Archive for March, 2016

Stop Blaming D’Angelo Russell

Posted: 03/31/2016 by levcohen in Basketball

I can’t believe I’m writing about this, but here goes. In December, Lakers rookie point guard and #2 overall pick D’Angelo Russell secretly took a video of shooting guard Nick Young. Not cool, right? The video, which was recently leaked, consisted of Young talking about a sexual experience he had with a 19-year old. So what’s the big deal? Well, Young is engaged to be married (to singer Iggy Azalea, but that’s unimportant), so the secret video is an admission that Young cheated on his fiancee. Now, I normally have no interest in discussing things like this, because they’re none of my business. But in this case, I’ve been pretty shocked and appalled about the way the sports world has reacted to this.

One would think that the vast majority of criticism in this story would be aimed toward Nick Young, the guy who, you know, cheated on his fiancee. But guess what? Young is actually being treated as the victim. Questions asked of him have been along the lines of “do you forgive D’Angelo for the terrible thing he did to you?” rather than, well, the obvious. Meanwhile, Russell has been absolutely destroyed. The top stories about him on google have headlines like:

  • “This is a big mistake for D’Angelo Russell”
  • “‘Snitch’: D’Angelo Russell is the most hated man in LA”
  • “D’Angelo Russell can’t show his face ‘without people hating me'”
  • “Matt Barnes takes shot at D’Angelo Russell”
  • “LA fans boo D’Angelo Russell”
  • “Julius Randle celebrates after game-winner, avoids D’Angelo Russell”

Look, I understand the whole sports culture thing. I know that snitches are looked down upon, and I don’t think what Russell did was particularly noble (although let’s remember that Russell is only 20… he should be cut some slack for a little of this type of immaturity in my mind). But… seriously? Maybe I’m saying this because I love Russell as a player. As a Sixers fan, I really wanted him to fall to #3, and I think he’s a future all-star and someone I’d love to trade for if the Lakers decide to deal him. Actually, strike that. I like Russell, but even if I didn’t, I know I’d still be taking the same position. I mean, people are acting as if D’Angelo committed a greater wrongdoing than guys like Young and the countless of other athletes who have cheated on their girlfriends and wives, and worse, they’re acting as if he did something worse than Greg Hardy, Ray Rice, and the other domestic abusers who are or were in professional sports.

I generally love a lot about the locker-room culture camaraderie type stuff (although the common intolerance of anything different isn’t great either), but I think the fact that athletes and even sportswriters are at least indirectly taking Young’s side in this conflict is a travesty. I hope fans don’t fall into the trap of scapegoating Russell, because while the 20-year old point guard might have broken a few unwritten locker room rules, Young is really the one in the wrong here.

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Sweet 16 Predictions — Friday

Posted: 03/25/2016 by levcohen in NCAA

That was… anti-climactic. After a tremendous weekend, the follow-up was supposed to be great, with a supposed uptick in overall quality of play. Well, there might have been a quality uptick yesterday, but only from half of the teams that played. The result was four boring contests that ended with the favorites winning by double-digits. Villanova smoked Miami 92-69; they had the most efficient offensive game in a while, and they looked the part. Texas A&M’s stagnancy continued, as the Aggies looked listless in a 77-63 loss to Oklahoma, showing that the first 39 minutes of their game against Northern Iowa were far more indicative of the team’s overall play than fans had hoped. Then, Kansas struggled to put away a gritty Maryland in the first half before remembering that they are the #1 overall seed and that the Terps can’t score to save their lives. KU won 79-63. Finally, in the nightcap the Ingram/Allen combination combined for 39 points… but the rest of the Dukies scored just 29 and Matt Jones and Luke Kennard were mired in foul trouble, leading to a comfortable 82-68 defeat at the hands of the balanced Oregon Ducks. The result is two 1-2 matchups on the left side of the bracket. Villanova-Kansas and Oregon-Oklahoma should be good games, and they’d better be, because last night was a letdown.

#1 Virginia vs. #4 Iowa State: Offense vs. defense. Pace vs. grind. Except.. not really. Iowa State holds up its end of the bargain. Per Kenpom, they’re the third best offensive team in the country, behind only Michigan State and Villanova. Their defense? 91st, not bad but not Sweet 16-worthy; only Notre Dame and Duke have worse defenses among teams that made this round of the tournament. Besides North Carolina, ISU is also the fastest team left in the tourney with some room to spare. But Virginia? Sure, they’re great defensively (fifth in the country) and very slow (61.4 possessions per 40 minutes, slowest in all of college basketball). But their offense? It’s, uh, also good. They scored just 70.4 points per game in the regular season, 245th in the country, but that’s purely a product of their slow pace, as they’re the eighth most efficient team in the country per Kenpom. For Iowa State, the key has to be speeding Virginia up. The problem is that teams always try to speed up the Cavaliers, because attempting to play at their pace is basically suicide. North Carolina has succeeded (somewhat) against Virginia because they have a tremendous and explosive offense, and I think there’s a chance that Iowa State can do the same thing. This is a team that shoots better than 50% from the field and nearly 39% from the three point line. Georges Niang, now a senior, has been fantastic, scoring 28 points in each of the first two games of the tournament. He’ll show up. So will Monte Morris, the owner of a 4.16 assist/turnover ratio, Abdel Nader (13 ppg), Jameel McKay (11/9, 60% from the field), and Matt Thomas (43% from three, 90% from the line). This is a very shallow team, but it’s also a great offensive squad. There’s no doubt that Virginia is the better team, but the way that they play ensures that they won’t run away from Iowa State. I think Malcolm Brogdon will be able to score at will for Virginia, but the Cavaliers are vulnerable to upsets because, if a team catches fire against them, they can build a lead that’s insurmountable against a slow team like Virginia. I expect a close one throughout, with Virginia winning it 65-61.

