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EuroLeague

Virtus Lately

Virtus Segafredo Bologna are a team in the middle. Why is that the case? What do they need to do to push their way into the EuroLeague’s top 8?

After 23 hard-fought rounds, Virtus Segafredo Bologna are 12th in the EuroLeague. Their 11-12 record matches 11th-place Anadolu Efes Istanbul, but they lose out on the tiebreaker due to a Round 10 defeat in Bologna.

However, Virtus’ record is only a game back of a four-way tie between seventh and tenth place. In fact, they’re only five games back of 16-7 table leader Olympiacos Piraeus. Needless to say, this is one of the most competitive EuroLeague seasons to date.

So how did the reigning EuroCup champions become a team in the middle of the EuroLeague table? What do they need to do if they hope to ascend to the Top 8 and make it into the 2023 EuroLeague playoffs?

Virtus have been competitive in the New Year, currently 4-3 in 2023. They’ve won their last two games and three of their last four. Their last three wins have all been by double-digits. Virtus defeated Panathinaikos by 10 points, Crvena Zvezda by 12, and ASVEL on the road by 13.

Earlier in January they lost to current table leader Olympiacos by only two points and defeated current third-place FC Barcelona on the road by eight. That latter game is noteworthy as Virtus’ next match sees them hosting Barcelona on February 9th.

Virtus has been anchored by the defensive end this season. They’re ninth in the EuroLeague in opponent points per game (79.8) and seventh in defensive rating (113.8). Bologna is particularly adept at guarding the perimeter, placing second in the competition in opponent three-point percentage (32.8 percent[!!]). They’re also third in steals per game (7.2), though that zeal also leads them to committing the sixth-most fouls per game in the league (21.4).

The offense, however, is a trickier tale to tell. Virtus is solid in the efficiency department: eighth in 2-point percentage (55.2 percent), ninth in 3-point percentage (35.8 percent), and tenth in free throw percentage (78.0 percent). They also share the ball incredibly well, placing fifth in assists per game (19.0). They’re even sixth in the competition in fouls drawn per game (20.6)! And yet, Bologna sits 13th in the league in points per game (77.9) and offensive rating (111.1).

What is the source of stagnation for a team that has a formidable defense and a flowing offense? Rebounds and Turnovers. Virtus is 12th in total rebounding percentage (44.3 percent) and 16th in opponent total rebounding percentage (46.6 percent). Most glaringly, they are dead last in the competition in turnover percentage (17.7 percent).

Bundled with their aforementioned fouling issue, it seems that Virtus Segafredo Bologna is a team that has the talent to score efficiently and defend staunchly, but do not have the focus nor hustle on either end to do so consistently.

The key in Virtus’ last three victories has been to maintain their efficient scoring while overcoming at least one of their season-long issues. For instance, they managed to out-rebound their opponents in their wins over Panathinaikos (40-28) and ASVEL (32-27). They also prevailed in their turnover battles against ASVEL (13-15) and Crvena Zvezda (11-14). Meanwhile, they outclassed their opponents in field goal percentage in all three victories (46.5 percent to 39.9 percent).

That formula will still apply when they face FC Barcelona next. Virtus also shot better from the field (57.4 percent to 41.1) and won the turnover battle (15-17) in their Round 17 meeting.

Virtus Segafredo Bologna are team in the middle, but still well in the hunt for a playoff berth. For a team that is already talented on both ends of the floor, how much focus and energy they possess will determine their ultimate fate in this rabidly competitive EuroLeague campaign.

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NBA

Snubs and Where to Find Them

The 2023 All-Star Player Pool has been fully revealed. Who were the biggest snubs for this year’s Midseason Classic?

Each season, 24 players (12 per conference) get the opportunity to be called NBA All-Stars, give or take any injury replacements. Naturally, with any list, there are bound to be players worthy of it that will be left off. By extension, there will be people mad that those players are left off.

Backers of various players will treat these “snubs” like injustices. “How could they forget my guy? It’s so obvious they should be an All-Star!” That’s the price of sports fandom, and I don’t begrudge those backers for their beliefs. But if we look at the All-Star selections through a statistical lens, which players have the most legitimate gripe for being left out of the All-Star fray?

To determine this answer, I simply looked at player VORP. Value Over Replacement Player is a box score estimate of points per 100 team possessions that a player contributes over a replacement level player, pro-rated to an 82-game season. I feel like it’s the second-most succinct advanced stat publicly available, bested only by Fivethirtyeight’s RAPTOR ratings. You just look at it and get a straightforward look at that player’s impact. I’m a big fan of it.

