The popular narrative for the NBA Finals that just concluded is pretty straightforward: The San Antonio Spurs “play basketball the way it’s supposed to be played,” and they beat the star-studded Miami Heat in what Zach Lowe called “the triumph of the NBA’s beautiful game.” The Spurs’ offense whipped the ball around, and Miami couldn’t handle such a multifaceted attack. The Heat, on the other hand, were forced to rely on what is increasingly becoming their Big One. LeBron James was epic throughout the playoffs and had an MVP-quality performance in the finals, but the top-heavy Heat collapsed under their own weight.A variety of statistics back up this description of the difference between the two teams, if not the normative judgment. For example, the Spurs had nine different players take four or more field goal attempts per game throughout the playoffs, compared to just six for Miami. More advanced statistics show something similar.One stat we can use to see how much offensive responsibilities are being spread around is “usage rate,” which estimates the percentage of a team’s possessions that were “used” by a particular player. Possessions are “used” by making field goal attempts, getting fouled or turning the ball over. Players such as James, Kevin Durant and Carmelo Anthony typically “use” a lot of possessions because they handle the ball a lot, take a lot of shots and play a lot of minutes. And because there are only so many possessions to go around, one player’s high usage rate means fewer scoring opportunities for his teammates. Teams like the Spurs, however, spread the ball around more, and more players get significant minutes, so they have a more flat distribution of possessions used.Here’s a look at how top-heavy NBA teams were in 2014, with the Spurs and Heat singled out:The x-axis on this graph is a player’s rank in a team’s usage rate, and the y-axis is the difference between the number of possessions that player used per game and the number used by the player with the highest rate. The lower the line, the more evenly a team distributes its chances across its players.Depending on how deep down the roster you look, the Heat are between the second- and fourth-most top-heavy team, while the Spurs are one of the most balanced. So that backs up the narrative.On the other hand, spreading the ball around isn’t easy, and it’s not the normal path to victory in the NBA. The most top-heavy team (and the top line on the chart) is the Oklahoma City Thunder, who had the second-best record in basketball and did better against this Spurs team than Miami did. The most evenly distributed team overall was the Brooklyn Nets, who did make the playoffs but lost in five games to the Heat.The Spurs won a lot more than we would expect for a team as balanced as they are. The 15 teams with the largest gaps between their top player and their eighth player (by possessions used per game) won 57.5 percent of their games, while the 15 with the smallest gaps won 42.5 percent (the Spurs were second-lowest).Of course, not all sharing is created equal: Sometimes a team has a more equitable distribution of possessions because it has a lot of talent and it needs to incorporate it all. Sometimes it does it because it has very little talent and doesn’t have anyone it can consistently rely on. Likewise, being top-heavy can be a result of having an overly ambitious shooter on a team, or it can just be that a team has a great player doing his job.
Wide receiver Derrick Mason appears ready to head into retirement as a member of the Baltimore Ravens.Derrick Mason retired from football five months ago, but it appears that he now wants to do so as a member of the Ravens.The Ravens are holding a press conference today at 3 p.m. that will include former WR Derrick Mason, general manager Ozzie Newsome and coach John Harbaugh. Mason, 38, is the Ravens’ all-time leading receiver, piling up 5,777 yards and 471 receptions with the franchise. He played with the Ravens from 2005-2010.Derrick Mason was released by the Ravens before the 2012 season. He decided to join the New York Jets instead of re-signing with the Ravens that season and was eventually traded to the Houston Texans.
