The Real MVP

The regular season of the NBA is over and the playoffs are in full-swing. When the NBA awards are announced on June 25th, James Harden will undoubtedly win the MVP award. Almost all experts agree that Harden will finally get his chance to hoist trophy after several years of second place finishes. 

But even though James Harden is the unanimous choice, and will probably win by a wide margin, he wasn't the best player in the league this year. The MVP in the NBA is one of the more complicated award in all of sports. It is perhaps the only professional single season award that somehow encompasses narratives from past seasons. Not only are the performances of players a driving factor in the award, but so is the guilt of all voters for previous mistakes. For example, Russell Westbrook won the award last year for managing to average a triple-double for the entire season. He managed to do that again this year, but there is a very good chance that he finishes outside of the top-5 this year around. 

But who would win the award if it wasn't so complicated?

1. Stats

Harden's numbers are very impressive. He finished the season with the highest player efficiency rating (PER) in the NBA, and by a significant margin. He scored more than 30 points per game, dished out almost nine assists, and had a true shooting percentage of 73%. Better yet, and perhaps most importantly, the Rockets finished with the best record in the league. 

Lebron James' basic numbers look diminutive compared to Harden's. James only averaged 27.5 points per game this season and his PER was a whole point and a half less than Harden's. More importantly, the Cavaliers struggled mightily this year, and finished 4th place in the weaker Eastern conference. 

But then again, Lebron averaged more assists and rebounds than Harden. In fact, for the first time in his career, Lebron averaged a triple-double for an entire month in February. Better yet, some advanced stats point to the fact that Lebron is playing at an extremely high level. Hollinger has James ranked ahead of Harden in both value-added and estimated wins added. You can get Hollinger's explanation of VA here, but for those familiar with saber-metrics in baseball, it is incredibly similar to VORP (value over replacement player). According to Hollinger's calculations, Lebron is more valuable to the Cavs than Harden is to the Rockets. 

But even the basic stats back up Lebron. Lebron James finished with more total points, assists and rebounds than Harden. In large part this happened because James logged minutes in all 82 games this season, a first in his 15 year career. James also shot above 54% from the field, whereas Harden only shot 45%. James even managed to shoot just as well as Harden did from beyond the arc, an area where you would expect Harden to have the edge. 

2. Free Throws

The biggest disparity between Harden and James comes at the free throw line. Harden attempted more than 10 shots from the charity stripe this season, whereas Lebron James only visited the free throw line 6.5 times per game. In fact, nearly 29% of James Harden's points during the regular season came from free throws, but this number drops to 17% for Lebron. Some of this disparity can be attributed to the difference in free throw accuracy, but even if Lebron shot as well as Harden did from the line, it wouldn't come close to decreasing the gap in their points. 

Lebron often complained this year about the way he was officiated and he has a point. Lebron averaged 8.7 field goal attempts within the restricted area, second only to Giannis Antetokounmpo. Yet, he was 12th in the league in free throws attempted (Giannis was second). Harden, as expected, led the league in free throws attempted, but only shot 6.3 field goals from the restricted area. So despite driving to the hoop more frequently and undoubtedly taking more contact, Lebron shot less free throws.

Of course, earning your way to the free throw line is a skill that cannot be ignored in basketball. Harden's ability to get easy points from the free throw line is unmatched and should be viewed as a strength. But James Harden only made 27 more field goals than he did free throws for the entire regular season which indicates that his only significant statistical advantage over Lebron (points per game) is over inflated by free throws.

Conclusion

James Harden has had an MVP caliber season, it just was not more impressive than Lebron's. Harden was the best player on the best team in the league, but that is not the name of the award. Yes, Harden managed to defeat the Wizards, but isn't it equally as impressive that the Cavaliers only managed one more win last year with Kyrie Irving on the team? Lebron kept together a team after 6 players left mid-season and 4 new players came in. The award should be about the player who is most valuable to his team and Lebron might have shown more value to his team this year, than he ever did with the Heat. He proved that his presence can make a lottery roster into a championship contender. Harden is not there yet. 

 
All stats found on NBA.com and basketball-reference.com, unless otherwise noted.

Stop Complaining Buckeyes' Fans

Ohio State fans should not complain about their 2017 Buckeyes being left out of the College Football Playoff. On Sunday, the selection committee left out the Buckeyes in favor Nick Saban's Crimson Tide team despite having a much better resume and a conference championship. The members of the selection committee through their own subjective lenses decided that Alabama was the better team even though they never really demonstrated that unequivocal dominance on the football field.