So when cross-referencing the All-Star pool with league VORP rankings (as of February 2, 2023), the top 13 and 16 of the top 17 all rightfully got the nod. That odd man out? Miami’s Jimmy Butler, whose 3.1 VORP is 14th-best in the NBA. James Harden (18th, 2.4), Anthony Davis (19th, 2.4), Nikola Vucevic (20th, 2.2), Jalen Brunson (21st, 2.1), Darius Garland (23rd, 2.1), and Pascal Siakam (24th, 2.0) are other players within the Top 24 that were left out of the All-Star player pool.

Conversely, Memphis’ Jaren Jackson Jr. is the lowest-ranked All-Star, his 1.3 VORP being 51st-best in the NBA. Zion Williamson (27th, 1.9), DeMar DeRozan (28th, 1.8), Bam Adebayo (34th, 1.7), Paul George (36th, 1.7), Jrue Holiday (42nd, 1.5), and Jaylen Brown (47th, 1.4) join Jackson Jr. as players outside of the Top 24 that received an All-Star nod.

Personally, I don’t get revved up by All-Star snubs. Coming up with All-Star teams in such a talent-rich league means plenty of deserving players are going to be left off. Not to mention that the All-Star rosters are serving multiple goals. The starter votes are a convergence of three popularity contests (fans, players, and media). Then the coaches, who are more focused on their own teams than the rest of the league, make up the difference with the reserve selections. That’s four separate factions of biases. Someone is bound to fall through the cracks. That’s just human nature.

Nevertheless, it was still fun to carry out this statistical exercise to see which players were ultimately left holding the bag. All things considered, I think this a pretty well-constructed player pool. I’m looking forward to seeing who captains Giannis Antetokounmpo and LeBron James will pick when they make their selections right before the 2023 All-Star Game on February 19th in Salt Lake City, Utah.

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NBA

Failure to Launch

The Toronto Raptors were supposed to be the Long-armed Team of Tomorrow. What went wrong?

The 2021-22 Toronto Raptors looked like a team on the rise. Following a 2020-21 campaign that saw the team go 27-45 while playing their entire home schedule in Tampa, Florida, the 2022 Raptors returned to Canada and made the playoffs with a respectable 48-34 record.

The 2022 team was a unique build. The end-of-season roster had only three players out of 17 that were shorter than 6’5″, but no one was taller than 6’9″. Most of these players also had copious amounts of wingspan.

With a Solid Seven of Pascal Siakam, Fred VanVleet, Scottie Barnes, OG Anunoby, Gary Trent Jr., Precious Achiuwa, and Chris Boucher, the 2022 Raptors managed to push their First Round series against the Philadelphia 76ers to six games. Despite their ultimate elimination, it seemed that there was plenty to look forward to in Raptors Nation.

Fast forward to February 2023 and the Raps are 23-30. Basketball Reference’s Pythagorean Win formula indicates that record is four games below expectation (27-26). Not only are they not in the East’s Top 8, they’re 12th in the conference, standing 1.5 games outside of the Play-In Club. All of this is happening even with the Solid Seven still intact and the team holding the seventh-best average point differential in the conference (0.5 points per game). So what gives?

In the macro, two things are immediately apparent: the year-over-year drop in defensive rating and the offensive efficiency from the Solid Seven.

Toronto finished 2022 with the ninth-best defensive rating. They’ve dropped to 20th so far this season. The Raptors were 19th in opponent 2-point percentage and 18th in opponent 3-point percentage in 2021-22, but has dropped to 29th in both categories in 2022-23.

Let’s look at opponent shooting zones to parse where the leak is coming from. Toronto dropped from 17th to 27th year-over-year in Left Corner 3 percentage and ninth to 24th on above-the-break treys. These declines undercut the improvement from 18th to 12th on Right Corner 3 percentage. Within the paint, the drop takes place in the non-restricted-area paint. Toronto fell from sixth in 2022 to 25th this season when defending that district of the court.

Despite the abundance of wingspan on the roster, it seems the team has become less adept at keeping opponents out of the paint and challenging perimeter shots, two places modern teams are always looking to score from.

The offensive efficiency of Toronto’s Solid Seven has also dropped from last year. Their 3-point percentage has fallen from 30.1 percent to 29.3 percent while their 2-point percentage has dived from 54.3 percent to 50.7 percent. That’s a drop in effective field goal percentage from 52.4 percent to 49.2 percent, when the general goal is to remain above 50 percent.