I would have included Cutler initially, but I had a “problem” with his curve: It was coming out as a perfectly straight line, virtually indistinguishable from the y=x guide (a highly unlikely outcome). I thought this might have been a data problem, but it turns out Cutler’s results really were just too vanilla for the method I was using to pick up the variation. So I tried an alternate method that is more sensitive to small variation.10It turns out the issue was a quirk of the smoothing method I was using. The geom_smooth() function in R was using a GAM model, which “fits” what order of polynomial to use as well as what values to use for each argument. In Cutler’s case, the curve was flat enough that it was choosing to use a linear function.) So to get more contour, I tried using a different method (forcing the smooth to use a local regression — or “loess” in R. The alternate method turned out to be less sensitive to large variation as well, so I was able to plot a couple more notable quarterbacks as well as Cutler:Russell Wilson — like his comrade Andrew Luck — has a very impressive curve so far in his career, albeit over a sample still probably too small for this analysis. (He also gets very good support from a strong team around him.)Cutler’s curve is still remarkably unremarkable, but at least it shows up. He appears to do slightly above average regardless of the circumstances. As a special treat for Bears fans who had to wait two weeks — and because I wanted to see what was going into this virtually straight line — I’ve broken down Cutler’s curve by quarter, and compared each to the same breakdown for Peyton Manning (our standard-bearer for such things):Being very far ahead or behind in the first quarter is rare, so you should take the tails of that quadrant with a grain of salt. In the second and fourth quarters, Cutler seems to outperform average in a pretty uniform way, and in the third-quarter he has a bit of a reverse-Matthew Stafford thing going on.Most empirically significant game of this weekThe Cardinals’ matchup against the defending champion Seahawks is a pretty big test for the team with the league’s best record.But on top of that, the Cardinals have a lot of important parts coming and going, which is always empirically significant: Their top QB (Carson Palmer) is out. Last week, Cardinals backup Drew Stanton held off the Detroit Lions’ Stafford at the end of the game, but the Cardinals still struggled. Leading for most of the game, they rushed 26 times, but gained only 46 yards. And their top receiver, Larry Fitzgerald, is injured but may play anyway. As demonstrated in the article on Moss, the value of top-notch WRs can affect our broader understanding of the game.And then there are the Seahawks — who were young powerhouses last year, but are possibly already in decline — and Russell Wilson, who last year averaged 33.7 yards rushing per game. That’s by far the most of any QB in a year his team won the Super Bowl — and he’s averaging 57.1 per game this year. What “running” quarterbacks mean for the game is a fascinating open question. A lot of newer, fancier QB-rating systems are giving QBs a lot of credit for their scrambling (often much more than if you treated those plays the same as completed pass attempts). But while those individual plays can be valuable, there haven’t been a lot of dynamic offenses built around running QBs, and it’s still unclear whether this is just a bonus skill or whether it will be a necessity in the future NFL.It’s perhaps even more valuable to see Wilson in action with the Seahawks struggling a bit (it can also be harder to isolate an individual player’s contributions when a team is firing on all cylinders). He’ll be tested against a Cardinals defense that grades out as one of the best in the NFL this year — a perfect opportunity to see what both are made of.Reminder: If you tweet questions to me @skepticalsports, there is a non-zero chance that I’ll answer them here.Charts by Reuben Fischer-Baum. The first 10 games of the NFL season are its exposition period — we get to know the characters and themes that we expect to see develop as the race to the playoffs unfolds.1That leaves only two stages left, development and recapitulation — meaning the season is finally one-third over! This year, like nearly every other in the past decade, the New England Patriots’ refusal to regress to the mean is a central storyline.Remember back when the Patriots were 0-1 and faced a must-win in Week 2? Well, they won. Then in Week 4 they dropped to 2-2, and the end of an era was supposedly nigh. Except no. Pats will be Pats, and now they’ve won their last six games en route to the best record in the AFC. That streak has included comfortable wins against the Cincinnati Bengals (who at one point projected to have the best record), the surprisingly strong Buffalo Bills, and Peyton Manning and Andrew Luck. (The Patriots are also tied with the Green Bay Packers for a league-leading point differential). And according to my colleague Neil Paine, the Patriots are really a second-half team. I shudder to think.But there’s another storyline that’s dominated the exposition period: The best record in the NFL belongs to the 9-1 Arizona Cardinals. While they’ve beaten some decent teams like Dallas, Philadelphia and San Francisco, they don’t have what the yakkers call a “signature” win. They have only the seventh-best SRS2Simple Rating System, or margin of victory adjusted for strength of schedule. in football, second to the Packers in the NFC, and only a half-point ahead of the defending champion Seattle Seahawks (who have four losses).Aside from being the class of their respective conferences so far this year, the two franchises have little in common. The Cardinals have now secured their second winning season in a row — and can count that as an accomplishment in light of their 90-year history of losing. Although the Patriots’ dominance of the regular season continues apace, they will likely be disappointed if they don’t win their first Super Bowl in 10 years.To illustrate just how divergent these two franchises have been, I created a chart to show the entire history of the NFL (or at least what we have stats for). This is the cumulative regular-season point differential since 1920, for all teams (with the Patriots and the Cardinals highlighted):The