During the 2013-14 regular season, the Los Angeles Kings were the NHL’s fifth-lowest scoring team, notching just 2.4 goals for every 60 minutes they were on the ice. On paper, no team headed into the postseason with as anemic an offense. Yet fast forward a month and a half and Los Angeles is on the verge of closing out the Chicago Blackhawks in the Western Conference Finals partly because the Kings’ offense is sizzling. They put together a five-goal barrage in Game 4 against Chicago, and Los Angeles’ 3.3 goals per 60 minute mark leads all teams in scoring during the postseason.How did the Kings’ offense suddenly become so potent? During the regular season, LA converted their shots into goals at a paltry 7.6 percent rate, which tied the Vancouver Canucks for the second-worst shooting percentage in the entire NHL. In the playoffs, though, they’ve upped their conversion rate to 11.3 percent (including 14.5 percent against the Blackhawks), which ranks second among playoff teams. Since they’re not shooting more often (to the contrary — they’re actually averaging 1.6 fewer shots per 60 minutes in the playoffs than during the regular season), the Kings’ goal-scoring increase can be traced to the huge uptick in shooting accuracy.The Kings’ increased shooting percentage hasn’t been driven by facing a particularly easy set of goaltenders. Weighted by the number of shots they had against each opponent, Los Angeles’ playoff foes have had a composite save percentage of .913 during the regular season, which is slightly higher than the overall league average of .911 — certainly nothing that would explain a 3.7-percentage-point leap in shooting percentage. Nor has it been fueled by more time on the power play, where shooting percentages are higher: during the postseason, LA spent about 28 fewer seconds per game with a man advantage than they did in the regular season.One other place to look is where the Kings’ goals have been coming from. For example, during the regular season, LA’s shooting percentage was well below the NHL average on shots from the high slot, the space between the two face-off circles and above the hash marks. And in their Game 1 loss to Chicago, the Kings attempted three shots from that area, missing all three. But ever since, they’ve scored three goals on eight shots (a shooting percentage of 37.5) from a zone of the ice where they usually turn only 6.7 percent of their shots into goals. Since goals are such rare events, even a shift like that on just one section of the ice can lead to a big overall increase in scoring.Likewise, the late-season addition of Marian Gaborik, who leads LA in shots during the playoffs, and whose lifetime shooting percentage of 12.9 percent is well above the league average over his career, explains part of the team’s scoring burst. But it bears mentioning that while shot quality — and converting those chances into goals — makes a big difference in retrospect, it’s hard to tell how much is luck and how much is skill.In other words, the biggest reason the Kings’ offense has caught fire in the postseason may simply be good fortune, with some regression to the mean thrown in for good measure. Los Angeles wasn’t ever as bad at shooting as their regular-season percentage suggested (they were in the middle of the pack the season before), nor are they as good as their postseason run would indicate. The truth lies somewhere in between, and as we’ve seen before with hockey stats, it’s a truth mixed in with a lot of noise.
San Francisco 49ers safety Eric Reid (35) and wide receiver Marquise Goodwin (11) kneel during the performance of the national anthem before an NFL football game against the New York Giants in Santa Clara, Calif., Sunday, Nov. 12, 2017. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)Papa John’s Pizza apologized Tuesday night for comments made by CEO John Schnatter blaming sluggish pizza sales on NFL players kneeling during the national anthem.The Louisville, Kentucky-based company is a major NFL sponsor and advertiser, and Schnatter said on an earnings call on Nov. 1 that “NFL leadership has hurt Papa John’s shareholders” and that the protests “should have been nipped in the bud a year and a half ago.”The company tweeted a statement offering to “work with the players and league to find a positive way forward.”“The statements made on our earnings call were describing the factors that impact our business and we sincerely apologize to anyone that thought they were divisive,” it said. “That definitely was not our intention.“We believe in the right to protest inequality and support the players’ movement to create a new platform for change. We also believe, as Americans, we should honor our anthem. There is a way to do both.”The movement was started last year by former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who kneeled to protest what he said was police mistreatment of blacks. More players began kneeling after President Donald Trump said at an Alabama rally in September that team owners should get rid of players who protest during the anthem.Papa John’s added that it is “open to ideas from all. Except neo-Nazis.” It previously has tried to distance itself from white supremacists who praised Schnatter’s comments, saying it does not want those groups to buy its pizza.The company’s stock has fallen by nearly 13 percent since Schnatter’s comments.
