Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Darrelle Revis

The Northwestern Wildcats basketball program has existed since 1901. In 1931 and 1939, they were the regular conference champions. According to the Helms Foundation (which, starting in 1939, was a panel of voters who declared one team a national champion each year based on their record as far back as 1901), they were they were the National Champions in 1931. The NCAA Tournament began in 1939. Since its existence, the Wildcats are the only major conference team to have never appeared in a single tournament game. The Northwestern Wildcats consistently rank among the bottom half of the Big Ten. They've had a total of two finishes above fourth place since World War II and none since 1968. They've played in the NIT six times, including 2009-2011. Last January, Drew Crawford stated that a fan came up to him and said, "You've gotta make the tournament this year." Crawford's response: "Yeah, haven't heard that before."

The strangest thing about Northwestern is that I can never remember them having a really bad team. Let's take a look at their last three seasons, the seasons when they went to the NIT. They've ended each season with winning records and yet still placed 9th, 7th, or 8th, respectively, in the Big Ten. All three years they unexpectedly knocked off at least one top team in the Big Ten (#7 Michigan State, #6 Purdue, and unranked-but-tournament-bound Michigan and Illinois). They have good players: seven players on their current roster are shooting higher than 40%, senior John Shurna, averaging 19.4 ppg and 6.0 rpg, is one of 50 seniors selected John R. Wooden Award and is currently a possibility for the Naismith College Player of the Year Award. The Big Ten has named him one of the top 10 players on the conference. Fellow senior Luka Mirkovic is a 6'11'' center averaging 8.3 ppg and junior Drew Crawford, the team's second highest scorer with 18.1 ppg and 5.0 rpg, scored 34 points in Northwestern's loss to Creighton earlier this week. If star forward Kevin Coble had remained on the team for his senior season last year,  Northwestern more-than-likely would have made the NCAA Tournament last year. But, as has often been the case for the Wildcats, fate intervened and it was simply not meant to be. Their non-conference schedule is always challenging and they perform well enough to leave the season with a winning record overall. So far this season, they're ranked 8th in apg, 89th in ppg, and 93rd field goal percentage. So why doesn't Northwestern make the tournament? Because they're a member of the Big Ten Conference.

The truth of the matter is, if Northwestern played in a different conference, they would have a much greater possibility of making the tournament. The Big Ten is consistently good, sending at least four teams to the tournament a year. Last year, six of the eleven schools (55%) made it. Take a look at the Tennessee Volunteers of the 2010-2011 season. They're members of the SEC, which sent five of their twelve teams (41%) to the tournament last season, and finished conference play 8-8, 19-14 before the tournament started, a .58 winning percentage and in 7th place. They entered the tournament as a #9 seed and lost to Michigan, who Northwestern beat earlier that year. Northwestern, on the other hand, finished conference play 7-11, 18-13 overall before entering the NIT, with a total winning percentage of .58. They placed 8th out of 12. The real difference between the two teams is conference play and it wasn't even that much of a difference. Because of the way the SEC is set up, Northwestern plays more games and therefore has more opportunities to lose and they're playing more teams that will eventually go to the NCAA Tournament themselves. In another conference, a team with Northwestern's record can and does go on to play in March. In the Big Ten, that's harder to do. Northwestern isn't a bad team; they're just always in a bad situation.

If Northwestern wants to make the tournament this year, they can't play average; their 'average' is what it would take for many teams to make the tournament, but not the Wildcats. They're playing in a league that currently has five ranked teams. If they want to make the tournament, the Wildcats can't just pull of one upset this season; they need to finish with a .500 or above record in the conference (to go along with their 10-2 non-conference record) and they need some wins over some ranked teams. The way for them to accomplish that is to finish games; Northwestern has always been an entertaining team to watch because, during the first half of every game they play against a ranked opponent, they stay close and make you think they can win. Then, in the second half, they either fail to make the appropriate adjustments or they run out of energy (or both) and lose. If they can play the second half like they play the first half, they can win. They can start that tonight by pulling an upset at #2 Ohio State.

Earlier this week, the selections for the Pro Bowl were announcers. The Pro Bowl is the all-star game of the NFL, pitting the best of the NFC against the best of the AFC. #24 Darrelle Revis was one of those selected for the AFC defensive team. He plays cornerback for the New York Jets and has made 51 tackles and 4 interceptions this season.

The Sports Nerd

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Roy Finch

In the 2004-2005 season, the Siena Saints finished 6-24. Fran McCaffery took over the Siena Saints in their 2005-2006 season, a year when they were projected to finish dead last in the MAAC. They also came up with major victories against cross-town rivalry, Albany, and against Niagara on Senior Day. That season their record was 15-13. Then 20-12. In 2009-2010, they set a school record 17 MAAC wins during their 27-7 season. Then McCaffery left and came to coach the Iowa Hawkeyes.

He's only been at Iowa for one season, but it already seems that he might be doing the same thing he did for the Saints to the Hawkeyes. Under Todd Lickliter, the 2009-2010 Hawkeyes finished 10-22, 4-14 in the Big Ten. Last season, they ended 11-20, 4-14 in the Big Ten, 10th place once again. But they also came up with two huge victories during the season - one was a twenty point victory win over Michigan State (which, in retrospect, wasn't as impressive as it might have appeared to be at the time) and a two point home upset over Purdue on Senior Day. These two victories strangely parallel Siena's two most significant victories during McCaffery's first season.

