Too Early To Be Concerned About the Cincinnati Reds?

Alfredo Simon comin' after you like MC Ren and Ice Cube.

Alfredo Simon comin’ after you like MC Ren and Ice Cube.

Despite a pitching staff ranking ninth in the major leagues in team earned run average and third in batting average against, the Cincinnati Reds are off to a 4-8 start and already sit six games out of first place in the NL Central.

Too early to panic? Of course it is. Too early to be concerned? That all depends–are you a glass half empty or a glass half full kinda person?

Glass Half Empty

1) 6 games is a lot to make up

Obviously, it’s early enough that a good ol’ hot streak (if it comes soon) can get your boys back in contention. But you don’t want to dig yourself too deep of a hole. In 2012, the Los Angeles Angels got off to an 8-15 start through April…Mike Scoscia’s ballclub caught fire near the end of the season, but ran out of time and missed the postseason, finishing 89-73. So, while yeah, it’s only been twelve games, and it’s still 150 left, you never want to fall too far back. Especially when you don’t get to play 18 games against the Houston Astros this season.

2) The Left-On-Base Broken Record

One of these days, I’ll find someone (I ain’t doin’ it) to look up the percentage of leadoff doubles the Reds strand. It seems like it’s gotta be way, way over 50 percent. On Saturday, the Reds got a leadoff double, followed by a single, and scored ZERO runs that inning. On Sunday, it was a based-loaded no out start to the seventh inning–and, you guessed it, the Reds came up empty.

You can’t fuggin’ do that!

Cincinnati’s offensive numbers are a hodge podge of weird factors. For instance, last year the Reds scored the 3rd most runs in the NL. But, they were awful with runners in scoring position and with men left on base. Those games (like Sunday’s 12-4 thrashing of Tampa Bay) in which the Reds explode for a bunch of home runs jack up the total runs scored column and somewhat mask the real shortcomings this team possesses. Which are…

3) All Or Nothing

This really isn’t all that complicated. As you take a look up and down the Reds’ lineup, the majority of these hitters are all-or-nothing types. Guys are too easy to strike out, and guys swing for the fences too often (especially with two strikes) which results in more strikeouts, too many pop-outs and an endless loop of roll-over ground-outs. What you really don’t have are those pesky hitters (like St. Louis, or those recent San Francisco teams that won titles) that don’t settle for pitcher’s pitches or try to do too much up there.

It’s no doubt the coaching staff works with each and every hitter on the correct approach. But certain hitters simply don’t have the skill set, eye sight, patience, intelligence and anticipation to be pesky. The Reds have built a team to maximize the long ball, tailored to the bandbox that is Great American Ballpark. The prevailing thinking is, “Hey, we’re a bloop and a blast from taking the lead in this game.” But when that blast doesn’t happen, then what?

You just don’t have many consistent hitters in the lineup. Joey Votto is in a class by himself in terms of getting on base. Brandon Phillips has become somewhat more consistent in his latter years. But you have guys like Jay Bruce, Todd Frazier, Ryan Ludwick and Zack Cozart that fall into major slumps left and right–and that’s how you end up stranding a million baserunners a day. The jury’s still out on rookie Billy Hamilton, but it’s obvious that if he doesn’t get on base out of the leadoff spot, it makes it much, much tougher to score runs.

Here’s the bottom line: Late in the game, with the Reds down by a run, with men on base, which hitters in this lineup do you feel THAT comfortable with at the plate in that situation? (Yes, that’s rhetorical.)

4) Weak Bench

With 2 outs in the bottom of the ninth on Friday night, trailing 2-1 with the bases loaded, Reds skipper Bryan Price called for a pinch hitter…

And the man tabbed to come through was…

Brayan Pena.

Yikes.

Glass Half Full

1) This Starting Pitching Staff is Nasty

I mentioned the low ERA and batting average against for this pitching staff–and that’s with Homer Bailey pitching two shwag games so far. Alfredo Simon has filled in pimpociously for the injured Mat Latos, Johnny Cueto has been good enough to win all three starts (of course he’s 0-2, though), Tony Cingrani has been beast, and Mike Leake went 8 shutout innings in his stint.

If not for a shaky bullpen full of fill-ins, the Reds would probably have a few more wins and a few less losses.

Generally, in major league baseball, for the long, slow march of the 162-game schedule, the teams with the best starting pitching tend to rise to the top of the standings when all is said and done. That bodes well for the Cincinnati Redlegs.

2) Devin Mesoraco is murdering the ball like Engelberg (original Bad News Bears reference)

Meso missed the first week on a rehab assignment, but has since showed up straight lacin’ like RBL Posse. He’s 7-for-14 with three doubles and two bombs.

And, if you didn’t see his home run on Sunday (or even if you did), check out his Paste-esque clout:

http://m.mlb.com/video/v32050589

(Of course, the fact that you have to listen to Thom Brennaman on the call sours it a little bit.)