As an Ohio State fan, this decision is extremely frustrating. Alabama is not more deserving than Ohio State by any measure. But the fact of the matter is that this year's Ohio State team failed to consistently perform at a championship level. J.T. Barrett was playing with his third offensive coordinator in his fourth year of playing and the lack of chemistry showed. The offensive coaches did not realize that this year's o-line is on par with the 2014 group that won the championship until way too late in the year. The defense never really found its edge and for 8 games of the season, defensive coordinator, Greg Schiano, played his best linebacker out of position. Of course, the greatest error: losing to Iowa on the road by 31. That can't happen and its completely inexcusable. If Urban Meyer and his staff take care of business in the week before that game the Buckeyes are unquestionably playing in the playoff this year. There is no one to blame but themselves. 


But Ohio State fans can complain about something else. All too many pundits are drawing the very shallow comparison between this year's Alabama team and last year's Buckeyes team. Both made it into the playoffs despite not winning their conference. But other than that lone similarity the teams couldn't be more different. The 2016 Ohio State team had three wins against the top-10 and was sitting at number 2 in the rankings going into championship weekend. This year's Crimson Tide has two wins against the top-25 and was sitting at number 5 going into championship weekend. The 2016 Buckeyes managed to maintain a top four spot, while the Crimson Tide climbed a spot and squeaked into the final four. 

The better comparison is with the 2015 Ohio State team. The 2015 Ohio State team is probably the most talented team to ever be left out of the playoff (maybe 2014 TCU?). The 2015 Buckeyes squad was set to be one of the better teams in college football history. It returned most of the team from the previous year's championship winning team. It featured a star-studded roster that sent 12 players to the 2016 NFL draft. This 2015 team, despite playing a two-quarterback system all year still managed to score 35.7 points per game and had the second best defense in the country on a points per game basis only allowing just over 14 points a game. 

Despite all of the talent, the 2015 Buckeyes couldn't manage to beat  #9 Michigan State at home early in November. Ohio State couldn't find a way to win in the rough weather and lost by three points. Many blamed their loss on not giving their star tailback, Ezekiel Elliot, who had spend a night in the hospital during the week leading up to the game due to illness, enough touches. After the loss, Ohio State was written out of the playoff conversation. They couldn't win their division, and they didn't have enough good wins to make up for their one loss. They went on to beat a ranked Michigan team by several scores on the road, but it wasn't enough. Michigan State won the B1G championship game and then got shutout by Alabama in the playoff. 

Even though everyone knew the 2015 Ohio State team was extremely talented and perhaps unequivocally better than all but a few teams in the country, it never even played a part in the college football playoff conversation. It finished the year at #7 and was forced to settle for a Fiesta Bowl bid. All five conference champions finished above them as well as a 1-loss Iowa. 

This year's Alabama team has a very similar resume. It has two wins against the top-25. The 2015 Buckeyes had one. The Buckeyes lost by three to a top-10 Michigan State team at home. Alabama was dominated by Auburn in the Iron Bowl on the road. Neither won their division. Neither had a conference championship. One team made it into playoff over two conference champions. The other was ranked #7 behind every single conference champion. 

In all reality, the 2015 Buckeyes were much better than this year's version of the Crimson Tide. Sure, Alabama beat LSU by 14 points but was outgained in total yards, it barely slipped by in Starkville against Mississippi State, and didn't belong on the field against Auburn. Unlike other teams that have magically found a spot in the playoffs in previous years, Alabama did not close out the season on a high note and had a lackluster November. Alabama's last "data point" was a horrible loss and against better teams it failed to control the line of scrimmage like other Tide teams in recent years. Yet, somehow the committee thought Alabama was unequivocally better this year around. 

The committee may have chosen the 4 best teams this year. Their decision to opt for the better team is not criminal. But it is frustratingly confusing to question the inconsistency of the committee's logic. Why did the committee choose to favor the subjective results of the eye test in 2017, yet in 2015 it closely adhered to its principles and guidelines? The committee did not rob Ohio State of playing for a national championship this year, their loss to Iowa did. But in light of recent results it does seem like the committee robbed Oho State of winning a championship in 2015, with arguably its most talented and best team in program history.

 

All stats found on espn.com unless otherwise noted. 

Image: By Adam Glanzman - Flickr: asg.fbc.vsOSU.11.30.131225 copy, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=30513177

Playoff Committee Letters Pt. 1

Dear Kirby, 

You are playing a dangerous game. 

I know you shouldn't receive all of the blame. After all, you are just the chairman of a 13 person committee responsible for selecting only four teams to the College Football Playoff. But ranking Georgia and Alabama 1 and 2, only sets the committee up for disaster. 

Out of all the crazy decisions the committee made on their initial poll for the 2017 season, ranking two SEC teams at the very top of the rankings stands above the rest. This decision lacks so much foresight, that it is more bizarre than putting Clemson above Oklahoma, even though Oklahoma has the better win and didn't lose to 4-4 Syracuse team. It is even more bizarre than Ohio State only being ranked one spot higher than Penn State despite out-gaining the Nittany Lions 529-283 (take away a bad special teams play and change the calls on two questionable pass interference penalties and the score could have been 39-14). But despite all of these decisions, favoring the SEC looms large. 

