Archive for March, 2017

NL East Preview

Posted: 03/30/2017 by levcohen in Baseball

Baseball’s regular season starts on Sunday, so it’s past time to begin previewing the new season. I’m going to start with the NL East, which could be the most lopsided division in baseball (the AL Central is also in the mix). The Nationals and Mets both have great chances to return to the playoffs and should finish 1-2 in the division for the fourth consecutive season. Meanwhile, the Braves, Marlins, and Phillies have all missed the playoffs since Atlanta made it in 2013, and none of them has much of a chance to return this season. As rebuilds continue in Atlanta, Philadelphia, and Miami, it’ll be more interesting and useful to focus on individual performances than on wins and losses. That’s kind of a bummer, but if you’re looking for team success in this division, just watch the top of the rotations in Washington and New York, because Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg, Noah Syndergaard, and Jacob DeGrom are going to rack up a lot of wins. I expect the race to finish at the top (and the race to finish at the bottom, if that’s more of your thing) to be a dogfight.

1. New York Mets (93-69): Most projections I’ve seen have made the Nationals significant favorites to repeat atop the NL East. Fangraphs, for example, has Washington winning 91 games and the Mets winning 86. But I’m bullish on New York this year, largely because I have a lot of faith in their young rotation. Last year, the Mets somehow overcame injuries to Zack Wheeler (missed the whole year), Matt Harvey, Steven Matz, and Jacob DeGrom to make the playoffs. Although the lovable Bartolo Colon is gone and Matz will open the season on the DL, the rotation should be a lot deeper this year. Syndergaard is an ace. He’s 24 years old, may have the best fastball of any starter in baseball, and struck out 10.7 batters per nine innings last season. But his complete and utter dominance last season kind of made people forget about Jacob DeGrom, who I think may be the best pitcher on the team. He wasn’t as highly touted as a prospect as Syndergaard and is 28 years old, but the guy has a 2.74 career ERA in 76 starts, he strikes out nearly a batter per inning and barely walks anyone, and his fastball is super effective (if not as flashy as Syndergaard’s). Syndergaard has been bandied about as a Cy Young candidate, of course, but if I had to pick anyone to be a darkhorse candidate (and really, anyone other than Clayton Kershaw is a darkhorse candidate in the National League in the 2010s), it would probably be DeGrom.

Then there’s Matt Harvey, who is probably the single biggest X-factor on the team. At his pre-injury best, Harvey was the future of New York baseball. He had a 2.73 ERA in his rookie year, a 2.27 ERA in his scintillating, and a 2.71 ERA in a slightly less-dominant 2015 season that also served as his return from his first elbow injury. If you’re not a fan of ERA, Harvey’s underlying numbers were also elite. He was basically what Syndergaard is now: a young ace seemingly destined for a decade atop the Mets’ rotation. Then, the elbow acted up again, and Harvey struggled through a horrific, injury-riddled 2016. He went 4-10 with a 4.86 ERA and a 1.47 WHIP. He gave up 111 hits in 92.2 innings. His strikeout rate was way down, his walk rate way up. But there’s hope: the underlying numbers were solid (3.47 FIP), and he’s hitting 97 miles per hour again in spring training. I don’t think it’s wise to expect a return to his 2013 heights, but I’m confident that Harvey can be one of the best #3 starters in baseball.

I haven’t even talked about Wheeler, who was acquired way back in 2011 in the Carlos Beltran trade and who has missed two consecutive seasons with (you guessed it) elbow injuries. Wheeler’s still only 26, and he pitched well in his lone full season (3.54 ERA, 3.55 FIP). Before the injuries, Wheeler was another flamethrower. After two years of rehab, his fastball is back up in the mid 90s, and after he struggled at the beginning of spring training, he’s pitched a lot better of late and won a rotation spot. The good thing about having Syndergaard, DeGrom, (eventually) Matz, and Harvey is that your fifth starter doesn’t need to be dominant for the rotation to be among the best in baseball.

  • Another good thing about having a great rotation: the fact that your closer, who underperformed in 2016 anyway, is suspended for 15 games doesn’t really mean much.
  • Another good thing about having a great rotation: having an average-at-best lineup doesn’t really mean much. Yoenis Cespedes is a great guy to have in the middle of your lineup, but the rest of New York’s best bats are still in the minors. Until shortstop Amed Rosario and first baseman Dominic Smith are on the team, I’m afraid that the offense will continue to be just mediocre. But along with the excellent rotation, that’ll be enough. I like New York to win the NL East by a smidge.

2. Washington Nationals (92-70): Bryce Harper. Max Scherzer. Stephen Strasburg. We know the Nationals have a lot of top-end talent. But it’s worth noting that while Harper and Strasburg struggled last year, the Nationals still managed to win 95 games, thanks largely to an incredible season from Daniel Murphy (.347/.390/.595) and a great rookie season from rookie shortstop Trea Turner (.342/.370/.567). There’ll obviously be a lot of regression coming for those two, and it’s also worth noting that Wilson Ramos, who hit .307 and had a career season, is gone (new starting catcher: Matt Wieters, owner of a .243 average last season. I like Wieters a lot, actually, and think he’s about as good as Ramos is. But if we’re judging this by 2016 production, it’s a big downgrade). And Tanner Roark isn’t likely to have a 2.83 ERA again. There’ll be a lot of regression, and I do in fact have the Nationals winning fewer games than they did last season. But they’re still going to win a lot of games, because Bryce Harper’s going to be better and Stephen Strasburg is going to be healthier. I can’t look at a lineup that starts Turner-Murphy-Harper-Rendon and not think 90+ wins. If Turner and Murphy don’t regress, it’ll be 100+ wins. Washington’s X-factor could well be new starting centerfielder Adam Eaton, who was acquired via trade with the Chicago White Sox. Eaton’s currently slated to hit sixth, but he’s a great leadoff or two-hole hitter if and when Turner and Murphy regress. Eaton has a career .357 OBP and three straight consistently above-average seasons. In 2015, Eaton was worth 3.7 WAR. Last year, he was worth 6 WAR. What was the big difference? Defense. When Eaton moved to right field, he went from being a below-average centerfielder to an elite right fielder. Now, he’s back to center with Washington, and given the shoddy defense provided by corner outfielders Harper and Jayson Werth, the Nationals are relying on him to provide defensive security. Eaton’s defense alone might save or cost the Nationals a few games, which could be the difference between a home series in the NLDS and a trip to the wild card game.