3) The stats actually ain’t THAT bad

Well, one stat at least. The Reds rank third in the major leagues in line drive percentage. That’s a pretty good sign. It’s just that twelve games is a small sample size, and they aren’t hitting them when they need to or they’re hitting them right at people a bit too much. But if they continue to hit a high amount of line drives, the runs should start to come.

The Bottom Line: Can the Reds score enough runs to be in contention for a playoff spot? They probably can. But, whether they make the playoffs or not will depend heavily on WHEN they score those runs.

 

 

 

Does Joey Votto Have Any Juice Left in His Bat?

Joey Votto

Joey Votto

Here’s my question for the day: Is Joey Votto feared anymore?

Following Votto’s bust-out 2010 NL MVP season, pitchers have really refrained from offering the Ontario native anything juicy to swing at. Votto, ever patient, has been more than happy to take the numerous bases on balls. After all, the name of the game is getting on base. New age statistics have shown that a guy who doesn’t make as many outs as the average player, regardless of how many runs he drives in or home runs he hits, is more valuable than the average player.

Votto has led the National League in walks each of the past three seasons, and subsequently, he’s led the league in on-base percentage these past three seasons as well. But, while Votto’s on-base percentage has continued to be stellar, his slugging percentage hasn’t been close to the .600 he posted back in 2010. In 2011, his slugging dropped down to .531, still better than most NL hitters…then, with the help of 44 doubles in just 374 at-bats in 2012, that number climbed back up to .567 for that injury-riddled season.

But that .567 slugging percentage was posted despite Votto hitting baseballs over the fence just 14 times that year. Was that a red flag? Or was it simply a blip in the power department, and we could expect Joey to continue to lash doubles all over the field at a torrid pace?

We received Exhibit A for our case in 2013. Votto’s doubles went way down–from one every 8.5 at-bats in 2012 to one every 19.4 at-bats last year. Meanwhile, his home run total was mediocre (24) compared to the 37 he bashed in ’10. The result was a pedestrian .491 slugging percentage. In other words, Votto, although he did draw an MLB-high 135 walks in 2013, has become a considerably less frightening threat in the batter’s box.

As 2014 gets underway, we the jury are venturing into the early stages of Exhibit B: As pitchers cease pitching around Votto, can the All-Star first baseman continue to get on base at a high clip, and, perhaps even more important considering the Reds’ all-or-nothing lineup, can he slug like he did a few years back?

I know it’s a very small sample size, but if you take a look at Votto’s stats so far in 2014, including Spring Training, Joey’s walked just nine times in 79 plate appearances. In the other 70 plate appearances, Votto’s got five doubles, one home run, and six RBI–which equates to a sub-.400 slugging percentage.

Again, it’s a small sample size, but the eye test is starting to raise questions. Votto has looked overmatched on anything on the inner half of the plate…and it’s not like he’s been facing guys who throw 99 miles per hour every time. He’s not really squaring anything up. He just doesn’t seem like as big of a threat as he did a few years ago.

Should we be concerned?

It’s hard to declare anything definitively right now, and I know it’s only been six regular season games so far, so I’ll just say this: Joey Votto simply does not look like the same hitter he was a few years ago. In the past couple of seasons, we just haven’t seen many big, bust-out games from Joey, where he goes 3-for-4 with a home run and a double and 4 RBI or something like that. With the lineup Cincinnati has, if Votto isn’t going to crush the ball, the Reds will have a hard time scoring runs consistently. There just aren’t enough guys in the batting order that produce on a regular basis. And that will place Cincy in a bunch of close games and allow the pitching staff pretty much no margin for error (not to mention frustrate the shit out of us fans).

The bottom line: If Votto continues to get on base at his usual clip, then he’s still a very valuable player. But, as pitchers become less and less afraid of him, and those free passes don’t come as often, Votto must be able to make those pitchers pay by smacking extra base hits all over the yard. Let’s hope he still has it in him, because it’s a decent chance he’s going to see more pitches in the strike zone this year.

 

Choosing Walk-Up Music for the 2014 Cincinnati Reds

As your favorite Reds blogger, I’ve been selected to choose a song for each Red to walk up to the plate to this season. (Well, that’s not entirely true. In fact, it’s not true at all. But let’s have some fun with this.)

First order of business: Dear Ryan Ludwick, no more Brass Monkey! Enough already with that one. And why would YOU come up to THAT song? Nevermind, don’t answer that. It’s outlawed.

Let’s start at the top…

Leading off, Billy Hamilton, the rookie center fielder, quite possibly the fastest Red you will ever see.