After a promising 2022 campaign, the 2023 Raptors are still a competitive, tempo-dictating (27th in pace in 21-22, 26th in 22-23) squad. Unfortunately, they aren’t as sharp on either side of the floor as they were last year, leading to some disappointing losses.

With these results and the trade deadline looming, the Raptors are clearly at a crossroads. Does the front office need to make moves so Toronto can make a more decisive playoff push? Or is it time to end this era and focus on the future? Either way, it’s clear that this is not where the Toronto Raptors want to or expected to be.

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NBA

Tired Rotation

The issues that separate the 2022 champion Golden State Warriors from the middling 2023 edition are coming from the back of the rotation.

The Golden State Warriors enter their Wednesday tilt at the Minnesota Timberwolves 26-24 and on a three-game winning streak. This is their third time this season being two games above .500, a high-water mark they hope to surpass with a win on Wednesday.

It’s an unflattering position to be in when compared to where they were last season. GSW was 37-13 at the 50-game mark of the 2021-22 season. They began this season 3-7 through the first ten games, evened out to 10-10 through the first twenty, and have straddled the break-even line ever since. By comparison, the Warriors had a 9-1 open to 2021-22 that eventually became an 18-2 start, a 53-29 final record, and a NBA championship.

These are confounding circumstances considering that Warriors Season 76 and Season 77 have the same core six players: the starting lineup of Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Andrew Wiggins, Draymond Green, and Kevon Looney along with sixth man Jordan Poole. In fact, their collective offense is even better than last year, jumping from 93.7 points per game in 2022 to 103.7 ppg this year. Green is the only player in this Big Six that hasn’t experienced a year-over-year scoring average increase.

So if the core of a defending champion is still holding up their end of the production bargain, what gives? Well, to understand the misfortunes of the 2023 Golden State Warriors is to understand the importance of reliable role players to a title-contending rotation, especially on the defensive end.

The 2022 offseason proved to be a detrimental one for the Warriors. While the team had a number of defections from its bench, the biggest ones came with the losses of their seventh-through-ninth men.

During the playoffs, the three players to average double-digit minutes outside of the Big Six were Otto Porter (19.5 minutes per game), Gary Payton II (16.9 mpg), and Nemanja Bjelica (10.0 mpg). Porter and Bjelica were change-of-pace frontcourtmen from Green and Looney thanks to their abilities to stretch the floor offensively. Meanwhile, Payton II was a tireless versatile defender that always seemed to deliver a bucket at just the right time. He shot a hot 65.9 percent from the field (72.4 from 2, 53.3 from 3) and had a team-high 3.4 steal percentage during the postseason.

However, all three of these players dipped after they raised the Larry O’Brien trophy. Payton went to Portland, Porter signed with Toronto, and Bjelica shipped off to Istanbul. So how would the Warriors fill the 21.4 points per game and 7.8 defensive box plus-minus that these three brought during the 2021-22 regular season? As evidenced by the differences in records between seasons, the 2023 auditions have had middling returns.

Free agent acquisition Donte DiVincenzo has held up the best so far as he attempts to fill Gary Payton II’s vacancy. A 2021 NBA champion with Milwaukee, DiVincenzo has brought more playmaking and 3-point volume than Payton II, but less defensive prowess and 2-point scoring efficiency. DiVincenzo is averaging 1.2 more points than Payton did last season (8.3 to 7.1), but is conceding 1.9 points in defensive box plus-minus (1.5 to GPII’s 3.4).

Second-year player Jonathan Kuminga has the athleticism and versatility to fill Otto Porter’s role. On the surface, Kuminga is doing fairly well, with his 2023 scoring average and Porter’s 2022 being identical at 8.2 points per game. Jonathan is even apparently shooting 3.0 percent better than Otto did to do it (49.4 percent versus 46.4 percent). However, the comparisons fall apart from there.

For one, Porter was a better rebounder and 3-point shooter than Kuminga. Porter’s 37.0 3-point percentage, 14.2 total rebounding percentage, and 2.4 steal percentage outclass Kuminga’s 31.1, 8.9, and 1.1 in those respective categories.

Secondly, Kuminga’s 2023 numbers are a step down even by his own standards. His regular season minutes have increased while his scoring production has dropped. Kuminga went from 9.3 points on 51.3 percent shooting in 16.9 minutes per game his rookie year to 8.2 points on 49.4 percent in 19.1 minutes this year. While this output is still admirable, by his rookie benchmarks and in context of his team’s needs, Kuminga is in a sophomore slump.

Filling the Nemanja Bjelica gap has proven to be the tallest task for Golden State. JaMychal Green was brought in to handle the job. However, injuries have kept JMG from carrying out his duties.