Hot Takedown The vine of LeBron James and Dion Waiters that Chadwick Matlin mentions on the show.Rob Arthur on the best Royals team ever.Neil Paine breaks down the cost of leaving Matt Harvey in the game.FiveThirtyEight’s NBA preview.ESPN breaks down the stats in New Zealand’s Rugby World Cup victory.Brett McKay on the difference between rugby in the Northern Hemisphere and the Southern Hemisphere.Significant Digit: 38. That is the longest New York City Marathon streak held by a woman. Connie Brown, at 71, finished her 38th marathon; her time was 5:50:44. Welcome to this week’s episode of Hot Takedown, our podcast where the hot sports takes of the week meet the numbers that prove them right or tear them down. On this week’s show (Nov. 3, 2015), we ask whether the Kansas City Royals won the World Series or the New York Mets lost it. We also preview the NBA’s Western Conference and where FiveThirtyEight’s CARMELO NBA player projections rank Kobe Bryant this season. Plus, a look at New Zealand’s victory in the Rugby World Cup with Brett McKay, ESPN Scrum writer and host of The Cheap Seats podcast. And a Significant Digit on a New York City Marathon streak.Stream the episode by clicking the play button, or subscribe using one of the podcast clients we’ve linked to above. Video, bonus audio and links to what we discussed are below. How many times did the Mets blow it? If you’re a fan of our podcasts, be sure to subscribe on Apple Podcasts and leave a rating/review. That helps spread the word to other listeners. And get in touch by email, on Twitter or in the comments. Tell us what you think, send us hot takes to discuss and tell us why we’re wrong. More: Apple Podcasts | ESPN App | RSS
Because Schröder’s passes have generally left him with nothing to do but lay the ball in, particularly against lesser opponents such as the Sixers, Howard’s average time of possession per touch is down nearly 16 percent from last season and has decreased more than 27 percent from two seasons ago. Additionally, his dribbles per touch are down 10 percent and 27 percent, respectively, from last year and two years ago, according to SportVU.Can it last?Yet for all that, it’s fair to wonder how much of Atlanta’s hot start is sustainable.Schröder, in his first year as a starter, probably won’t finish this season with a higher three-point mark (42.9 percent so far) than his overall field-goal percentage last year (42.1 percent). Howard left Tuesday night’s win with a thigh bruise, and the injury will be a problem if it persists. The team is already thin in spots, including at center, since backup big man Tiago Splitter is still recovering from a February hip surgery. And there’s also the matter of the team’s soft schedule (fifth-easiest in the NBA) to this point: The Hawks are the only team to have beaten the defending-champion Cleveland Cavaliers, but as of Wednesday afternoon, five of their eight wins had come against Philadelphia, Washington and Miami, the Eastern Conference’s three worst teams.Still, Atlanta — outscoring opponents by more than 10 points per 100 possessions — has generally dominated its competition. The Hawks are limiting opposing offenses to just over 95 points per 100 plays, second-best in the NBA, trailing only the Clippers.The defense, which has been active and has deflected more passes than any Eastern Conference team, appears to be staying home a bit more often than in years past, to allow Howard to serve as a rim protector as opposed to chasing guards all over the court. That has paid dividends: They’re limiting opponents to 52.8 percent shooting from inside five feet, outpacing last year’s impressive 55.5 percent mark.Even with all this in mind, and Howard playing well, the same question as before still faces this team: Does the team — however good it might be — realistically have enough scoring, or enough stoppers, to get the best of LeBron James and the Cavaliers?Probably not. But by changing their look, and playing more inside-out than they have in years past, there might be a little more intrigue this time around, even if the end result turns out to be the same.Check out our latest NBA predictions. 20141.840.62 20151.590.50 Dwight Howard is making faster decisions For years, the Atlanta Hawks have had two guiding philosophies. Under coach Mike Budenholzer, the club has prioritized moving the ball in an uptempo offense, fashioning every player into a jump-shooting threat. On defense, Atlanta thrived thanks to the unusual frontcourt mobility of Paul Millsap and Al Horford. While neither was a traditional rim protector, the team used an array of hedges and switches to slow down pick-and-rolls and limit drives to the basket.With that in mind, things were bound to get interesting one way or another this season. Horford bolted for the Celtics over the summer, taking with him the unique passing and mobility he provides at the center position. He was replaced by Dwight Howard, who is a totally different player from a stylistic standpoint even if he’s a surefire Hall of Famer. The Hawks, who for years lived on