current Patriots dynasty is lengthy and steep, and belongs in the same group as the San Francisco 49ers of the 1980s, the Cleveland Browns of the ’50s and ’60s, or the Chicago Bears of the ’30s and ’40s (especially when you factor in league parity).That chart is fun, but it would be a lot more useful if we could make out all 81 NFL franchises individually. Well …Chart of the weekThanks to the great work of designated Skeptical Football charts guru Reuben Fischer-Baum, you can do just that. Roll over a line to see the team’s entire history, and move along the line to see exactly how many points it has scored compared to its opponents at a given point. You can also click on a team to keep its line highlighted, and then roll over another team for comparison. Irrelevant dates (where no regular-season games were played) are excluded from the timeline.Here are a couple of things I found from the interactive that I thought were interesting:Even more Aaron RodgersFirst, Aaron Rodgers — apparently unmoved by my ongoing criticism of his failure to throw more interceptions3Of course, Rodgers throwing eight touchdowns in the first half over the past two weeks isn’t helping resolve the issue. For any skill level, win-maximization may call for “risky” strategic adjustments in certain scenarios. So while Rodgers keeps looking better and better, the Hacker Gods are remaining silent on his ability to make those adjustments. — is absolutely tearing it up this year (at least when his team is ahead, which is most of the time lately). Recently, he accomplished something pretty cool that I didn’t know about:On Sept. 25, 2011, Rodgers threw three touchdown passes as the Green Bay Packers beat the Chicago Bears 27-17. With that result, the Packers had scored 2,991 more points than their opponents all-time, ahead of the Bears’ 2,989 — and the Packers haven’t looked back. As of last Sunday, Green Bay held the NFL’s best historical margin of victory by 358 points.Comment of the weekLast week Neil Paine and I wrote an article titled “Randy Moss May Well Have Been The Greatest Receiver Of All Time” — which focused on the insane “With Or Without You” stats that Moss put up in his career. In the discussion, we raised the possibility that if receivers can have as much of an impact as Randy Moss appeared to have, that may cast doubt on some previous knowledge — like how good of a quarterback Joe Montana was considering he had Jerry Rice running routes for so long.A few different people in the comments and elsewhere raised the point that Joe Montana had already won two Super Bowls before Jerry Rice arrived in San Francisco:Upon further consideration, I’m inclined to agree that it’s fairly unlikely that Rice was the driving force behind the 49ers’ success. But I’m not so sure Montana was either.Winning in the NFL can happen for a lot of different reasons — a star quarterback (think Peyton Manning), a successful new offensive or defensive strategy (think West Coast offense, zone blitz, or, more recently, the Wildcat), or a standout player who creates mismatches that other teams struggle with (think Randy Moss). But the effects of various win-generating phenomena can come in a lot of shapes and sizes.For example, let’s compare the 49ers to the St. Louis Rams. Pay particular attention to the “Greatest Show on Turf” era from 1999 into the early 2000s:The “Greatest Show on Turf” Rams had a few different things going for them, but their success was sudden, rocky, and lasted only a few years. They “broke the game” for a while in the sense that they were something the rest of the NFL didn’t know how to deal with. But despite having a lasting effect on how football is played, their dominance was fragile.On the other hand, from the early ’80s to the late ’90s, the 49ers outscored their opponents by around 2,500 points — by far the most dominant stretch in the Super Bowl era. And they did it with a practically straight line, meaning they were better than their opposition by a nearly constant amount.4Maybe you can do better, but I couldn’t find a line that straight for that long.If the 49ers owed a significant part of their success to any one player (or phenomenon of any kind), we’d likely see more variety in the team’s arc as that player’s performance fluctuated, or as he was injured, or left.5One interesting line for comparison purposes is the Indianapolis Colts, where you can see that Peyton Manning’s arrival shifted their trajectory, but it was still a lot rockier than for a team like the 49ers or the Patriots. But the consistency of the 49ers’ ascension suggests they were more of an organization-driven phenomenon. At the very least, it implies that they were the sum of many different quality parts.Playing around with the interactive, I’m fascinated by how different phenomena manifest. For example: How do the impacts of offensive and defensive innovation compare? What are the effects of a quarterback versus those of a coach? There are a lot of possibilities, so let us know what you uncover in the comments or on Twitter.Week 11 kicking awardsI keep thinking (and my editor keeps hoping) this will be the week I won’t bother talking about kickers, but then Las Vegas Locomotives alumnus Graham Gano has to go and attempt a 63-yard field goal with one second left in a thriller between the Carolina Panthers and the Atlanta Falcons. Unfortunately for the Panthers, it was blocked.My kicking model suggests that a kicker in 2014 should typically be able to make a 63-yard field goal around 40 percent of the time — but this may be skewed by the fact that such long kicks are so rarely attempted. Still, Gano’s 63-yarder wasn’t what earned him the “kicker loss”6Where the margin of victory of a losing team is smaller than the points below expectation its kicker gave up. and Week 11’s Least Valuable Kicker award. What did him in was his previous miss, a 46-yarder, which a 2014 NFL kicker should typically make about 77 percent of the time.My algorithm picked the Falcons’ Matt Bryant as the MVK over the St. Louis Rams’ Greg Zeurlein (who had an excellent week, going 5/5 with two 50+ yarders in the Rams’ huge upset of the Broncos), on account of Bryant making four field goals in a game his team only won by two (though none was over 44 yards).But the biggest news of the week is that with Nick Novak missing a kick for the San