Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Senior Leadership

W. Ross Clites
Your City Sports-Cleveland

Kent, OHIO--Tied at halftime of their Second Round NIT match-up with Illinois, my Kent State Golden Flashes fizzled to a 17-point blow-out loss. They finished the remaining 20 minutes in such a way that I almost want to remove the word “my” in the previous sentence. It was the wrong way six scholarship seniors would have liked to end their careers.

This article is my final opinion of this senior class. I will point to their last three games as the justification for my anger. While Ohio was out beating Georgetown soundly, Kent was squeaking out a win against Tulsa in the First Round of the NIT. It was a game that was played at home against Conference USA's fifth-best team. That is not the type of postseason win that the Kent fan base should be satisfied with.

Kent has severely underachieved in its past two seasons. First, the 20-win season streak ended. Now, the 23-win regular season was wasted with two quick exits in the MAC tournament and NIT respectively. This was a good, but not great, Illinois team. Granted, Assembly Hall is a difficult place to play. However, the NIT has one of the weakest crops it has ever produced. A win may have been out of the question, but showing some effort was not too much to ask for. The performance was embarrassing. This is the second time in three games that I have been disgraced that this level of desire has become acceptable in Kent.

These hard times have all occurred under the watch of Coach Geno Ford. He has one set offense that pulls his best players (the two power forwards) out beyond the three-point line for nothing more than ball screens. The offensive identity is YMCA ball. People have to create their own shots.

This animosity for Ford, who sets his team up to fail, is indirectly passed through this senior class. He cannot take all the blame. These players have disappeared in the postseason. Let us examine the last three games. The first game was in the MAC quarterfinals--a one-and-out performance against Ohio. The second game was actually a win, yet the statistics would never make you believe it.

The last game of their 2010 postseason came last night in the NIT Second Round. They traveled to Champaign, and had the Illini on the ropes in front of a sell-out Assembly Hall crowd. If they had only made free throws in the first half, the Flashes would have gone to the locker room with at least a 5-point lead.

From here, the wheels completely fell off. Forward Anthony Simpson receives a pardon; he has been a steady player all season. He is 6’-8” and has to make outside jump shots to get his points. That is how stagnant the Kent playbook has become; the 4-man is running the floor hitting step-back three pointers. The unfortunate thing is Simpson needed to do this for Kent to win games. No one else seems to be able to knock down a jumper. And if you are not getting the ball in the block--none of the plays designed for you to isolate your size--you would do the same thing.

Brandon Parks and Frank Henry-Ala are also removed from this discussion, but for very different reasons. These two players do not exist to me. They have been no-shows that would not play for any other team in the nation. Including them in statistical analysis of this senior class would skew the data unfairly. They would reflect even less favorable numbers.

That leaves the brunt of my wrath squarely on Chris Singletary, Tyree Evans, and Mike McKee.

Start the slow clap for Chris Singletary. His final game came in his home state. What a way to finish. He was a major contributor for his four years at Kent. I honestly believe as soon as Geno Ford took over, Singletary’s skills digressed. Ford never understood how to motivate him like Jim Christian could. Ford also was intimidated by him. Singletary is a strong man with a strong personality, but could be the most lackadaisical person in college basketball. When his team was down, he loafed and moped. His passes became sloppy and one-handed. A good coach would put his ego in time out for a breather to quell the emotions. Instead, Singletary was a foul waiting to happen. If frustration fouls were a stat, he would have led the MAC this season.

Back to the lack of offensive creativity, Singletary was forced to call for the ball and do things one-on-one. Such an offense had its ups and downs. He was a mismatch for any guard. He was also an offensive foul machine, for he bulldozes his way to the bucket in the most telegraphed straight line, and everyone in the stands knows he is about to do it well before the spin move drive is set in motion.

Singletary leaves Kent with over 1,200 points, 450 rebounds, 300 assists, and 150 steals. High marks, but what speaks to me more is what he could not accomplish. He had a suspension in each season he played under Ford.

