This is a race that, somewhat improbably, seems likely to come down to the final game or two. Boston is still in the lead, but barely, and Ottawa has a game in hand. My guess is still that Boston will come out victorious, but it’s almost a coin-flip at this point.

It’s been a couple of weeks, so I’m going to go back to the NBA contenders and my quest to write about each one before the playoffs start. I’ve gone through six of the teams I think have a chance to win their respective conferences (Houston, OKC, Cleveland, Washington, LA, San Antonio) and still have six to go. Today it’s the Portland Trailblazers’ turn to go under the microscope.

A few interesting things have happened to the Trailblazers in the last couple of months. This is a team that exploded onto the scene last season, going from an expected appearance in the lottery to a five seed and a first round series victory over the Houston Rockets. This year, despite the additions of Chris Kaman and Steve Blake in the offseason, the five starters were the same entering the season. And people still had them taking a step back, perhaps out of the playoffs in the stacked Western Conference. Instead, they thrived, and have been in a top-four position almost all year. But, in late March, they have been discounted again in the race to win the Western Conference. Why? That’s where the interesting things I mentioned come in.

First, LaMarcus Aldridge, perhaps the best power forward in the NBA, tore a ligament in his non-shooting thumb. He was supposed to be out for a couple of months and was questionable to return by the start of the playoffs. Instead, he practiced a few days later and played through the injury. And he’s seen little decline since the injury, which came before the All-Star break. In March, Aldridge is averaging 25 points and 11 rebounds per game.

The more serious injury, though, was to starting shooting guard Wesley Matthews, the team’s third leading scorer at 16 points per game. Matthews tore his Achilles in a win over the Mavericks on March 5th, and the Blazers are 3-3 since. The Matthews injury is without a doubt a costly one. If you want to advance deep into the playoffs, you’re going to have to have more than two offensive threats. We know the Blazers have a great 1-2 punch in Aldridge and Damian Lillard, but Matthews was the perfect third option, a wing player who could shoot from three (he was in the three point contest), post up smaller defenders (last year, only Arron Afflalo among guards scored more post-up points) and also slash and finish at the rim. Matthews was also Portland’s best wing stopper, as evidenced by his effective defense against James Harden in the playoffs last year. He’s a great all around player, and the Blazers need to find someone who can take his role both offensively and defensively.

Ironically, the Blazers traded for the aforementioned Afflalo at the trade deadline to strengthen their weak bench and give them a true bench scoring option. Now, Afflalo, who has really struggled so far this year (he’s ranked 19th of the 20 shooting guards averaging 30+ minutes in WAR and RPM, ahead of only Kobe Bryant), is the starting shooting guard, and he’s averaging 31 minutes per game since the injury after playing 28 per game with the Blazers before it. So Afflalo, who’s shooting just 39% from the field since the injury (under 30% inside three point range), needs to step up. But so do other Blazers.

With Afflalo moving to the starting lineup, somebody is going to have to take his bench scoring role (domino effect). So far, nobody’s stepped up. Remember Will Barton, the former Blazer who was a throw-in in the Afflalo trade? Well, Barton has three 20+ point games for the Nuggets after failing to score in double figures for Portland all season. The Blazers sure could use someone that productive off the bench right now.

I still have hope that the Blazers will find their post-Matthews groove and make a deep playoff run. The main reasons for that hope, of course, are Lillard and Aldridge. In an era in which star players are getting rested more and more often, it’s refreshing to see that Damian Lillard has started all 66 of Portland’s games and is playing 36 minutes per game. He’s sixth in the league in minutes, and Aldridge is only behind him because he missed seven games due to injury. If those two play as they have throughout the season, Portland’s going to be a tough out no matter what bench or wing production they get.