J. Green had a 14-game inactive stretch from late December through mid-January. It was initially due to health & safety protocols, but that ailment was promptly followed by a right lower-leg infection. Fortunately, he has since returned. However, he has still struggled this season in certain aspects of the game even when he is fit to play.

Green and Bjelica have similar per game numbers, which would be a good sign. Beyond the surface, though, while Green has been a superior finisher (65.1 percent on 2’s to 54.9 percent) and offensive rebounder (11.4 offensive board percentage to 6.1 percent) to Bjelica, Nemanja was a much better outside shooter and passer. Bjelica’s 36.2 percent from long-range and 19.8 assist percentage dwarf Green’s 29.8 and 6.6 percent in those respective categories.

Notably, JaMychal has chalked up his exterior shooting struggles to a nagging wrist injury that also hampered him last season with the Denver Nuggets. He shot a career-low (barring his 0-for-6 rookie campaign) 26.6 percent last year, making this year’s output a technical step up.

It was Porter and Bjelica’s floor-opening abilities of 3-point shooting and passing IQ that unlocked another dimension for the Warriors during their title run, and Kuminga and JaMychal Green have shown a lack of those facets this season.

It should also be noted that two-way players Anthony Lamb and Ty Jerome are also taking up a bulk of minutes. Lamb is eighth on the team in minutes per game while Jerome is tenth. Great for them individually. Their combined 40.7 percent shooting from 3-point range is a boon for the Warriors, with Lamb providing good size (a 227-point forward) and defensive energy (0.4 DBPM) and Jerome bringing a little more playmaking to the table (19.8 assist percentage).

However, it’s also a little odd that so many minutes are being entrusted to players whose availability is limited by design. Their roles are also redundant in the grand scheme of title contention, with the Core Six and DiVincenzo already possessing Lamb’s and Jerome’s skillsets at a higher caliber.

With all this turnover at the back of the rotation, team pace has increased. The Warriors jumped from 15th in 2022 to first place this season. Their offensive rating has held steady, going from 16th in ’22 to 15th in ’23. However, GSW’s defensive rating has taken a massive hit, plummeting from second-best in 2022 to 16th this season.

As mentioned earlier, Golden State’s seventh-through-ninth men accounted for 21.4 points per game and 7.8 defensive box plus-minus during the 2021-22 season. This year’s projected replacements have combined for 22.7 points per game, but a 0.5 defensive box plus-minus. While Gary Payton II, Otto Porter, and Nemanja Bjelica are nowhere near household names, their skillsets proved valuable in upholding the production of the core six, allowing this team to compete on a nightly basis and ultimately win the title.

With the trade deadline approaching, the Golden State Warriors’ front office have to determine if they truly believe DiVincenzo, Kuminga, and JaMychal Green can gel well enough down the stretch to deliver the two-way production that has been lacking during this middling 2022-23 campaign.

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NBA

100 Miles

Ben Simmons returned to the basketball court for the 2022-23 season, but he’s 100 miles away from the team he used to play for and the player he used to be.

The Ben Simmons Saga was well-publicized from his interior shooting hesitancy in Game 7 of the 2021 Eastern Conference Finals to his abstaining from the entire 2021-22 season. He was traded during this sabbatical to the Brooklyn Nets, a chance for a fresh start despite being only 100 miles away from his former team.

However, now that he has finally suited up for the Nets, the returns have been less than in impressive.

A three-time All-Star in Philly, Simmons’ 2023 point-per-game average is just over half of what he produced in his final season with the Sixers. He finished the 2021 season averaging 14.3 points, 7.2 rebounds, 6.9 assists, and 1.6 steals a game. Oddly enough, that production was down from what he had done in prior seasons. In Brooklyn, he’s now churning out 7.6 points, 6.7 rebounds, 6.4 assists, and 1.4 steals per game.

You might have noticed that his non-scoring box score stats have actually held form despite the season-long hiatus. Simmons has carved himself into a defensive playmaker role in the Borough. He’s still capable of defending any position, and he still has a great passing eye.

The issue is that he tends to use that passing eye to pass out of situations that All-Star Ben would be expected to score or create a shot out of. Instead of channeling Magic Johnson, Simmons has been channeling Draymond Green.

It’s certainly a choice by Jacque Vaughn and the Nets staff. Filling the Draymond Role is an admirable position to be in, and especially when Simmons has done that role very well this season. Frankly, though, it feels like a waste of such an athletic talent to not have him be a more willing scorer.