His 2010 postseason resume:

22 minutes, 7-16 free throws, 5 personal fouls, 6-13 FGs
32 minutes, 6-11 free throws, 4 personal fouls, 5-10 FGs
23 minutes, 2-7 free throws, 5 personal fouls, 1 technical foul, 3-9 FGs

But he did average 14.6 PPG in those three games, so fans are expected to overlook the shortcomings.

A bigger applause goes to Tyree Evans. This three-point specialist would never play for Jim Christian. Why? Because he never plays any defense. It does not matter how “great” his three-point shot is (or was).

That outside threat did not fair that well down the stretch. Tyree’s 2010 postseason resume:

23 minutes, 0-6 FGs, 0-5 3-PT, 0 points
22 minutes, 4-8 FGs, 2-5 3-PT, 10 points
23 minutes, 1-6 FGs, 0-5 3-PT, 2 points

Similar in pre-season three-point expectations was Mike McKee. He is that prototypical white guard that has only one job on the court--make outside shots. If his three-pointer is not falling, what good is this one-dimensional player? This defined McKee's season in a nutshell. His 2010 postseason resume:

15 minutes, 1-8 FGs, 0-5 3-PT, 2 points
9 minutes, 0-2 FGs, 0-2 3-PT, 0 points
10 minutes, 1-2 FGs, 1-2 3-PT, 3 points

So, to conclude this rant, the spectacular senior trio finished with these glorious numbers in their last three games:

19.8 average minutes on the floor
6.7 points per game average
Total field goals: 21-64 (32.8%)
2 foul-outs, 1 technical foul
Total free throws: 15-34 (44.1%)
Total three-pointers: 4-27 (14.8%)

Thank you seniors, for a memorable postseason run. You went from a high point (a MAC regular-season clinching victory over rival Akron on the road) to a all-to-familiar low point. The season win total (24) is the fourth most in school history, but not enough to keep the head coach off the hot seat. He cannot handle talent and he definitely cannot win the big one. He certainly never motivated this group of upperclassmen to give it everything they had, and that showed again last night.

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Monday, March 22, 2010

Still Dancing

W. Ross Clites
Your City Sports-Cleveland
Kent, OHIO -- Of the guards left in the 2010 NCAA Tournament, would you believe that Xavier’s Jordan Crawford is pacing them all in points scored? The sophomore from Detroit has tallied 16 more points than Duke’s Kyle Singler, 15 more than Michigan State’s Durrell Summers, and even 22 more than Ohio State’s point-forward Evan Turner. In fact, only center Omar Samhan of St. Mary’s has more points after two tournament games.

The infamous dunk “over” (more accurate preposition would be “next to”) LeBron James in a basketball camp last summer was Crawford’s coming out event. The video went viral and made the Indiana University transfer/collegiate free agent a B-List celebrity. But after a spectacular A-10 season, this tournament has been the cherry on top of his full-fledged party.

Two days after dispatching of (11) seed Minnesota, Crawford dropped another 28 points on Pittsburgh, as “X” hung on to a 71-68 Second-Round win. The highlight of the victory for Crawford was a single-handed 9-2 run midway through the second half. In the span of one minute and 27 seconds, he corralled two rebounds and knocked down three straight buckets.

The first shot would have been a deep NBA three. The other three-pointer -- in his personal spurt -- carried an even higher degree of difficulty. Crawford passed on the opportunity for an uncontested jump shot in the corner, directly off an inbounds pass. It must not have been difficult enough. That, or he really wanted to send a statement to Pitt’s Jermaine Dixon that he was unguardable. Crawford dribbled out of the corner to the top of the key for a step-back version with a hand in his face. It has been that kind of tournament for Xavier.

The solo effort pushed the Musketeers lead to 13 points, forcing Pitt Coach Jamie Dixon to burn a timeout. The stoppage gave his tired team a rest, but it did very little to extinguish Xavier’s momentum. The takeover of the game by Crawford had taken a hold of the crowd. The thousands in Milwaukee -- many whom were Ohio State fans awaiting the next game in the building -- had become members of the “X” faithful.

