Florida State was the nation’s preseason No. 1 college football team, according to ESPN’s Football Power Index (FPI), a computer-generated power rating designed to measure the relative strength of each team in the NCAA’s Football Bowl Subdivision. But the Seminoles faced an early test Saturday in 25th-ranked Oklahoma State. It was an exam FSU would barely pass; while the FPI would have predicted an 18-point victory, the Seminoles squeaked out a mere six-point win that caused their FPI to drop by two points.ESPN’s Stats & Info Group has computed FPI back to the 2005 season, and Florida State’s was the fourth-worst Week 1 performance by a preseason No. 1 in terms of FPI points lost in the subsequent set of rankings:The three games resulting in bigger FPI losses for preseason No. 1s were all wins against extremely weak competition, by margins deemed unacceptably low according to the pre-game power ratings. By contrast, the best performance — Alabama’s 41-14 dismantling of Michigan in 2012 — was a rout against an opponent considered to be strong by the FPI.FSU’s win Saturday belongs to yet a different category. Oklahoma State is in a rebuilding phase, returning just eight starters from last season’s 10-3 squad, but it also carried an FPI rating implying it’d be roughly a two-touchdown favorite against an average FBS school. Among opening opponents for preseason No. 1s, only the Michigan team Alabama crushed in 2012 came into the game with a stronger FPI rating.There are worse ways to begin a season than beating an opponent of that relative quality. FPI is geared for maximal predictive accuracy, so a six-point win against a team with a rating of 14.1 points per game above average is still considered more indicative of success than scheduling a cream puff for the opener and only beating them by 40.
Fifteen years ago, Mike Martz had a radical notion: “Why does the run have to set up the pass?”That, according to Sports Illustrated’s Peter King, was the question the new St. Louis Rams offensive coordinator posed to his head coach, Dick Vermeil, as they prepared for the coming NFL season in June 1999. It was to be Vermeil’s third in St. Louis, and judging from the press clippings, probably his last if things didn’t change in a hurry.1Things did change in a hurry, but it was still Vermeil’s last year with the team — just not for the reason fans expected before the season. Over the previous two seasons, Vermeil had coached the Rams to 23 losses and only nine wins, with an offense that ranked 23rd out of 30 NFL teams in passing efficiency and 26th in scoring.Then came Martz. “I don’t know of any assistant coach that came in, at any one time, in any one program, and made as big a contribution as Mike did at that time,” Vermeil said in a recent interview. In his estimation, Martz’s contribution to the Rams2Along with those of wide receivers coach Al Saunders, offensive line coach John Matsko, and strength coach Dana LeDuc. was equivalent to that of a first-round pick — and that’s not a hard case to make. Upon Martz’s arrival, the Rams went from laughingstocks to Super Bowl champs with an explosive attack that came to be known as the “Greatest Show on Turf.”It was, at the time, the third-most potent scoring offense and the second-most efficient passing attack3By adjusted net yards per attempt generated above league average. the league had seen in its modern incarnation.4Going back to 1970, the year of the AFL-NFL merger. And of even more historical significance, the Rams did it before the league became fixated on throwing the ball.While the longtime mantra of football coaches everywhere had been to “establish the run” before passing, Martz’s plan was to aggressively pass the ball until the Rams had a lead worth protecting with the run. Stocked with speed everywhere and willing to throw in any situation, the Greatest Show on Turf proved that pass-first teams could win championships, and it heralded the passing fireworks we see in the NFL today.“If you go back and look at the other teams of that era, the ‘conventional’ teams that you were competing with, [the Rams were] the aberration of the day,” said former Baltimore Ravens coach and current NFL Network analyst Brian Billick, whose head-coaching debut came against the Rams in their 1999 regular-season opener. “St. Louis was so far ahead. It’s hard to say [they were] ‘pass-happy’ because they actually ran the ball pretty well,” he said. “But there’s no question they wanted to throw the ball.”As Billick noted, St. Louis still could run effectively — running back Marshall Faulk racked up the NFL’s fifth-most rushing yards in 1999 — but that wasn’t the team’s focus. The Rams anticipated what statistical analysts would eventually come to learn about football: Teams run when they win; they don’t win when they run. After using all that passing to build early leads, St. Louis rushed on the league’s sixth-largest proportion of its second-half plays — and no team devoted more of its fourth-quarter plays to running the ball. Martz had successfully flipped conventional football wisdom on its head, using the pass to set up the run just as he had set out to do.And ever since the Greatest Show on Turf hit the NFL scene, the league has trended toward ever more (and more effective) passing, further enabled by rule changes designed to incentivize every team to spread the field and throw the ball aggressively.The genesis of the Rams’ aggressive strategy came when Martz was coaching quarterbacks for the Washington Redskins a year earlier. As ESPN analyst Ron Jaworski tells the story in his book “The Games That Changed The Game,” Martz realized that his pass-heavy third-down play packages were too effective to be confined to such a narrow situation.5Despite relatively average yards-per-play numbers across all situations, Washington had ranked fourth in the league in third-down conversion rate in 1997. “Since we both love these plays so much,” Martz asked head coach Norv Turner, “why can’t we run them whenever we want? Why wait till third down?”