Thursday, May 21, 2015

Thursday Thoughts

I haven't done a completely pointless post like this in quite some time.  Guess maybe I will now.

-  So Jonathan Nwankwo, one of the Gopher hoops signees for next season, was let out of his letter of intent.  Here's my post from when he originally committed so I won't rehash all that, but this sucks.  There are all kinds of rumors to why, but they all agree on it being an academic thing.  If it's an NCAA issue as some suggest, well, what are you going to do?  If it's a U of M thing, man that sucks.  I get that being a high level academic institution is important, that's kind of the Big 10's thing, but I don't really care because it doesn't affect me.  I'd rather have them just go ahead and admit anybody who can play basketball at a high level and work it out from there.  I like that the U is a big time smarty pants research school, but can't we just make an exception for sports?

-  The Wolves won the lottery!  They get to pick first, and the cynic would say of course they won this year when there are 3-4 legitimate options for first overall pick, but as much as I love DeAngelo Russell, and I do, I think the clear 1-2 are Karl-Anthony Towns and Jahlil Okafor.  For me, it's clear that Towns needs to be the pick.

Okafor is a ready made post scorer with more polish on that end than Towns, but Towns can do so much more and, in my eyes, has a lot more potential.  Towns is nearly as good in the post, hitting 72% of his attempts at the rim while Okafor hit 75%, but Towns can step out and do some other things offensively.  Seventy percent of Okafor's shots came at the rim, while Towns was just 54%, and Okafor didn't even attempt a single shot farther out than 17 feet this year, while Towns actually attempted eight three pointers and plenty of mid-range stuff.  Here are their shot charts from

Almost all at the rim

More balanced.

That doesn't mean that Okafor can't develop a perimeter game, but it does mean Towns is closer and the disparity in free throw percentage (Okafor 51%, Towns 82%) suggests the same.  Additionally, Towns averaged nearly double the blocked shots per game despite playing nine fewer minutes and on a per possession basis Towns blocked 11.7% of shots when he was on the floor (16th in the country) and Okafor just 4.5% (still good for 245th).  Rebounding, Okafor edges Towns by about 1.5 per game, but again, per possession Towns' percentages are absolutely elite, while Okafor's are merely very good.

Okafor showed his game all season, while Towns merely began to tap his potential.  It also remains to be seen if Okafor can up his defensive game while I don't think there's any question how good Towns can be, and Okafor struggled against seven footers last season while Towns held his own pretty much against anybody.  The choice is clear, it needs to be Towns, or it's a huge mistake.

-  I suppose I have to talk Twins seeing as how they're suddenly on a 93 win pace, but I'm kind of trying to ignore it because it's just beyond fragile right now.  Everything from run differential to pythagorean winning percentage to cluster luck says this isn't a 93-win team.  Pythagorean winning percentage says this is probably more like an 80 win team, and digging even deeper into the nerd stats says they might even be worse than that.   And this so far with Mike Pelfrey pitching out his ass and Kyle Gibson greatly outperforming his peripherals (though Gibson could do it all year, but don't expect Pelfrey not to crash).

Still, Phil Hughes should get better and Trevor May will hopefully get better, plus reinforcements should show up at some point in Alex Meyer and Ervin Santana, not to mention a couple extra bullpen arms who could show up.  The offense has been great - 6th in runs scored in the majors - and though it will probably regress a bit it should be fine, and with just as many candidates who should get better as who will likely fall off a bit that's looking good.  Oh man I'm getting optimistic.  This is horrible.

Here is one guarantee:  Santana is eligible to return sometime in July.  The trade deadline is July 31st.  I promise you if the Twins are anywhere near contention we will hear "Well we're getting Santana back, that's just like making a trade" or something similar.  And then I will drive my car off the nearest bridge.

-  A few other baseball things of note:  Bryce Harper becoming a young monster (1.203 OPS at age 22), Miguel Cabrera's Day/Night splits (1.427 OPS in the day, .645 at night), Eric Hosmer being good now and maybe even Mike Moustakas too, Joc Pederson's three true outcomes (54% of his plate appearances have ended in a walk, strikeout, or home run), Kris Bryant, Dee Gordon's insane luck (.444 BABIP), the Astros quest to break the strikeout record (batting) while still being good, Chase Utley's disappearance (.513 OPS), Giancarlo Stanton crushing the ball, Danny Santana's attempt to never walk, Michael Brantley trying to finish with twice as many walks as strikeouts, Melky Cabrera's complete loss of power (3 XBH this year) and Billy Hamliton looking to have more stolen bases than hits.

Also, every Aroldis Chapman appearance, James Shields striking out everyone in sight, Chris Tillman's sudden inability to throw a strike, everything about the Trevor Bauer experience, Michael Pineda being (and staying healthy), Cole Hamels trade watch, Jason Marquis still being in the league and still having a rotation spot, Shelby Miller becoming a star, Matt Harvey appointment TV, and what the hell happened to Stephen Strasburg?

-  I thought there'd be more, but apparently I'm out of practice and my stamina isn't what it used to be. So, bye.

Saturday, May 16, 2015

Welcome aboard, Jordan Murphy!

Over the weekend the Gophers added the seventh and final member of this year's class (though Reggie Lynch won't be eligible until the 2016-2017 season) in Jordan Murphy, a 6-7 forward from Texas who had originally signed with VCU.  Shaka Smart left, Murphy decommitted, Texas had no openings, Pitino swept in and wowed Murphy's parents, and wa la, the Gopher picked up Rivals #113 ranked player.  He joins Kevin Dorsey (#108) and Dupree McBrayer (#135) in giving the Gophers three Rivals Top 150 players which is like whoa.

Murphy is a terrific pick-up, especially this late in the year when you're more likely to pick up a waste of a 4-year scholarship than someone who can come in and play heavy minutes right away.  Murphy can, and most likely will, play heavy minutes at PF backing up Joey King, considering the unsettled state of the Gopher bigs.  Beyond King, where you know exactly what you're going to get, everyone else is a complete question mark.  Murphy, as a freshman, obviously isn't a known quantity at this point either, but nowhere in any of the scouting reports on this kid will you find the word project or unpolished, an adjective that applies to every other member of the Gopher frontcourt.

On the contrary, Murphy is described as a smooth and polished scorer.  He can score inside and out, and according to ESPN's scouts he's the kind of player who can grab a rebound on the defensive side of the ball and then take off down court and take it coast to coast on his own.  Righteous.  ESPN also says he can guard both wings and "smaller power forwards" which is hopefully no longer true and he can guard all power forwards because the Gophers are awfully crowded on the wing.  He's listed at 6-7 and 220 lbs. so more than likely ESPN is correct which does put a minor damper on things, but he could be the best recruit in the class so let's celebrate that and worry about defensive assignments later.

I absolutely love this class.  Two point guards who can both play on or off the ball, three wings who can all play either two or three spots, and a rangy big man who should be a solid rim protector right off the bat, if nothing else.  Add in Michael Hurt, already signed for 2016, and Lynch and Pitino is on his way to constructing the kind of team I love - an athletic group who are basically interchangeable with multiple ball handlers and most of the players able to guard several positions.  I love it.  Let's get this season started already.

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

The Twins are over .500. The hell?

Though being one game over .500 isn't exactly blowing up the league, the Twins had extremely low expectations with a Vegas over/under of 70.5 wins, so being on pace to win something like 84 games represents a substantially better season than expected.  One can't help but wonder how they got here, and if we can expect it to last and maybe see some semi-meaningful baseball in September again for the first time in what feels like forever.

The offense has been about what was expected:  Team overall OPS is .675, last year it was .713.  They're walking a little less and hitting with a little less power so far, but overall nothing out of the ordinary and they've averaged 4.56 runs per game this year compared to 4.41 last year so the offense is fine.  It'd be nice for Kurt Suzuki and Kennys Vargas to start hitting, but the offense is fine.  The defense has been atrocious as expected, so the improvement must have come from the pitching.

