Mike Pesca knows just how dominant Connecticut’s women’s basketball team has been this year. He lamented recently on Slate’s “Hang Up and Listen” podcast (around 49 minutes in) that every time he tuned in to a UConn game while working out at the gym this season, usually with 10 minutes left on the clock, the game was already effectively over.By just how much have the Huskies been draining the drama out of Pesca’s workouts? A lot, and by a whole lot more than their predecessors did.At halftime of the average UConn game this year, the Huskies were winning by 25 points. That’s staggering — so staggering that it blows away four of the best teams in recent history: the last four UConn teams, which all reached the Final Four. The last two won the title. Those two championship teams averaged halftime leads of a mere 20 points; the Huskies’ average halftime lead was even lower in the two years before that.By five and a half minutes into the second half, this year’s UConn team averaged a lead of more than 32 points, compared to less than 26 points last year and 24 points or less in the prior three seasons. (Just four teams other than UConn this year beat opponents by more than 20 points per game. And that was their margin at the end of games, not soon after halftime.)But at that 5:30 mark we begin to see a dip. At that point, the ultracompetitive Huskies showed a tiny fraction of mercy. If they’d carried on at the same rate for the whole game, they’d have won by an average of 51 points. Instead they won by only 42 points per game. By the time Pesca was tuning in, UConn led by an average of 35 points. (This is all based on data provided by ESPN Stats & Information, supplemented with play-by-plays from the UConn website.)We also looked at the data another way: How often this season was UConn, say, trailing? Or winning by 40 points?The Huskies established dominance early: By six and a half minutes into their games this year, they were tied or trailing just once. And they led for the entire second half in most games, though Stanford tied things up in regulation and then dealt UConn its only loss, back in November. More than half the time, UConn led by at least 30 points two minutes into the second half. That all adds up to lots of minutes of Mike Pesca doing bicep curls with dull basketball on in the background.This doesn’t necessarily mean this year’s UConn team is the best UConn team of the last five years. The school shifted to the American Athletic Conference two seasons ago from the Big East, which has made for easier conference games and more blowouts. And the previous seasons’ stats include NCAA tournament games, some of which were close — though many were also blowouts.Even so, it’d take a whole lot of NCAA tournament drama to undo all the meaningless second halves the Huskies have played so far this year. Our forecast currently gives them a 74 percent chance of winning the title, before they’ve played their first game. That doesn’t leave much room for nail-biters.Check out FiveThirtyEight’s March Madness predictions.
Larry Brown1982-83Nets159947-26Resigned under pressure Frank Layden1988-89Jazz158411-6Resigned Danny Ainge1999-2000Suns156313-7Resigned The most abrupt NBA coaching departures Paul Westhead1981-82Lakers15727-4Fired Source: Basketball-reference.com David Blatt2015-16Cavaliers166930-11Fired The Cleveland Cavaliers fired head coach David Blatt on Friday, even though he guided the team to the NBA Finals last season and a 30-11 record so far this year.The NBA is a tough league. But as far as we can tell, no coach has been fired under similar circumstances before.Below, you’ll find a table of NBA coaches since the NBA-ABA merger in 1976-77 who were fired or resigned in the middle of the regular season when their teams had an Elo rating of 1550 or higher.1The table excludes interim head coaches who were dismissed after a permanent replacement was found. The league-average Elo rating is about 1500, so a rating of 1550 reflects a pretty good team; about as good as the Atlanta Hawks right now. Gene Shue1977-7876ers15592-4Fired Stan Van Gundy2005-06Heat158011-10Resigned under pressure Del Harris1998-99Lakers16116-6Fired Coaches don’t usually get fired when their teams are playing well. But Blatt’s Cavs haven’t just been good; they’ve been on the verge of great. The team’s current Elo rating is 1669, far higher than that of any other team when it fired a coach mid-season.When a coach does get fired despite a solid record, it’s usually because his team is underperforming lofty expectations. But that can’t really be said of the Cavs. Their preseason team win total at the Westgate Las Vegas SuperBook was 56.5 wins; they’re actually a little ahead of that pace, currently projecting to finish the season 61-21 instead.Yes, the Cavs were embarrassed on Monday by the Warriors, 132-98. But one bad regular-season loss isn’t usually enough to doom a coach. It’s reasonable to ask whether the overt tension between Blatt and superstar LeBron James played a role because there’s not really a good precedent for something like this happening. (James was reportedly not consulted about Blatt’s firing.)Larry Brown resigned under pressure as head coach of the New Jersey Nets late in the 1982-83 season despite a 47-26 record, but that was because he’d agreed to take a job the next season at the University of Kansas. Del Harris was canned as Lakers’ head coach early in the 1998-99 season when the team had a strong 1611 Elo rating, but its record was just 6-6 at that point, below the perennially high expectations in Lakerland. COACHSEASONTEAMELOCOACH RECORDNOTES Don Nelson2004-05Mavericks159742-22Resigned Jack McKinney1979-80Lakers155210-4Injured Larry Brown1991-92Spurs158621-17Fired
Turned out that the knee trouble that required Blake Griffin to leave Team USA and return to Los Angeles was a meniscus tear that will prevent him from participating in the London Olympics.For the Clippers, Griffin will be sidelined for six-to-eight weeks, meaning he should be healthy in time for training camp in the fall.“We’re relieved that this does not affect Blake’s ability to be ready in time for training camp,” Clippers coach Vinny Del Negro said in a statement. “Missing out on the Olympic experience will be tough for him to take. I know how dedicated he was to doing that. We’re glad we can get this fixed now and take advantage of the available time for him to fully recover.”USA Basketball said in a statement that Griffin reported he was experiencing discomfort in the knee during a scrimmage at Team USA training camp. Griffin missed Thursday night’s 113-59 exhibition victory over the Dominican Republic.The Clippers said Griffin would undergo an MRI exam once he returns to Los Angeles and then will be evaluated by Dr. Neal ElAttrache of the Kerlan-Jobe Orthopaedic Clinic on Sunday.USA Basketball chairman Jerry Colangelo suggested the soreness in Griffin’s knee was related to the injury he suffered during the 2012 NBA playoffs.“The reality is, that injury took place at the end of the season,” Colangelo said. “And he had an option to get scoped and he opted not to get scoped. And so, I guess he aggravated it. Whether he’s able to play now remains to be seen.”Griffin did not show any obvious signs of an injury on Wednesday, and a source told ESPN.com that Griffin’s knee “swelled up” after the scrimmage.New Orleans rookie Anthony Davis, the NBA’s 2012 No. 1 overall pick out of Kentucky, has been asked to report to Team USA training camp in Las Vegas. Davis dressed for Team USA’s game against the Dominican Republic.