“So what happened was that we decided to run these third-and-long plays regardless of down and distance or field position,” Martz told Jaworski. “To us it simply didn’t matter anymore. This kept defenses guessing — they couldn’t zero in on our tendencies, personnel packages, or formations, because they’d always have to be ready for the big pass.”Armed with such convention-breaking ideas, Martz represented the most revolutionary branch of the coaching tree originally planted by retired San Diego Chargers coach Don Coryell. Martz’s preferred offensive system, nicknamed “Air Coryell” for its emphasis on defense-stretching pass plays, wasn’t new; as the name implied, the system was first developed by Coryell in the 1960s at San Diego State, and later used to great effect at the NFL level by the Chargers of the early ’80s.6Under the coordination of Turner, another Coryell acolyte, the Dallas Cowboys had won multiple Super Bowls running the offense in the early 1990s. But it had never been taken to the extremes Martz envisioned upon joining the Rams staff.During the 1998 season, just three teams passed on more than 50 percent of their first-down plays.7When the score was close, and filtering out late-game situations. Running the West Coast Offense under coach Mike Holmgren, the Green Bay Packers threw in a league-high 57 percent of those situations — but gained an average of only 5.8 yards per attempt.8By comparison, the league average across all passes that season was 6.8 yards. This was an artifact of the West Coast’s philosophy, which had overtaken the league in the two decades since its creation by legendary coach Bill Walsh. Similar to Coryell’s scheme, Walsh’s offense emphasized passing over rushing, but it focused on stretching the field horizontally with short passes as a means of ball control. By contrast, Martz wanted to throw early and often, but also sought to stretch the field with deep passing.“If you’ve got a Mercedes,” Martz said at the time, “you don’t keep it in the garage.”After an offseason overhaul, the Rams possessed the football equivalent of German engineering under the hood. First, they signed accurate passer Trent Green9Fresh off a career season under Martz in Washington. to conduct Martz’s mad experiment from behind center. Then, capitalizing on a brewing contract dispute with the Indianapolis Colts, St. Louis heisted Faulk in a trade, giving up just a pair of draft picks for the league’s best all-around running back. Days later, they used the sixth overall pick in the draft on Torry Holt, anticipating a productive pairing at wide receiver with former Pro Bowler Isaac Bruce returning from injury. Even the role players, such as second-year receiver Az-Zahir Hakim, had otherworldly speed.Vermeil was already a longtime Air Coryell believer,10“I had run it myself in Philadelphia on a smaller-volume scale in the late ’70s and early ’80s,” he said. and had been trying to install the offense in St. Louis for two years, but lacked the proper personnel. “We had the foundation of it, installed by [former offensive coordinator] Jerry Rhome, the first two years I was there,” Vermeil told me. “I had actually limited [the playbook’s] growth my second year there because we couldn’t complete in the high 60 percent of our throws. So I instructed people to cut back in the volume, hoping that we could improve the execution and the completion percentage.”With Martz, Faulk, Bruce, Green and Holt in place, such cutbacks were no longer necessary. In the preseason of 1999, Green completed 28 of 32 passes (88 percent) before suffering a season-ending knee injury in the team’s third game. When unheralded backup Kurt Warner stepped in, Vermeil said, Martz and the coaching staff “made no adjustments” to the offensive scheme.True to Vermeil’s expectations, Warner ended up completing 65.1 percent of his passes, which at the time was the third-best single-season completion percentage by any quarterback ever.11Among quarterbacks with 450 attempts. In addition, the Rams came within striking distance of the 1989 San Francisco 49ers’ mark for the NFL’s second-most efficient passing offense since the merger12Relative to league average.More importantly, the Rams proved that a team could win without establishing the ground game before unleashing holy terror through the air. On first downs,13Again, when the score was close, and filtering out late-game situations. St. Louis passed a league-high 59 percent of the time, and gained 7.6 yards per attempt on those throws (11 percent more than the NFL average on all attempts that year) and scored a touchdown on 7.4 percent of them (almost twice the league average across all attempts). On the whole, the Rams passed 5.4 percent more than would be expected from their +9.1 average in-game scoring margin — still the biggest disparity by any Super Bowl winner since the merger.