No doubt we’re going with a DJ Quik song here:

 

In the number two spot this season will likely be perennial Gold Glover Brandon “DatDudeBP” Phillips. Number Four is from Georgia. So is Outkast. And for the 2014 Reds, it’s time to git up git out and git somethin’

 

Batting third, the first baseman, number nineteen, Joey Votto. Mister Votto’s like a sly detective up there…taking a peek around the outfield to see where the defense is playing him. Laying off pitches two centimeters off the plate. Dumbfounded pitchers often wonder, “What’s going on in this guy’s savant brain?” He’s too smart for these simpletons:

 

In the clean-up spot, the rightfielder, number thirty-two, Jaaaaay Bruuuuuce. Bruce hits bombs. Zack de la Rocha and Rage Against The Machine know exactly what needs to be blaring when JB walks up to the plate:

 

Batting fifth, the left fielder, Ryan Ludwick. Luddy missed most of 2013 with a shoulder injury. And, as mentioned before, his walk-up song has been Brass Monkey by the Beastie Boys…that’s just a weird, annoying choice right there. So, as punishment for that choice, Ryan gets to walk up to this:

 

In the six-hole, the third baseman, number twenty-one, Todd Frazier! A New Jersey native, Todd’s been all over the Frank Sinatra. How about we get some rhythm in Todd’s theme this year with some Naughty By Nature…

 

Devin Mesoraco will man the catching duties and the seven-spot in the batting order. No choice but to pick a song from the immortal Devin The Dude. This one should calm Meso’s nerves as he strolls up to the dish with runners on 1st and 3rd and 2 outs.

 

Hitting eighth, the shortstop, Zack Cozart. Zack’s been a dead pull hitter. He started to go the other way toward the end of last season, but we need to constantly remind him each at-bat this year just to make sure.

 

On the mound for the Reds today, #55, Mat Latos. Standing tall on the hill, staring down batters–Mat’s a bone crusher out there…Mat ain’t never scared!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

What We’ve Learned From the NCAA Tournament’s First Weekend

march madnessMarch Madness? Really? Or is it March “Yeah, That Makes Sense-ness?”

A few weeks before Selection Sunday, I embarked on a research mission to see if discernible patterns exist in the NCAA Tournament. I tried to go about this a year ago, using a gang of statistics, and the predictions were nowhere close to correct. This year, I decided to limit my use of statistics and rely on my observational skills.

I took a look at what type of offense a team runs, what type of defense a team plays, what type of guards a team has and how athletic/quick/big a team is. The patterns I uncovered were:

Teams That Are Dangerous:

1) Explosive offense (can score points quickly)
2) Pressure defense (can force turnovers to score points quickly)
3) Dual-threat guards with either exceptional quickness or size
4) Size, athleticism and quickness to the max

Teams That Are Vulnerable:

1) Methodical offense
2) Conservative defense
3) One-dimensional guards
4) Slow afoot

I based my picks off of those criteria. That led to correctly choosing eleven of the Sweet 16 teams. Not a bad percentage, but also not that remarkable. Click here to pull my picks up in another tab.

So, what did I miss?

1) Teams Peaking at the Right Time are Dangerous

I did correctly predict Dayton to advance to its first Sweet 16 in 30 years, but I missed on Baylor and Tennessee. The Bears and Vols both went through rough patches in January/February before righting the ship (Dayton also did, but I picked them more on the type of offense they have, and they were matched up against two teams that couldn’t score) down the stretch. When a team handles adversity and grows closer together, it’s a TEAM. And it’s shown that you can make noise in the tourney when that happens at the right time.

2) Teams Struggling Down the Stretch are in Trouble

Unfortunately, my Cincinnati Bearcats fell into this category. UC peaked in late December/January/early February, when the Bearcats reeled off 15 straight wins. But after that, Cincy looked very average and probably, due to guys playing a ton of minutes, hit a wall. Same thing with Saint Louis, who won 19 straight before dropping 4 of its last 5.

Teams that are playing their best basketball down the stretch, regardless of W-L record, do hold an advantage in most cases. You take a look at a team like 2-seed Kansas and you see a team with a ton of talent but a team that wasn’t necessarily clicking down the stretch. Plus, KU was without 7-foot center Joel Embiid. Stanford had size, and took advantage of the matchup. 10-seed Stanford seems like an unlikely Sweet 16 team, but all things considered, not that unlikely.

3) Teams with sub-100 rankings in Offense or Defense are Extremely Vulnerable

I blew it with Duke and Creighton. I put too much stock in scoring punch–these two teams ranked first and second in Adjusted Offense (KenPom.com) this season. But Duke ranked 115th in Adjusted Defense and Creighton was even worse, at the 152 spot. That is just plum awful. Duke couldn’t stop Mercer (75th in AdjO) and Creighton had no prayer to stop Baylor (5th in AdjO) or score against Baylor’s size and length.

The sub-100 Offense rankings were something I did consider, which is why I felt Cincinnati, Saint Louis, Ohio State, San Diego State, Kansas State and VCU would go home early. Saint Louis should have been out in the first game, and SDSU benefited from one of the easiest draws I’ve ever seen–or else they woulda been done-zo right off the bat. If you can’t execute offensively, and you aren’t getting points off of your defense, you aren’t going anywhere.

4) Offense Can Be the Trump Card, Even if it is Methodical

I chose 7 Oregon to knock off 2 Wisconsin in the Round of 32 because of the explosive offense versus methodical offense theory. But Wisconsin, it turned out, wasn’t as methodical as in the past–and the Badgers ranked in the Top 5 in AdjO while checking in at a decent 55th in AdjD. Oregon brought the 11th best offense to the table, but Dana Altman’s squad ranked 86th in defense. By those numbers, it’s not a big surprise Wisconsin was able to win this game (especially since it was played in Milwaukee!). The pattern we’re seeing is that KenPom’s Adjusted Offense and Defense (click here to pull those rankings up) pretty much tells you what’s going to happen.