The Hawkeyes have started this season 8-5. They open up Big Ten Conference play Wednesday night at home against Purdue. According to, Iowa ranks higher than Purdue in rebounding, scoring, field goal percentage, and assists per game (all based on their games and opponents so far this season). The last time these two teams met, when Purdue was, in my opinion, a much stronger team, Iowa won. Iowa is stronger this season and Purdue is weaker; this should be a good game and I think Iowa has a good shot at winning. If McCaffery's second season at Iowa imitates his second season at Siena like his first season did, Iowa will improve this year. Admittedly, it's not hard to improve on an 11-20 season and I'm not suggesting that Iowa will be in the running for the Big Ten, but, under McCaffery, that could be a possibility within the next few years. The Saints were projected to finished dead last in the MAAC when McCaffery took over in 2005. By the time he left in 2010, they were coming off their third straight conference championship. Iowa was in a better starting position when McCaffery got them - 2nd to dead last - so who's to say McCaffery won't do the same for them?

Blog #22 is named after Roy Finch, the #22 sophomore running back for the Oklahoma Sooners football team, who has played in all but one game this season. On December 30, the Iowa Hawkeyes football team will play the #14 Oklahoma Sooners in the Insight Bowl. Oklahoma started their season 6-0 before dropping 3 of their last 6 games. They rank in the top 50 for passing yards, rushing yards, points scored, and points allowed (meaning they don't allow a lot). Iowa ranks in the top 50 for points allowed. Iowa is returning to the Insight Bowl for the second straight year and hoping to extend their Bowl winning streak to three against the pre-season #1 team.

I have to go,
The Sports Nerd

Miles Asafo-Adjei

Illinois entered the season unranked, worked their way into the rankings with nine straight wins, and worked their way back out after losing two of their last three games. Their 1-1 against ranked teams (defeating #18 Gonzaga and being defeated by #8 Missouri), and, though they are not ranked in the top 100 nationally for points, field goal percentage, rebounds, or assists according to, Ken Pomeroy has them making the NCAA tournament. Part of the reason they are projected to make the tournament is Sam Maniscalco.

Maniscalco played point guard for the Braves of Bradley University for three years and six games of his senior season, before a persistent ankle injury forced him to have surgery and miss the remainder of his final season at Bradley. After Bradley head coach Jim Les was fired, Maniscalco asked to be released to play elsewhere. Despite interest in both Iowa State and Indiana as well, Maniscalco decided to play as a graduate student for Illinois. The timing could not have been better for the Fighting Illini.

Illinois lost seniors Dimitri McCamey, Mike Tisdale, and Mike Davis, which meant losing 31.7 points out of the average 71.8 the Illini scored a game. The seniors were the leading scorers; the highest returning scorer was then-sophomore Brandon Paul, who averaged 9.2 ppg (which he has increased to 11.3 ppg so far this season). Before gaining Maniscalco, the Illini would have had one senior on the roster, walk-on Jean Selus, who, after joining the team in the 2010-2011 season, had played a grand total of five minutes. What's more, with the graduation of McCamey, the Illini lost their starting point guard. Their other option was true-freshman Tracy Abrams, who is playing 15.2 mpg and scoring 2.4 ppg. While Abrams is a 4-star recruit who's expected to lead the Illini in the future, for the time being he's a freshman who, like any other player, will benefit from playing time and some upperclassmen guidance. At the start of this season, Illinois desperately needed some senior leadership and an experience scorer on the team.

They found this player in Sam Maniscalco. At first glance, Sam Maniscalco appears to be a steady player on the Illinois Fighting Illini basketball team: he's 6'0'' and generously listed as 230 lbs, averages 10.6 ppg, 2.9 apg, and 27.8 minutes a game, and is an 89% free throw shooter. Steady, but not spectacular. But sometimes statistics don't tell the entire story. Maniscalco is the "glue-guy" that the Illini needed. He's not the leading scorer or rebounder, he doesn't play 39 minutes a game, but he fits in with fellow starters D.J. Richardson, Meyers Leonard, and Brandon Paul to create a balanced, well-rounder group of leaders for the Illini and provides the experience and guidance that this team, especially freshman point guard Tracy Abrams, will benefit and learn from.

#22 Miles Asafo-Adjei is a junior guard for the Cornell Big Red. He's averaging a career high 17.9 minutes this season as well as 3.8 ppg. He's from Antioch, TN, and is enrolled in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. Cornell is 4-6, but ranked in the top 50 for assists per game. They played both Illinois and Penn State this season and lost to both, by 4 and 7 respectively.

You can go now.
The Sports Nerd

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Jorge Brian Diaz

The Big Ten Conference is the oldest Division I college athletic conference. It was originally called the Intercollegiate Conference of Faculty Representatives and consisted of seven schools: Illinois, Northwestern, Chicago, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan, and Purdue. It became informally known as the Big Nine with the additions of Iowa and Indiana in 1899. Then Ohio State joined in 1912, Chicago left in 1946, and Michigan State joined in 1950. The Conference formally adopted the title the Big Ten in 1987. Penn State was the 11th school in the Big Ten in 1990 and, as of 2011, the Big Ten gained a 12th addition: the Nebraska Cornhuskers.

The Big Ten announced their decision to expand in December 2009. Though no number was set, many analysts speculated that the Big Ten was hoping to expand to 14 or 16 teams in order to increase the influence of the Big Ten Network and to establish a championship game in football (which they did...with disastrous results). Nebraska first petitioned to join the Big Ten in 1900 and then again in 1911 but was denied access both times. On June 11, 2010, they asked, again, for entry and this time they were accepted.

The Cornhuskers were previously members of the Big 12 Conference (ironically, their entrance to Big 10 brought the membership to twelve while their exit from the Big 12 was one of many changes that brought their membership to ten) and, before that, the Big 8 (which gained four new members to become the Big 12). The Big 10 wanted Nebraska for their football program - 5 national titles, 3 Heisman winners, .702 winning record all time - the basketball program just came with them.

