At a major international tournament, American men had a very bad day.Yes, the U.S. men’s soccer team did just fine Thursday, losing 0-1 to Germany but advancing to the knockout stage of the World Cup. But at Wimbledon, all but one of the four remaining American men exited the singles draw without winning a set. That leaves just John Isner to play in the third round. Isner is by far the highest-ranked American, but he’s often vulnerable to upsets at events outside the U.S.“I guess it’s better than last year. We didn’t have anybody past the second round,” Isner said of the American men’s success at Wimbledon, at a press conference Thursday. “At least there’s one guy past the second round.”Here’s a sign of how bad things have gotten for American men’s singles tennis: Even with all the early exits, Isner has to win just one more match for this tournament to count as a good Grand Slam by recent low standards. He’d be the lone American man in the fourth round for a second consecutive major, after five consecutive Grand Slams without any American man to make it to the Round of 16. The U.S. hasn’t had a male quarterfinalist at a Grand Slam since Isner and Andy Roddick reached that stage at the 2011 U.S. Open, nor a semifinalist in the five years since Roddick lost in the final at Wimbledon. No American man has won a major since Roddick did at the U.S. Open in 2003, and after every disappointing Grand Slam, the prospect of an American major champ seems farther away than it did at the one before.The situation is very different for the American women. They’re led by world No. 1 and five-time Wimbledon champ Serena Williams, who will be joined in the third round this year by her sister, Venus Williams, who also has won Wimbledon five times. Even more American women are outperforming their male counterparts. Three others have made the third round at Wimbledon, with one more, Victoria Duval — the 18-year-old who got into the tournament the hard way, by qualifying — still to play her second-round match.Isner isn’t an ideal American No. 1. He has a booming serve and one of the worst return games in the top 50. But without him, things would be truly bleak. For the third consecutive major, Isner is the only American man ranked high enough to get one of the 32 seeds. No other American man even ranks in the top 50.Sixteen countries have a No. 2 player ranked higher than the second-best American, No. 67 Sam Querrey, one of the players who lost on Thursday. Among the countries with a higher-ranked No. 2 player are Switzerland, Croatia and Austria, which have a combined population under 21 million — roughly the population of Texas. Three other countries with a population under 20 million have a No. 2 player ranked higher than Querrey. (It’s worth noting that tennis has become more popular globally since the 1980s, hence more countries are competing and leaving fewer spots for the traditional powers.) The strength of the No. 2 player matters, as a proxy for depth of talent and for the Davis Cup, the international team competitions with two singles slots.To Denis Kudla, a 21-year-old American who lost his second-round match here Thursday, international comparisons aren’t fair because of tennis’s relatively slight stature among U.S. sports. “Tennis is our fifth or sixth sport,” he said in an interview last week. “People just have to be patient.”American women fare better in the equivalent international comparison, perhaps partly because female athletes have fewer professional options and tennis is one of the most lucrative. Just two countries have higher-ranked No. 2 players than Sloane Stephens of the U.S.: Serbia and Italy.Strong prior American male generations — John McEnroe and Jimmy Connors; Andre Agassi and Pete Sampras — cast a long shadow over Roddick and his peers, former top-10 members James Blake and Mardy Fish. But the Roddick generation was far stronger than the current one, as demonstrated by the decline in the number of American players in the majors’ draws, of seeded American players and of American players who reach the third round. “I think what happened is, maybe we missed a generation,” Kudla said. “The generation behind Roddick maybe didn’t pan out like it was supposed to.”“Every country goes through a slump,” Benjamin Becker, a German player who played for Baylor University, said in an interview this week. “It’s not easy to always have these prodigies like Agassi, Sampras, McEnroe, [Jim] Courier and Connors. A lot of times, countries take generations off.” He added, “I’m very confident that an American player will be soon at the top level.”Two young Americans who hope to fulfill Becker’s prediction had modest success last week, qualifying for Wimbledon by winning matches on adjacent courts at the Bank of England Sports Centre while monitoring each other’s progress. Ryan Harrison, who was watching Kudla’s match during changeovers of his own contest, said in an interview that in an individual sport, national rankings don’t matter much. “The U.S. is always concerned about how many top players they have,” Harrison said. “The only thing I’m concerned about is my own development, my own career.”He added: “The U.S. has to really understand that we’re working. We’re doing what we can here.”