#6 Notre Dame vs. #7 Wisconsin: This is a total tossup between two teams that pale in comparison to most of the other teams that are left in the tournament. Both teams are only here because of two very close wins, as Notre Dame beat Michigan by seven and then Stephen F. Austin by one on a game-winning put-back while Wisconsin edged out Pittsburgh by four in a dreadful game and then beat Xavier on a Bronson Koenig buzzer-beater. This game really is offense vs. defense. Notre Dame ranks ninth offensively but 172nd defensively; Wisconsin is 11th defensively but just 87th offensively. I think this hinges on whether the Fighting Irish will be able to hold onto the ball. This would normally not be a question under coach Mike Brey, but it is now after the Fighting Irish turned the ball over a ton last weekend. Both of these teams play slowly, and I expect a game ending in the fifties or sixties. These teams can’t not play close games, so I think this’ll be another nail-biter. And when the game’s on the line, who is more trustworthy than Koenig? Let’s just say his buzzer-beater last weekend was far from a fluke. Wisconsin wins 61-59.

#10 Syracuse vs. #11 Gonzaga: Of course Syracuse is in the Sweet 16 in a year in which they didn’t even belong in the tournament. Something about this team really annoys me, and it’s not the players. I want Gonzaga to win in a romp, but something tells me it won’t be quite as easy for them as it was against Seton Hall and Utah. With that being said, this has the makings of being another double-digit game. The Zags are miles away from being the team that struggled through the middle of the season before needing to win their conference tournament to make the NCAA tourney. I suspected that Gonzaga was underseeded heading into the tournament, and now it’s apparent that they’re much closer to being a top-10 team (as they were in the preseason) than a #11 seed. Meanwhile, Syracuse was a mediocre 19-13 team this season that’s won their first two tournament games by a combined 44 points. They’re clearly better than they were at the end of the season, when they lost five of their last six, but they’ve also had the easiest schedule of any Sweet 16 team, defeating a slumping Dayton team and then Middle Tennessee, a #15 seed that remembered they were Middle Tennessee. The Orange still have their stifling 2-3 zone, and it’s that defense that could lead them to the Elite Eight. But something tells me that Gonzaga (#23 offense) will give them a bit more trouble than either the Flyers (#174) or the Blue Raiders (#167). The Zags have looked incredible in the tournament, with a fearsome 1-2 punch of Kyle Wiltjer and Domantas Sabonis that seems tailor-made to beat the zone (great height and presence both inside and outside). Syracuse, with stellar defenders like Michael Gbinije and Tyler Lydon (a white man who can really jump), will make them work a lot harder than either Seton Hall or Utah, but it’s not like either of those squads had a bad defense; in fact, Seton Hall is the eighth best defensive team in the country and is clearly superior to Syracuse in pretty much every way. I might be going with my heart here, but I also think I’m going with my head and the better team. Gonzaga win 73-57.

#1 North Carolina vs. #5 Indiana: Of the eight games last night and tonight, this is clearly the one which will showcase the most talent. UNC has Brice Johnson, a scoring machine who averages 17/11 and shoots 62% from the field. Indiana counters with freshman Thomas Bryant, who averages 12/6, shoots 69% from the field, and just dominated Kentucky. UNC has Marcus Paige, an experienced point guard who can get hot in an instant. Indiana has Yogi Ferrell, probably a top-three PG in the country. The Tar Heels have an excellent supporting cast, featuring Justin Jackson, Joel Berry, Isaiah Hicks, and Kennedy Meeks; the Hoosiers have Troy Williams, Robert Johnson, Max Bielfeldt, and OG Anunoby. The teams are both offense-first and can go on scary streaks (both positive and negative), but they get things done differently. North Carolina is big, strong, careful, and powerful. They collect more than 14 offensive rebounds per game, 10th best in the country. They turn the ball over just 11 times per contest, in the upper 10% in the nation even without considering pace (nobody who turns it over less goes faster than UNC). They get you in foul trouble, they wear you down with Johnson, Meeks, and Hicks, and they thankfully don’t rely on three pointers (they shoot just 31% from beyond the arc). That’s why Bryant, Indiana’s lone player over 6’8″, is so important. Bryant has shown flashes all year, but he put everything together against Kentucky. This guy is uber-talented (he was the #20 recruit in the nation last year and went to Huntington Prep, one of the best high school basketball teams in the country), and he’s probably one of the few bigs in college basketball who can even think about matching up with UNC’s frontline. Anyway, that’s UNC’s offense. Indiana, on the contrary, can shoot the lights out, although they’ve been pretty cold of late. They shoot 51% from the floor (best in the country) and 42% from three (fifth), knocking down nearly 10 threes per contest (12th). So neither team lacks talent or scoring prowess. What gives? Well, there’s a reason that North Carolina is a #1 seed while Indiana is a #5. It’s fair to say that the Hoosiers were underseeded, but UNC clearly had the better season, and that’s because they have shown the ability to show up defensively when they have to, something Indiana was not able to do this season. Luckily for the Hoosiers, they did show up defensively against Kentucky, a great sign moving forward. I think UK was a tremendous team this year, so I’m weighing the way Indiana played against the Wildcats very heavily. North Carolina is a 5.5 point favorite, and I think that’s a bit much. In fact, this feels like a tossup to me, with the team that goes on the biggest and longest (or maybe last?) spurt winning it. I’ll take IU because, well, why not? Hoosiers win 88-83.