Diego Chargers, we’re down to just two perfect kickers, and they’re both veterans: the Indianapolis Colts’ Adam Vinatieri and the New York Giants’ Josh Brown.Gunslinger of the weekThere were 26 interceptions thrown in Week 11, and seven of them were thrown by the Manning brothers. Eli Manning had five in the Giants’ narrow loss against the 49ers — four of which were thrown with his team trailing7And the last, coming on fourth down, was actually better for his team than an incomplete pass would have been. — enough to win him our Gunslinger of the Week award.8For those of you keeping score at home, our Week 10 winner will go down as the New Orleans Saints’ Drew Brees, for his aggressive tack against San Francisco that almost led to a stunning comeback.Throwing a practically embarrassing number of interceptions now and then is something great quarterbacks do. QBs, don’t be ashamed of looking bad when trying to win! A loss is a loss, whether you throw zero interceptions or six. My maxim is: If a quarterback loses a game without throwing a few interceptions, he probably didn’t try hard enough.9Yes, future pedantic emailers, this is a deliberate oversimplification.In general, Eli Manning is a bit of an unknown. He puts up fairly big totals for a mediocre team, but often gets criticized for his high interception rate. Yet his win curve looks mostly like his big brother’s, only flatter, and it’s plausible that his shame-free style was partially responsible for the Giants’ shocking wins in two Super Bowls. Eli’s gambling wouldn’t necessarily make the Giants favorites against stronger competition, but it might have given them a better chance against a team like the 2007 Patriots than a better team with a quarterback who took fewer risks.Just for fun, I looked at the Pro Football Reference list of quarterbacks with the most four-plus-interception games. The top four are George Blanda, Joe Namath, Ken Stabler and Terry Bradshaw (all of whom won championships, and three of whom are in the Hall of Fame). Of the top 50 such QBs, 15 have won championships (and account for 20 Super Bowls), including both brothers Manning.Rookie QB watchThe biggest news in rookie QB-land was in Tennessee, where sixth-round-pick Zach Mettenberger had a fairly strong game against the Pittsburgh Steelers (263 yards and two touchdowns). He’s now guaranteed to reach the magical four-start line when rookie QBs are more likely to have successful careers. I’m not quite ready to move him up in the rankings just yet, but every pass he completes is one more than Johnny Manziel has completed all year. As of now, I’d order the rookies’ estimated career prospects like so:The Jacksonville Jaguars’ Blake Bortles had a bye week.The Oakland Raiders’ Derek Carr, despite finally winning a game Thursday night (in dramatic fashion) has had a pretty weak couple of weeks, with just 172 and 174 yards in Weeks 11 and 12, despite a combined 69 pass attempts.The Minnesota Vikings’ Teddy Bridgewater’s two game winning streak came to an end in Chicago.Mettenberger.The Patriots’ Jimmy Garropolo.Manziel once again got all dressed up with no ball to throw.Not really in the game yet but worth keeping an eye on: Logan Thomas is now second on the depth chart in Arizona. So far this year he has a 108.9 NFL Passer Rating, but he’s gotten it the hard way: He has only one completion in eight attempts (10 if you count sacks), but it went for 81 yards and a touchdown.Reader responseIn Week 9’s column, I introduced my experimental “win curves” for quarterbacks, which depict how much each QB typically wins relative to various expectations, and I included a number of examples.I covered most popular quarterbacks, with a couple of notable exceptions. One request I got an awful lot:
The Final Four is set! And after 64 games, the FiveThirtyEight tournament model finally has a clear favorite. In this week’s video, we take a look at which team — UNC, Oklahoma, Villanova or (surprise!) Syracuse — has the best chance of winning it all, as well as how the probabilities have changed since before the tournament started. We also discuss how Syracuse’s run compares with the all-time great Cinderellas and crown a new “most exciting game” of the tournament.Check out FiveThirtyEight’s 2016 March Madness Predictions.
The narrative going into the 2016-17 Warriors season was how unfair it was that one of the best teams of all time added one of the best players of all time to become unstoppable. And after the Warriors posted the best winning percentage in NBA postseason history and their star acquisition won the NBA Finals MVP, the narrative coming out of the season is much the same, only louder. But easy to lose in this narrative is the simple fact that the Warriors probably didn’t need Kevin Durant for the team to be this good — or at least almost this good. While adding Durant has been a success, it didn’t end up breaking basketball any more than the Warriors had broken it already.Counting the regular season and playoffs, the Warriors won 84 percent of their games this year — up from 83 percent last year and 81 percent the year before. Teams have only won 80+ percent of their combined season games 11 times in the 70-year history of the NBA.1The Bucks (1970-71 season) and Celtics (1985-86) have done it once each; the 76ers (1966-67, 1982-83), Lakers (1971-72, 1986-87), and Bulls (1995-96,1996-97) have done it twice each. The Warriors have now done it three years in a row.2The Warriors won 18 of the 22 games — 82 percent — that Durant didn’t play in this season.But the Warriors’ mission isn’t just to win titles, it’s to guarantee them. And Durant is both icing and insurance policy — a guarantee that the Warriors will always have an MVP-caliber, one-man offense available. Though he makes them a little bit better in his own right, his main value comes from making what happened to them in the 2016 playoffs less likely.So what does make them so good? And, more broadly, is greatness a matter of refining all aspects of a discipline, or does it stem from being freakishly good at one thing? The Warriors are the first dynasty in the ball-tracking era,3Tracking cameras have been installed in every NBA stadium since the 2013-14 season. which gives us an opportunity to measure their greatness in ways that we couldn’t for dynasties past.This, in turn, may also help answer