3. Miami Marlins (74-88): guess the Marlins are still the third-best team in the NL East. But they’re certainly the most depressing. The death of Jose Fernandez will still loom large over this team, especially since the rotation now consists of (gulp) Edinson Volquez (5.37 ERA, 1.55 WHIP for the Royals last year), Tom Koehler (4.33 ERA, 1.47 WHIP), Dan Straily (3.76 ERA for the Reds — he’s the ace, but regression is likely coming), Wei-Yin Chen (4.96 ERA), and Adam Conley (3.85 ERA, 1.40 WHIP, certain ERA regression coming). Oi. The Marlins took starting pitchers in the top 10 in 2014 and 2016, but neither Tyler Kolek nor Braxton Garrett is anywhere near being ready for the big leagues. They’re still the third-best team in the division because the middle of their lineup (Marcell Ozuna and World Baseball Classic studs Christian Yelich and Giancarlo Stanton) is far better than Atlanta’s or Philadelphia’s. But I’d rather be a Phillies or Braves fan right now than a Marlins fan. They haven’t made the playoffs in 15 years, and the death of Fernandez was just devastating. The farm system is one of the worst in baseball, and I don’t think the Marlins will be good anytime soon. I guess my suggestion would be to just watch Stanton rake, enjoy the exploits of 43 year old Ichiro Suzuki (he’s still playing! He hit .291 last year! This is unbelievable!), and hope that the prime-age lineup (everyone is between 25 and 28) can carry the poor rotation to some exciting victories.

4. Atlanta Braves (71-91): The Braves were somehow horrendous offensively last season even though they got a great season out of stud first baseman Freddie Freeman (.302/.400/.569). Freeman’s been scorching hot all spring long and is set to have another huge season. Unfortunately, he still doesn’t have that much help. But the future is bright in Atlanta. 2015 first overall pick Dansby Swanson hit .302 in his first taste of the big leagues and is set to join the already-expansive class of elite young shortstops. Julio Teheran is still just 26. Prospects Ozzie Albies, Sean Newcomb, and a whole host of others are coming (this is a deep farm system). This is going to be another rebuilding year for the Braves, but they’re doing this thing right. And if you’re going to be bad, why not be bad with R.A. Dickey and Bartolo Colon in your rotation? The first and third oldest active players in baseball are going to be pitching in the same rotation, which is pretty cool. It’s also one of the many reasons that the Braves aren’t going to be very good this season.

5. Philadelphia Phillies (69-93): The Phillies went 71-91 last season, but they went 28-23 in one run games and had a -186 run differential, easily the worst in baseball. So while I have them finishing with fewer wins this season, I actually think they’ll have a better all-around season than they did last year. Like the Braves, the Phillies are taking the slow rebuilding approach. With Ryan Howard gone, they’ve shed all of their big contracts and now have a 25-man roster that’s making $79 million, sixth-least in baseball. That’s pretty incredible for a big-market team like the Phillies. They still made a few free agent signings (namely ex-Blue Jays Michael Saunders and Joaquin Benoit and ex-Red Sox Daniel Nava). They also traded for Clay Buchholz and Howie Kendrick, both of whom will play prominent roles for the Phillies. There’s no question that last year’s dreadful outfield is improved. Last year, Aaron Altherr hit .202 in 198 at bats, Tyler Goeddel hit .192 in 213 at bats, and Cody Asche hit .213 in 197 at bats. The Phillies were forced to bring in veteran Jimmy Paredes, who went on to post a .591 OPS. It was brutal. The lone outfield bright spot was Odubel Herrera, who returns in center. He’ll be flanked by Kendrick and a likely platoon of Altherr and Saunders. More important than a marginal outfield improvement will be the development of corner infielders Tommy Joseph and Maikel Franco, both of whom had very hit-or-miss seasons. They combined for 46 homers but had OBPs of .308 and .306 respectively. For Franco especially, there’s a lot of room to improve.

Jeremy Hellickson is back atop the rotation, although he’ll likely be traded if he pitches as well as he did last season. Buchholz, too, could be traded if he returns to form. This’ll be an important year for Aaron Nola, who’s returning from injury, and for Jerad Eickhoff and Vince Velasquez. And the AAA rotation is stocked with young talent, from Zach Eflin to Jake Thompson to Ben Lively (Alec Asher would be included, but he was just traded to the Orioles to open up a spot on the 40-man roster). The real fun will begin when the Phillies’ top prospects begin to get called up, which should be fairly early in the season. I expect to see a lot of Jorge Alfaro, J.P. Crawford, Roman Quinn, and Nick Williams. Things are looking up for the Phillies. They just won’t be good this season.

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Who Wins Tonight’s Battle of Bluebloods?

Posted: 03/26/2017 by levcohen in NCAA

On December 17th, then-sixth ranked Kentucky played #7 North Carolina in Las Vegas. Kentucky was a one point favorite, so the game was expected to be close. It didn’t disappoint. Kentucky held a slim lead for most of the game, stretching it out to double digits for a short period in the first half. Then, the Heels took a lead on a Justin Jackson three with 1:35 left, Malik Monk instantly responded with a three of his own, and Jackson and Monk then traded a two for a three. Isaiah Hicks missed a jumper with six seconds left, and Kentucky won 103-100. Monk scored 47, De’Aaron Fox added 24 and 10 assists, and Jackson scored 34. Of course, a repeat of that classic is far from guaranteed. Friday’s UCLA-Kentucky game showed that, as it was nowhere near as exciting or close as the first matchup between the two. But the ingredients are in place for another nail-biter.

Given these two teams’ respective strengths, it’s hard to imagine either team stringing together enough consecutive stops to build a big lead. The Wildcats have two future top-10 picks in their backcourt, and they’re both playing great basketball. Fox is coming off of a 39 point performance against UCLA, and his role on the team has clearly changed since December. Fox’s 10 assists against North Carolina served as his fourth double-digit assist total of the season; he hasn’t had more than seven assists in a game since and has been under five in nine straight games. Instead of looking first to get his teammates involved, Fox is using his incredible athleticism to finish improbably at the rim and get to the line. He’s averaging 7.8 free throw attempts over the last 10 games and is putting up 19.9 points per game in that time. Add that to his defensive ability (he held Lonzo Ball to 10 points on 4-10 shooting), and Fox is probably playing better than any other college point guard.

Then there’s Monk, who is a terror when he’s hot but almost non-existent when he’s not. Case in point: against UCLA, Monk was 1-4 from the field for two points with three minutes to go in the first half. Seven minutes of game time later, he was 7-11 from the field for 17 points. When he’s on, his three point stroke is the best in college basketball, which is why he’ll be a successful NBA player. Of course, Monk can’t be much better than he was the first time the Wildcats played the Tar Heels. But how is UNC going to match up against Fox and Monk? It’ll be tough. One concern heading into the weekend was Joel Berry’s ankle, but that seems like much less of an issue after UNC’s star guard scored 26 points on 13 shots and looked very healthy against Butler. Still, guard defense is not North Carolina’s biggest strength. They lost to Kentucky and twice to Duke largely because they couldn’t slow down talented guards. The same thing happened against Miami, when the Hurricanes’ three best players (all guards) combined for 62 points in a 77-62 game. Georgia Tech’s freshman guard Josh Okogie scored 26 points in a win over UNC. The answer to “who can slow down Monk and Fox?” is probably “Monk and Fox.” Monk, particularly, seems to be almost as good when nobody’s guarding him as he is when there’s tight defense. Theo Pinson was out for the first game between these two teams and is probably UNC’s best athlete, so he’s the guy to look out for on the defensive side. But if North Carolina expects to win this game by shutting down Fox and Monk, they’ll be disappointed.