And this also backs up Baylor and Tennessee. Neither team runs up and down the court much, but both ranked in the Top 30 in Offense (Baylor was 5th). Seems like it’s all about the numbers, doesn’t it?

Bottom Line: When it all comes down to it, this tournament isn’t really all that random. It even seems to have a pretty good rhyme and reason to it.

Next season, when you’re making your picks, use KenPom.com religiously and figure out which teams are coming together down the stretch and which teams are fading. That should give you a leg up on your competition.

 

Cincinnati Bearcats: 3 Reasons Why the 2013-14 Season Ended Without an NCAA Tournament Win

rub skBefore I break down exactly what happened with the Cincinnati Bearcats down the stretch of this season, let me first acknowledge this: UC is one of just 16 teams to make the NCAA Tournament the past four seasons. For a program on a shoestring budget, that’s remarkable.

That said, this year’s Bearcats were ranked in the Top 15 for about a month and a half..yet failed to win a game in the NCAA Tournament for the second straight season.

What happened?

1) UC Peaked Too Early

After dropping back-to-back games to New Mexico and Xavier, UC beat Pitt on December 14th and then reeled off fourteen wins in a row to run the team’s record to an astonishing 22-2. The only problem? It was still a month left before the tournament. Could UC keep the streak alive?

After an emotional, hard-fought home win over UConn on Feb 6, the Bearcats traveled down to Dallas to take on SMU. The Mustangs laid a woodshed beating on UC, who looked dead tired and two steps slow that night. Of course, it’s understandable, considering the short turnaround and travel following that draining game against Connecticut.

But was it a sign that the team had hit a wall? After all, head coach Mick Cronin was relying on guys like Sean Kilpatrick, Titus Rubles and Justin Jackson to play a ton of minutes.

UC bounced back to fight off Houston at home and then decimate UCF in Orlando, but then scored just 57 and 45 points against Louisville and UConn respectively. The ‘Cats put on an inspiring adrenaline-aided performance on Senior Night, blowing out Memphis 97-84 while executing near-perfectly on offense (just 3 turnovers)…then struggled to muster up enough fuel to fend off Rutgers to gain a share of the conference title.

But at what price? UC showed up for the conference tournament in Memphis as the 1-seed, but played more like the 8 or 9-seed. The Bearcats struggled to shake UCF, eventually holding on for a fortuitous 61-58 win. Central Florida should have won that game, too, if we’re being honest. The Knights blew a bunch of free throws and missed a couple of wide open 3′s late in the game.

Red flag for UC? If you’re a Top 15 team, you shouldn’t have trouble knocking UCF out.

The next night, UConn put UC out of its misery with a 58-56 stifling.

Heading into the NCAA Tournament, UC simply was not playing its best basketball. The same goes for 2013, when UC limped in to the tournament only to be bounced by Creighton.

As you’ve seen this year, the teams who are firing on all cylinders at the right time make runs (Dayton, Baylor, Tennessee). And you saw it in 2011 and 2012, when the Bearcats finished strong down the stretch and made runs in the tournament before slamming into Final 4 teams (UConn, Ohio State). It’s tough to get that mojo back at the last minute once you’ve lost it.

2)  The Stats Don’t Lie: UC Ranked 113th in Adjusted Offense (KenPom.com)

You don’t have to be a wise barber named James Noe to figure out that if your team struggles to score points, you’re going to have a hard time beating the best teams in the country. And, any way you slice it, UC was simply not very good offensively this season.

As I said, UC ranked 113th in Adjusted Offense. To put that number into context for you: Of the 16 teams still alive in the NCAA Tournament, 13 rank in the Top 40 in the stat, two are a little further behind (UConn is 56th, Stanford is 62nd) and the one outlier is San Diego State at 104th…but look how easy SDSU’s draw has been (vs 13 New Mexico St and then 12 North Dakota State).

The Bearcats ranked 9th in Adjusted Defense–but again, take a look at the 16 teams remaining. Only 9 ranked inside the Top 40 in Adj. Defense; only five of the Top 10 still remain. Four of those five have a Top 30 offense (SDSU is the team that doesn’t).

This data tells us that while it doesn’t hurt to have a really, really good defense (Arizona is #1, Florida is 2nd, Louisville is 3rd, Virginia is 5th), relying solely on your D is not enough to do damage in March.

Why did UC have so much trouble scoring this season? I’ll tell you exactly why:

A) No point guard.

Ge’Lawn Guyn is definitely not a point guard. Freshman Troy Caupain was not ready to step in and quarterback the offense. The best option at the point was Sean Kilpatrick, who also happens to be an All-American shooting guard–and you can’t play two positions at once. You look at the best offenses in the nation and you see stud point guards at the helm.

B) Not enough dual threats.

