March College Basketball

March is here. That most wondrous, glorious time in which both the NCAA Tournament and baseball’s Opening Day both happen. This post I’m focusing on the former. It’s been a mixed bag of a season for our area teams. Let’s take a look at where they stand, relative to the tournament.

All records are as of March 4th, 2019

 

The Shoe-ins

 

Kentucky Wildcats (24-5) – John Calipari has these Cats currently projected to be a 2 seed in the dance. Considering everyone outside the bluegrass basically wrote them off after they began the season getting smashed by Duke, Kentucky just proves that losses in November mean very little in March. Keldon Johnson figures to be the highest draft pick from this squad, but this may be one of the most cohesive teams Coach Cal has ever put together. They defend like nobody’s business. KenPom has them rated top-10 (#9) in adjusted defense. They’ve also got Tyler Herro, whose last name says it all. They could very well be a 1 seed with a SEC Tournament victory.

 

Cincinnati Bearcats (25-4) – Yeah, that record is the exact same as Kentucky. Sure, they’ve had different roads to get to where they are, but considering this is technically a rebuilding year, that is amazing. They lost the best player the program has seen since Kenyon Martin, in Gary Clark, another NBA-caliber player in Jacob Evans, and a strong post presence in Kyle Washington. They’ve followed that up by producing the favorite to win conference player of the year, in Jaron Cumberland, ad sticking to the top of the conference standings. Mick Cronin has truly done a great job with his team slotted in as a 7 seed with a possibility, if they win the American Athletic Conference Tournament, of a 6 seed. Like the Wildcats, the Bearcats are a well-knit unit of a team. Mick has these guys rolling like a family who is fighting for each other. They could be a sneaky pick to make it out of the first weekend in the tournament, though I do not expect them to in order for me to be happy with their season.

 

The Bubblers

 

Dayton Flyers (19-10) – The Flyers have had an up-and-down year and may need to just flat out win their conference tourney to make the big dance. Their recent OT loss to Rhode Island at UD Arena has emphasized their desperation. They came really close to signature, non-conference wins in the early season, but couldn’t finish them off. They would have been in a better position had they beaten Virginia Commonwealth once. The NET rankings, the new standard for the tournament, currently has them at 74. Making the Atlantic 10 Tournament finals could sneak them in, but Anthony Grant’s side may have their backs against the wall for an at-large bid.

 

Xavier Musketeers (16-13) – It is an absolute shock that they are in this conversation, but here we are. A few weeks ago they were left for dead. A truly rough January, where they won just two games in seven, had them in dead last for the Big East. Travis Steele was being seen as a bust…in his first year, but whatevs…and then things change. Naji Marshall morphs into the player he was expected to be, coming into the year, and has taken over the Trevon Blueitt role of putting the team on his back when they are in need of a basket. After a loss to DePaul on February 9th, the Musketeers got to work. They beat Creighton in OT, smashed Providence on the road, and then loudly proclaimed their comeback by soundly beating Villanova by a dozen. Now it feels like, if they can finish strong against Butler and St. Johns, followed by a deep Big East tournament run, they could steal an at-large bid. Like Dayton, they may have their backs to the wall and need a Big East Conference tournament title to get in. Unlike Dayton, three weeks ago, this seemed as farfetched as the existence of aliens. Yet, here we are.

 

You must be a Conference Tournament Title Winner to ride the ride

 

Northern Kentucky Norse (23-8) – The Norse hit a speed bump on February 23 when Cleveland State, on NKU’s senior night, left Highland Heights with a win. The second-to-the-bottom Cleveland State Vikings snapped the Norse’s 20-game home winning streak and threw water on any argument they had at an at-large bid, should they not win the Horizon League Tournament. Now Drew McDonald is a special player and broke the school record for most points, but he will need to lead the Norse to a tourney title in order to dance.

 

Wright State Raiders (19-12) – Like the Norse, they split the regular season championship for the Horizon League. Unlike NKU, Wright State never had a whisper of an at-large bid. Cleveland State help them split the regular season with the rival Norse, but now the Raiders need to win the Horizon League tournament to make it in. Led by Sophomore Loudon Love (15 ppg), Wright State’s run to a conference title starts tomorrow night at the Nutter Center against IUPUI.

 

It’s the most wonderful time of the year, let’s enjoy our area teams finishing up their respective seasons!