Luckily for UNC, they’ll have plenty of success on the offensive side of the ball, because their strength — interior scoring — also happens to be a weakness for Kentucky. I would argue that it’s actually pretty impressive that North Carolina managed to lose by only three in a game in which Monk hit eight threes and scored 47 points. Just as impressive? The fact that they stayed close despite serious foul trouble for Kennedy Meeks (20 minutes) and Isaiah Hicks (15). Meeks and (especially) Hicks are dominant interior threats when they’re on the court, and they combined for 22 points and 10 rebounds in their 35 minutes against Kentucky. But Carolina kept things close because they were able to turn to Tony Bradley and Luke Maye off the bench. Bradley’s the best NBA draft prospect on the team, and he averages 7.3 points and 5.2 rebounds per game in 14.8 minutes. Maye’s a sophomore who always gives UNC a solid 14 minutes per game and is coming off a 16 point and 12 rebound performance against Butler. The Tar Heels are going to cycle their big men a lot, and they’re going to try to get Bam Adebayo frustrated, tired, and in foul trouble. Outside of Adebayo, Kentucky’s big men are better outside than they are inside, both on offense and defense. Derek Willis and Wenyen Gabriel are the two other big men in the rotation, and 55% of their shots come from beyond the arc. They’re both average rebounders and have their moments defensively, but they’ll be outmuscled and outclassed defensively against Hicks, Meeks, and Bradley.

Then there’s Jackson, the guy who went off for 34 against Kentucky and is the ACC Player of the Year. Jackson has a great floater, never seems to miss an open jumper, and often looks downright unstoppable. And Kentucky has absolutely nobody who can guard him. Isaiah Briscoe is probably the team’s best wing defender, but he’s 6’3″. Jackson is 6’8″. Monk and Fox are also 6’3″, and there’s no rotation player shorter than Willis and taller than Mychal Mulder (6’4″). This is a huge, easily exploitable flaw in the construction of Kentucky’s roster. Jackson went off against Kentucky in December, but he only took 17 shots. If he’s scoring easily again, you can bet that he’ll be more aggressive in the Elite Eight than he was early in the season.

Kentucky has two guards who may well be the best players on the court today. Usually, that’s an impossible disadvantage to overcome. But North Carolina is in a perfect position to overcome it, because they should dominate the interior and get big plays out of guards like Berry (quiet 15 points per game) and Pinson, and because they have a go-to scorer of their own. Kentucky’s defense has been vastly improved of late, to the point that they held UCLA to 75 points. But UCLA was a much better matchup for their defense than North Carolina is, and Fox, Monk, and Adebayo are going to need to make shot after shot and play after play to keep up with the well-rounded Carolina. They’re perfectly capable of doing just that, but I think North Carolina will eventually wear them down and win a close game. North Carolina wins 88-86.

Sweet 16 Picks — Friday’s Games

Posted: 03/23/2017 by levcohen in NCAA

Tonight’s games haven’t disappointed — what they may be lacking in style they’ve made up for in closeness and excitement. We should be in for more of the same tomorrow night, although there’s certain to be a lot more flair in one game in particular. Tomorrow’s also MSG regional night, also known as “this year’s crazy region” night. Villanova and Duke are out, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t get excited for the two East regional games. South Carolina’s in its first Sweet 16, Wisconsin’s seniors are fighting to make their third Final Four, Baylor coach Scott Drew is fighting to finally gain respect, and Florida coach Mike White is trying to make a Final Four in his first trip to the NCAA tournament. We’re guaranteed a coaching newcomer to the Final Four from the East (and one from the West, now that West Virginia is out). So while there isn’t going to be a Nova-Duke MSG game (which would have been pretty cool), there’s still plenty to be excited about in the region. That pales, of course, in comparison to the South region, which features a rematch of one of the best games of the season (UCLA beat Kentucky 97-92 at Rupp Arena early in the season) and another potential incredible rematch (Kentucky beat North Carolina 103-100, with Malik Monk scoring 47 points). Oh, and there’s also Butler, one of the most under-appreciated teams all season long. How great would it be for Butler to win a region with UNC, Kentucky, and UCLA? Anyway, we have all of this to look forward tomorrow and this weekend and more.

North Carolina 78, Butler 74: The Tar Heels are very, very lucky to have gotten past Arkansas on Sunday. They trailed by five points with three minutes left and then benefitted from a few very questionable calls down the stretch. But they played really poorly, and if they play like that again they’re going to lose to Butler. I think they’ll play a much better and cleaner game tomorrow, assuming Joel Berry is close to full strength after struggling with an ankle injury. UNC has a size advantage against every team they play, but that’ll be especially true against a Butler team that doesn’t have anyone who averages even six rebounds per game. Of the seven players who play 20+ minutes per game for the Bulldogs, Tyler Wideman is the tallest at 6’8″. That’ll be a problem tomorrow. Kennedy Meeks is 6’10” and 260 pounds. Isaiah Hicks is 6’9″ but plays like he’s 7’0″. Tony Bradley, UNC’s best pro prospect, is 6’10” and 240 pounds. Leading scorer Justin Jackson, a wing, is 6’8″. There’s a reason the Tar Heels are the top rebounding team in the country. I expect them to get a lot of easy buckets inside. Butler isn’t going to go away easily, of course. They’re a really tough team to defend. Kelan Martin’s a good scorer, Andrew Chrabascz has an unorthodox game and often seems impossible to guard, and they’re surrounded by good slashers and shooters. I expect Butler to play a heck of a game, but Carolina’s size and talent will be too much for the Bulldogs, just as it was eventually for the Razorbacks.

Baylor 65, South Carolina 60: Boy, Duke’s defense made South Carolina look good on Sunday. The Gamecocks, who rank 121st in adjusted offensive efficiency, put up 65 points in the second half. A lot of those came on free throws down the stretch, but still. Unfortunately for South Carolina, Baylor’s defense is a lot stingier than Duke’s. They play a 1-3-1 zone and are long, quick, and tough to play against. Sindarius Thornwell is a tough guy to stop, but Baylor has wing defenders (like Ish Wainright) and a big time rim protector in Jo Lual-Acuil (2.5 blocks per game). I think we’ll likely seen a return to normal South Carolina basketball, which is to say low scoring and gritty. The Gamecocks will definitely cause Baylor some issues. They force a lot of turnovers with their press, and Baylor turns it over a ton. But the Bears should have the edge on the boards, giving them enough second chance points to outscore South Carolina in what could be an ugly game. If I were a South Carolina fan, I’d also be nervous about big men Chris Silva and Maik Kotsar getting into early trouble. They’ll have their hands full with Johnathan Motley.