That’s especially apparent during this stretch where the Brooklyn Nets are without lead scorer Kevin Durant. Durant has been out for the past two weeks due to a MCL sprain and will be re-evaluated two weeks from now. He is eighth in the league in scoring, despite missing the last seven games, so the Nets have their work cut out for them to fill that absence.

Spoiler alert: They mostly haven’t. The Nets have gone 2-5 sans Durantula. Kyrie Irving has predictably taken up the leading scorer mantle, averaging 30.8 points per game over the last seven. That’s followed up with Nic Claxton’s 18.6 and Seth Curry’s 17.1.

While budding two-way interior threat Claxton and career microwave Curry should be applauded for their production, the 12.2-point game between leader and second place shows that this team is lacking a reliable second scoring option. This should be Simmons’ time to shine!

That was apparent in the Nets’ latest contest, a 137-133 loss to the 76ers. Irving came away with his now-customary 30 points, but it was Seth Curry that paced the Nets with a season-high 32 points!

Meanwhile, Simmons finished with just 12 points, going scoreless in the first half then scoring 10 in the third quarter. Per NBA Player Tracking, he received 63 touches — third-most of any Net — but he only attempted seven field goals. That’s a lot of passed up shots!

Yet he went 5-of-7 on those shot attempts, 71.4 percent from the field. That seems like a well the Nets should have gone to more often, rather that be schematically or of Simmons’ volition.

It’s rough to see such a highly-touted prospect like Ben Simmons, a No. 1 overall pick mind you, be reduced to a role player while still being just 26 years old. While his scoring services certainly aren’t necessary when KD and Kyrie are on the floor together, it’s apparent now that Durant is benched that the Nets sorely need another reliable 20-point scorer to keep The W Train going.

The Nets have a number of hard-working, reliable role players that can supplement their star’s production and even have the occasional big game. However, due to his athleticism and offensive skillset, Ben Simmons is the Net most equipped to step up and become a bigger part of the Nets’ offense.

I honestly don’t expect that to happen, even on the heels of tonight’s matchup hosting the Pistons, but I wanted to be on record saying that I feel it should.

Categories
NBA

NBA 2K22

How did NBA teams fair in calendar year 2022? What does it tell us about how the remainder of the 2022-23 could unfold?

Happy New Year!! The turn of the calendar may feel like turning a page for most people. However, the autumn-to-spring schedule of the NBA charges on.

But what if the NBA records were decided within the Gregorian-imposed construct of a single year? My curiosity led me to go through the standings and combine franchise records for regular season games played in 2022: the latter portion of the 2021-22 season and the current campaign up through New Year’s Eve. The results revealed some intriguing conclusions.

The Boston Celtics are the NBA’s King of the Hill for the year 2022. Their 60-22 record on the year leaves them as the lone team to hit the 60-win plateau. In the East, it places them a comfortable seven games ahead of the second-place Philadelphia.

It’s not too much of a surprise. The C’s notoriously turned their flailing 2021-22 season around shortly after New Year’s Day. After an anemic 17-19 start, Boston went 34-12 the rest of the way. They took this fortune into the playoffs by pulling off the only sweep of the postseason and reaching the Finals.

The offseason nor a controversy-induced coaching change were able to stoke the Celtics’ flame. Instead, they opened the campaign with a 26-10 start to the 2022-23 season.

The Memphis Grizzlies sit atop the West by winning percentage thanks to a 55-25 (.688). However, it’s the Phoenix Suns hold the most total wins in the conference with their 57-27 record. The Detroit Pistons set the floor in the East with their 28-60 ledger, while the Houston Rockets hold the league’s worst 2022 record at 20-62, picking up 10 wins each in both halves of the year.

While looking at the records and how both halves of the year composed them, I was also intrigued by the percentage differential between the Spring 2022 and Fall 2022 records. Which franchises have been consistent (or stagnant), which teams have dramatically improved, which teams have underwhelmed?

The Indiana Pacers earn the honor of most improved team, as their 20-17 second half record is a league-leading 30.1 percent improvement from their 11-35 first half record. After feeling like a rudderless ship for much of 2021-22, the trade deadline acquisition of Tyrese Haliburton as well as the draft-day additions of Bennedict Mathurin and Andrew Nembhard seem to have injected new life into Rick Carlisle’s club.

Conversely, the Charlotte Hornets have the largest decline in the NBA between first and second halves. After finishing 2021-22 24-22, they began 2022-23 by going 10-27. A 25.1-percent drop between halves. Their tumultuous offseason saw them hire a retread coach and lose their star forward due to off-court legal issues. Once the ball actually tipped off, the team then faced extended injury stints from star players LaMelo Ball and Gordon Hayward. Both have since returned, so perhaps there are better days for them in 2023.

