Brandon Jacobs Not Happy With Meager Role In San

Brandon Jacobs, a major cog at running back the Super Bowl champion New York Giants last year,  has not had a single carry for his new team, San Francisco 49ers. And he is not happy about it.“How many times have you seen me [on the field] this year?” Jacobs asked rhetorically in USA Today.Jacobs was asked how he felt about the rematch of the NFC Championship game this week between his old team and current team.“It would be different if things were different, put it that way,” Jacobs said. “I don’t have any thoughts on it.”Jacobs, 30, signed with 49ers after being released by the Giants in the spring over a contract dispute.  There was a gap of roughly $500,000 and the Giants attempted to slash his $4.4 million base salary by more than half.Jacobs signed with the 49ers during the summer under the assumption that he would have an active role in the offense, but it has been the complete opposite. And it might not change. Consider that last week, the 49ers set a franchise record with 621 yards of offense with Jacobs watching from the bench. Frustrating for Jacobs?“Oh, very. Because I don’t know anything. I don’t know what’s what,” he said. “But I’m hanging in there, I’m working every day, doing what I have to do. Let’s say I’m just working and doing what I have to do and that’s that.Jacobs claimed he was ready to play last week against the Buffalo Bills, even though the team decided to hold him out.  Jacobs said he is healthy.“I feel great.  I feel phenomenal. My legs are as fresh as yours,” he told reporters. “I’ve learned over the years when you open your mouth and say certain things, it hurts you, so I’m just going to shut up and keep working.”And what if he does not play against his old team?“”It would disappoint me a lot,” he said.  “But like I said, it’s not my call.”During his seven year career with the Giants, Jacobs rushed for 4,849 yards and 56 touchdowns. Jacobs could be released soon and free to sign with another team. read more

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Russell Wilsons Blackness Should Not Be a Question

It’s troubling to hear reverberations from the Super Bowl-champion Seattle Seahawks’ locker room that quarterback Russell Wilson is at the center of a divide within the team because he’s not “Black enough.”Really? Seriously?Being Black has no boundaries, and if some of his teammates take his insistence on not blasting rap music or not wearing his pants hanging off his butt or enunciating when he speaks or whatever else they conjure up as not being “Black enough,” well, that’s a case of us setting ourselves back.Percy Harvin, a talented yet apparently volatile receiver, was traded last week to the New York Jets in a move that stunned most NFL observers. The talk from the Seahawks’ locker room (anonymously, of course) was that there was a rift between quarterback and receiver. Half the players sided with Harvin and others with Wilson. In the end, the team rolled with its quarterback who led them to the championship last year and traded Harvin and all his talent.Last year, Black people went berserk when a white journalist said Colin Kaepernick was not fit to lead the San Francisco 49ers as quarterback because his body is laden with tattoos. But hardly is there a whimper from the Black community when Black teammates criticize their quarterback for being a polished young man. Something is wrong with that.Wilson, in a weak press conference to try to diffuse the drama, said that Harvin is a lot like him and that the discord between the two and teammates was a media creation. Not true on both counts. This is what he said: “Percy and I never had differences. He’s a guy that, you know, we had a lot of similarities, probably, if anything. You know, guys that want to compete at the highest level, want to win every single time you step on the field. Want the ball in our hands, to make the big play and everything. So I’m not sure why the media tries to blow everything out of proportion, it’s part of it, I guess. You have to deal with it. But you also ignore it, too. Like I always tell you guys, ignore the noise. You know, Percy’s a Virginia guy and I wish nothing but the best for him.”About all Harvin and Wilson have in common is that they are both from Virginia and they play football.  And they are Black. That’s about it. And that’s more than enough. Neither is more or less Black than the other.Being Black means being hip and corny, smart and not-so-smart, giving and greedy, thoughtful and selfish, articulate and mumbling, soulful and soulless, tough and weak, ambitious and docile … and on and on. When Black men call other Black men “not Black enough,” they point out the insecurities within themselves.No doubt, if Seattle, which was predicted by some pundits to go undefeated this season, had not lost two games in a row, the tension within the team would be minimized. But adversity (losing) brings out the soul of a person and a team, and the Seahawks have to undergo serious self-examination now to hold it together.Wilson, by most accounts, comports himself with respect, conveys his thoughts clearly, treats people with respect, works hard, leads by example. Seems “Black enough” to me. read more

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American Chess Is Great Again