ball movement and swiftness, seem to be replacing those virtues with brute strength.The swap — along with promoting point guard Dennis Schröder to a starting role after dealing away former All-Star Jeff Teague — has brought about some encouraging signs for the 8-2 Hawks, who probably needed a bit of a shake-up despite their relative success in recent years. Howard’s replacing Horford doesn’t necessarily make the Hawks more of a contender, but the move at least allows them to try a different look, both offensively and defensively, in hopes of finding a way forward.Howard on the boardsThe clearest difference from last season is the team’s overnight transformation into an offensive-rebounding powerhouse.The Hawks from previous years — much like the Spurs model that Budenholzer borrowed from his time as an assistant in San Antonio — didn’t concern themselves with offensive rebounding, instead preferring to space the court and simply retreat back on defense following a miss.As such, Atlanta ranked dead last in offensive-rebound rate in 2015. This year’s team, by contrast, is tied for the NBA’s fourth-best offensive-rebounding rate. The Hawks, who had ranked in the NBA’s bottom five in second-chance points in each of the previous three seasons, are currently ninth in second-chance points per game. Howard has everything to do with that. His personal numbers look good — he’s averaging 14.8 points, 12.3 rebounds and 1.7 blocks per game, with eight double-doubles in 10 games — but his effect on Atlanta’s overall numbers appear to be even better. The club’s 31.1 percent offensive-rebound percentage with him on the court this season would be tied for the highest in the league, alongside the Chicago Bulls. The team’s offensive-rebound rate falls to a below-league average rate of 22.2 percent when Howard is on the sideline.Between those easy putbacks, and Howard’s pick-and-roll feeds from Schröder, Atlanta is shooting nearly 67 percent at the rim — up from just over 60 percent last year — second only to the Golden State Warriors so far. (Note the proximity that NBA.com uses for its at-the-rim stats differs slightly from the one the site uses in its shot charts, embedded below, but the trend holds true in both.) Howard, taking more than 80 percent of his shots from there (and also connecting on about 67 percent of those attempts), is fundamentally changing the way the team’s shot chart looks in the process.Howard on the blockBefore Tuesday’s quad injury, Howard was enjoying a bit of a renaissance after three frustrating seasons in Houston, where he felt underutilized and in the shadow of James Harden. Aside from cleaning the glass for easy putbacks, he was jelling with Schröder in pick-and-roll scenarios, regularly catching lobs from his new point guard, who appears to be making a concerted effort to keep him involved. And defenses, as much as they’d like to flood the paint to prevent Howard from getting easy baskets, have been reluctant to help too much in that part of the floor. Usual suspects such as sharpshooter Kyle Korver, along with Kent Bazemore and Millsap, are all threats to connect from outside if left open as a result of overhelping.With the Rockets, Howard’s offensive involvement wavered from time to time. Consider the fact that Howard received 6.7 passes per game from Harden during his first year there, before getting just 2.2 passes from him in 2014 and 4.5 passes from the Rockets star in 2015. Schröder, in Atlanta’s equal-opportunity system, is finding Howard more than eight times a night, according to SportVU tracking.Perhaps because of those frequent opportunities — and the fact that he’s no longer wondering if or when he’ll touch the ball, the way he sometimes did in Houston — Howard’s possessing the rock for shorter amounts of time as opposed to slowing his team’s offense to back down an opponent and force up an ugly hook shot, merely to create a scoring chance for himself. YEARSECONDS PER TOUCHDRIBBLES PER TOUCH 20131.820.70 Source: nba.com 20161.390.45
The Washington Capitals are on fire right now. They’ve lost only three times since the calendar flipped to 2017 and have outscored their opponents 95 to 44 over that stretch. Aside from an 8-7 overtime loss to the rival Pittsburgh Penguins on Jan. 16, the Capitals have only surrendered more than three goals two times during their hot streak. In a league in which holding the opponent to three goals or fewer will earn you at least a shootout most nights, it’s easy to see why Washington is piling up points in the standings.Not only do the Caps own the league’s best record, but they also have the most dominant stats in hockey. They lead the league in Hockey-Reference.com’s Simple Rating System (SRS), which estimates the strength of every team in the NHL,1Technically speaking, SRS measures a team’s average goal differential after adjusting for strength of schedule. as well as team goals against average, the mark of a stingy defense. They also rank in the top five in several other major statistical categories, including goals scored per game; power