The last guy I want to talk about is Nicolas Batum, the valuable Frenchman who’s been battling nagging injuries all season. Batum has been among the more underrated players in the NBA over the past few years, has not been nearly as good this season. His scoring is down from 13 a game last year to 9.6, mostly because he’s shooting 40% (47% last year) and 31% from three (36%). His PER, which was above the league-average of 15 for three consecutive seasons, is down to 13.04, his lowest since his rookie season. But there are signs of improvement. Batum’s averaging 12 points per game in March, he’s shooting 47/43/87% with eight rebounds and six assists per game. He’s also had three 40 minute games this month (33% of games) after posting just three in his first 50 games (6%). He definitely is going to need to maintain, or even exceed, his recent production for the Blazers sans-Matthews.

Back to the original question: can the Blazers still make a deep run in the playoffs and eventually win the West? It’s definitely less likely than it was three weeks ago, but I think they can still do it. They’ll need improvements from Batum, and he’s already making it. They’ll need a lot of scoring from Afflalo, and he averaged 18 points per game just two seasons ago. They’ll need Aldridge and Lillard to stay healthy, and it would take a lot for either of those two, both among the toughest players in the NBA, to have to sit out. They’ll have to find more bench scoring, but that’s among the easier things to find late in the season. It really all depends on matchups. Even as the season draws to an end, we still have no idea who will play whom in the first round, but the most likely opponents for Portland are probably the Clippers, Mavericks, and Spurs. And they happen to be 6-4 against those three teams, whatever that’s worth. Getting homecourt advantage in the first round is pivotal for the Blazers, who are 28-6 at home but just 16-16 on the road. And if they get past the first round, anything can happen when you have Aldridge and Lillard.

A lot has happened to the Eagles since the last time I wrote about them, which was when they traded LeSean McCoy for Kiko Alonso. Remember that trade? Yeah, it feels like it was ages ago now, and it’s been overshadowed by the moves that followed in Philadelphia. But before I get into all those others moves, I want to re-discuss the McCoy trade after the Bills extended the running back’s contract, making it a five year, $40 million deal with $26 million guaranteed. I said I liked the trade for the Eagles when it happened, but only slightly. Now that the Bills have lost all of the flexibility they had with McCoy by extending him and guaranteeing him tons of money, I like it even more for the Eagles. Now into the other deals.

Byron Maxwell: Everyone knew that the Eagles wanted Byron Maxwell, a cornerback who previously played with the Seattle Seahawks. He has the height and length the Eagles covet at the cornerback position and played in a scheme that is similar to the one that Chip Kelly and Billy Davis run. Perhaps that knowledge around the league hurt the Eagles, because it certainly seems like they overpaid for the corner. They gave him a six year, $63 million deal – with $25 million guaranteed – that immediately vaults him near the top of the list of corners in terms of contracts. That by itself doesn’t look so good. But look at the contracts some other free agent cornerbacks got. I’ll ignore Darrelle Revis, because he’s in another class skill and production-wise. But Chris Culliver got $32 million, $16 million of which are guaranteed. 30-year old Antonio Cromartie got $20 million guaranteed from the Jets. Buster Skrine, who also signed with the Jets (they signed three of the five priciest CBs for $72 million guaranteed combined), had one decent year with the Browns but is probably not much better than average. He got $25 million, half of which is guaranteed. Even Davon House, a backup in Green Bay, got eight figures of guaranteed money. Cornerbacks are just really coveted and pricey in today’s NFL, which puts Maxwell’s deal in perspective. And while I doubt that Byron Maxwell is a top-10 corner or will transform the Eagles’ secondary into a top-five unit by himself, he’s certainly a big upgrade over Bradley Fletcher. He’ll also be rejoined by former Seahawk teammate Walter Thurmond, who, although he is currently listed as a starter, will probably end up as a dime corner or injury replacement. In signing Byron Maxwell, the Eagles used some of what was a boatload of cap room in order to get a clear upgrade at a position of need. They might have overpaid slightly, but this deal made sense.