Look at most of the teams left in the tournament. Guards that can shoot and get to the rim. Bigs that can score inside and step out and knock down a jumper. When you look at UC’s starting five, other than Kilpatrick, the rest of the players were one-dimensional, or in the case of Guyn, no-dimensional. That equals EASY TO DEFEND. UC was too easy to defend this season. All a team had to do was put its best defender on Kilpatrick and offer a ton of help (didn’t work, though), put a bigger guy on Jackson in the post, and then dare Guyn, Titus Rubles and Shaq Thomas to shoot from the outside. If you could limit UC’s second chance points and keep the Bearcats out of transition, like Harvard did, you could win the game.

Of course, not many teams could keep UC off the offensive glass…and a lot of teams turned the ball over against UC’s pressure D, which led to some easy transition buckets…and in a lot of games, UC was able to attack and get to the free throw line to get easy points—and that’s why Cincinnati won 27 games. But, in the games the Bearcats lost, it was a halfcourt setting…and UC was way too easy to defend.

3) Heart, Grit and Toughness Only Get You So Far

NCAA Basketball: Southern Methodist at CincinnatiLet’s not discount the tremendous effort put forth by the coaching staff and senior captains this season to lead Cincinnati from unranked to a Top 10 ranking and from conference after-thought to a conference title. It was a privilege to watch guys like Kilpatrick and Rubles give their absolute all and then some to will this team to victories. I can’t thank the players and coaches enough for their sacrifices.

That said, in the postseason, it comes down to execution. We’re battling it out in the half court. Which team can execute more effectively? Which team can convert its opportunities? Which team can avoid droughts and limit empty trips?

Against Harvard, the first half was a microcosm of the Bearcats’ rough stretches this season. The Bearcats embarked on a nice, long scoring drought early in the game, then let it effect the defense a little bit (like the SMU, Xavier and New Mexico games) and trailed by 7 at halftime. And yes, UC fought hard to get back into the game in the second half, but those droughts add up. You can’t get those 8 minutes without a basket back. You can’t get those four consecutive possessions with a turnover back. It all adds up.

The Bearcats repeatedly forced plays that weren’t there (turnovers) and missed 16 shots within five feet of the basket. You’re not beating anybody if you do that, regardless of how hard you play or how well you defend. It’s a shame, because the opportunities were definitely there. UC just wasn’t able to capitalize. And really, that was the case most of the season—except for a few games and except for the final 5 minutes of games during that 15-game win streak when UC shot 56.5% and held opponents to 27%.

And maybe it was a mirage, that stellar late game execution. You rely on that too much, you start to get burned. You let a team hang around that shouldn’t be in the game, things don’t quite go your way in the last few minutes, you lose. The stats said UC, over a 40-minute game, simply won’t score enough points. The margin for error for a team like UC (113 in Adjusted Offense, 9th in Adjusted Defense) becomes razor-thin. Just ask Ohio State (131 AdjO, 4 AdjD) , VCU (109 AdjO, 6 AdjD) , Kansas State (123 AdjO, 20 AdjD) and Saint Louis (186 and 8)–none of which advanced past the first weekend; and only Saint Louis won a game (very luckily, though).

Defense and effort keep you in a game when you’re not making shots, but if you rarely make shots anyway, you’re playing with fire. That’s what happened against Harvard (37 percent shooting), and UC was toast.

Moving Forward: It’s no doubt Mick Cronin’s Cincinnati Bearcats will defend. But, in order to make noise in March, Mick and his staff will need to crack the Adjusted Offense code. Will an effective true point guard be the difference? Can Troy Caupain be that guy? Will Mick find that guy to fill one of the remaining scholarships? Is it simply a matter of scheme? Not enough guys can shoot? Too much focus on the defensive side of the ball?

I can guarantee you one thing. Cronin and his staff are well aware of these statistics and shortcomings and will work tirelessly to find the solution.

Thanks for reading. Enjoy your week.

 

Dayton Flyers Advance to Sweet 16, Earn Cincinnati Fan’s Respect

You’re in the Sweet Sixteen, Dayton Fan. Congratulations. And it wasn’t no cheap Sweet 16 neither. Your Flyers nutted up and knocked off Ohio State AND Syracuse.

Jordan Sibert, junior guard for the Dayton Flyers, knocked down a HUGE 3 late in the game vs Syracuse on Saturday.

Jordan Sibert, junior guard for the Dayton Flyers, knocked down a HUGE 3 late in the game vs Syracuse on Saturday.

And, after Andrew Wiggins and Kansas blew it on Sunday, you’ll be facing 10-seed Stanford for a chance to advance to the Elite Eight!

How did we get here?

Back in November, the Flyers went out to Maui and put on a show for ESPN’s viewing audience. UD lit up Gonzaga, hammered Baylor for 39 minutes and then wiped their bums with Cal.

When the calendar flipped to 2014, and Atlantic 10 play began, UD had a rough first month or so. The Flyers showed a little bit of inexperience at that point in the season–which is understandable. Dayton’s team is loaded with freshmen and sophomores and Jordan Sibert, the transfer from Ohio State, sat out last season. Players in new roles, the guys still learning how to play with one another…but, in the overall scheme of things, it was simply adversity. And, as we all know, adversity can bring a team closer together if it is able to handle it.