play percentage; penalty kill percentage; and Corsi percentage, which estimates a team’s all-important possession rate by measuring the percentage of shot attempts it directed at the opponent’s net during games.2Adjusted for score, zone and venue.This is all to say that the Capitals look really, really ridiculously good on paper. But they’ve also ranked highly in a few key stats that are traditionally more in the realm of luck than skill. For example, they’re No. 1 in PDO, which is the sum of shooting percentage and save percentage (a notoriously unstable indicator in stathead circles), both of which the Capitals also either lead the league in or are tied for No. 1. Ordinarily, a high PDO could be seen as a red flag — suggesting that a team’s statistical résumé is like a house of cards, ready to collapse at any moment. But in Washington’s case, the team even seems to have come by the percentages that make up PDO (mostly) honestly. It’s the consequence of a roster design that could mean it’s finally Washington’s year to hoist Lord Stanley’s cup.The Capitals’ statistical excellence is nothing new — in each of the past three seasons, they’ve ranked among the NHL’s top eight in both points and SRS. Perhaps even more telling, they’ve been among the NHL’s top three in PDO for the past two seasons. Their good fortune in the percentages is commonplace by now.So how do we know Washington’s success isn’t purely based on good luck? For one thing, they’ve assembled a roster that perennially shoots the lights out. The Capitals have finished outside of the top 10 in shooting percentage only once since 2009-10. And since Barry Trotz took the helm as head coach in 2014-15, the team has ranked no worse than fourth. Only the Dallas Stars outperformed the Capitals in shooting percentage in both 2014-15 and 2015-16, but while the Stars have regressed — they sit in the middle of the pack (12th) in 2016-17 — the Capitals continue to put the puck in the net with a high degree of efficiency, thanks to that group of good shooters.A handful of said marksmen are having personal best shooting percentage seasons: T.J. Oshie, whose career shooting percentage of 13.1 percent is good for 24th among active players, is scoring on 23.7 percent of his shots in 2016-17. Frequent playoff hero3This is one of the reasons the Capitals signed him. Justin Williams has a career shooting percentage of 9.7 percent, but he’s scoring on 15.7 percent of his shots. Left winger Marcus Johansson has a career shooting percentage of 14.0 percent but is scoring on an astounding 22.9 percent of his shots. And he looks poised to shatter his career high mark for goals in a season. Some of that overachievement is bound to regress to the mean, but if the Caps’ history as a team is any indicator, Washington should be able to hold onto at least some of their improvements.That’s just one of PDO’s two (usually unstable) components. The other half of the Capitals’ brilliant, odds-beating equation is goaltender Braden Holtby. Holtby is among the best netminders in the world (his career save percentage is third-best among active goalies), and he’s only getting better. His goals against average and save percentage are both better than they were last season, and if it weren’t for Minnesota Wild goalie Devan Dubnyk’s ridiculously impressive performance in 2016-17, Holtby would be a lock for a second consecutive Vezina Trophy. Goaltending statistics can be notoriously fluky, but they tend to be more stable over a career, particularly when they’re as consistently great as Holtby’s have been.The main criticism of the Capitals — and especially their captain, Alex Ovechkin — has been that they’re playoff underachievers.4It’s hilarious to assign an “underachiever” tag to a guy who ranks sixth all-time — and first among active skaters — in goals scored per game. Alexander Ovechkin is a gift and a once-in-a-generation talent, and every hockey fan on Earth — Washington Capitals fan or not — should cherish his existence. They’ve qualified for the postseason in eight of the past nine seasons but haven’t managed to get past the conference semifinals despite having rosters stacked with such quality players as Ovechkin, Oshie, Evgeny Kuznetsov, Alexander Semin (when he was actually good), Nicklas Backstrom, Mike Green (when he was actually good), and Holtby.When juxtaposed against the Capitals’ inability to make a deep playoff run, Washington’s degree of statistical dominance suggests that, sure, perhaps the team has underachieved a bit. But there’s no doubt that Trotz and general manager Brian MacLellan have built a team poised to succeed in the modern era of the NHL. Not only do they have a group that controls the puck well, but they’ve also hacked through the noise of PDO to assemble a roster that isn’t just lucky when it beats the percentages. Who knows if the Capitals will win the Cup this year, but they’re a legitimately dominant team and, as things sit now, championship favorites. Maybe this is the year they finally shrug off the underachievers tag and deliver on that promise.