Sweet 16 Predictions — Thursday

Posted: 03/24/2016 by levcohen in NCAA

I couldn’t have imagined a better first weekend of the NCAA tournament. Well, I could have, but that would have required a #1 seed unprecedentedly losing in the first round. Instead, every seed line besides the top one suffered at least one loss in round one, and many of them lost in exciting fashion. Then, the second round featured a return to normalcy, which is bad for anyone who wanted a Stephen F. Austin Cinderella story but good for those of us who just want to see the most competitive basketball deep in the tournament. And let’s not forget Northern Iowa’s epic weekend, with Paul Jesperson’s insane half-court buzzer beater taking down Texas and then the even more insane collapse in round two, when the Panthers hemorrhaged a 12-point lead with 35 seconds left to send Texas A&M through to what should be an enthralling matchup with Buddy Hield’s Oklahoma. One has to feel terrible for UNI, but one doesn’t get to see a team blow a 99.96% chance of winning too often, and the great weekend didn’t feel complete until The Comeback along with Bronson Koenig’s Steph Curry (that’s an adjective now) at the buzzer gave Wisconsin the win over Xavier. Anyway, the Sweet 16 is composed of a bunch of teams who have been here before. The names are all familiar, especially given that a record six ACC schools are among the last 16. In fact, the only “non-power conference” team in the Sweet 16 is Gonzaga, a squad that might as well be penciled into the Sweet 16 before every season. Let’s move on to today’s games.

#2 Villanova vs. #3 Miami: Predictably, the Jim Larranaga-led Hurricanes are getting all of the love over a Wildcats team that has had more than its fair share of trouble in previous NCAA tournaments. That trouble, though, has been nowhere to be found this year. Villanova looked terrific last weekend, blowing UNC Asheville and then Iowa out of the water. Miami is a different beast. The Hurricanes are one of the few teams in the country that can match Villanova’s experience and maybe also their talent. These are very similar teams in some ways, as both are predicated on toughness and led by experienced point guards (Ryan Arcidiacono for Villanova, Angel Rodriguez for Miami). They get things done in different ways, though. The Wildcats are oriented around the three point line, with Arcidiacono, Jalen Brunson, Josh Hart, and Kris Jenkins leading the way. The Hurricanes, meanwhile, are bigger down low, and the duo of Kamari Murphy and Tonye Jekiri could cause the smaller Wildcats trouble. If Villanova is hitting its threes, it should win the game as long as it can keep Miami from racking up a huge rebounding advantage. I think that Jenkins, who’s probably been the best player on the team over the past month (and certainly the best scorer), will be key; at 6’6″, he’s a small power forward, but he’ll cause a huge matchup problem for the slower Miami bigs. In the end, I expect Villanova to win this game because they generally find a way to score even when the threes aren’t going down (they’re one of the most efficient teams in the country from two point range). Wichita State gave Miami a good game but couldn’t win it because role players weren’t hitting their shots. Villanova’s role players, I think, are more likely to make Miami pay. Villanova wins 76-70.

#2 Oklahoma vs. #3 Texas A&M: Everyone is taking Buddy Hield and the Sooners in this one, and it’s hard not to. Buddy’s good, after all, and Texas A&M really shouldn’t even still be alive. But in some ways, the defensively-solid Aggies present a tough challenge to an Oklahoma team that has quietly been shaky so far in the tournament. I think we’ll get to see a Hield vs. Danuel House one-on-one matchup throughout the game, and I struggle to think of any two players who get hotter than these two do. Hield, of course, gets hot more often, but I’ll remind you that House had a goose-egg with a little over five minutes left in regulation against Northern Iowa… and ended up scoring 22 points. One reason that I like the Aggies’ chances defensively is that I remember the effort they made against Kentucky’s Jamal Murray, perhaps the only shooter in the country comparable to Buddy Hield. Murray, who averaged 24.6 points per game from the start of February through the end of the SEC tournament, put up 19 points per contest against Texas A&M while shooting just 36.7% from the field in two overtime games. If the Aggies can hold Hield to an 8-20 showing from the field or something along those lines, they have a chance of winning this game. Oklahoma is going to have its runs; explosive teams like this one always does. But far too often, this has turned into an Isolation-only team, as evidenced by their relatively-paltry 14 assists on 81 points per game this season (Villanova’s at 16 apg on 78 ppg, A&M is at 17 on 77). It’s easy to think of A&M as the team that looked dreadful against Northern Iowa, but this is a team that destroyed Green Bay in round one and went 4-0 against Big 12 teams this year, taking down Texas, Baylor, Kansas State, and Iowa State, all by double-digits. I don’t know how much it matters that Oklahoma was just 5-3 with a dead even point differential against the same four teams, but it’s interesting. The Aggies are playing with House money (get it? Danuel House) and take this one 73-69.

#1 Kansas vs. #5 Maryland: This one’s simple. If the best potential version of the Terrapins show up, with Melo Trimble getting Kansas in foul trouble, Diamond Stone bullying defenders down low, and, critically, guys hitting threes (Maryland was 1-18 from beyond the arc in round two against Hawaii), they have a great chance here. Unfortunately, we haven’t seen the best version of Maryland in quite some time. On February 12th, they were 22-3 and ranked second in the country. Since, they’re 5-5, including ugly wins over South Dakota State and Hawaii. Not great. On the other hand, Kansas has been pretty darn consistent recently, winning 16 games in a row, 10 of which have been by double-digits. The Jayhawks are one of three teams (Virginia and Villanova are the others) who are in the top-10 of Kenpom’s efficiency ratings both offensively (10th) and defensively (fifth). So the choice, then, is between a consistently-great team and one that could beat said team… but only if everything goes right. Yeah, I’ll take KU. Jayhawks win 81-73.