Sam Bradford-Nick Foles: Talk about a bizarre trade. Put aside, for a moment, the fact that two starting quarterbacks were traded for each other (which never happens). Let’s start with what happened the day of the trade. First, we heard that it was Bradford for Foles with “draft pick compensation” heading each way. Were the Eagles going to get an extra second rounder? Would the teams swap first rounders? Either way, most of the conversation implied that the Eagles would be getting the better of the picks. With the benefit of hindsight, that was probably foolish. Bradford is probably a better quarterback than Foles, whose numbers were inflated by the fact that he played in a very quarterback-friendly offense. Bradford was the #1 overall pick once a upon a time and the Rookie of the Year, and it can be argued that he’d be the Rams’ franchise quarterback had he not torn his ACL twice. It also bears mentioning that Bradford won his ROY with Pat Shurmur, now the Eagles’ Offensive Coordinator, at Offensive Coordinator. But the final details of the trade – a second rounder going to St. Louis with a late round swap thrown in – seem to skew the trade in favor of the Rams. I think this deal was a very good one for the Rams to take. They could well have cut Bradford if they hadn’t found a trade partner, although the news that they were offered a first rounder for him makes that less likely. And they have a QB in Foles who has a lot of promise. The Eagles didn’t get great value, but all will be forgiven if Bradford turns into a keeper at quarterback. His contract (as well as Foles’s) expires after next season, so both teams will have flexibility at the quarterback position. The deal was also notable because it all-but-ruled out Marcus Mariota for the Eagles after it had been rumored for months that they would move up in the draft to snag Chip Kelly’s ex-college quarterback.

DeMarco Murray: The reaction to the DeMarco Murray signing was the opposite of the one to the Shady McCoy trade. The fans who go on gut-feel were saddened by the McCoy trade and thrilled by the Murray signing, while the analytics crew scoffed at the Murray signing and applauded the McCoy trade. Again, I’m going to end up in the middle here. When you look at it as trading McCoy for Murray and Alonso, it looks pretty darn good, because, depending on how you feel about the two running backs, it’s just picking up a young and promising linebacker for free. But when you look at this Murray signing and compare it to the other contracts running backs get, it’s hard to be as on board. Murray was given $21 million guaranteed over five years. Meanwhile, Justin Forsett, who was so good last year, got $3 million guaranteed. Shane Vereen got less than $5 million guaranteed. In fact, Murray got more than twice as much money, both total and guaranteed, as any other running back. Given the trend away from giving RBs big contracts, it’s worrying, especially after Murray carried the ball way too many times last year and has an injury history. It’s even more puzzling that the Eagles made this move after explaining the McCoy trade as a cap-shedding move. The Eagles also signed Ryan Mathews to an eight figure deal, $5 million of which is guaranteed. That’s pretty pricey for a backup running back, and the Eagles are now paying way more for their backfield (Murray, Mathews, Darren Sproles) than any other team. That backfield looks pretty good, and it’d better be, because the Murray and Mathews deals are puzzling salary-wise.

So the Eagles are left with Bradford at quarterback, the expensive backfield, and Jordan Matthews at wide receiver (with more help likely to come in the draft). The offensive line is still good (as long as Evan Mathis isn’t traded. And I really hope he isn’t traded, because he’s really good) and Zach Ertz should continue to develop at tight end. The defense is also improved, with Maxwell joining the secondary, Alonso joining the linebacker corps and Brandon Graham returning at outside linebacker. There’s still work to do (guard, safety, corner, wide receiver), which is why it might not have been the smartest idea to spend all that money on running backs. But while I don’t agree with everything the Eagles have done, I won’t bash Kelly. This team still looks pretty good, and Kelly is almost certainly not finished. Check back again come preseason and see where this team stands.

With all that has happened in the NFL in the last week, it’s going to take a while to recap all of it. I started by reviewing the moves the AFC East made, and now will continue with the Jimmy Graham trade. I’ll move on to other signings and trades over the next couple of weeks.

The LeSean McCoy trade was surprising for the fans but had been foreshadowed, as Chip Kelly had shown a willingness to move on from star playmakers and was looking for a more straight-ahead style running back. Darrelle Revis leaving New England for the Jets? Not surprising either, as the Patriots never overpay and have more confidence in their scheme than in individual players. The Jimmy Graham trade was different in that it was shocking for fans and players alike. Drew Brees said he was shocked, and he’s the franchise quarterback. Graham just seemed as if he was – bar Brees – the most important player on the Saints. Sure, he had a bad year last season, and yes, he is an expensive player, but this trade was stunning nonetheless. Let’s look at this from both sides.

