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!

Happy Veterans Day Weekend, Cincinnati

It’s Friday and my mind is focused on a three day weekend, but I did want to impart some thoughts on the world of Cincinnati sports for this weekend.

The Bearcats football team has a massive matchup this Saturday night. USF comes into Cincinnati an underdog, but I do not believe they’re as bad as the line (UC favored by two touchdowns), but this is definitely a winnable game for UC. It all comes down to focus. Luke Fickell had the boys ready for Navy’s triple option offense, a running attack that put up the loftiest rushing total by an opponent in Bearcats history, last year. This year, though, the Bearcats held them to just over two yards a carry. Now Fickell has to keep his team reigned in as they approach a monster matchup with the best team in the conference, the “defending national champion” Central Florida Knights. South Florida is not good in the cold, and it will be coooooold tomorrow night. Still, the Bearcats cannot take them for granted, as the Bulls were undefeated and ranked in the Top-25, as soon as three weeks ago.

The Xavier Musketeers play their second game of the season on Saturday, against Evansville. Another solid mid-major opponent for the Muskies to grow against. The question will be, will Naji Marshall return to the floor in this one? Didn’t have him in the opener and they got by, it will be difficult against a solid squad from the Missouri Valley Conference. The Men of Steele found a way to win, forcing turnovers late, we will see if that trend continues. Xavier hasn’t had a good defense in the past few years, but if they consistently force turnovers, there’s your defense.

The Cincinnati professional football team may be smashed this Sunday. They may also (tiny chance) win. The New Orleans professional football team is really good. They have a future hall of famer at quarterback and, possibly, a future hall of famer at coach. They have oodles of talent at running back and wide receiver. They are also coming off a huge win to knock the Los Angeles professional football team off their undefeated pedestal and have to travel to a non-conference opponent and play in dismal weather. Not the brightest, most motivational backstory for the fleur de lis-wearing pigskin professionals, but they are a much better team (given injuries) than that of the Orange and Black. Honestly, if Marvin Lewis’ men come out on top, I will be pleasantly surprised, but if they don’t it won’t even phase me. The all-important game for the Bengals is next week, in Baltimore, against the Ravens. So long as they don’t come out of this week’s game with even more injuries than they are already plagued with, I think they’ll be fine. Also, a personal reason I wouldn’t mind the Bengals losing, is I will be at a wedding watching on my phone. Shout out to Zack on his big day (holler at me if you actually read this, bro).

Two Reds rumors circulating have me feeling a certain way. The first is that some teams are interested in Eugenio Suarez. Well, so are we in Cincinnati, frankly, and I do not want to see him traded. The other rumor is very encouraging, and that is the Cleveland Indians are open to trading away their ace, Corey Kluber. Now, it will require a king’s ransom, but go for it, Reds! He is one of the best pitchers in the game. He will cost a few top prospects, but he is also the kind of pitcher who will bring the wins. He’s under control for a few years, so it won’t be a rental, which gives the Reds the perfect pitcher to build their rotation around. Plus, I am sure Derek Johnson will enjoy having a vet like Kluber to be the “stopper” of the rotation. I am a Cincinnati sports optimist, to a fault, but I am excited by what’s going on around Great American Ballpark.

Here’s to a three-day weekend, for some of us and Happy Veteran’s Day!

Ford Era, Bears off to Roaring Start

So, like I mentioned in my preview of this season, I cover Cincinnati sports, but I really like following this up-and-coming coach out in Missouri. The Missouri State Bears (1-0) got their first victory of the Dana Ford era and it was a thorough dismantling of Oral Roberts (0-1) by a score of 84-50. Get ready for the Bears, if Tuesday is any indication, this is going to be a good year in Springfield.

Jarred Dixon led the charge for the Bears with a career-high 26 points on 11-of-17 shooting. The senior displayed his catch-and-shoot ability, but also showed his talent of creating shots, giving MSU as dynamic scorer to lean on in any situation. He led four Bears who scored at least 11. Ryan Kreklow put up 13 points, off the bench, Keandre Cook added 12, and Kabir Mohammed pitched in 11.

The Bears played Dana-ball, beating the Golden Eagles on the boards and causing as many turnovers as MSU had assists (21). Senior forward Obediah Church stuffed the stat sheet with six points, seven rebounds, four blocks, and three assists. Coach Ford also has his point guard in Josh Webster. The senior finished the game with nine assists, seven of which came in the first half. Webster will be one to watch, heading into the weekend, though, as he looked to have injured his left ankle, early in the second half. He did return and finish the game, though, so it may be minor.

ORU put up a fight, but it didn’t last much past the halfway point of the first half. Five and a half minutes into the opening frame, the Bears took the lead, for good, at 15-14.