Sure enough, team ERA in 2015 is 4.07, down a half a run from 4.58 last year.  Even better, starters' ERA is 4.38, which is 10th worst in the majors but a major upgrade from last year's 5.06 and 2013's 5.26, both dead last in the majors.  Twins' relievers sport an ERA of 3.58, in line with 2014's 3.73 and 2013's 3.50, so any improvement has come from the starting pitching.  Might as well look at all these guys and see who might actually be, like, good.

PHIL HUGHES:  Hughes had a nearly impossible task trying to replicate both a career year and a historic walk/strikeout ratio, but he hasn't come close so far putting up numbers more in line with his Yankee days than last season.  He's still controlling walks well and his strikeouts, though down a bit, are at a nice number, but he's getting killed by home runs, allowing 1.91 HRs per 9 innings after allowing just 0.69 last year.  The good news is that he's allowing a home run on 15.1% of all his fly balls, which is likely an outlier since it would have been the second worst in the majors among starters with at least 150 innings pitched last season, and I'm pretty sure a Phil Hughes making about his half his starts at Target Field isn't going to end up at that number.  He got really lucky about home runs last year (6.2% HR/FB), but his true ability probably lies somewhere in the middle.  He probably won't be as good as last year, but he'll be better than he's been thus far.

KYLE GIBSON:  Gibson's ERA is down almost a full run from last season, but there are some serious red flags here.  His BABIP this year is just .267, below his career average and the league average, and his runners LOB% is 75.8%, which would be a top 30 mark most seasons - both significant indicators of luck.  Alarmingly his K/9 has dropped to 2.79 (from 5.37 last year) which is dead last in the majors, and his walks have jumped by 1 per nine innings at the same time to 3.86, 14th worst in the league.  He's also allowing a career worst 24% line drive rate and 83.6% contact rate.  Seeing as he's shown nothing at all to support his ERA improvement from last season you're looking at a serious regression candidate unless he starts missing some bats.

MIKE PELFREY:  The guy who nobody wanted in the rotation except for him and his family, and Pelfrey's put up a 2.63 ERA in five starts, but don't let that fool you - he's still terrible.  BABIP is .259, LOB % is 83.3%, and HR/9 is just 0.66 - there's no way this keeps up.  Those numbers last season would have ranked 18th, 1st, and 18th - does Pelfrey seem like a Top 20 pitcher to you?  I will say this - his 56% ground ball rate is a very good thing and his hard hit ball percentage is just 18.1%, second in the league and probably fluky but not as definitely fluky as his other peripherals  I'm not buying yet, but he's throwing a ton more split fingers and sliders and isn't relying as much on the fastball, and somehow he's managed to put more than 2 mph on his fast ball compared to last year.  I don't believe in Pelfrey, but I expected this paragraph to be much worse.  He may actually end up a decent number 4-5 starter.

TREVOR MAY:  Probably the most important of these guys given his youth and potential, May's 4.15 ERA is decent but the good news is he's probably even better than that.  His BABIP is high and his LOB % is low.  He's putting up a respectable 6.9 K/9 and has reigned in his massive control problems from last year to average just 1.73 walks per nine.  His HR numbers are a bit fluky and he should regress there a bit, but as long as he can control his walks he should be solid.  We may have something here.  Get it?  Control his walks?  May have something?  That's high comedy right there.

TOMMY MILONE:  You generally don't expect much from fifth pitchers, but Milone has been more like a seventh or eighth guy so far.  Among Twins' pitchers with at least 20 innings pitched he ranks last in walk rate, homer rate, FIP, and xFIP, and his ERA is second worst at 4.76.  Perhaps the worst part is that Milone's BABIP is a minuscule .243 and his LOB is over 80%, so he's actually been putting up these horrid stats while getting lucky.  Yuck.  His control is completely out of hand with 4.37 BB/9, nearly double his career average and he's just giving up a monstrous amount of home runs.  Assuming he hasn't lost it he should be better than this but he's never going to be special.  A guy with a 87 mph fastball has to be pretty sharp with control and pitch mix, so it certainly is possible he's lost it.   Might even work better for the Twins if he has, so they can finally get Alex Meyer up here.

So, kind of a mixed bag.  Some guys should be better than they've been, some worse.  Probably the kind of thing you'd expect on a team that's right around .500.  And hey, maybe they'll stay there.  That'd be cool.

Thursday, April 23, 2015

Welcome aboard, Ahmad Gilbert!

Ahmad Gilbert, a 6-6 wing from Philly, has committed to the Gophers.  Gilbert isn't all that highly ranked, coming in at three stars from ESPN and overall recruit #259 and SF #49 at 247sports, but I'm optimistic after looking scouting reports and reading a bit more (more on that in a second).  He originally had committed to George Mason over Wichita State, Temple, and South Florida among others.  After GMU fired their coach he was released from his NLI and was recruited by Minnesota, Pitt, and South Florida, ultimately choosing the Gophers.

Everyone calls him a big-time scorer, and he looks like he's a big time shooter and he's left-handed so that's always fun to watch.  He shoots more of a set shot and has a really low release point so it's a question if he can get that shot off against big time competition, but it looks like when he does it goes in the basket and awful that and that's the whole point of basketball so that's good.  He's not a great driver or distributor, but with Kevin Dorsey and Jarvis Johnson on their way he shouldn't need to be, and the team could use more shooting without question.  Additionally he's one of those long type of guys and is already a good defender so he could play right away.

Most likely this also closes the door on Malik Ellison, a more highly rated wing, but Ellison's recruitment is picking up and he's had plenty of time to commit.  Pitino really couldn't take a chance holding off Gilbert until Ellison was ready to make a decision and potentially losing both guys, so it makes sense to take Gilbert on now.  And, although this post is maybe coming up negatively, I do like the signing.  Pitino is basically building this roster from scratch, and he needs a little bit of everything.  The one piece missing from this recruiting class so far, besides a power forward, is a shooter and ideally Gilbert will fit that role.  He'll be more of a project than any of the other perimeter signings and on a team with a few projects already things could get messy, but he has a ton of potential.  Not to mention building a team of similar sized, athletic types is a perfect recipe for the type of style Pitino wants to play.

One scholarship remains for 2015-2016, and it's almost certainly got to be a big guy.  Ellison and Gilbert could play together, but the team is so loaded with perimeter guys and so light on bigs right now they really need to bring in somebody with some size, and ideally some skill would be good too.  There are a handful of current candidates, but three of them would have to sit out next season:

- PF Chris Boucher, Powell, WY (#10 JuCo):  Boucher is big (6-10) but also skinny (205 lbs.) but can run and jump out of the gym and was the Junior College National Player of the Year.  He was a monster for Northwest College in Wyoming, averaging 22.5 points, 11.8 rebounds, and 4.7 blocks per game (4.7!!!).  He also shot 58% from the floor and 44% from three on 126 attempts.  The stats are insane, but should come with some questions as well considering Minnesota's biggest competition for him looks to be are TCU, Oklahoma State, Oregon State, and Texas Tech.  Weird things happen with Jucos all the time, from guys that aren't highly regarded who become stars to guys who look like they'll be big time players who flame out.  I am very optimistic about Boucher if he becomes a Gopher, but wary.  Still, the Gophers badly need another big man for next year, and I'd be thrilled to take a chance on Boucher.

- PF Cullen Russo, Hobbs, NM (#33 JuCo):  Russo, formerly from somewhere in Minnesota that I don't feel like looking up, has bounced around a couple prep schools and junior colleges and finds himself back on the Gophers' radar (Tubby had recruited him in high school).  Russo played last season in New Mexico and averaged 12 pts and 7 rebounds per game.  If I recall he was kind of a fringey D-1 type of guy coming out of high school, but recent reports make it sound like he's really rounded his game into shape and, like Boucher, can score both inside and out and play solid defense and at 6-9 and 210 lbs. that would fit with the Gophers' needs nicely.  The Gophers should be in decent shape here, but Texas Tech and Tubby are still on him, Wichita State recently offered, and Indiana's been sniffing around so he's picking up some steam.  I'd rather have Boucher, but Russo could be a nice fall back.