And that’s when it started to get fun.

I’ve got a good friend out in Bellingham, WA, a Dayton alum, and I sent him an e-mail back on February 6th to help him make sense of Dayton’s season at that point in time:

UD – 15-8, 3-5 in the A-10

Been a bit of a rough stretch for the Flyers. Especially in terms of the difficult first half of the conference schedule. Those 5 losses are all to capable teams–a couple on the road (Richmond, Rhode Island)..then two at home to the best two teams in the conference (Saint Louis and VCU) and then the other one at home to an always game Saint Joe’s squad.

Dayton still has those good early season neutral court wins (Gonzaga, Cal), and a good win down at Ole Miss. So the non-conference resume is much more than shabby, and frankly, a lot better than most bubble teams’ will be.

Lookin’ at the stretch run in the A-10, if UD can grab games on the road against St. Bonaventure (tougher than you’d think), Duquesne and then in a payback tilt against Saint Joe’s, a loss down at Saint Louis wouldn’t hurt but a win down there will put Scoochie and his crew back in the picture. The home games are all quite tough, though, and UD hasn’t protected its homecourt too well so far. The four remaining games just down the road from The Pine Club will be versus Rhode Island, La Salle, UMass & Richmond.

A 6-2 finish is a must, a 7-1 completion probably gets UD a bid.

This team has a lot of good parts, but most of them are young (both point guards, Dyshawn and my boy Jalen Robinson) or trying to get back in the swing after essentially three years off from playing basketball in a real game (Jordan Sibert). The problem also is that Devin Oliver plays a ton of minutes and is mostly a liability. But he’s a senior and will be gone. And next year, when Sibert is a senior, this team will be Top 20 caliber—provided that one of the young point guards turns into a reliable playmaker and defender.

Good luck the rest of this season. I hope they make a run. Regardless, I like what this team will be next season an awful lot. 

Have a good weekend, brother man

Berg

Am I a fortune teller? Evidently.

UD did in fact go 7-1 down the stretch, the lone loss coming on the road against an extremely tough Saint Joe’s squad (a team that if it had gotten past UConn, probably gets to the Elite 8 or Final 4). The win down at Saint Louis on March 5 probably sealed Dayton’s tourney berth.

When the brackets came out on Selection Sunday, UD took a look at its draw and no doubt felt really, really good about it. Ohio State in the first round–a team that SUCKS at scoring points and a team that had everything to lose and all the pressure on them in that matchup of in-state schools. And, if UD could knock off the Buckeyes, Syracuse, another team that had struggled to score, would be waiting.

UD, a team with offensive weapons and a fast, explosive pace (the type of team built to do well in the tournament as my research showed) against two teams that can’t score. Advantage Flyers. Not only that, Syracuse was on the cover of Sports Illustrated! The Jinx!

Dayton took it to the Buckeyes for 40 minutes, and won in the coolest fashion possible: Vee Sanford taking Aaron Craft to the hole and scoring to get the victory. Then, that SI Jinx reared its usual head–Syracuse missed every single three-pointer it shot! The Flyers emerged from that brawl victorious, heading to the school’s first Sweet Sixteen in thirty years!

Soak it all in, Flyers fan. You deserve it. You’ve been loyal through a lot of lean years. But now you’ve arrived.

The Stanford Cardinal will be waiting next weekend–a team that UD definitely has a good shot to beat. But it won’t be easy. The Cardinal did win at UConn this season, and Johnny Dawkins’ squad features a lot of size, including three different types of big men: 6’11″ Stefan Nastic, an inside-out threat, 6’10″ Dwight Powell, a slasher with a jump shot, and 6’10″ John Gage, a three-point marksman. Stanford’s leading scorer is 6’2″ junior Chasson Randle, at 19 points per game. UD should have the quickness advantage in this matchup, which generally gives that team an edge in the NCAA Tournament. Should be a helluva basketball game.

Thanks for reading. Enjoy and savor every single article and interview and mention on TV about the Flyers this week. Good luck against Stanford.

 

 

 

Debating the Cincinnati Bearcats: How Can UC Become a Perennially Effective Offensive Team?

hqdefaultIn the locker room at halftime of Hickory’s first game in the movie Hoosiers, a frustrated team and a frustrated coach aired grievances.

Coach Norman Dale (Gene Hackman): I want you to close down those passing lanes. Your defense is awful!
Rade: What about our offense? We can’t win unless we score–

Both Coach Dale and Rade were correct. If you can’t defend, you have a very slim chance of winning games. But, as the Cincinnati Bearcats have found out, if you can’t score the basketball, you’ll have a very tough time advancing deep in the NCAA Tournament.

Saying that your team needs to be better at scoring points is not a new concept. After all, the team who scores the most points always wins. Of course, another way to look at it is that the team who allows the least points always wins.

So, what’s more important? Defense or offense?