#1 Oregon vs. #4 Duke: I think this is the most unpredictable game of the four tonight. Neither of these teams is particularly strong, and I believe that the committee did a poor job of seeding teams in this region (why not switch Duke and Kentucky, for example? There’s little doubt that the Wildcats (and Indiana Hoosiers) deserved the easier route to the Sweet 16 than Duke and Baylor). Oregon and Duke are both very shallow teams and will be relieved that they’ve had some time to recover from tough first-weekend games. The Ducks go seven deep in competitive games. Period. Duke, meanwhile, is more of a six-man team, with Chase Jeter playing about 10 minutes a game as man #7 when the Blue Devils need him. Of the two, though, the Blue Devils are the much less balanced team. In Saturday’s win over Yale, Grayson Allen scored 29 points, while Brandon Ingram scored 25. The rest of the team? Just 17 points. That’s pretty much what you can expect from this team, which is one of the best offensive squads in the country purely because they have two of the best offensive players in the country. It’s going to be tough to stop Allen and Ingram, both of whom are future first round picks and one of whom, Ingram, might be a top overall pick. But Oregon, a team full of long, rangy, terrific defenders, doesn’t need to shut the stars down… they just need to contain them a little bit. A key is getting one of the two into foul trouble. It doesn’t happen often, as evidenced by the number of minutes per game the two play (36.5 for Allen, 34.5 for Ingram), but it can happen. The Blue Devils are 1-6 when Ingram commits 4+ fouls and 6-5 when Allen does the same and have lost just two games when neither is in foul trouble. Can Oregon get them on the bench? In a word: yes. They just did it against Saint Joseph’s, and they can do it again. Even if Allen and Ingram stay out of foul trouble, I don’t think Marshall Plumlee or Matt Jones will, which means we’ll be seeing a lot of Chase Jeter and maybe some other guys Coach K doesn’t want to see on the court. Elgin Cook, Tyler Dorsey, and Dillon Brooks are all super tough to guard, and Oregon has the explosiveness to do what Yale couldn’t. Ducks win 87-81.

For the longest time, I’ve avoided writing about the “potential” link between playing football and developing neurodegenerative diseases like CTE for a number of reasons. Firstly, this is still a very-much developing issue, and it seems a bit pointless to discuss it without a larger amount of data to examine. Secondly, I was very conflicted about the issue, (selfishly) thinking that increased safety precautions were taking away from the fun of the game. And thirdly and most simply, I just didn’t feel like I had anything to add.

Over the past few weeks, though, I’ve seen and heard three specific things that have actually made me angry and/or sad. First, I watched the ’85 Bears 30-for-30, in which ex-quarterback Jim McMahon discussed his early onset dementia. Now, one ex-QB developing a neurodegenerative disease doesn’t establish a link between the sport and disease, but it does drive home the potential damage the sport “might” do. Second, I listened to a Bill Simmons-hosted podcast featuring the one and only Jay Glazer, who, of course, equated an athlete’s CTE to a soldier’s PTSD and said that “any football player” had brain issues that led them to play football, not vice versa (face-palm). I can’t stand Glazer normally, but this was a new low. The last straw was what Jerry Jones said today. This, mind you, comes about a week after Jim Miller, the NFL’s senior VP for health and safety, said that there was “certainly” an established link between football and CTE. The man is getting paid by the NFL and still acknowledges the link between CTE and playing football. Anyway, here’s the venerable Jerry Jones, owner of the Dallas Cowboys:

“We don’t have that knowledge and background, and scientifically, so there’s no way in the world to say you have a relationship relative to anything here,” Jones said. “There’s no research. There’s no data. … We’re not disagreeing. We’re just basically saying the same thing. We’re doing a lot more. It’s the kind of thing that you want to work … to prevent injury.”

Pushed on whether he believes there is a link between CTE and playing football, Jones responded, “No, that’s absurd. There’s no data that in any way creates a knowledge. There’s no way that you could have made a comment that there is an association and some type of assertion. In most things, you have to back it up by studies. And in this particular case, we all know how medicine is. Medicine is evolving. I grew up being told that aspirin was not good. I’m told that one a day is good for you. … I’m saying that changed over the years as we’ve had more research and knowledge.

“So we are very supportive of the research. … We have for years been involved in trying to make it safer, safer as it pertains to head injury. We have millions of people that have played this game, have millions of people that are at various ages right now that have no issues at all. None at all. So that’s where we are. That didn’t alter at all what we’re doing about it. We’re gonna do everything we can to understand it better and make it safer.”

There is so much wrong with this quote that I don’t even know where to begin. First of all, there is data. In fact, there’s so much data that I didn’t even know which study to link to. Just look up “NFL CTE data” and find any article not about Jerry Jones. There’s a Hollywood movie staring Will Smith called “Concussion” about the first doctor who started compiling said data. Second of all, Jerry, no, a link between CTE and playing football is not “absurd.” In fact, the NFL has acknowledged the link. Need I say more? But what really irked me most was the fact that Jones says that the fact that “millions” of people have played the game and have no head issues now. I’m not going to quibble with the exact number or percentage of trauma-less players (most of whom, by the way, never got near the NFL), but this argument is like saying that millions of people went to or lived in Ebola-inflicted countries and didn’t get Ebola. Sure, maybe that’s true, but does that mean that those people aren’t in danger? Is that a reason to avoid protecting people from getting Ebola in the future? Of course not. And even if millions of people have avoided brain trauma, the fact that some haven’t avoided the issues should probably be more worrisome to Jones than it is. The combination of clear anecdotal evidence and blatant stupidity from people around the game have convinced me to take a more firm stance on the issue.

I said I was conflicted about rule changes improving player-safety in the NFL. I’m no longer conflicted. The argument from ex-players that they knew what they were getting into and would do it all again doesn’t ring true to me (none of this was a hot issue when ex-players were getting into football) but, more to the point, I wouldn’t care even if it were true. Ok, Jim McMahon, maybe you’d do it all again, but does that make it ok to endanger the sanity of thousands of other football players who might not feel the same way as you do? And do we have an obligation to, in some cases, protect players from themselves? The increased awareness is certainly a step in the right direction, and I think it’s already made an impact, as more and more kids are opting to play sports like soccer or basketball instead of football. I think it makes sense to lecture NFL-hopefuls time after time about the potential harms of playing a sport that features grown men running at full speed and driving each other into the ground. But unfortunately for football fans like myself, making the risks of the game clear isn’t enough. The NFL, with its new rule changes, is finally on the right track. The defenseless receiver and hit to the head or neck area penalties are really annoying, but they’re necessary. I love kickoffs, but in reality they’re the most dangerous plays in the game and should probably go. These changes have and will anger both fans and players who yearn for “the good old days,” but that’s how it always goes. Players and refs will adapt, and so will we, the fans. The sport will remain enjoyable for all parties. And if it doesn’t? So be it.