-  SF Josh Cunningham, transfer from Bradley:  The surest bet of any of these guys to have a productive career, Cunningham is transferring from Bradley after his freshman year.  He had a successful season, averaging 7.9 points and 7.5 rebounds (led the team) in 30 minutes per game, but a coaching change triggered a mass exodus of players (6 at last count) and Cunningham was one of them.  Coming out of high school Cunningham was ranked as the #115 recruit and #30 SF in the country by 247, and there was mutual interest between he and the Gophers before he chose the Braves.  His proven production will have plenty of programs looking at him, but hopefully whatever relationship he developed with the Gophers' coaches was strong and he ends up at Minnesota because he would be a fantastic pick-up.  He'd have to sit out next season and obviously that's not ideal especially with Reggie Lynch already on the shelf next season, but for 3 years of his proven production the wait would be worth it.  Looking at Minnesota, Arizona, DePaul, Michigan State, Notre Dame, St. John's, Purdue, South Carolina, UIC, Dayton, and Colorado State.  Oof.

-  PF Kyle Washington, transfer from NC State:  Washington was a highly regarded recruit two seasons ago coming into NC State with 247sports listing him as the #82 recruit and #16 PF in the country.  In his freshman year he averaged 5 pts and 4 rebounds per game in 20 minutes, and followed that up this past season averaging 7 pts and 4 rebounds, but in just 18 minutes.  He also saw his playing time dwindle as the season went along, hitting double figures in minutes in just three of the team's final eleven games, including two games where he didn't get off the bench at all.  He's been a capable rebounder and defender in his two seasons, but his sub 47% shooting in each year isn't ideal for a non-perimeter player.  He's originally from Minnesota so there's some thought he might be looking here, but he spent time at a prep school out of state as well so who knows how strong that lure is.  I can't find any info on which schools he's considering.

-  PF Jordan Caroline, transfer from Southern Illinois:  Another part of a mass exodus (though this one not because of a new coach), Caroline is one of five Salukis set to transfer and he's shown interest in the Gophers.  Unlike Cunningham and Washington, Caroline wasn't highly regarded out of high school but he put up a nice freshman season for So Ill (9.2 points and 6.2 rebs) and is looking for a bigger stage to play on.  Granted he was playing for a terrible team, but he put up really impressive per possession rebounding numbers and a good free throw rate so he'd certainly be useful in 2016 (he would have to sit out 2015-2016).  Caroline has set up visits to Xavier, Cincinnati, Nevada, and Minnesota so the Gophers are definitely in the mix.

Pray for Boucher.

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Welcome aboard, Reggie Lynch!

Center Reggie Lynch, formerly of Edina, announced he is transferring from Illinois State to the Gophers and OMG you guys.  A real, honest to go defensive force and bruising big man.  Unfortunately he has to sit out next season due to transfer rules, but come 2016-2017 this guy is going to be fun.

Lynch, 6-10 and 257 lbs., averaged 9.5 points, 5.4 rebounds, and 2.8 blocks in 22 minutes per game last season and has the speed and athleticism to run the floor in Pitino's uptempo system.  His offense is a bit of a problem considering he shot just 51% from the floor while 65% of his shots were classified as "at the rim" but his main weapon is dunking and ideally the Gophers will be able to get him his opportunities running the floor.  Here's his shot chart from, with the caveat that it only covers 7 games.

Yep, he's a dunker.
He looks to basically be a dunker, though that red dot is promising and at least he took a handful of shots on the perimeter in those 7 games, so maybe he can develop some kind of jumper.  Still, that's not really the big selling point on Lynch - he's a defender.

Lynch's 2.8 blocks per game was 14th in the nation, and on a per possession basis he was tops in the country, blocking 15.2% of all opponents shots when he was on the floor.  To put this in perspective so you know what to expect, A.J. Hammons of Purdue was 12th at 12.3%.  There will likely be some fall off moving from the Missouri Valley to the Big Ten, but Lynch's game should translate pretty given his size as long as he doesn't find himself constantly in foul trouble, which he did have some issues with.  Worth noting he had 6 blocks vs. VCU, 6 vs. UAB, and 5 vs. Wichita State in games last season.

This is a very nice get for a team with so many questions about the future front court, and a good use of one of the three (I think) remaining open scholarships, and also breaks up the recruiting classes a little.  With a bunch of guards coming in, nabbing up a nice big man who has already established himself a bit is great, and getting a true rim protector is awesome.  Fun stuff.  With two scholarships still open for 2015 I'll write up a post later this week on potential future Gophers.  I promise.

Thursday, April 2, 2015

Twins Preview - Throwers

I really don't want to do this.  The Twins' pitching has been horrible for years, and even though it might be a little bit better it's still bad and it's also boring.  I guess just dive right in?  Yeah ok.

Opening day starter Phil Hughes should be the ace.  The Twins signed him prior to last season on the cheap, hoping he'd be a better pitcher getting out of Yankee Stadium and boy did that pay off.  He slashed his walks to an insane 0.69 per 9 innings which was the third lowest mark since 1920.  1920!  And he somehow managed to do that while increasing his strikeouts and giving up half as many homers per fly ball.  The homers number is maybe a little fluky, but moving from Yankee Stadium to Target Field can explain a lot of that too and it's balanced by a slightly higher than it should have been BABIP.

I mean Hughes was a really, really good pitcher last year.  Imagine if the Twins weren't one of the two worst fielding teams in the league last year (I can't remember the other one).  Hughes' FIP, which stands for Fielding Independent Pitching and attempts to measure a pitcher based solely on things he can control, was 2.65, almost a full run lower than his ERA (that means the Twins' fielding and Hughes' luck were both really, really bad).  That number was fifth among qualified starters in all of baseball.  He was fifth among starters in WAR.  He won 16 games on a terrible team.  He finished 7th in Cy Young voting.  I mean geez.  I didn't even realize just how good he was.

Honestly, and it scares me to say this a little, there's really no reason not to expect him to be the same pitcher this season. None of the improvements he made are unsustainable, even if a little regression should probably be expected because that's only natural after you set an all-time freaking record for K/Walk ratio, and there's actually some room for his luck to improve.  Most of the projection systems like his walk rate to about double (to a still really good number in the low 1s) and his ERA/WHIP/FIP to go up accordingly, but what if he can come closer to replicating that 0.69?  Man wow.  I know his extension is a bit of a risk since it's pretty much based on one season, but if he can come close to that pitcher again it'll be an absolute bargain.

After Hughes come a couple vets in new Ervin Santana and last year's new Ricky Nolasco.   The latter was an unmitigated disaster, as Nolasco cashed in $12 million to put up career worsts in nearly every category to the tune of a 5.38 ERA and 1.52 WHIP, all while failing to reach 200 innings pitched.  Looking into the advanced stats there's not much of a reason for optimism, though he probably won't be worse.  Even so, I took him with my first pick in a horrible players fantasy league, where you're rewarded for sucking.  Santana is a good signing for a contending team who needs someone in the middle of their rotation, but he doesn't make much sense for a a team like the Twins, especially if it helped push Alex Meyer and Trevor May back down to AAA.  I mean, he's been a pretty good pitcher in five of the last six seasons and he'll almost certainly help the team win more games this season, but he's pretty pointless unless he's still good when this team is contending.  Which will be soon, right?  Whatever.  The team probably thought they were signing Johan Santana anyway.