the question of just how likely the Warriors are to regress to the mean. If their greatness is a confluence of factors, then there’s a whole lot of things that could go wrong to bring them back to earth. On the other hand, if their greatness is more about one thing, then maybe they can keep crushing the game indefinitely.The most dominant three-year dynasty everThe Warriors are an offensive juggernaut — but they’re more than that as well. We can see how much they’re contributing to their margins elsewhere by comparing their offensive rating (points scored per 100 possessions) to their SRS (margin of victory adjusted for strength of schedule), like so: This uses the SportsVu optical tracking data to judge offensive and defensive shooting versus league averages — it’s pretty similar to offensive and defensive ratings, but with rebounding and fouls taken out so we can concentrate on just shots taken and defended. Over their three-year run, the Warriors have been the best on both ends of the floor when it comes to both making and defending shots. Even so, their offensive prowess is particularly absurd.Another thing we can do to compare their offense and defense is to break them down two-dimensionally: by the quality of the shots taken or allowed (based on each shot’s modeled expectation), and then by how good a team was at scoring or preventing each shot, given that expectation. This relies heavily on my shot-value model, which accounts for shot type, shot location, shot clock, dribbles, time held, home court, defender position, defender distance, defender height and more.4The “more” is that I include one of STATS/SportsVu’s proprietary “shot difficulty” metrics as a variable in my model, though it isn’t weighted very heavily. While they’ve scored about 7 more points per 100 possessions than league average, they’ve also been 10.6 points better than their opponents overall — so about a third of their edge seems to come from something other than offensive efficiency.But it isn’t rare for teams with stronger-than-average offenses to also have stronger-than-average defenses. This is a bit counterintuitive — it seems like a great offensive team would be more likely to be weak on defense, since those are two very different skillsets and trade-offs must be made. And teams do, in fact, have to choose between more offense or more defense, so it’s significant that the relationship isn’t negative at all.The offense can make the defenseTo understand the sometimes complicated relationship between offense and defense, take the case of Dennis Rodman. Despite being known as a great defensive player, Rodman’s teams defended just about as well with or without him. And despite him being unable (or unwilling) to score himself, his teams were significantly more efficient on offense when he was on the court (even after accounting for his offensive rebounding). I suspect this is because having Rodman in the game allowed his teams to devote fewer resources to defending and rebounding, diverting those energies to offense instead. Similarly, having a highly efficient outside offense may allow a team to divert resources to the other end of the floor — not to mention that having your offensive players hang out more in the space between their opponents and their opponent’s basket can make their defensive job easier.So let’s compare the Warriors’ offense and defense a bit more directly: The Warriors are respectable at shooting inside the arc, but have been more than twice as good as the next-best team at shooting 3s in this period. They’re so good at it that there’s an argument that they should be doing it even more often, and that Curry — still the best shooter the game has ever seen — should be doing it way more often.You can throw more defense at them, and teams have done so — as you see in the breakdown chart above, they’re pretty close to average in 3-point shot quality already. But the Warriors are still better at shooting 3s than any other team is at anything — 3s, 2s or defense. And diverting more and more resources toward keeping them from scoring 130+ points per game (as they would if they got off a typical Warriors dynasty-era 3 on every possession), comes at a price. Opponents are working so hard to stop the 3 that they’re almost certainly losing something from their offense or 2-point defense, which likely helps explain why the Warriors get so many open looks inside the arc.Part of being good at lots of things is being really good at a couple of things. Curry’s ridiculous shooting opens up the Warriors’ offense. Not only are his shots incredibly efficient, but he also draws so much of his opponents’ attention that he makes his teammates look amazing — and makes his team immensely better. Looking at NBAWowy, which tracks how teams perform with a given player on the court versus on the bench, the Warriors outscored their opponents by 3.1 points per 100 possessions when Durant was playing and Curry was not; that number jumped to 16.1 points per 100 possessions with Curry on the court and Durant on the sidelines.5And 19.5 points per 100 possessions when they were both playing.While Durant may be the story of the season, the Warriors’ dynasty was built and is still being propped up by Curry’s ability to throw the ball into the hoop from great distances. Provided he keeps being able to do that, expect Golden State to keep the game broken. This shows that the Warriors appear to have a lot of players who are better at defense than they should be. Perhaps being free to focus on defense more than rebounding and offense helps. Perhaps they play bigger than their size in part because they’re typically in better position than you would expect from players on a more conventional offense whose goal is literally to get behind the other team. Perhaps opponents have to play offense with an extra eye on defense, or with more defenders than they would usually play.Also, having people like Stephen Curry and Durant as the offensive centerpieces may allow you to surround them with players who are more defense-oriented. Much like Rodman, someone like Draymond Green’s value may be fully realized precisely because he isn’t required to carry his offense. For a power forward, his responsibilities don’t include that much penetrating and collapsing the Warriors opponents’ defenses. Thus, despite being somewhat