In the West, the Sacramento Kings are the biggest improvement story. Their 19-15 second half mark is a 22.5 percent increase from their 15-30 first half record. Like Charlotte, the Kings also had a coaching change. In this case it worked for the better, bringing a more cohesive offense and increased defensive energy to California’s capital city.

The Phoenix Suns, on the other hand, have the largest decline in the Western Conference. After going 37-10 to cap off a 64-18 2021-22 season, the Suns have gone a much more lukewarm 20-17 to start 2022-23, a 24.7-percent drop-off.

For starters, Phoenix has a gaping hole at the power forward position due to Cameron Johnson’s long-term injury and Jae Crowder’s personal holdout. Additional injury stints from Chris Paul and Devin Booker have also hamstrung Phoenix’s team depth on on-court consistency.

The Utah Jazz, however, haven’t had a problem with consistency. Their 19-20 second-half record is only 0.2-percent worse than their 23-24 first half mark, making them the most consistent team in the league. This is the case despite a coaching change, massive roster upheaval, and even new uniforms! With all that, Utah’s standing this year is seen as a huge surprise, while their record at the end of last campaign was seen as a massive disappointment.

New Years’ is always a time of reflection on the year that was, and it was interesting to do it with the NBA standings. If these reflections tell me anything, it’s that the Celtics, 76ers, and Bucks remain the teams to beat in the East, while regression from the West’s top teams has made left the position for the Left Coast crown wide open.

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NCAA

The Car Sans Its Engine

The Leathernecks started the season strong, but they aren’t the same without their star point guard.

Attending the Western Illinois-DePaul game started getting me nostalgic. Watching the purple and gold of WIU run the floor in a fairly competitive matchup took me back to being inside of Western Hall in the early-to-mid-teens witnessing Ceola Clark and Garret Covington putting up buckets.

Those pleasant memories motivated me to check back in with the Leathernecks and the first four games of their 2022-23 campaign. Upon review, this opening stretch has a “best of times, worst of times” vibe.

On the bright side, Western started the season with the 71-68 road win over Illinois State. Trenton Massner came away with a triple-double (12 points, 11 assists, 10 rebounds) while Alec Rosner scorched the nets for 25 points. The Leathernecks capitalized on a Redbirds team helmed by a first-year head coach with only one returning starter, marching back from down 13 to win the game.

That was followed up by a 57-point dismantling of D-III Rockford University at home in Macomb. It’s the third-largest margin of victory for the Leathernecks since at least 2010. It’s the type of game a good team is supposed to win decisively.

Then the tables turned. Western went up to Chicago to play DePaul and came back home losing the game, 86-74, as well as Trenton Massner. Massner fell victim to a hard screen and has been in concussion protocol ever since. WIU gave a game effort, barely being outscored 46-44 the rest of the way after losing Massner, but it was an absence that couldn’t be hidden in their latest game at UCF.

You see, Trenton Massner has been the engine that drives the Leathernecks. Last season he led the team in every major statistical category. Points. Rebounds. Assists. Steals. Blocks. Minutes. All of them.

The 2021-22 Leathernecks: Written, Directed, Produced by, and starring Trenton Massner!

This year, Massner once again has Doncic-ian control of the offense. He has logged a 53.8 assist percentage through his first three games. Jesiah West’s 19.1 percent is the only other number over 15.0 percent, the normal threshold to designate playmakers, but his five assists against DePaul are doing a lot of the heavy lifting.

Nevertheless, Western soldiered down to Orlando to take on UCF on Monday. They lost handily 70-37. They only made 15 field goals and doled out just five assists while conceding 18 turnovers. Quinlan Bennett and K.J. Lee were the ones tasked most with bringing the ball up the floor, but they combined for two assists and five turnovers.

Alec Rosner paced the team with two assists, but was held to one point. He went 0-for-4 from the field after scoring double-digits in the previous three games. It had to be a sobering moment for the D-II transfer. If it’s any consolation, at least D-I competition is already recognizing him as a threat this early in the campaign.

Even beyond the playmaking, the team just looked like a shell of itself. The UCF game was their third road game, and head coach Rob Jeter only ran an eight-man rotation against the Knights’ bigger and more athletic 10-deep.

I think the size mismatch is most noticeable at the power forward slot. 6’5″, 200-pound Jesiah West has some exciting hops, but he has been outmatched at times on the defensive end. West has racked up 13 fouls in WIU’s three games versus D-I opponents, fouling out twice. I disagreed with some of the whistles that got him his five in the Illinois State game, but it became an unavoidable pattern when he logged three versus DePaul and fouled out at UCF.