Nebraska hasn't won a conference title since sharing the title with Kansas and Kansas State in 1950. They haven't won an outright title is 1916. They've appeared in the NCAA Tournament seven times in school history and are one of three BCS programs to have never won a single NCAA Tournament game (the others being Northwestern and South Florida). Their last March Madness appearance came in 1998, two years after their one and only NIT championship. They've played in the NIT five of the last ten years.

They've started this season 8-3, with losses to Oregon, Wake Forest, and #22 Creighton. According to, they are not in the top 125 nationally for rebounds, points, field goal percentage, or assists per game. According to Ken Pomeroy, they won't be make the NCAA Tournament this year either. Like football, they're first game will be against Wisconsin. Welcome to the Big Ten, Nebraska.

Since most fans of the Big Ten know little to nothing about Nebraska, this blog is titled after #21 on the Nebraska Cornhuskers, Jorge Brian Diaz. Diaz is a junior 6'11'' center from Puerto Rico. He's the teams second leading rebounder (4.9 rpg), scorer (10.9 ppg), and blocker (2.6); coming into this season, he is 10th on the Cornhusker's all time shot blocker list. Last season, the Cornhuskers were 14.3 when he scored in double figures.

Ta ta,
The Sports Nerd

Mike Bibby

Some times the non-conference schedule reveals a lot about a team. Sometimes it doesn't. The Purdue Boilermakers seem to fall into the latter category. They're 10-3 and they could easily be 15-4 (with wins against Iowa, Minnesota, Penn State, and Illinois and a loss to Wisconsin) in mid-January (though this means that the end of their Big Ten schedule will be tough). There's nothing remarkably impressive about their victories thus far. Half have come over teams with losing records, but also had two nice wins over Temple and Iona, both of whom have a chance at winning their leagues and making the tournament come March. They've played two ranked teams (#15 Alabama and #11 Xavier) and lost to both, as well as 6-7 Butler. They've played one game away from Mackey Arena (at Xavier). According to, they are not in the top 50 nationally for points, rebounds, assists, or field goal percentage, but ESPN doesn't have any way to rank defense and Purdue has always been a defense-oriented team. They're unranked in the polls, but Ken Pomeroy has them at 21. There's nothing about Purdue so far that indicates that they will pose their usual threat to the Big Ten this season. There's nothing that says they won't.

The big story so far this season for Purdue has been the return of Robbie Hummel. Hummel joined Purdue as a true freshman in the 2007-2008 season, during which he was the 2nd leading scorer and the leading rebounder on the team and was a first team All-Big Ten selection. Next season, he was made a co-captain of the team and led in rebounding again during a season when he missed five games due to back spasms and a broken vertebrae. During his junior season, Hummel once again led the team in rebounds and was 2nd in scoring when, on February 24, at Minnesota, he suffered an ACL tear near his right knee. He was once again named a first team All-Big Ten selection, but was forced to miss the NCAA tournament after having a season ending surgery, recuperation for which was supposed to be 4-6 months. Hummel expected to return with fellow teammates Et'Twaun Moore and JaJuan Johnson at the start of their senior season. The first practice of the season, Hummel tore the same ACL and took a medical redshirt.

He returned as a redshirted senior for the 2011-2012 season. Some analysts wondered how he would play after over a year without practice, coming off two knee surgeries. Now they know: very well. Hummel once again leads the team in rebounding (5.9 rpg) and also, for the first time in his career, in scoring (17.5 ppg). He's averaging 31 minutes a game and has the best assist:turnover ratio of his career right now. After almost three injury-plagued seasons, Robbie Hummel has returned for his senior season as a man with a mission: stay healthy and win. Other than a moment at the end of the Xavier game when he collapsed due to dehydration, he has done just that.

I've said the Purdue's fate this season is still uncertain. Robbie Hummel and his health is a huge X-factor in their conference play, but he might not be the only one. Unfortunately, Purdue's schedule thus far hasn't given me a lot to go on as to determining what those other factors could be. Purdue is typically a very dangerous team; this is the first time in four years they came into the season unranked. Their past non-conference schedules are very similar to their schedule this season with similar results. Chances are, Purdue will once again be a competitive team.

Today is the start of the NBA season and the first game today is the New York Knicks vs the Boston Celtics. #20 Mike Bibby is a point guard for the Knicks, who lost 4 out of 5 pre-season games to the Dallas Mavericks. Bibby played college basketball at the University of Arizona and was drafted as the 2nd overall pick in 1998 by the Vancouver Grizzlies. He's since played for Sacramento, Atlanta, Washington, and Miami before joining New York for the 2010-2011 season, where he averaged 28.6 minutes and 8.7 points per game.

So long,
The Sports Nerd

Saturday, December 24, 2011

John Jett

A tale of two teams. A slight alteration of Charles Dickens' famous novel sufficiently describes the difference between this season's Michigan State Spartans and that of last seasons. After back-to-back Big Ten championships and Final Four runs, the 2010-2011 Spartans finished the Big Ten 9-9, tied for 4th, and desperately searching for a win to make it to it's 14th straight NCAA tournament, which they found over Purdue in the Big Ten tournament, before losing in the first round to UCLA, ending one of the most disappointing basketball seasons in recent school memory. That does not appear to be the case with the 2011-2012 Michigan State basketball team.

After losing their first two games to then #1 North Carolina and #6 Duke, the Spartans have won their last eleven games, including an impressive win at #22 Gonzaga, who have a 92-7 record on their home court, during which senior forward Draymond Green scored a career high 34 points. The Spartans are ranked 6th nationally in rebounding, 12th in assists, 44th in points per game, and 51st in field goal percentage. After starting the season unranked, the Spartans are currently #20 in the country.