Much was made of this (6) vs. (3) game being a rematch of last year’s Sweet Sixteen of the NCAA Tournament. The results were flipped due to the difference in roster from year-to-year. Xavier had 3 starters and over 50% of its last year’s offense gone. Pitt had even more tournament newcomers -- missing 4 starters from 2009 and 66% of their offense. The one player that was absent from last season’s clash may have made all the difference. Jordan Crawford was forced to sit out last season after transferring to Xavier.

Xavier fans can thank Indiana University for their good fortune. With all the turmoil surrounding the Indiana basketball program, Crawford backed out after one season and wound up on the Cincinnati campus.

The most intriguing thing about Crawford may be his number. The 6’-4” guard wears number 55, usually reserved for men with nicknames like “Big Baby,” “Big Country,” “Big…Something.” Crawford may not play down in the post amidst all the trees like a typical number 55; it is the timing of his shots that are being labeled “huge.”

This is the third-straight Sweet Sixteen for the “X,” a feat that can only be matched by Michigan State. Having a first-year coach in Chris Mack makes this all the more impressive. Xavier now has another rematch waiting; this time from the current season. Kansas State handled the Musketeers by 15 points in December in Manhattan, Kansas. Thursday, Xavier will have an opportunity to avenge this embarrassing loss and advance to the Elite Eight.

They will need more than just Jordan Crawford. K-State is a dominant force in the paint. Their physicality cannot be matched, and their ability to play lock-down defense is what has earned the Wildcats the (2) seed in the West region.

An upset will require both of Xavier’s guards to make some big shots. Crawford and backcourt-mate, Dante Jackson, must duplicate their 7-for-13 performance from beyond the arc. Jason Love will also need the game of his life to keep Kansas State off the glass, at both ends of the court.

The second game in Milwaukee’s Bradley Center was another Ohio showcase. Ohio State’s Evan Turner had two motivations for a great performance against (10) seed Georgia Tech. Turner was a spectator for most of the first half of the previous game; he saw Jordan Crawford set the bar and own the crowd. The other incentive was internal. Turner had a season-low 4 points in the First Round game two days prior.

UC-Santa Barbara unexpectedly stymied Turner’s attack. It was bound to catch up with the National Player of the Year candidate eventually. He was as advertised all the way through the Big Ten Tournament. Every player is granted one bad game during the month of March. If you are Coach Thad Matta you have to be encouraged that he got his one poor showing out of the way in the First Round.

Now Turner is in a scary place for his opponents. He is poised to carry the Buckeyes on his rehabilitated back. He had redemption on his mind and delivered; 24 points, 9 rebounds, and 9 assists in the Buckeyes 75-66 win over the Yellow Jackets.

Although Turner’s stats appear striking, it was an ugly game, top to bottom. The flow was choppy. Second only to the Robert Morris vs. Villanova game, the officiating was the worst in this tournament. However, a W is a W. A trip to the second weekend of play does not require style points.

Even with their two (potential lottery-pick) big men in foul trouble, the ACC Tournament runner-up pushed the Buckeyes for a full 40 minutes. Derrick Favors and Gani Lawal were the equalizers to every Buckeye run. Unfortunately, for the Yellow Jackets, Coach Paul Hewitt could not keep them on the court for more than five minutes at a time.

The unsung game-changer, for the second straight OSU game, was guard Jon Diebler. His deep threat (currently shooting 50% from the three-point line this tournament) prevented the defense from sagging in the paint. This allowed Turner to drive and distribute.

The only blemish on the Buckeye’s night was the occasional pass to wide-open Georgia Tech players. There were an astounding 39 total turnovers in the game, 18 from Ohio State. In all honesty I blame the uniforms. I watched the whole game thinking there is something very familiar about what I was seeing. After the under 16:00 TV timeout it hit me: wrong sport, right color scheme. It was the same problem that made the 2002 Ohio State vs. Purdue football game hard to watch. That was the infamous Craig Krenzel 4th and 1 touchdown pass in West Lafayette.