Kentucky 84, UCLA 82: The Bruins are just a small favorite in this game, but it seems like everyone is taking them to beat the Wildcats. That’s because they’re the flashier team and the one that looks downright unstoppable more often. When Lonzo Ball starts rolling, UCLA is impossible to stop. They have a ridiculous number of scoring threats. There’s Ball, who’s shooting 56% from the field and 42% from three. There’s leading scorer T.J. Leaf, who’s shooting 62% from the field and 46% from three. Senior Bryce Alford is a high volume and efficiency three point shooter (113 makes, 43%). It seems like Thomas Welsh makes every single midrange shot he takes. Guards Isaac Hamilton and Aaron Hamilton don’t get talked about much, but they’re shooting a combined 38% from three and averaging 26.5 points per game. Put it all together and you get a team that’s shooting 52% from the field, 74% from the line, and 41% from three. It’s a very aesthetically pleasing team because they love sharing the ball (21.5 assists per game, easily the best in the country) and also have a lot of individual talent. If UCLA is at its best, they’ll likely win the game, just like the one the won at Kentucky early this season. The thing is that defense means a lot more now than it did then, and Kentucky’s a much better defensive team than the Bruins are. It isn’t even close to being close. The Wildcats rank seventh in defensive efficiency, while UCLA ranks 78th. When they’re locked in, Kentucky might be the best defensive team in the country. They showed that against Wichita State, when they made a few pivotal stops down the stretch. And they usually seem to find a way to win games, even if they look out of sorts at times and play from behind more than they would like. The first time these two teams played, Kentucky lost by just five despite being drastically out-shot from the field (53% vs. 41%) and from three (44% vs. 33%). The Bruins might still out-shoot the Wildcats, but Bam Adebayo and Co. will make up for it with offensive rebounds and by forcing turnovers against the glitzy LA school. Buckle up, because these are the two fastest paced teams left in the tournament.

Florida 62, Wisconsin 60: Why are so few people talking about the Florida Gators?? This team just beat Virginia 65-39. Now, I know the Cavaliers struggled a lot this season, but that was still an incredibly impressive performance. And if you can get out in transition against Virginia and speed Virginia up, you can do the same to any team in the country, right? Well, if there’s any other team that will try to slow you down as much as Virginia does, it’s the Wisconsin Badgers, who are coming off a win over Villanova. Wisconsin’s the slowest paced team left in the tournament, while Florida excels in fastbreak situations and otherwise often struggles to score points. I think it’ll be a struggle for both teams to score. Florida’s defense is suffocating, albeit maybe not quite as terrifying as it was before big man John Egbunu was injured. Wisconsin’s starting five is experienced and talented, but I’m not sure how much success Nigel Hayes and Ethan Happ will have against this defense. This game is another true tossup, but picking the team that’s been better all year over the hot one (barely) worked for me in the Michigan-Oregon game, so I’m going to take the Gators.

Sweet 16 Picks — Thursday

Posted: 03/23/2017 by levcohen in NCAA

The first two rounds of the NCAA tournament were very chalky. Three #1 seeds, two #2 seeds, three #3 seeds, and all four #4 seeds remain. The biggest surprise members of the Sweet 16 are Xavier (a preseason top-15 team that had an easy route to the Sweet 16 with wins over overseeded Maryland and Florida State), Michigan (one of the hottest teams in basketball, the Big Ten champs), Wisconsin (a preseason top-10 team that was criminally underseeded), and South Carolina (ok, this one is actually a big surprise. I didn’t see their win over Duke coming). That made for a pretty disappointing first weekend, although Sunday featured a bunch of pretty exciting games. The good thing about not many upsets is that the games tonight and tomorrow are likely going to be really good. There aren’t many big mismatches with teams who are lucky to be here facing up against powerhouses. In fact, the largest spread of the Sweet 16 is 7.5 (tie between Arizona over Xavier and North Carolina over Butler). Most tournament games end up being close, and this slate of games shouldn’t be an exception.

Oregon 78, Michigan 75: I must say that I’m a bit surprised that the Wolverines have continued to play so well through the first two games in the tournament. I thought that Oklahoma State would be able to knock them off with their more consistent offense, and then I believed that Louisville would make them feel uncomfortable with their press. But two wins later, Michigan is in the Sweet 16 and favored to beat the higher-seeded Ducks. Here’s the thing: I still think people are overrating this Michigan squad. There’s no doubt that they’re red hot, but they beat Oklahoma State and Louisville by a combined five points. Now, they face an Oregon team that was lucky to beat Rhode Island but has the talent to knock off the Wolverines. There’s no question that the loss of Chris Boucher has hurt Oregon, but Dillon Brooks and Tyler Dorsey may well be the two best guys on the court tonight. Furthermore, I expect Dana Altman’s Ducks to come out with a better gameplan than Rick Pitino’s Cardinals had. Pitino was clearly petrified of Michigan’s three point shooting, so he abandoned his signature press and played tight on Michigan’s guards. The problem was that that left the paint wide open, and Mo Wagner made them pay time after time. Oregon’s more likely to shut the paint down and take its chances with Michigan’s three point shooting. They won’t be as soft as the Cowboys were, but they’ll live with the long threes that Zak Irvin and Derrick Walton Jr. launch regularly. If those guys make a lot of those shots, the Wolverines will win. But I’ll go with the percentage play and the Ducks, who have been the better team all year. Michigan went 16-for-16 on uncontested shots against Louisville. That seems unsustainable.

Gonzaga 81, West Virginia 73: The Zags are short (three point) favorites in this game, which is unsurprising given the way that the Mountaineers played against Notre Dame on Saturday. West Virginia looked almost unbeatable in that game. They forced turnovers and made Notre Dame feel uncomfortable, but they also hit eight of their 14 three point attempts (led by stud guard Jevon Carter, who was 4-of-5). That type of shooting is no fluke: after years in which they shot 32% and 33% from beyond the arc, West Virginia is 37% this year. I truly believe that the Mountaineers are one of the scariest teams to play against in the country. I also believe that Gonzaga is the most well-rounded team in the country, with the ability to beat you in a number of ways. West Virginia will likely force 12+ turnovers, but Gonzaga will make up for that with stellar three point shooting and a point guard who hits 90% of his free throws. They also have a huge mismatch down low, where Przemek Karnowski and the insanely talented Zach Collins will regularly get the ball in the post against overmatched guys like Nathan Adrian (the scrappiest basketball player in the world and the pride of Morgantown). It won’t be easy, but the Zags will take a slim lead late and pull away at the free throw line.

Kansas 86, Purdue 84: This is the game I’m most excited for tonight. It’s Biggie Swanigan against Frank Mason in a game that might determine who the player of the year is. It’s strength against strength, with Swanigan and Ethan Haas, who are usually downright unstoppable down low, going up against Kansas’s scary four guard lineup with Mason, Devonte Graham, Svi Mykhailuk, and Josh Jackson raining threes on helpless opponents. This game will hinge on a few things:

  1. Who guards Josh Jackson, and can anyone stop him? Recently, the answer to that second question has been a resounding no. He has 40 points on 28 shots in two tournament games. I don’t think Vince Edwards (or anyone else, for that matter) is going to be able to stop Jackson unless he starts to go cold from beyond the arc. That’s very possible, because Jackson’s shot doesn’t look great, but the guy’s shooting 39% from three.
  2. Can Landen Lucas stay out of foul trouble? No offense to Carlton Bragg, but Lucas is Kansas’s only good post defender. He’s a darn good one, but he also averages 3.4 fouls per game and always seems to be in foul trouble. If that happens tonight, the Jayhawks will be in trouble, because nobody else is going to be able to slow Swanigan, Edwards, and Haas down.
  3. How much does homecourt matter? The Jayhawks aren’t truly at home, but this game will be played in Kansas City, so it’s darn near the same as playing at Allen Fieldhouse. With that being said, Purdue fans generally travel well, and it won’t be a true road game for the Boilermakers. But Kansas is amazing at home, so if they feed on the KC crowd like they do their own, they’ll be tough to beat down the stretch in a close game.
  4. Can Kansas hit their free throws? For a team that shoots 41% from three, Kansas is surprisingly poor from the line (68%). But they’ve been a lot better recently. Exhibit A: Frank Mason, who gets to the line way more than anyone else on the team. Mason is shooting 85% from the line over the last 13 games and is getting to the stripe 8.5 times per game. Before that, he shot 75% from the line, getting there 5.7 times per contest. I expect Mason to continue to knock down free throws down the stretch, which is the main reason I’m picking Kansas to win by a couple of points.