So what's the difference between the '10-'11 Spartans team and the '11-'12 one? There were the fundamental problems, of course. A typical MSU basketball team is defense-oriented with a strong post presence, which didn't happen. They're aggressive in rebounding and in loose balls, but that effort wasn't there either. But the fundamental problems stemmed from some larger issues. The first problem with last season's team began before they even set foot on the court: off-court distractions. The summer after their second straight Final Four run, Tom Izzo was heavily pursued by the Cleveland Cavaliers after head coach Mike Brown was fired. The weeklong drama included numerous visits to Cleveland and, finally, a late-night press conference announcing his refusal. The situation, though, planted some seeds of discomfort amongst the team in early July. The drama continued rolling in that summer when would-be senior Chris Allen was dismissed from the team for unspecified reasons and transferred to Iowa State. He would be joined in February by dismissed junior Korie Lucious. Meanwhile, senior captain and point guard Kalin Lucas, after deciding to return for his senior season, continued to struggle and recover from a torn achilles tendon suffered during the Final Four run, junior Delvon Roe fought through chronic knee pain, and redshirted freshman Russell Byrd had yet another foot surgery. As the Spartans were anything but stable off-the-court, they struggled to find stability on the court as well. 

Another major problem that factored into the team's struggles was the lack of leadership. Tom Izzo takes pride in having a player-coached team and, under Izzo, the Spartans have had many great leaders: Antonio Smith, Mateen Cleaves, Alan Anderson, Drew Neitzel, Travis Walton. Generally, team leadership (for any team) comes from people who are natural born leaders, talented, and experienced. Last year, the Spartans star senior, point guard Kalin Lucas, was not a leader. Izzo wanted him to be, but it wasn't in his personality to lead. Senior Durrell Summers also didn't have the gumption to lead nor did he have the kind of playing season that would inspire his teammates. The person who did have the natural ability to lead was junior Draymond Green. So last year's team faced another dilemma: to follow the leadership of a senior point guard who didn't want/know how to lead, or to follow the guy who wanted to lead, but was forced to take a backseat to the seniors. Ultimately, no decision was made.

Last year's team wasn't a team. Players, seniors in particular, focused on playing for the names on the back of their jerseys rather than the name on the front. There was no chemistry, too many distractions, and a sense of entitlement coming into the season, ranked #2 in the country after back-to-back Final Four runs. It's not secret that I'm a huge Spartan fan. My father is a bigger Spartan fan. We turned the games off. We couldn't watch. 

That's not the case with this year's team. No dismissals. No NBA flirtations. No injured players. The players aren't selfish (17.5 apg, 12th nationally). Draymond Green is the undisputed leader of the team. They hustle, they rebound, they play in the post. They started the season under the radar and have had to prove themselves to get ranked. The difference between the two Spartans' teams shows how important leadership, effort, and team chemistry is to the game. The skill level of teams isn't dependent on the amount of talent in each individual player; it's what happens when they all play together.

This entry is in honor of John Jett, #19 punter on the 1999 Detroit Lions football team. He played college football at East Carolina University, spent 1993-1996 with the Dallas Cowboys, winning two Superbowls, and was with the Lions from 1997-2003. This was the Lions last team to make the playoffs. Until tonight. With their 38-10 victory over the San Diego Chargers, the Lions have clinched their first playoff berth in 13 years.

The Sports Nerd

Friday, December 23, 2011

Peyton Manning

Last year, I predicted that the Penn State Nittany Lions would make the NCAA tournament (and I was right). I won't be making that prediction this year. The Nittany Lions are currently unranked with an 8-5 record, but don't let their victories fool you. PSU has played five above .500 teams; they've lost to four of them. Their wins have come against 0-11 Hartford, 1-10 Mount St. Mary's, 3-8 Bradford, and 4-6, Cornell, to name a few. In the Big Ten, Penn State ranks dead last in field goal percentage (39%), points per game (64.0), and assists per game (11.9). Their poor performance this season hasn't been entirely under their control, however. They've had a lot of distractions.

The first of these distractions came May 23, 2011, when Head Coach Ed DeChellis announced he would be leaving his alma mater and taking the head coaching job at Navy. DeChellis started at PSU in 2003. During his eight seasons there, DeChellis won the NIT championship (2009), was named Big Ten Coach of the Year in 2009, and gained an NCAA tournament bid last season for the first time in ten years. Despite this, the school denied DeChellis' plea to provide one of DeChellis' assistants (the lowest paid in the Big Ten) a salary increase as well as his request for a contract extension. Feeling unwanted and unsure of his standing at the school, DeChellis took a $200,000 pay cut and left for Navy. He was replaced by Pat Chambers, who is in his 3rd year of coaching after a successful season at Boston University, during which time his Terriers won their conference tournament, thereby earning a spot in the NCAA tournament.

Along with DeChellis, PSU's leading scorer and their all-around-do-everything man, Taylor Battle, graduated. Battle averaged 20.2 points during his typical 38.1 minutes per game, but statistics don't describe the role that Taylor Battle played for Penn State. Battle was PSU's Jared Sullinger/Draymond Green/Jordan Taylor, except he didn't have anyone else on his team to help him out. With his departure, PSU returned one starter, Tim Frazier, who, prior to this season, averaged 6.3 ppg; he's increased that to 17.2 points so far his junior season. The point of this is that, with the loss of head coach Ed DeChellis and the team's heart and soul, Taylor Battle, Penn State lost their identity after they were eliminated from the first round of the 2011 tournament.

Which brings me to another distraction for Penn State this season. PSU has always been a football school first, and, to be honest, a women's volleyball school second. Basketball ranked somewhere further down the line for the sports administration department. Even after the best season in ten years, Ed DeChellis couldn't find respect for himself and his program, which is why he left. As the team continues to falter this season, they lose more and more interest from the students and the administration, leading to a further downward cycle.