It’s important to remember that football is a game. A really awesome game, but still a game. And at the end of the day, I’d rather be on the “protect the players’ heads at all costs” side of the aisle than the “well there’s no 100% PROOF of a connection” or the “these rule changes make the game less fun” sides. When the NFL admits there’s a connection between brain disease and playing football, there’s probably a connection between brain disease and playing football. So name a way to clean up the game or protect players and particularly their heads, and I’ll support it. Does that mean football, with the absence of the bell-ringers that made the game popular, will slowly slip away into the abyss in the same way that boxing did? I hope and think not, but I’m not willing to risk the brains of future players to save the sport. Their knees? Well, that’s another story.

NCAA Tournament First Round Games to Watch

Posted: 03/16/2016 by levcohen in NCAA

Something tells me that doing a writeup for all 32 NCAA tournament games that will take place in the next 48-ish hours would be neither fun nor all that helpful even if I had the time to do such a writeup. Instead, I’ve picked out the games I think are the most interesting of the first round with the expectation that I can write about some of the better teams later in the tournament, when they’ll (presumably) still be in the field. I think the five top title contenders are Kansas, Virginia, Michigan State, North Carolina, and Kentucky, and I’d be pretty surprised if any of them missed the second weekend, although a Kentucky-Indiana second round matchup should scare UK a bit, as the Hoosiers have looked very good of late, especially on the offensive end. For now, I’m going to avoid writing about those teams or about the others who should have no trouble disposing of their first round opponents. Here goes, in order of tip-off time…

Thursday:

#4 Iowa State vs. #13 Iona (2:00): A shootout! The over/under for this game is 167, more than 10 points higher than any other first round game. According to Kenpom, these teams play at the fifth and eighth quickest paces of any tournament team, making this the highest-octane game… easily. More importantly, though, I think this could actually be a competitive game, something you might not expect out of a 4-13 matchup. Iowa State is a good team, as they’re experienced, talented, and tremendous offensively. Senior Georges Niang is one of the best players in the country, and he always seems to up his game in key moments, as evidenced by the fact that he’s scored 20+ points in eight of his 11 games against teams ranked in the top-25 at the time of the game. Niang’s a very efficient player, and so is point guard Monte Morris, who boasts a 4.09 assist/turnover ratio. Throw in tremendous all-around play by big man Jameel McKay, the grittiness of Abdel Nader, and the terrific shooting of Matt Thomas and this is one of the best starting lineups in the country. The problem is that the Cyclones have neither depth nor much defense (they rank 100th in Kenpom defense), hence their failure to win more than two consecutive games since January (they’re 5-7 in their last 12). The depth issue could be magnified by the fact that this game is being played in Denver, also known as the Mile High City. The defense issue could be magnified by the fact that Iona’s offense is not just fast but also pretty good. Their 67th-ranked offense may not seem great, but it’s better than any other 12-or-worse-seed’s offense besides Stephen F. Austin (more on them soon). The Gaels are also hot (11-1 in the last 12) and have one of the best scorers in the country in A.J. English (22.4 points per game). The Cyclones are going to hit their fair share of threes, but English and Co. will shoot right back at them. And the Gaels really run into trouble when they face bigger and better rebounders; Iowa State, though, isn’t a very good rebounding team, either. The Cyclones are clearly the better team here, but expect a good game in Denver.

Prediction: Iowa State wins 88-85

#6 Arizona vs. #11 Wichita State (9:20): The first half of Wichita State’s First Four win over Vanderbilt was ugly. That suited Wichita State just fine, as they entered the half tied, but it left me unsure of the Shockers’ potential to move forward deep into the tournament again this season. The second half was a different story, and Wichita State ended up winning the game 70-50. Unfortunately for Arizona, I think that’s the Shockers team we’re going to see tomorrow night, because I believe Wichita State was just rusty in the first half after 11 days off. Arizona’s not facing any normal 11th seed. The Shockers, who are led by tough-as-nail-seniors Fred Van Vleet and Ron Baker, have tournament experience, and they’re also the ninth best team in the country per Kenpom. This is a gritty, deliberate team whose offense sometimes stalls but whose defense will always keep them in games. The Wildcats are 1.5 point favorites, but I see no scenario in which they blow the Shockers out, while the inverse is probably just as unlikely. Yes, this is going to be a close game between two teams who seem good enough to meet in the Sweet 16 (the Wildcats rank 16th in Kenpom). While Wichita State grinds teams down with good guard play and defense, Arizona is a very modern team, and coach Sean Miller’s love of advanced stats is certainly no coincidence. They out-rebound teams by 9.2 boards per game, shoot 37.7% from three, and allow opponents to shoot just 32.1% from beyond the arc. Unfortunately, their guards are inconsistent and mistake-prone, and this is not one of the stronger Arizona teams in recent years (last year’s T.J. McConnell-led team was terrific, for example). Miller-coached teams are always good, though, and this one definitely has talent, which ensures that this will be a high-quality and close game. Yes please!