Starter four is Kyle Gibson who has pretty much lost his top prospect shine but had a pretty successful second season.  He improved from his (admittedly disastrous) rookie call-up two years ago by getting better in pretty much every metric you can find.  His WAR was 2.1 last season, which puts him in line with guys like Chris Tillman and Henderson Alvarez in the pretty darn good pitcher area.  I'd really like to see him up his K rate to somewhere closer to what he was putting up in the minors, but you can't really argue to much with a 2:1 ground ball to fly ball ratio.  He's a solid #4 or a so-so #3 with potential for more if he can whiff more dudes.  Keep an eye on that.

Winning the fifth starter competition over Meyer, May, and Mike Pelfrey (who is in the bullpen in a move I'm sure will work out) is your guy Tommy Milone, who came over in the Sam Fuld trade in what was a steal because Fuld is terrible.  Not that Milone is anything particularly special, but he's made himself into a serviceable major league pitcher despite a fastball that doesn't break 87 miles per hour unless there's a stiff breeze behind him.  But he mixes his pitches well and generally keeps the walks down, so he's not the worst option you could have as a fifth starter - though I promise you he'll have games where he's missing his spots where you'll believe he's pretty much the worst.

That's it for the starters, so now we're on to the bullpen which is going to be awful.  Glen Perkins will close of course and he's pretty awesome.  I have a tendency since he's a Minnesotan on a Minnesota team (and also I'm kind of a shithead sometimes) to assume he's being locally overrated but Perkins really is an elite closer.  Since he took over the closer role permanently in 2013 he ranks 9th in saves (on a terrible team), 13th in K/9, 58th in ERA, and 22nd in FIP, and 25th in WHIP among all pitchers with at least 120 innings pitched - that's pretty damn good!  And he has four more extremely affordable years on his contract (including this season).  I kind of love the guy, but they should probably be listening at every trade deadline.  Some team in win-now mode who is desperate for a closer might do something foolish, and he's a very valuable trade chip.  For now, I'm just going to love watching him, and he's young enough he could be the closer when the team is in contention again (they will!), but you know, think about it.

I'm not saying shop him, not at all.  I'm just saying if say, the Dodgers and their bottomless pit of money find themselves in a dogfight for the division they could come sniffing around.  What if Kenley Jansen's injury festers and he's out all year, and terrible Brandon League and unproven Chris Hatcher aren't getting the job done?  Between Perkins's skills, proven closer status, and super nice contract he'd be an attractive option.  Maybe you can pry Kyle Seager or Julio Urias away.  That would be pretty stupid on the Dodgers' end, but that doesn't mean it can't happen.  They have a super deep farm system and they clearly want to win and they want to win now.

Casey Fien will be the main setup guy after another pretty good year even if he did slip a bit.  It's a smidge disconcerting, however, that his K/9 dropped from 10.6 in 2013 to 7.3 in 2014.  His velocity was actually up so there's a decent chance this was just a weird blip, but there was also a huge jump in contact rate.  Keep an eye on this guy.

Brian Duensing was brought back for some reason and he'll be the sole non-Perkins lefty even though he's really quite terrible at pitching.  He has been decent at getting lefties out in his career, but his inability to strike anyone out drives me crazy and he should never, ever pitch to right-handed batters.  I really don't know why they tendered him other than continuity and familiarity which, as you know, the Twins value to an absurd degree.  I'd rather just roll the dice on Caleb Thielbar.  Granted in his two seasons he's shown reverse splits and if the Twins looked at that then bravo, but I guess I don't buy the front office is that sophisticated.  There aren't really any other in house options for a lefty bullpen guy which is sad in and of itself, but there's always plenty of crappy lefty arms out there you could probably snag for a minor league deal.  In the long run I suppose it doesn't matter, but giving $2.7 million to a terrible Duensing is kind of gross.

The rest of the bullpen is pretty much a mess.  Tim Stauffer is a failed starter who's dealt with a couple of really significant injuries and he's probably the best of the group.  Mike Pelfrey is absolutely terrible and should be released but instead the Twins are putting him in the pen which also pissed him off, so this is just a great situation all around.  J.R. Graham pretty much made the team because he was a Rule 5 pick and has to be on the big league roster or be sent back to his original team, and I literally have no idea who Blaine Boyer is.  This is not an impressive collection of arms, and to make it even worse the only guy in the entire bullpen who is under 30 is Graham.  It's a group of old, failed pitchers.  I prefer my bullpen made up of hard throwing young guys with at least one who isn't sure where the ball might be going all the time.  That's fun.  This is a garbage fire.

It's not like the team's going anywhere anyway.  You could roll with 25-year old Michael Tonkin, 25-year old Stephen Pryor, 26-year old Lester Oliveros, 22-year old Nick Burdi, and 22-year old Jake Reed and be just as well off, if not better, and it would be a lot more fun.  Or hell, throw Meyer and/or May into the pen to start like the way the Orioles have handled Kevin Gausman.  I don't know.  I'm not entirely certain this team has a coherent plan beyond "waiting for 2016 and hoping all the prospects are good" but whatever.

All in all, the starters could be decent this year, and will most likely be the best the Twins have had in a few years.  The bullpen, however, is going to blow a lot of games.

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Twins Roster Preview - Hitter guys

With the depressing but not terribly surprising news that the Twins sent all the interesting young people back down to the minors and kept a bunch of lame-o veterans on the big league roster, I suppose it's time to turn my thoughts to baseball.  Also, there's a 75% chance I hate the college basketball national champion (actually probably more like 98%) so I'm going to ignore that until it's on TV because of course I'll watch.  Anyway, here's what we're dealing with from the guys who will try to hit the ball this year.

CATCHER:  It'll be Kurt Suzuki and Josmil Pinto once again.  Although it's kind of boring, this is sadly probably the Twins strength given Suzuki's solid season in 2014 and Pinto's possible upside.  The handling of the catcher position last year was bizarre.  Signing Suzuki in case Pinto wasn't ready made sense, but then extending Suzuki and demoting Pinto was the kind of move a contending team would make, and in case you forgot the Twins were not a contending team.  Suzuki's value was likely at an all-time high given his career year and All-Star appearance and moving him at the trade deadline was probably the smart move, but here we are.

Suzuki will of course be the starter again.  Last year he put up a slash line of .288/.345/.383 which smashed his career numbers.  His peripherals suggest some regression but not as much as I had feared, so he should be solid behind the plate again.  He's not horrible defensively either, so the Twins have a legit, competent player.  Neat.  Hopefully he gets traded.  Pinto had a solid minor league track record of hitting and had a splashy debut in 2013, but last season his bat deserted him to the tune of .219/.315/.391 and given that he's a pretty terrible fielder most/all of his value comes from his bat.  He did start hitting once demoted down to AAA last year, and even in struggles he still showed good plate discipline and power when he did make contact so there's probably not too much to worry about.  Other than his path being completely blocked by the stupid 2-year deal given to Suzuki.  Trade him!

INFIELD:  Your guy Joe Mauer will be the first baseman again, which is pretty brutal.  Mauer's line of .277/.361/.371 would be slightly above average for a middle infielder, but that OPS ranked 15th among all first basemen who qualified last season, just a slight tick better than Garrett Jones.  I don't know what's up with Mauer, but an increase in strikeouts coupled with a complete loss of power is fairly terrifying given his salary.  He's stopped hitting fly balls, and the fly balls he does hit don't go anywhere.  I don't know why or what he's doing differently but whatever it is somebody please fix it!

I'm pretty stoked about the middle infield combo of Danny Santana and Brian Dozier, and these guys could be fixtures of the team when it gets good again which it will eventually so shut up.  A lot of Santana's detractors point to his BABIP of .405 and say it's unsustainable, and it is, but I found a neato expected BABIP calculator that takes a players line drive percent and all that other stuff and spits out what the BABIP should be and his came out at .369 last year, so that .405 represents a bit of luck but not this massive amount you'd usually expect from a number north of .400.  I expect him to bat close to .300 again and play a shaky shortstop.