New York Knicks forward Amare Stoudemire will miss up to the season’s first three weeks with a left knee injury, a blow to a team with aspirations of making a mark when the year begins.Stoudemire returned to New York on Sunday for an MRI, which revealed a ruptured benign cyst. He had sat out the first two game of the preseason with a left knee bruise.He only played in one exhibition game so far. In Friday’s game against the Toronto Raptors he scored 18 points in 27 minutes, then sat out against Boston on Saturday.The Knicks will move Carmelo Anthony to the power forward position until Stoudemire can return. They could also use 40-year-old Kurt Thomas in Stoudemire’s spot.This is not Stoudemire’s first injury, who who had microscopic surgery on his left knee in 2005 and arthroscopic surgery on his right knee the following spring. The Phoenix Suns refused to offer him a fully guaranteed maximum contract in 2010 because of his injuries. The Knicks did not even insure his contract in 2010, when he signed for $100 million.Last season Stoudemire was limited to 47 games last season and averaged just 17.5 points, his worst total since his rookie season of 2002-03. He missed 15 games because of injury, though none because of knee problems.Long time friend Nets guard Deron Williams knows Stoudemire’s injury history, but had positive words for him.“That’s tough. I hope he gets better,” Williams said. “He’s had some struggles with injuries, but it doesn’t change how we think about the Knicks. They still have a good team.”The Knicks overcame the trials to finish 36-30 last season, losing in the first round of the playoffs for the second straight year. Anthony played some of his best ball when Stoudemire was injured and he moved to the power forward spot, but both have said they can flourish in tandem after finally having a training camp together.That will have to wait until Stoudemire gets healthy. T\\\
It took a miracle Ray Allen three-point shot in last year’s NBA Finals to pull the Miami Heat from defeat to champions against the San Antonio Spurs. The teams meet again for the title, and Tim Duncan said he welcomes another shot at the Heat.Duncan and the Spurs may have wanted a chance for redemption from last year, but LeBron James has other ideas. And here are five reasons why James will do a championship dance at the end of the series:1.) LeBron JamesThe King, as magnificent as he has been the last three years, has become a stronger player because he’s becoming more like Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant: a ruthless leader that smashes an opponent once he senses vulnerability. Credit Lance Stevenson and his antics in the Eastern Conference finals for igniting James’ sometimes-dormant fire.2.) ExperienceThis NBA Finals appearance is the Heat’s fourth in a row. Playing this time of year for these stakes has become routine, meaning the magnitude of the occasion does not faze them. The San Antonio Spurs are experienced in their own right. But their experience amounts to aging with Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobli in particular, who are primed to get fatigued and ineffective late in games and the longer the series stretches.3.) VersatilityOn both ends of the court, the Heat can use various lineups to create either mismatches or tough covers. For instance, James can play four positions and can guard four spots, too. So, if Miami wants to go small and put more speed on the court, James could play power forward on one end and defend point guard Tony Parker on the other. Moving James from position to position when necessary could force the Spurs to match up in ways that would mitigate the few advantages they have.4.) Chris BoshThe lesser of the Big Three can be a huge difference-maker because of his range on the court. Bosh can be a tough cover for Duncan because he can extend to the three-point line, pulling away Duncan’s ability to protect the rim, thereby making the Spurs susceptible to forays to the basket by James, Dwyane Wade and others.5) Parker’s InjurySpurs point guard Tony Parker has an ankle injury that might not keep him out, but certainly will slow him down. Worse, there will not be time to rest and get the ankle right, so it’s likely the injury will not get any better as the games pile up. Without Parker as effective as usual, San Antonio’s offense–against a strong defensive team like Miami–will have periods of trouble scoring. And that will be costly.LeBron James and Tim Duncan share an inspiring moment after the ’07 finals below.
Jameis Winston’s arc to the No. 1 pick in the NFL Draft is more like a trek through dangerously rugged terrain. That he made it to the other end, smiling, is as much an accomplishment as being taken by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers first overall.Winston’s talent was never in question—it was all about his character. And in today’s NFL world of multi-million-dollar investments and politically correctness, character concerns are more damning than if he can read a “Cover 2.”The Bucs insist they exhausted themselves looking at Winston’s past: the sexual assault allegations, the “stealing” crab leg saga, the yelling an obscenity on campus situation. . . and the former Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback came out clean.This is major. Usually, once a player projects the perception that he is drama, it becomes a label, a tattoo, a permanent fixture. Winston has not breached the label plateau, but he hovers on the precipice, especially when he does what he did Thursday night.After being selected, he posted a photo posing with crab legs, a dig at the naysayers, no doubt. He can take photos with whom he wants. But considering his background, that probably was not the tactful thing to do.“I’ve got to work,” Winston said Thursday night. “Actions speak so much louder than words, or what they may have read or what they may have heard. It’s about your actions. Whatever is in the past is in the past. I look forward to gaining everyone’s trust.”Winston was accused of sexual assault during his freshman season at Florida State but never was charged. “I have been cleared six times,” he said. “I’ve been cleared six times on that situation. So I took that situation so seriously. But, at the end of the day, I’ve got to keep moving forward. That’s why I’m so thankful.”Jason Licht, the team’s general manager, said they gave Winston the once-over more than once. His take away?“Not only were we comfortable with him and his character, we were confident with his character,” Licht said. “We think that his character that he brings to the locker room and the building is a strength. That’s one of the things that makes him a great player.”Lovie Smith, the coach, said he considers Winston a typical young man off the field and extraordinary on it.“I know a lot of things have been said about him,” Smith said. “He’s made some mistakes that young people make from time to time when they’re young. I definitely don’t think that I’ve seen a pattern. Once you get to know him, I just really believe in him. I trust my instincts on people to know who we’re getting.”They’d better be right. Using the No. 1 pick on a failure can be catastrophic to a franchise. Winston, however, showed something that is hard to measure: With all the questions about his character and legal drama swirling around him, he did not flinch on the field.He played outstanding football in rallying the Seminoles. He was a leader. He was tough. He was a supportive teammate. He won.“He’s a champion,” Licht said. “He’s a leader. He’s a winner. He’s got tremendous football character and tremendous intelligence and work ethic. His work ethic was one thing that really put him over the top for us, combined with his leadership and his ‘it’ factor, as well as his ability on the field.”Cleared of the difficult terrain, maybe now Winston can craft an NFL arc that is devoid of scandal. It’d be nice to see him play without distraction. What a novel idea.