See more NBA predictions NBA See more NFL predictions Things That Caught My EyeKansas City shuffling out of the playoffsThe Chiefs have been really bad for the past several weeks, so bad that their very season is in jeopardy. Looking at their team’s Elo rating between Week 5 and Week 12, the -116 point difference is the largest meltdown observed of teams with an Elo rating of 1700 or better in at that point in the seasons. [FiveThirtyEight]This means WARThe sabermetric concept of wins above replacement has gone mainstream in baseball coverage, but the statistic is at something of a crossroads: How precisely the wins above replacement are calculated varies from database to database, and right now the baseball nerd community is attempting to get to the bottom of what precisely the statistic should entail. [The Ringer]The parade is in the worksA Cleveland Browns fan named Chris McNeil has successfully obtained permission to have a parade circle around the Browns home stadium in the event the team does in fact go defeated and finished the season with an 0-16 record. Cleveland has an 11 percent chance of beating the Chargers, a 25 percent chance of beating Green Bay, a 20 percent chance of beating Baltimore, a 22 percent chance of beating Chicago and 6 percent chance of beating Pittsburgh. That approximates to a roughly 39 percent chance of five consecutive defeats. [FiveThirtyEight, Uproxx]NFL nears player agreementThe NFL’s negotiations with a group of players to address social justice issues that have prompted player protests across the league appear to be approaching a conclusion, with a number in the ballpark of $89 million over seven years going towards causes identified by a league-controlled panel. [ESPN, Deadspin]Jeff Fisher is the worst thing to happen to quarterbacks since the creation of the NFL defensive endJared Goff’s total QBR was 18.3 last season under head coach Jeff Fisher, leading to indications he may be one of the worst quarterbacks ever. Now that he is no longer under Jeff Fisher, his QBR is 55.2, above average and on a winning Rams team. Case Keenum, also once under the stifling Fisher, is now 7-2 behind center for the Vikings. Both quarterbacks could be enjoying the biggest year-to-year QBR bumps. [The Undefeated]Make sure to try your hand at our fun NFL can you beat the FiveThirtyEight predictions? game!Big Number31The number of teams in the NFL that have used at least three starting quarterbacks since Week 11 of 2004. The team that has not is the New York Giants, who have been the beneficiaries of the second-longest quarterback starting streak in NFL history. This week the team announced that ironman starter Eli Manning would be unceremoniously benched in favor of Geno Smith. Yeah, the Giants really, really botched this. [ESPN]Leaks from Slack: neil:I just noticed Terrell Suggs is having one of the great old-guy sack seasons everHe’s on pace for 14 on the season, which would rank 5th among players age 35+(Apparently 1998 was an insane year for old pass rushers)daniel.levittThat 1992 Clay Matthews season. 111 tackles at age 36…waltwait how old is clay matthewsohwaiti see it nowthat’s on mePredictions NFL Oh, and don’t forgetAre you as smart as an NFL ref? We’re launching a sports newsletter. 🏆 Join the squad. Subscribe See more college football predictions College Football All newsletters
Houston-0.2025+0.2857+32 RunsDropbacks Tennessee61273947 Washington1046931 Indianapolis-0.0432-0.1530-2 Tennessee1286139 The 3-point revolution in basketball was driven in large part by the finding that the three has a higher expected value than a midrange jump shot.1A three is worth approximately 1 expected point, while a midrange shot is worth about 0.8 expected points. While the math is simple and clear, the revolution didn’t occur overnight — or even in the first few decades after the 3-point line was introduced. Because those longer shots don’t go through the hoop as often as midrangers, missing a shot feels like failure. There is a slightly counterintuitive aspect to it.Now imagine a world where 3-pointers aren’t simply worth more as measured by expected points, but where they also go through the hoop more often. The benefits of the three would be stunningly obvious. We might even question the competence of coaches and teams that didn’t attempt them as much as possible.That’s where the NFL is currently living. The NFL is a passing league that somehow doesn’t pass enough. NFL teams know the medicine works yet stubbornly refuse to take a clinically effective dose.To be clear, teams are certainly passing more often than they used to. Leaguewide passing attempts per game have risen from 32.3 in 2008 to 34.2 last year, and the increase in volume has not been accompanied by a decrease in efficiency. Leaguewide yards per attempt have increased slightly from 6.9 to 7.0, and more touchdowns are being scored by passing relative to running than at any time in league history. Completion percentage is up from 61.0 percent to 62.1 percent, and the interception rate has fallen from 2.8 percent to 2.5 percent. Yet despite all these positive indicators, teams remain unwilling to break old habits and throw in many classic rushing situations.The biggest culprit is first down, the most traditional run situation. It’s here where NFL coaches are consistently missing an opportunity to pass, particularly against defenses that have stacked the box or are playing at least seven defenders close to the line of scrimmage. I’m calling these situations FANS — First (down) Against Neutral or Stacked (boxes). FANS includes plays in which the defense brings extra men close to the line of scrimmage, clogging running lanes and daring the offense to run the ball. I analyzed plays from the 2017 season using men-in-the-box data from analytics firm Sports Info Solutions and play-level data courtesy of Ron Yurko, a Ph.D. student in statistics at Carnegie Mellon University. To more accurately represent regular game play and eliminate noise, I limited the sample to snaps outside the red zone when the opposing teams were within 7 points of each other.With seven to nine men near the line of scrimmage and the subsequent dearth of extra defenders in the secondary, we’d expect passing to be effective in these situations. That’s just what we found. Last season, 30 of 32 teams were more successful passing than running on FANS as measured by success rate.2Success rate is the share of plays with positive expected points added. EPA accounts for negative potential outcomes of a dropback, including sacks, interceptions and incompletions. The EPA model used here is by Ron Yurko, Sam Ventura and Max Horowitz. And passing wasn’t just a little more successful than running. The difference in passing success was large: 27 teams had a success rate