Leading “Fight the Team Across the Field,” doing back-breaking bends and throwing a baton 20 feet in the air have caused many Ohio State fans to notice the OSU drum major. But few know his story. OSU head drum major Jason Stuckert said he was excited to travel to the University of Minnesota on Saturday, the only away game the marching band traveled to this year. But for Stuckert, getting to the Minnesota game and to Ohio Stadium has been a long time coming. Even with almost 10 years of experience, Stuckert was anxious the day he made his debut in the ‘Shoe. “I was very, very nervous right before I ran onto the field,” he said. “Once I started moving, I just had a big smile on my face because this is what I had wanted for so long. I had the time of my life.” OSU has had a drum major since 1878, but Stuckert is only the second person in OSU’s history to win the title of head drum major as a first-year student. Despite his age, Stuckert was confident in his abilities. “In my head, I think I knew that it was possible that I could get it as a freshman,” Stuckert said. Stuckert’s interest in the drum major and marching band was evident from a young age. Marcia Lowe, Stuckert’s mother, said their family had season tickets to the Avon Lake High School football games by the time Stuckert was 2 years old. Though they usually only made it through the halftime show, Lowe said Stuckert and his sister Abigail, a 2009 graduate of Miami University, were fascinated by the band. “He watched that drum major, and by the time he was in fifth grade, he started horsing around with his sister’s baton,” Lowe said. Lowe said she was surprised when Stuckert asked for a Gray Baton, an all-metal baton designed by former OSU marching band member John Gray, for his 12th birthday. “He was outside in the front yard … twirling that thing every day — sometimes twice a day — between two trees, so we had a mud hole sitting there that he’d worn in the grass,” Lowe said. As a child, Stuckert was “always happy, always smiling” and “a big entertainer,” Lowe said. Stuckert first experienced the OSU drum major program in the seventh grade at Avon Lake’s annual homecoming parade, where he saw Avon Lake High School alumni Scott and Eric Sommer perform. Scott and Eric were the 1998 and 2004 OSU head drum majors, respectively, and were the first siblings to hold the title. After the parade, Stuckert went to a short drum major clinic held by the Sommer brothers for students interested in being drum majors at Avon Lake High School. Eric said Stuckert was “rough around the edges but had a real desire to learn.” In spring 2005, Stuckert began attending OSU’s free clinics for high school students interested in becoming drum majors. “That was just a mind-blowing experience for me because I was surrounded by all these ridiculously good drum majors that I had never met before,” Stuckert said. From that point on, Stuckert drove about four hours round trip from Avon Lake to Columbus to attend semiweekly practices in the summer and made an effort to attend as many semiweekly winter practices as he could. On the days he attended practices in Columbus, he returned to Avon Lake around midnight, slept, and got up for school seven hours later. Stuckert spent three years as Avon Lake High School’s drum major, which was modeled “just like OSU’s drum major,” he said. The OSU drum major was a military position in the late 19th century and followed a strict military discipline. By the 1920s, it had evolved to include showmanship and smart execution of movements, according to the OSU Marching Band Drum Major website. One of the most influential people in Stuckert’s life, particularly during tryout preparation, was Stewart Kitchen, the 2006 and 2007 head drum major at OSU. Like Stuckert, Kitchen became OSU’s head drum major as a first-year student. “It is unusual and somewhat of an exception when a person makes the drum major squad as a freshman,” said Jon Woods, director of the marching and athletic bands at OSU. To try out for drum major, incoming freshmen must first make the drum major row called D-row, where they spend up to two years learning what they need to know for tryouts. After one year on D-row, members are eligible to try out for the assistant and head drum major positions. Since he became head drum major, Stuckert’s life has been full of 15-hour-per-week practices, performances and appearances. “It’s a lot of responsibility,” said Lowe, who added that Stuckert participates in community events and student recruitment as part of his position. “The university uses him for a variety of (public relations) opportunities.” Both Lowe and Stuckert agreed the role has improved his organization skills and focus. “Game day can be pretty overwhelming,” Stuckert said. “There’s not really much time to catch a breath or anything, even when you’re not performing. People are always wanting to get their picture with you — you’re almost like a second mascot.” Stuckert said fans who approach him after the game remind him “how much spotlight is on the band,” which motivates him to keep doing well. Though he “hasn’t found a place to fit it in yet,” Stuckert said he plans to perform a back flip at an upcoming game. Stuckert’s longtime friend Brian Hathaway, a second-year in computer science and engineering and first-year band member at OSU, said Stuckert’s role is “pretty incredible.” “I almost take it for granted that one of my best friends is the drum major,” said Hathaway, who went to high school with Stuckert. “For me, he’s still the same old Jason Stuckert.” Stuckert said his interests outside his head drum major duties include Cleveland sports teams, music and model trains. If he weren’t the head drum major, Stuckert said he would play the trumpet or another instrument in the band, which he “loves.” “Being the leader of it is one of the greatest things that could ever cross my mind,” Stuckert said.