“The spread-out type of system, it really did begin with them, because they were so explosive,” Billick told me. “It was a little bit different [from their contemporaries], but they were very successful with it. Kurt Warner made it work, and they spread you out in a way that very few teams could spread you out — that looks, today, very familiar.”Although no one knew it at the time, the Rams were at the leading edge of something that was about to take over pro football. The NFL’s average passer rating in 1999 was 75.1 — essentially the same as it had been for a decade — and Warner’s 109.2 rate led the league by a mile. It was, at the time, the second-highest single-season mark ever. Within five years, though, the league-average rating had eclipsed 80.0 for the first time ever, with two players14Peyton Manning and Daunte Culpepper. surpassing Warner’s rating from 1999. By last season, the average NFL passer rating was 84.1, with Warner’s 1999 mark dropping to 10th all time. Because of their sheer effectiveness, pass-first offensive philosophies have gone from the vanguard (see Coryell’s Chargers, or the various Run-and-Shoot teams of the ’90s) to commonplace over the last 15 years.The conventional narrative is that Bill Belichick’s New England Patriots finally solved Martz’s offense in Super Bowl XXXVI, limiting the Rams to 17 points by making Faulk a non-factor. But St. Louis still moved the ball well in the loss, amassing 427 total yards while Faulk notched 130 yards from scrimmage.15In other words, if not for three turnovers, the Rams would likely have won another Super Bowl in 2002. And after a disastrous 7-9 season in 2002, a reloaded version of the Greatest Show on Turf emerged behind another obscure QB (Marc Bulger) to tie for second in the NFL in scoring during the 2003 season.16Ranking behind only Vermeil and Green’s Kansas City Chiefs. The true end came later, as the Rams’ talent scattered. Faulk retired in 2006, while Bruce, Holt and All-Decade left tackle Orlando Pace donned unfamiliar uniforms in their twilight years. Martz took his system to Detroit, San Francisco and Chicago, garnering mixed reviews when lesser talents were plugged in.To the coaches, then, the Greatest Show on Turf was really about the perfect marriage of a high-powered strategy and a gifted roster.“This game has been, is now, and always will be about talent,” Billick said. “Taking nothing away from the system, you’re talking about Hall of Famers like Marshall Faulk, Kurt Warner — who I believe will be in the Hall of Fame — the talents of an Isaac Bruce and Torry Holt … These were unique talents that the system adapted to very, very well.”Vermeil concurred. “Very few teams ever have that kind of skill, at one time, on their side of the line of scrimmage,” he said.It was those players who allowed Martz’s progressive game-planning to thrive, and it was his system that showcased their skills. His fingerprints can still be seen on the league 15 years later.Thanks to Grantland’s Chris Brown for help with this article.
For several years, NFL higher-ups have been a bit sour on the extra point. It slows down the game; kickers make them so often that they’re not really exciting, or even tense; and even if one is missed, it’s less “OMG, did you see that?” and more “WTF, kickers are terrible!”In preseason games, the NFL has experimented with narrowing the goal posts and/or moving back the spot of the kick on attempts. It is rumored to be considering eliminating the extra-point option entirely.That’s one way to encourage two-point conversions. But it’s not as exciting as the idea that the Indianapolis Colts are offering. This week, the Colts caused some buzz by making a crazy-sounding suggestion to the NFL’s competition committee: If a team converted its two-point attempt, it would get a shot at an additional point by attempting a 50-yard field goal.Considering that kickers now make 50-yard attempts about two-thirds of the time, this essentially means that successful two-point tries would be worth 2.66 points. That would clearly affect coaches’ strategy after a touchdown — or at least it should. Currently, a team needs to be able to convert a two-point attempt 50 percent of the time to make it a better option (barring tactical reasons) than an extra point. But in the Colts’ extra-extra-point scenario, a team would only have to convert its two-point attempt from scrimmage about 38 percent of the time.In 2014, teams made 48 percent of their attempts, which is just about in line with how they’ve done for the past decade. So under the proposed change, going for two would probably be right in most circumstances. (That’s a small sample size, though. It’s unclear exactly how good teams really are at converting two-point attempts because they are taken so rarely and teams don’t take them with equal frequency.)Even if the Colts’ rule came to be — and that’s a very unlikely prospect — the coaches wouldn’t necessarily catch on even though the math would be in their favor. Many coaches still kick field goals on fourth and goal from the 1, and that is generally a much worse mistake.But suppose for a second that the strategy did catch on. It would likely have a big ripple effect. Having a kicker who can convert from 50 yards consistently would become a lot more valuable. Also, knowing that teams could come back from nine points down on a single possession might make coaches play more aggressively in a number of different situations.The competition committee has already rejected the idea, meaning that it’s unlikely to be adopted any time soon. (It will still be offered up to the owners next week, but without the committee’s endorsement.) But that leaves room for my alternative: How about any time that a team converts a 2-pointer, it can either take the two points or take one point and try again? Then no lead would be safe.