that was at least 10 percentage points higher when passing on FANS than running; 14 teams were more than 20 points better. The league average difference of 19.3 leaned wildly toward passing. Washington-0.2224+0.2854+30 N.Y. Giants58334257 San Francisco55324550 Broncos-0.1625+0.1552+27 Dallas1127030 Detroit60224040 The average rushing success rate on second-and-long for the league is just 27 percent verses 46 percent for passing, a massive difference. The average of 18.7 percentage points in pass-run differential is only slightly lower than the 19.3 percentage points on first down. And this is despite teams passing 11 percentage points more often than on first down.If we combine the two down-and-distance situations, a clear picture emerges showing the NFL’s reluctance to actually pass when the situation warrants it. Chicago68313241 N.Y. Giants-0.0834+0.0557+23 Dallas65333545 L.A. Chargers1006238 Carolina-0.2730+0.0649+19 Difference+19+0.300 N.Y. Jets-0.1225+0.1650+25 Kansas City-0.0728+0.0746+18 Philadelphia-0.0543+0.0344+1 Tampa Bay54264659 Baltimore-0.2327+0.2657+30 Detroit536040 N.Y. Jets64243651 Play TypeSuccess RateEPA/playUsage New England795941 Detroit-0.2126-0.1836+10 Buffalo-0.2130+0.1245+15 L.A. Chargers-0.2029+0.6053+24 Minnesota-0.1931+0.1059+28 San Francisco-0.1032+0.2356+24 Baltimore55264552 New Orleans795941 Source: Sports Info Solutions Even accounting for the potential negative outcomes of a dropback like sacks and interceptions, passing on FANS keeps a team “on schedule”3Which typically means gaining at least 4 yards on first down, 4 on second down and 2 on third down. in the down and distance more often than a run. Incredibly though, there were 31 NFL teams last season when facing this situation on first down — looking down a defense that was clearly gearing up to stop the run — that chose to run more often than they passed. Here’s the same table as above, now sorted by the frequency of play type. L.A. Rams49435137 Dropback46+0.1050 Minnesota946337 Philadelphia47405344 Houston58234253 Arizona1046337 Share of plays New Orleans+0.0338+0.2149+11 Houston1096733 Cleveland61313939 Steelers785545 Indianapolis1146436 N.Y. Giants976436 Indianapolis62283835 Seattle765446 Green Bay59324141 Run27%-0.2050% Kansas City795545 Cincinnati56264438 New England+0.0444+0.3247+3 Miami-0.1827+0.1845+18 Cincinnati-0.1727+0.0642+15 Seattle53244739 Denver57284354 Green Bay765941 Even adding second-and-long, most teams are still runningNFL team success rates by play type on first- and second-and-long facing seven to nine men in the box, 2017 Cincinnati745842 Chicago9871%29% N.Y. Jets1066634 Atlanta-0.2230+0.3765+35 TeamNo. playsRunsDropbacks Jacksonville-0.0133+0.3751+18 Philadelphia604555 Arizona59284147 TeamEPA/playSuccess RateEPA/playSuccess RateDiff. in success rate RUNSDROP-BACKS Chicago-0.2729-0.3838+9 Tampa Bay-0.1826%+0.3764%+38 TeamShare of playsSuccess RateShare of playsSuccess Rate Jacksonville1106436 Atlanta945347 Arizona-0.2030+0.1948+18 Source: Sports Info Solutions Tampa Bay906040 Minnesota58314257 San Francisco1196040 Dallas-0.0837+0.2351+14 Pittsburgh59324151 New Orleans56334450 Buffalo65293543 Carolina65283552 Source: Sports Info Solutions First and 10? Time to passNFL teams’ expected points added per play and success rate when running vs. dropping back for a pass on first and 10 facing seven to nine men in the box, 2017 Tennessee-0.1926-0.0348+22 The only team in the NFL that passed more often than it ran in this situation was also the only team to lift the Vince Lombardi Trophy. Doug Pederson and the Eagles broke from the flock and dropped back to pass the ball 55 percent of the time — which was in some ways part of a larger strategy to break from convention. “A lot of NFL coaches have traditionally been averse to taking risks,” Pederson writes in his new book, “Fearless.” This desire to zig when the other teams were zagging showed up in Philadelphia’s fourth-down conversion attempts and two-point tries — two darlings of the statistical community.What about other more traditional passing downs? Second-and-long certainly qualifies. The league still runs as much as they pass on that down and distance, with just four teams boasting a higher success rate rushing than passing. Carolina946931 Miami565446 New England55444549 The NFL can’t quit the first-down runShare of plays in which NFL teams ran vs. dropped back for a pass on first down when facing seven to nine men in the box, 2017 Kansas City52334845 How often teams pass vs. run on second-and-long (7 to 10 yards) when facing a stacked or neutral box, 2017 Cleveland856535 L.A. Rams-0.0943+0.1040-3 Buffalo1246535 L.A. Rams495149 Oakland69%23%31%49% Green Bay+0.0233-0.1043+10 Steelers-0.2128+0.1154+26 Oakland807030 Atlanta55294563 Miami54264648 Broncos635941 Cleveland-0.1129+0.0744+15 Source: Sports Info Solutions Seattle-0.2425-0.2638+13 Washington61273958 L.A. Chargers57294353 Jacksonville62293846 Baltimore915743 Oakland-0.3421+0.0343+22 The choices made on early downs are meaningful. The Oakland Raiders won six games in 2017 while leading the league in share of rushing on first- and second-and-long against a crowded box, at 69 percent of the time. If the Raiders had instead passed on 60 percent of those occasions, they would have seen a swing of 19.5 expected points, good for about half a win.Sometimes gains from passing aren’t absolute gains. Poor offensive teams can benefit from passing even if only to mitigate against the greater loss from running the ball. Last year, the Tennessee Titans employed a run-first, smash-mouth offensive strategy that saw them rush in these FANS situations 61 percent of the time. Both running and passing plays were losing propositions for them, but passing was still the least worst option. Had they flipped the script and passed 61 percent of the time, the Titans would have saved themselves 7 expected points, good for about a fifth of a win.Thursday night, the Atlanta Falcons kick off the NFL season against the Eagles in an NFC divisional round rematch. Last season, Atlanta was successful on a league-leading 63 percent of passing plays on first-and-10 and second-and-long against neutral or stacked boxes. The Falcons also led the league in pass-run success differential at 34 percentage points. Inexplicably, they ran the ball more than half the time. Had the Falcons passed at a level commensurate with their success rate, they would have earned 35.9 more expected points over the course of the year, good for an additional win.Like most of the rest of the NFL, Atlanta can improve its chances greatly by taking a page from the Eagles. On Thursday, we’ll see if they learned from their adversary this offseason. In the league that struggles to embrace change, it’s no sure thing.Check out our latest NFL predictions.