Even though the College Football committee still wants us to believe it is 2009, the SEC is not the conference that it once was. There isn't a single team in the SEC west that has a non-conference win over a Power 5 team with a winning record. Currently, that division's best non-conference win is an LSU victory over that same Syracuse team that beat the committee's fifth favorite team. But that division has losses to TCU, Clemson, California and UCLA (oh and FBS powerhouse Troy).

To its credit the SEC East has fared better. It has wins against Notre Dame (at a neutral site), NC State at home, and Georgia Tech in overtime (who very well might not have a winning record in a few weeks). It is worth pointing out that two of these games were decided by one point, and very well could have, or dare I say, should have been losses. But this same division also has losses to Michigan and 3-5, Purdue. 

Now for a fun experiment: let's compare the resumes of two different teams. Team A is a power-five conference school with a record of 8-0 and has not beaten a quality non-conference opponent. Its opponents have a winning pct of .469 but this percentage is boosted primarily by Fresno State and Colorado State. Team B is a power-five conference school with a record of 8-0 and has also not beaten a quality non-conference opponent. Its opponents have a winning pct of .439 and this percentage is dragged down primarily by BYU.

Would it surprise you if Team A is Alabama and Team B is Wisconsin? Would it surprise you more if the College Football Committee ranked them 2nd and 9th respectively?

Of course, Alabama is a better team than Wisconsin, all you have to do is turn on a television to figure that one out. Still, it doesn't seem fair to punish one team for a poor schedule and not another, especially when Alabama, not Wisconsin, is the one who plays an FCS school.

None of this means that the SEC is bad. It simply means that it is going to be incredibly hard to justify having two teams from the SEC in the playoff. But it certainly means that there is nothing on paper to justify that the SEC is the dominant conference that it once was and the committee certainly has no business putting two teams from arguably the third or fourth best power 5 conference into the playoff. 

Imagine that Georgia, ranked as the best team in the nation, squares off against Alabama in the SEC championship game and loses by anything less than 10 points. How could the committee possibly leave out the top ranked team after that? A loss to the second best team in the country by 10 points, doesn't drop you to 5. That wouldn't make any sense. 

Luckily, Kirby, for you it does. The College Football Playoff Committee has showed time and again that for some nonsensical reason, there is no relationship between the weekly rankings. They blow everything up before releasing a top-25. So for the selection committee the above scenario, which only smells, looks, and tastes like crisis to everyone else, sits perfectly fine with the committee. They will have no problem removing Georgia from the top four after a loss during Championship Weekend and as the SEC has proven this year already, no one else should mind either. 

 

 

Unless otherwise noted, stats found on espn.com

 

Just Plain Crazy

Baseball is a notoriously fickle sport.

In 2009, David Ortiz didn’t hit a home run until the end of May and struggled so badly that my Internet dad, Bill Simmons, wrote this now hilariously overdramatic piece that concludes with “...he’ll be benched or released soon.” Ortiz retired last year as one of the two greatest Red Sox ever.

The 2001 Seattle Mariners won 116 games, tying a record set in 1906 when baseball more closely resembled my Tuesday night softball league than the game today. Seattle never dropped more than nine games in a month, outscored its opponents by 300 runs… and lost in five to the Yankees in the ALCS.

All of this is to say, baseball is not a game of domination. More than any other sport, it is a game of averages — and the law of averages says it should be practically impossible for even a very, very good baseball team to win 21 games in a row.

But the Cleveland Indians have done just that, and they’ll go for 22 on Thursday night against the Kansas City Royals. Another win puts them solely in second place for the longest winning streak in MLB history, catapulting them past the 1935 Chicago Cubs and something called the Chicago White Stockings. Get to 22, and the Tribe are only gunning for the 1916 New York Giants, who hold the all-time (albeit asterisked, there was a tie/replayed game mixed in) record of 26.

Things like this aren’t supposed to happen in baseball. In fact, I'm prepared to argue, vehemently, that the Indians’ feat is already more impressive than any other team streak, in any other team sport, that we’ve seen in the modern era. Period.

People will point to comparable runs in other sports. The famously perfect 1972 Miami Dolphins, or the infamously almost-perfect 18-1 Patriots of 2007 (sigh). The 1992-93 Penguins, winners of 17 straight. LeBron’s peak Heat team in 2012-13 (27 in a row), early ‘70s UCLA hoops (88), or Geno Auriemma and UConn (90 followed by 111).

None of them measure up to what the Indians have done over the last three-plus weeks.