Dozier just signed what could be a steal of a deal at 4/$20, assuring the Twins won't have to shell out big money any time soon if he continues to get better or even stays the same.  Of course they could be stuck with him if he goes back to sucking, but I choose to believe that isn't going to happen.  He doesn't hit for a high average which makes old people sad, but he has good power and great plate discipline, not to mention an above average glove and according to fangraphs base running metric (takes into account both stealing bases and taking an extra base on a hit) he was the 3rd best base runner in the game.  Add all that up, and his hair, and you get one of the best second basemen in all of baseball.  Too many tools for him to breakdown.  He's going to be a nice bargain for the next four years, and probably traded at the deadline in 2018.

Trevor Plouffe will be back at third again, probably for the last time.  With Miguel Sano breathing down his neck and still no indication Sano's going to be anything other than a third baseman this is Plouffe's last chance to prove his value.  Whether he ends up being a trade casualty (probably the best case scenario), is non-tendered in the offseason, or shows enough they want to keep him around and make him an outfielder or something he's probably done at third.  He's had a solid, if mostly unspectacular (other than that one time he was super hot hitting homers) 3-4 year run and has worked hard to go from a terrible fielder to an above average one, all while being a good, not great, hitter.  He's been an important part of a consistent 90-game loser and it's time to start winning.  Not this year, of course, be real, but next year maybe we can think about it.

Backing these nerds up we have the two headed crap factory of Eduardo Escobar and Eduardo Nunez who I still don't know why he was resigned.  Escobar showed a weird flash of power last year with 35 doubles and is a capable defender all over the place so I like having him around.  Nunez is terrible at everything.

Designated Hitter should be a fun spot with Kennys Vargas (who will also back-up at 1B) now here since he can hit the crap out of a baseball.  Vargs knocked out nine dingers and ten doubles in just 234 plate appearances, racking up an isolated power metric that would have put him in the Top 40 in the majors if he had qualified.  Considering he's like 16 years old or something that bodes well for the future.  Assuming more experience helps move his walk and strikeout rates closer to his minor league numbers (a dangerous assumption, to be sure), he could be in for a big year.  He crushed the ball in spring training with 1 HR every 14 ABs and everyone loves to watch fat guys launch baseballs out of the yard so expect him to be a fan favorite.

OUTFIELD:  What a mess.  Aaron Hicks ruined everything, and he's back in the minors again meaning Jordan Schafer, he of the career .621 OPS, will man center, flanked by the immobile Oswaldo Arcia and the ancient Torii Hunter in what is basically guaranteed to be the worst defensive outfield in the majors.  Backing up a bunch of pitchers who don't strike anyone out.  Great plan.

Ok I guess there's some upside.  Arcia is still really young at 24 and he was one of just three players under 24 last year to hit more than 20 home runs.  He still strikes out a ton but at least his power and walk rates got better last year, which is a good sign for future development.  His fielding also improved from "oh my god" to "jeez this guy is terrible", which might be his ceiling.  Hunter has been pretty much the same player the last five years, at least offensively, and if he can do it again and provide "leadership" or whatever he's probably worth having around.  That being said, if you think he's any kind of defensive wizard anymore you're sorely mistaken as he's now well below average even at a corner spot (stupid Father Time!).  That said he can't be any worse than the Willingham/Kubel/Parmelee trio of death that spent time out there last year, so he's got that going for him.

Schafer is the wild card, sort of, mainly because the Twins opted against giving Hicks a third year out of camp (or something radical like bringing Eddie Rosario up ahead of schedule) despite Schafer never really doing much of anything batted ball-wise.  He's fast, bad at hitting, and white so you know he's gritty and full of hustle and heart, but in his 147 plate appearance sample with the Twins last year he managed to hit exactly league average and it was, by far, the most successful stint of his major league career.  Somehow between the Twins and Braves last year he stole 30 bases (in 37 attempts) despite just 240 plate appearances which seems completely insane to me since "getting on base" isn't really in his wheelhouse but clearly he can run, which feels exciting.  He can play a passable CF as well, so I guess it's better than throwing an inanimate carbon rod out there.

Outfield back-ups will include a handful of starts from Escobar, that god damn Nunez, and teeny tiny Shane Robinson who goes by Suga Shane on Twitter.  He'll fit in with the Twins since he's proven he can't hit over 452 career plate appearances.  He's a 30 year old non-prospect who didn't hit in the minors either until he was much older than his competition, but a mediocre Spring Training won him a job over Hicks, though perhaps giving Hicks a regular role at AAA is for the best and I really don't know who else would be better than Robinson since they didn't sign anybody else and let's be honest it probably would have been a former Twin who was well beyond his prime anyway.  Robinson is a good fielder so he'll probably have some value plugging in as a defensive replacement in the late innings when the Twins stumble into a lead.

Overall, looking like a so-so offense.  They'll most likely have above average hitters in 7 of the 9 spots and the other two either have serious bounce back potential (Mauer) or tremendous speed as an asset (Schafer).  The bench is pretty bad unless Pinto bounces back but it's the American League so there probably won't be too much pinch hitting anyway.  Switch hitting Escobar is the only possible lefty swinger off the bench but he's been brutal against righties in his career so yeah, I'd expect a lot of sticking with the main nine guys.  It's a decent offense.  The real problem is the pitching, which I don't have the heart, energy, or ambition to tackle right now.  Later.

Friday, March 27, 2015

Previewing the Sweet 16 - Friday

Small loss yesterday pretty much because of the 5 unit loss on the Wis/UNC under.  I still feel like I read that game right as it was just a 60 possession game so I nailed the pace. Carolina hitting 8 of 13 three point attempts really sunk me.  I figured Wisconsin would are UNC to shoot and they'd miss a bunch, but they nailed them so what are you gonna do?  Even given that I still had a chance until that stupid UNC foul on the perimeter with less than a minute left took out the possibility of Bucky running the clock down.  Whatevs.  We move on.  Had most of the other stuff nailed.  Here's what I'm thinking for Friday.

UCLA vs. Gonzaga.  I really, really, really didn't expect UCLA to get here, so I'm at a bit of a loss. Bryce Alford, who was becoming more and more of a chucker as the year went on, has been white hot in the tournament, and after a lucky, grind it out win against SMU (with a questionable call to boot) they looked like an absolute offensive juggernaut against UAB.  That might not sound like much, but don't forget the Blazers pretty much completely shut down Iowa State.  Is UCLA a lucky team who snuck into the tournament undeservedly, lucked into a first round win, and then decimated a shoddy opponent in round 2?  Or are they a team worthy of inclusion who has won two games playing vastly different styles and is now peaking at the right time?

Nothing in these teams' profiles suggests the Bruins have a prayer of stopping Gonzaga.  The Bulldogs are a smoothly run offensive operation with plenty of firepower both inside and outside and other than some suspect free throw shooting from their big guys no real weaknesses.  UCLA is going to have to score to keep up with them, and the Zags defense is far superior to the Bruins so it won't be easy.  They're going to want to try to get down the court as soon as possible with their athletes and try to get moving towards the basket before Gonzaga can get their half court defense set up, but an uptempo game also suits the Bulldogs just fine.

These teams played earlier this year, with Gonzaga coming out ahead 87-74.  The Zags absolutely shredded the UCLA defense with the Bruins hanging as close as they did thanks to good 3-point shooting and a bunch of offensive rebounds.  I don't really see much of any reason to expect anything wildly different, though without question this is the game I feel I have the shakiest read on.

Bet:  Gonzaga -8.5 (1 UNIT), Over 146 (1 UNIT)

Louisville vs. North Carolina State: I’m such a horrible traitor. For years I've been a huge Rick Pitino fan, which helps to explain some of my enthusiasm at the Gophers’ hiring of his son, and have always backed them to overachieve in the NCAA Tournament. I won a 20-1 future bet three years ago when they won the title and won my NCAA pool the year he won with that awesome Tony Delk Kentucky team and that should have been enough to make me a believer for life, and I thought I was. So why did I pick Louisville to lose to UC-Irvine? Was I enthralled with that giant 7-6 guy? Did I think losing Chris Jones would make a chaotic, and sometimes limited, offensive team even more chaotic? Did I think a poor close to the season made the Cardinals a prime candidate to flame out early?  Yes to all of it.  I'm horrible.  It's Rick Pitino, you dummy.