gfoster: (Geoff Foster, sports editor): NFL Week 14 was very odd in many respects (and the week isn’t over) with the Raiders, Niners and Giants winning and the Rams, Texans, Steelers and Patriots all losing. It all went a long way to making the playoff picture even murkier. What was your biggest takeaway from the week?Salfino (Michael Salfino, contributor): How much should we be worried about the Rams? Is every offense entitled to one hiccup like this, or is it part of a pattern that began with the Lions, who did not care about play-action at all and just covered the receivers. The Bears also did not bite. Does Los Angeles have a Plan B?neil (Neil Paine, senior sports writer): It was definitely startling to see the Rams’ offense be held in check so thoroughly. Jared Goff was terrible. Todd Gurley did next to nothing. The Rams’ offensive expected points added in the game was -23.5. That was 29.6 points worse than their second-worst offensive game of the season … which was Week 13 vs. Detroit. And it was 33.8 points of EPA worse than their low before the Detroit game.sara.ziegler (Sara Ziegler, assistant sports editor): I know people talk a lot about playing in the cold as a problem, and I usually roll my eyes. But was that a factor here?neil: The Rams have only played four games where temp was under 50 degrees in the Sean McVay era.Salfino: I know, that temperature stuff. I just can’t believe these guys from all different parts of the country are suddenly able to only play in warm weather. But that’s going to be the theory of the case now almost certainly.gfoster: The Rams game at Detroit was definitely curious. They came out of the bye completely flat, Goff played poorly, and most people kinda wrote it off to rust. But now I’m starting to wonder if teams, as Mike alluded to, are starting to figure out this McVay offense.Salfino: This kind of thing has happened before. The 1994 49ers team that won the Super Bowl and was electrifying on offense laid an egg against the Eagles that year, losing 40-8. They had 189 yards that game.And on defense, the 1985 Bears famously flubbed a primetime game against the Dolphins late in the year for their only loss that season.gfoster: That Detroit game was in a dome, Sara.Salfino: This can’t be Cooper Kupp, can it? My theory of playing the Rams was to just ignore the running game. I figured a team that gave them fits would basically concede Gurley. What really surprised me about the Chicago performance was that Gurley didn’t even get going. They had nothing. The Bears didn’t even accept the slow death of Gurley running.sara.ziegler: But why didn’t the Rams even try to run Gurley? Only 11 carries?neil: Good question, Sara. They had been almost exactly balanced (49.7 percent pass/50.3 percent run) on first down, but last night they passed on 73 percent of first downs. Despite averaging 4.6 yards per carry on the first downs where they did run.Salfino: My feeling watching the game with Gurley is that the Rams wanted to get wide open passes by faking to Gurley like they usually do, and then when that didn’t work, they were behind the down and distance and had to straight-up pass, with typically disastrous results.neil: Right — Goff had a 23.0 passer rating on 1st down.Salfino: What happens to a play-action offense when no one buys into the deception? When the defense just ignores it?sara.ziegler: I guess I would argue that you should just run the ball.Especially with a guy like Gurley.Salfino: Exactly right. That’s when they should run. This is probably why McVay was so hard on himself in the post-game.sara.ziegler: And for good reason! LOLgfoster: Let’s talk about the ending of the Dolphins-Patriots game, which was probably the highlight of the year. Although, I may be partial to the Chris Carson front flip a couple weeks ago.neil: Incredible. Just look at the diagram: Longest game-winning scoring play in NFL history, I believe.Salfino: Kenyan Drake made the best nonlateral decision ever on a lateral play. Or maybe the worst since anyone other than Gronk easily tackles him.gfoster: The funniest sequence of that was when Drake was looking to lateral more and then you could see him to say to himself, “Oh wait, I can just run this in from here.”sara.ziegler: Gronk definitely failing his defensive audition.Salfino: Why was Gronk even on the field? It was not a Hail Mary situation 69 yards from pay dirt.neil: Right, clearly Ryan Tannehill doesn’t have the arm for that throw in the air. He’s not Patrick Mahomes.gfoster: Tannehill can throw 80 yards. You didn’t know that?sara.ziegler: gfoster: I’m saying Saints over Chargers. Cardinals with the first pick (they have at Seattle and Rams still).And if the Chargers get drilled by the Chiefs on Thursday, I will sneak into WordPress and delete all of this.Check out our latest NFL predictions. Salfino: Did Drake just laugh at the idea of Gronk tackling him?Gronk looked like I imagine Brady would trying to make that tackle. And ironically, he finally looked like Gronk on offense.neil: And Bill Belichick left Devin McCourty off the field for that play in favor of Gronkowski. Shades of Malcolm Butler in the Super Bowl. Too cute for his own good.gfoster: I mean, come on.Salfino: The Ravens did everything right on defense. Tyreek Hill takes standing eight counts with three different injuries. And you look up at the end of the game and Mahomes has nearly four bills and the Hill has 139 receiving yards. Spencer Ware looked very dangerous. How can anyone stop the Chiefs?neil: The diagram on that one is amazing, too: TeamCurrentProjected remainingTotal 29Jets40.94.9 3149ers30.73.7 Salfino: The Ravens blitzed the hell out of Mahomes, and it really seemed to give him fits, but then again you look at the stat sheet and are like, “??????”gfoster: I would normally say here that the Chargers could hang with the Chiefs and look like the AFC’s Super Bowl-bound team. But that was a somewhat lifeless effort by them Sunday. Against Jeff Driskel and probably the worst defense in the NFL.sara.ziegler: I guess we’ll find that out on Thursday, when the Chiefs and Chargers play.Salfino: I thought it was going to be typical Chargers. But maybe typical Chargers is having easily the second-best team in the conference and somehow being the fifth seed. As for the Bengals performance, it fits the “letdown game” theory between Pittsburgh and Kansas City.gfoster: Although, it should be noted that Mike Badgley hit four of four field goals, including a 59 yarder. That actually ties the total of made Chargers field goals for the last two seasons.sara.ziegler: LOLSalfino: How is Hill going to play that game on Thursday? He was like Rocky on the stool at the end of that Ravens game.The thing about the Chargers that’s weird is their pace of play. They were 29th in plays before last week and then put up another relatively low play count.Could Mike Tomlin get fired if the Steelers miss the playoffs? Should he?sara.ziegler: Not in light of the Le’Veon Bell mess, I’m guessing.The Steelers’ running game was nonexistent, with no James Conner even.Salfino: Has Bell’s absence even hurt the team? Sunday was the first game you could say they lost because of it, arguably. But the defense could not stop Derek Carr. Think about that sentence in the context of this year.gfoster: I don’t think this Steelers team is very good. They now have the Patriots and then AT the Saints. They could easily be 7-7-1 going into final week.sara.ziegler: I’ve been amazed all season at how high the Steelers’ Elo was. But they just kept winning — until the past three games.neil: Looking at our Elo, though, the Steelers usually pick up steam late in seasons. They haven’t had a swoon like this since 2012. Wins sara.ziegler: I just need to take a second to thank Drake for giving me 12.2 fantasy points on that play.