Ohio State football’s defeat to Michigan State on Saturday was more than a setback in the Big Ten standings. It was nearly a loss of historic proportions. A 33-yard touchdown pass from senior quarterback Kirk Cousins to senior receiver B.J. Cunningham midway through the first quarter put the Spartans up early, 7-0. A field goal in the fourth quarter by Dan Conroy proved to be enough for the Spartans who went on to win, 10-7. With 10 seconds to go in the game, red shirt senior quarterback Joe Bauserman found Evan Spencer for a 33-yard touchdown pass to cut the lead to 10-7. But it was too little, too late for the Buckeyes. OSU was only able to accumulate 178 yards of total offense in the game against MSU’s 324 yards. The Buckeyes were only 10 seconds from being shutout for the first time since a 1993 blanking at the hands of Michigan. It would have been the first shutout at Ohio Stadium since October 1982, against Wisconsin. The Buckeyes started the game slowly with freshman quarterback Braxton Miller leading the offense, which accumuled only 42 yards of total offense in the first quarter. In the mean time, Cousins found Cunningham in the back of OSU’s end zone to open the scoring. Cousins rolled out to the right of his pocket and found the streaking Cunningham, who made the catch despite double coverage from OSU. In the second quarter, Miller completed a 33-yard pass on third-and-13 to push OSU into Spartans’ territory for the first time. The drive ended with 7:39 remaining in the first half after Miller’s next pass was thrown into double coverage and intercepted by MSU sophomore corner Darqueze Dennard. By the end of the first half, the Buckeyes’ offense had been out-gained by the Spartans, 170-87. OSU’s defense stopped MSU scoring threats twice in the second quarter, however. A fumble recovery by sophomore defensive tackle Johnathan Hankins with under one minute remaining preserved the 7-0 deficit. The Buckeyes attempted to salvage a score from the remaining 50 seconds of the half, but Miller took a sack and the clock then ran out. Michigan State jumped and celebrated as it headed for its locker room with the lead still intact — the Buckeyes exited the field to a chorus of boos. After the intermission, OSU’s defense held the Spartans again. MSU drove 52 yards from its own 14-yard line to set up a long field goal attempt. Conroy pushed his 51-yard try wide right of the uprights and OSU’s deficit remained at 7-0. OSU’s offense continued to sputter — Miller led the team to only 16 total yards of offense in the third quarter as redshirt senior quarterback Joe Bauserman began to throw a ball behind the Buckeyes’ bench. MSU moved into scoring position again late in the quarter when Cousins completed a 52-yard pass to Cunningham. The Spartans eventually moved to the Buckeyes’ 5-yard line, but Cousins’ pass on third-and-goal was intercepted in the end zone by sophomore safety C.J. Barnett. Then Bauserman went under center for the Buckeyes, though he didn’t fare much better, going 0 of 1 passing on his first drive before being sacked on third down. The Buckeyes’ never found their footing with either Bauserman or Miller leading the offense. Conroy’s 50-yard field with 10:35 remaining put the Spartans up 10-0 and proved to be the game-winning score. OSU (3-2) will continue conference play next Saturday when it makes its first-ever trip to Nebraska.