Unlike other sports (ignoring injuries), fundamental and critical parts of a baseball lineup change daily. A great starting pitcher can only throw once every five days. Even a given bullpen arm can only pitch two, maybe three days in a row before needing rest. Yes, the Indians have Corey Kluber (2.44 ERA), but they also have Josh Tomlin (5.13).

These are players who figure hugely into the outcome of games. It'd be like a hockey goalie having to sit every third game, or a starting o-line taking every other game off. The variability of starting and relief pitching alone makes 21 straight wins hard to fathom. That’s four times through a five-man rotation without one pitcher, on one night, getting roughed up — or just falling victim to some bad run support.

Which brings me to offensive consistency, something maybe even harder to achieve. Exceptional hitters fail 70% of the time, and even they routinely go through multi-game hitless stretches. It’s why Joe DiMaggio’s 56-game hitting streak is the most untouchable record in pro sports. And the Indians, though terrifically balanced, have only one hitter currently above .300 (Jose Ramirez, at .309).

But slumps aren’t even the biggest obstacle to an offense supporting 21 straight wins. Run production is just as much — if not more — about the sequence of hits as it the frequency. You need timely hitting that comes in bunches and that especially comes with runners in scoring position.

For much of the season, hitting with runners on base has actually been a pain point for Cleveland. Even after 21 consecutive wins, they still rank 24th in baseball for batting average with RISP (.251). That makes their avoidance of the bad-timing bug for 21 straight games all the more incredible. It bucks a season-long trend.

Oh, and to top it off, you can make contact that would result in a hit 98.7% of the time (we know these things now with Statcast), but if you happen to hit it at an elite defender like Jackie Bradley Jr. or Byron Buxton, you may well find yourself trotting back to the dugout.

That’s just bad luck, and in baseball, there’s a lot of it. LeBron executes a perfect post move and misses an open look? That’s his form, his release, or his focus. Tom Brady delivers a perfectly thrown ball that’s dropped? Although it’s not on him, it’s on one of the other 10 guys who also control his team’s success. No sport is as affected by pure luck — the ultimately random exact trajectory and placement of a batted ball — as baseball.

Cobble all of these factors together, and 21 straight wins isn’t just impressive or remarkable or historic. It’s irrationally spectacular. Just. Plain. Crazy. And yes, if it’s so insane, why did almost the same thing happen just 15 years ago, when the 2002 'Moneyball' Oakland A’s won 20 in a row?

I honestly can’t tell you, other than that it was just as improbable then as it is now. Before Oakland, the last team to sniff 20 was the 1947 Yankees, who faltered after 19. It took 55 years for someone to surpass them. It’s taken only 15 years for the Indians to zoom past them both.

There’s no good reason why it has happened again, nor is there a good reason why it's still happening after 21 wins and counting. It’s just plain crazy.

Image By Jfvoll (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Ohio State Week 2 Recap: J.T. Barrett's Defense

On Saturday night, Ohio State fell flat to Oklahoma during their home opener, losing 31-16. Not surprisingly, the offense received most of the blame after only managing one touchdown. For any who are counting, that is one touchdown over the past 8 quarters against ranked teams. That looks a lot like an Auburn or Florida offense, not an Ohio State offense that runs Urban Meyer's fast paced system. Despite all of the changes that were promised over the off-season, nothing seems to have changed. Barrett was supposed to have fixed his downfield throwing and Kevin Wilson and Ryan Day were supposed to have fixed all of the offensive hiccups that plagued this team towards the end of last year. Undoubtedly, this offensive performance was disappointing, but despite the popular narrative blame does not lie on Barrett alone. 

Everyone in national sports coverage wants to criticize Barrett. Somehow, this Heisman candidate quarterback has regressed dramatically since his freshman year. It is to the point now where it is idiotic to even suggest that he should still be the starting quarterback at one of the top football programs in the country. They suggest that Urban Meyer is only making the decision to keep him there because of an emotional connection to his first quarterback recruit at his new school and someone who reminds him constantly of Tim Tebow. Instead, most sports commentators suggest that all evidence point to Barrett's decline and the obvious choice is to bench him. 

The problem is that they never actually cite any evidence in his decline or explain how Barrett's regression makes any sense. Sure, Barrett can't hit the downfield throws and his accuracy on any throws further than 15 yards downfield is abysmal, especially when throwing to his right. It is also not helpful that Ohio State's offense has not looked good since October 2016 and that in recent meaningful games, Barrett has certainly struggled. But at the same time, it makes no sense that a quarterback of Barrett's caliber with his leadership qualities, who is also surrounded by some of the best coaches and players in the country, has regressed. Even if you concocted the perfect storm in Ohio State it would be hard in that program to actually regress as a player from freshman year to senior year. That does not make sense. 

So what is the problem?