🙌Salfino: Fantasy scoring on that play is hilarious. It goes as a Tannehill touchdown pass. There were no screams about that because who’s playing Tannehill?sara.ziegler: LOL, good point.Salfino: How dumb are the Dolphins though for not getting a guy as electric as Drake the ball more on offense? But they’re 7-6. Have to be one of the worst winning teams at this juncture of the season in memory, but they do own wins against the Bears and Patriots.gfoster: Salfino is not a Frank Gore fan.Salfino: OMG, Frank Gore. The dude is a survivor, I’ll give him that. He’s going to end up in the Hall of Fame, too. But he’s been just a guy for so long now.gfoster: Neil wrote about this recently. Is this Patriots team just not intimidating?Gronk’s “defense” is getting the headlines, but he had a big game offensively Sunday. There’s no doubt the offense is world’s different when he’s healthy — and it’s hard to remember a playoffs when he was remotely healthy.Salfino: The Patriots’ problem is that they lacked offensive upside. But then Tom Brady really looked like the Brady of old vs. Old Brady. Gronk got rolling. Gordon was hyper-efficient. The running game was trash, but that’s sort of old-school Patriots too. Even the defense struggling seemed normal. But losing that game was not normal at all. If you told me New England was going to lose, I’d figure it was their offense flagging the game.neil: Although it’s worth noting they forced zero turnovers against a Tannehill Phins offense.sara.ziegler: That’s sort of the beauty of those lateral plays actually working: It’s a fluke, not a systemic problem for them.neil: But this is definitely the type of toss-up game they usually find a way to win, not lose.sara.ziegler: For sure. Which is what made it so fun!neil: At least for 31 fanbases searching for Patriots schadenfreude.Salfino: I really thought one of the Patriots and Steelers would emerge in the AFC, and now maybe both of those teams are going to be playing wild-card weekend.gfoster: There are four AFC teams at 7-6: Ravens, Colts, Dolphins, Titans. Which one of those is going to make the playoffs in your eyes? Or will it be the Browns, Neil?neil: They’re “in the hunt”!For the first time in approximately 30 years.Salfino: I think the sixth team in the AFC will be the Colts. Andrew Luck is totally out of his shoulder issue and throwing the ball downfield. T.Y. Hilton has nearly 600 receiving yards in the past four games. Luck-to-Hilton is maybe the most lethal combination in football right now.gfoster: Not Luck-to-Ebron?neil: For what it’s worth, our model thinks the Ravens still have the best chance at 55 percent.sara.ziegler: I like the Ravens. They were super unlucky to lose to the Chiefs. gfoster: He seems like he’s looking to run. You watch a QB like Watson, Rodgers, Mahomes — they are so reluctant to do it. Always have eyes down the field until they physically cross the line of scrimmage.Salfino: My theory with Allen is that his running is so effective and reliable that it’s hurting his development as a passer.gfoster: He also has the worst supporting cast of possibly any QB ever.Salfino: Darnold escapes to throw and not run, too. Especially on his touchdown pass Sunday, which was an incredible play.sara.ziegler: Allen is like Bizarro Mahomes.Salfino: Sara mentioned the Eagles. Is their window closing? They’re going to have to rebuild their defense, which is bereft of impact players. Their skill players are mediocre. Alshon Jeffery is not a No. 1 receiver, remotely. Suddenly their team-building seems suspect.sara.ziegler: They had seemed to be playing better since that walloping by the Saints. But maybe not so much.neil: Will we look back at 2017 as a weird, one-off year in general?Eagles take advantage of a strange hiccup in the general arc of the game?Salfino: Especially winning with Foles.gfoster: One more NFC East thought: The Amari Cooper trade was probably the most derided front office move of the year. I myself openly laughed at it. Now…sara.ziegler: Salfino: The Cooper trade is going to go down in history as the best in-season deal. He was the missing piece. Everyone else is now in the role that they are suited to be in. Dak Prescott was explosive Sunday. I can’t believe I’m saying it.The bug for the Cowboys was supposed to be their decision-making by Jerry Jones and his family, and that’s turned out to be their strength. Seriously, name the team that’s drafted better recently than the Cowboys. Now add Cooper to this. God, I hate myself for saying this.gfoster: The issue with that trade was more relative to the wide receiver market. Golden Tate, Josh Gordon and Demaryius Thomas were all traded for a far smaller return. The difference is that prior to the deal, I would have lumped Cooper in with that tier of receiver, but it’s possible that his problem was even more Derek Carr than I thought.Salfino: My view is that Cooper is an explosive player who can take the top off the defense. Those other guys, including Gordon now, cannot.gfoster: OK, before we go, I want to get in one college football question off the big news of the weekend: Did Heisman voters get this one right?Salfino: Oklahoma somehow pulled a Favre to Rodgers in college football.sara.ziegler: I’m still kinda shocked that Kyler Murray won.It really came down to performances in the conference championships.neil: It’s funny because the Tua-is-unstoppable narrative had been in place for like two months (or more). Yet the signs were there that Kyler was a legitimate threat to him. He had a better NCAA passing efficiency, better QBR. Betting odds even favored Kyler on Saturday AM.Salfino: My take is that Alabama would be great/No. 1 in the country with pretty much a typical college QB, but Oklahoma absolutely must have Murray to rank where they are. So Murray is the MVP of college football for sure.gfoster: Here’s the flip side of that: Tagovailoa barely played in the fourth quarter most of the season, while Murray was needing to score 40 to 50 points every week to beat any team.Salfino: I’ve heard the draft people concede the Murray would be a first-round pick. Now the question I guess is how high? There are no rules anymore after Baker.sara.ziegler: Unless he’s an Oakland A by that point…gfoster: And, likewise, Mahomes coming out of the same Big 12 nonsense football that looks like two 11-year-olds playing Madden.Salfino: If Murray is a top-five pick, the financial calculus changes dramatically. He may never get another MLB contract. Look at ninth-overall picks in history, for example.neil: Yes it does change the formula we looked at here.gfoster: All right, last question:Quickly give me the Week 14 Super Bowl prediction and No. 1 overall pick prediction, since we have a legitimate race this year.neil: I guess I shouldn’t stick with my October pick of the Vikings…sara.ziegler: LOLThey’re not out of it…neil: Although who knows! We’ll see tonight.sara.ziegler: I still think it will be the Chiefs out of the AFC, but who knows from the NFC.Even after last night, I just can’t get behind the Bears.gfoster: Sara, just pick the Vikings, it’s fine. We will forget about it.sara.ziegler: I can’t. The moment I do, it’s over for them.Salfino: I think the Raiders are the favorite for the No. 1 pick because San Francisco is going to face backups against the Rams in Week 17. I picked Saints-Steelers in the preseason. I will stick with the Saints — figuring that Payton figures it out. AFC has to be the Chiefs now. They do have a pass rush. They absolutely cannot lose Hill or Kelce though. (And obviously Mahomes.)Betting on Andy Reid in January though and the Chiefs in January at home, yikes.sara.ziegler: I’ll take a long shot for the No. 1 pick with the Jaguars. That’s a team that looks like it does not care.neil: I will speak for the model and pick the Saints coming out of the NFC. We have them at 26 percent to win it all. AFC favorite is Chiefs, though I share Mike’s concerns there, despite my crush on Mahomes.And I’ll go with the Cardinals at No. 1, our model’s pick for the worst record. 