Let’s take a look at the Cincinnati Bearcats under head coach Mick Cronin. When Cronin took the job, he knew he needed to instill a culture built upon defense and rebounding. “You need to be able to win when shots aren’t going in,” Cronin’s mantra became. Most coaches operate with this principle. Control what we can control, as the saying goes. Shots don’t always fall, you can’t control that, but you can control how hard you prepare and play; you can control your defense and your rebounding effort.

But can you control shots falling? That’s the question. What’s the answer?

Looking at statistics doesn’t always tell the story, but in some cases, it’s as clear as a stripper’s heels. I’m a big proponent of Ken Pomeroy’s calculations for Adjusted Offense and Adjusted Defense (available at www.KenPom.com). These ratings take a slew of factors into consideration, such as who you play, how many points you score and allow per possession, and more. Now, as Pomeroy’s ratings will show, Cronin has built a consistently stingy defensive program at the University of Cincinnati over his eight years at his alma mater. In Cronin’s first season, the Bearcats ranked 124 in Adjusted Defense and won just two Big East games. In 2008, that ranking leapt up to 56th, and the team grabbed eight Big East victories. After a setback in 2009 (ranked 85th), the ‘Cats improved to 47th in 2010 and have ranked inside the Top 25 the past four seasons (leading to four consecutive NCAA Tournament bids).

UC head coach Mick Cronin and fifth-year senior Sean Kilpatrick

UC head coach Mick Cronin and fifth-year senior Sean Kilpatrick

Cronin has accomplished what he set out to do. UC is perennially one of the best defensive teams in the nation. And it’s led to success. Four straight tournament appearances is nothing to sneeze at. It’s not many schools who can boast that achievement.

The Bearcats have won three tournament games and lost four. Let’s take a look at the Adjusted Offense ratings for each of the past four seasons:

2011 – 53rd (Beat 11 Missouri, Lost to  3 UConn)
2012 – 61st (Beat 11 Texas, Beat 3 Florida State, Lost to 2 Ohio State)
2013 – 126th (Lost to 7 Creighton)
2014 – 117th (Lost to 12 Harvard)

As you can see, the teams that could score had success.

Now, when we take a look at the past two seasons (in which UC ranked 14th and 9th in Adjusted Defense), we all wonder the same thing: Why does this team have so much trouble scoring? And that brings us to…

The Great Cincinnati Bearcats Basketball Debate: Is it the offensive scheme or is it the players?

Team Swanedigidy will be arguing that it’s the offensive scheme. Opening statement:

The Bearcats stand around too much on offense. Too much passivity and lack of aggression. Most of the times a player catches the ball, he’s far away from the basket…and he’s required to either beat his man off the dribble or take a long jumpshot. Otherwise, he passes the ball to a teammate further away from the basket and then we begin the process again. Sometimes, a player beats his man off the dribble and either scores, gets fouled or creates a shot for a teammate. And sometimes the ball is entered into the post for a back-to-the-basket opportunity–usually with the intent of scoring/getting fouled. Too many times, though, we see a player get the ball too far away from the basket and that player is asked to make a play he may not be able to make.

Team Steinberg & Bergstein will be arguing that the players can’t execute or finish often enough. Opening statement:

While I can’t refute Team Swanedigidy’s opening remarks, I can point to the fact that the players simply struggle with the most basic element of playing basketball…putting the basketball through that tin cylinder and nylon net. Throughout the course of most UC games, Bearcat players get the ball in positions to step into a jump shot (either wide open or pretty open) or in positions to dunk the basketball or lay the basketball off the backboard. And, the majority of the time, the Bearcat players fail to get the ball into and through the basket. Case in point, the loss to Harvard on Thursday–both Justin Jackson and Titus Rubles failed to score from less than two feet away from the basket in the latter stages of that game…and UC ended up losing by four points. Scheme or no scheme, if you can’t put the ball in the basket, your point total won’t be very high.

Team Swanedigidy’s First Rebuttal:

Yes, I concede that you’ve got to be able to make lay-ups and close-in shots; and you’ve got to finish stronger at the rim and at least TRY to dunk the ball when you’re down there. And you should be able to knock down an open 15-footer once in a while if you’re a freakin’ college basketball player. All of that goes without saying. But when you watch this team try to operate in the halfcourt, you just see too much action going away from the basket. The focus needs to be on getting as close to the basket as possible as many times as possible. And how do you do that? Either you attack the rim more aggressively from the outside–or by pushing the ball up the court aggressively even after the other team makes a basket–or you get the ball in the post and work inside-out more often.

Team Steinberg & Bergstein’s Response:

You make a couple of good points. If the goal is to score, the idea should be to create as many high percentage opportunities as possible. By pushing the ball up the floor with a purpose on every single possession, you’re exploring the possibility of a mismatch to exploit when the defense hasn’t had time to set up…and if you do this 20 times in a game, and it works 5 or 6 times, you may be able to get 7-10 extra points out of it that likely wouldn’t have been scored in a halfcourt setting. As for the increase in post touches, that’s also a neat concept. You could post up your best passers and free throw shooters, as well as whoever has a size mismatch on offense (Shaq Thomas), and then work inside-out. You can invert your offense. Then, when a guy like Caupain (a strong, skilled point guard that can pass and make free throws) catches the ball about 6-8 feet from the hoop, he can either make a move or kick the ball out for a step-in 3 or find a cutter for an attempt at the rim. This way, he isn’t asked to beat his man off the dribble as much…especially when he’s up against a smaller, quicker defender.