Prediction: Wichita State wins 66-61

#6 Seton Hall vs. #11 Gonzaga (9:57): Why do these teams have to play each other in the first round?? Why couldn’t it have been Notre Dame-Gonzaga and Seton Hall-Tulsa or something? I like both of these teams a lot, and I think this will be another close one (sensing a theme? There’s a reason I think these are the best games of the first round), as Gonzaga ranks 27th in Kenpom, just three spots behind Seton Hall. I’m actually surprised by the fact that the Zags are favored in this game over a team that is coming off back-to-back wins on a neutral court over two-seeds (Xavier and Villanova). The Zags, like the Shockers, are a small-school team that is no stranger to playing big games. They’ve made 18-consecutive NCAA tournaments and have won their opening-round matchups seven straight times. The loss of center Przemek Karnowski removed a head from the Zags’ three-headed big-man monster, but make no mistake: the other two guys are darn good. Kyle Wiltjer (20.7 and 6.5 with 49%/42%/87% shooting) and Domanatas Sabonis (17.4 and 11.6 while shooting 62% from the field and 77% from the line) can flat-out dominate while also ensuring that the Zags will make their free throws. Remember, a lot of these guys played on one of the best teams in the country last year, a #2 seed that gave eventual champion Duke a very good game in the Elite Eight. This team certainly underperformed this season, but it’s squads like this one, the preseason #9 team in the country, that can be extremely dangerous in the postseason if they’ve figured things out, which Gonzaga seems to have done. Seton Hall, however, will be far from an easy out. They, too, have been playing some pretty good basketball of late, and they have a guard by the name of Isaiah Whitehead who could easily take over the tournament. Whitehead shoots from all over the place and averaged upwards of 20 points per game in Big East play, including 25+ ppg in the last seven, six of which were wins and five of which came against tournament teams (two vs. Xavier, one against Villanova, Butler, and Providence). I really want this to turn into a Whitehead vs. Gonzaga bigs game, and I want it to come down to the last possession. I also think that scenario is fairly likely in a game between two very even teams who, again, might each be good enough to reach the second weekend were they not facing each other tomorrow night.

Prediction: Gonzaga wins 72-70

Honorable mention: #8 USC vs. #9 Providence (9:50) — the late Thursday night TV is going to be incredible

Friday:

#3 West Virginia vs #14 Stephen F. Austin (7:10): You know what might be even better than the likely fast-paced scoring fest between Iowa State and Iona? How about a clash of two styles that are about as disparate as it gets? Bob Huggins has been around for long enough that you probably know that his teams are generally pretty similar. This West Virginia team is better than most of Huggins’ former squads, but it plays the same style. The Mountaineers are a deep team that presses nonstop, relying on suffocating defense and scrappy offense to win games. Given that this team ranks sixth in the nation in Kenpom, I’d say that they’re pretty good at what they do. They’re physical, they force turnovers, they score in transition, and they’re the best offensive rebounding team in the country, all of which ensures that even when they have off nights offensively (which is often), they’re still generally good enough to win ugly games. Nobody plays more than Jevon Carter’s 27.7 minutes per game and nobody scores more than Jaysean Paige’s 13.9 points per game, but six guys average 8.9+ ppg and eight play at least 18 minutes per game. This seems like a team that might struggle against elite opposition but will almost never be upset by a less-talented team. Why, then, do I think this has a chance of being competitive? Because SFA is the type of deliberate, balanced team that could cause the Mountaineers some problems. In the interest of full disclosure, this iteration of West Virginia is one of my favorite squads to watch in the country, so I want them to advance for selfish reasons, and I’ve picked them to do so in all of my numerous brackets. With that being said, I’m scared by the fact that the Lumberjacks went undefeated in their conference, ranks second in the nation in assists per game (19), and shoots 54.9% from two point range along with their 37.1% mark from beyond the arc. I’m worried by Thomas Walkup, the senior who seems like the kind of player who would be able to beat the press. I’m nervous about Brad Underwood, SFA’s tremendous coach who will try and probably succeed to foil some of Huggins’s tricks. This is probably the worst matchup the Mountaineers could have gotten in the first round, and it could be close, though I expect West Virginia to pull it out. I would like to say that this game is different from most of the others on this list in that it has a pretty decent chance at ending in a blowout if SFA is overwhelmed by the press or can’t keep West Virginia off the boards.

Prediction: West Virginia wins 68-59

#8 Saint Joseph’s vs. #9 Cincinnati (9:57): Can the Bearcats knock the Hawks hard enough in the teeth to slow their offensive tear? That’s the big question here. I probably don’t need to tell you that this is expected to be a close game; the fact that it’s an 8-9 matchup probably tells you that. But the reason I’m putting this one here is that I believe the winner of this one has an excellent chance of taking down #1 Oregon and then possibly either Duke or Baylor. Saint Joe’s was on fire offensively in the A-10 tournament, putting up 86, 82, and 87 against three pretty good teams in George Washington, Dayton, and VCU. They don’t force a lot of turnovers, but they also rarely turn the ball over themselves and get a lot of easy baskets thanks to their great movement off the ball. I wouldn’t go as far as saying this is a two-man team, but DeAndre Bembry and Isaiah Miles make up one of the best 1-2 punches in the tournament. Bembry is the best all-around player on the team and a likely early second round pick whenever he decides to turn pro. He’s a good scorer and also a tremendous passer and is truly the key to the offense. But Miles is the one who has made the huge improvement from last year to this campaign, going from 10.7 points and 5.1 rebounds on 39%/35%/75% shooting to 18.4 and 8.1 on 53%/39%/88% shooting. Guys like Aaron Brown, Shavar Newkirk, James Demery, and Papa Ndao should not be overlooked, because they all must play well for the Hawks to be successful. But the leaders, obviously, are Bembry and Miles. Meanwhile, the Bearcats are the quintessential Mark Cronin team. They play super slowly (320th in pace among 351 D-1 schools) and are the eighth best defensive team in the country. If they can keep the game at their pace and stop Bembry, they will win this game. But if Saint Joe’s can find the openings they have of late, it could be a long night for the Bearcats in what is a higher-stakes 8-9 matchup than most.

Prediction: Cincinnati wins 63-62

Honorable mention: #7 Oregon State vs. #10 VCU (1:30) — Can Gary Payton II solve the press? Vegas doesn’t think so, as VCU is a 4.5 point favorite.

When I wrote my post on the Memphis Grizzlies earlier this week, the Dallas Mavericks were on their way to falling to 33-31, their third straight loss. Now, after two more disheartening home losses, they’re 33-33 and mired in a long losing streak. Adding insult to injury, their remaining is schedule is brutal, the second-toughest in the Western Conference. In fact, their next six games include two against Golden State, one against red hot Charlotte (winners of seven straight), one against Cleveland, and two against a Portland team that is 16-6 in their last 22 and just drubbed the Magic by 37. Four of those games are on the road. Unfortunately, all of that clashes with the premise of this post, which was that the Mavericks are outperforming expectations and playing better than the talent on their roster would indicate. But I think I can still make this point, given that the Mavs are still safely in the playoffs (by three games) and given how low the expectations were heading into the season.