Simply put, the coaching is the problem. Meyer is clearly standing by his quarterback because he is the best player at that position within the program and undoubtedly J.T. Barrett is a great quarterback. As Cardale Jones put it in a tweet during Saturday night's game, Barrett has done more for that football program than any other player. Maybe that is a little bit of a stretch but Barrett's winning record and the records he holds at the school suggest that he is more than fit to be a starting quarterback at Ohio State. 

But as great as Barrett is, he is not perfect. It has become apparent to even the most hard headed commentators that Barrett cannot throw the football downfield. But let's be perfectly clear. Barrett could never throw the ball downfield. He isn't and never has been a Big 12 quarterback who can throw the ball 50 times a game and throw his receivers open. He is nothing like Baker Mayfield or Sam Darnold and he won't be drafted in the first 5 rounds of any professional football draft. Barrett couldn't make these throws that he is trying to make now freshman year.

Priority #1: Run the Ball

The difference is that the offense was designed and built around Barrett's strengths. In his Monday article, Andy Staples of Sports Illustrated, suggests that Ohio State is best when it runs the ball. Ohio State should never have a balanced offense because this doesn't suit J.T. Barrett. Barrett might be the best quarterback in the country when it comes to reading the defense and running read option plays. Barrett isn't a playmaker like Lamar Jackson, he is a point guard. He does best when he spreads the ball around to his playmakers and lets them move the ball downfield. The offense needs to be designed around what J.T. Barrett does best-letting other skill players make plays.

With J.T. Barrett as their starting quarterback, when the Buckeyes run a remotely balanced offense (meaning a difference of plus/minus 5) they struggle to score points. For example, they ran the ball 34 times against 35 passes versus Oklahoma and only scored 16 points. Against Clemson they called 10 more pass plays and got shutout. Against Penn State they passed 3 more times and scored 21 points. All losses. 

Priority #2: Run the Running Backs

The only time Ohio State has managed to succeed when running a balanced offense was against Nebraska in 2016. They scored 62 points against an overrated and overmatched Nebraska defense. But it is important to point out that even though they ran it 42 times, Barrett only ran it 8 times. That is important as well. When Barrett is the focal point of Ohio State's run game, the offense struggles. In the Oklahoma game this past weekend, Barrett ran the ball more than the running backs, despite the fact that Dobbins and Weber averaged more than 6 yards per carry. In losses to Michigan State (2015) and Virginia Tech (2014) Barrett carried the ball more than the running backs. 

In Ohio State's best offensive games during the J.T. Barrett era, offensive coordinators call a run heavy offense that features the running backs instead of the quarterback. For example, against Michigan and Notre Dame in the 2015 season, Ohio State ran almost twice as many run plays in both games and the majority of those runs went to the running backs. The team put up 42 and 44 points respectively. Against Oklahoma last year, where the Buckeyes dominated 45-24, Ohio State ran the ball 48 times to 20 passes and only featured 17 quarterback runs.  


This is a simple fix and even though it seems like part of Coaching 101 to build an offense that suits your players best skills, nothing has changed. In fact, in his Big 10 conference call today, Meyer suggested that the offensive playcallers could be more creative and take more chances. Unfortunately, it seems like the solution lies in simplifying the offense in order to put Barrett in the best position to succeed. 

 

Image: By John Silks - Taken from an internet messageboard with permission from the photographer., CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2768932

Ohio State Week 1 Recap

On Thursday night, the Ohio State Buckeyes kicked off the regular season by beating Indiana 49-21 in Bloomington, Indiana. The final score suggests that this primetime matchup was not close and the Buckeyes trailed at half in large part because the offense looked like it was still playing Clemson. But the Buckeyes made necessary halftime changes were able to score 29 unanswered points in the second half. Here are five things we learned from the Thursday night matchup. 

1. Ohio State's Defensive Line is as Good as Advertised

Throughout fall camp no one could stop hyping Ohio State's defensive line. Defensive Coordinator, Greg Schiano, who also coached the Tampa Bay Bucanneers, even suggested this was the best defensive line he has ever coached. They did not disappoint Thursday. 

Even though Indiana designed an offensive scheme to get the ball out of quarterback Richard Lagow's hands as quickly as possible, the defensive line managed 5 sacks and plenty of hurries. More importantly, they shut down the rushing attack as Indiana gained less than 50 yards on the ground in 20 carries (most of these yards came late in the 4th quarter after the game was over). The defensive line asserted its dominance despite the fact that Indiana ran nearly 100 plays. The line has a much bigger test against a very talented Oklahoma offensive line in week 2, but their first performance showed that the Buckeyes front four (sometimes 5) possesses great depth and elite talent that will give any offensive line fits. 