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Envy

There’s a reason people do not like Boston sports fans. They say it’s because they’re jerks, or they’re too cocky, or stuff like that. The real reason is because Boston teams win…a lot, and their teams don’t.

Look at this picture:

 

That’s just silly, right? I mean I have lived for 29 years and haven’t been to one single championship parade. Here is this dude who has lived 12 years less than I have, and has seen 12 more parades. You want the truth about the disdain for Boston sports fans, which sometimes spreads to the Boston sports teams? People want to be like them.

I have been a Cincinnati sports fan for my entire life. I’ve lived in different places than Cincinnati, but I never stopped being a fan of Queen City sports. I’ve endured the struggles of the 90’s for the Bengals, the lack of relevancy (except on a few occasions) of the Reds, and the March sadness of the Bearcats. I still hold my head high that one day, it’ll happen. Yet, here’s this kid who, just about every year, celebrates his hometown team in (insert sport here) win another trophy. I’m not afraid to admit it, I am straight jealous.

Are the Reds close to doing this? The Bengals? FC Cincinnati is just started professional sports, so we’ll give them a few years. Mick Cronin and the boys are retooling. Luke Fickell is in a tough spot in that the college football playoff voters will never give a playoff spot to a team from the American. Sorry, they’re not. So, things have to happen, for any one of our wonderful, awesome, amazing teams before we will be going to a parade.

Meanwhile, Bostonians are marking their calendars when the next possible parade may be held. Must be nice.

Zac Taylor: Five Burning Questions

The Cincinnati Bengals made it official and signed Zac Taylor to be the 10th coach in franchise history. Right out of the gate he has a myriad of questions to answer. Most of them cannot be answered for another 10 months. Some of them can be answered this week. All of them need to be answered, at some point. Here are the big ones.

1.      Who will be his defensive coordinator?

This one is the most obvious question because it’s been a most obvious weakness, the past few years. It also has some mustard to it, because the next D-coordinator needs to be a little experienced. Think Wade Phillips with Sean McVay-type pairing. The experienced candidate would be a wise, Obi-Wan-type guy who Taylor can lean on, and who can reign in Vontaze Burfict.

It also needs to be a guy with some new ideas. Now this is my personal thought, but Dom Capers has been rumored, and some have recoiled from that, sighting his 3-4 scheme. The Bengals have run a 4-3 scheme since before Marvin Lewis came to town. Now might be a good time to try something new, though. Don’t get me wrong, they aren’t completely prepared for it. Their linebackers need overhauling for this idea to work. But that can happen. They already have two guys who could make the change work, in-house, in Malik Jefferson and Carl Lawson. What they don’t have are middle linebackers. They could address that in the draft, but that’s a thought for another blog post. Suffice it to say, they shouldn’t rule out Capers simply because his scheme is a bit different from what they’re used to.

2.      Who is his quarterback, beyond 2019?

This upcoming season is crucial, not only for the Bengals coach, but also for the Bengals QB. Andy Dalton is getting a little older and, by most accounts, has plateaued in his professional development. Can Taylor and his new offensive staff inject some sort of new life into Dalton’s Bengals career, or are his stripes so worn from the last years of Marvin Lewis that a new guy is needed, altogether? Some, myself included, believe that Andy is right there in the middle of the pack, as far as NFL QB rankings go. Not bad, but not great. Maybe Taylor is just what the doctor ordered for him to find that next gear. Or maybe the Bengals meet their franchise QB on April 25? Time will tell.

3.      Does he like Skyline, or Gold Star?

One makes okay chili and is the sponsor of the Bengals and the other is awesome and is named Skyline. Will he be a pawn of corporate contractual obligation, or will he be the free-thinker with a wise pallet that we all think he can be?

4.       Will he quietly do a better job?

We’ve been hearing how important it is to do a better job for 16 years now. Will Taylor have the wherewithal to complete the task without reminding us of the objective each week?

5.      Will he be able to improve Tanya O’Rourke’s golf game?

Quite possibly the most important accomplishment of any NFL head coach is how he imparts his knowledge of the links onto the local news anchor. This is what will earn him his contract extensions for years to come.

The first year of Taylor’s tenure is fraught with excitement and peril. I’ll be all over each development as we look forward to a new era in Bengals football.

Thinking Out Loud on Paper

Got the house to myself, for the day, and my mind has a few things on it, but none of them could really fill out an entire blog post, so I’m combining them.