While I’m taking Kansas to win, I really think this is a toss-up. Contrary to what most people think, Purdue’s not just a team full of big brutes. Their guards have talent, and they’re shooting 40% from three and 76% from the line (crucially, their big men hit free throws). In the end, I think Kansas wins this game because their guards are superior, but Purdue will put up a huge fight.

Arizona 78, Xavier 64: I find it hard to believe that Sean Miller will lose against his old team when his new one is much deeper and more talented. I think the Wildcats match up pretty well against Xavier. They have the size and shooting to exploit Xavier’s 1-3-1 zone (cough cough Lauri Markkanen cough cough), and they also have a terrific wing defender in Kadeem Allen who can at least slow Trevon Bluiett, one of the hottest players in the nation, down. Xavier drubbed Florida State on Saturday, putting up 91 points against the Seminoles. But it’s easy to forget that they had lost seven of 10 before the tournament started and are without standout point guard Edmond Sumner. No offense to Kaiser Gates, Sean O’Mara, or Quentin Gooden, but Xavier’s secondary players just aren’t as good as Arizona’s. It’ll show tonight.

I’ve created a new award. It’s called the Ed Davis award, and it’s given to the big man who’s the most under-appreciated player in the league in a given year. This is what I said about Davis last year, when I wrote a post about his Portland Trailblazers:

But the most unsungiest of the unsung heroes has to be Ed Davis. I mean, this guy has been really good (and consistent) for his entire career, which is now in its sixth season. Sure, he’s never averaged double-digit points or rebounds in a single season, never started more than 24 games in a season, and never played more than 25 minutes per game in a season, but the guy is good. This season, he’s averaging 6.5/7.3, which doesn’t seem that great, but that comes in just 21.2 minutes per game. Davis ranks 12th among 185 players who’ve played more than 50 games in rebounding rate (18.6%, meaning that he gets 18.6% of possible rebounds when he’s on the court). So that surprisingly-good rebounding rate that the Blazers sport? Yeah, a lot of that is Davis. Furthermore, Davis is shooting 61% from the floor, second in the league among guys who have played 50+ games. And yet most people scoffed at the contract Portland gave Davis this offseason (3-years, $20 million). That is what we call underrated.

And I’m writing this post in honor of Davis, who has struggled with an injured shoulder all season and recently had season-ending surgery. Some ground rules:

  • The Davis award winner cannot be an all-star or mentioned as a future all-star. So I’m sorry if you think Paul Millsap or Nikola Jokic (I need to do another Nikola Jokic post soon) are egregiously underrated, but they don’t qualify. This award is meant to honor someone who truly flies under the radar.
  • The Davis award winner must be classified as a power forward or center. There’s a different name (TBD) for the under-appreciated guard award.
  • The Davis award winner cannot always be mentioned as an underrated player (sorry, Patrick Patterson). Someone who is always deemed underrated is no longer underrated. This is completely arbitrary, but I’m confident in my own ability to determine who is always called underrated.
  • Preferably, the Davis award winner is someone who has a contract that immediately makes you think “What???” Davis’s 3-year, $20 million deal fits. This isn’t a rule, just a preference.

Now, on to the Davis award nominees:

— Dewayne Dedmon, C SAS
— Cody Zeller, C CHA
— Nene, PF HOU
— Mike Muscala, PF ATL
— Kyle O’Quinn, PF NYK
— Amir Johnson, PF BOS

Dewayne Dedmon is a 27-year-old with 884 points in 207 career games. He’s playing 17.3 minutes per game and is putting up 5.4 points and 6.5 rebounds per contest. And yet, he’s started 21 games for the Spurs this year and seems like a good bet to continue starting the rest of the season. Anyone who’s watched him play this year can tell you what’s appealing about him: he’s scrappy and energetic; he’s a great rebounder; he’s a sneaky-solid free throw shooter (74%); and he fits perfectly on the Spurs and knows exactly what his place is. Dedmon is grabbing 30.2% of defensive rebound opportunities when he’s on the court and is averaging 13.5 rebounds per 36 minutes. He’s also shooting 63% from the field. Of course, he doesn’t do much more than dunk and he’s not much of a passer, but again, he knows what he’s on the court to do. He is a defensive stalwart. When he’s on the court, the Spurs give up just 95.9 points per 100 possessions (102.9 when he’s off it). That’s an incredible number. Dedmon’s making $3 million per year, which seemed pretty weird going into the season but now seems like a coup. He’s a serious competitor for the Ed Davis award.

Cody Zeller was once the #4 pick in the draft by Charlotte. Then, he was widely panned as a massive bust. Now, in his fourth year, he’s become a key player for the Hornets. First of all, the Hornets are 3-17 when Zeller’s missed games due to injury this year. They’re 26-21 when he’s played, which would indicate that they’d be in the mix for a #5 seed if he had been healthy all year but instead are unlikely to make the playoffs. His net rating is +8.2… #2 on the team is stud guard Kemba Walker (+4.4). When he’s on the court, the Hornets score 109.6 points per 100 possessions (would rank sixth in the NBA) and give up 101.4 (would rank second). When he’s off the court, they score 103.7 (24th) and give up 107.4 (22nd). He did this to DeMarcus Cousins a few nights ago. He must have great numbers, right? Wrong. He’s averaging 10.4 points and 6.7 rebounds per contest. He hasn’t developed a three point shot (career 2-13), is shooting just 66% from the line, and isn’t a great rim protector or rebounder. So how does he add so much value? Well, he’s a great screen-and-roll player, shooting incredibly well on pick-and-rolls as the roll man (54.8%, second in the NBA behind Karl-Anthony Towns). That makes him a great fit with Walker, who’s a great pick-and-roll guy himself. He’s also been more efficient this year than ever (57% from the field) and has been good defensively. The Hornets recognized all of that and gave him a $56 million extension on Halloween. Crazy-seeming contract? Check. Big-time contributions? Check. Bland stats? Check. Zeller’s the whole package.