His athleticism justifies his spot at forward. It’s reminiscent of the roles Derrick Jones and Juan Toscano-Anderson serve in the NBA. However, it’s clear that some of the bigger bodies he’s dealt with have been getting the best of him in the early stages of this season.

Johnny Dawkins is also a defensive-minded coach, so his UCF squad did not let up on that end of the floor. I specifically noticed how sharp they looked defending in passing lanes and in help situations.

The hounding defense from bigger bodies coupled with jetlag made the fatigue more apparent as the game progressed. The 18 turnovers, seven steals conceded, six rejections faced, and the 2-for-21 mark (9.5 percent) from three-point range were big indicators of their exhaustion.

Defeating UCF would have been a tall task even with Massner playing, but Western couldn’t get anything going at all without him.

Even when Massner returns, whenever that may be, this team needs to learn how to generate offense without him at the helm. I mean, he can’t play 40 minutes every night, right? Right?

The biggest question for me is “who will be Western Illinois’ secondary playmaker”? I don’t think they can truly ascend in the Summit League without an answer to that query. I suppose it’s better for the Leathernecks to have the question posed to them a few games into the season instead of in February and March. We’ll see if anybody steps up and answers the call.

Categories
NCAA

The Blue Demons Within

My views from a non-conference battle with sentimental value.

I went down to Wintrust Arena with my girlfriend on Friday to check out Western Illinois-DePaul. It’s a matchup that holds sentimental value for me on both sides. Western is my alma mater and DePaul is one of four local Division I sides (along with Illinois, UIC, and Chicago State) that raised me throughout my basketball childhood.

It’s only the fourth meeting all-time between these programs, with three of them coming in the last three seasons. That “last three years” part is conterminous with Rob Jeter’s tenure as head coach in Macomb.

It’s not a coincidence, as he grew up in Chicago. I assume he uses the game to come back home, catch up with friends and family, and maybe even use it as a recruiting trip. One of his players – senior Quinlan Bennett – is already from the city, so it wouldn’t be surprising to see Jeter trying to tap into Chicagoland’s deep player base.

The quirky thing about this game is its 9:00 PM tip-off time. Real “College Basketball After Dark” vibes. Shoutout to anyone that attended the game then seamlessly transitioned over to VU once the final buzzer sounded shortly after 11:00.

However, there was actually method to the madness. WIU-DePaul was the last leg of a Big East triple-header that aired on FS2. Boston U.-UConn at 5:00 PM Central, Montana-Xavier at 7:00, and Western Illinois-DePaul at 9:00 PM. I guess that’s the lumps you take when you’re one of the westernmost schools in the Big East Conference.

The game itself was a mid-tempo matchup of two athletic squads. Both teams had speedy, bouncy players that pulled off a bouquet of dunks and alley-oops throughout the night. Western’s Jesiah West was the standout. It seemed like he floated every time he leapt. However, it felt like DePaul had the bigger bodies.

Comparing the rosters doesn’t reveal a stark difference in size, but in my eyes the listed heights and weights of 6’10” Yor Anei, 6’8″ Da’Sean Nelson, and the 6’6″ duo of Javan Johnson and Eral Penn belie their true frames.

This matchup was energetic and fairly competitive. DePaul’s Umoja Gibson started off the game hot, hitting his first three shots and finishing the first half with 17 points. The Blue Demons led 32-18 with 7:36 left in the half, but the Leatherneck reeled off a 17-8 run to get the deficit down to five with 1:19 remaining. A couple of DePaul free throws gave the Demons a 42-35 lead at half.

Trenton Massner, WIU’s senior leader and offensive engine, didn’t have the best first half. He had eight points, six rebounds, two assists, and a steal. However, he accumulated those points while shooting 3-of-9 from the field (2-of-7 from 3-point range).

Then, with 2:12 in the first half, he ran into a hard screen by Da’Sean Nelson that left him on the ground for an extended amount of time. He was sidelined for the rest of the game.

His absence was apparent in the second half, even as Western’s other two senior leaders attempted to step-up for Massner. Quinlan Bennett operated the offense and served as the lead communicator on defense while Alec Rosner dropped 16 points in the second half.

WIU struggled from three-point range throughout the game – finishing 6-of-26 from distance – so there was a stretch in the second where they kept forcing the issue inside. As a result, Yor Anei came away with four of his five blocks in the second half. This helped the Blue Demons start the half on a 25-8 run, extending their advantage to 67-47 with 9:14 remaining.