28Bills41.25.2 30Raiders30.83.8 32Cardinals30.63.6 And that year they could pin it on Charlie Batch starting some games.Salfino: Explain to me how Roethlisberger goes 25-for-29, the Steelers defense is still near the top of the league in yards allowed per play, and they lose to the Raiders. Tomlin totally blows the end of the game by not calling a timeout, he gets his own lateral play to work, and then the kicker falls down.sara.ziegler: Field goal kicking has been about average this year, at 84.2 percent made. But this week was a bad one for kickers, who made only 42 field goals out of 56 attempts.Salfino: Steelers vs. Patriots is the game of the week, but not for the reasons we thought going into the season. These are two desperate teams now. The Steelers are teetering on elimination, and New England can’t win the conference without a bye, IMO.Do you know how hard it is to pass like Roethlisberger has this year and have a top defense in yards per play and still struggle to win?gfoster: They haven’t beaten a truly good team this season. Especially now that we can safely call the Panthers a bad team.And the Jags.And the Falcons.The Steelers’ best win was arguably over the Browns!Salfino: They really should have beaten the Chargers, though. But you’re right.sara.ziegler: And they would have beaten Oakland, if not for their kicker falling down.neil: … another really bad team.Salfino: Are we worried about the Saints? They did not really bounce back at all offensively from last week’s loss to the Cowboys. You have had the feeling all year that Sean Payton was worried about the depth of his receiving corps, and they had nothing other than Michael Thomas on Sunday — and Thomas really had to grind it out. Nothing in that game against a terrible Tampa defense was easy, which is shocking.gfoster: But on Thanksgiving, we were singing the praises of Brees’s ability to throw TD passes to four different guys who walked in off the street and put on Saints jerseys.Salfino: I think the Saints defense is underrated now and the Saints offense is overrated.gfoster: Where are Austin Carr, Keith Kirkwood, Tommylee Lewis and Dan Arnold?Salfino: Arnold was inactive on Sunday. Crippling loss.That quartet sounds like a country rock band lineup.neil: Are we rattling off Saints WRs or members of the 1973-74 Cavaliers?Salfino: Nice pull, Neil!gfoster: Brees and the Saints are always bad in Tampa, it seems. Kinda like how Brady always seems to struggle in Miami. What is it about Florida?(Brady was good Sunday, though.)Salfino: The Saints really pulled that game out of the fire and it was huge. Could give them the No. 1 seed, and I think they really need it.gfoster: Here’s a question: If we could switch the results of one of the narrow losses in the first eight weeks, are we talking about the Giants as a sleeper playoff team?neil: People are talking about the Giants as a sleeper playoff team NOW.(At least on WFAN.)gfoster: They have two wins more impressive than Pittsburgh: at Texans, Bears.Salfino: Eli Manning is going to resign the Giants into giving him a lifetime contract. He is sucking all hope out of their prospective QB search.Eli is the Frank Gore of QBs.neil: Sara and I theorized that Eli paid Kyle Lauletta to keep screwing up.“Here’s $50, go commit a traffic violation in New Jersey.”Salfino: Eli’s last four wins were against opposing QBs Mullen, Fitzpatrick, Daniel, Sanchez.sara.ziegler: My favorite thing in football this season is how bad the Giants are at tanking.Salfino: Exactly! It’s not that hard.sara.ziegler: Remember when the Giants basically didn’t play Saquon Barkley in the second half against Philly?And handed the Eagles that game?Salfino: Although the Jets would have the No. 1 pick right now if Sam Darnold didn’t mess it all up by winning.neil: Broadway Sam can’t help himself.gfoster: A lot of teams are struggling to tank. These guys need to watch more NBA. The Niners won’t quit.Salfino: What about Josh Allen’s insane running. This is not a sustainable QB model, or am I wrong?neil: Did I read that Allen broke a Mike Vick rushing record Sunday?😳Salfino: No QB ever had two consecutive games of 99+ yards rushing (in the modern era anyway), and now he has three.neil: (In case you can’t tell, I am addicted to these things.)Salfino: Only one player could make that throw, and only one receiver could race to make that catch. The probability for Mahomes-to-Hill should have been, like, 50 percent 🙂neil: Maybe Aaron Rodgers could. But certainly only one QB on a playoff-bound team.Salfino: Yes, maybe Rodgers.sara.ziegler: (And he probably doesn’t have a receiver this year who could catch it.)neil: That might not have even been Mahomes’ most jaw dropping pass of the day! Simulated ties included as half-wins. Forecasting the race to the bottomFewest projected 2018 wins according to FiveThirtyEight’s NFL Elo model
After disappointing finishes at the Big Ten Championships on Oct. 30, the Ohio State men’s and women’s cross country teams are working to improve on running in tighter packs as championship season presses on. The Buckeyes will run at the Great Lakes Regional Championships on Nov. 12 in Toledo, Ohio, and coaches from both the men’s and women’s teams attribute their teams’ poor performances at the Big Ten Championships to a big gap between their first and fifth runners. The coaches said that will need to improve at the regional meet in order for OSU to score better. “I’d like to see us get five to six guys on a 20-second spread,” said Robert Gary, OSU men’s head coach. OSU women’s assistant coach Chris Neal expressed similar thoughts for the women. “We just need to clean up the tail end of our pack more than anything,” he said. At the Big Ten Championships, both teams had spreads bigger than they would have liked. The men had a 28-second spread from their No. 1 to No. 5 runner, and the women had a 1:20 gap. The large spreads led to OSU finishing fifth in the men’s race and ninth in the women’s. Women’s runner, junior Tori Brink, said having a small spread at the Great Lakes Regional Championships will be key to the Buckeyes running well. Brink finished first for OSU at the Big Ten Championships, in 23rd place, covering the 6K-course in 20:55. “That’d be completely important at the regional meet,” she said. “Having our fourth and fifth runners being closer to our one, two and three would bring our team’s points down lower and allow us to get a higher place.” Taylor Williams, a redshirt senior on the men’s team, said he would like to see his team have a smaller spread, but not too much needs to improve for OSU to finish high at regionals. “I don’t think we change much and I think the team is still motivated,” he said. At the Great Lakes Regional Championships, OSU will be running against a number of teams they have competed against this season. Big Ten champion, the No. 1-ranked Wisconsin Badgers, and No. 7 Indiana highlight the men’s field, with No. 12 Michigan State leading the women’s field after winning its second-straight Big Ten championship. The teams competing will be vying for a top-two finish, which results in an automatic bid to the NCAA National Championships. At-large bids to nationals can be given to teams that do not finish in the top-two but have performed well all season.