Wilhelm Steinitz was “a fat phlegmatic little man, with a fine forehead and mussed hair and clothes,” according to one newspaper account. He was also the favorite at the inaugural world chess championship, held in 1886, and an émigré to the United States — Steinitz had adopted the U.S. as his own after emigrating from Europe, later changing his first name to William.The championship match was a grand tour of the country, beginning in New York, ending in New Orleans, and stopping in St. Louis in between. With $4,000 on the line, Steinitz struggled in the early games and fell far behind. But by the time they reached New Orleans, he had recovered, and America’s first chess champion was crowned.“It was from Steinitz that the era of modern chess began,” wrote Garry Kasparov, possibly the best player of all time.But American chess was in the midst of a bleak century, only rarely punctuated by triumph. Paul Morphy, the great chess genius and Steinitz’s unofficial predecessor, died of a stroke in the bath at age 47, just a couple of years before Steinitz won. Contemporary reports described him as “insane,” walking the streets “chattering to himself.” Steinitz died, penniless and mentally ill, in a state hospital in 1900. Bobby Fischer, the only modern American world champion, failed to defend his title in 1975, descended into paranoia and anti-Semitism, and later praised the terrorist attacks of 9/11. Since Fischer’s exit, no American has ever been ranked the world No. 1. Only two Americans — Fischer and Gata Kamsky — have played in the world championship finals in the last 100 years.But this string of misfortune may be about to end, thanks to some quintessentially American ideals: mobility and prosperity. A trio of players — both native and immigrant — have found their way to the U.S., and each now ranks in the top seven in the world.1All the world rankings and Elo ratings mentioned in this article are accurate as of the beginning of August’s Sinquefield Cup tournament.Those three, along with the reigning Norwegian world champion, are currently assembled in St. Louis for one of the strongest chess competitions ever held. And that American city has become a lighthouse for the game, featuring top-flight tournaments, world-class venues and varsity chess programs. And fueling it all is an aging multimillionaire who has made the success of American chess his life’s quest after growing up in an orphanage and falling in love with the game as a teenager.Can the American dream be leveraged into chess glory? 4Spain41– RANKPLAYERCOUNTRYWIN PROB. 2Germany55– 3Canada44– 1United States89– On Oct. 10, 2016, at a rally in Ambridge, Pennsylvania, then-candidate Donald Trump was riffing on what he saw as the unfortunate complexity of existing U.S. trade deals. To understand them, he said, “You have to be like a grand chess master — and we don’t have any of them.” At the time, the United States had 90 grandmasters.Rex Sinquefield was listening to that speech, and he wasn’t pleased. He reached for his cell phone, flipped through his contacts, and rang up Trump’s running mate, Mike Pence.“I left a long message. I said, ‘I want to explain to you, first of all, what’s going on in St. Louis.’ I said, ‘There are plenty of grandmasters.’ I said, ‘At any point in time, there are probably 25 grandmasters in St. Louis,’” Sinquefield recalled. “Pence called me back … He said, ‘Rex, I had no idea what was going on in your city.’ He said, ‘This is absolutely amazing.’ He said, ‘I’m going to tell Donald. He said, ‘He will be embarrassed and amused.’” (Sinquefield never heard from Trump.)Sinquefield and I met in St. Louis in April in the midst of the national championship. We sat on the second floor of the well-appointed chess club he founded in 2008. On one side of the room stood chess tables prepared for battle. On the other hung the spoils of the game — gleaming trophies and old photos of American legends, including Fischer. Sinquefield wore a windbreaker over a polo shirt, both emblazoned with the insignia of his club, the Chess Club and Scholastic Center of Saint Louis.Sinquefield — a multimillionaire or billionaire, depending on your source — is somewhere between a Medici and the Wizard of Oz of American chess. He was raised in Saint Vincent Home for Children, an orphanage just outside the city, and went on to make his money pioneering index funds, after earning an MBA at the University of Chicago. His current home, an 8,000-square-foot mansion on a private street a few blocks from the club, bears some resemblance to a rook.He pours millions a year into this chess hamlet he’s built within the city’s tony Central West End. Within a literal stone’s throw, there’s the three-story club, which has dues-paying members and hosts elite tournaments, a grandmaster-in-residence, and a high-tech production facility; a hall of fame and museum which houses an impressive collection of Fischer artifacts; a chess-themed diner which shows Cardinals baseball games and chess games on side-by-side TVs; and three “chess houses” which are home to a rotation of visiting players. That’s all on one block, and doesn’t begin to mention the sidewalk chess tables and the 14½-foot-tall king that keeps watch over the street.A 2015 New York Times article strongly suggested that Sinquefield footed the bill for Caruana’s transfer to the U.S. It’s a suggestion Sinquefield denies. “He paid that fee entirely himself,” Sinquefield said. “We didn’t pay a penny of it.” In either case, there’s no denying that the cash he has laid out has helped attract Caruana and So, and helped to launch a real bid for the world title. Sinquefield predicts an American world champion by 2020. If an American looks poised to qualify, he insisted he’d do everything he could to negotiate with FIDE to bring the match to St. Louis. He even had a venue picked out.What’s in it for Sinquefield? Is this like some other billionaire owning a baseball team? “This is infinitely more fun than that,” he said, adding that he’d turned down a chance to take an ownership share in the Cardinals.Instead, Sinquefield says the answer is twofold: First, it’s a passion — a retirement hobby for a wealthy Missourian. He learned the game when was 13 from his Uncle Fred. When we spoke, he had 19 chess games in progress online, and he takes a weekly lesson from Shahade, the women’s national champion. He’s on a first-name basis with most of the best players in the world, and he haunts the club during tournaments, keeping a close eye on the games.Second, it’s an investment. Sinquefield is a financier, a public policy wonk, and a fiscal conservative. (Another lifelong passion is the elimination of income tax.) He expects that his privately funded improvement in American chess will yield public returns. These could come, he explained, in the form of educational and health outcomes. His club is working to put chess in local schools and, in an effort to improve community relations, to train cops how to teach kids the game. And he’s keeping a close eye on studies in a local hospital on the potentially ameliorative effects of chess on dementia and Alzheimer’s.“It’s several million a year, easily,” Sinquefield said about what he’s putting into the game. “So far it seems well worth it.”“It’s a dream — this is the Mecca of chess,” Shahade said. “Obviously, the financial contributions are so considerable and so generous. But a lot of the passion to donate that money is that Rex really absolutely loves chess and sees the multifaceted nature of the game. And he really loves history.”Sinquefield is only a year younger than Fischer would be if he were alive. The 1972 world championship, and the historic performance that led up to it, struck a nerve, and Sinquefield has been obsessed with Fischer and the game ever since. He effortlessly rattled off Fischer’s conquests on his way to the world title. “It had an impact on everybody,” Sinquefield said, speaking about the patriotic frenzy around the match. “We were all captured by it.”And we may be again.Graphics by Rachael Dottle.UPDATE (Aug. 8, 5:01 p.m.): This article has been updated with comments from Lotis Key on the timing of events surrounding So’s departure from Webster University. Who might challenge Carlsen?Top players’ chance of winning Candidates Tournament (and challenging Carlsen), based on Elo ratings Hikaru Nakamura and Wesley So playing in the London Chess Classic in 2016. Ray Tang / Anadolu Agency / Getty Images 6Mamedyarov🇦🇿10.8 The three best American chess players: Hikaru Nakamura, Wesley So and Fabiano Caruana. Getty Images More players transfer to the U.S. than to any other countryNations that received the highest number of player transfers, 2000-17 3Caruana🇺🇸19.1 Includes the most highly rated players as of Aug. 1, and the defending world runner-up, Karjakin.Based on data from 2700chess.com 7Bosnia and Herzegovina32– Caruana and So’s transfers did not go unnoticed.Caruana’s transfer required a fee of $61,000, paid to the Italians and FIDE, the game’s international governing body. According to the Italian Chess Federation, Caruana was also offered more than $200,000 a year by the Americans. Some top players, including Carlsen, scoffed at what they saw as a mercenary approach to building an American roster. If the Candidates were held today and all three top Americans qualified, which they would if their official ratings are any guide, the Americans would have a better-than-50 percent chance of sending a challenger to face Carlsen, according to my simulations. (Sergey Karjakin, last year’s challenger, qualifies for the Candidates automatically.) Assuming any American that won the Candidates had a fighting chance against the Norwegian, we arrive at something like the following: There is a 1-in-5 chance that the next world chess champion will represent the United States.Jennifer Shahade, a two-time U.S. women’s chess champion, had a similar outlook, although she hadn’t run any simulations. “I’m also a poker player,” she told me, “and it’s definitely good odds.” She put the chances of an American challenging for the world title in the next two cycles at 55 percent.Last year, Caruana missed a Candidates victory by one devastating game. The world championship was then held in New York City, where Caruana spent some of his early years, and American observers saw it as a missed opportunity for the game in the States. Few think the full-blown 1972 Fischer fever will take hold again in the U.S. — fueled, as it was, by Cold War implications — but everyone seems hopeful that another chance at glory will come.