Coach Ford and the Bears will turn their focus to Robert Morris (Friday) and Stetson (Sunday), this weekend.

Other Area teams:

Kentucky suffered its worst loss of the John Calipari era, Tuesday, as Duke thrashed em 118-84. UK will need to get it’s defense in shape, though these early November games tend to mean very little, come March. This will be plenty of fuel to the practice fires that Calipari will be stoking all year. I can still see that game being a championship preview.

Xavier took care of business with IUPUI, winning 82-69. Were it not for a rash of turnovers by the Jaguars, late, this may have been a lot closer. Xavier struggled to pull away for much of the game. They’re still building an identity under Travis Steele, but it’s nice to see a one in the win column, rather than the loss column.

NKU beat Wilmington College. Nothing really to see here.

Who’s Next:

At 6 pm, The Bearcats re-open Fifth-Third Arena tonight with the Buckeyes. I’m looking forward to sitting down with a few cold ones and taking this one in.

Dayton also hosts North Florida and Wright State welcomes Western Carolina to town. Both of those games tip at 7 pm.

College Basketball, Previewing the Queen City

It’s that wonderful time of year when college basketball begins. I’ve taken a look at the area teams (and one not in the area) and will give you what you should watch for this year with each one. This post is specifically about the two big schools that call the Queen City home. That’s the American dream, right? Someone who tells you what to think about?

Cincinnati Bearcats (31-5, 16-2 American), Head Coach – Mick Cronin

Oh no, whatever will Mick do? He’s lost Jacob Evans. He’s lost Kyle Washington. He’s even lost Gary Clark. There are now no more problems for opponents! Clark is gone! Mick is on the other side of the table, smiling. He knows he has a good front court tandem, in Nysier Brooks and Tre Scott, to go along with a trio of guards who could play for just about every team in the country. Jaron Cumberland is a very gifted guard, Cane Broom can be the floor general, and Justin Jenifer will lock down the opposing team’s best guard. They won’t miss a beat on the defensive end, and may be more balanced, offensively. Plus, there’s the added boost of the new Fifth-Third Arena. The Bearcats home got an upgrade, and now, instead of that old driftwood, there’s some nice, sleek wood flooring in there. It’s a proper arena. Basketball is back, and I am looking forward to seeing some games at the shiny new place.

Predicting the team MVP – Tre Scott. It might seem easy to say Jaron Cumberland, here, but I think Scott is a better version of Kyle Washington. He’s athletic and quick in the post and can put up a nice jumper. Going to be a new problem for opposing defenses.

Best game to watch – The Crosstown Shootout. I was tempted to say the Wichita State games, and those will be phenomenal, but come on. Few things in college basketball beat out the Crosstown Shootout, and this time it’s at Fifth-Third.

Predicting what we will be looking back on, next April – The Bearcats will enjoy their second-straight year on top of the American and will have a two-seed in the tournament. Look, this team will be able to put up the points it keeps other teams from scoring. Mick will have plenty of weapons, on both sides of the ball, and will be able to employ a defensive scheme that will baffle 9-out of-10 teams.


Xavier Musketeers (29-6, 15-3 Big East), Head Coach – Travis Steele

This is the new Xavier. No Chris Mack. No Trevon Blueitt. No J.P. Macura. No Kerem Kanter. This will not be the juggernaut of last year, but it won’t be bad. New head man, Steele, already has a snappy nickname placed upon his team: “The Men of Steele.” Sometimes I like it, sometimes I roll my eyes, regardless, there’s still a lot to like about the Musketeers. First off, Quentin Goodin stepped in and showed his quality, last year, whenever they needed him to. Naji Marshall also returns to anchor the frontcourt that is now without its leader in Kanter. Steele knows Xavier, he was a great hire, and will lead this team with little deviation from the way Mack led. The Big East is up for grabs, and Xavier is in the mix.

Predicting the team MVP – Naji Marshall. He will lead the team in the important things, things they didn’t have last year. He will lead their defense, which I have a feeling will be improved, and will pull down a lot of rebounds.

Best game to watch – The Crosstown Shootout. All due respect to Villanova and other Big East powerhouse games, the Crosstown Shootout is the second biggest game in the city of Cincinnati, all year, in any sport. Only Opening Day for the Reds beats it.

Predicting what we will be looking back on, next April – We will look at the job that Travis Steele did in one year and just about forget about Chris Mack. No offense to Mack, he was an amazing coach, but Steele will not miss a beat and Xavier will constantly be in the discussion for the Big East crown.