The Columbus Blue Jackets celebrate a goal during a game against the Los Angeles Kings Jan. 21 at Nationwide Arena. The Blue Jackets won, 5-3.Courtesy of MCTWhile Ohio State’s men’s basketball team seems to have forgotten how to win games, Columbus’ professional hockey team has decided to stop losing.The Blue Jackets are the NHL’s hottest team, having tallied seven straight victories after a 5-3 win over the Los Angeles Kings in Columbus Tuesday night. They have risen from being a team that looked to be on its way to another underwhelming season following a 5-10-0 start all the way to becoming one that is currently in contention to make the playoffs after this franchise-best winning streak.It’s not completely luck, a beneficial schedule or even simply playing over their heads. They are doing it the old-fashioned way, using an excellent penalty kill, some of the best 5-on-5 offense in the NHL and fantastic goaltending to close out games.That goaltending comes courtesy of 2013 Vezina trophy winner Sergei Bobrovsky, who has started six of the seven games on this winning streak. Bobrovsky got off to a mediocre start to the year by his standards, but since returning Jan. 6 from a groin injury to play against the New York Rangers — a game ending in the first of the seven wins comprising the streak — he has been a force in the crease.But it has been the offense that has truly been the Jackets’ strength in the new year. The continued offensive firepower of centers Ryan Johansen and Brandon Dubinsky is converging with the midseason resurgence of defenseman Jack Johnson at just the right time. Johnson, whose disappointing first few months to the season likely led to his being excluded from the United States’ Olympic roster, has been playing with a chip on his shoulder since the Sochi selections were announced. In addition to notching five points in his last five games, Johnson has also been playing improved defense in front of Bobrovsky.The main cog on offense, however, has been right wing Nathan Horton. Horton, who sat out the three months of the season with a shoulder injury, has been everything coach Todd Richards could have hoped for when he was signed to a seven-year $37.1 million contract in July. Since making his Jackets debut Jan. 2, the team is 8-1-0, with much of the credit going to the point production and leadership Horton brings.This dominant Jackets run has been a pleasant surprise. But it was not completely crazy to think a postseason appearance could be possible before this year’s campaign had even begun, given the team’s 24-17-7 performance in the lockout-shortened 2012-13 season that captured the attention of many fans. Now that they have thrust themselves into the playoff mix again, it is time for a franchise that has yet to win a playoff game since their 2000 inaugural season to start dreaming big.If the playoffs began today, the Jackets would be the second of two Eastern Conference wild card teams and would have a first-round date with the Pittsburgh Penguins, against whom they are 0-4-0 this season.That is why the Jackets must now set their sights on capturing one of the top three spots in the Metropolitan Division, which are currently occupied by the Penguins, the Rangers and the Philadelphia Flyers in that order. If they can take over one of those spots in the standings and secure a more favorable first round matchup, it is very possible that they could not only win their first playoff game but also emerge victorious from a series. As of Wednesday evening, the CBJ are just three points back of the Rangers and two behind the Flyers and are slated to play the latter at Nationwide Arena Thursday night.It is time for Columbus to start embracing the Jackets, the best sports team the city has going for it when football season is over. They currently rank 28th in average attendance, according to ESPN. While the fans at Nationwide Arena can be very loyal and passionate, nothing could top the atmosphere of a capacity sold-out crowd cheering on their team in a huge game.The Jackets appear to be going places this season, and I implore you to “Join the Battle” for these last 33 games and enjoy the ride.
Ohio State wrestler sophomore Brendan Fitzgerald has competed unattached many times during his collegiate career. Courtesy of Sam JanickiOn most weekends, a large part of the Ohio State wrestling roster can be found competing on their own, with no coaches, not wearing Buckeye singlets in a small gym in front of minimal crowds. These wrestlers are competing unattached in open tournaments. NCAA wrestling allows 16 dates of competition for Division I teams. Any event that has more than six competitors on a team counts as a full event. As a result, Ohio State pays for six or fewer nonstarters to compete at open events nearly every weekend. The wrestlers do not wear Ohio State-affiliated clothing and coaches rarely attend since it is not an official team event. The true value of unattached events for a wrestling team might come from the athletes that attend but do not have their expenses paid for by the university. Wrestlers in their redshirt year compete in opens as well, but must pay their own way. They find a way to compete while redshirting, unlike a football redshirt who must watch from the sidelines. “There’s a formula that made these guys Ohio State recruitable, and part of that formula is you have to compete,” head coach Tom Ryan said. “We don’t make it mandatory but I think winners and guys that want to eventually be starters and have a really successful redshirt year just have to compete.”OSU redshirt freshman Kevin Snyder controls the hands of Cleveland Statesophomore Collin Kelly in a match on November 21, 2017 in Columbus, OH. Credit: Colin Barringer | For The LanternRyan encourages his unattached wrestlers to attend any competition that takes place within a five-hour drive from Columbus. Ohio State wrestlers have competed in events like the Michigan State Open, the Eastern Michigan Open and the Purple Raider Open in Alliance, Ohio. Competing unattached is a right of passage in the Buckeye wrestling room. “More often than not, you need a year in a college room to be hardened and it’s like driving on the interstate versus driving on the autobahn,” Ryan said. “High school wrestling is the interstate or a residential neighborhood and college wrestling is the autobahn.”While attending open meets, unattached wrestlers often carpool to the events and stay in hotel rooms together. They eat together and coach each other from the corner while wrestling. Redshirt freshman heavyweight Gary Traub has competed at multiple opens in his first two seasons, and has found that his best friendships on the team were forged on those trips. “When I first got here, I didn’t know anybody,” Traub said. “So my first open, I’m like, ‘I want these guys to know that I belong here.’ I’m trying to do all this fancy stuff and these fancy moves and stuff like that just to show them that I belong because at first I really didn’t think I did.” Open events bring much-needed experience to Ohio State wrestlers, but can pose a challenge for those who must pay their own way. Ryan estimates the cost of competing unattached for a season at around $900, accounting for food, travel and entrance expenses. “That was tough,” Traub said. “I wanted to go to as many as I could, but there were a lot of times where [I said], ‘Damn, if I go I have to pay $40 for the entrance fee, I have to buy my own gas up there, I have to buy my own hotel.’ The cost of it was a big deterrent for a lot of the guys to go.”The environments of open meets are less formal, which can allow for a looser attitude for competitors. However, less formality often comes with less regulation. An entrance fee is the only requirement to compete at most meets. As a result, the Ohio State wrestlers have seen some interesting things. Redshirt freshman heavyweight Kevin Snyder saw a wrestler he estimated to be in his late 20s earlier this month. Snyder also added he’s seen a lot of heavyweights pushing the 285-pound limit. Sophomore Brendan Fitzgerald watched a wrestler lose a match, then slam his head on the ground.“I feel like I wouldn’t see that at one of our meets or at a tournament that we’d go to,” he said. “I don’t think a coach would allow that.”Traub recalled a weekend where a couple of his friends from high school found out that he would be competing in an open. “They wanted to wrestle me so they literally just signed up for it and wrestled unattached, which was pretty funny,” Traub said. “That’s probably the weirdest thing I’ve seen, but it was a lot of fun.”The stories that come from the unattached trips seem to be more memorable for the Buckeye wrestlers than the matches themselves. Snyder reflected fondly on packing into redshirt junior Anthony DiCarlo’s dad’s RV and traveling to meets. Traub remembers saving money by staying at redshirt freshman Clay Ragon’s house when entering meets up north. For every high-profile Ohio State wrestling match at a Big Ten tournament or at the NCAA championships, there is an open match or a story from the journey to compete unattached on the other side of the spectrum. This is the side of collegiate wrestling that isn’t seen on the surface. “I can see it makes sense from an outsider’s perspective,” Ryan said. “What do you mean he’s wrestling here and he’s not in an Ohio State singlet? It’s a little different, but in the wrestling world for recruits, prospects coming in, it’s the norm.”