Of course, we can't discount NC State seeing as they completely dismantled what I thought was a very good Villanova team, not to mention beating a very athletic LSU squad in round 1.  Both teams have played tremendous defense in the tournament thus far holding all opponents far under their points per possession average with both putting up an extremely impressive performance versus an elite offensive team (Northern Iowa and Villanova). Both teams do it with a hellacious half court defense, though Louisville holds an edge here because they also excel at causing turnovers whereas NC State never does.  Neither team shoots the ball particularly well, so if this turns into a half court game it could end up quite a slogfest.

It will most likely end up that way, at least on the NC State end since the Wolfpack like to take their time and the Louisville defense, despite the press, generally forces teams to take up quite a bit of the shot clock on each possession.  Louisville will probably get a few easy baskets in transition thanks to turnovers, though NC State is pretty good at taking care of the ball, and they'll need them since their tendency is take a lot of terrible long twos.  I have a feeling this is going to be a very ugly game, or a beautiful game if you like defense.  In that case I'd be crazy to pick against Rick Pitino again.

Bet:  Louisville -3 (2 UNITS), Under 130 (4 UNITS)

Utah vs. Duke.  The Blue Devil start and end with Jahlil Okafor, who is the key to everything they do on offense.  He has an incredibly polished game in the post, is an adept and smart enough passer to find open shooters when double-teamed, and is a terror on the offensive boards.  He struggles against defenders who can match his size, however, and I found a little factoid that he's averaged just 11.6 points per game against teams with a 7-footer they can throw at him.  Well guess what?  Utah has two in Jakob Poeltl and Dallin Bachynski, and neither are just a big body, both have skill.  This bodes well for the Utes.  Not that Okafor is all Duke has, especially with Justise Winslow really coming on in the tournament, but having the ability to potentially limit Okafor is a really good start.

Offensively Utah also matches up well against Duke.  The Blue Devils excel at perimeter defense giving up very few three pointers and they rarely foul, but over 60% of their points allowed this year came from 2-point shots, not a problem for Utah since they shot 53% from there this year.  They were a little more reliant on three pointers than you'd like to see in this spot, but shooting 41% from behind the line on the year can do that to a team.  At least you know that even if they get limited looks they should be able to knock them down.  Delon Wright is an underrated super star at guard for Utah and he should be able to get into the lane against Duke, which could create some of those open looks.

If this becomes a half court game, I really like the Utes' chances.  I think their size on defense and ability to pound the ball in the paint are huge issues for Duke.  Even if Duke tries to get up and run, and they will, Utah's offense should be good enough to keep pace.

Bet:  Utah +6 (3 UNITS), Over 134 (1 UNIT)

Michigan State vs. Oklahoma. Two inconsistent teams (MSU lost to Texas Southern and Nebraska this year, Oklahoma lost to Washington and was swept by Kansas State) who seem to be peaking at the right time, this should be a pretty entertaining game. Though both teams play great defense, both also enjoy running with much quicker average possession times on offense than on defense. The Spartans defense generally ends up with them playing games that look to be slower tempo but their opponents average time of possession was 20.1 seconds, the second slowest mark in the country. That’s against plodding big ten teams, not a team like Oklahoma who averages under 17 seconds per possession, one of the quickest in the nation. This reads like a potential track meet to me, so the question is: who wins a track meet?

The Sooners were 6-4 this year in games against the kenpom 100 that hit 70 possessions or more; the Spartans 1-2. Sparty is definitely a deeper squad, but with almost a week of rest at this point in the season that’s pretty meaningless outside of foul trouble and neither team draws many fouls, so that advantage is pretty much irrelevant. Michigan State is a better rebounding team by a little bit, but if this game goes as I’m picturing it that won’t matter all that much either. Same goes for Oklahoma’s advantage in the turnover department, which could come into play but it’s small enough and this game should be wide open enough I don’t think it matters all that much.

I guess, in my opinion, it’s all going to come down to making shots. Michigan State is a better shot making team, but Oklahoma is a better shot defending team. Oklahoma has the best offensive weapon in Buddy Hield, but Michigan State probably has the next three in Travis Trice, Denzel Valentine, and Branden Dawson. Oklahoma is a great free throw shooting team, while Michigan State is terrible. How much is that going to matter in a game where neither team draws many fouls? I really don’t know. I don’t have a great read on the side here, but I think we’ll see points.

Bet: Oklahoma +2.5 (1 UNIT), OVER 134 (3 UNITS)

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Previewing the Sweet 16 - Thursday

Calm down I'm here. Sorry. Unfortunately, the day after Selection Sunday we found out Mrs' W's grandpa died out in Utah, so it was a whirlwind of activity figuring out how to get out there, how to get the kids taken care of, and actually being there and seeing family and going from function to function and what not so I haven't been able to post anything about the Tournament. Luckily, however, the games were always on in the background and I'm really good at tuning out mindless conversation, so I know everything that happened. And, as a compulsive gambler, I probably know even more than you. Here's what's going on Thursday:

Wichita State vs. Notre Dame: Here we have that age old classic matchup of offense vs. offense, with Notre Dame averaging 1.21 points per possession (3rd in NCAA) and Wichita averaging 1.14 (16th). At first glance, Wichita seems more likely to be able to hold the Irish down than vice versa since their defense ranks much better, but playing in a weaker conference like the Missouri Valley can sometimes prop that up.  In the Shockers first two tournament games they allowed 76 points (1.1ppp) and 65 points (0.94), higher numbers than the 0.92 on the season - though the Kansas game was mighty impressive.

Notre Dame was pointed out by many as an upset prone type of team because of their reliance on the three pointer and suspect defense, and though they've shown a little better profile in the games so far (only 6 threes attempted against Northeastern, a good defensive effort vs. Butler) two three point wins, one in OT, don't have me convinced they're any less vulnerable.  Wichita is vulnerable to the three, but you have to work hard to get open shots against that defense, and they do an excellent job defending inside.  The Irish don't get offensive rebounds and don't create turnovers so they're going to have to hit open shots to score - which they are certainly capable of.

One of the most impressive things about the Shockers is they are super balanced in their inside/outside scoring.  They aren't dependent on the 3, but they can hit a ton of them if you leave it open - they beat Indiana hitting just two threes, they beat Kansas hitting ten.  The Shockers are an incredibly balanced team with no major weaknesses and a lot of strengths.  I mentioned before how a team's stats can be inflated going against inferior competition, and that's certainly a possibility here, but I think Wichita's results in the tournament the last two seasons show they aren't some overrated mid-major.  

Bet:  Wichita State -1.5 (2 UNITS), Over 137 (2 UNITS)

Wisconsin vs. North Carolina: This is a horrible matchup for the Heels. This is a team that can’t shoot, but thrives in transition and creates second chances for itself by absolutely owning the offensive boards (5th in the country). They don’t create rurnovers either, so they absolutey need those boards to score if they can’t get out and run. Now Kennedy Meeks, one of their two big time rebounders could be hurt or at least limited, and they’re about to go up against Frank Kaminsky. Yikes.

Seems pretty straight forward on the Badger end of things. Offensively they’re pretty much content to go one shot and be done, but always get that one shot. They won’t turn it over and the UNC defense doesn’t force turnovers, so most likely the Badgers will finish in single digits. They shoot the ball well enough that they won’t have to worry about creating second shot opportunities, and I expect to see four, if not five, Badgers sprinting to get back on defense as soon as a shot goes up. With everyone back and no or limited turnovers, the transition chances for the Tar Heels are going to be close to nil.