I watched the Rockets play the Cavs last night, and my top takeaway — above anything regarding James Harden, LeBron James, or Kyrie Irving — was that Nene hustles like nobody else and that he’s still pretty good. Now in his 15th season (!), Nene has never been a high volume shooter, but he was once a 15/8 guy who played 30 minutes per game for fun Nuggets teams. That kind of exposure would disqualify him from this conversation. Now that he’s a backup power forward on the Houston Rockets and is 34-years-old, that exposure is in his rearview mirror. Even though he only plays 17.4 minutes per game, Nene is a really impactful player. He’s putting up 8.6 points and 4.1 rebounds per game, which seems lackluster but is actually good for 17.7 and 8.4 per 36 minutes. I know he gets a lot of easy buckets, but that’s still pretty darn impressive. His net rating is +8.3, second on the team behind Patrick Beverley. He’s a quietly-decent passer and is active enough to be a positive defensive presence despite his lack of athleticism. He’s not a particularly good rebounder, but he’s been everything the Rockets wanted and more. A solid competitor for the Davis award.

Mike Muscala probably doesn’t belong in this conversation, but his Bucknell Bison just made it back to the NCAA tournament, so I felt like throwing him in. Muscala, who’s now in his fourth season, is playing far more than he ever has (19 minutes a game). He’s shooting 50/40/77%, excellent splits for a big man. Unfortunately, he’s earned his reputation for being a defensive sieve, and the Hawks give up 106.4 points per 100 possessions when he’s on the court, worst on the team. A man who doesn’t play good defense is not worthy of the Davis award. Moving on.

I’ve always liked Kyle O’Quinn, but it’s never seemed to click for him. O’Quinn has never played more than 17 minutes per game and is playing just 15.3 minutes per contest for the dreadful Knicks this year. But the guy has a lot of talent. He’s always been a great rebounder and is averaging 5.6 rebounds per game (that’s 13.1 per 36 minutes). He’s a decent midrange shooter, a very good passer, and a ferocious shot-blocker (1.3 blocks per game, or 3.0 per 36). He can’t shoot the three pointer, but O’Quinn should be able to get more than 15 minutes per game on a good team, let alone on this Knicks squad. But for whatever reason, he’s never endeared himself to his coaches enough to get over the hump. He’s in his fifth year and continues to be the same guy: intriguing and with good numbers, but with an inability to help his team enough to get on the floor more often. His net rating is -4.9, worse even that New York’s overall -3.8. I’d like to put a bookmark here, because I still think he’s got potential, but no award for O’Quinn.

Amir Johnson’s on the second year of the two-year, $24 million year he signed with the Celtics. If you expected big numbers, you’re sorely disappointed right now. But Johnson is a legitimate contender for the Davis award, basically the Patrick Patterson of this conversation (Patterson, remember, was disqualified because I’m sick of him being called an underrated glue guy). Johnson is a token starter for the Celtics — he plays just 19.8 minutes per contest. He does nothing great but does most things well. He’s shooting 57/40/66, is a decent (definitely not above-average) rebounder and good passer, and most importantly competes relentlessly on the defensive side. He sometimes frustrates me because he’s too passive offensively, but I guess that’s understandable when you have Isaiah Thomas on your team. I’ve been trying to think of ways to find Boston’s best lineup, and I always manage to leave Johnson out, even though he leads the team with a +7.4 net rating. He’s really underrated and maybe should be the winner of the Davis award.

But I’m going to give it to Cody Zeller. Zeller wins the tiebreaker over Johnson because the Hornets rely on him more than the Celtics do on Johnson. When Zeller’s on the floor, Kemba looks great and Charlotte is a dangerous team. When he’s on the bench, the Hornets fall apart. All of this thanks to a guy who averages 10 and 6. There’s no more deserving winner of the Ed Davis award.

Highlights from Day 1 of NFL Free Agency

Posted: 03/09/2017 by levcohen in Football

The first day of NFL free agency has come and gone, and it didn’t go quietly. As usually, there was a flurry of activity. Here are some highlights, and my takeaways of some other rumors that have been circling around the league:

Jags open the checkbook: The Jaguars splashed $127.5 million (with $56 million fully guaranteed) on two players today. Those two players, of course, are studs. Ex-Cardinal Calais Campbell is a ferocious defensive lineman who is as well-rounded as any interior rusher in the NFL, while ex-Texan A.J. Bouye broke out to become one of the best cornerbacks in football last year. And Jacksonville also added ex-Cowboy Barry Church, giving the Jags a huge boost at safety. On paper, their defense now looks like one of the best in football. The Bouye-Jalen Ramsey cornerback combination is elite, and Campbell joins a front that includes the explosive Dante Fowler Jr. and all-rookie team member Yannick Ngakoue. But the Jaguars have made huge investments before, and they haven’t always panned out. Malik Jackson is an example, as is Jared Odrick. And the Jags didn’t go out of their way to find safe options. Bouye has had one good year, so even though he looks like a locked-in shutdown cornerback, there’s more risk than would normally be associated with a 25 year old star cornerback. And Campbell will be 31 when the season starts, making Jacksonville’s longterm commitment to him a scary prospect. He’s a consistent player who’s only missed six games in his nine year career, but there’s got to be some drop-off soon. With that being said, you have to like the moves that Jacksonville made today to bolster a defense that has a lot of young talent but needed some oomph to become a real asset. The Jaguars still look shaky (at best) offensively, so they’re going to need a huge performance from the defense to become relevant next season. That’s much more likely to happen now that they have Bouye, Church, and Campbell.

Eagles recognize their WR need: Goodbye, Dorial Green-Beckham. Hello, Alshon Jeffery and Torrey Smith. It’s difficult to completely and successfully revamp at a position through free agency, but the Eagles are trying to do just that. They signed both talented receivers to very low-risk deals, with Smith getting $15 million over three years and Jeffery signing for a single year and $14 million. Both guys had really bad seasons last year, which makes both of them intriguing buy-low options. Of course, Jeffery is injury prone and Smith is drop-prone, but with career yard-per-catch averages of 15.0 and 17.0, they both add a lot of explosiveness to a receiving core that had almost none. Wentz has to be smiling right now, because a core of Jeffery, Smith, and Jordan Matthews coming out of the slot with receiving threat Zach Ertz at tight end looks a whole lot better than what Wentz had to work with last season. This is also a sign that the Eagles want to look elsewhere in the first round of the draft. Mock drafts often had them picking a wide receiver in the first, but now it’s much more likely they’ll look for a pass-rusher or cornerback.

Panthers reunite the Kalil brothers: The Panthers shelled out $55.5 million (with $25 million guaranteed) to left tackle Matt Kalil, who will join his brother Ryan on the Carolina offensive line. The Panthers were right to focus on left tackle help given how important it is to protect Cam Newton. But did they get the right guy? To me, this seems like a massive overpay for a guy who largely underperformed with the Vikings after an excellent first couple of seasons. Remember: Kalil also missed 14 games last season following hip surgery. This is a puzzling signing, especially when considering that the Panthers refused to give this kind of money to Josh Norman last spring.

Buccaneers going all-in on deep passing game: I can tell you one thing: Mike Evans and DeSean Jackson make for a terrifying 1-2 combo down the field. Jameis Winston threw the ball deep a lot last season, and he should do so even more often in the 2017 campaign. The Bucs had to invest at wide receiver after Vincent Jackson’s production fell off a cliff, and they got one of the most explosive ones available. One thing DeSean Jackson won’t do is improve the consistency of the boom-or-bust Buccaneers. He’s been known to disappear from time to time, so it’ll be on Winston to become a more consistent quarterback in order to unlock the true potential of an Evans-DeSean combination.