If all the madness of March could be examined and condensed for the Ohio State men’s basketball team, it’d probably read as one word: pressure. No, this isn’t last year’s team that was the NCAA Tournament’s No. 1 overall seed and heavy favorite to win it all. But that sort of pressure, in more way than one, still remains. For the third-straight year, the Buckeyes have advanced to the Sweet 16. They are set to play Cincinnati at 9:45 p.m. Thursday in Boston’s TD Garden. Out of 345 Division I basketball teams, only OSU and Kentucky have managed to accomplish such a feat. The question on everyone’s mind, though, is whether or not the Buckeyes’ season, for the third-straight year, will end there too. It’s even gotten to the point that some have suggested the Sweet 16 is now an expectation for OSU and anything but just isn’t good enough anymore. OSU coach Thad Matta doesn’t seem to think so, though. “I’ve never been one to care a whole lot about what other people think,” Matta said with laugh. “Obviously nobody wants to win more than myself and the players do.” While making it to the Sweet 16 is a goal of OSU and Matta’s, he was clear it’s not the end-all-be-all of their aspirations. “I think being in the situation is great, but being complacent or satisfied is something that we don’t want to do,” he said. “The goal is to be playing on Saturday.” Matta also wanted to point out that this year’s team is “a completely different team” than the past two teams that made it to and lost in the Sweet 16. Still, he hoped lessons were learned the last time the Buckeyes were on such a stage. “I do hope that for William (Buford) and the freshmen that they remember what it feels like to be sent home and you hope that it serves as a reminder, as motivation, whatever you want to call it,” Matta said. What’s different compared to years past is OSU’s opponent Thursday: Cincinnati. Traditionally-and by nature-teams facing off in the Sweet 16 have little familiarity with each other. For example, the Buckeyes’ last two opponents were out of the Southeastern Conference-last year’s being Kentucky and the year before that, Tennessee. This year, however, it’s a neighboring Ohio school that stands in OSU’s way of reaching the Elite 8. Cincinnati, one of four Ohio-based teams (including OSU) to make the Sweet 16, will have its first crack at the Buckeyes since December 2006. Perhaps more notably, it’s just the second time the teams have met since the Bearcats defeated the Buckeyes in consecutive national championship games in 1961 and 1962. That, and OSU’s intentional or unintentional avoidance of playing other Ohio teams, is why some have suggested that there’s even extra pressure on OSU Thursday. But, Matta said he doesn’t want to look at it that way. “From that standpoint, I think that there’s so much more made on the outside than on the inside. … I want them to play their best basketball regardless of who we’re playing,” he said. For the Buckeyes, the perceived additional challenge of facing an in-state team is more or less a non-factor. “(The players are) pretty callous to that in terms of, ‘Hey, if we don’t play our best basketball, we don’t have a chance to win on Thursday night’ and they know that,” Matta said. Rather than the contest being so focused on the intrigue of the matchup between OSU and UC, Matta said he thinks this is more about the NCAA Tournament. “This is about trying to get to the Elite 8 and have a chance to play for the national championship,” he said. “Both teams are in the exact same position in that regard.” Right or wrong, the perception out there is that the pressure on OSU to win and advance, perhaps, is as high as it’s been all season. And it won’t be easy. The Bearcats have been among the nation’s hottest teams since early February, winning 11 of the last 14 since dropping three in a row against West Virginia, Syracuse and Rutgers. Matta said what stands out to him the most are their multi-dimensional guards and the presence that senior forward Yancy Gates commands down low. He also said it seems that the Bearcats have seem to finally found their rhythm. “I think what happened is a very talented group of guys came together. … You’ve got a talented group of guys that have come together and are playing great basketball,” Matta said. Still, OSU said it will treat this game as they would any other. “It’s more about advancing then who you’re advancing against,” Matta said. And that’s exactly what the Buckeyes hope to do Thursday in Boston.