“That will be the final sealing of the deal, to say U.S. chess is the best chess in the world, which is the goal,” Ashley told me as he was being miked up to broadcast the next round at the nationals. “That’s how we roll. That’s essential: to be the best.”Only So himself struck a melancholy note at the whole prospect. “I sometimes feel sorry for [Carlsen] because the pressure is terrible,” he told me over email. “If he even draws a game, people are disappointed. People think they have a right to every bit of his life. I don’t want to live like that.”But a world championship is the goal. And it’s being pursued with that most American of fuels: money. “A world championship would be spectacular,” said Walters, the U.S. Chess president. “And there are forces here in St. Louis who would put that very near the top of the list.” 5Russia36– Wilhelm Steinitz, right, was a chess great who adopted the U.S. as his own after emigrating from Europe. Getty Images 2So🇺🇸25.2% In April, two American grandmasters stood over the shoulder of a third, watching him struggle through a winnable tournament. Hikaru Nakamura (current world No. 7), stood with his arms crossed beneath his floppy dark hair and sideburns. Fabiano Caruana (world No. 3), sparrowlike and wearing a white dress shirt, stood next to him, squinting, with his arms gathered leisurely behind his back. They are two of the three best chess players in the country, and all were vying for the title of national champion. Seated in front of them was the other, commanding a black wooden army of pieces, Wesley So.As the tournament, which stretched from March 29 to April 9, reached its crescendo, So sat at the board bundled in an eggplant-colored sweater while tied for first place. Tied? He should’ve been crushing this field, and he knew it. He’s the next great hope, after all — the top-rated American and the world No. 2. He still found his way through the remaining games, and held on to win the national championship a couple of days later — his first.So has an acutely poised approach to a game of chess. His arms hang at his sides. He clasps his hands, left fingers over right, on the table in front of him. He hovers over the wooden battle unfolding on the board, like the figurehead on the prow of a ship. The USS So. Occasionally, if the position is difficult, the USS So takes a hard turn starboard, and the grandmaster stares at the wall and ponders. Every so often, if that doesn’t work, the ship turns port, toward the spectators. Rarer still, he stares right at you.So is a recent addition to an elite American lineup that now boasts three of the world’s top seven players. The three found themselves in St. Louis on that sunny spring day — and playing under the American flag — in very American ways. Nakamura wasn’t born here (he was born in Japan), but he moved here when he was 2 years old. Caruana was born here (in Florida), but moved away (Spain, Hungary, Switzerland) to train. So wasn’t born here either (Philippines), but moved here (Missouri) to attend college.It’s not easy to describe what makes So’s game unique — or Caruana’s or Nakamura’s, for that matter. The difficulty arises not only from chess’s vastness, but also from the creeping influence of computers. Chess is a more homogenized game than it once was. “It’s harder to differentiate the thinking of the different players because they’re all using the same programs,” John Donaldson, an international master who captained the U.S. team to a 2016 Olympiad win, said in a phone call.That being said, some differences do remain. Caruana and Nakamura have very aggressive styles, and Donaldson said occasionally they have to remind themselves to temper this aggression. But a more placid temperament comes naturally to So, and it’s precisely this cool on the board that distinguishes him. His play is consistent, calm and highly theoretical. Unlike the world champion, Magnus Carlsen, who is known for not being especially well prepared when it comes to his opening moves, So takes theoretically established lines and adds in his own fresh strategic ideas.The three U.S. players’ journeys to the precipice of a world championship have differed, too, but all have been long and some occasionally scandalous. But all hope they’ll end with a world title. Nakamura, 29, is the old hand. He first clinched the country’s No. 1 spot in 2005, and has suffered the Fischer comparisons for years now. “There are very few people out there who have the ability to, I don’t want to say change the world, but make a very big impact, and with chess I feel like I really have that chance,” Nakamura told the Riverfront Times in 2011. So came next, switching his chess allegiances from the Filipino team to the U.S. in 2014. (At the time, he was No. 14 in the world.) Caruana, 25, followed shortly after, defecting from the Italian squad in 2015. “I think I will be world champion someday,” Caruana told The New Yorker. Amid this chess-world furor, So’s play has remained placid, and he described his adopted family as a supportive team. “They have had a lot of foster kids over the years and because they are Christians they believe in helping others.” So, too, relies heavily on his Christian faith. And it’s precisely his monkish calm and ascetic approach that fuel his game and intimidate his opponents. “I do not go to parties. I do not ‘hang out,’ I do not play games or use the internet,” So said in an email. “I don’t drink alcohol, use drugs or eat junk food. I don’t even have a cell phone.”Maurice Ashley, a grandmaster and chess commentator, described So as “playing the best chess” in the world right now, and others agree that So is on the brink of chess’s highest prize. “It’s like he’s in the high Himalayas climbing, and it’s the last 1,000 feet toward the summit, toward the world championship,” Donaldson said. “He’s in rarefied air.”As I sought to find out more about America’s best chess player, Key got wind of my inquiries. “Why did you try to establish contact with his estranged relatives?” she asked about my having tried to reach his biological family. “Aware that his enemies are always trying to hurt him, we wondered at the curious timing of your trying to locate them in the weeks just before the tournament began.”I never did reach So’s birth family, and my efforts to arrange more meaningful time with the grandmaster through his adoptive mother were unsuccessful. Key insisted that all communication be funneled through her. “You probably consider our precautions extraordinary,” she said. “Yet consider that when you want to stop an elite skater you try to break her leg. With a chess player, you must break something else.”The World Chess Championship operates like a fiefdom. The reigning champion, currently the Norwegian Carlsen, is the overlord. He sits in his throne waiting while the rest of the super-grandmasters bloody each other over the course of a grueling two-year cycle. A triumphant performance in several Grand-Prix tournaments, the Chess World Cup or the official world rankings lands a contender in the Candidates Tournament, in which eight survivors battle each other one final time. Exactly one of them wins the right to challenge the defending champion for the title in yet another lengthy series of games. The next Candidates is slated for March 2018 and the next championship match for the following November. Their locations have not yet been announced. The U.S. Chess Federation recognizes its role in building the American roster this way, but is shy with details. “We get involved because a player of So’s stature carries with it some heavy funding requirements,” its president Gary Walters told me. “FIDE has penalties when you cross and change flags … When you’re Wesley So, we’re talking about tens of thousands of euros to make the transfer. That money has to be paid through U.S. Chess … We typically do not make the payments for players, but we will facilitate the payments.” (FIDE lists So’s transfer fee at 5,000 euros.) The federation operates with a total annual revenue of about $3.8 million in 2015, according to its tax documents.Who did pay? “I don’t know who paid the transfer fees,” Walters said. The New York Times reported that the United States Chess Federation had created a charitable fund “to help recruit and pay the fees of foreign players interested in moving to the United States.” So has said he paid the fee out of pocket.Despite their far-flung origins, the American players have, as a group, achieved early success. The U.S. won gold at the Olympiad, the top team chess competition, last year. It was the first time the country had taken gold in 40 years. But the triad aren’t close, and remain professional rivals. At the closing ceremonies after the nationals, as Nakamura nursed a beer at a ballroom table in St. Louis waiting for So to receive his trophy, Nakamura explained to me that his friends generally aren’t top chess players. They’re his competition, after all. I also asked So, over email, if he had good friends in the chess world. “No. This is not a team sport,” he responded. (Although there are occasional team events, such as the Olympiad.) “We respect and admire each other but mostly keep to ourselves because sooner or later we are going to have to play each other and then you might have mental conflict.”U.S. chess’s plan to shift players to its team has worked out beautifully on the surface. Beneath it, though, its top player has wrestled with family strife and the growing pains of a new life under chess’s spotlight.At the end of the 2015 national championship, So posted this message to his Facebook page: “Let me state right at the top of this that I write my own emails and NO ONE controls my communication, or when and how I choose to communicate. I am not cut off, isolated, drugged, in bondage or kidnapped. I do not belong to anyone but God. I am a man who wishes to be let alone to find his own life.” He had been forced to forfeit a crucial game for writing notes to himself on a piece of paper, in violation of tournament rules. The indiscretion came, So has explained, as the result of a bout of stress following an international family dispute.At a dinner party in Minnesota in 2013, So met Lotis Key, a former film actress who has starred in over 75 Asian movies, and Renato “Bambi” Kabigting, a basketball star while in the Philippines. The couple lives in Minnetonka, a leafy Minneapolis suburb. The trio hit it off, and by the end of 2014, So had left college and moved in with them; he began calling Key mom.According to an account Key gave the Star Tribune, the dispute at the tournament occurred when So’s birth mother, Eleanor So — who now lives in Canada — showed up at the tournament, demanding that he return to school and threatening to cut all ties to the family. A minor scuffle — arm grabbing, yelling — ensued outside the chess club. Eleanor So told the paper that, “Since someone is blocking us access to our own son, we had to try and see him in person to help him.”The meeting was orchestrated, Key told the Star Tribune, by Wesley So’s former coach at Webster University, Paul Truong, who was upset at having lost his star player when he dropped out. Truong denied this and told me that So’s scholarship had been revoked, although he said he couldn’t discuss why. “We knew that he was going to go through some rough times, and we just wanted to protect him, so we never bothered correcting what the media said,” Truong said. Key told me that So decided to leave school, and turn pro, weeks before his scholarship was withdrawn. “The simple fact is Wesley left because he was unhappy at Webster and had decided to play chess professionally,” she said in an email. A spokesman for Webster declined to comment on why So left the university.Several years before, Truong, in a separate incident, had been accused of posting obscene messages online under the name of a rival in a campaign to get elected to the U.S. Chess Federation board. (Truong continues to deny those accusations, although they were confirmed by a private investigator hired by U.S. Chess.) He was later ousted from the federation, and the legal dispute was settled.Despite a strained relationship with So, Truong was optimistic about his future. “Out of all the current players in the United States today, I believe that [So] would have the best chance to be the next world champion,” he said. 10Austria29– 12Karjakin🇷🇺3.3 9Turkey31– 5Aronian🇦🇲12.5 7Nakamura🇺🇸8.4 2017 data as of April 11.Source: FIDE COUNTRYNUMBER OF TRANSFERS 8Croatia32– 8Vachier-Lagrave🇫🇷6.2 4Kramnik🇷🇺14.5 6France34– read more