2. Buckeye's Secondary is Inexperienced 

As good as the Ohio State defensive line was, the secondary showed its fair share of weaknesses. Just as the defensive line lived up to its billing the secondary unfortunately did as well. The Ohio State secondary had to replace three star contributors who got drafted in the first round and it showed on Thursday night. Richard Lagow was able to complete 40 of his 65 passes for 410 yards and 3 touchdowns. 

But those numbers do not tell the entire story. For a large part of the first half, Lagow looked like Aaron Rodgers in his ball placement and his receivers were consistenly making one-handed grabs despite good coverage. But still many pundits criticized the Buckeyes young secondary.  Even Desmond Howard surprisingly laid into the Buckeyes corners, especially number 12, Denzel Ward. But after looking at the tape, Ward looked good. Ward was targeted 15 times during the game, but I only counted 2 bad coverages, meaning that he wasn't in position to make a play on the ball by the time it arrived to the receiver. Moreover, he was attributed with 5 pass break-ups and 1 interception. This definitely did not count as a bad day for number 12. 

However, the rest of the secondary has a lot of room to improve. Sure, Jordan Fuller was graded out as a Champion by the coaching staff and he managed to nab an interception. But Damon Arnette and Kendall Sheffield were exposed by the tall and physical Indiana wide receivers. They will need to improve dramatically before the Oklahoma game. 

3. J.K. Dobbins is a Future Star

With Mike Weber out with a hamstring injury, Urban Meyer turned towards true freshman J.K. Dobbins at the running back position. The true freshman was a highly touted recruit from Texas who became the Nike Football Rating Champion at The Opening and he showcased his athleticism during the game on Thursday. Dobbins certainly did not look like a true freshman as he possessed the ability to break through strong tackles, make impressive jump cuts to avoid defenders and use his speed to break away from second-level defenders. He even showed off his endurance and durability as he carried the ball 29 times for 181 yards eclipsing a true freshman yardage mark set by Maurice Clarett. Mike Weber, by his own right, is a very talented running back as he rushed for more than 1,000 yards last year. Having both of them split carries out of the backfield establishes a pretty dangerous duo coming out of the backfield. That being said, J.K. Dobbins looks to have a higher ceiling and it wouldn't be surprising if he gets the majority of the carries as the season carries on. 

4. J.T. Barrett's Performance was J.T.-esque 

Sorry Ohio State fans, J.T. Barrett still looks like J.T. Barrett-but this isn't necessarily a bad thing. Throughout his four years as a starter at Ohio State, J.T. Barrett has shown incredible accuracy on throws less than 15 yards down the field and nearly impeccable decision making in an offense that relies on many run-options and even run-pass options. Additionally, J.T. is a powerful runner, and even though he is not as fast as Braxton Miller, he is equally as effective. Lastly, Barrett still does not possess down-field accuracy. He never really has. Devin Smith and Jalin Marshall did a lot to cover up J.T.'s weaknesses his freshman year but he has never been an all-world passer. 

But J.T. Barrett is an all-world quarterback. He is the first three year captain in the history of Ohio State football. He has led his team to 27-4 as a starter in Columbus. He will break nearly every school record by the time he leaves the University and will have beaten Drew Brees TD record in the Big Ten by a very large margin. As much as some Ohio State fans call for his benching, the team is not as good without him. For as much grief as he gets with the deep ball (I will admit he is not an NFL quarterback), he definitely isn't awful. In his 10 passing attempts that went further than 15 yards, I counted 2 bad throws, meaning that 2 passes were un-catchable by his receivers. He might have only managed 4 completions out of 10, but there were 2 drops and if Parris Campbell doesn't drop that sure-fire touchdown, we are probably raving about Barrett's improvement. 

5. Kevin Wilson and Ryan Day Did Make Changes

It took a while for the offense to get going. The Buckeyes had a great first drive and it looked like the presumptive changes that newly appointed offensive coordinator, Kevin Wilson, had made were working. But for the remainder of the first half the Buckeyes offense consistently stalled and were forced into four consecutive punts. Of course, the second half rolled around, the offensive line started to dominate in the trenches and the running game took over. This still disappointed many Columbus natives and looked all too similar to the 2016 offense. 

But there were important changes. Kevin Wilson and the new quarterbacks coach, Ryan Day, implemented routes like shallow crosses and in routes, that allowed play makers to catch the ball in space. This not only took advantage of the Buckeyes' athletic advantage on the perimeter but also finally used the great downfield blocking that Urban emphasizes to its full potential. Last year, the offense relied on option routes and stick routes that meant receivers caught the ball while standing still. Secondly, the Buckeyes used run-pass options that were missing in previous years. Barrett on many run options had the ability to pass the ball out for wide receiver screens. Finally, the Buckeyes were operating at a much faster pace than the last two years. If the Buckeyes offensive line can execute from the very beginning and Wilson can manage to get Barrett in a passing rhythm, even if it only results in short throws, the offense should not struggle to score against many defenses. 