The Atlanta Hawks had the best record in the Eastern Conference, but the Cleveland Cavaliers are favored to beat them and advance to the NBA Finals. The disregard for the Hawks is palpable—and misguided. The regular season counts for something—a lot, actually. And here is why they will send LeBron James and the Cavs fishing for the summer.Home City AdvantageAtlanta is party central for the entire NBA. The restaurants, lounges, night clubs, adult entertainment spots… they draw NBA players out of their hotel rooms as if by a trance. The late-night carousing wears on a team’s legs and concentration. In an evenly matched series like this one, that energy edge very well could be a difference-maker. And even if the Cavs decide to stay in their room, they won’t be watching Being Mary Jane. The “entertainment” can—and will—come to them.Best Team AdvantageThe Hawks’ unselfish style of play has been the hallmark of the best season in franchise history. Part of the reason they are disregarded is because they do not have a superstar player. But they have four all-stars, who, if they play to their regular-season stature, far exceed the Cavs, who do not have an injured Kevin Love. Talent wins, and the Hawks have more of it.
RATE STATISTICS 8Jason Kidd50,11117.9.133+1.543.9 Of course, Curry showed two years ago that it can be done — and he might have done it again last season, if not for the injury that slowed him down as the playoffs went on. And although Paul is not exactly the same kind of game-changing revolutionary as Curry, he comes with his own type of basketball genius, which manifests as putting passes exactly where they need to be to maximize his teammates’ chances of making the shot, dominating the midrange-shooting game in a way that actually makes it efficient, and rating as the league’s best defensive point guard (by a wide margin) despite being one of the shorter guards in the league. In other words, as far as we can tell, Paul has all the tools he needs to be a championship player, even though his teams haven’t made a serious run at the championship yet. So either today’s methods of observation haven’t fully captured Paul’s flaws while picking up what he does well (very possible, though less so as more advanced methods — such as plus/minus and player-tracking data — trickle into the stats) or he’s a genuine statistical anomaly.In any case, time is running out. As CBS’s Matt Moore wrote in August, the chance of Paul’s greatness being forgotten — or at least not fully appreciated — grows with each postseason disappointment. He’s played well enough in the playoffs, but whether the cause is bad luck, bad timing or simply that the NBA is not geared for players like him to carry championship squads, Paul has not made the kind of postseason impact that the rest of his résumé deserves. And with Curry’s Warriors gearing up with even more talent than when they broke the all-time wins record last year, it could be another futile springtime for Paul and the Clippers.Check out our NBA predictions. PLAYERTOTAL MIN. PLAYEDPLAYER EFF. RATINGWIN SHARES PER 48 MINSPMVAR How will your favorite NBA team do this year? See all of our predictions for the 2016-17 season » 3Jerry West36,57122.9.213+4.762.1 4Magic Johnson33,24524.1.225+5.361.4 Of course, some of that shortfall in playoff success points is also just plain bad luck, like when Paul broke his hand during last season’s first round, effectively killing the Clippers’ chances of advancing before they’d really started. And some of it might have to do with the grand plan the Clippers hatched five years ago, when they traded for the game’s best point guard and began taking steps to assemble a championship team around him.In the last 28 NBA seasons, a point guard has been the best player (according to VAR) on only two championship teams: the 2004 Detroit Pistons, where Chauncey Billups led an ensemble cast of characters — including Ben Wallace and Rasheed Wallace, each of whom could also have made a claim for “best player” honors — and the 2015 Golden State Warriors, where Steph Curry was busy redesigning the sport of basketball. Aside from those two really unusual cases, you’d have to travel back to Magic Johnson’s 1988 Los Angeles Lakers to find the last champ whose top statistical performer was a floor general. (Apologies to Isiah Thomas of the 1989 and ’90 Pistons, whose advanced statistics were never really in line with his Hall of Fame reputation.)In the intervening years, 17 big men4Centers or power forwards. have led championship squads, as have nine wing players.5Shooting guards or small forwards. But NBA teams led by point guards have averaged 14 percent fewer dynasty points per season than all others, despite being stronger during the regular season6As measured by efficiency differential. on average. Since the end of the Showtime 1980s, it’s been pretty tough to build a championship team with a point guard as its centerpiece.And throughout basketball history, that’s basically been the norm. Between the 1951-527The first season in which minutes played were tracked, and therefore the earliest year where we can track per-minute advanced statistics. and 1969-70 seasons, zero NBA champions had a point guard as their best statistical player. So in that sense, the 1970s and ’80s were anomalous, rife as they were with championship point