Up until his Golden State Warriors failed to mount a second-half comeback against the Memphis Grizzlies on Tuesday night, it had been a great week for Stephen Curry. Late Sunday, word leaked out that the Warriors’ guard would be named MVP for the 2014-15 NBA season, and Curry accepted the hardware Monday.Curry’s chief rival for the award, Houston’s James Harden, was reportedly disappointed over the outcome of the voting. It’s a completely understandable reaction: The best advanced metrics had Curry and Harden neck-and-neck in the MVP race for most of the season, so Curry’s big edge in first-place votes likely owes more to the Warriors’ incredible team record than any real difference between the two players. In fact, according to our wins above replacement (WAR) metric, Harden slightly edged Curry in value, 16.8 to 16.6.The truth is, we’ll never know which player really deserved the award … in part because a phrase like “most valuable” is very hard to quantify. Metrics are imperfect, probably to a much greater degree than any stathead would like to think. But one thing we can do to combat a false sense of certainty is assign probabilities to each player’s case for adding the most value. Along the way, we can also compare the results to past MVP races — for instance, how did Curry-over-Harden compare to other MVP decisions in history?To measure the uncertainty between a player’s measured WAR and his actual “talent” — that is, the number of WAR he would earn if we were omniscient and knew the exact contributions of every NBA player — we can look at the confidence interval around a player’s measured value.1In this case, since we need to use Statistical Plus/Minus (SPM) for historical seasons, I looked at the standard error between a player’s multi-year projected SPM talent and his Real Plus/Minus (RPM), a new metric that melds a player’s boxscore stats with his on-court influence over the team’s scoring margin. I then combined that with the standard error between RPM and “true talent” to estimate the probability that any given player had the league’s true best WAR in a given season. In turn, those confidence intervals can tell us the probability that a player was truly the most valuable (by WAR) in a given season.This year, Harden was the most likely “true” WAR leader — but with a mere 22 percent probability of being the best. In the past 37 NBA seasons,2The 1978-79 season is the earliest for which this calculation can be run. this year is the seventh most uncertain in terms of whether a WAR leader was actually the league’s true most valuable player. Meanwhile, Curry came in third this season with a 12 percent probability of being the true best player in the league (the Clippers’ Chris Paul was sandwiched between Harden and Curry at 19 percent).In some ways, 12 percent is very low probability. Since 1978-79, only 12 players have won the award with less certainty that they actually produced the league’s greatest value. But the 2014-15 season also featured an unusually wide-open MVP race. Kevin Durant, last year’s winner and the presumptive favorite going into this season, missed 55 games with injuries and only recorded 4.5 WAR. And LeBron James, who’d been projected as the league’s best player on a per-minute basis every season between 2005-06 and 2013-14, produced his lowest WAR (13.1) since his rookie season — yet still had a 9 percent probability of being the true best player in the NBA. And that’s without even getting into the cases to be made for Russell Westbrook (9 percent probability of being the best) or Anthony Davis (4 percent).On the other hand, the gap between Harden and Curry’s odds of being the best player was just 10 percentage points. Excluding the 17 seasons since 1978-79 in which the most likely true WAR leader was also named MVP, that’s the sixth-smallest gap between any MVP and that season’s leader in “true best player” probability:By that standard, Curry’s win was a far cry from past miscarriages of MVP justice, such as Michael Jordan losing out to Magic Johnson in 1988-89 despite Jordan having a 55 percent probability of being the league’s true best player — the second-highest “best player” certainty of any season since 1978-79, trailing only James’s 66 percent mark in 2009-10.Conversely, there was no such certainty in a season like 2014-15, where several of the usual MVP suspects were absent from the front of the race. In such a situation, you can’t really go wrong (or, perhaps, you can’t really go right) no matter which MVP you choose.