It seems every time Ohio State plays a meaningful sporting event and the outcome is an ugly win, the opponent is wearing a very light gold and the Buckeyes are in white. The color contrast should be outlawed. As the higher seed, Georgia Tech is required to wear their road uniforms. The NCAA needs to step in because their gold is nowhere near dark enough.

Thanks to Northern Iowa, the Buckeyes can continue to wear those home whites as long as they are in St. Louis. The door is kicked in for Ohio State to make it to Indianapolis. Although not exactly Michigan State playing in Detroit last year, the Buckeye nation would produce a strong showing in Lucas Oil Stadium. The next step towards that destination is a Friday game against Tennessee.

Jordan Crawford and Evan Turner are out to represent the state of Ohio with two of the final eight teams in the field. If the Elite Eight is not incentive enough, the two superstars seem to acknowledge each other’s talent and use it as fuel to do better themselves. If Crawford puts up another 28 points on Thursday, watch out because Turner will try to one-up him. It is going to be fun to watch.

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Sunday, March 21, 2010

What's in a Number?

W. Ross Clites
Your City Sports-Cleveland

Cleveland--LeBron James has been in the NBA for seven years already. The amazement of how time has flown is only trumped by the admiration for his accomplishments in those years. LeBron’s body of work, all with the Cavaliers, is enough to warrant his number being raised to the rafters of Quicken Loans Arena someday. This is true if he signs with another team this summer, and doubly true if he stays.
LeBron has been a 6-time All-Star, the NBA Scoring Champion, league MVP, carried his team to an NBA Finals appearance, and is the youngest basketball player to score 15,000 career points. He could call it quits right now and that number 23 would be a lock for retirement as well.

Things definitely get interesting this offseason, even if he stays in Cleveland. Should LeBron sign a long-term deal with the Cavs--which I honestly believe he will--the staff of the Q will need to clear the way for two new banners. One will be sandwiched between Larry Nance (22) and Mark Price (25); the other will require all the numbers to shift to the right one position. Both banners, causing the shake-up, will belong to LeBron James.

It is well known that LeBron is changing his number to 6 for this upcoming season. His reason is to honor Michael Jordan league-wide, in hopes that the NBA will put a recall on anyone currently wearing 23. If successful, Jordan would be in elite company--only Jackie Robinson (42) and Wayne Gretzky (99) have their numbers in the rafters of every team’s venue. In their cases, however, players wearing 42 and 99 before the widespread retirement were allowed to finish their careers undisturbed. LeBron’s NBA petition could easily be “grandfathered” in similarly; allowing LeBron to maintain number 23. Either way, it is what it is. He will don number 6 for whatever team he plays for in 2010-11.

If he stays with the Cavs, the Kobe vs. LeBron analogies will kick up a new topic. It seems the two cannot escape each other, yet they barely cross paths physically. All in all, their puppets have a much bigger rivalry than Kobe and LeBron have on the court. Nevertheless, the NBA is exploiting them as Bird and Magic to sell itself. Contrary to popular belief, the two superstars did not meet up in the NBA Finals last year and they do not have unkind words to say about the other.

The only polarizing thing surrounding them is a West Coast/East-ish Coast fan debate over who is the greatest player going right now. It seems that the whole nation is now split into either Pro-Kobe or Pro-LeBron camps. It is well beyond team affiliation or sports in general; currently as mainstream of a debate as “soda” or “pop.”

Regardless of intention, LeBron will undoubtedly catch some flak from doing what Kobe Bryant did first. It is the most unfair criticism that LeBron receives from the Pro-Kobe contingent; LeBron cannot change the fact that Kobe has been in the league twice as many years. Even so, Kobe did switch numbers mid-career while staying with the same team. Kobe wanted 24 when he entered the league, but it was taken. He finally made the switch to begin the 2006-07 campaign. LeBron had the option to take 6 from the very beginning. His decision to now move from the 20s to the single digits, the complete reciprocal move that Bryant just made, is coincidental but highly ironic. They seem to be unintentional oil and water. It as if LeBron is saying where you were is where I am headed. Cavs fans hope that means multiple World Championships are on the horizon.