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Dont Give the Stanley Cup to the Kings Just Yet

If you read the North American sports media — Sportsnet, CBC, THN, USA Today, CBS, ESPN — you’ve heard that Henrik Lundqvist may as well go on vacation; this year’s Stanley Cup already belongs to the Los Angeles Kings. My quick scan showed 12 of 14 hockey media types picking the Kings to beat the New York Rangers in the NHL playoffs’ final round, which begin on Wednesday, and it’s easy to see why. The Kings have a recent track record of success (a Cup in 2012 and a conference finals appearance in 2013). They come from the stronger conference — the West won 246 games and lost 202 against the East this year — and to get to the finals they had to beat teams that had 111, 116 and 107 points this season. Quite different from the Rangers’ playoff run, which included struggles to beat flawed teams and scrapping against backup goaltenders.Except it isn’t that simple, and not just because hockey is a sport disproportionately fueled by luck. The Rangers have a case to make — even on paper. The stats give them a real shot.Let’s start with shooting percentage, where the teams are evenly matched. Both New York and LA struggled this year: The Rangers’ 6.7 percent at 5-on-5 ranked 28th in the league and the Kings’ 6.6 percent was 29th. That’s not a big enough gap to make a difference, because shooting (and save percentages) in hockey are prone to large fluctuations. Given that the teams took about 2,000 shots, that 0.1 percentage point difference represents just two goals, and it’s easy to see how some random bounces could explain it.That’s not to say that shooting percentage is completely meaningless. Pulling our estimates of a team’s shooting skill two-thirds of the way towards the mean helps account for the impact of random chance. If the Rangers and Kings had huge differences that might tell us something about their differing skill. But they only had a margin of 0.1 percentage points this year and 0.8 over the last three years. Between the change in personnel and systems over time and the limitations of multiyear analysis, the Kings and Rangers are close enough that it’s hard to be confident that either team has an edge in shooting percentage.But there are differences to be found among the less top-level stats. Much of today’s advanced stat analysis begins with studying teams’ shot differential as an indicator of their ability to control play. In this regard, the Kings do have a clear edge; indeed, over the last few years they’ve been the best puck-possession team in the league.The Kings outshot their opponents 57 percent to 43 percent during 5-on-5 play this year,1In this piece, “shots” will be taken to include both shots on goal and shots that miss the net, the measure proposed by Matt Fenwick. excluding situations where the score was close enough that teams sat back to protect a lead.2Focusing on situations where the score is close was first popularized by hockey stat pioneer Tore Purdy, more commonly known as JLikens. Purdy recently died at the age of only 28, a tragic loss. He wrote the piece about estimating team shooting talent that I linked above. He’ll be missed. They led the NHL, but the Rangers weren’t too far behind, outshooting their opponents 54 percent to 46 percent. From these two figures, we might expect the Kings to get something like 51.5 percent of the shots against the Rangers; when we include the somewhat tougher opponents they faced this year, we might revise our estimate upwards a bit to something closer to 52 percent.3The Kings’ average opponent got 49.91 percent of the shots, just a little bit higher than the Rangers’ average opponent (49.77 percent). That simple 0.14 point difference probably underestimates the competition — just as the Kings’ shot differential underrates them by not factoring in the strength of the opponents they faced, this metric also underrates their opponents slightly for the same reason. Since there are lots of things we can’t account for (specific matchups, who’s currently nursing an injury, etc.), our projected matchup can never be accurate to three decimal places. I’ve been rounding these figures off in most places, which means that we don’t need to plow through the arithmetic of exactly how much of an effect it has; the Kings’ likely share of shots against the Rangers will round to 52 percent in the end.But that was the regular season, and it’s worth testing whether anything has changed in the playoffs. That means looking at a smaller sample of data — 20 games instead of 82 — which makes it important not to let any stat go to waste. So instead of outright excluding the lead-protecting situations from our analysis (the common way of doing it), let’s include them and correct for the impact of score effects.4To do that, I used a methodology I developed a couple of years ago. It’s a small but important difference, especially when dealing with a sample size this small.By this method, the Kings’ adjusted shot differential in the playoffs was about 52 percent to 48 percent, very similar to the Rangers’ 51-49. However, the Kings were dominant against much tougher competition; they held their opponents about 5 points below those teams’ season averages, whereas the Rangers held their opponents just a fraction of a point below theirs. Once we correct for that, we again end up estimating that the Kings will get about 52 percent of the shots over the series, or maybe as high as 53 percent. That represents a clear edge, if not an overwhelming one.So far, so Kings. But there’s also special teams play to take into account. The Rangers drew 32 more penalties than they took in the regular season, whereas the Kings took 12 more penalties than they drew. The Rangers had a higher power play conversion percentage and a better penalty kill percentage,5They also had better shot rates in both situations, which is an important component of predicting future performance. so we should expect the them to have more and better power plays than the Kings in the long run — even if the actual results of this short series will be dominated by random chance.Finally, it’s possible that it’s all going to come down to goaltending — this is hockey, after all — and the Rangers have a clear advantage there. This was the fifth straight year that Henrik Lundqvist posted a save percentage higher than 92 percent, and his save percentage has been higher than Jonathan Quick’s in every year of Quick’s career. Obviously, over a short series either goalie can get hot and turn the tide, but goalie streaks are almost entirely unpredictable and all we can do in advance is note which goalie is more talented. In this case, it’s clearly Lundqvist. The question is just how big of an advantage he gives the Rangers.In other words, Lundqvist is the fulcrum. If we expect the Kings to get 52 to 53 percent of the shots and expect Lundqvist and Quick to match their average save percentages over the last three years, that leads to a draw at even strength. Other components — special teams, shooting and perhaps fatigue — are all pretty small factors, but also seem to work in the Rangers’ favor.Ignore the pundits — this thing’s closer to a toss-up than a blowout. read more

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One Way James Hardens Scoring Streak Is More Impressive Than Wilts