And really, the school could use some morale boosting from their basketball team right now. The final distraction for Penn State is probably the most obvious: the sex abuse scandal. I find it hard to believe that anyone doesn't know what this is about so I won't go into detail explaining it. I will say, though, that the loss of head football coach Joe Paterno after 46 years, the bad publicity, and the general horror of the events have put a lot of pressure and added stress on this basketball team.

To sum up, the Penn State Nittany Lions, with the exception of Tim Frazier, are not having a good season and it probably won't get any better this year. Pat Chambers, though, brought the Boston Terriers to their first NCAA tournament appearance in 9 years, only the 7th in school history, in his second season both at Boston University and as a coach. Tim Frazier is a junior and still has another year to go. Much like Indiana, chances are Penn State will be competitive again very soon.

I try to avoid using big names for the titles (with the exception of Ryan Braun, which shows how much I know about baseball), but Peyton Manning is #18 for the Indianapolis Colts. For anyone who doesn't know, the Colts are having a horrendous season. After finishing as ACF South division champions and playing in their 9th straight playoffs, the Colts are currently 2-13 and are expected to have the first pick in the upcoming draft. A big discussion topic right now amongst ESPN analysts is whether the Colts will keep 34 year old Peyton Manning (11x Pro Bowl team member, 5x First-Team All Pro Team, Super Bowl 2005 MVP, Colts all time career leader in career wins/passing touchdowns/pass attempts/pass completions/passing yards) as quarterback or select Standford's Andrew Luck with the first pick.

The Sports Nerd

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Drew Neitzel

Shane Ryan stole my idea. Earlier this month, Ryan posted an article entitled "Wisconsin: The Most Boring Team in America." I wouldn't have used those exact words (the sole purpose of which were to grab attention, which they did here, in Wisconsin) but the general concept is the same. Since I was planning to write this anyway and you might not feel like reading Ryan's whole article, I'm going to continue my plan and write this blog about the Wisconsin Badgers. Under Bo Ryan, Wisconsin plays a slow, defense oriented style of basketball. It works.

According to, Wisconsin isn't a top 100 team for average points, rebounds, assists, or field goal percentage per game. Their leading scorer is averaging a mere 12.3 points per game. They average 60.2 possessions a game, the 3rd lowest in the country, and rank 345 out of 345 for adjusted tempo, per Ken Pomeroy. They're also ranked number 1 in the country, per Ken Pomeroy.

Don't ask me to try and explain Pomeroy's reasoning behind this, because I can't do it. What I can tell you, though, is that the style of basketball that Wisconsin plays, every statistic mentioned above, is deliberate. Prior to the 2012 recruiting class, Ryan hadn't recruited a 5-star player since Joe Krabbenhoft in 2005. Wisconsin doesn't play for flash and pizazz; they play for efficiency and that's exactly what they end up with. They go back to basics: they cause fouls; they make free throws; and they run the shot clock down. They force the opponents to play good, solid defense and then they play tough defense at the other end of the court. Wisconsin intends to be ranked dead last for adjusted tempo; that's their strategy. It's far easier to slow a game down than to speed it up and when Wisconsin forces other teams to play at their speed, they frustrate their opponent.

Their game plan works. In their 3-point loss to North Carolina, they held the 4th highest scoring team in the nation, averaging 86.1 ppg, to 60 points. This is why Wisconsin has been so effective under Bo Ryan during conference play, acquiring 3 regular season championships, 2 conference tournament championships, and appearing in 13 straight NCAA tournaments (10 under Ryan). They're currently ranked 13 (or 14, depending on the poll) in the nation and will be a definite threat to the Big Ten this season. As always.

Today's blog is named after former Michigan State point guard, Drew Neitzel. Neitzel was the 2004 Mr. Basketball for the state of Michigan. He's ambidextrous, winning a two-handed dribbling competition at age 12. He played for the Spartans from the 04-05 season to 07-08, becoming the school's all-time leader in career free-throw shooting at 87%. Proving that the Wisconsin method of basketball is not always effective, Neitzel's best collegiate game came against Wisconsin, one day after their first (and last) #1 ranking in school history was announced, during which he scored 28 points. After spending 3 years in Europe, Neitzel was put on the 2011-2012 Dallas Mavericks roster with jersey #17.

Be back soon,
The Sports Nerd

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Bob Lanier

The Minnesota Golden Gophers are currently 11-1, ranked 14th in field goal percentage (50%), and scoring an average of 71.1 points per game despite the fact that their leading scorer, and the apparent heart and soul of the Gopher team, is finished for the season (and likely finished at Minnesota) because of a torn ACL, but more on that later. Minnesota has won the last 6 games since their star was injured and, as is the case with Minnesota seemingly every season, appears to be in an excellent position to enter conference play. They're unranked.

I've said before that most teams from the major conferences work up to conference play with easier opponents, during which time they establish team chemistry, settle on rotations, and develop some confidence. Most teams will also schedule several games against traditionally challenging opponents as well, though, in order to compare themselves to more talented teams, challenge themselves, and prepare themselves for the type of play they will face in their conference and when/if they play in March. Minnesota is one of two Big Ten teams to play no ranked opponents prior to the Big Ten season, which is why they are still unranked.

This isn't unusual for Minnesota. Since Tubby Smith took over as head coach in 2007, there's been a distinctive pattern and relationship between their pre-conference and conference play. Take a look at their non-conference results, the results for their first 12 conference games, and their yearlong results:
2007-2008 Non-Conference: 11-1 Conference: 5-7 Final Results: 20-14 Tournament: No
2008-2009 Non-Conference: 12-0 Conference: 7-5 Final Results: 22-11Tournament: Yes
2009-2010 Non-Conference: 9-3 Conference: 5-7 Final Results: 21-14 Tournament: Yes
2010-2011 Non-Conference: 11-1 Conference: 5-7 Final Results: 17-14 Tournament: No
2011-2012 Non-Conference: 11-1
Minnesota has a history of scheduling easy non-conference games only to falter when conference play begins. They have yet to win a game in the NCAA tournament under Tubby Smith. Unfortunately for Minnesota, history tends to repeat itself and seems to be on track to do so again this year.

