Sooners cool off Spartans behind balanced attack

Tipping shortly after 10:00 tonight the Spartans of Michigan State will do battle with the Oklahoma Sooners. Michigan State has turned into the darling of the NCAA tournament and the public loves them; judging by their status as two point favorites over the Sooners. I’m not so sure. The Spartans have collapsed late in games all season and some of that can be attributed to their extremely poor free throw shooting at an alarming 63%! Their defense seems to have come to life at the right time, but has it really? Stifling a stagnant Virginia team and a mediocre Georgia team does not impress me. The Sooners love to get out and run, averaging almost 20 fast break points a game, which will make it hard for the Spartans to replicate their tough defense played in the first two rounds. Oklahoma has shooters from multiple spots and will make it hard for Michigan State to play their gritty brand of basketball. The red hot Spartans will cool off tonight and America can shift their focus to the next underdog story.

ON THE RECORD: Oklahoma Sooners (+2) over Michigan State Spartans

Team Preview: Mets’ Magic Being Slowed Already?

On Wednesday, New York Mets pitcher Zack Wheeler underwent Tommy John surgery. This shouldn’t be unfamiliar to Mets fans, or the rest of the MLB for that matter; The New York Mets alone have had five pitchers (Jeremy Hefner twice) in the last 20 months undergo the surgery to repair a torn UCL. Coming into this season, the Mets are a popular to pick to emerge as an under the radar playoff contender. Just how big a blow is this injury to a Mets starting rotation which has a legit chance to be the MLB’s best?

They are losing a starting pitcher that began to make strides last season and rounded out a successful 2014 campaign. Wheeler finished 2014 with an 11-11 record and 3.54 ERA. He struggled out of the gates in the 2014 campaign starting 3-8 over his first 17 starts. During his next 16, he went 8-3 and finished strong with a 2.71 ERA. For the whole season, Wheeler finished with 185.1 innings pitched and led the Mets with 187 strike outs and 21 quality starts (6 IP and 2 runs or less). He was a solid pitcher on a team that dealt with injuries and another disappointing season.

Despite the Mets losing a potential breakout pitcher, they have plenty of depth. Dillon Gee, last year’s opening day starter, was moved to the bullpen with the return of superstar to be, Matt Harvey. He reluctantly accepted a job back in the rotation when Wheeler went down saying, “I didn’t want it this way”. Gee was the main talk of the off-season because he made the most sense to trade. Trade talks surrounding the Mets pitching staff was seen as a positive sign as they had too much starting pitching, where in this day and age starting pitching is everything. The Mets could not find a suitable trade partner despite rumors and decided to keep the 28 year old Gee, which now I’m sure they’re glad they did. They are also loaded with top pitching prospects Noah Syndergaard and lefty Steven Matz who were just sent down to the minors from camp. The loss of Wheeler does open up a spot in the bullpen with Gee moving back to the rotation that will most likely be filled with another youngster, Rafeal Montero. Montero struggled as a starter last year but has the potential to be a starting pitcher in the Major Leagues. Expect all three young pitchers to make MLB appearances this year and watch out for any of the three to repeat the success NL rookie of the year Jacob DeGrom had in 2014.

The Mets should be loaded enough at starting pitching to survive Wheeler’s Tommy John setback and they look to make a run at the NL East where they will have to go through the Washington Nationals. The Nationals finished last season with the top record in the National League and look to take the next step with free agent splash Max Scherzer joining the starting rotation. Scherzer’s signing prompted young Nationals superstar, Bryce Harper, to say some cocky things including, “Where’s my ring?” Although not fond of his arrogance, the Mets do not have the recent track record to speak up about it. If spring training is any indication, it may not be long before the Mets have the opportunity to shut Harper up in the postseason.

The Mets boast the second best record in the NL so far in spring training and their bats seem to have come alive. Although their offseason wasn’t filled with acquisitions they got healthier and did not lose a player in free agency. David Wright is sure to bounce back after one if his worst offensive seasons and despite Zack Wheeler’s set back they look to get healthier at pitching as well. With the addition of Michael Cuddyer…hopefully a healthy Michael Cuddyer, the Mets look to improve on last season where they scored 12 more runs than they allowed! I like the Mets to improve on their 79 win season from a year ago and enter into the +.500 ranks and be in the mix as the playoff chase heats up.