guards such as Johnson, Walt “Clyde” Frazier of the Knicks and even the underappreciated Gus Williams of the 1979 Seattle SuperSonics. If we look at the entirety of NBA history, point guard-led teams have been about half as likely to win a championship as their peers, even after controlling8Via a logistic regression that attempts to predict a team’s probability of winning the championship based on its regular-season efficiency differential, the composite PER/WS plus-minus of its best player and whether or not that player was a point guard. The coefficient on the point-guard dummy variable was significant and very negative, meaning teams whose best players were point guards were much less likely to win a championship across six and a half decades of NBA history. for how good the team — and its best player — were statistically. The most valuable point guards ever (by advanced statistics) 5Chris Paul27,72525.7.249+6.156.9 2Oscar Robertson43,88623.2.207+4.673.1 SPM (statistical plus/minus) is based on player efficiency rating and win shares per 48 minutes. VAR (value above replacement) converts SPM into a measure of a player’s total value in the minutes he played.Source: Basketball-Reference.com Paul’s postseason numbers are great, though a bit lower than we’d expect given his stellar regular-season stats, even after considering the increased difficulty of postseason opponents. His career playoff averages — a 25.5 PER and .206 WS/48 — are down from his respective marks of 25.7 and .249 in the regular season; those playoff rates mean Paul was worth about 1.3 fewer points (per 100 possessions) to his team than he was in the regular season. The average playoff team since 2006 had a regular-season efficiency differential of +3.6, meaning the level of the competition rises in the playoffs, but we’d expect an individual player’s number to drop by only a fifth of that, since a team’s plus/minus impact is spread across all five players on the court, so Paul’s numbers have dropped almost twice as much as we’d expect them to in the postseason. 6Gary Payton47,11718.9.148+2.148.9 9Chauncey Billups33,00818.8.176+2.941.0 7Steve Nash38,06920.0.164+2.644.5 10Walt Frazier30,96519.1.176+3.139.7 1John Stockton47,76421.8.209+4.578.6 But there’s always that pesky question of the postseason: Although Paul’s teams have qualified for the playoffs in all but three of his 11 NBA seasons, they haven’t made it very far once there: They’ve lost in the first round four times and in the second round on four other occasions. And that’s it. In the entire history of the NBA, few players with individual numbers as great as Paul’s have seen so little postseason success.In fact, I have a system of playoff success points that can be used to measure a team’s postseason accomplishments in proportion to how many teams it had to beat out to get as far as it did. And only one NBA player — Karl Malone — ever accumulated fewer career dynasty points than Paul has, relative to what we’d expect based on their lifetime VAR tallies: Few point guards in NBA history have the résumé to go toe-to-toe with Chris Paul of the Los Angeles Clippers. So how can it be that he’s never played in the conference finals?The battle lines on the topic of Chris Paul are well defined. On the one side, you have supporters of Chris Paul, Point God; on the other, a coalition of traditionalists, stat-skeptics and perplexed quants wondering how a player who dominates every advanced statistic we throw at him, and who has had excellent teammates for the last five seasons, has found so little playoff success. At its most basic level, this can devolve into a debate about the usefulness of stats in identifying a franchise player, versus, say, the ol’ Eye Test. Thankfully, Paul’s stature in the league helps fend off the worst of these arguments, but every great troll opinion has its own grain of truth. In this case: If every tool available to us says Paul is a Michael Jordan-level player, and if we believe basketball is the team sport most influenced by a single, all-powerful player, how do we explain Chris Paul’s dismal playoff record?Paul’s individual profile really is top-notch. Although he only turned 31 near the end of last season, Paul is already the sixth-most-decorated point guard1According to the positional designations at Basketball-Reference.com. ever in terms of MVP voting. His statistical portfolio is mind-boggling: Paul currently ranks as the most efficient point guard in NBA history, according to both career win shares per 48 minutes and player efficiency rating. Among all guards, period, he trails only Michael Jordan in each metric. If you combine both metrics into a composite statistical plus/minus index2No, PER isn’t a great stat, and win shares has its flaws as well; FiveThirtyEight readers know we much prefer the plus/minus family of advanced metrics, including box plus/minus (which powers our CARMELO projection system). But BPM is only available going back to 1973-74, and a proper contextualization of CP3’s career needs to include players from earlier eras — your Jerry Wests, Walt Fraziers, Oscar Robertsons and so forth. Fortunately, PER and WS are better together than they are apart, with PER’s love for high-usage players filling in WS’s blind fixation on efficiency. To be precise, I generated the combined version by figuring out the mix of each (relative to league average) that best correlates with Jeremias Engelmann’s Real Plus-Minus. The composite still isn’t better than, say, BPM, but it isn’t bad, either, particularly for comparing players across eras. and use that to measure each player’s career value above replacement (VAR),3VAR is structured the same as Basketball-Reference.com’s VORP, right down to the replacement level of -2.0 points per 100 possessions, but uses our PER/win shares composite as its foundation instead of box plus/minus. CP3 is the fifth-most-valuable point guard to ever set a sneaker on an NBA court:
No. 1 Washington Mystics26-8, 9-1 in past 10 gamesYou may have heard that the Washington Mystics have a good offense. That’s true, but it’s a little like saying that UConn women’s basketball head coach Geno Auriemma, an 11-time NCAA champion, is a good coach. Led by MVP front-runner Elena Delle Donne, guard Kristi Toliver, point guard Natasha Cloud and Meesseman, Washington recorded the highest points per possession (1.128), the highest effective field-goal percentage (53.6 percent) and the most assists (746) in league history over an entire season. Delle Donne became the first player in league history to shoot 50 percent from the floor, 40 percent from 3-point range, and 90 percent from the free-throw line.1With minimums of 100, 25 and 50 makes, respectively. Cloud just set a new Mystics single-season assists record, and Meesseman, Hawkins and guard Aerial Powers all have credible cases for WNBA Sixth Woman of the Year. With a double-bye to the semifinals, the Mystics get a nine-day break, which they will use both to rest their bodies and to fine-tune their play on both ends of the court. That break could be just what the doctor ordered for the Mystics to win their first-ever WNBA title. No. 3 Los Angeles Sparks22-12, 7-3 in past 10 gamesEvery team this season has had to deal with players missing games, whether due to injury, the FIBA EuroBasket tournament in late June or personal reasons. For the Sparks, though, it was at a different level: The first time their entire roster was available to play was Aug. 22. So in many ways, it feels like Los Angeles’ season is just getting started. The good news is that the Sparks have three All-Star talents with championship experience in Chelsea Gray (14.5 PPG, 5.9 APG), Candace Parker (11.2 PPG, 6.4 RPG, 3.5 APG) and Nneka Ogwumike (16.1 PPG, 8.8 RPG). The bad news is that the roster is still settling in under first-year head coach Derek Fisher and, as The Athletic’s Sabreena Merchant recently detailed, the Sparks have struggled to close out games on the road. That could be a problem because the Sparks are unlikely to have home-court advantage beyond the second round. One player to watch in a potential semifinal series against Connecticut is Chiney Ogwumike, who was acquired from Connecticut shortly before the 2019 season. In three games against her former team this year, she averaged 14.7 points and 5.0 rebounds per game and shot 69 percent from the field. No. 7 Minnesota Lynx18-16, 6-4 in past 10 gamesIf you believe in the phenomenon of “odd-year teams,” Minnesota should be your bet to win it all in 2019, as the Lynx won WNBA titles in 2011, 2013, 2015, and 2017. But head coach Cheryl Reeve’s team wasn’t even a surefire playoff team at the start of the year, returning only three players from 2018 (a fourth, Temi Fagbenle, rejoined the team midway through the 2019 season) and adding nine through the draft, free agency and trades. Center Sylvia Fowles (13.6 PPG, 8.9 RPG), point guard Odyssey Sims (14.5 PPG, 5.4 APG) and potential WNBA Rookie of the Year forward Napheesa Collier (13.1 PPG, 6.6 RPG, 1.9 SPG) have been Minnesota’s Big Three this season, and they will likely need to play like it to get Minnesota to the semifinals. The other crucial stat for the Lynx will be turnovers, which have been their Achilles’ heel all season. They turn the ball over on 20.5 percent of their possessions, which ranks last in the league, and surrender more than 16 points per game off of those turnovers. Those numbers will almost certainly need to improve for the Lynx to advance. No. 2 Connecticut Sun23-11, 7-3 in past 10 gamesConnecticut settled for the second seed after spending several weeks atop the league standings and finishing with a 15-2 record at home, tied with Los Angeles for best in the league. That home-court advantage bodes well for them in the semifinals, as the Sun will host the first two games and a potential Game 5. What else bodes well? They cannot draw Phoenix, their playoff nemesis of late, until the WNBA Finals (and even then, it would be a best-of-five series, not a single-elimination game).The Sun are led by center Jonquel Jones (14.6 PPG, 9.7 RPG), forward Alyssa Thomas (11.6 PPG, 7.8 RPG, 3.1 APG) and point guard Jasmine Thomas (11.1 PPG, 5.1 RPG). Guard Courtney Williams is one of the most exciting players to watch leaguewide: She grabs 5.6 rebounds per game despite standing only 5-foot-8, she can score in bunches, and she has the swagger to match her game. Backup center Theresa Plaisance could be an X-factor; Connecticut acquired her from Dallas at the trade deadline specifically to give the team the kind of veteran forward that teams like Los Angeles (Chiney Ogwumike), Washington (Tianna Hawkins, Emma Meesseman) and Las Vegas (Hamby) have on their benches. Put all of these pieces together, and the Sun have a strong chance of making their first WNBA Finals since 2005. No. 6 Seattle Storm18-16, 5-5 in past 10 gamesThe Storm are the defending champions, but they have an entirely new look in 2019 after seasonlong injuries to stars Sue Bird and Breanna Stewart. They can struggle on offense, ranking ninth in offensive rating, but are perhaps the most exciting team in the league to watch on defense. Point guard Jordin Canada and forward Natasha Howard rank first and second in the WNBA in steals per game, which fuels the Storm’s 17.3 points per game off of turnovers, good for the third-best mark in the league. Howard also ranks third in the league in blocks with 1.7 per game, making her the first WNBA player to rank in the top three in steals and blocks per game since Yolanda Griffith in 1999. Watching Seattle is even more exciting because it usually means seeing relatively few stoppages in play; despite playing such an aggressive defense, the Storm both commit the second-fewest fouls and draw the second-fewest fouls in the league, per 100 possessions. The Storm’s road to a championship looks quite different than it did last season, when they were the No. 1 seed, but tough defense, a talented point guard and a potential First Team All-WNBA forward aren’t a bad place to start. No. 4 Las Vegas Aces21-13, 6-4 in past 10 gamesBefore the season started, Las Vegas was a trendy pick to win the title behind three former No. 1 draft picks, sharpshooter Kayla McBride and 6-foot-8 center Liz Cambage. The team’s defense has been formidable, but the Aces have been inconsistent on offense, which may have cost them a chance at a double-bye. As SB Nation’s Mike Prada recently explained, they’ve actually been better when Cambage and starting forward A’ja Wilson — arguably the team’s top two players — are not on the court together. But the Aces made the playoffs for the first time since 2014, and they now have a chance to peak at the right time. Look for potential WNBA Sixth Woman of the Year Dearica Hamby (11.0 PPG, 7.6 RPG, 48.8 percent shooting) to tip a game in the Aces’ favor with her energy and versatility off the bench. No. 8 Phoenix Mercury15-19, 4-6 in past 10 gamesThe Mercury still have Taurasi, arguably the greatest WNBA player of all time, but she is recovering from back surgery and is “day-to-day for the foreseeable future,” according to High Post Hoops’ Brendon Kleen. And, unlike the previous two seasons, the Mercury will start the playoffs on the road, where they went only 6-11 this season. To make another run to the WNBA semifinals, the Mercury will likely need a big performance from 6-foot-9 All-WNBA center Brittney Griner, who is averaging 20.7 points and 7.2 rebounds per game this season while shooting 56.4 percent from the floor. Forward DeWanna Bonner, the Mercury’s other 2019 All-Star, will also need to be efficient on offense. She has carried the team at times this season and averages 17.2 points per game, but she has struggled with efficiency, shooting only 38 percent from the floor, including 27 percent on 3-pointers. An X-factor for Phoenix could be the experience of head coach Sandy Brondello, who has 17 career WNBA playoff wins and knows a thing or two about being the underdog from coaching Team Australia against the United States. Don’t be surprised if she has a trick or two up her sleeve. After more than three months of jockeying for position, four of the eight playoff-bound WNBA teams will begin their postseasons on Wednesday. As the No. 5 through No. 8 seeds, Chicago, Seattle, Minnesota and Phoenix will face off in two single-elimination games. The reward for the winners is another single-elimination game on Sunday against No. 3 seed Los Angeles or No. 4 seed Las Vegas. In the past few seasons, this playoff format has produced several upsets, including Washington over New York in 2017 (courtesy of nine 3-pointers from Kristi Toliver) and Phoenix over Connecticut in both 2017 and 2018 (courtesy of Diana Taurasi, who sports a career 13-1 record in playoff-deciding games).Meanwhile, atop the bracket, Washington and Connecticut secured double-byes, skipping the single-elimination games, and they now await the winners of the first two rounds for their best-of-five semifinal series.Let’s take a look at each of the eight playoff teams, starting with the four in action Wednesday and progressing to the title favorites. No. 5 Chicago Sky20-14, 6-4 in past 10 gamesBehind first-year head coach James Wade and point guard Courtney Vandersloot, the Sky surprised many onlookers by challenging for a top-4 seed. The Sky’s strength is its backcourt: Its top three scorers are starting guards Diamond DeShields, Allie Quigley and Vandersloot. Vandersloot also recently broke her own WNBA record for assists in a season — finishing with an even 300 — and averages 11.2 points, 9.1 assists and 4.3 rebounds per game. With center Jantel Lavender recently suffering a season-ending injury, Wade will have to come up with a game plan for Chicago to battle inside. One blueprint might be in the Sky’s 105-78 win over Phoenix on Sept. 1: Griner scored 26 points for Phoenix, but Chicago hit more than 50 percent of its shots, had six players score in double figures and committed only six turnovers to run away with the win.