Team Swanedigidy:

Right. Remember, the goal is to get the ball as close to the basket as possible as many times as possible. If you shoot more lay-ups and free throws than jump shots, chances are, you’ll score more.

Team Steinberg & Bergstein:

Emphasis on “chances are.” We’ve seen a slew of missed free throws and soft finishes at the rim. And that goes back to the players. If you’re a guy with a really high vertical leap, and you get the ball near the basket, and you flip up a shot off one foot, or you fade away, or you double clutch, then the failure is on you. If I’m the coach, and my guy can’t at least get fouled on a shot right at the rim, then what else can I do?

Team Swanedigidy:

You can emphasize offense more. You routinely yank guys out of the game for blowing a defensive assignment. But what about yanking a guy for failing to finish strong? Why not cut a guy’s minutes until he shows that he’ll go in there hard and try to rip the rim off? It’s okay to preach defense, and hold your players accountable on that end–and it’s worked…worked very well–but you’ve got to bring that same intensity to every single offensive possession as well. You can call a play, or run an offense, or set up your scheme any way you want…but sometimes, offense is about imposing your will. Your players should be of the mentality that, “I’m not gonna settle for this jumper. I’m going right AT you, sucka. You’re gonna have to foul me to stop me.” And, when the rim is within reach, “I’m gonna gather myself and then use 100% of my strength and athleticism and make you a f***in’ poster, boy.”

Team Steinberg & Bergstein:

I can’t argue with you there. And it looks like you’re arguing my side for me–so thanks for that. But I also think the point guard position has been the problem. In 2011 and ’12, Cashmere Wright was a dual threat point guard. He wasn’t necessarily a true point guard–even though he developed into an effective one–but he was a threat and he had a pretty good idea of how to run the show. In 2013, Cash got hurt and became one-dimensional and it threw everything off. This season, Ge’Lawn Guyn was not effective. Freshman Troy Caupain showed flashes, but he wasn’t ready to take over the position. Sean Kilpatrick did a pretty good job running the show, scoring and creating for others at times, but you can’t play two positions at once. Had SK and the seniors had a good lead guard this season, scoring points would have been a whole lot easier. My Uncle Attles, a former JCC national champion point guard, points directly to this issue when asked about UC’s offensive struggles. “You need a good point guard,” Attles told me. “Someone that can break the defense down, get to the basket, hit an open shot, and get the ball to the right guys at the right time.”

It’s too hard to run an offense without a point guard because when your goal is to “become a better passing team,” you forget that even if you pass the ball well, you’ll end up with the wrong guys taking shots. As the saying goes, “Sometimes, when you’re open, you’re open for a reason. Because you can’t shoot.” The effective point guard not only can score and break his man down off the dribble, but he also understands time and score, and he understands his personnel, and he makes sure to get the ball to the right guys in the right situations…otherwise he’s confident enough to take it himself.

Team Swanedigidy:

Well, we debated, but at the end of the day, we agreed on quite a bit. We need a better approach to offense. We need more emphasis on offense. We’ve got to be more aggressive, both at pushing the ball and attacking the rim. We need to work inside-out more. And we need a true point guard to run the show. We know Ge’Lawn Guyn is not that guy. We don’t know yet whether or not Troy Caupain is that guy. But, in order for the offense to run more smoothly in 2014-15, we’ll either need Troy to be that guy, or we’ll need Mick and his staff to find a true point guard to fill one of the two remaining open scholarships. One of those graduate transfers like a DeAndre Kane of Iowa State maybe?

Bottom line: Ranking 117th and 126th in Adjusted Offense won’t get it done. My research of past NCAA Tournaments showed that the teams with explosive/efficient offenses are the teams who go deep, granted that the defense is up to snuff. We know UC’s defense will be up to snuff year in and year out. Now we just need to shift the focus to the offensive side of the ball…and the Bearcats will be unstoppable.

Despite Everything I Just Said: This was an incredible season. I wasn’t sure what to expect when I first saw this team play back in November. A bunch of question marks loomed. I felt like UC would be a bubble team. But, thanks to the sheer will, grit and heart of the seniors, the Bearcats went from unranked to the Top 10, from fringe tourney team to a 5-seed. Kilpatrick surpassed the 2,000 point mark and became the school’s second all-time leading scorer. Sure, we would have loved to see UC beat Harvard and make a run, but we all received enjoyment from this season…and we all appreciate the blood, sweat and tears the seniors (Kilpatrick, Jackson and Rubles) shed while leading this team to unexpected heights. We’ll miss those fellas dearly, and we wish them all the best.

Thanks for reading. Relax, reflect, rejoice and then get ready for Opening Day!