Contributions from: Pat Turco

UC Irvine has a BIG chance

Tipping at 4:10, the familiar Louisville Cardinals do battle with the Anteaters of UC Irvine. Most look at this game and side with the name value of the Louisville Cardinals. Why not? Pitino is a proven success in college basketball, including successful runs in the big dance. They come into this game -8 and the way they are playing basketball that margin seems steep to me. Louisville is a pesky press team that will not let up no matter the game situation. This may be counter productive as they do not have very much depth. Junior forward Montrezl Harrell will have his hands full going up against 7’6” center…yes, i said 7’6”…Mamadou Ndiaye. Now as you would expect, Mamadou is a raw player, but he adds another element of defensive rotations that could add to the fatigue I expect to see out of the Cardinals. UC Irvine has eight players that average 15+ minutes a game and should be able to battle through the press that Louisville runs so diligently. I see this game as a back and forth affair that ends with the Anteaters covering an eight point spread.

ON THE RECORD: UC Irvine (+8) over Louisville

Preview: 8v9 Matchups

The daunting 8v9 match-ups in the NCAA tournament are a constant reminder of one of two things. One, we simply do not know as much as we think we do when it comes to College Basketball and two, most of us are simply guessing. Although 8v9 match-ups do not bust a bracket, as they usually go on to lose in the next round regardless, they can start you off on the wrong foot in a tournament where wins are harder to come by as it progresses. I’m going to do my best to ensure you hit at least 3 of those 4 match-ups this year.

(9) Purdue over (8) Cincinnati

The dreaded winner gets Kentucky game. The Cincinnati Bearcats boast the 6th best defense in the country in terms of opponent points per game. Unfortunately, their offense looks just as stagnant as the one they play against, scoring only 62.4pgg. The Bearcats play 10 players in one of the deepest rotations in the field but lack senior leadership in their starting lineup. Purdue starts a mix of upperclassmen and freshmen translating into an equally efficient defense led by Big 10 defensive player of the year Rapheal Davis and 7-foot center, A.J. Hammons. The star power on Purdue coupled with an offense that knows how to score the ball, 70ppg, should be enough to push on and face the undefeated Wildcats.

(9) LSU over (8) NC State

LSU has been underachieving all year. With a legit NBA front court, LSU’s true shining moment may have been when they led late against Kentucky before they fell apart. Their front line combines for 32.5 points and 19 rebounds per game all while clogging up lanes and dominating defensively, with Sophomore Jordan Mickey averaging 3.6 blocks per game. I don’t like the chances of NC State’s guards being able to get to the rim against the NBA front court of Jordan Mickey and Jarell Martin, forcing them to settle for jump shots. With the hot and cold nature of this NC State team, they cannot be trusted against the NBA talent on the Tigers. The NCAA tournament is where stars are born and I believe we will witness two of them dominate this one against the Wolfpack.

(8) Oregon over (9) Oklahoma State

One of the hottest teams coming into the NCAA tournament are the Oregon Ducks, winners in 13 of 16 games to round out their season. Oregon likes to push the pace, ranking 26th in the nation in scoring with almost 76ppg. More than 20 of those points come from senior leader, Joe Young. “Mighty” Joe Young leads the Pac 12 in scoring and is the pilot of their up tempo fast break offense.  On the opposite end of the spectrum there is Oklahoma State, losers in 6 of their last 7 contests. A team that looked to be NIT bound, the Cowboys limp into the tournament with only 5 players getting more than 20 minutes per game. After the gauntlet that is the Big 12, Oklahoma State is in need of a break. Look for them to start their off-season early when Oregon runs them off the floor.

San Diego St. (8) over (9) St. John’s

San Diego State is a defensive minded team with long wing defenders that stifle teams from getting any penetration, as evident by their #2 in the nation rank when it comes to points allowed per game at 53.1. On the flip side, the Aztecs score less than 62ppg making them vulnerable to a team that can score the basketball. Lucky for them, St. John’s shoots a poor 44% and struggles to score at times. Add to the equation that center, Chris Obekpa will not be playing in this game and I find it hard to believe St. John’s can score 50+ on the Aztecs. San Diego State walks into the round of 32 thanks to an ideal match-up.

Tournament Tips Off!