OSU sophomore forward Marcus McCrary (19) during a game against Michigan on Nov. 4 at Jesse Owens Memorial Stadium. OSU won 3-1. Credit: Laurie Hamame | Lantern PhotographerAnother title is coming to Columbus, this one by way of the Ohio State men’s soccer team, which captured the regular-season Big Ten crown on Wednesday after defeating Michigan 3-1.The Big Ten championship is the third for the program and first since 2009. Senior midfielder and captain Zach Mason said he knew this year’s team would be special.“We have a team full of winners, a winning mentality,” Mason said. “I knew something special would happen this year, and I’m glad it came to fruition.”After a rocky 1-4 start, the Buckeyes finished their regular season with an overall record of 11-5-2 and a conference record of 5-2-1. OSU coach John Bluem said the team’s turnaround is a testament to its mindset.“Even when we were 1-4, the guys didn’t lose confidence. They thought that we were a good team and that we had just been unlucky,” Bluem said. “The fact that they didn’t give up and realized that if we could just get it going, we would be fine, and obviously we did get it going.”The Buckeye seniors, who were honored prior to the game for senior night, were the stars of the night. Mason and midfielder Kyle Culbertson combined for the Scarlet and Gray’s three goals. Mason’s tally was the first of his collegiate career.“Senior night, a couple seniors getting some goals, getting a win, the Big Ten title, I mean it’s a dream come true,” Mason said. Culbertson’s first goal of the evening, and his fourth of the season, occurred at the 25th minute of the first half when the ball bounced to him off a Michigan player 12 feet in front of the net. The strike gave OSU a 1-0 lead.Shortly after, in the 32nd minute of play, a corner kick from senior defender Liam Doyle found Mason on the ground after a deflection, redirecting into the net for his first goal in scarlet and gray.“I went up for the header and I missed it. I fell down on the ball and it went in. It was worth the wait though,” Mason said. “I just started laughing instantly. It’s ironic that I never scored, and it wasn’t a good goal, but it went in.”Culbertson got his second tally of the match in the 55th minute following skillful passing by junior forwards Danny Jensen and Yaw Amankwa. The goal swelled the OSU lead to three goals.“The front four played fantastic, that last goal was just a testament to that,” Culbertson said. “I think everybody touched it, all the front four guys. It was just a great combination play.”The Buckeye defense did its part as well, keeping Michigan off the scoreboard until the 85th minute of play when senior goaltender Chris Froschauer’s bid for an eighth shutout was snapped by Wolverine senior forward James Murphy.“The performance speaks for itself, we’ve given up four goals in our past 11 games,” Bluem said. “Our defense has really been doing the job for us, they’ve been fantastic all year long and we’re playing well at the best time of the season to be playing well.”With the Big Ten regular-season title under its belt, OSU will move on to the Big Ten tournament, where it enters as the top seed. Culbertson said that despite the Big Ten title, the competition is still intense.“Every team in this conference can beat anybody out there, so we are definitely getting prepared and making sure that we know the opponent that’s coming in, and making sure we’re ready to work,” Culbertson said.Bluem said there is still a lot of soccer to be played.“We’ve got the Big Ten tournament in front of us, and it would be great to win that as well. We know that after that, we’re going to advance and play in the NCAA tournament,” he said. “This isn’t the last game of the season, there’s a lot of games left in front of you, let’s just one win at a time and do what we did tonight and if we do it well enough, we’ll win.”The Buckeyes are scheduled to host their first Big Ten tournament game Sunday against the winner of Michigan State and Penn State. Kickoff is set for 4 p.m. at Jesse Owens Memorial Stadium.