Generally the Badgers try to limit their opponents three point chances, but unfortunately Bo Ryan is smart enough to know that’s the exact opposite tact to take against North Carolina. The Badgers will likely pack the defense in and go under all screens (possible exception against Marcus Paige), forcing Carolina to make outside shots, something they’ve been horrible at this year. With Meeks status up in the air they’ll be even more limited in the paint anyway, so for them to have a chance someone like Justin Jackson or Nate Britt is going to have to suddenly learn how to shoot the lights out, or Brice Johnson will have to have the game of his life - seems unlikely. The Badgers, who hate to fast break like a fat kids hates asparagus, will send all five defensive players to the boards as well to take away as many second chance points from UNC as possible.

What does this all add up to? A slow it down, one shot each time down the court for each team kind of game. Does that sound more like a North Carolina kind of game, or a Wisconsin kind of game? I’ll give you a hint: Meeks leads the Heels in eFG% at 56.6% - four of the Badger starters are better than that, and Bronson Koenig would be if his 2-point % wasn’t so awful.

Bet: Wisconsin -5 (2 UNITS), Under 144 (5 UNITS).

West Virginia vs. Kentucky:  In order to beat Kentucky, several things have to happen and yes, all of them need to happen.  First, you have to be able to limit the monsters on the blocks.  Karl-Anthony Towns and Trey Lyles are huge, natural scoring machines, Willie Cauley-Stein is an athletic freak who's learning how to score, and Dakari Johnson is seven-feet tall and can jump over everyone's head.  Keeping them contained is no easy task, but it can be done with big, physical defenders and strategic double teams.  West Virginia doesn't defend the two well, has limited big men and only one shot blocker.  Not off to a great start.

Second, you have to hope the guards miss their outside shots and then rebound when they do.  Kentucky's one weakness is they don't have great perimeter shooting, and though they're usually smart enough to pound the ball inside the Harrison twins and Devin Booker can occasionally fall in love with the jumper shot. You'd much rather take your chances there than letting the big guys go to work in the paint, you just have to get the rebounds - easier said than done with UK rebounding 40% of their misses this season.  Kentucky's guards will have a significant size advantage over the Mountaineer guards so when they double and then close out the Wildcat shooters will be able to shoot over them, they'll just have to hope they miss and then rebound.  They're an average defensive rebounding team, so this could go either way.

Third, you have to be able to score.  Kentucky is a great, yes great, defensive team and they can shut teams down.  The good news for WVU is that they can score in some unconventional ways by excelling at getting themselves extra possessions.  The Mountaineers are #1 in the country at forcing turnovers and #4 in the country in offensive rebounding - that's a whole lot of extra shots.  They're a terrible shooting team, but they've gotten this far by creating extra scoring chances for themselves, something that will be the key to the game.  Kentucky doesn't turn the ball over much and they handled Arkansas pretty well, but they're surprisingly vulnerable to opponents' offensive rebounding. 

This will be an interesting game, because it's a team with an unconventional profile taking on Kentucky, a team they'll have to play against in a completely different way than they're used to.  Another wrinkle is Bob Huggins being involved, because no matter what you think of the guy as a person he's one hell of a coach.  Don't forget, the last time these teams matched up in the NCAA Tournament was when that John Wall/Demarcus Cousins Kentucky team looked unstoppable, and WVU won.  

Bet:  West Virginia +13.5 (2 UNITS), Under 136 (1 UNIT)

Xavier vs. Arizona:  Arizona is clearly the more talented team here.  The Wildcats have three or four future NBA draft picks on their team, one guaranteed in the lottery, and another guy who made the All Pac-12 First Team.  The Musketeers' best player is the guy everyone is making jokes about how he looks like a guy playing at the Y and is an Uber driver in his spare time.  In many ways this is your classic glitz and glamor vs. grit and hustle match-up, until you realize Arizona works its collective ass off and is one of the best defensive teams in the country so they're pretty damn gritty hustley too, just more talented.  So can Xavier keep this one close?

I think it's going to depend on if Arizona can hit threes.  Xavier tends to play a more packed in defense, giving up more three point attempts than average, and then hit the boards hard to limit second chances.  Arizona is not a great three point shooting team, although they do hit a good percentage.  The Wildcats prefer to get the ball inside, and then take threes when they're open.  Only Stanley Johnson and Gabe York took over 100 shots from behind the arc on the team this year, though they did hit each hit better than 37% so daring them to shoot is playing with fire.  There's no real easy way to stop Arizona, but keeping them out of the lane as much as possible is a good start.

Xavier is very well coached team, and as such I expect they'll realize they can't win an uptempo game against an Arizona team that thrives in transition.  This game will likely turn into a half court kind of affair, and with the Musketeers ability to keep Arizona off the offensive glass and their likely emphasis on getting back on defense rather than getting their own misses means the game will come down to Xavier not turning it over, and Xavier making enough shots to keep up with Arizona (X will likely not turn over Zona much).  The Musketeers played great offensively against both Ole Miss and Georgia State, and though Arizona is on a completely different level, Xavier so far has that look of a team that both knows it is not supposed to have gotten this far, and also knows it has nothing to lose.  Sounds kind of stupid, but it's also kind of a thing.

Bet:  Xavier +11 (1 UNIT), Under 136 (2 UNITS)

Back tomorrow for Friday's games.  

Thursday, March 12, 2015

Thursday's Tournaments - The Stragglers get Going

The Gophers won, yay!  Lafayette to the Big Dance, yay?  I don't have to write any more of these previews after today, yay!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

The American plays some ugly basketball.  Well no, not really, but they play a real distinct grind it out, ultra defensive style that's reminiscent of those horrendous Knicks/Magic games from however many years ago.  Cincinnati, Memphis, UCONN, SMU, Temple, and Tulsa are all in the top 72 in defensive efficiency, with three of those teams in the top 24.  Add in a lot of sub 250 tempo rankings and some worse than 150 offensive ratings and you get some offensively challenged games.  I mean, it works, seeing as how UCONN won the title last year and they'll probably get three teams in the NCAA Tournament this year, but it's not exactly aesthetically pleasing.

FAVORITE:  Southern Methodist.  SMU was my sleeper pick to win the National Championship last spring when the early odds came out.  At 33-1 I thought they had the right combination of returning players, new players including a possible super star, and a good coach and system (and there was still the possibility they'd get Myles Turner).  Well they didn't get Turner and that potential superstar signed in China.  Then one newcomer, Justin Martin a double digit scorer from Xavier, left, returning guard and double digit scorer Keith Frazier was bounced for academics, and returning double digit scorer Markus Kennedy was suspended for the first semester (not necessarily in that order).  Despite that mess, the Mustangs finished the year 24-6 and 15-3 in a pretty good American Conference.  This is a really good overall team, ranking 26th in kenpom's ratings.

SLEEPER:  UCONN.  You have to pick UCONN, right?  This just seems like the thing they do, with Shabazz Napier morphing into Kemba Walker and now hopefully (for them) Ryan Boatright morphing into Napier (did I forget a Jeremy Lamb in there?  Maybe).  Doesn't seem likely this year since this version of the Huskies is probably the worst since 2007 team, but you never know witha  guy like Boatright.

THE PICK:  Temple.  I like Temple here because things seem to be coming together.  The Owls have won ten of twelve, including wins over Cincinnati, Memphis, and UCONN and although most of those wins did come against bottom tier teams they won nearly all of them by double digits, and their two losses were to SMU and Tulsa on the road and that Tulsa team was desperate for that win.  Their offense is pretty crappy and they're one of the worst shooting teams in the country, but they make up for that with an extremely stingy defense (8th in DeFF in the country).  They also don't turn it over and hit the offensive boards well so their kind of a garbage team, but in this kind of conference that can work.

The Big Sky seems pretty fun.  A nice mix of hippies (Sacramento State, Eastern Washington, Portland State), militia men (Montana, Montana State, North Dakota), and Mormons (Weber State, Southern Utah, Idaho, Idaho State).  They should throw a big mixer for fans of all these teams and just kind of see what happens.  What could go wrong?