undersized for his position, Green has thrived — and indeed, may be one of the most valuable players in the league — in his current role.And Curry’s shooting makes the offenseWhile the link between Golden State’s offense and defense is speculative, the relationship between their 3-point shooting and their other shooting is easier to track.Golden State’s relentless barrage of 3s tends to make people forget that the Warriors are also good at 2-point shooting. The difference is that much more of their value on 2s comes from getting good shots, while more of their value on 3s comes from making the shots they get. Typically there is a relationship between how good a team is compared to expectation for both 3- and 2-point shooting, which is unsurprising since we’d expect good shooters to be good shooters, no matter where they’re shooting from. But the Warriors are not only unusually good at 3-point shooting, they’re also better at 3-point shooting than other shooting by an unusual margin. Comparing the two directly, we can see where the Warriors really butter their bread:
In her first three seasons at Ohio State, Jantel Lavender has accomplished almost everything one could expect from the Cleveland-native center. But OSU coach Jim Foster thinks her career is yet to be defined. “I think Jantel’s career will be measured by championships more so than points scored,” Foster said. Postseason success is the biggest element missing from Lavender’s resume. In Lavender’s time at OSU, only once has her team advanced past the second round of the NCAA Tournament. “We haven’t had the postseason run that we need to,” Lavender said. “Our team just has to be more strong and more together and, you know, more cohesive, for us to go far.” Lavender enters the 2010-11 season as one of the most decorated players in college basketball. She was selected to the Associated Press Preseason All-American team and the watch list for the Wooden Award, which is awarded to the best male and female athletes in college basketball. She was also named the Preseason Big Ten Player of the Year. Should Lavender win her fourth straight Big Ten Player of the Year award after the season, she would be the first in conference history to do so. Lavender said she has her sights set beyond just earning all-conference honors. “The goal is to be a national player of the year,” Lavender said. She has all the tools to earn that honor. In her first three seasons at OSU, Lavender has averaged 20 points and 10.3 rebounds per game and is 534 points shy of Katie Smith’s OSU career scoring record, as well as 63 rebounds short of Tracey Hall’s OSU career rebounding record. Lavender said individual accomplishments come second to team goals. “If my team needs me to get 30, or if my team needs me to get 18 points and 25 rebounds, then that’s what I’m trying to do,” she said. Lavender’s career has gotten help from junior point guard Samantha Prahalis, who is on pace to break the school’s career assist record this season. “Sammy in the open floor is very, very talented, she really is, and you like a complement to that,” Foster said. “Not often is that complement a (center). Usually you see guards finishing plays. To have a center who can run like that, catch like that and finish like that, I think that’s a little different.” Foster compared the chemistry between his point guard and center to that of NBA Hall of Fame members and former Utah Jazz teammates Karl Malone and John Stockton. “That’s a fair one,” Prahalis said when asked about the comparison. “He always says that.” Lavender said she agreed with the evaluation but offered her own comparison for the duo. “I always try to say, you know, (Steve) Nash and (Amar’e) Stoudemire,” Lavender said. “I think that his comparison is just something to make us see where we are in our game.” After this season, Lavender will take her professional-ready game to the next level, where she is projected to be a top-five pick in the 2011 WNBA Draft. But first, she has some unfinished business. “I don’t think that we’ve gotten to the place that I want to be, you know, as a far as a team,” Lavender said. “I want a national championship.”
Five members of the Ohio State women’s track and field team qualified for the NCAA championships last weekend at the NCAA East Regional preliminaries in Bloomington, Ind. After winning the Big Ten indoor and outdoor championships for the first time in program history, the Buckeyes entered preliminaries knowing the veterans would have to perform at their best. “Anytime you’re in a field that strong, nothing is taken for granted,” coach Karen Dennis said. Senior sprinter and hurdler Letecia Wright had a successful weekend, taking first place in the 100-meter hurdles with a time of 12.97 seconds. Junior Christina Manning also qualified for nationals with a fifth-place finish. “Making it to nationals once again feels like a redeeming meet,” Manning said. “I have a statement to make on the track and I plan on making it early.” Manning and Wright combined with junior Madison McNary and freshman Chesna Sykes to help the 4-by-100-meter relay team reach the NCAA finals. Wright is no stranger to succeeding on a big stage. “It feels really good to make it to outdoor nationals for the fourth year in a row,” she said. “It was a big surprise to me to win East Regionals because there are a lot of great hurdlers, so my goal was to just make it to nationals.” Wright’s strong performance comes as no surprise to Dennis. “I think it sets her up for just being able to be confident and prepared for the National Championships next week,” Dennis said. “She ran exceptionally well. … She recognizes this is her last year, and I think she wants to end the year on a real positive note.” Junior high jumper Ashley Galbraith qualified with a jump of 1.78 meters. Galbraith usually competes in multi-events for the track and field team, but participated only in the high jump at the preliminary meet. Dennis said this helped Galbraith perform at a higher level. “Regionals afforded her an opportunity to compete in the high jump with fresh legs, and she had a real awesome day,” Dennis said. “I’m really glad we were able to get through the region. … We’re going to the National Championships. We have to refocus our energy and our effort, and realize that we’re getting ready to face the top in both regions.”