Opening Day in Major League Baseball is, for some, a national holiday. It’s synonymous with “hope.” It’s a time when every team is undefeated and every fan owns bragging rights — yes, even Ohio sports fans. But it goes beyond that. Opening Day brings new life to a team. It’s like a New Year’s resolution, and, for most professional sports teams in Ohio, it ends like most New Year’s resolutions: null and void within three months. Still, it’s always nice to start the season thinking your team has a shot. That’s why we try to appease the baseball gods by wearing team jerseys and hats and even our lucky socks that haven’t been washed since the Kenny Lofton days, as if the fate of our team’s championship hopes rest solely on our wardrobe offerings. Some call it crazy, ridiculous and even fanatical. And, to that we say, “What’s your point?” As Opening Day arrived, Major League Baseball in Ohio finds two ball clubs heading in opposite directions. Baseball’s oldest franchise, the Cincinnati Reds, truly has given its fans something to cheer about. On Opening Day, the Reds defeated the Milwaukee Brewers, 7-6. This year, the Reds hold great expectations, and look to rebound from a first-round playoff sweep at the hands of the Philadelphia Phillies last October. Last year’s National League Central champs boast a star-studded roster that includes the likes of Joey Votto, Brandon Phillips and the “Cuban Missile,” Aroldis Chapman and his 105 mph fastball. And then there’s the Cleveland Indians. After a rough finish last season, expert analysts say the Indians are heading toward a rebuilding phase. Rumor has it pitcher Fausto Carmona could be on the move before the All-Star break, in exchange for prospects to breathe new life into the ball club. But, the Indians are going to need more than a few trades and superstitious batting routines to become a legitimate contender. And, if winning is what the Cleveland Indians are looking to do, they might consider picking up free agent Charlie Sheen, aka Wild Thing (I hear he’s “between jobs,” and “winning” is his new mantra). Statistically speaking, Opening Day is not necessarily an indicator of what is to come for a team. Last year the Reds dropped their home opener to the St. Louis Cardinals, giving up 11 runs. As the season progressed, the Reds picked up steam and ended the regular season five games ahead of the second-place Cardinals. New York Times columnist George Vecsey once said, “There is no sports event like Opening Day of baseball, the sense of beating back the forces of darkness and the National Football League.” And, with potential lockouts from both the NFL and the NBA looming, the great American pastime may be all we have left.
Junior pitcher Ryan Riga (44) throws the ball during a game against Siena March 14 at Bill Davis Stadium. OSU won, 8-5.Credit: Sam Harrington / Lantern photographerAfter sweeping a winless Siena team over the weekend, the Ohio State baseball team is looking to continue defending its home turf.The Buckeyes (11-6, 0-0) are preparing for their last two non-conference games — against in-state opponents Akron Tuesday and Xavier Wednesday — before kicking off their Big Ten schedule with a weekend series against Michigan State.Senior outfielder Tim Wetzel, who is hitting .417 (10-24) with runners on base, said the team is concentrated on taking things one game at a time.“One thing that is big with this year’s team is we’re just treating every game the same, whether it’s the Big Ten or a midweek game like we’ve got coming up this week. Every game is just as important as the next,” Wetzel said. “We’re not going to jump ahead to the Big Ten this weekend. We’ve got to take care of these two games first.”Coach Greg Beals said he expects his players to bring a lot of energy into both of their games this week.“I just want to see us keep the winning streak going, I want to see the quality of at-bats continue to grow, I’d like to see us hit some extra base hits. If we get some extra base hits, we usually score runs in those innings,” Beals said.Sophomore pitcher Jake Post is slated to start the game against the Zips (7-8, 0-0). After two starts and also coming out of the bullpen as a relief pitcher twice, Post is currently 2-1 with a 1.80 ERA and said he is confident heading into the game against Akron.“They look like a beatable team. If I execute my pitches and our hitters come through and we play good defense, we’ll come out with a win,” Post said. “I just want to go as deep as I can, have a good game, throw good pitches and execute to put the team in a good situation to win.”Numerous freshmen have emerged as key players for the Buckeyes in the early season. The Big Ten announced Monday that freshman pitcher Travis Lakins earned Big Ten Freshman of the Week honors. Lakins recorded a perfect 1.2 innings pitched in the latter game of a doubleheader with Siena Saturday after striking out a career-high five hitters and only allowing a pair of hits in 3.2 scoreless innings at No. 7 Oregon State Tuesday.Other freshmen producing for OSU include outfielder Ronnie Dawson, who is currently third in the Big Ten with a .393 batting average and leads the team with 22 hits. Freshman pitcher Adam Niemeyer struck out a career-best eight while allowing just one hit over 4.1 scoreless innings of relief against No. 9 Oregon March 7.“They’re huge, we knew that we were going to need them coming into the season big time,” Wetzel said. “The (freshmen) pitching staff has really been stepping up, (Troy) Montgomery and Dawson in the lineup have been huge, we knew that was going to be the case. We’re just excited they’re producing.”Beals said a key to succeeding in the conference is getting the younger players as much playing time as possible.“I think we’ve been able to get production from the younger guys but most importantly, we’ve got them experience and they’ve gotten a good number of at bats, so they’re going to be ready to go now that we start conference play,” Beals said.Beals added that OSU is healthy and ready to make an impact in the Big Ten when the conference portion of its schedule begins this weekend.“Physically, we’re in really good shape so as you transfer from preseason into the conference season, that’s something that’s always a concern and we’re healthy right now,” Beals said.First pitch against Akron is set for 5:05 p.m. Tuesday at Bill Davis Stadium.