From the Saints’ point of view, is there any other way of explaining this deal than assuming this is the first move of a tear-down? For some background, last year the Saints basically went for it all in free agency. They gave safety Jairus Byrd a huge contract, making him the highest paid safety (by total value) in NFL history, despite the fact that they were dangerously near the salary cap. Given the fact that they were coming off a very successful season, it made sense to go for it all last year. The Saints became a popular Super Bowl pick before the season. Unfortunately, it didn’t come close to working out. Byrd got hurt, the defense was atrocious (how does Rob Ryan still have his job?), and even Brees had an off year (for him). Despite having the luxury of playing in the terrible NFC South, the Saints went just 7-9 and missed the playoffs. Given that Brees is now 36, the Saints’ window is closing quickly, and they can’t solve their problems in free agency because they again have no cap room. Meanwhile, Jimmy Graham saw his per-catch average go down from 14.1 yards to 10.5 last season. He also caught six fewer touchdowns and finished the season with just 287 yards in the final seven games of the season, an average of just 41 yards per game. He also carries a cap hit of $8 million this year, $9 million next season, and $10 million in 2017, so he’s not cheap. So no matter how mad it makes Drew Brees, trading Graham wasn’t necessarily a bad idea.

I just wonder if the Saints could have gotten more for one of the biggest difference-makers in the NFL. In return, they got Max Unger, an above-average center who costs just $4.5 million for each of the next two seasons, as well as Seattle’s first round pick, which is #31 overall. Unger is a good player, but he missed 10 games last season and three the year before. Given the fact that he also missed all but a game in 2010, it’s fair to say that he has sizable injury problems. And while the Saints have a poor offensive line, their bigger problems come on the defensive side of the ball. In fact, GM Mickey Loomis claims that the Graham trade was made to improve the defense. He clearly means that the first round pick will be used on a defender, but couldn’t the Saints have gotten an established defensive starter from the Seahawks (or someone else) for Graham? They might find a gem with the 31st pick, but it’s unlikely that they’ll find someone who will be good from day one. This brings us back to the original point: this trade makes it seem like the Saints are playing the long game. Brees is angry, and I wouldn’t be surprised if he played one more season in New Orleans and was then cut. Cutting Brees now would make no sense, as the Saints would be saddled with a huge amount of dead cap, but they would save $20 million if they cut him after next season. Alternatively, they could trade Brees now and would probably get a pretty good offer from somewhere, although the salary would be pretty tough to trade. This is all speculation, and maybe the Saints really made this move in order to give themselves a better chance of winning next season. But the subsequent Ben Grubbs and Kenny Stills trade probably makes it even more likely that the Saints are beginning to revamp their roster. The fact that the Saints took on Dannell Ellerbe, who has one of the worst contracts in the NFL, is a mystery to me, but that’s beside the point. The Saints are going to stink next year, so the Graham trade makes sense. I just wish they had gotten more for their best weapon.

The first round pick is a commodity that is more valuable for the Saints than it is for the Seahawks, because Seattle is a deep team. It’s really an Unger-for-Graham swap for the Seahawks (with the Hawks adding about $4 million in cap), which makes it a slam dunk. First, my reservations: Graham is a terrible run blocker, which is a problem for a team that runs the ball as much as anybody. The Seahawks also had a bad offensive line when Unger was sidelined last season, so they’d better use a few draft picks on the o-line this season. But again, this is a slam dunk for the Seahawks. The one thing their offense was missing was a true offensive difference-maker in the passing game, and they get one here in Graham at a fairly low price. The offense is going to have more options with Graham on the field, assuming the tight end can stay healthy. Russell Wilson hasn’t put up huge stats in the passing game, but he’s still a very skilled passer. Graham will open up the offense and add yet another threat to a team that now looks as if it will have a frightening offense to pair with their defense.

Bottom line: I’ll give the Saints a B and the Seahawks an A-. New Orleans probably could have gotten more for their stud tight end, while Seattle is in a position where they could take a risk on a difference-maker.