After earning an unsatisfying 14-37 record last year, the Ohio State softball team has developed a new, inspirational motto as the 2012 season opens on Friday: “WTF.” “We’ve thrown that out a lot, with a more politically correct meaning than it usually has,” said coach Linda Kalafatis. “WTF,” an acronym for “worst to first,” is a catchphrase developed to motivate the team after a 2011 season that Kalafatis described as disappointing. “Defeat is the greatest motivator,” she said. The Buckeyes’ troubles began early in the 2011 campaign. Five starters, including Big Ten Freshman of the Year Melanie Nichols, had to be replaced due to season-ending injuries and graduation. Nichols, a pitcher, underwent surgery on her right shoulder in July 2010. She played in six games the following year but sat out for the remainder of the season per doctors’ orders. Lindsay Bodeker, an OSU graduate and former pitcher, would have been a redshirt senior last year. Bodeker re-injured her right knee from damage done to her ACL in 2008 and did not return after graduating. “We were pretty challenged on the mound,” Kalafatis said. Megan Coletta, junior third baseman and co-captain, said she is looking for redemption this year. “After last season and everything we went through, we want to prove that just because you have one bad year, you can come back,” she said. Coletta said she hopes to lead her team by concentrating on the mental aspect of the game. “(The underclassmen) are fresh. They don’t understand how grueling it’s going to be mentally and physically,” she said. “That’s what the veterans are working on.” The women of the OSU softball team have set goals of achieving Big Ten and World Series success, and after only one practice this week, they said they are excited to get started. “The team has been pretty focused,” Kalafatis said. “At times we didn’t look as sharp as we’d like, but the kids are ready to get out and play.” The Buckeyes finished last in Big Ten standings in 2011 with a record of 3-17, defeating Minnesota twice in a doubleheader in early April and Michigan State in May. With a “WTF” mentality, OSU will need to rally past every Big Ten opponent including No. 15-ranked Michigan. The Wolverines finished last season with a 53-6 record on their way to claiming the conference title. Senior shortstop Alicia Herron said she has her sights set on Michigan for the upcoming season. “With the way the Big Ten is set up, we play each team three times,” Herron said. “I keep saying ‘MX3,’ you know, Michigan times three. Defeating Michigan would be huge.” Herron, also a co-captain, led the team offensively with several team bests. Nine home runs, 10-for-10 stolen bases, 39 runs scored and a .354 batting average in 2011 are just some of her accomplishments. The Buckeyes begin a long, 23-game stretch on the road on Friday when they travel to Clermont, Fla., to take on the University of Central Florida. The team will see Las Vegas, Nev., Cathedral City, Calif., Orlando, Fla., and Nashville, Tenn., before returning home to Buckeye Field on March 24. Herron said she is most looking forward to “going out with a bang” with a team that is short on words, but strong in spirit. “We are obviously a young team,” Herron said. “We have so many new players, but I think the experience will come once we start playing. The heart and everything is all there.”
In one of the most popular professional sports league in the United States, there’s a lot at stake when a win means a trip to the Super Bowl. Arguably, though, this NFL Championship Sunday is putting a little bit more on the line than just a spot in the biggest annual sports spectacle in the world. Tom Brady, Bill Belichick, Ray Lewis, Joe Flacco, Matt Ryan, Colin Kaepernick and the Harbaugh brothers will all be playing this weekend for a chance to hoist the coveted Lombardi trophy. With all of those big names involved, it’s inevitable that either history will be made, legacies will be solidified, or reputations will again be up for debate for at least another year. Last weekend Brady passed his boyhood idol and NFL legend Joe Montana on the list for most all-time playoff wins with 17. But while playoff wins are quite a resume builder for most, with Brady’s first ballot Hall of Fame induction already locked up, it’s more likely that the Montana record that Brady really wants to associate himself with is four Super Bowl wins. With a victory against the Ravens in Foxborough on Sunday, Brady will have a chance to match Montana’s mark and solidify his place in the argument of the greatest quarterback in NFL history. Not to mention, a win would extend his and Bill Belichick’s record of most Super Bowl appearances as a quarterback-head coach duo. On the other side of the field in Foxborough, Ray Lewis will be doing everything in his power to stop Brady from accomplishing that goal. With a win on Sunday, Lewis will give himself the chance to win a second Super Bowl and finish his historic career on top. Though Lewis is already considered the best leader and linebacker in the history of the league by most, a second ring to go along with his 13 pro-bowl selections would leave no doubt. Covering Lewis’ back on the offensive side of the ball in this game will be Flacco. If Flacco can help lead Lewis and company to New Orleans on Feb. 3, he can finally justify his self-proclamation as an “elite” quarterback. With a subpar performance and third AFC championship game loss in