The second play in game tonight features a high scoring BYU team, second in the nation in scoring at 83.6ppg, pitted against the Ole Miss Rebels out of the SEC. Ole Miss struggles to score the ball at BYU’s level shooting only 42.6% and averaging 72.6ppg. BYU, having upset Gonzaga this year, seems to be the more deserving team of the two with Ole Miss ending their season with a loss against South Carolina in the SEC tournament. Look for BYU to come out blazing from 3-point land and hold a comfortable lead throughout this one. BYU opened as two point favorites and line has since moved to -3. Bets seem to be on BYU and before the line drives up anymore, I’ll jump on the wagon myself.

ON THE RECORD: BYU (-3) over Ole Miss

NCAA Tournament Spotlight: (14) Georgia State vs (3) Baylor Bears

The release of the brackets on Sunday night marked the start of the NCAA March Madness Tournament. While Kentucky, Wisconsin, Duke and Villanova grabbed the tournaments four no. 1 seeds there are a few teams to look out for outside the game’s elite. Teams like Kansas, Virginia and Oklahoma all have a legitimate shot at making some noise in this year’s field. Further down that line of successful teams is one from Georgia State. Georgia State grabbed the 14 seed earning them a first round match-up against the big Bears from Baylor. There are a few intriguing points to be made regarding this match-up. First, both these teams are 24-9. Despite the difference in seeding, both these teams know how to win. Georgia State took care of business in the Sun Belt Conference championship beating Georgia Southern 38-36. 18 of those points came from ex-Louisville guard Kevin Ware.. yeah, that Kevin Ware. The kicker here is that Kevin Ware, despite transferring from Louisville to mid-major Georgia State, isn’t even close to being the best guard on the team. Georgia State features a pair of guards that may be among the best in the tournament.

R.J Hunter has been dominating college basketball for three years averaging over 17 points per game every year of his career. This year he averaged 19.8 points coupled with nearly 4 assists and 5 rebounds. This man scores.. alot, and he will be playing in the NBA next year. Hunter holds down the back-court with ex-Kentucky starter, Ryan Harrow, a senior who averages 18.7 points per game on 50% shooting. Ware is just a complement to the ridiculously high-scoring duo. In addition to these talented guards, Georgia State plays defense.They allowed only 62.2 points on 38% shooting this year. If these guards get hot, this game could end up a lot closer than the blow-out everyone will predict between the 3 and 14 seed.

Baylor relies on a gritty style of play, rebounding and getting points in the paint from their big men. This could spell trouble for Georgia State, but Baylor’s guards just may not have the talent to keep up with the experienced upperclassman backcourt of Georgia State.

Not many basketball fans have Georgia State on their radar, but with a roster containing transfers from some of college basketball’s most successful programs, expect this team to come to play. Vegas has this line at Baylor -8. If Baylor wins I think they win big so the line is not what’s attractive. The real appeal here is Georgia State winning this one out-right, ruining everyone’s bracket, in one of the biggest upsets of the tournament.

MSU comes to play in Big Ten Championship game

Sparty is getting seven points when they face off with the Wisconsin Badgers in the last game before the NCAA tournament field is announced. Fresh off a win against #8 Maryland, they look to continue playing team basketball while trying to make their case for a 5 seed which would likely bring their first game closer to home. A loss here could drop Michigan State to 7 seed territory where they could find themselves playing on the west coast. Wisconsin is playing for a 1 seed in this one, with Frank Kaminsky continuing to make his case for player of the year. I see a close, back and forth battle in this one with Michigan State having a chance to win outright. I’ll take the seven points and look for Sparty to shoot it well from 3-point range.

ON THE RECORD: Michigan State (+7) over Wisconsin

Memphis Mauls Milwaukee

Saturday will be dominated by the kids jockeying for NCAA tournament seeding, but for our third installment of our On The Record series we turn our eye to the big leagues. The Milwaukee Bucks travel to Memphis losers in 7 of their last 10 contests including an overtime loss to the Pacers Thursday night. In that game they found success on the dribble drive of MCW and his ability to get to the free throw line and finish. Look for that to be a problem tonight against the well rested Memphis Grizzlies who come off a loss at Washington where they sat their starters. They should come in fresh tonight with their starters last playing on Wednesday, where they also dropped a game in Boston. Memphis should be highly motivated to get back on the winning track after dropping two straight on the road against Eastern Conference teams. Although questionable, Mike Conley could return tonight to help stifle a Milwaukee offense that sometimes settles for a night full of 3-point shooting. Either way, the NBA’s best front court in Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph should be able to impose their will, especially on the offensive glass where I see Randolph doing the bulk of his work. The Grizzlies are giving up 6.5 points tonight, but i don’t see that being a problem.