Welcome to The Lab, FiveThirtyEight’s basketball podcast. On Thursday’s show (May 10, 2018), Neil and Kyle preview both conference finals matchups. They discuss how the Celtics overcame injury after injury to make the Eastern Conference finals, revel in the Cleveland Cavaliers’ remarkable play against the Toronto Raptors, and wonder whether the Western Conference finals are the de facto NBA finals. They also bid farewell to the Sixers and other eliminated teams.The Lab will be back with another episode next week. In the meantime, keep an eye on FiveThirtyEight’s NBA predictions, which are updated after every game. Embed Code By Neil Paine and Kyle Wagner More: Apple Podcasts | ESPN App | RSS | Embed
We also did a bit more data entry from those NCAA.org scans of old team stat sheets to compare Indiana’s core stats with Kentucky’s. Our former ESPN colleague Dean Oliver, now with the Sacramento Kings, developed four factors to describe teams’ style of play. We estimated these for Indiana,4We had to guess what share of its and its opponents’ rebounds came on the offensive side of the floor, because offensive and defensive rebounds weren’t listed separately in the stat sheets that year. To that end, we estimated from trends in recent college data (paywalled) and in the NBA that 35 percent of rebounds by Indiana and its opponents were of the offensive variety. and we also computed each undefeated team’s pace of play and its points scored and allowed per 100 possessions.Indiana was better than Kentucky in a few ways: It allowed fewer points per possession, shot for a slightly higher effective field goal percentage, forced a greater rate of turnovers and allowed slightly fewer free-throw attempts per shot from the floor. But in every other respect, and every net measure, the Wildcats best the Hoosiers.Of course, Kentucky is trying to finish as undefeated champion in 2015 — it’s not chasing the 1975-76 Hoosiers or perfection. Or, as Kentucky coach John Calipari keeps emphasizing to the media when they ask about his team’s quest to finish 40-0, “We know we’re not perfect. We’re undefeated, but we’re not perfect.” The coach is right, and he’d be just as correct if he were describing the 1975-76 Hoosiers.Both the 2014-15 Wildcats and the 1975-76 Hoosiers are great teams — probably among the 25 best teams relative to their competition in the last 40 years of men’s college basketball. But neither team ranks as the best in recent decades. What sets apart Kentucky and Indiana is that they managed to win all their close games and remain undefeated. Indiana won two games in overtime, and five more by five points or fewer. Kentucky has also won two OT games, and two other games by five points or fewer. Each team played nailbiters against Notre Dame: Indiana won by three on Dec. 11, 1975, while Kentucky won by two on Saturday to advance to this weekend’s Final Four in Indianapolis.We have reliable SRS data going back to 1985. Eight teams rank ahead of this season’s Kentucky squad, including two previous Kentucky teams: the 1996 two-loss champs, and the 1997 national runners-up. Those 1997 Wildcats — along with the No. 1 team on our list, the 1999 runners-up, the Duke Blue Devils — provide a warning to this year’s Kentucky squad that the best team usually doesn’t win the NCAA tournament. Even among the eight teams of the last 30 years that were more dominant than Kentucky has been so far this year, just two won the title. Kentucky has to win two more games to become the first undefeated national champion since Indiana in 1975-76. And if the Wildcats succeed, the stats we have suggest that they’re a notch or two more dominant than those Hoosiers were.Getting data on Kentucky is easy: The Wildcats’ every game has a digital box score that’s been compiled and analyzed by the likes of Ken Pomeroy and our own March Madness predictions. But Indiana’s statistical record from its undefeated season remains in the analog age, locked in scans of stat sheets.To truly measure the 32-0 Hoosiers’ greatness, we’d want to compile the schedule and results of every Division I team that year. Unfortunately, that would involve inputting dozens of data points from hundreds of image files. And our favorite speed typist was busy.1Seriously, we asked him. So we simplified our analysis: We entered the scores of every Indiana game, then adjusted the Hoosiers’ average margin of victory by the average margin of victory of each of its opponents that season.2Accounting for home-court advantage. That gave us an estimate of Indiana’s Simple Rating System scores, which otherwise aren’t available for teams that far back.3We checked how well this technique estimates SRS for teams from the Big Ten — Indiana’s conference — and the SEC — Kentucky’s — for more recent seasons. We found it’s very reliable, with an r-squared of 0.96 against actual SRS for seasons since 1984-85. The distribution of its errors is approximately normal, with mean of zero and a standard deviation of 1.26, allowing us to create a confidence interval around its predictions and estimate the likelihood that Indiana’s true SRS was greater than or less than the known SRS ratings of more modern teams.What we found is that Kentucky has been slightly better, relative to its opposition, than Indiana was. Kentucky’s SRS is 29.05, meaning it would beat an average team on a neutral floor by about 29 points. Indiana’s estimated SRS is 27.49. Though that’s just an estimate, we can be fairly confident — about 90% sure — that Kentucky is the more dominant team. (Again, these are estimates only relative to the average team each season — the question of which team would win head-to-head is an entirely different one.)