All stats from espn.com unless otherwise noted. 

Image: By ZCash1104 - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=61683190

F.C. Cincinnati's MLS Case

More than a month ago I witnessed the crowd at Nippert Stadium erupt as their goalie, Mitch Hildebrandt, saved a third penalty kick and seal the win against an MLS side. After watching F.C. Cincinnati take down the Chicago Fire, one thing still resonates with me: I have never been more proud as an American soccer fan.

I've played soccer since I could walk. My dad used to joke that he would toss a stuffed mini-soccer ball at me in my crib before bed so that I could practice my headers. I'm not entirely sure he was joking. 

It's no surprise that I grew up as a huge soccer fan. Growing up, I longed to watch soccer. I wanted to watch as many games as I could-to learn new formations and moves to try out in the backyard. I memorized players' and managers' names. I knew which stadiums they played, what positions they played and which boots they wore. Like many other young American fans I watched Chelsea and Manchester United duel it out in the Premier League or I tuned in to el Classico twice (if you're lucky sometimes more) each year. My first soccer jersey was a no. 7 David Beckham, Manchester United jersey. 

I remember going to a Columbus Crew game and feeling cheated. This wasn't soccer. It didn't feel like the same sport that I watched on T.V. The soccer that MLS was producing quickly grew sour to me. I would go to games to support what felt like a grassroots organization, to be a part of the cause, but I could not commit to watching games on T.V. There wasn’t a community. These fans weren’t passionate about their teams like the fans I had seen on T.V. They didn’t love the game or their team.

The league has felt artificially built, which is strange considering soccer is the most popular youth sport in our country. The league has prioritized financial stability. It has supported franchises with little fan support because of the opportunity to tap into television deals. The league’s favorite strategy to recruit soccer fans is to pull their favorite European players, past their prime, who cannot find playing time on their European clubs. We get their retirees and their hand-me-downs, and it's not surprising that we have created a second-tier league. Better yet, these new fans aren’t the type of fans that build excitement. They seem artificially wrangled as well.

But watching F.C. Cincinnati take down the Chicago Fire in the Lamar Hunt Open Cup was my favorite moment as an American soccer fan. The play on the field wasn't great. It actually looked a lot like a top tier team was playing a relegation-zone team in the premier league. Cincinnati was clearly parking the bus in the first half and could hardly connect more than three passes. Things changed for the home team in the second-half but I would never say that the soccer was good. 

F.C. Cincinnati offers something else. I have never seen any American soccer team garner support like the two-year old club has. Despite the fact that it is at best a second division team playing in a collegiate stadium it consistently breaks attendance records. More people come to watch F.C.C. than many MLS teams. I wouldn't say my hometown ranks anywhere near the upper echelon of sports towns, but Cincinnati has rallied behind its soccer team like nothing else this country has seen in this sport. 

The most iconic teams in all sports bring together their communities and take on an identity that reflects the personality of its fans. This might be most true in soccer. Many of the European leagues can be distinguished by the style of soccer that the teams within them play. These teams' identities reflect the cultures and fans of their respective communities. These communities, because of their tremendous support for their teams, organically develop players because the kids grow up watching soccer. Best yet, they feel attached to their home team and have a sense of commitment to their community. This is the best and most natural way for the MLS to grow the quality of soccer in our country.

Cincinnati may not have a soccer-specific stadium yet or even have a plan approved. It will not boost television ratings because it is a small market that it is too close to another MLS team in Columbus.  

But it has something that many MLS teams envy because all but two clubs in the league don’t have it. It has a community of passionate fans that is growing by the day. F.C.C. is clearly pursuing an expansion position in the MLS and it will feel like defeat to the club if it does not win it. However, as much as the new club wants a spot in the top league in America, MLS needs Cincinnati. They need a team that has that much energy and support and can showcase it on a daily basis. A club that can truly boast home-field advantage in a league that is so desperately deprived of it. The MLS needs to demonstrate to the rest of the league and the rest of the world that it is serious in its desire to build soccer communities throughout this country and choose Cincinnati as an expansion location. It is time for soccer in this country to take the next step forward, to not settle for mediocrity on the field and off it and to put teams on notice that their half-hearted attempt to build a club-following will not suffice anymore.

 

Image: By Hayden Schiff from Cincinnati, USA - The Bailey, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=53999650

 

A Plea For A New Kind of Champions League

A Plea For A New Kind of Champions League

An Introduction to John's fandom

Cavaliers Reality Check

"This offseason has been a nightmare for the Cavaliers" said every virtually basketball writer at some point this summer. Unfortunately for Cavs fans the past few months have been tumultuous. It started when Dan Gilbert in typical Scrooge-like fashion didn't renew GM David Griffin's contract. To make matters worse the second best team in the NBA failed to land any major assets to help bridge the gap with the Golden State Warriors. Of course most recently, reports suggest that Kyrie has requested a trade and now that the request has been made public the Cavs have lost all leverage in any negotiation for the star point guard. to so many it is obvious that LeBron is going to leave in 2018 for the Lakers leaving the Cavaliers with Kevin Love, few draft picks, and little wiggle room in salary cap space. Just like that Believeland will return to normalcy. 