ON THE RECORD: Memphis Grizzlies (-6.5) over the Milwaukee Bucks

What’s wrong with Lance?

Come on folks, Sir Lance-A-Lot, born ready…LANCE STEPHENSON TO THE HORNETS?!?! A move thought by many to change the balance of power in the Eastern Conference…seriously. The Indiana Pacers lost their leading rebounder and assist guy, couple that with the loss of Paul George and last year’s 1 seed in the East seemed to be doomed. LeBron left the Miami Heat for greener pastures…poor word choice for Cleveland, I know. The point is the top tier teams in the East crumbled this offseason giving way to teams that began to emerge as last season waned. The Wizards young backcourt, the Hawks Spur-like basketball, WE THE NORTH and of course the lovable Michael Jordan owned Charlotte Hornets seemed poised to take that next step. Arguably the biggest free agent splash made by any of the aforementioned teams was bringing Lance Stephenson to the Hornets who were a budding defensive team that needed another punch on offense. Well…sitting a ½ game out of the playoffs the experiment seems to be blowing up in Michael Jordan’s face, but why?

First let’s take a look at the major differences between last year’s above .500 Hornets and this year’s…well terrible Hornets. This year’s net rating of -2.21 is 1.92 points worse than last year’s net rating of -.29, which was also not great, coming in at 16th in the NBA, which is where the club finished in the standings. This stat shows the comparison between a team’s offensive rating and defensive rating, or the points scored and allowed by a team per 100 possessions. So basically Charlotte is losing games by 1.92 points per 100 possessions making them a below average team, in fact the 21st ranked team in the league as net rating is concerned. The offensive rating of the Charlotte Hornets is the main concern in these numbers as they rank 29th in that particular category. Lance was brought in to run the fast break for this team and create in transition as he did for Indiana. The offensive punch he was supposed to bring has been adversely effective and is drowning the Hornets as they chase for the playoffs.

Born Ready has seen drops in every statistical category in regards to the offensive side of the ball. Most importantly his point total has dropped 5ppg, his rebounds have dropped 2.1rpg, his field goal percentage has dropped 12% and his 3pt shooting has dropped 19%. This has resulted in his offensive win shares, the measure of how many wins a player adds to his team, being a staggering -2.1 in relation to last year’s OWS of 2.6. The Hornets brought Lance in to be the guy they salivated over throughout last season when Lance was snubbed for an all star selection. He has cost his team 5 games in the win column in relation to the guy they were hoping to get. All these stats are good and well, but what is the reason that Lance is underperforming at a historic level this season?

So much of Lance’s success in Indy was predicated on grabbing defensive rebounds and galloping down the court. He was a one man fast break…literally, and thrived when he had the ball in his hands. He played 97% of his minutes at shooting guard, allowing him to handle the ball more often than not. This played to the strengths of Lance allowing him to show his creativity on the fast break and also in their half court sets. In Charlotte, Lance is playing 74% of his minutes at the 2 guard while the team has him playing minutes at the 3, guarding wing players when Kidd-Gilchrist is either out of the game or injured. Playing against a bigger man at the 3 could be a reason for the dip in rebounds which affects the amount of opportunities Lance has to run the fast break with the ball in his hands. His free throw attempt rate is also down as a result of this which seems to have affected the rate at which he making his free throws, shooting 62%, down 9% from last season. There needs to be something Charlotte can do to maximize the efficiency of a Lance Stephenson because right now he is hurting a team that was supposed to take a step forward this season. I think I know what needs to be done here.