Browns make bold trade: The Cleveland Browns just essentially bought a 2018 second round pick from the Texans for the $16 million attached to Brock Osweiler this season. For the win-now Texans, the trade makes obvious sense, putting them in position to become a favored destination for Tony Romo. And it reaffirms Cleveland’s desire to pile up as many draft picks as possible. They’ll cut Osweiler, but they had a lot of cap space that they weren’t otherwise going to use, and they’re not going to win a lot next year. Why not go out and get a second round pick?

I also wanted to talk about the two major players who are likely to be traded in the upcoming days…

Brandin Cooks for Malcolm Butler trade makes perfect sense: The Saints and Patriots both made moves that increased the likelihood of a Cooks for Butler trade. New England signed cornerback Stephon Gilmore (the top CB on the market not named Bouye), while the Saints added receiver Ted Ginn (a suitable Cooks replacement). Trades involving the Patriots are usually lopsided, but this is a trade that I think would, if anything, favor New Orleans. The Saints have three great young receivers in Cooks, Michael Thomas, and Willie Snead. They’re all 23 or 24 years old, and it makes sense for them to trade Cooks, the guy who was unhappy about his role down the stretch last season. They’ve been offered a first round pick from the Patriots in return, but Butler would be a better return. He’s one of the best cornerbacks in the NFL, and I can’t imagine that they could get more for Cooks. If Butler’s paired with a healthy Delvin Breaux, the Saints might finally be able to stop an offense or two. Of course, Cooks is a perfect fit in New England and would make the Patriots’ scary offense even harder to stop. One-for-one trades like this are rare in the NFL, which makes me skeptical, but it’s one that makes sense for both teams.

Houston and Denver are perfect Tony Romo landing spots: Dallas is going to trade Tony Romo very soon. The Texans and Broncos are being mentioned as the top competitor for Romo, and that’s the case for good reason. Both teams are playoff-ready teams that were a quarterback away from challenging for a Super Bowl last year. Whichever team gets Romo is the clear #2 team in the AFC with the clear chance to challenge the Patriots for supremacy. New England has to be feeling nervous, because these are the only two teams in the AFC whose defenses have given and will continue to give Tom Brady fits. Remember last year’s playoffs, when the Texans were in within a score of the Patriots until the fourth quarter? That’s a game they win with Tony Romo, and that’s even though J.J. Watt was out of the game. If Watt comes back, the Texans are probably a better all-around team than the Broncos at this point. Their defense was dominant last year even without J.J. and will be even better if and when they get him back. But the Broncos, too, have a devastating pass rush and a top notch secondary, one that didn’t just lose its most important player (as the Texans did with A.J. Bouye). Both defenses are good enough to carry bad offenses to the playoffs. The sky is the limit with Romo — I still believe he can play at a near-elite level — at the helm. Of course, expecting Romo to be healthy is almost like expecting Brock Osweiler to win a Super Bowl… but it’s definitely worth a shot, and it’s definitely something to keep an eye on over the next few days.

Bubble Watch — Let’s Go Back to 64 Teams

Posted: 03/05/2017 by levcohen in NCAA

A week from now, we’ll know the identities of the 68 NCAA tournament teams. As I write this tonight, there are probably five or six spots up for grabs and about twice that many teams who have a shot at those spots. It’ll come down to how those teams perform in their conference tournaments. Of course, the bubble, which seems super soft (more on that later), could shrink if a team that wouldn’t otherwise make the tournament wins its conference tournament, taking the bid of another deserving team, who would then be left with an at-large bid, “stealing” the bid of a bubble team. This year, bid-stealers would include: bottom-feeders in the six major conferences (ACC, Big-12, Big-10, Pac-12, Big East, SEC); someone other than VCU and Dayton in the A-10; someone other than Cincinnati and SMU in the AAC; someone other than Gonzaga and Saint Mary’s in the WCC (seems least likely); someone other than Middle Tennessee in CUSA.

Let’s take a look at the teams who are on the bubble, including, for argument’s sake, Middle Tennessee, which would have a very interesting case if they were to lose in their conference tournament. First, here are the teams I’m assuming are probably in already:

Syracuse, because although their RPI (a stupid stat, by the way) is lacking, they have wins over Florida State, Duke, and Virginia, far more than most bubble teams can boast. They’re just 18-13, but again, it’s a soft bubble.
Michigan, because they have no terrible losses and have an important win over SMU on a neutral court to go along with home victories over Purdue and Wisconsin.
Seton Hall, because they have seven wins in their last nine games, just won at Butler, and are 5-7 against likely tournament teams.
Marquette, because they’re 8-6 against the RPI top-50, beat Villanova at home, and swept both Xavier and Creighton. They also have a resounding neutral court win over Vanderbilt, which is currently on the bubble.
Providence, because they’ve won six games in a row, swept Marquette, and beat Creighton in Omaha. Don’t mind their horrendous losses at DePaul and Boston College, because the bubble is soft.

 

Alright, onto the bubble teams:

Almost everyone has already penciled Michigan State into the tournament, but I just don’t get it. Yes, Tom Izzo is their coach, and he’s a darn good one at that. And yes, MSU swept Minnesota and beat Wichita State on a neutral court. But this is an 18-13 team whose biggest claim to fame is that they had a tough schedule. Sure, they played Duke, Arizona, Kentucky, and Baylor. That’s a murderous non-conference schedule. But guess what? They lost all four games! They’re 2-7 against the RPI top-25, and just 13-13 against the top-150. I just don’t see why this team — which ranks 50th in Kenpom, a reliable advanced stats site that measures efficiency — should make the tournament. Sorry, but “we played good teams” just shouldn’t cut it. They’re probably already in, but to convince me they need to at worst avoid a bad loss in the first round of the Big-10 tournament and at best get an upset win over one of the top teams in the (admittedly weak) tournament.

USC came out of nowhere to win all 13 of their non-conference games. Of course, that’s because their non-conference strength of schedule ranked 258th (per Kenpom). This is a thoroughly mediocre team. They have slim home wins over SMU and UCLA, but they were 0-5 in their other games against the Pac-12’s elite. Their third best win was a neutral court victory over BYU. But they’re still in a better spot than most bubble teams because they got that win over UCLA and only have one terrible loss (at Arizona State). They play Washington in the first round of the Pac-12 tournament. If they lose, I think they miss out. If they win, they’re right on the bubble and would be subject to a shrinking bubble or a hot streak from a few other bubble teams. Beating UCLA again in round two would lock them up.

Xavier was supposed to be a top-15 team this year. They were coming off of a successful season and had a lot of talent returning. But they disappointed slightly for most of the year and then lost point guard Edmond Sumner and have subsequently fallen apart, losing six in a row. The committee will absolutely keep in mind that they struggled after losing Sumner, which probably means that they’re a bit worse off than they otherwise would be. Working in their favor is that they really have no bad losses. But they finished just 9-9 in the conference, and their two best wins are at Creighton and home against fellow bubble team Wake Forest. Not great. They should beat DePaul in the first round, but I think they may still miss out unless they beat Butler in the next round. So they’re in about the same position as USC.