Houston Rockets guard James Harden has been busy this season redefining just how much offense a single player can create. As we near the NBA All-Star break, Harden has scored at least 30 points in an absurd 30 consecutive games and counting, which, according to Basketball-Reference.com, is the second-longest streak in league history. Harden’s streak trails only Wilt Chamberlain’s 65-game run from the 1961-62 season — a season in which Wilt happened to set the NBA record by scoring 50.4 points per game. The way Harden has been filling up the scoresheet, Chamberlain comes up as a frequent comparison, continually amazing for those of us who never thought we’d get to see numbers like Wilt’s in today’s game. But what might be most remarkable about Harden is the way he’s different from Chamberlain — specifically, how his one-man show has changed his team’s offense.A big reason that Chamberlain keeps popping up is that it’s difficult to find a modern analogue for what Harden is doing. Harden currently has a usage rate of 40.2 percent, meaning he has taken a shot (or turned the ball over) on roughly two out of every five Houston plays when he’s on the court. And when he isn’t trying to score himself, Harden has also assisted on 40.3 percent of teammate baskets. The only other qualified season in NBA history to break those 40/40 thresholds belonged to Russell Westbrook in 2016-17 — and Westbrook was much less efficient that season than Harden has been this year, averaging 6.8 fewer points per 100 possessions on plays he had a hand in ending.To get a sense of just how far Harden is pushing the boundaries of productivity, here’s a breakdown of all qualified seasons since 1976-77 by possession rate1The share of total on-court team possessions a player had a hand in ending, via shots, turnovers, assists and rebounds. versus offensive efficiency. (The outermost points up and to the right are the best combinations of workload and efficiency.) With 118.6 points produced per 100 possessions on a possession rate of 40.5 percent, Harden is currently having the greatest high-usage offensive season in modern history. From a team perspective, those numbers mean that Houston is funneling nearly half of its possessions through a player who is personally averaging nearly 2 more points per 100 possessions than the league’s most efficient team (the Warriors, at 117.0). So in theory, this should be a very good thing for his team’s scoring rate, which in turn should lead to more and more wins.And in Harden’s case, that appears to be true. Since Harden’s streak began, he is averaging 122 points per 100 possessions with a usage rate of 42.8 percent, both numbers up from the 114 and 37.3 percent marks he had before the streak, respectively. And over the same span, Houston’s teamwide offensive efficiency has zoomed up from 111.2 points per 100 before the streak (sixth-best in the NBA) to 116.9 (second-best) ever since, with his Rockets’ on/off-court offensive efficiency split (+5.8 points per 100) staying roughly the same before the streak and after. Houston is also 21-9 over the streak, after starting the season 12-14. Of course, the recent return of former All-Star point guard Chris Paul, who missed 18 games during Harden’s streak, has buoyed the Rockets as well — but in general it’s safe to say that Harden’s tear has had a very positive effect on Houston’s efficiency and overall record.Why is that notable, though? Isn’t that simply the logical result of having a highly efficient player dominate his team’s possessions? You might think so, but in a dynamic sport such as basketball, things are often more complicated than they may appear. And the best example of this could be Chamberlain.Chamberlain’s career was unwittingly one of history’s most fascinating laboratories for basketball experimentation, in large part because he was the NBA’s most extreme statistical outlier ever. Wilt led the league in scoring in each of his first six seasons, with a staggering scoring average of 40.6 points per game over that span; he also led the league in field goal percentage in three of those campaigns, making 50.7 percent of his shots in total (at a time when the NBA average was around 42 percent). With such a high volume of efficient shots, you might expect that Wilt was like Harden, leading his teams to tremendously efficient offensive performances.But you’d be wrong. Shockingly, Chamberlain’s Warriors struggled to even break league average in efficiency during his seasons with the club, despite the enormous amount of high-percentage scoring Chamberlain did by himself. It wasn’t until Chamberlain switched teams and started scoring less — passing to his teammates more — that his clubs began breaking offensive records.To better understand the sometimes-counterintuitive effect a single scorer can have on his team’s offense, I reached out to Ben Taylor, author of the book “Thinking Basketball,” who was one of the first researchers to notice this phenomenon in Chamberlain’s numbers. “The arc of [Wilt’s] career is very, very unique,” he said. “Not only do some people consider him the best player ever precisely because of these raw stats, but he goes through many different coaches, they put him in many different situations, and specifically Alex Hannum comes along with this great idea — like, ‘Hey, Wilt, what if you just didn’t shoot that much anymore?’ — and he does this, and the team becomes incredible.”Chamberlain’s 1965-66 and 1966-67 seasons with Philadelphia present the most fascinating test case. According to Taylor’s research, Chamberlain’s own personal scoring attempts in 1966 were much more efficient (averaging about 1.09 points per possession) than those of his teammates when they tried to score (0.94), and the 76ers had a mediocre offense with Chamberlain scoring 33.5 points per game. If anything, that makes it sound like Chamberlain should have shot the ball even more — but instead, Hannum persuaded Chamberlain to spread the ball around the following season. His teammates, basically the same cast of characters, averaged more points per attempt (1.01) on more shots per game, while Wilt himself was far more efficient (1.27 points per attempt!) when scoring “only” 24.1 points per game. The result was a championship for Philadelphia and one of history’s greatest offenses.Chamberlain’s less-is-more experience is indicative of other one-man shows from throughout NBA history, Taylor said. “You can see it with other high-usage players in a modern setting. I think the classic examples are 1987 [Michael] Jordan, 2006 Kobe [Bryant], guys like that — they’re doing a similar thing, and again you don’t have anywhere near a top-shelf offense.”But Harden has been able to break that mold by playing differently than other one-man offenses from the past. “Harden’s not the best example of one of these high-usage all time scorers,” Taylor said. “He’s a little weird in that he’s more like Steve Nash — he’s passing and dominating the offense to also set up teammates, and so you have a huge ‘creation’ player. … The stark difference between [Harden and Wilt] is that Wilt, when he was scoring, was more like a black hole, and Harden is just running everything.”The idea that Harden is what Taylor called a “Scoring Nash” is eye-opening. Playing in a similar (if not exactly identical) system to the one Nash orchestrated for four years under coach Mike D’Antoni, Harden has evolved the role of distributor to include an even greater level of player choice. If one of Nash’s great strengths was drawing defensive attention as a means of setting others up for easy shots, Harden can also use the threat of the pass as a means of giving himself more space to shoot. As a result, Harden has an “offensive load” — Taylor’s metric for measuring direct involvement via scoring or passing within an offense — of 66 percent, compared with Nash’s single-season high of 51 percent under D’Antoni in 2007.Pass-heavy initiators like Harden don’t always elevate otherwise mediocre offenses to greatness. For instance, Westbrook — who in 2017 set the NBA record for single-season usage rate (just ahead of Harden’s rate this year) — was the centerpiece of a barely average scoring attack that year, despite his record offensive load of 74 percent. But a disproportionate share of history’s greatest offenses were led by players such as Harden, Nash, Magic Johnson, Larry Bird and even Golden State’s Stephen Curry — players who stretched defenses into oblivion with the interplay between their passing and scoring.That’s why Harden’s admittedly impressive scoring streak is only one part of the puzzle that has helped vault the Rockets back near the top of the Western Conference’s contender list. By playing more like the Chamberlain of 1967 than 1962, Harden isn’t just helping the team with his own statistics — he’s also making the players around him better.Check out our latest NBA predictions. read more