Adding to Minnesota's woes is the injury of Trevor Mbakwe. Mbakwe averaged 15.3 points and 8.7 rebounds last season, making 2nd team all Big Ten. This year, he was averaging 28.7 minutes, a team high 14.0 ppg, and a team high 9.1 rpg before he tore his right ACL in the Gophers' one loss to Dayton. He's set to undergo ACL surgery, which will keep him out for the remainder to the season and, as a 5th year senior academically, effectively end his college basketball career. The Gophers have not spiraled down since the loss of Mbakwe, as many analysts expected, but, for the Gophers, the worst (ie, most difficult competition) is yet to come. If they continue on the path they are currently on and find someone to replace Mbakwe, Minnesota could be a threat to the Big Ten this season. If they follow their usual pattern, they'll be fighting to simply make it to March.

Bob Lanier is a Hall of Fame NBA player for both the Milwaukee Bucks and the Detroit Pistons, the two teams that I consistently root for (my allegiance for other teams depends on whose playing for them. At the moment, in addition to those two, I support the Mavericks, the Suns, and anyone who plays the Heat. In case you were at all interested). Lanier played college basketball at St. Bonaventure University in New York, was drafted by the Pistons in 1970, and traded to the Bucks in 1980, where he remained until he retired in 1984. He's an 8x NBA All-Star, the NBA All-Star game MVP in 1974, and the winner of the J. Walter Kennedy Citizenship Award, an award for outstanding service to the community, in 1970. His #16 jersey is retired by both teams he played with.

Have a good one!
The Sports Nerd

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Kelley Washington

While Indiana has the best record of any team in the Big Ten so far this season, the undisputed leader of the Big Ten is predicted to be the Ohio State Buckeyes. After winning the Big Ten conference championship and the Big Ten tournament, the Buckeyes entered the NCAA tournament last year as a number 1 seed, the favorite to win, and lost in the sweet sixteen. This year, they've returned with a chip on their shoulders and a sense of determination to redeem themselves.

They're doing a pretty good job so far. Ranked #2 in the nation, the Buckeyes are 10-1, shooting 50%, and averaging 18.3 assists per game, the 9th best assist average in the country. They're winning their games by an average of 26.3 points. Like Indiana, many of their victories have come against small mid-major teams. On the other hand, they beat #4 Duke by 22 and #8 Florida by 7. They lost to #13 Kansas by 13. Their one loss came without Jared Sullinger, whose presence provides the identity of the Ohio State team.

Don't get me wrong: OSU has a roster full of talented players. Sophomore forward Deshawn Thomas has more than doubled his 7.5 ppg from last season and is contributing 15.9 this season, sophomore guard Aaron Craft leads the teams in assists with 5.3 per game, and the team is led by captain and senior William Buford. But sophomore forward Jared Sullinger is this team. He leads in both points per game (16.6) and rebounds per game (9.3) and is loaded with talented; the mock NBA draft 2012 has him as the 5th overall selection, going to the Sacramento Kings. To emphasize just how important Sullinger is to this team, take a look at their games with and without him.

Sullinger played the first seven games of the season, scoring anywhere between 14 and 27 points in seven victories. After their victory over Duke on November 29, Sullinger began suffering from back spasms, practicing only periodically over the next two weeks and missing two games - one to Texas-Pan American, which the Buckeyes won by 29, and one to Kansas, which they lost by 11. He returned on December 14 to play against USC Upstate, which the Buckeyes won handily despite only having only 12 points from Sullinger, and started against South Carolina, only to go down after 6 minutes and 3 points with an injured tendon. OSU won that game as well, but only 8 and only in the last 2 minutes of the game. OSU won their first seven games by an average of 29.2 points. Since Sullinger's back spasms began, the Buckeyes have been winning by an average of 12.5 ppg.

I am by no means trying to take anything away from OSU's basketball team. They're really, really good. They're also much better when Jared Sullinger is healthy. Sullinger hasn't had the best start to the season, health-wise. I hope, for his sake, that the back spasms go away and the tendon problem is nothing serious because, even though it'd be easier for the rest of the teams in the Big Ten to beat OSU without Sullinger, it'd be a lot more satisfying to beat them with him. And he's a blast to watch - he's really, really good too. As I write this, OSU is playing Lamar (who?) and winning by 14. Sullinger is currently 1-4, with 4 points and 5 rebounds.

Today's post is entitled after Kelley Washington (whose real first name is James, middle name is Kelley), number 15 on the 2007 New England Patriots. He played college football at the University of Tennessee before being drafted by the Cincinnati Bengals in the 3rd round of the 2003 draft. He played wide receiver for the Bengals from 2003-2006, for the Patriots from 2007-2008, for the Ravens in 2009, and currently plays for the San Diego Chargers. His 2007 Patriots team was the last team to have an undefeated conference season in the NFL and will remain so for at least another year.