PUSH THE BALL CHARLOTTE. Charlotte ranks 22nd in pace, meaning they like to slow the game down in half court sets. Although this is part of what makes a successful defense, running off defensive rebounds can improve your pace after your tough defense is played. Charlotte ranks 29th in the NBA when it comes to fast break points, with only 9.5% of their points being scored on the fast break. Averaging 95ppg this season, Charlotte is averaging roughly nine of them on the fast break. This is a staggering number for a team that brought Lance in because his strengths matched their weaknesses. Lance is being shut out on the defensive glass by his role in Charlotte’s system and the trickledown effect of that is less time with the ball, less time on the fast break and less time doing what he does best, improvising on the break with the ball in his hands. Now it may seem like I am defending Lance here. To a certain extent I am, but the frustration has boiled over into him shooting terribly, specifically from three point range where he has improved so much over the last few seasons. The season can still be saved with Charlotte sitting a ½ game out of the playoffs, but a one and done in the playoffs won’t be a success this year in regards to their expectations entering the season. You can quote me on the record saying Lance will not be in Charlotte next year.

The Running Back – De-Valued or De-Glamorized?

Welcome to the Buffalo Bills, LeSean McCoy! Wait…LeSean McCoy to the Buffalo Bills? Surprisingly, free agency has become a time of year where Bills fans can get excited. The new Pagula-owned Buffalo Bills have gone from pretenders at this time of year to…big spenders? Reason for optimism has hit a peak that is unrivaled in the past decade in the Western New York area with the man at the fore front being LeSean McCoy.

The devaluation of the Running back position and quite frankly the degrading of the position turns a blind eye to the opposite end of the argument. It has become trendy to ship off “aged” running backs and equally as trendy to limit spending at the position. I’m not too sure I buy into all this hype. The leading rusher in the NFL has led his team to the playoffs in three consecutive seasons and seven of the last 10 NFL seasons. In 2014, four of the top five rushers ran their teams to the postseason with McCoy being the only one not too, leading his team to a 10-6 record.  Also, four of those top five rushers were older than 26, including the leading rusher, Demarco Murray at 27 years old. At 26 years old, it is laughable to be critical of the Bills signing based on the Running Backs age. For a team that ranked 25th in rushing yards per game last season, the addition of LeSean McCoy looks to bolster a run game that should couple nicely with an elite defense.

In the last three NFL seasons, out of the top 5 teams in total rushing yards, 3 of 5 have made the playoffs twice and four of five made the playoffs once. Although improving your rushing offense doesn’t lock you into the playoffs, it sure gives you better odds then having an offense sputter due to poor production on the ground, which plagued Buffalo in the 2014 NFL season. Now some would say it takes more than a good running back to be able to move the chains on offense. Although there is validity to that statement, are we sure it is the sole reason for rushing success? In the 2013-14 NFL season the Minnesota Vikings ranked 6th in the league in run blocking. Take a look at that same unit in the 2014-15 NFL season and you will see that their production slipped from the 6th best run blocking unit to the 17th best…or worst, whichever way you want to look at it. Now there is one difference between these two seasons; Adrian Peterson was the running back for one and for one he was not. I’d like to think his absence had something to do with the 11 spot dip the Vikings O-line took this season. Let’s take a look at some of the lowest ranked offensive line units when it came to run blocking this year. The Buffalo Bills, New York Giants, San Diego Chargers and Atlanta Falcons all ranked in the bottom 6 when it came to run blocking in 2014. What do these four teams have in common? For one, they were injured at the RB position all season. Spiller and Jackson missed chunks of time and played through injury, Rashad Jennings missed a part of the season giving way to players like Peyton Hillis to run the ball, San Diego dealt with stretches where Ryan Mathews and Donald Brown couldn’t stay on the field and Atlanta just couldn’t find their guy with the declining Steven Jackson being a disappointment. The other end of the spectrum is glaring. The Dallas Cowboys, Philadelphia Eagles and Cincinnati Bengals all ranked in the top 6 when it came to run blocking coming in at 2, 1 and 6, respectively. These teams enjoyed consistency from their backfield with no significant injuries forcing them to dig into their depth charts or even into free agency. So what do I think a healthy LeSean McCoy can do for a 32nd ranked Buffalo Bills run blocking unit? I think he can bring something over from Philadelphia where they ranked 1st in run blocking; it is ludicrous to think that shady McCoy had nothing to do with the success of that offensive line. I think the Bills O-line will enjoy some consistency this season and with some attrition, could see themselves dramatically improved.

What I am trying to say here is that running the ball has simply become less glamorous, not less effective. The portrayal of the running back being a dying breed is simply that, a portrayal. All the above statistics show you that running the ball gets you into the playoffs and having a perennial top 5 running back to do it for you is all the better. The new found optimism for Buffalo Bills fans in this region is not only warranted, but backed by years of statistics.