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Who Didnt Expect This Final Four

jakelourim (Jake Lourim, contributor): If you look at last week’s chat, that makes Neil Captain Obvious, right?neil (Neil Paine, senior sports writer): I wish I could say I had a fancy analytical model to make these picks, but I spent an entire podcast segment saying I was selectively ignoring stats and picking with my gut. The most anti-FiveThirtyEight way to get a perfect Final Four possible.jplanos: I think the big winner is Under Armour getting two Final Four teams, but Duke (the top overall seed) falling probably takes the cake.neil: Yeah, Duke losing before the Final Four has to be the headline surprise, I think.Although one could make an easy case that the Blue Devils were lucky to even make it as far as they did…gfoster: Were you that surprised by Duke losing? That game had the smallest spread of the last four, and Duke had aggressively flirted with death against Virginia Tech and UCF.jplanos: I wasn’t because Michael Avenatti called it, but the Blue Devils were the Icarus of the tournament. It felt like they trailed at halftime of nearly every game.neil: This Duke team was fascinating because, in terms of talent, nobody can match that group. And when Zion was taking over, it was difficult to envision how they could lose. Yet they did not consistently play to their abilities, particularly in this tournament. Even in those close wins, they left you wanting more.jplanos: Shoutout to Alex O’Connell getting the start and finishing with three total minutes. When was the last time a starter finished with less than five minutes played and wasn’t injured or ejected?gfoster: The story before the tournament was that Michigan State got handed an awful draw because the Spartans won the Big Ten tourney and still got put in Duke’s region. Now I wonder whether it was Duke that got the bad draw.Can Cassius Winston one-man-army his way to a title? We’ve seen versatile point guards do this before in March Madness.jplanos: He’s this season’s Kemba Walker. He started off pretty tepid against Duke and then exploded for 20 points and 10 assists, with four steals and one turnover, which, when you consider the ball is effectively always in his hands and he was lined up against an on-ball hound in Tre Jones, is absurd. I came away extremely impressed.neil: Winston also got some help when he needed it late against Duke. Xavier Tillman had 19 in the game, and Kenny Goins overcame a horrendous shooting game to make a huge shot in the final minute.jakelourim: Winston really can do it all. He’s had to do so much since Michigan State lost Joshua Langford in December, and through the Big Ten season, Big Ten tournament and then this weekend, I kept waiting for the Spartans to run out of magic. But they haven’t. It seemed throughout Sunday that Winston always knew the right play to make, and Duke didn’t. What was up with Zion not taking the last shot(s) in the final minute?jplanos: The RJ Barrett Show seemed like a suboptimal approach down the stretch.neil: People were really killing Barrett for taking so many of Duke’s final shots.jakelourim: I did think that Michigan State had the best game plan (outside of Syracuse and the 2-3 zone, which is unique) for slowing down Zion. Tillman was outstanding on defense and made himself a lot of money on Sunday.neil: Barrett also missed the free throw he was supposed to make, and made the one he was supposed to miss.Sheesh. jakelourim: Michigan’s loss to Texas Tech generated the Wolverines’ seventh-worst offensive efficiency rating of the KenPom era and fourth-worst under John Beilein.jplanos: I don’t know what being put in a straightjacket feels like, but I imagine it’s similar to playing the Red Raiders.gfoster: Virginia is now the betting favorite in the tournament at 3-2. Would you have guessed that the Hoos would be the lone ACC No. 1 seed to make it through? It wasn’t long ago when I was momentarily planning how FiveThirtyEight would react to a UVA loss to Gardner-Webb.jplanos: I certainly wouldn’t have. If we get a Virginia-Texas Tech national title game, will next year’s NCAA Tournament even be televised? And will it set back college basketball 15 years?gfoster: First one to 50 points wins!neil: I think Virginia also benefited from a relatively easy path to Minneapolis. According to our power ratings, the rest of the South contained the eighth, 10th and 16th best teams in the Sweet 16.jplanos: Considering the moment, I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a more impressive baseball-style pass than the one Kihei Clark (A FRESHMAN) beamed to Mamadi Diakite for Virginia’s buzzer-beater against Purdue. That was a rocket. jakelourim: Virginia hasn’t been particularly impressive in any of its four games — not like the Hoos were during the regular season — but it does seem like experience and chemistry won out in the regionals after a chalk-filled first weekend. I keep thinking about the moment at the end of the Michigan State-Duke game when Xavier Tillman motioned for Cassius Winston to hurry down the floor and run out the clock. That’s a savvy move. It was frustrating that it was never reviewed. Isn’t this exactly what replay in basketball is for?jplanos: Not a great tournament across the board for officiating out-of-bounds calls. gfoster: MSU tends to struggle in the third weekend: eight Final Fours now but just one title for Tom Izzo. Is Michigan State essentially the 1990s Atlanta Braves? Loads of playoff success and the one token title to ward off Geoff making Buffalo Bills comparisons.^ Third-person alert.neil: I think Izzo was motivated to take back the “best performance vs. seed expectations” crown from Jim Boeheim.Izzo’s teams have a long history of exceeding expectations en route to the Final Four, but maybe that’s why they don’t win titles. Overachieving can only get you so far.jakelourim: It has always seemed to me that the talent differential has caught up to Michigan State in some of those Final Fours. I thought it was interesting that Tom Izzo said privately before the 2009 title game that if the Tyler Hansbrough/Ty Lawson UNC team played well, Michigan State would lose. “There’s just more talent there,” Izzo said. (And MSU did lose.) But if the talent didn’t catch up to the Spartans against Duke, when will it happen?jplanos: Zion was clearly gassed, but he also was unquestionably the team’s best option on offense. And then he … stopped getting the ball. I was surprised that Coach K didn’t dial up any isolations for him over the final possessions or demand some sort of clear-out.gfoster: At least Duke has Zion and Barrett for three more years where they can continue to grow as upperclassmen and take home multiple championships…….neil: LOLjplanos: My question is: Can we still get a Zion cam? Can we watch the kid ink his shoe deal during the Final Four?gfoster: It is frustrating we don’t get more college Zion. He’s so entertaining.jakelourim: It’s fair to wonder if/when we’ll ever see another college player like him again, right, with the NBA apparently set to change the one-and-done rule in 2022?jplanos: I can’t remember seeing a team win an Elite Eight game (or any NCAA Tournament game) having made just two free throws, like Michigan State did. **cue Sports-Reference search**neil: It’s actually astonishing when you look at the stats of that game in general that MSU won.Duke shot better on FGs, 3Ps and FTs and had more rebounds. The turnovers were the only main category where Duke lost, and they lost big.jplanos: Full transparency: I was ready to call curtains when the Blue Devils had that 21-5 run in the opening half.jakelourim: What was stunning to me was that Duke turned the ball over 17 times. (Back to the point of “If they play well, they’ll win” — they did not play well.) Michigan State is 342nd in defensive turnover rate at 15 percent, according to Ken Pomeroy, and that’s counting Sunday’s game.neil: Which just lent more credence to the idea that the only team talented enough to beat Duke was … Duke.gfoster: Let’s talk about what’s not as entertaining: Texas Tech’s defensive domination. The Red Raiders made Michigan shoot like my JV basketball team when the bench had been emptied in the final minutes. Then did a similar suffocation of Gonzaga, holding the Bulldogs and the nation’s most efficient offense to just 69 points.jplanos: The Red Raiders indeed smothered Michigan and then turned the second half of their win over Gonzaga into a rock fight. To see the nation’s most efficient offense reduced to 32 second-half points and 16 total turnovers was really something.neil: According to Ken Pomeroy’s ratings, Texas Tech is the nation’s best defensive team. The Red Raiders certainly played like it.jplanos: If you had told me that Texas Tech would advance to the Final Four on a terrible Jarrett Culver shooting performance (5-of-19 from the field, 2-of-8 from three), I would have laughed in your face.neil: Or that they would win despite Rui Hachimura having a pretty good game (22 points).jplanos: It really seemed like the Zags missed the part of the game plan detailing turnovers. Texas Tech ranks 11th in opponent turnover percentage, according to KenPom, and lives by the deflection, especially on entry passes. It seemed like there were 10 bounce passes into the post that were immediate turnovers. YOU CAN’T POCKET PASS THIS TEAM.jakelourim: (Just finished that sports-reference search, Josh: No team has won an Elite Eight game with two free throws or fewer since at least 2011.)jplanos: You know who didn’t show up for the Wolverines? Two upperclassmen: Charles Matthews and Zavier Simpson.Simpson finished 0-5 against Texas Tech with one assist and four turnovers. Not exactly what you’re expecting from a second-team all-conference player. And in the final game of his college career, Matthews had a team-high five turnovers and finished 3-9 from the field and 0-4 from 3-point land.gfoster: Let’s put it this way and move on: Michigan’s performance in the Sweet 16 was the worst I’ve ever seen a basketball team play.jplanos: LOLneil: And you watched that UConn-Butler final from a few years back.gfoster: I generally don’t like to talk about blown calls. But the Tariq Owens block play against Gonzaga was a pretty bad one to miss at a key moment: neil: (And we can really talk savvy when we discuss Auburn’s Jared Harper…)jakelourim: Mike Krzyzewski talked all weekend about how minor injuries disrupted the continuity of his freshman-led team, and I could feel eyes rolling out of heads. But does a freshman core that’s only played a handful of games together have the ability to do that? I’m not sure.neil: Right. It seems like a big legacy of this one-and-done era will be of mostly unmet expectations for these freshman-star-laden teams.gfoster: We joke about how boring the Cavs are (and make no mistake, they are mostly drying paint basketball), but the Purdue-Virginia game might have been my favorite of the tournament. Before overtime, Carsen Edwards’s game was unreal. It must be discouraging to get that type of performance from your star in the Elite Eight and still lose.jplanos: Edwards was a one-man wrecking ball the entire tourney and, frankly, it feels unfair that he had to lose. I think there’s a sound argument to be made that it’s less than optimal to have one player responsible for nearly all of your offensive production, but man was it entertaining.In arguably the two biggest games of his life, Edwards put up 71 points on 47 percent shooting from the field and went 15-33 from 3-point land. The degree of difficulty on most of those shots was superhuman.Also, long live Ryan Cline. That performance against Tennessee will get washed over because of Carsen and the excitement of the Elite Eight slate, but man…jakelourim: It really was unfortunate that one of those teams had to lose. Because on the other side, you have Tony Bennett trying to exorcise his Final Four demons and erase the memory of last year. He has made a tremendously successful career out of coaching the pack-line defense and forcing opponents to take shots like the ones Purdue took Saturday night. And then Carsen Edwards goes and does that.gfoster: Kyle Guy stepped up. If he doesn’t repeatedly answer Edwards’s threes with ones of his own, UVA is gone.neil: It was unfortunate that Edwards started to run out of gas at the end of OT. He missed a heat check late — which he’d earned the right to take, given the previous bombs — and had a tough turnover on a pass out of bounds in the final seconds. He’d been so brilliant that you expected him to keep making the superhuman look routine.jplanos: I usually abide by a never-trust-a-man-with-two-first-names mantra, but I’m willing to make an exception for Kyle Guy.No other Boilermaker had more than 7 points in that game. Yikes.jakelourim: Good point, Josh. Nobody else even took more than seven shots! And that’s including five extra OT minutes.neil: Edwards personally scored 56 percent of Purdue’s total — which was the second-most points UVA gave up in a game all season.jakelourim: He also scored more points than Coppin State and William & Mary did as TEAMS against Virginia.gfoster: The last team in the Final Four is Bruce Pearl’s Auburn Tigers, who are the lowest remaining seed. A lot of people wrote off their chances of beating UK when Chuma Okeke when down. How do you think they will fare against UVA?jplanos: I’d like to take this time to apologize for openly scoffing at Geoff picking Auburn to advance out of the Sweet 16. I even wrote it down in my diary and laughed!jakelourim: This thought stuck in my head all of Friday night and Sunday afternoon: Remember how much of a spectacular mess Auburn was in the final seconds of its first-round game against New Mexico State? I did not watch that team and think, “Yeah, they’ll probably get to the Final Four.”jplanos: This weekend was a big one for the EVERYBODY COUNTED US OUT crowd. I count all four teams citing it, which means, yep, that slogan remains undefeated.jakelourim: Yes, we’re deep into “Why Not Us?” season.neil: To your question Geoff, Bryce Brown and Jared Harper are going to have to keep scoring! The backcourt duo combined for 50 points against UK, with each taking turns taking over the game.Special props to Auburn, btw, for avenging its 27-point loss at Kentucky from a few weeks earlier.jplanos: I love that Virginia has to go through Auburn, a team with a style that must be anathema to the Hoos.gfoster: Also this game served as a PSA against making banners where you openly mock injuries.jplanos: If only we had known beforehand that Kentucky’s fan base has no limits…jakelourim: Enjoyed that Bruce Pearl actually admitted to the popular strategy of “We’re going to get the ball to Jared and Bryce, and everyone else get the fuck out of the way.”neil: It made sense. I am totally enamored with Harper in particular. He just has a sense of where everyone is on the court and what is the right play to make. Such a smart player.jplanos: I think I fell in love with Auburn’s style this weekend. There was a slow-motion replay in the second half that captured an Auburn player swatting a Kentucky player’s shot at the rim while clearly mouthing “GIVE ME THAT SHIT,” and it was wonderful and emblematic of how the Tigers approach the game on both ends. Every play is a highlight to be made.jakelourim: I also think this draw continues to favor Virginia. I don’t think Auburn is going to be the team to speed up Virginia in the semifinals, and in the final, neither Michigan State nor Texas Tech is going to bombard Virginia with unmatched athleticism, as Duke did in both of their regular-season meetings.gfoster: So is that your prediction Jake?jakelourim: Yes, my champion pick is still alive, so I’m sticking with Virginia.jplanos: I like Virginia to advance and play Texas Tech, which will be … a game of basketball.neil: I must keep my original predictions, so I’m taking UVA and MSU, with the Cavs winning it all.gfoster: I’m riding Auburn!!!!! … for one more game. I think they do shoot their way past Virginia’s defense. And then lose to Michigan State in the final. And we all get our dream fulfilled of seeing more Tom Izzo dancing videos like this: Check out our latest March Madness predictions. gfoster (Geoff Foster, sports editor): Welcome to FiveThirtyEight’s Final Four chat! After the chalk prevailed in the first weekend, the second weekend finally provided some upsets. In the Elite Eight, three of four underdogs won outright, and the fourth, Purdue, probably should have won — but Virginia’s last-second heroics and overtime win make the Cavs the lone No. 1 seed left in the tournament. What was the biggest surprise of the weekend?jplanos (Josh Planos, contributor): I think we should just cede the floor to Neil, who can discuss his perfect Final Four choices: From ABC News: read more