The Sports Nerd

Jalen Courtney

I'd like to be able to say that I have enough knowledge to somewhat intelligently talk about most teams in college basketball right now. That would be a lie. I simply don't have enough time (or enough TV channels) to catch all the games during the week. As a consequence, I admit that, nationally, I only know the big sports stories around the country. On the other hand, anyone who has read this blog before knows that I'm a Michigan State fan and follow Big Ten sports quite passionately. While I can't provide much insight for basketball teams from the SEC or ACC, I pride myself on being pretty knowledgable on the happenings in the Big Ten. As a result, I'm going to do something I've never done before and, in the days leading up to the start of conference play, I'm going to write a blog for each Big Ten team, focusing on their 'big' story of the season thus far and taking a look at how their season has been going. Big Ten men's basketball conference play begins on December 27. That gives me approximately 7 1/2 days to come up with 12 blogs. Let's go.

I'll start with the only undefeated team left in the Big Ten - the Indiana Hoosiers. Yesterday, I caught the tail end of their game against Howard University. The point differential was 57. A score such as this hasn't been unusual for Indiana in the last few years; they haven't had a winning season since 07-08 and their last three seasons they've finished 6-25, 10-21, and 12-20 and, rest assured, there were some hardy blowouts in there. What made this game so astonishing wasn't so much the final score, but the fact that it was Indiana who won by 57.

As I mentioned, the last few years have been quite tumultuous for the Hoosiers, but their problems started before the 2008 season. To understand the significance of this win (and others this season), you should probably go back to 1971, the year Bobby Knight first began coaching at Indiana. Under Knight, the Hoosiers were Big Ten Conference champions 11 times, reached the Final Four 5 times, and won 4 national championships. They were undefeated in conference play from 1974-1976 and lost only one game outside of conference during that time as well; the 1976 Hoosiers basketball team is the last NCAA team to finish with an undefeated season. Under Knight, Indiana became a basketball powerhouse.

At the same time, however, Knight was one of the most controversial coaches in NCAA history. During his time as Indiana's coach, he famously threw a chair onto the court during a game, to give one example (out of many) of his out of control temper. In May 2000, the school adopted a "zero tolerance" policy for Knight after a video of him choking a former player was aired on CNN. By September that same year, numerous complaints were filed against Knight for breaking the zero-tolerance policy and, after Knight refused to resign, he was fired.

Indiana has not yet regained their former glory. Since 2000, they've gone through 4 coaches and reached the NCAA tournament only 6 times, winning one game or less in 5 of those years. Tom Crean became the head coach in 2008 after Kelvin Sampson was fired for recruiting violations. That season was the worst in school history. Crean made due with 2 returning players, one on scholarship. They finished dead last in the Big Ten. The following year, adding 4 top 100 recruits to the roster, Indiana finished tied for 10th. Last year, Crean's Indiana defeated their first ranked opponent (Illinois) and followed with an encore six days later (Minnesota) only to finish last in the Big Ten again.

This season, Crean added 3 five star players to his roster. Yesterday, they defeated Howard University by 57. On December 10, in a game that was not nearly as close as the final score shows, they upset #1 Kentucky on a buzzer beating 3 point shot from Christian Wafford, their first victory over a number 1 team since 2001. They're 11-0; last time they started a season this well, they won the national championship.

That's not to say that I expect Indiana to win the national championship; if they do, I promise to put on a gorilla costume (and my family has one) and run around the neighborhood handing out candy. Don't get your hopes up. They're undefeated but, like most teams in the nation, their pre-conference games haven't been the most challenging, Kentucky game aside. They've beaten Notre Dame (which sounds great but the 8-5 team isn't the same as it has been in past years), Butler (who has a similar story to Notre Dame, though did just beat Purdue), North Carolina State during the Big Ten-ACC challenge, and a number of unknown mid-major programs (does anyone know where Howard University is?). The Big Ten schedule is going to be much harder than their out-of-conference schedule. Up until this year, though, Indiana was losing these out-of-conference games to these nobody colleges. And not just losing - they were getting pulverized. Most teams set up easy out-of-conference games, with one or two exceptions, in order to beef up their resume and establish some team chemistry. You're supposed to win most of them. Indiana is finally doing that.

The good news for Indiana is, despite some easy non-conference games, they are a good team, as the Kentucky game demonstrated. They're also underrated. They're shooting 52%, 4th best in the nation, and averaging 85 ppg, 7th best in the nation. They're one of six remaining undefeated teams and yet they're ranked 18, behind several 1 and 2 loss teams, with substantially better wins than most of them. They should be ranked higher, but sometimes it's better to fly under the radar a little bit. Voters in the coaches poll are hesitant to rank them higher because of their miserable past 3 seasons but my prediction is that soon Indiana will be a definite threat. Eventually, coaches and spectators will have to acknowledge that Tom Crean is bringing Indiana basketball back and, with the incoming recruiting class of 2012 ranked 8th in the nation, it appears that he's bringing them back to stay.

I haven't done one of these in a while, but here is something for you to watch. The State Street Singer's performed an NFL-inspired version of the "12 Days of Christmas"in Central Park, complete with cartoon drawings. It'll get you all set for the holidays.

Jalen Courtney is the player today's blog is named after. He's the #14 sophomore forward for the LSU tigers basketball team. I wonder, after football season, does anyone down at LSU have the energy to care about their 8-3 basketball team? But that's beside the point. Courtney is averaging 6.4 minutes per game this season, an improvement from the 4.8 last season. He's a 43% 3-point shooter but averages only 2.1 points per game. He did not play in LSU's victory over Marquette, dropping Marquette down from the ranks of the undefeated.