I love the idea of Zac Taylor. It looks like the Rams QB coach need only dot some T’s and cross some I’s and he’ll be the Bengals next head coach. I love the thought of new things for my favorite NFL team. They’ve been stale, for awhile, and an infusion of fresh-thinking is just what the doctor ordered. Some are saying this could revolutionize Andy Dalton. I don’t know about that, but new thinking could change his career. Currently he, and the Bengals, have been the definition of mediocre for years. Just good enough to not be bad enough. The man, himself, Taylor has limited experience, and a checkered resume in the eyes of Cincinnati sports fans, but he’s not Marvin Lewis of Hue Jackson. For that reason, I am really excited for everything that is about to happen at Paul Brown Stadium.

Mid-major basketball is my favorite regular-season college basketball to watch. It’s usually pretty nip and tuck, both teams carry the identity of their coach instead of their star players, and for all but one in their conference, they’re not guaranteed action in March. At time of writing, I am watching the second half of Kent State and Ball State with Seton Hall and Butler waiting in the wings to switch to on commercials. Plus, there’s always that little glimmer of information to gather for bracket picking…that will inevitably lead to me making a dumb upset pick. College basketball rocks.

I really enjoy playing video games, but I’ve met enough people to know that I am not a “gamer.” With that being said, I feel like the culture of video games, for the last decade-and-a-half, really, has leaned heavily on first-person shooters. I think my personal video game taste has undergone that whole periodic taste change, thing, in that I don’t like FPS-style games, any more. I love adventure games, and sports games, but I don’t like FPS. Is that allowed? Maybe I’m moving past video games? This is weird to me, but I just can’t with FPS anymore.

I also hate trying to “correctly” hang jeans, but that’s neither here nor there.

Looking forward to checking out a new place in Middletown next week called the Swire Inn. It’s brand new and it’s a pub. My expectations are a little slice of heaven. Are they too high, probably, but I will most likely blog about my experience, so stay tuned.

The Patriots Deserve Respect

There aren’t many people who will agree with me, but I am not bored with the Patriots appearing in yet another Super Bowl. If they win or lose, I will enjoy the game and I will enjoy watching one of the greatest dynasties in all of sports.

Many people include them in their most hated teams. I’ve heard more than a few people (obviously around Cincinnati) tell me “My favorite teams are the Bengals, and whoever is playing the Steelers and Patriots.” I understand the Steelers, and I agree, but I do not agree with the Patriots take. Hear me out.

Do you like good football? Do you enjoy good play calling, hardworking players, and talented players? Did you watch the Michael Jordan-led Chicago Bulls and root for the other guys? Few did. The feeling of aversion to success is something that needs to die, in America. We think because someone wins a lot that there is something wrong with that person.

What is wrong with Julian Edelman? Dude was a QB in college, picked in the 7th round, asked to change to a receiver, and now has the second-most receptions in postseason history (Jerry Rice, who will never be beaten, has the most.) What is wrong with Rex Burkhead? He was the number three back in Cincinnati, asked to step up due to injury, he does, and the Bengals let him walk in free agency for his efforts. Sexy Rexy then becomes a Patriot and scores two TDs in the AFC Championship win over the Chiefs. What is wrong with Rob Gronkowski? Ok, so you don’t like to party, sure, but dude is the obvious number one target of Tom Brady, and still, no one consistently stops him while he consistently gets his. Also, he’s a cool dude I’d love to meet some day.

So you say the Patriots cheat. They tape practices or they deflate footballs. Let me ask you something about that, can you prove it? Or better yet, can you disprove that? No. You will never come up with enough evidence, one way or another, to definitively answer that. So is that a logical reason to dislike a team, no! You call on this idea as a reason you hate the Patriots because you already hated the Patriots. They win, your team didn’t, so you don’t much like them. Some hack reporter found some sort of circumstantial story that you now take and run with as a reason to dislike them. You hated them in the beginning, so you had no reason to question the validity of the off-hand claim.

They just play good football. Brady is the best quarterback who ever played. He’s won more, regardless of Sunday’s outcome, and he’s done it with less. Outside of Randy Moss, which receiver has he thrown to who is a shoe-in for the Hall of Fame? Yet he still shreds opposing defenses when he needs to the most, the playoffs.

No one will ever replicate what Bill Belichick and Brady are doing, right now.

The AFC East is the AFC Least, you say. So how do they constantly outplay and outcoach tougher competition, year-in and year-out? They aren’t ready for tougher teams because they play in a weak division, right? So how does that work?