OSU freshman guard Austin Grandstaff (3) dribbles the ball during a game against Virginia on Dec. 1 at the Schottenstein Center. OSU lost 64-58.Credit: Bree Williams | Lantern PhotographerIt might have come against a Virginia Military Institute team picked to finish last in the Southern Conference in the conference’s preseason coaches poll, but the Ohio State men’s basketball team will surely take its 89-62 win on Saturday any way it can get it to snap its four-game losing streak.“I feel like it’s definitely a sense of relief,” redshirt sophomore center Trevor Thompson said. “We’re a young team, but we’re still hungry, and I feel like in this game we grew a lot.”Facing a team that contains no players taller than 6-foot-6, the Buckeyes used their height to great advantage to control the paint on both ends of the floor and open up the outside game on offense.OSU (3-4) held a commanding 40-14 lead in points in the paint, while scoring 29 second-chance points and outrebounding the Keydets (3-4) by a margin of 48-27.Four Buckeyes finished with double-digit points, led by 19 from sophomore guard Jae’Sean Tate and 17 from junior forward Marc Loving.“It’s definitely a different feeling, a different atmosphere in the locker room,” Loving said about getting back on the winning side. “It feels good to get a win under our belt, but we still have a lot to work on to keep the one-game winning streak alive.”The Buckeyes came out of the gates firing, looking to put a kibosh to their losing streak. The home team jumped out to a 19-9 lead in the first six and a half minutes of the game, and put themselves in position to run away with the game.Some turnovers and missed looks fueled a very quick Keydet run, though, which saw them take a 23-22 lead midway through the first half. The deficit snapped OSU back to attention, as it went on a 17-3 run from that point en route to taking a 42-31 lead into the intermission.Loving said when VMI mounted its brief comeback, the team didn’t panic or press it too much.“I feel like we’re a very confident basketball team,” he said. “When moments happen like that, we just try to come together as much as possible, because if we don’t we will end up losing the game.”The Buckeyes shot just 4-of-14 from beyond the 3-point arc in the first half, but made up for it by shooting 12-of-20 inside of it. As a whole, OSU shot 47 percent from the field in the first half, while holding the visitors to 33 percent. Sophomore forward Keita Bates-Diop led the charge in the opening 20 minutes, scoring 12 points on 4-of-5 shooting with two blocked shots.OSU coach Thad Matta said he was happy with the looks that opened up on the perimeter despite the shots not always falling.“I thought that even though we didn’t shoot that high of a percentage, I thought our execution was a little better,” he said.The Scarlet and Gray continued the strategy of utilizing the team’s size to open up opportunities in the second half.OSU bumped its lead up to 18 points midway through the half, with much of the attack centering around the big, physical nature of Thompson, who scored six points in the second half to finish with 13. “He’s shown us, just in terms of his skill around the basket, I think he’s got a pretty good feel when he catches the ball, just in terms of what needs to be done, what he needs to do with it,” Matta said.Loving also played a big role on offense in the second half, with 11 points in the final 20 minutes. Another extended run later in the half, this one of the 11-0 variety, put the contest out of reach and put the nail in the coffin of OSU’s losing streak.VMI junior guard QJ Peterson, who came in averaging 20.2 points per game, was the leading scorer for the Keydets with 23 points, but was only able to shoot at a 6-of-16 clip as he was guarded tightly throughout by Bates-Diop.Two areas of major concern throughout the season for OSU saw improvements for Matta’s squad on Saturday: free-throw shooting and turnovers.The Buckeyes came into the game with the 11th worst free-throw percentage at 59.4 percent and averaging 15.7 turnovers per game, the 32nd worst mark in the nation.On Saturday, however, OSU shot an efficient 15-of-19 at the line (78.9 percent) and only coughed the ball up a season-low nine times.“We cut our turnovers down. We had single-digit turnovers for the whole game,” Loving said. “I feel like we have to carry that out throughout the rest of the season.”Freshman center Daniel Giddens, who leads the Big Ten with 3.3 blocks per game, was unable to play on Saturday as he dealt with an illness, but that didn’t stop OSU from altering five shots. Matta said after the game that he expects Giddens to return on Tuesday.That game on Tuesday is set to come against Air Force. Tip is scheduled for 8 p.m. at the Schottenstein Center.