Most Cavs fans should be disappointed with their team's offseason. However, the narrative painted above is so fun to read that it becomes all to easy to fall into the trap of believing it's true. These four things should help bring everyone back to reality. 

1.   LA isn't Perfect

Throughout his career LeBron has followed a similar pattern in contract negotiations that has allowed him to always maintain leverage over front offices. This means that no one knows where LeBron will go when he opts out of his contract after this upcoming season. He does this on purpose, to maintain power and autonomy.  However, too many people have misinterpreted this as meaning that LeBron is leaving, most likely to the Lakers because they have cap room and he lives there. The Lakers also have Lonzo, are managed by Magic Johnson, and seem to be the preferred landing spot of Paul George. 

Unfortunately for Lakers, fans LeBron isn't playing in the Staples Center next year just because he has a house in the area. If that were true, many other great players would be suiting up  in yellow and purple. Next, Lonzo Ball has played exactly 0 games as an NBA point guard. He might be great but chances are not immediately. He will need time to develop into a superstar. In all likelihood, after next season, the Lakers will have missed out on 5 consecutive playoffs. They might be great in the future, but the franchise needs time. LeBron doesn't have time at this point in his career. He needs to win now.  

Lastly, the Lakers play in the western Conference which is likely home to six of the best 8 teams in the entire league. Playing in this conference hurts LeBron dramatically.  not only will it be harder for him to make it to the Finals every year, but he will also play in more meaningful games earlier in the playoffs which could impact the longevity of his career. The east isn't getting better any time soon and his best bet is to remain in that conference and hope that a markedly improved West does more damage to the Warriors on their way to the finals  

2. Cavs Reign in the East

The Cavs without Kyrie are still the best team in the Eastern Conference. This is assuming that the Cavs don't mimic the Pacers and manage to at least find an average player when they trade away their all-star point guard. Cleveland still retains the best player on the planet for at least one more year. Regardless of how much the Celtics have improved and how poorly the Cavaliers have managed this offseason, LeBron is still enough to carry the Cavaliers through the Eastern Conference Playoffs. The eventual series with the Celtics will be closer than 2017's version, but I don't see the Celtics stopping James on his quest to an 8th straight finals appearance. 

The most comforting piece of information for any Cavs fan is that the East is worse than it has ever been at any point in LeBron's career. During the summer of his decision, LeBron had the option to join Wade in Miami in order to conquer the first form of the super-team in Boston. This time around there isn't a team in the east that offers a better opportunity for him to beat the Warriors if he decides to leave Cleveland. LeBron might have to stay in Cleveland by default. 

3.   Kyrie's Trade is About Him

This past week Kyrie's request for the front office to trade him was leaked and his preferred destinations are San Antonio, Miami, New York, and Minnesota. Despite many writers' best efforts to convince the public, Kyrie is not requesting a trade out of Cleveland because the franchise is on fire. This trade request has little to do with Dan Gilbert's mismanagement or David Griffin's departure. If Kyrie was really concerned that his current team was poisonous he would not have requested a trade to New York.

This trade request is about Kyrie wanting to step out of LeBron's shadow. This DOES NOT mean that Kyrie and LeBron are feuding like middle-schoolers. He wants to be the centerpiece of a contending franchise and work towards becoming an all-time great, not just the G.O.A.T's greatest sidekick. That desire is genuine, maybe selfish, but genuine. 

4. The Kyrie Opportunity

As much as it hurts to lose a franchise player and fan favorite, Kyrie's trade request presents the Cavs and freshly appointed GM Koby Altman opportunities that they didn't have before. It gives them the opportunity to trade away one of their best players without angering LeBron and retool in order to compete with the Warriors. They can convince another team to swallow up one of their bad contracts and leave room to sign other players in the summer of 2018 in order to convince LeBron to stay. Even in the apocalyptic scenario where LeBron leaves, the Cavaliers can trade away Irving and put the franchise in position to rebuild. 

That apocalyptic scenario certainly could happen next summer, but Cavaliers fans should rejoice in the fact that 2018 is a year away. Moreover, they should seek solace in the fact that tweets and subtweets really shouldn't substantiate a report and that if LeBron tweets Happy Birthday to a rising star in the league he isn't necessarily going to join that team, he might just be doing it because he knows we will eat it up. And we have.  

 

 

Image: By Erik Drost from United States - Cleveland Cavaliers, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=36677943