Members of the Ohio state football team run out of the new players’ enterance tunnel before a matchup with Virginia Tech on Sept. 6 at Ohio Stadium. OSU los, 35-21.Credit: Mark Batke / Photo editorFor players like Michael Thomas, losing wasn’t a reality until after nearly two full seasons at Ohio State.Since that first loss, it’s become commonplace, as the Buckeyes have now lost three of their last four games.Thomas, a redshirt-sophomore wide receiver, said the time since OSU lost to Virginia Tech on Sept. 6 has left him and his teammates itching to have another shot to prove themselves on the Ohio Stadium field.“We just want to get that bad taste out of our stomach,” Thomas said Wednesday. “(To) a lot guys, it seems like it’s been the longest week ever.“We’re just waiting to get back in the ‘Shoe and make Buckeye nation proud.”After winning their season-opening game against Navy in Baltimore on Aug. 30, the Buckeyes took on the Hokies and fell, 35-21, after falling behind, 21-7, at halftime. Previously, OSU started slowly against the Midshipmen, going into the half with a 7-6 deficit before taking a 34-17 victory.OSU coach Urban Meyer said Buckeye teams of old have been known for fast starts, and added he believes his team has to put that tradition in motion to have more success going forward.“We had a pretty good reputation for a while there of coming out of the gates real fast, real hard and we haven’t done that yet,” Meyer said Wednesday. “I did some research on that, it was brought to my attention a while back and we haven’t. So we got to go take the lead and play Ohio State-style football.”While starting slowly has been the Buckeyes’ problem lately — even dating back to the 2013 Big Ten Championship game against Michigan State when the Spartans jumped out to a 17-0 lead in the first half — they’ve been able to get back in the game late. Each time — the Virginia Tech game included — OSU has come back to at least tie it up in the second half.But each of the four games dating back to Michigan State has led to an OSU loss — save the game against the Midshipmen — as the Buckeyes followed a slow start with a slow finish. Meyer said finishing the game strong will be a focus as well on Saturday against Kent State.“Of course that’s the message, and it’s all about execution,” he said.Regardless of what happened to end last season, or what has happened so far in 2014, at least one Buckeye doesn’t see his team’s long-term goals changing just yet.“Season’s not over,” senior defensive lineman Michael Bennett said Wednesday. “We’ve still got however many games. There have been one-loss teams that have won the national championship before. It’s happened.”Bennett said his team doesn’t have time to worry about what those outside the program are saying about the Buckeyes after the loss to the Hokies, despite OSU dropping to No. 22 from No. 8 in the Associated Press Top 25 poll.“We’ve just got to keep chugging along, keep getting better and then just whatever happens, happens and they can say whatever they want,” Bennett said.The first step along the road to achieving the team’s goals is set to come against Kent State on Saturday, marking the first time in 36 years the Buckeyes will be playing their second home game without an Ohio Stadium win already under their belt.Sophomore running back Ezekiel Elliott said the team is “hungry” to get back on the field to “make up for last Saturday.”“It’s just crazy, it’s that feeling in your stomach,” Elliott said Wednesday. “You just ready to go, we’re going to come out angry on Saturday and work hard.”Kickoff against the Golden Flashes is set for noon.
Cleveland Cavaliers forward LeBron James is seen before tipoff of overtime of a game between the Cavs and the San Antonio Spurs. The Cavs beat the Spurs, 128-125, in overtime.Credit: Courtesy of TNSOhio State might be home to the defending college football national champions, but for a night in October, it will host the defending NBA Eastern Conference champions, as well.For the third consecutive year, the Schottenstein Center is set to be the sight of a Cleveland Cavaliers preseason game as the Cavs will meet the Memphis Grizzlies on Oct. 12.The game is set to be the third of seven Cavs preseason games, with their opener on another Ohio college campus: Xavier University in Cincinnati.Last season, the Cavs hosted the Chicago Bulls at the Schottenstein Center in front of a sold-out crowd of 19,049. The Cavs won that contest 107-98, with point guard Kyrie Irving and small forward LeBron James combining for 46 points and 13 assists.The year before, the Cavs entertained the crowd with a 104-93 victory over the Philadelphia 76ers.The Cleveland Browns also expanded their preseason to Columbus this year, bringing their Orange & Brown Scrimmage to Ohio Stadium on Aug. 7. That event drew just under 50,000 fans.Last season, James returned to the Cavs after four years with the Miami Heat, leading them to a 53-29 record and second-ever trip to the NBA Finals, where they eventually fell to the Golden State Warriors in six games.James, an Akron, Ohio, native and avid supporter of OSU athletics, was given a permanent locker in the home locker room at the Schottenstein Center in 2013.Tickets to the Oct. 12 preseason matchup between the Cavs and Grizzlies go on sale at 10 a.m. on Sept. 10 and begin at $15. Tip-off is scheduled for 7 p.m. Correction Aug. 26: An earlier version of the story stated the 2013 game against the 76ers was the Cavs’ Columbus debut, when in fact they had played at the Schottenstein Center prior to that.