Umoja Gibson tacked on seven points in the half, finishing the night with 24 points, eight assists. He went 4-of-5 on two-pointers, 4-of-5 on three-pointers, and 4-of-4 on free throws. Gibson was so comfortable operating the offense, using his speed and playmaking to terrorize the Leathernecks. He routinely beat Western players off the dribble, either getting downhill for a score or assist, or to step-back and create space for an open jumper. Truly impressive stuff.

After the big run, DePaul coasted to the finish for an 86-74 victory. It’s always an enjoyable experience, but it’s a bummer how quick it all feels sometimes. I got to the game about five minutes into the first half, and then once the buzzer sounded I was back out the door into the nippy, Chicago night. It’s a feeling I get with any basketball game. In the moment, the atmosphere is electric and the action is always exciting. Then, just like that, it’s over.

It is what it is, though. The game can’t last forever. It’s for this reason that you should cherish any game you watch or attend. This was my first live Western game since 2014 and my first live DePaul game ever. So I’m especially grateful that I got the chance to witness two teams that mean a lot to me facing off in a competitive clash.

Categories
NBA

Predicting the 2022-23 NBA Season Like I’m Nostradamus or Something…

In which I look at the NBA Season 77 landscape and make guesses about the outcome that are certain to age atrociously.

Happy Opening Day!! The 2022-23 NBA season has finally arrived! It’s an exciting time for basketball fans, and the optimism compels us to make predictions about how the campaign will unfold. I’m not above this exercise, so I gleefully submit to you my contribution to this conversation.

I’m doing the full gauntlet of season preview guesses, because why not? Conference rankings, awards, playoffs, finals. I’m sure a few of these will turn out correct, but I’m setting my expectations low. Some of these takes are going to age like Whole Foods produce.

However, that’s the fun of this activity, isn’t it? The prediction is as much a reflection of you as it is of what you are predicting. The ups and downs of the long season will challenge those beliefs that were initially held when the leaves first turned and the ball was just getting tipped off. That roller-coaster experience brings another degree of excitement when watching the game.

While you read this article, don’t forget to let me know what some of your predictions for the season will be. Drop your thoughts on the season ahead in my replies on Twitter @rymndsmms!

EASTERN CONFERENCE

  1. Milwaukee Bucks
  2. Philadelphia 76ers
  3. Boston Celtics
  4. Cleveland Cavaliers
  5. Miami Heat
  6. Brooklyn Nets
  7. Toronto Raptors
  8. Chicago Bulls
  9. Atlanta Hawks
  10. New York Knicks
  11. Washington Wizards
  12. Orlando Magic
  13. Detroit Pistons
  14. Indiana Pacers
  15. Charlotte Hornets

WESTERN CONFERENCE

  1. Golden State Warriors
  2. Denver Nuggets
  3. New Orleans Pelicans
  4. Memphis Grizzlies
  5. Minnesota Timberwolves
  6. Los Angeles Clippers
  7. Dallas Mavericks
  8. Phoenix Suns
  9. Los Angeles Lakers
  10. Portland Trail Blazers
  11. Sacramento Kings
  12. Utah Jazz
  13. Oklahoma City Thunder
  14. San Antonio Spurs
  15. Houston Rockets

AWARDS

Most Valuable Player: Joel Embiid, 76ers
Rookie of the Year: Paolo Banchero, Magic
Defensive Player of the Year: Rudy Gobert, Timberwolves
Sixth Man of the Year: Jordan Poole, Warriors
Most Improved Player: Tyrese Maxey, 76ers
Coach of the Year: Willie Green, Pelicans

PLAYOFFS

PLAY-IN TOURNAMENT

Raptors def. Bulls
Hawks def. Knicks
Bulls def. Hawks

Mavericks def. Suns
Lakers def. Trail Blazers
Suns def. Lakers

FIRST ROUND

Bucks def. Bulls
Cavaliers def. Heat
Celtics def. Nets
76ers def. Raptors

Warriors def. Suns
Timberwolves def. Grizzlies
Pelicans def. Clippers
Nuggets def. Mavericks

CONFERENCE SEMIFINALS

Bucks def. Cavaliers
Celtics def. 76ers

Warriors def. Timberwolves
Pelicans def. Nuggets

CONFERENCE FINALS

Bucks def. Celtics
Conference Finals MVP: Giannis Antetokounmpo, Bucks

Warriors def. Pelicans
Conference Finals MVP: Stephen Curry, Warriors

2023 NBA FINALS

Warriors def. Bucks
Finals MVP: Stephen Curry, Warriors