Check out the other previews of area college basketball:

The Gem City Previews

The Blue Grass Previews

Miami (OH) and Missouri State Previews

Follow @jefffcarr and @sportsinnati on Twitter

Pump Fakes and Passes – Thoughts while watching basketball

Currently watching the Loyola-Chicago vs Nevada game and had a few thoughts…about a myriad of things…that I wanted to write.

Currently, Sister Jean is handling the Wolfpack, up by nine, at the moment.

I will not elaborate fully, but man I was mad on Sunday. Seriously, one of the worst days in the life of a Cincinnati sports fan. The Bearcats blow a 22-point lead. You might have heard that. Also, the other team from the Queen City, Xavier, blew a 12-point lead. Something about Cincy and the postseason. I’m thinking of doing a post about what was the worst day in my Cincy fandom (shout out to Kyle at the office for the idea), but I am having trouble containing the post to something less than a Tolkien book. Stay tuned.

Loyola has forced nine turnovers on Nevada tonight. You totally can’t prove I’m wrong when I say this, so I’ll say it: UC would have beaten Nevada if they forced nine turnovers.

The mahi-mahi at Bonefish Grill is pretty darn good. Solid taste, great texture, and when you get “Rhea’s Mahi-Mahi” the spinach and lump crab meat make a great team, Bonefish is a good place to eat.

Nevada trying to make a comeback, now just down a touchdown. Needs the defense to lockdown the Wolfpack’s transition game because Sister Jean cannot hang with Nevada’s athleticism.

I have a pair of fantasy baseball teams this year (those of you who know me well are silently congratulating me on my newfound restraint) and one of the teams does not have Joey Votto on it. I love fantasy sports, but when it’s baseball I am quite biased. I am not complaining about a friend drafting him from under my nose, I am lamenting that I forgot about the draft even happening. Some commissioner I am…

Loyola-Chicago is, once again, doing whatever they want. Nevada will force a turnover only to find their pockets have been picked before they can even try to get points off the turnover. The Ramblers look poised for the Elite Eight.

Saw the new trailer for Deadpool and I am very aroused exited. The trailer shows he is putting together X-Force in this one, which could be Marvel working him into the Avengers. Is there an actor more perfect for a role that Ryan Reynolds being Deadpool? I’ll hang up and listen. Meanwhile, I like Josh Brolin as Cable. He’s the K to Reynolds J (obligatory Men in Black reference). It’s been awhile since I laughed at a movie as much as I laughed at the first Deadpool, so bring on round two.

Here’s a fun fact…I know nothing about college basketball, despite knowing a little about it. Nevada now two possessions behind Loyola. The Wolf pack just don’t like to have the lead until the final seconds. They led less than five minutes, total, in their first two wins on this tournament. These final minutes are going to be fun.

Big Oreo ad on the scorer’s table in Atlanta. Name a more iconic cookie, I’ll wait.

Tie game now! The twins for Nevada have some kind of Protectors of the Universe vibe around them. Pretty sure they get around town in a couple mini lion bots.

Looking forward to Opening Day, just one week from today. The Reds have year two of the young starting rotation on-deck, and I am thinking it’s going to be better this time. Tyler Mahle and Luis Castillo look like the two heads of the rotation with Sal Romano being the next Mike Leake, and Amir Garrett, the Reds X-factor, holding down the back end of the rotation. The bullpen will be solid and so will the lineup. They just need the starters to do their jobs. Mark my words, if the Reds starters churn out quality starts 2 out of every 3 games, .500 is the floor for this team.

Two-point lead with less than two minutes to play and Loyola continued to dominate in the paint, but Nevada knocked down a trey to bring it within one with just am minute to go. Then pandemonium ensued. The Wolfpack had two good looks at the lead only to see the Ramblers grab the board and the subsequent free throws. 41.3 left with Nevada down three and the ball. Loyola wisely fouled, avoiding a possible game-tying three. The Ramblers, after Nevada sank the two freebies, with a one-pint lead sunk a DAGGER trey to go up four with six seconds left. Marcus owns sends Sister Jean to the Elite Eight!

Bracket Monday

The best Monday of the year happened yesterday. Now, some may disagree, especially with the time change and losing an hour just one day before, but Bracket Monday is the only, non-holiday, Monday of the year.

“That’s not what it’s called,” says some no-name.

“Well, it is now,” says I.

Bracket Monday is a day that, no matter what I am supposed to be doing, I am totally focused on the bracket. Who will make the Final Four? Which team is this year’s Cinderella? Will a 16-seed finally defeat a 1-seed? These are questions that my feeble, fandom-soaked, mind is only partially successful at deciphering. Regardless, I thought it worth sharing, so here we go.