Kobe Bryant started this unprecedented debate four years ago and now LeBron will potentially be adding to the confusion. No one in the history of any major U.S. sports league has ever had two numbers retired by the same organization. And why should they? It is extremely rare and bizarre what Bryant and James have done. Changing numbers is typically associated with changing teams, with the desired number not available. And those that do change numbers inside the franchise usually do not spend equal time and accomplish equal greatness in both. Cases and points: Michael Jordan’s time spent with number 45 was short-lived and his game was rusty from first retirement. Tracy McGrady, fueled by a charitable cause, shifted his number from 1 to 3 in the latter years in Houston. Injuries prevented him from being the great player he was early with the Rockets, and was recently shipped to New York.

If Kobe plays until he is 38, he will have spent eleven seasons in both jerseys. Barring any drastic fall-off in performance or movement to another team, he will justify having both 8 and 24 retired by the Lakers. It did not take him his whole career to solidify his place in Lakers history, thus you could even break his career in two and judge their credentials separately. Did Kobe do enough to earn number retirement in 8? Yes. Did Kobe do enough to earn number retirement in 24? Most likely, yes. In other words, he will be remembered as having the equivalent of two independently successful stints in the NBA. Should he stay, LeBron will have the similar luxury of having his career remembered twice-over.

This is not the Major League Baseball Hall of Fame; neither Kobe nor LeBron should have to choose one to represent them for all-time.
LeBron will be in strange company among those who have number 6 retired. Currently, it hangs from the rafters in (ironically) six buildings in the league. The great: Julius Erving (Philadelphia), Bill Russell (Boston). The good: Walter Davis (Phoenix) and Avery Johnson (San Antonio). The downright confusing: The “Sixth Man” in Orlando and Sacramento--two of the more storied franchises in NBA history. I understand the concept of the sixth man being honored, but if places like Boston or even Utah (who has some of the rowdiest fans) are not doing it, chances are Sacramento should follow suit.

As for the number LeBron is leaving behind, and the plans for a Michael Jordan tribute: the Miami Heat are the only team in the NBA that retired 23 in honor of Jordan, without him ever playing for them. It was the first step in the grassroots movement.

Now that Jordan owns the Bobcats, his first housecleaning step will probably be renaming the team. Second on the list might be an egotistic tribute to himself, similar to the Heat. Then the league would have Jordan in the rafters in three locations. Only 27 more for LeBron’s wish to be realized.

It is early to contemplate such matters but LeBron has proven himself worthy for such speculation. The probability of him not producing world-class talent in number 6 is remote. He would have to catch Greg Oden syndrome.

If he sticks it out in Cleveland and gets better with age, he will put the Cavaliers front office in the precocious spot of deciding what to do. There is no set policy; this could be the one thing David Stern does not have a say in. It is a wonderful tradition and a great feeling of satisfaction for the players. It says no one else could be the next iteration of you, so we will not even let someone try.

There are many ways to getting this recognition. Retired numbers traditionally reward outstanding accomplishments that help the franchise win. Head coaches, owners, team founders, general managers, and broadcasters are generally seen high above court-level. There are rare instances where a tragedy has led management into memorializing a fallen player.

There is no real benchmark or strict statistical qualifications. Every organization must do what they see fit. There are always going to be questionable calls and unique ways of representing off-the-court icons. Although they would like to have a say, it is not for fans of the opposition to judge. In some ways, that is what makes it great. In many cases, the ceremonies are showcases for those who had an emotional connection to the fan base.

If he strings together ten more seasons in Cleveland, I could see someone like Anderson Varejao fitting this description. His hustle plays do not make it directly into the score sheet, but the organization may give him the ultimate reward in the rafters. Better tell the Quicken Loans Arena crew; they may need a whole slew of vacant spots for this current group of Cavs.