Remember, this is the team that underwent the DeAndre Jordan Fiasco. Jordan verbally committed to the Mavericks before free agency officially opened, but by the time it opened, Jordan was in a room with every important member of the Clippers and opting to re-sign. It was really bizarre and resulted in an emoji war, but it also totally destroyed Dallas’s offseason. The Mavericks, who had opened up cap space in search of a superstar for a number of years (they notably just missed on Dwight Howard and Deron Williams), had struck out again. A 50-32 last year, the Mavs lost point guard Rajon Rondo, who was a colossal failure after being traded for by the Mavs early last season. They also lost their leading scorer, guard Monta Ellis, and center Tyson Chandler. Instead of replacing Chandler with Jordan, they got 32-year old Zaza Pachulia, who has career averages of 7.2 points and six rebounds. Meanwhile, they filled the shooting guard with… Wesley Matthews, a guy coming off the dreaded torn Achilles’, one of the toughest possible injuries for an athlete to return from. And at the point, they signed Deron Williams, a once-great but now-31-year old guard who shot all of 39% from the floor last season. Add that all to the fact that Dirk Nowitzki was yet another year older (he’s 37) and that Chandler Parsons started the season out with a knee injury and it wasn’t too difficult to envision the Mavericks ending the season at the bottom of the standings.

It’s with that perspective that a 33-33 record and -.5 point differential (although they’re +.3 per 100 possessions) is a good surprise. Nowitzki is, incredibly, leading the team in scoring again, putting up 18.2 points per game and shooting 46%/39%/89% while missing just six games to this point. He’s so consistent, even in his 18th NBA season, that I’m starting to question whether he’s a human being. Parsons, the other holdover in the starting lineup from last season, has also been good after a very slow return from his injury. After averaging just 9.3 points per game on 45% shooting in the first two months of the season, Parsons has put up more than 17 a game on better than 51% shooting since while hitting more than two threes a game. But this is far more than a two-man team, and the Mavericks have a couple of their new acquisitions to thank for that. By RPM, Zaza Pachulia is actually the best player on the team and the 34th best overall and 13th best defensive player in the NBA. That might be a bit flattering of his overall play, but regardless of what stat you look at, it’s clear that Zaza has made a huge positive impact and has been one of the better overall centers in the league. His averages (9.5/10.3/basically nothing else) don’t jump off the page, but Pachulia is basically the only reason that the Mavericks aren’t a defensive train wreck. They’re just 17th in defensive efficiency this year, but that’s actually better than the 18th they were last season, and the defensive stability is much-needed given the fact that the offense is scoring 2.7 fewer points per 100 possessions this year than they did last season. After Zaza, Dirk, and Parsons, another free agent signing, Matthews, has been the team’s best and most important player. He’s not the player he was before the Achilles’ injury (his scoring is down 25% and is shooting just 39% from the field), but Matthews is by pretty much every metric a net plus for the Mavs, something that comes as a bit of a surprise given the injury he suffered. More than half of his shots are threes, as he’s began to shy away from his post-ups (Matthews was probably the best guard at posting up on a per-play basis) in favor of more long range shots, and his three point range is a big reason that the offense remains pretty solid even without the scoring ability of Ellis. Overall, the Mavericks rank sixth in the league in three point makes and attempts per game, about even with last year. Meanwhile, Williams has been a below-average starting point guard, but he’s a much better fit for this team than the ball-dominant, shooting-deficient Rondo. The change from Rondo to D-Will is also a key reason that the Mavericks, who have been worse this year than last year pretty much across the board, are actually a much better free throw shooting team this season (18/22.7, 79.1%, fourth) than last year (16.9/22.5, 75.2%, 16th). That extra point per game might not seem like much, but it’s a lot for a team fighting for a playoff spot.

As for the role players, not much really stands out. J.J. Barea, Raymond Felton, and Devin Harris all come off the bench to play guard, and all three of them are decent bench players. Meanwhile, David Lee has been great for the Mavericks since signing with them about a month ago, averaging 10.6 points and 8.2 rebounds per game in just 18.8 minutes per contest. Lee’s net rating, +3.5, is best on the team among guys who play 10+ minutes per game. The Mavericks score 109.8 points per 100 possessions that Lee is on the court, the best number on the team (Wes and Dirk come next) and 5.3 points per 100 possessions better than the team’s 104.5. Lee’s become yet another great signing by Mark Cuban and Dallas’s front office.

Year after year, the Mavericks miss out on the big free agent but make several under-the-radar, savvy moves. When you can do that and also have a top coach in Rick Carlisle and one of the best players of all time in Dirk Nowitzki, you can build what people call a winning culture. Assuming they get back on track pretty soon, it looks like the Mavs will avoid missing the playoffs yet again, something they’ve achieved in all but one season since the turn of the century. And if they play even .500 ball to close the season, they’ll remain one of a few teams to play .500+ ball in every season since 2000. They aren’t a great team, but they’re a mediocre team, and mediocrity is a big surprise compared to the projections people were making about this team in the preseason. Going forward, I expect the Mavs to enter the playoffs as the seventh or eighth seed and get blown off the floor by the Warriors or Spurs, because they simply don’t belong on the same court as those teams talent-wise. But regardless of what happens the rest of the way, this team has to be considered one of the league’s biggest overachievers this season.