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Lets start with the group of death, the South Region. I am super biased here…and that doesn’t really stay within their region, but I’ll get to that later. I like my Bearcats! Frankly, I feel like they are the better team in all their matchups, except for the Elite Eight when they find a way to beat Virginia, but there is more there than just the seeds. I, admittedly, do not know much about Nevada, but I can see Mo Bamba and Texas making it to round two. The Bearcats will be able to neutralize Bamba, forcing the rest of the team to step up, something they aren’t that adept at doing. Then, in the Sweet 16, UC will be able to slow Tennessee down to a crawl and make enough shots to get to, what I regard, as a dream matchup in this Tournament. I am so excited at the prospect of a UVA vs UC game in which the winner may score just 40 points, so I will totally pick it…because I really want it to happen.

Good spot to put a disclaimer, I like to fall back on picking matchups I want to see.

Other than the Longhorns, I feel good about the other two upsets I picked. Seth Davis, from the Athletic, is all over Buffalo over Arizona…but he still picked Arizona to win. I am taking it one step further and taking the Bulls. The other upset, Loyola-Chicago over Miami (Fla.), is more about what a story I could see it being. LC hasn’t been to the Dance in a long time, so I don’t see them bowing out to get some punch before the music kicks in. For what it’s worth, I am a fan of Kentucky…but this year has been so un-Calipari that I could almost see them losing in the first round to Davidson. I don’t think it enough to pick it, though, as you can see in the image above.

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Now on to the West. Again, my bias is showing. Putting X through to the Final Four is pretty bold, according to most pundits, but they have been really good all year. Take away their mandatory pair of games against Villanova, and they’re practically flawless. I think they can overcome the popular pick out the West, Gonzaga, in the Sweet 16 and overtake Michigan to get to San Antonio.

Only two upsets made it in my bracket for this region. Providence has a great coat and a good resume this year, which is why I think they take their 10-7 matchup and get out of round one. San Diego State is a literal dart throw…though I can see Houston being dejected after falling just short in the American Conference Championship game to Cincinnati. Michigan over UNC will be a trendy pick, and I’m in. UNC is a better version of Kentucky…which still means they’re shaky. Hot take here, but I think the Tar Heels are the weakest 2-seed.

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Next is the East Region where I have succumbed to peer pressure. Everyone is picking Villanova…everyone. I wanted to take Purdue, but I thought about it and they don’t have the stuff to stop Nova’s crazy shooters. Texas Tech kind of sparked my interest, but they are without a key player and you need all hands on deck to beat the Wildcats. Jay Wright has the best scoring team in this tournament and I do not see anyone in this region slowing them down.

Speaking of Texas Tech, I have St. Bonaventure beating them in the second round. I just really like the Bonnies. I think they have that fire of having just barely made it in to the tournament, and their guards are pretty solid, so I can see them being a nice Sweet 16 pick. Don’t think the Bonnies make it out of the first round, you say? Meh, I say you’re wrong. They’ll beat the Ball-less UCLA and then upset the boring Gators. On a Side note, I wanted to pick Wichita State over Villanova. I really enjoy watching Landry Shamet and Shaq Morris play basketball, but they just don’t have enough to push the Shockers to the Elite Eight.

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That brings us to the Midwest and final region on the bracket. I am going to take some heat for this call, but. I got New Mexico State being this year’s Cinderella…until they meet up with Tom Izzo and Michigan State. Sparty is on a scorched earth campaign as they have been hounded about Larry Nasser and sex abuse within the athletic department for most of the season. Probably the most exciting player in college basketball, not named Trae, Miles Bridges will lead his teammates to the Final Four. Meanwhile, Kansas will play victim to another Cinderella story as Mew Mexico State will bounce them in the Sweet 16. This is where I balance my college basketball fan-know-how with total nonsense because I just want this to happen. Tell me anything about New Mexico State. I do apologize if, for some reason, this is being read by someone who went there, or is there, but here in Ohio, knowledge of New Mexico State is as follows: they are in the tournament and are a 12-seed. That’s pretty much it. Nonetheless, I got em being awesome this year.

So that leaves us with the Final Four and Champion. If you know me, you’re rolling your eyes.

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“Cincinnati and Xavier are NOT meeting in the Final Four, Frederick!” Shut your pie-hole. Again, this is where the wishful-thinking, fan-minded side in me comes out, but Southwest Ohio would literally collapse in on itself from sheer excitement if this were to happen…so bring it on. Xavier and the Bearcats to see who faces Villanova, and oh, wait, it’s UC! The Bearcats make their first Championship game since, like, the 50’s, or something, and then shock everyone and win the whole dang thing.

There you have it, ladies and gentlemen on the readership. Go ahead and disagree with me…I know you will.