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Lavender leads tourney sweep

Like a boulder gathering momentum as it barrels down the mountainside, the Ohio State women’s basketball team continued to roll this weekend with back-to-back victories in the Buckeye Classic.Jantel Lavender’s huge game fueled an 83-71 victory over the No. 15 California Golden Bears. Lavender finished with 33 points and 14 rebounds.Her 11 points in a 15-0 stretch proved to be the difference in the second half.Lavender took what the defense allowed.“I just took my time,” Lavender said. “I saw they were forcing me left and saw the advantages once the double teams were coming late.”Samantha Prahalis pitched in with a double-double, notching 14 assists to go with her 14 points. It was her fourth double-double of the young season. Sarah Schulze pitched in with five three-point baskets to give her 15 points for the day.Coach Jim Foster is happy with what he has in his floor general Prahalis.“She’s as good as there is in the open court and improving in the half court,” Foster said. “She has a good sense of the game, and as we grow she starts to find her wings.”It was California’s second loss to a Top 10 team in the span of eight days, as the Golden Bears (3-2) struggled to contain the No. 3 Buckeyes (8-0).In Saturday’s game against IUPUI, the Buckeyes won 88-33 despite Lavender’s struggles from the field. She was five of 15 and scored a season-low 12 points.Prahalis picked up the slack, scoring 12 points and dishing out 10 assists. Lavender didn’t let her struggles finding her shot frustrate her on the court.“Sometimes your shots don’t fall, and there are going to be days like that,” Lavender said. “There’s no need to panic because everybody can do great things on this team.”Foster credited a spirited practice for his team’s defensive performance in holding IUPUI to 33 points.“We played hard and had a good game defensively for 40 minutes,” Foster said. “I was encouraged by our intensity. We had a significant defensive practice [Friday], and it carried over well today.”With defense as their main focus, the Buckeyes remain perfect as they head into their ACC/Big Ten Challenge game against No. 12 Duke. read more