Over and out.
The Sports Nerd

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Austin Etherington

"The Heisman Memorial Trophy annually recognizes the outstanding college football player whose performance best exhibits the pursuit of excellence with integrity. Winners epitomize great ability combined with diligence, perseverance, and hard work. The Heisman Trophy Trust ensures the continuation and integrity of this award." This mission statement was taken from the official Heisman Trophy website. Today was the day when one of five finalists - Montee Ball (Wisconsin), Robert Griffin Junior III (Baylor), Andrew Luck (Stanford), Tyrann Mathieu (LSU), and Trent Richardson Junior (Alabama) - would be awarded the trophy, joining a group of 75 other outstanding football players who exhibited the same qualities (this is the 77th award, but the 2005 winner, Reggie Bush, forfeited and returned his in 2010 due to an investigation revealing broken NCAA policies). Robert Griffin Junior III won, the first player from Baylor ever to do so, and congratulations to him. Today might have been a very ironic day for this award to be given, though, considering all of the other events that happened. While one player was honored for excellence, dignity, integrity, and perseverance, two college basketball teams showed everything but dignity and integrity on the court, while one scandal has the potential to ruin the reputation of a baseball player who most people believed to have all of the qualities of a Heisman winner. 

Most people outside the state of Ohio don't realize the passion beneath the Cincinnati-Xavier rivalry but two schools within 10 minutes of one another are bound to develop some animosity and two upsets pulled by Xavier over No. 1 Cincinnati in 1996 and 2000 and Cincinnati's most recent win by 20 points have added fuel to the fire for both sides. Today, tensions burst. With 9.4 seconds remaining, last years Atlantic 10 player of the year, Xavier's Tu Holloway, and Cincinnati's Ge'Lawn Guyn appeared to have a heated conversation in front of Cincinnati's bench, at which point Xavier freshman Dezmine Wells, apparently backing up his teammate, shoved Guyn. Then all hell broke loose. Both benches joined in the scuffle. Cincinnati's Yancy Gates punched Xavier's Kenny Frease in the jaw and after he fell to the ground it appears that Cheikh Mbodj stomps on his face. The fight began long before the 9 second mark, though. 

Leading up to today's game, Cincinnati's Sean Kilpatrick said in an interview that Xavier's Tu Holloway - the Atlantic 10 player of the year in 2011 - wouldn't start for Cincinnati. Trash talking began during the National Anthem. Xavier guard Mark Lyons made some comments to the Cincinnati players on his way to the locker room at halftime with a 9 point lead. And it didn't stop when the referees were forced to call the game with 9.4 seconds remaining, allowing Xavier to leave with a 76-53 victory. In the post game press conference, Holloway called himself and his teammates gangsters - not thugs, but tough guys (if anyone can provide me with the distinction between thugs and gangsters I would be very appreciative). He added, "You don't let people disrespect you. That's what I'm about. I don't regret anything that happened." Cincinnati's Coach Mick Cronin addressed the issue head on in his post game conference, calling it "embarrassing", saying that some players need to "grow up", and that he was "going to decide who is on this team going forward." Here's my question, though: with all the tension leading up to the game, how did this escalate to the point where Kenny Frease had to crawl out of a mob of basketball players clutching his bloody face to avoid being trampled? The signs were there; why didn't one of the coaches or assistants or even one of the officials say, "Cool it" during the 39:50.6 minutes prior to this? 

My question isn't really the point of all this, though. What matters is what comes next: suspensions and a lot of hard work at restoring the national respect that both these programs lost because a few dumb players lost their tempers and humiliated themselves, their schools, and their sport for a petty rivalry (because, again, who outside of Ohio really cares about the Cincinnati-Xavier game?). 

Which leads me to my second topic. This is breaking news, so I don't have a whole lot to go on at this point (and hopefully it'll all be false anyway so this paragraph will be completely irrelevant). Today Ryan Braun, the face of the Milwaukee Brewers franchise and the National League MVP tested positive for performance enhancing drugs and faces a 50-game suspension in 2012. A urine sample in October revealed elevated levels of testosterone and a later test revealed the testosterone to be synthetic. Braun plans to appeal the suspension, something that no suspended player has successfully overturned as of yet, claiming it to be B.S. And I hope it is. One of the best things about sports is the role models that it provides. Up until now, Ryan Braun has not only been a tremendously gifted athlete, but also a stand out person, a combination that seems to be much too rare amongst professional sports. For baseball in particular, Braun seemed like the start of the post-steroids generation, a fresh slate for the sport. I'd like to think, and I know I'm not the only one, that's it's possible to be an MVP without taking performance enhancing drugs, that people can accomplish great things on talent alone. It gives people hope. 

Someone recently asked me what the significance of sports was. Ironically, it was right after I wrote my previous blog, where I praised Tim Tebow as a person and a role model. I love sports, but I realize that it's not a matter of life-or-death. No football game is ever going to lead to a cancer cure, no war will be resolved by a basketball score. In the end, it's not the scores that matter, but what happens off the court and how people react to those situations. I think the importance of sports comes from days and dilemmas like the ones many athletes and coaches are facing today. Sports brings out the best in people - people like Tim Tebow and Robert Griffin III. It shows the value of hard work, how to win and lose with dignity and class, how to be a team player, and it brings people together as a community with a common goal and a common interest. It can also bring out the worst in some people and when that happens, people are challenged to find ways to handle situations, move on, and learn from them. But isn't that how everything in life is? In politics, for every Ronald Reagan there is a Rod Blagojevich. For every Jonas Salk in science we get a Josef Mengele. In sports, for every Tim Tebow there is a Ben Roethlisberger. Nothing's perfect. An ugly street brawl erupts on the court, an MVP tests positive for drugs, and five players are honored for excellence and integrity. Take the good and the bad, because you can learn something either way.

Today's blog features Indiana's Austin Etherington, a freshman forward for the men's basketball team. He did not play in Indiana's buzzer beating victory over No. 1 ranked Kentucky today, the 6th victory in team history over a No. 1 ranked team, the first since 2002, and the 8th straight victory for Tom Crean's undefeated Hoosiers. He did get 5 minutes and 2 rebounds in their victory over Stetson, though. 

I'm leaving now.
The Sports Nerd