There are 16 teams in the NBA that are currently above .500. It becomes obvious why most of them are good with a quick glance at their rosters. Boston, Atlanta, Miami, Chicago, and Charlotte have a ton of depth. Cleveland, Indiana, Portland, the Clippers, and the Thunder are star-driven. Golden State, San Antonio, and Toronto have depth and star-power. That leaves three teams, but the Pistons can be placed in the second category because they, too, have an all-star in Andre Drummond. In fact, of the 16 .500-plus teams, 12 had at least one all-star, while Damian Lillard and Kemba Walker were probably the two biggest snubs (both, by the way, seem to be taking their omissions personally. Lillard is averaging 33 points per game since the all-star game, while Walker is averaging 24.1). Basically, I’m getting at the fact that, for the most part, the good teams are the teams that should be good besides, of course, Dallas and Memphis. The Mavericks are 33-31 and just suffered a blowout loss to the Clippers; the Grizzlies are 38-25 and coming off a win in Cleveland. These teams are both much better that I thought they’d be, but I’m going to start with the team with the better record and the one I’m more surprised by. I’ll write about Dallas tomorrow.

A little more than two months ago, I wrote about the Grizzlies, who were 18-16 with a -2.9 point differential at the time. Here is what I concluded:

All of this leads me to believe that there’s no real chance for the Grizzlies to turn things around this season. I expect them to finish under .500 and make the playoffs only because there’s no reason to believe in any of the teams in the playoff hunt right now. But they’ll get drubbed by Golden State or San Antonio or Oklahoma City in the first round, and it’ll be considered a lost season.

Since that post, which I wrote at the very end of 2015, the Grizzlies are 20-9 with a +2.8 point differential, so I guess you could say their season hasn’t exactly gone the way I expected it to. The win tonight in Cleveland is probably as good of a place to start as anywhere. First of all, it’s important to note that star center Marc Gasol, the best player on the team, broke his foot about a month ago and is out for the season. So there’s that. The Grizzlies also happened to be missing point guard Mike Conley (foot), small forward Matt Barnes (hamstring), power forward Zach Randolph (knee), and replacement center Chris Anderson (shoulder) tonight. They rolled into Cleveland with a starting lineup consisting of Mario Chalmers, Tony Allen, JaMychal Green, P.J. Hairston, and Ryan Hollins. Meanwhile, the Cavs started Kyrie Irving, J.R. Smith, LeBron James, Kevin Love, and Timofey Mozgov. You would probably have expected the Cavs to win this game handily. But then you would have been underestimating this ridiculous Memphis team. Yep, the Grizzlies won, thanks to Allen’s season-high 26 points (remember, the guy is inept offensively) in his first game back after an eight-game absence, the best all-around game of Green’s career, and 17 points apiece from Chalmers and new addition Lance Stephenson. That pretty much sums up their season.

This is a team that looked like it was giving up on the season at the trade deadline. They traded away Courtney Lee and Jeff Green, two key players, for Stephenson, Hairston, and future picks. When you throw in Gasol’s foot injury, the Grizzlies have lost three of their six best players heading into the season. And remember, this was a team that was supposed to take a step back even if they were full strength. But while they won’t win 55 games like they did last year, they seem likely to win 50+ for the fourth consecutive year. How the heck are they doing this again?

It starts with Conley, who unfortunately will miss at least the next few games with a foot injury of his own. He’s always been good, and he actually hasn’t really been better this season than in the recent past, but the guy always seems to come up big in the clutch. Since February began, Conley’s averaged 17.5 points per game, more than two points above his season-long average and a sign that he has stepped up since Gasol went down. So the Grizz have a steady, good point guard. That doesn’t really explain how on earth they’re 38-25. It has to be said that this team has gotten quite lucky; their season-long point differential is still in the red at -.3, indicating that their record should be 31-32. But still, even that record would be good enough to keep Memphis in the playoffs, and while a 31-32 would fit the narrative I envisioned in the quote above, even that would be outperforming the healthy talent the Grizzlies currently have.

The lineup of Conley, Hairston, Barnes, Green, and Randolph has been surprisingly good, posting a +21.4 net rating in a sample size of 42 minutes spread across six games. But one lineup, albeit a really good one, can’t explain the Grizzlies’ success either. By ESPN’s RPM, the Grizzlies are still being led by their experienced players. Their best players by RPM are Conley, Allen, Gasol, Barnes, Chalmers, and Andersen. Meanwhile, the guys I’m really interested in and the ones that have been making the biggest recent difference by the eye test, Stephenson and Green, are dreadful according to RPM. But Net Rating, a less-convoluted stat that simply measures the number of points per 100 possessions above or below average any given player is, says Green is +3.2, best on the team among guys who have played more than two games. As for Stephenson? Well, maybe he actually does still stink. His net rating is -5. Truth be told, I’m a bit flummoxed as to why the Grizzlies are any good. It clearly starts with Conley and the quiet production of guys like Randolph and Barnes, although the latter two have sub-zero net ratings. Heck, even the 39-year old Vince Carter (!) has played some solid minutes, averaging 5.5 points per game in a very consistent 15 minutes per game this season. So if you combine solid production from veterans with an infusion of youth from Green, I guess the success starts to make sense. But this is not the team whose “Grit and Grind” style led to so much success over the last half-decade; with Gasol out, Allen and Randolph declining and Lee and Jeff Green gone, the defense is in the bottom half of the league in terms of efficiency. In fact, the offense has actually been the better unit for reasons that, again, are beyond me.

I don’t want to beat a dead horse, but I’m going to anyway: this team just shouldn’t be good. I still don’t think they are good, but it’s been 63 games now and they are 13 games over .500 and well on their way to a five seed. On paper, this team minus Green, Lee, and Gasol and with many other players ailing does not work, but in reality this team just finds ways to win games, as evidenced by the upset win over the Cavaliers today. Come playoff time, I don’t think the Grizzlies will advance to the second round, but if they play the Clippers in the first round (which they are currently slated to do and which it feels like they do every year), I expect them to push the series to six or seven games, just because they’ve been doing that kind of stuff all season. Anyway, enjoy these not-always-pretty last 19 games of Memphis’s season, because I don’t think the team will look at all similar moving forward. The Green and Lee trades were made with the future in mind, and I expect the Grizzlies to transition away from the Grit and Grind, but this season has been incredible, with the Grizz showing an ability to win even as their front office has taken away key contributors from their team and even as their best player has been lost to injury.