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Clippers fall to Mud Hens in finale of 6game series

The Toledo Mud Hens got revenge on the Columbus Clippers, scoring 13 runs and holding Columbus to five runs on six hits in the finale of the teams’ six-game series Monday. The Clippers fell to 8-4, while the Mud Hens improved to 4-8. “They have good players, and they got the better of us today,” Columbus manager Mike Sarbaugh said after the loss. “Give them credit: They put good swings on the ball today.” Clippers first baseman Wes Hodges batted in two of his team’s five runs when he doubled to center field in the bottom of the fourth inning. It was the last two runs Toledo’s Andrew Oliver gave up on the day. Hodges said Oliver, who was credited with the win and moves to 2-0 on the season, had an array of pitches that he threw to Columbus batters. “He did a good job just mixing it,” Hodges said. “He has a good fastball, and he threw strikes today.” Columbus starting pitcher Corey Kluber gave up six runs on six hits in 4.2 innings pitched. Toledo first baseman Ryan Strieby sent a two-run home run over the left-field bleachers in the top of the fifth inning to give Toledo a 6-2 lead. But the Clippers battled back when right fielder Chad Huffman sent a double to center field, scoring two runs and bringing the Clippers within two runs heading into the sixth inning. Right-handed pitcher Joe Martinez came in for Kluber after the Strieby homer, and earned four quick outs before the seventh inning, when the Clippers were still well in contention, trailing just 6-4. That didn’t continue into the seventh inning. Martinez allowed a solo home run to Toledo left fielder Andy Dirks to start the inning, giving the Mud Hens a 7-4 lead. Three batters and just one out later, Toledo center fielder Clete Thomas delivered a three-run home run to right field to break the game open and give the Mud Hens a 10-4 lead with just one out. Sarbaugh said that inning was detrimental for his club. “We felt like we were still in the game going into the seventh,” he said, “but Clete Thomas’ home run was the big blow.” Martinez got out of the inning without allowing another run, but got no run support in the bottom of the seventh, when Columbus’ first three batters were retired. Toledo earned three more runs off right-handed pitcher Jess Todd in the eighth inning to give the Mud Hens a 13-4 lead. Columbus shortstop Luis Valbuena hit a ground ball that scored center fielder Bubba Bell in the bottom of the ninth, but it wasn’t enough, as the designated Cord Phelps struck out to end the game with a final score of 13-5. Columbus will begin a four-game series with the Louisville Bats on Tuesday. The Bats sit in first place in the division with a 9-2 record. Sarbaugh said today’s loss is just a bump in the road and that the team can’t get hung up on the nine-run loss. “It’s one of those days,” he said, “and we’ve got to come back ready (Tuesday).” read more

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Ohio State football By The Numbers

While Ohio State football won’t be in position to clinch the Big Ten’s Leaders Division championship, it’s safe to say their path to the title goes through Happy Valley and the Penn State Nittany Lions. The No. 9-ranked Buckeyes (8-0, 4-0 Big Ten) travel to play Penn State (5-2, 3-0 Big Ten) at Beaver Stadium in State College, Pa., where more than 106,000 are expected to attend. OSU and PSU are undefeated in Big Ten play and enter Saturday’s game after rousing victories this past weekend. OSU fought back in the closing seconds of its game against Purdue to force overtime and eventually win, 29-22, with starting sophomore quarterback Braxton Miller sidelined with an injury. PSU, left for dead by some pundits after beginning the season 0-2, stretched its current winning streak to five games with a 38-14 rout of Iowa in Iowa City, Iowa, on Saturday. PSU coach Bill O’Brien has returned the program to on-field respectability in the first season following late, former coach Joe Paterno’s firing. The two programs are banned from postseason play this season, with PSU’s ban continuing for the three seasons to follow due to NCAA sanctions stemming from former defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky sexually abusing children in team facilities. Both remain eligible for the Leaders Division crown, though, and the victor on Saturday will be well-positioned to win divisional bragging rights as the 2012 college football season enters its home stretch. Offense  If OSU’s first four Big Ten games are any indicator, both Miller and redshirt junior quarterback Kenny Guiton are going to see action in Saturday’s game against PSU. When Miller’s on the field, he’s simply dominant, having run for 959 yards and 10 scores while throwing for 1,384 yards and 11 touchdowns. The problem is that Miller isn’t always on the field – he’s been forced from each of the Buckeyes’ Big Ten games this season for various amounts of time due to injury. Guiton’s proven himself to be a serviceable back-up, though – he’s completed 12-of-21 attempts this season for 128 yards and a touchdown and an interception. Perhaps most notably, Guiton also proved himself to be cool under pressure, having led the Buckeyes back from a 22-14 deficit with 47 seconds to play against Purdue to an eventual overtime win. For Penn State’s part, senior quarterback Matt McGloin, a former walk-on, has emerged as one of the elite passers in the conference. What the Nittany Lions lack in a rushing attack – their leading running back, redshirt junior Zach Zwinak, has 369 yards on the season – McGloin makes up for in the passing game. The Scranton, Pa. native has 1,788 yards through the air to go along with 14 passing touchdowns. Defense For all of OSU’s defensive struggles, the unit showed improvement last week against Purdue, allowing just 13 points to the Boilermakers’ offense (the other Purdue scores came on a 100-yard kickoff return and a safety). OSU senior Zach Boren has provided a spark at the linebacker position for the Buckeyes and has tallied 14 tackles in two games since jumping to defense from the fullback position. The Nittany Lions’ defense is stout and is the 13th in the nation with only 15.71 points per game allowed. PSU also only allows more than 322.7 yards per game – that’s 22nd best in America. The Nittany Lions also boast a potential all-Big Ten linebacker in redshirt senior Michael Mauti, who has accumulated 65 tackles, 2.5 sacks and three interceptions. Mauti, PSU’s emotional leader, will likely steer the PSU defense on the field and stoke the Beaver Stadium “White Out” crowd as well. Special Teams On paper, the Buckeyes and Nittany Lions don’t pose a great threat on kick and punt returns. OSU has the only return for a touchdown between the two squads – a punt return by OSU junior Corey Brown against Nebraska. There’s only marginal separation between the teams when it comes to return yardages as well, though OSU holds the edge in punt and kickoff returns. For perhaps the first time all season, OSU has an edge when it comes to kicking field goals. Buckeyes junior kicker Drew Basil is 3-of-5 on field goal tries this season. Basil’s season-long is 35 yards and he clanked a 50-yard try off the upright in the north end zone at Ohio Stadium last weekend. Through no fault of his own, Basil simply hasn’t had many opportunities this season. PSU sophomore kicker Sam Ficken is a different story. Ficken is 4-of-11 on field goal tries this season, has a long of 34 yards and missed four attempts during a 17-16 Sept. 8 loss at Virginia. Since that loss, O’Brien has used his kicker sparingly and has trotted Ficken out for only two field goals longer than 40 yards, and the kicker missed both (a 47-yard miss against Illinois and a 43-yarder against Iowa). read more

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