OSU senior guard Ameryst Alston (14) dribbles the ball during a game against Northwestern on Jan. 28 at the Schottenstein Center. Credit: Samantha Hollingshead | Photo EditorThe surging Ohio State women’s basketball team (18-4, 10-1) handled a struggling Wisconsin team (6-15, 2-9) with a suffocating defensive performance Thursday night to keep the train running smoothly into the highly anticipated matchup with No. 5 Maryland on Monday.Coming into the matchup against the Badgers, the Buckeyes had won 13 of their last 14 games overall. The 87-61 victory pushed No. 7 OSU’s home winning streak to 11 games, while the Badgers have now dropped nine of their last 10 games overall.OSU coach Kevin McGuff said he was satisfied with the way each member of the team immediately found their individual roles and contributed in the contest.“We had good communication, good concentration, good effort,” McGuff said. “Everybody (that) came off the bench knew exactly what we were in. They were locked in and focused.”The Scarlet and Gray started the game off slow, plagued by poor shooting. But that all changed with a little over two minutes left in the first quarter. The Buckeyes scored 11 of their 19 first-quarter points in that short amount of time, aided by a trio of 3-pointers.The momentum OSU created carried over into the second period. The Buckeyes quickly jumped out to a double-digit lead and started to step it up on defense. The lead blossomed to 20 points midway through the quarter, but a late surge pushed the Badgers back to a 13-point deficit at the break.In the opening half, senior guard Ameryst Alston led the way for OSU with 12 points, while junior forward Shayla Cooper added 10 points along with seven rebounds. The nation’s third-leading scorer, sophomore guard Kelsey Mitchell, was held to only three points in the first half but found other ways to help her team out. For the Badgers, Cayla McMorris and Michala Johnson each put in eight points.While the Buckeyes held a steady lead at the break, they saw the opportunity to put the game away early with a lopsided third quarter, and did just that.“The third quarter was as good a defensive quarter as we’ve had probably all year,” McGuff said.The Buckeyes held Wisconsin to only seven points in the entire third period, pressuring the Badgers into shooting only 18.2 percent from the field. Using the full-court press to their advantage, the Buckeyes put together a lockdown team effort throughout the 10 minutes.When the final buzzer sounded, the Buckeyes headed off the floor with heads held high. Alston was the leading scorer for OSU with 21 points, while Mitchell, who had a strong second half shooting the ball, added 16. Cooper earned her sixth double-double of the season with 16 points and 10 rebounds, as well.Nine different OSU players saw the floor, eight of whom scored in the game, displaying an ability and a willingness to get everyone involved.“I think that’s what’s so special about our team. We have so many different aspects (and) a lot of us can contribute,” Alston said. “It’s always great to see (different) people out there playing.”Continuing Big Ten play, the streaking Buckeyes are scheduled to take on Maryland at home Monday, which is scheduled for a 9 p.m. tipoff.