Wake Forest was on the outside looking in for most of the year as they lost close game after close game. They lost to Duke twice by seven combined points, fell to UNC by six, and lost to Notre Dame by seven. That left them 16-12 heading into last week with a home win over Miami serving as their only top-50 win. Then, they beat Louisville at home and Virginia Tech on the road. That pushed them to 9-9 in the ACC and gave them their two best wins of the season. This is a good team, ranking 29th in Kenpom. I hope they make the tournament. I think they will, because they played a tough schedule (1oth in Kenpom) and have no bad losses. I’d put them a rung above Xavier and USC. If they beat Boston College and then play respectably against Virginia Tech, they should be safe.

Vanderbilt may just have gotten hot at the right time. They’ve won five of their last six, with the lone loss being a six point defeat at Kentucky. They now boast a sweep of Florida (the #5 RPI and #6 Kenpom team), a win over Iowa State that keeps looking better, and a victory at tourney-bound Arkansas. All is well, right? Well, they’re just 17-14, which is never a good thing. A 15-loss team has never won an at-large bid. In the end, it might just be too many losses to overcome. But again, it’s a soft bubble. As long as they beat Texas A&M, they’ll have a chance. A third win over Florida, of course, would put them in.

Illinois State was demolished by Wichita State today, ending their season without an automatic bid. They’re 26-5, but I’d be surprised if they made the tournament. They beat Wichita State once, but they also lost to the Shockers twice, and their second best win was a home victory over New Mexico. Not great. It may not be fair, but Illinois State didn’t have the chance to win games against, say, Louisville or Florida. If they were 29-2 with just the two losses against the Shockers, they’d likely be in, but those three other losses give the committee a darn good excuse to leave them out. It would probably take a collapse from a bunch of other bubble teams to put them in.

Middle Tennessee likely won’t need an at-large bid, since they’re 17-1 in Conference USA play and should cruise to the auto bid. But if they do lose a fifth game, they’ll have an interesting case. Remember, this is the team that beat #2 seed Michigan State in last year’s tournament. They still have a lot of talent, and they banked huge wins over Vanderbilt and CAA powerhouse UNC-Wilmington. They also lost by only three points at VCU and are 4-1 against the RPI top-100. That might not be enough to put them in over a 15-loss Vanderbilt team, but it would at least give them a better shot than Illinois State, especially if they make their conference championship game. I want to see them in the tournament, though, so hopefully they just win their conference tournament.

Rhode Island is your run-of-the-mill Atlantic-10 bubble team. They’re 21-9 and 13-5 in conference play, with a 1-2 record against VCU and Dayton. They lost at home to both Fordham and La Salle, which really hurts. They’ve boosted their record with 10 wins against teams with RPIs of 180 or lower. This is a solid team, but they probably need to make the A-10 final to make the field. That would give them a second win over the class of the conference, which, when added to a nice neutral court win over Cincinnati, would give them three wins to stake their bid on and a much better record than power conference bubble teams.

Illinois’ resume lost a lot of luster when they lost to Rutgers yesterday. That brings their record to 17-13 and crucially gives them their first bad loss. Now, it seems a lot less likely that a team that went 8-10 in the Big-10 and 12-12 against the RPI top-150 will make the field. I think they need to beat Michigan and then Purdue to have a real chance.

Iowa is 18-13 and wasn’t in the mix for an at-large bid before they won at Maryland and Wisconsin in consecutive games. That helps, but it’s hard to get excited about a team that’s 8-13 (!) against the RPI top-150 and is ranked 71st in RPI and 65th in Kenpom. If they make the Big-10 final (which would require wins over Indiana, Wisconsin, and likely Maryland or Northwestern), they would probably get an at-large bid.

Kansas State is another mediocre power conference team. Their main argument is that they have a win at Baylor, which is one of the most impressive in the country. They also beat Oklahoma State in Stillwater and West Virginia at home. Those are three pretty impressive wins. But they also lost twice to rival Kansas, twice to Iowa State, and once each to the three teams they beat. And they were just 5-3 against the four lesser Big-12 teams, which is why they’re just 19-12. They’re likely in better shape than Illinois, Iowa, Rhode Island, and Illinois State. In fact, right now they’re probably smack dab on the bubble, because those three wins were very impressive. And to be fair, their two losses to Kansas were by a combined five points. But it’s hard to erase the memory of the 30-point drubbing doled out by Oklahoma. They play Baylor first, and the Bears have looked vulnerable of late. If K-State can win that game, they’ll likely be in the field. If they can follow it up with a win over West Virginia, they’ll be a tournament team.

California is all of 1-7 against the RPI top-50. They’ve lost five of six. Their best wins were at USC by a single point and over Princeton. They blew five chances to beat the class of the Pac-12, not to mention a home loss to Virginia and a neutral court loss against Seton Hall. They don’t belong in the tournament. And yet… they have a chance, because they’re 19-11 and because the bubble is soft. They’re certainly a long shot at this point, but if they beat Oregon State, Utah, and Oregon before losing in the finals… who knows? I’m not betting on it, though.

As of now, six of those 12 would make the tournament. And while it may end up only being four or five because of bid-stealers, it just as easily could be six out of 11 when Middle Tennessee wins its championship. Wouldn’t it be better if, say, the 11 (excluding Middle Tennessee for now) teams were fighting for two spots? That would be a novel idea: having 64 teams in the tournament. I’m kidding, of course. Until a few years ago, there were only 64 teams. But now there are 68, with the last four in playing in “First Four” games in Dayton and the two winners becoming part of the field of 64. I understand why the NCAA expanded to 68 — the same reason the NCAA does anything: money. But it really dilutes the quality of the bubble, to the point that a soon-to-be-15-loss Vanderbilt team looks more appealing as a bubble team than half the teams on the bubble. That’s not to say that the teams above are incapable of making noise in the postseason. On the contrary, I’ll probably pick one or two of them to upset or team or two, because that’s what happens in the NCAA tournament. But when that inevitably happens, it shouldn’t be taken as validation for the NCAA’s expansion to 68 teams. 64 teams makes way more sense bracket-wise, and it’s a better way to ensure improved quality in the tournament. Sorry, but I don’t care that Michigan State could possible make the Sweet 16. They’re a mediocre team with a mediocre resume, and they can make all the noise they want in the NIT. Adding four teams has made it feasible for teams like Cal, Iowa, Illinois… heck, maybe even teams like Clemson and Georgia Tech… to make the tournament despite playing thoroughly average basketball all season long. And if the NCAA insists on keeping it at 68 teams, why not let the four extra spots go to teams that have been consistently excellent all year, only to slip up once or twice? I’m talking about Monmouth, who was upset today in their conference tournament, and Illinois State, and the regular season conference champions who will inevitably lose in their conference tournaments this week. Michigan State and Kansas State have gotten all the chances in the world to play their way into the tournament. Why not give the smaller-conference teams that shot in the “First Four”?