Football is good. Good football is awesome. The Patriots play good football. The Patriots are awesome. Promise you, I am not a Patriots fan, I am a Patriots respecter. There’s a difference and you don’t have to be a fan to respect good football.

With a Month Left, Missouri State and the MVC are Worth Your Attention

There is a month left in the regular season, and the Missouri State Bears are in the hunt for the Missouri Valley Conference regular season title. That may not sound like much, but this is the first year of the tenure of head coach Dana Ford.

The Bears currently sit at 5-4 in conference play after having rattled off three-straight wins. Their defense has been on-point during this stretch of success, holding MVC front-runner-of-the-moment Loyola Chicago to their lowest point total (35) for the year, and then allowing a total of 91 points to Bradley and Valparaiso. MSU is just a pair of games behind Loyola for that top spot.

Now Coach Ford and the Bears see a path to the top. Three of their next four matchups are against teams below them in the standings, with that one against Illinois State. The Redbirds are a game ahead of the Bears for second place.

Meanwhile, those above the Missouri State will be battling each other. Loyola takes on Illinois State, this Saturday, followed by Drake (ahead of Missouri State only by overall record). The key will be the Redbirds. While they face the Ramblers this Saturday and the Bears next Sunday, the rest of their schedule is filled with the bottom half of the MVC. Missouri State will need to beat Illinois State in their matchup, and hope for a few surprises from the likes of Evansville or Indiana State.

Moving forward, the Missouri Valley Conference will be fun to watch. The difference between last place and first place is four games. Should the Redbirds beat the Ramblers in Normal, this Saturday on ESPN2, seven teams will be within two games of first place. While all 10 teams play in the conference tournament, the bottom four seeds have to play on Thursday of the tournament, with all other teams getting a single-bye.

Missouri State has a simplistic formula, moving forward. In all their conference games, if they hold their opponent to less than 70, they’re undefeated. They lose every game their opponent scores 70 or more, though. So, if the Bears just hold their opponent to less than 70, they’ll win the MVC and go to the NCAA Tournament. Sounds easy, right? We’ll see.

This is Mick’s Best Coaching Job

I’ve been busy, recently, with the Locked on Reds podcast and doing a slight bit of writing for GetSportsInfo.com, so I haven’t been able to keep up with the blog like I would want to, but now I’m back, and I’ve got a thought burning in my mind today that I’ll flesh out. I don’t care if you agree with it.

This year, Mick Cronin is turning in his best coaching performance of his career.

Now, you’re going to immediately point to last year when he led a Bearcats team to a two-seed. I will tell you to look closer. While he coached and help develop these guys, he was helped by tremendous performances by Jordan Evans, Kevin Washington, and one of the Mount Rushmore of Bearcat basketball players, Gary Clark. All three of those guys are no longer on campus. Two of them are in the NBA. Cincinnati has followed up the loss of three amazing, cornerstone players by going 18-3 in the lead-up to the month of February.

Three letters will keep this team from a high seed in the NCAA tournament, this year, in ECU. That loss will blemish the number next to “Cincinnati” in your March brackets. Make no mistake about it, it does not blemish Mick’s job.

I get it. There are those who every time the Bearcats take an L, they want Mick outta here. They don’t like him, for whatever reason. 2019 is a season that, when we are at the end of it, I do not think you can be critical of Mick, anymore, and in fact you’ve got to give him praise. 

This year’s team is not his typical blueprint. KenPom has Cincinnati as the 27th rated adjusted offense and the 36th adjusted defense. How many times has that happened in the Cronin Era? Twice, in 2006 and 2009. In 2006 they were 21-13 while 2009 saw an 18-14 record. I do not think it is a stretch to say this year’s team will have a better record than either one of those.

Plus, you look at the individual performers on this team, and Mick’s work comes into full view. He can give the ball to Jaron Cumberland when he needs a bucket…but who else? Cane Broom has not lived up to the billing. Tre Scott, while playing decent, as of late, has not filled the hole in the post. His key performers have been dudes who have come out of nowhere, and that hearkens back to his coaching job.

They have 10 games remaining, with no real cupcake games to speak of. They still play Houston, twice, who is right there with them at the top of the conference. If they go 8-2 the rest of the way, they will end the regular season with the same loss total as they had last year. It’s not out of the realm of possibility to see that. Make sure you’re tuned to Mick and the Bearcats the rest of the way. This is his greatest coaching performance and they are one of the most interesting college basketball teams for 2019.