OSU redshirt sophomore safety Malik Hooker (24) celebrates his pick-six during the second half of the Buckeyes game against Nebraska on Nov. 5. The Buckeyes won 62-3. Credit: Alexa Mavrogianis | Photo EditorOhio State hosted one of its biggest games of the year last week against No. 10 Nebraska, under the lights. It was the second largest crowd in Ohio Stadium history and arguably had the most talented list of visiting recruits since OSU coach Urban Meyer began his tenure. The pregame spectacle that was the laser-light show inside the team tunnel, the fireworks shooting off atop the scoreboard and an introduction video highlighting the 2014 national championship were done to make an impression on those in attendance. However, it was up to the Scarlet and Gray to leave the lasting impact. And so they did, with the defense setting the tone.Junior safety Damon Webb intercepted a pass that was tipped by junior linebacker Raekwon McMillan and redshirt sophomore cornerback Marshon Lattimore, then returned it 36 yards for a touchdown. That was the team’s fifth pick-six of the year, which marked a school record.“That was big. The crowd was going crazy on the first third down of the game,” Webb said. “That definitely lifted up the crowd and had momentum on our side.”The OSU defense has been a catalyst at times for an offense that has struggled with a quick start for nearly the whole season. Two weeks ago, for the very first time all year, the Buckeyes notched its first touchdown on its first drive of the game. This time around the defense was one of the best offensive weapons for coach Urban Meyer.Later in the game, redshirt sophomore safety Malik Hooker made a difference on defense by making his fifth interception and scoring his second touchdown of the 2016 season. OSU now has six interceptions for touchdowns this year, with three games still to play.The skill and athleticism in the OSU secondary has begged the question if any players have tried to play both sides, offense as well as defense. Co-defensive coordinator and linebackers coach Luke Fickell said that for the defense to get better, the player have to focus on their individual positions rather than try to learn a new one, not saying that the players wouldn’t be open to taking a stab on offense.Regardless, the OSU secondary has been electric when the players have the ball in their hands. Co-defensive coordinator and associate head coach Greg Schiano has been mostly responsible for the increase in scoring for the offense. Schiano has put an emphasis on making the most of opportunities; a play Schiano calls “sideline return.” McMillan said that there’s one thing on his mind when the ball is caught by one of his teammates: “Turn around and block somebody.” “This is a game of energy. It’s a game of momentum,” Fickell said. “If you got momentum, you got to find a way to keep it. If you don’t have the momentum, you got to do something.”OSU currently ranks fourth in the nation in passing defense and ninth in the country with 14 interceptions. Last Saturday, Nebraska was just 1-for-13 for 12 yards in downfield passing against Conley, Ward and Lattimore. Webb said that there’s not necessarily a competitive between the defensive backs to see who can have the most interceptions at season’s end, but there’s definitely some discussion in the group.“It’s definitely a confidence booster,” he said. “Just looking forward to Maryland and trying to make the same thing happen.As for any nicknames for the unit, Webb said that’s still a work in progress.No. 5 OSU kicks off at Maryland at 3:30 p.m. on Saturday.
After a season-ending shoulder injury in 2010, Ohio State lacrosse redshirt junior defenseman Matt Kawamoto set his sights on a big return last season. After being named the Eastern College Athletic Conference Defensive Player of the Year and garnering All-American honorable mention honors, Kawamoto said he feels he accomplished just that. “I was shocked,” Kawamoto said. “It’s always been a goal of mine to push to become an All-American.” Kawamoto racked up 32 ground balls and caused 14 turnovers in a total of 15 games for the Buckeyes this season. Coach Nick Myers said the way Kawamoto plays is what catches his eye. “The intensity Matt brings to the field really helps define who we are,” Myers said. “He’s got a great voice, and so much of defense is communication.” Myers also said the entire Buckeyes benefited from the leadership that Kawamoto provided. “He is also a glue-guy who brings the other five or six defensemen together, and gets everyone on the same page,” Myers said. “He is very vocal, and I think guys are drawn to that. Off the field, he is also a great teammate. He will always be there for you.” After his injury in 2010, Kawamoto said the transition back into lacrosse was difficult, but that he had plenty of encouragement. “I came back in the fall working on just getting stuff back and taking small steps,” Kawamoto said. “I really turned it up once the season came around.” Myers said that while Kawamoto has always had the potential to be an All-American, there was a moment when the coaches all came to a consensus that the 2011 season could be special for Kawamoto. “He came back in January in the best shape I have ever seen him in,” Myers said. “He had that same motor we had always seen but just another level of intensity. He had the injury before, but it really made him step back, understand the opportunity he has and that you never know when (injuries) can come up on you. In turn, he just worked that much harder on his game.” Kawamoto said he celebrated the award by relaxing with his friends and going home to Virginia to see his family. Although Kawamoto was excited to be named an All-American, he said he will not be resting on laurels for next season. “I personally like to look at team goals before anything else,” Kawamoto said of his upcoming senior season. “I want to win the ECAC league and make it to the NCAA tournament to make a run at a national championship. I think we have the team and talent to do it. We just have to put it all together.”