Ohio State senior guard C.J. Jackson drives to the basket against Cleveland State in St. John Arena on Nov. 23. Ohio State won 89-62. Credit: Amal Saeed | Assistant Photo EditorOhio State head coach Chris Holtmann knows it can be a painful experience attempting to game plan and execute against Syracuse’s stifling 2-3 zone defense. “It’s like going to the dentist. And not just for cleaning,” Holtmann said. In today’s ever-changing and increasingly unpredictable world, college basketball fans can take solace in one constant: Whether you love it or you detest it, head coach Jim Boeheim and his Syracuse men’s basketball team (3-2) will trot out onto the court in its patented 2-3 zone defense. The main challenge for Holtmann this week: Find areas of vulnerability and put together a game plan that best allows his undefeated (6-0) and No. 16th-ranked Buckeyes to penetrate a suffocating style of play.Projected StartersNo. 16 Ohio State (6-0) G — C.J. Jackson — Senior, 12.7 ppg, 3.8 rpg, 2.8 apgG — Luther Muhammad — Freshman, 9.5 ppg, 2.7 rpg, 2.2 apgF — Kyle Young — Sophomore, 6.8 ppg, 4.8 rpg, 0.8 apgF — Andre Wesson — Junior, 7.5 ppg, 3.5 rpg, 1.5 apgF — Kaleb Wesson — Sophomore, 14.7 ppg, 5.8 rpg, 1.2 apgSyracuse (2-3) G — Tyus Battle – Junior, 17.6 ppg, 2.8 rpg, 2.2 apgF — Oshae Brissett – Sophomore, 14.8 ppg, 8.0 rpg, 1.8 apgG — Jalen Carey – Freshman, 9.4 ppg, 4.0 rpg, 1.0 apgC — Paschal Chukwu – Senior, 5.2 ppg, 4.4 rpg, 0.0 apgF — Elijah Hughes – Junior, 14.8 ppg, 5.0 rpg, 1.2 apgOne option to beat the zone is to shoot over the top of it, requiring Ohio State’s main offensive contributors, such as redshirt senior guard Keyshawn Woods to be sharp in their perimeter shooting on Wednesday night. “As guards and shooters on the wings we have to be ready to shoot no matter what game it is, but especially this game though because there’s going to be a lot of opportunities to make 3s,” Woods said.Woods has plenty of experience playing against Syracuse back in his days in the ACC at Wake Forest, where he went up against the Orange on a number of occasions.He made it clear that this is the game where he wants to finally beat Syracuse. “I mean I’m a competitor and I don’t like losing, and I’ve lost to them three times now and only beat them once, and the game we did beat them I got hurt, so in my eyes, I didn’t beat them,” Woods said. “So that’s why I really want this game.”Option two is to pass the ball into the vacated middle of the zone which generally lies between the foul line and the top of the key. Opposing teams have done well in the past to use this area as their base of operations, forcing Syracuse’s center to make a decision: staying where he is positioned around the basket and allowing the offensive player to get a clean shot off, or stepping out to contest the potential shooter and opening up passing lanes and access to the basket behind him. The offensive player in the middle of the zone can also look to make a pass back out to the perimeter if a teammate finds his way open. “It’s really important, as long as we can get the ball in the middle we will be fine,” Woods said. “If we get it in the middle, we’ll break down the zone because that’s when they really get spread out, and if we move and attack gaps, we’ll have the upper hand.”Offensively, Syracuse boasts three scorers who average double figures per contest.Junior guard Tyus Battle leads the way at 17.6 points per game and is the main offensive weapon for the Orange after deciding last spring to forego entry into the NBA Draft and return to the team for another season. “He’s versatile and very aggressive on offense,” Woods said. “He’s going to get his at the end of the day and he can score at all three levels and we know from the scouting report and I know from playing against him in the ACC that he’s their go to guy, and he’s going to try to get his as much as possible, and we’ve got to maintain him.”Battle is backed up by junior forward Elijah Hughes and sophomore forward Oshae Brissett who both average 14.8 points per game. One area of concern that Holtmann stressed was rebounding. He noted his team’s struggles in that department and how that will be a key component of Wednesday night’s matchup. Brissett and Hughes lead the way for the Orange on the boards, with senior center Paschal Chukwu also being a force around the basket at 7 feet 2 inches tall.Chukwu injured his groin in last week’s game against Colgate and his status for Wednesday night’s matchup is up in the air. If Chukwu can’t go, the Buckeyes will likely get a healthy dose a pair of sophomore forwards in Bourama Sidibe and Marek Dolezaj. Sidibe averages five points and five rebounds per game while Dolezaj averages more than three points a game to go with just over two rebounds per game. Ohio State takes on Syracuse at home at 7:15 p.m. on Wednesday.