FAVORITE:  Montana.  The Grizzlies grabbed the #1 seed thanks to a 14-4 conference record highlighted by 7-1 closing stretch that included a win over their closest competition, Eastern Washington.  The Grizz are highlighted by two First Team All-Big Skyers in Jordan Gregory and Martin Breuning, both of whom scored north of 16 points per game, an offense that's very dependent on the three, and a bad defense that did manage to tighten up during conference play to rank #1 in DeFF in Big Sky play despite bad numbers overall.  Sounds like a fun team (and they lost in double OT against both Cal and Boise State, so they might be ok.  They also gave up 110 points to Davidson).

SLEEPER:  Weber State.  For whatever reason, the Wildcats rise in March.  They have won four Big Sky tournaments since 2007, twice when they weren't the #1 seed, and they have a career record of 6-16 in the big dance which may not sound like much but for a team on this level nationally those six wins feel pretty impressive.  They finished runner-up in the CBI two years ago and followed that up with an NCAA berth and an impressive showing against Arizona last year so they're trending up - provided you ignore their 13-16 record this year, which I am.  Weber State is great great great! (my wife went here one semester, FYI, so I am not rational about them.)  Also they'll need to upset Montana in round 1, so this is probably not my best pick.

THE PICK:  Eastern Washington.  If I decide not to believe that Montana suddenly fixed its defense, and I don't, I need a different pick so why not the Eagles?  They also won 14 conference games, won 23 total games, have a nice shiny win over Indiana, won at Montana earlier, and sport the nation's leading scorer in Tyler Harvey (22.9ppg).  Harvey is one of the rare big-time scorers at a small school who also does it efficiently, ranking #168 in the country in O-rating thanks to dead-eye shooting from three (43%) at a high volume (over 9 attempts per game).  He dropped 25 against the Hoosiers, and had one stretch this season where he hit 26 of 36 threes over four games.  Sound like the kind of guy who could carry a good team to a conference tournament title?

The Big West has generally been a solid, underrated conference, and losing their premiere program, Pacific, in 2013 hasn't changed that as the schools (Big West really just means small California schools + Hawaii) have all generally stepped up their game.  UC-Santa Barbara and Long Beach have been good for a while now, but this year they found themselves behind UC-Davis and UC-Irvine, and not because they slipped.  Davis is the #1 three point shooting team in the country and Irvine almost (yes, almost) beat several middle tier big conference foes.  Whoever comes out of here will be a major test for somebody in round 1.

FAVORITE:  UC-Davis.  Davis, who I don't think even because a full D-I school until maybe 10 years ago, coasted to the Big West regular season title with a 14-2 record behind Big West player of the year Corey Hawkins (sweet basketball name here).  Hawkins led the conference in scoring at just north of 20 points per game, and his 49.7% three point shooting was a big reason why the Aggies finished third in the country in effective field goal percentage, but three other bombers hitting better than 40% from three are a big part of that as well.  UC-Davis struggles in a lot of basketball areas, but man can they shoot the hell out of the ball.

SLEEPER:  UC-Santa Barbara.  The Gauchos won this thing in 2010 and 2011 behind Orlando Johnson, who has had some NBA time here and there, but they've been shut out since then and I'm guessing former Saints tight end and current UCSB coach Boo Williams is ready to get back to the Big Dance.  They might not have an Orlando Johnson this year, but they do have two All First Team Big West performers in Michael Bryson (14.1 pts, 4.1 rebs) and Alan Williams (16.8 pts, 11.9 rebs) as well as an honorable mention for John Green (11.0 pts, 4.1 rebs), so there is a lot of talent here (it's also Williams's's's third time making an Big West team).  I remember watching Williams last year, guy is an absolute beast.

THE PICK:  UC-Santa Barbara.  UC-Davis's shooting is super impressive, but I can't trust that to hold up over an entire tournament.  The Gauchos, on the other hand, are loaded with talent and not only do they have Williams on both ends (also led the Big West at 2.0 bpg) but they have a decent defense overall and a more balanced offense.  They also have the Big West Best Hustle Player Award Winner (yes that's a real thing) for the second straight season in guard Zalmico Harmon (6.2 pts, 3.7 assists).  I know what you're wondering and no, he is black.  White guys won the award the previous six seasons, as far back as I could find.

Quick, name three teams in the WAC.......Actually I'm not even sure if I could have done it, and as you can see I have a serious college basketball obsession problem.  All the conference realignment that's gone down lately helped some conference's relative strength and weakened others, but it most cases it's either minor or could be temporary or both.  In the WAC's case, however, it was completely nuked.  Back in the day it used to be probably an upper tier mid-major.  Now it's become the home of the dregs with nowhere else to go:  Missouri-Kansas City, Grand Canyon, Texas Pan American, and Chicago State to name a few.  Pretty gross, but at least there's as super clear favorite.

FAVORITE:  New Mexico State.  While everyone else fled the WAC, New Mexico State stuck around and by default is now the power program of the conference.  Not that it's strictly by default - the Aggies have won the last 3 WAC Tournaments and 4 of the last 5.  They haven't won an NCAA Tournament game during that run, but it's still impressive.  Kenpom names 3 of it's Top 5 WAC players as Aggies, and their 13-1 record was a full five games better than second place Grand Canyon and UMKC so yeah, they're  pretty prohibitive favorite.

SLEEPER:  Grand Canyon.  Remember how I mentioned this conference was NMSU and then nobody else?  The Aggies are ranked in the top 140 in offensive efficiency and top 80 in defensive efficiency this year, the only other WAC team to rank in the top 196 in anything is Grand Canyon with a 109th ranked offense.  Of course, they couple that with a defense than ranks #342, which is ridiculous, but that's how little I have to go on when trying to come up with a sleeper.  Could have gone Seattle too since they're the only WAC team to beat New Mexico State.  Whatever.

THE PICK:  New Mexico State.  I said whatever.

Conference realignment may have screwed up the WAC, but that wasn't the only conference to see some major changes.  The Sun Belt lost what was most likely it's most premiere program, Western Kentucky, to Conference USA, but this year's regular season winner and top seed, Georgia State, came over in the same realignment carousel from the Colonial.  They've now won two consecutive regular season crowns, so they've slid in for the Hilltoppers without any problem.

FAVORITE:  Georgia State.  Georgia State has been a little bit of a darling among those who pay too much attention to small conference teams (and gamblers) because of their guards.  Each of the last two years they've been able to team up coach's son and offensive dynamo R.J. Hunter (19.7ppg, 3.8apg) and former super recruit and Kentucky and NC State guard Ryan Harrow (20.2ppg, 4.0apg) and they've done some good things.  Last year they steamrolled the Sun Belt to a 17-1 one mark and one of the top offensive in the country, but it all fell apart with an overtime loss in the Sun Belt tournament to Elfrid Payton's Louisiana-Lafayette team.  This year they took a bit of a step back at 15-5 but this is still a really good team who could do some damage, and another team I really hope makes it.

SLEEPER:  Louisiana-Monroe.  The Warhawks finished 14-6 in Sun Belt play, and they really stand out because in a conference full of helter skelter, pressing type teams (the conference has three teams in the Top 25 in adjusted tempo) they play extremely slow (#326 in tempo).  They also cannot be sped up.  They never once surpassed 68 possessions in a non-OT conference game no matter who they played, completely dictating tempo no matter what.  They also play a nice, tough defense.  They cannot score, and more specifically cannot shoot at all, but hey, the can control tempo.  Sometimes that's enough.  They also beat Georgia State just one week ago.

THE PICK:  Georgia State.  We cannot lose another team who could make a mini-run.  Murray State is out and Iona is out, and the majority of the already qualified teams are really not very good.  The Panthers are one of our few low major candidates left who you can say "yeah I could see them in the Sweet 16" and that stuff is really fun.  Go Panthers.

And that's it.  Next thing you know, it's Selection Sunday.  Away we go.