five years, though, Flacco will be eating his words, as well as those of the many NFL fans who think he is overrated and cocky. While the AFC side of championship weekend features two living legends, the story on the NFC side is about legacy building. Ryan of the Falcons silenced critics last weekend with a clutch drive in the waning moments of the game, allowing his kicker to ground the Seahawks with a game-winning field goal as time expired. However, with a loss at home to San Francisco in the NFC championship game Sunday, that landmark victory for Ryan, as well as his hopes to build his legacy as an “elite” quarterback, might very well become a distant memory. Not only would a loss drop his career playoff record to a disappointing 1-4, but it would give Kaepernick twice as many crucial playoff wins as Ryan in less than half the tries. On that same note, with two playoff wins in nine career NFL starts, regular or postseason, and a Super Bowl appearance, a win in Atlanta would get Kaepernick off to a groundbreaking start to his career. He’d also be well on his way to building a legacy for himself as one of the premier running quarterbacks of all time. On top of all the personal glory that has the potential to be achieved with any of the four possible Super Bowl matchups, perhaps the most intriguing part of NFL Championship Sunday is that it holds the power to yield an historic “Harbaugh Bowl.” The drama involved with a John Harbaugh-led Ravens team squaring off against a Jim Harbaugh-led 49ers team would be unequalled. Everybody loves a big brother – little brother rivalry, but one that makes NFL history and results in bragging rights in the form of a Lombardi Trophy, now that is glorious.
OSU women’s tennis coach Melissa Schaub watches the Buckeyes during a match against Michigan April 21 at the Varsity Tennis Center. OSU lost, 7-0.Credit: Courtesy of the OSU Athletic DepartmentHalf the roster for the Ohio State women’s tennis team is composed of freshmen, but the Buckeyes youth doesn’t mean they can’t play with the best of them.Senior Noelle Malley said her team can hang with anyone in the Big Ten.“We’ve been working so hard recently,” she said. “I think we’re right there with them.”The Buckeyes are unranked while three other Big Ten teams, No. 10 Michigan, No. 12 Northwestern and No. 16 Nebraska, find themselves in the top 25.“It’s going to be hard, keeping up our focus and intensity and when we go out there, not being afraid of them, which we aren’t,” Malley said. “It’s exciting.”Senior Kelsey Becker, said her goal for the team goes beyond the conference.“We definitely want to make the NCAA tournament this year, we haven’t made it the past three years since I’ve been here,” she said. “I think we can do it this year, I think we have a really good team.”The Buckeyes have not made it to the tournament since 2009, and as they prepare for a run at the ultimate goal in the spring, are scheduled to finish preseason this weekend in Los Angeles, Calif., at the Jack Kramer tournament.Coach Melissa Schaub said the preseason schedule has been all about experience for her young squad.“The fall season like this is just about getting matches in, just getting a bunch of matches under your belt, preparing ourselves for the spring season,” she said.Schaub added that she has seen strong showings from her team, top to bottom.“The freshmen have stepped up big time, and we’ve had good leadership from our seniors,” she said. “It’s been really good so far.”Schaub stressed that every one of her freshmen have impressed, but singled out one in particular.“I think (freshman Gabriella DeSantis) has had an unbelievable fall season, coming in as a freshman,” she said. “You’re never really sure how that person is going to react to a different environment, being away from home.”Of the four youngsters, three are from outside of the U.S. DeSantis is from Caracas, Venezuela, Ferny Angeles Paz hails from Lima, Peru, and Miho Kowase comes from Tokyo.Schaub said the diverse roster is commonplace in the sport.“In tennis, it happens,” she said. “Tennis is such a universal sport, it’s big in other countries, so it’s not that uncommon to have a fairly international team.”Malley said she enjoys having international teammates, especially as a senior leader on the team.“It’s awesome, they’re so much fun,” she said. “We have so many different cultures and we’re talking about doing a dinner where we each make a home cooked meal.”Malley added that there might be some extra perks of forming bonds with individuals from around the world.“We have places to visit out of the country now, if we want to,” she said.Becker said each of the freshmen have done well to adjust, but that at least two of the newcomers might have had a leg up.“It’s kind of cute because (Paz) and (DeSantis) knew each other before because they’re both from South America,” she said. “They’re all just really sweet, and doing a really good job.”Even with such a diverse and young roster, Schaub said her team is already better than last year, but the main thing is improving each day.“It’s about every time you go on the court, competing as hard as you can and trying to get better in every match that you play,” Schaub said. “If that happens, then we’re going to be happy leaving a tournament.”After their weekend in California, the Buckeyes are scheduled to have plenty of practice time before diving into their regular season against Baylor Jan. 18 in Waco, Texas.