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Saturday, March 20, 2010

All Out of Love

W. Ross Clites
Your City Sports-Cleveland

Kent, OHIO--I wanted to break this story yesterday, but the Ohio Bobcats just had to go and steal the headlines. On Thursday, I watched a career end right before my eyes. It was sad that it had to end in Goodyear, Arizona and not in a meaningful Major League game. The worst part is that this player has no clue it is over.

The Cleveland Indians starting rotation is not official as we enter the weekend of first big roster cuts. Yet, one thing is certain. Left-hander Jeremy Sowers will not even be considered for a spot. Jake Westbrook, Fausto Carmona, Justin Masterson, Aaron Laffey, and David Huff look like the five the Tribe will go with. Manager Manny Acta does have some things to ponder. Carlos Carrasco, who made five forgettable starts with the big club last season, is reminding every fan why he was given that opportunity. His 3.86 Spring Training ERA is nearly three times better than it was in the Majors last year.

Many fans would like to see Acta give the fifth spot to Hector Rondon. I hold the same stance on this young ace-in-the-making as I do with top prospect Carlos Santana. The future success of the Indians relies on a healthy battery of Rondon throwing to Santana. Both opened the eyes of scouts in the Cactus League this past month, but their growth could be stunted by being rushed. The two stars have combined for only 12 games played at the AAA level. That is where they will both be seen for a majority of this season. Come back to this topic next March and it will be a different story.

Perhaps the man making the biggest splash is newcomer Mitch Talbot. He has given up one run in 8 innings of spring work. Only time will tell if this is an anomaly or one of the greatest “player to be named later” acquisitions. Talbot, last piece to finalizing the Kelly Shoppach deal, will push Laffey and Huff should either struggle.

Unless the Indians want to pursue a ground-breaking technique of an eight man rotation, I just do not see Jeremy Sowers making this baseball club.

Sowers is out of Minor League options, meaning he cannot wallow around in the Tribe farm system any longer. Management has hinted that he could lock up a bullpen spot if his left shoulder injury is truly healed. I am just not buying it.

If there is a left-handed batter up, runners on second and third with two outs in the seventh inning of a one-run game, the last person I want coming out of that bullpen is Jeremy Sowers. I am sorry, but it is the truth.
First off, starting pitchers are starting pitchers. It takes a mentality and ice water in the veins to be a bullpen guy, especially a left-handed one. You have to come in and be at your best with the very first batter you face. How many starting pitchers put the leadoff hitter on base? It is a failure if a reliever allows such a fate to occur.

Starters take innings to get into a groove, not 7 warm-up pitches. They can also get away with pitching to contact, not having overpowering velocity. It is a pressure-packed environment where relief pitchers operate; sometimes inducing a routine fly-out is viewed as not getting the job done. From a bullpen guy, fans demand strikeouts.

This is not exactly Sowers’ forte; he has only one relief appearance in his career. If you want him in the pen simply for long-reliever situations, it is a waste of a roster spot. Jensen Lewis and even Mitch Talbot could be that guy--at a much higher performance level. Say a starter only lasts 1 1/3 innings; both Lewis and Talbot could bridge the gap to the seventh.

Plus, the Indians already have Tony Sipp and Rafael Perez. That is two more left-handed relievers than the Los Angeles Angels (of Anaheim of California of planet Earth) carried last season. Granted, Perez struggled mightily last season, but it may have actually helped Cleveland long-term. The uncharacteristic off-year by Perez opened the door for Sipp to prove himself. He solidified that bullpen that was a surprising bright spot of a dismal team. Now that “Raffy” seems to have returned to form, that late-game match-up lefty is crossed off Acta’s grocery list.

If the Tribe starters can give a consistent six innings--and the intention is to see Kerry Wood in the ninth--that leaves only the seventh and the eighth to use a lefty. With two established pitchers above him, there is nowhere for Sowers to squeeze in.

This writing is born out of passion, for his game is like me looking in a mirror. I am one part jealous and two parts frustrated that he does not seem to figure it out. He is the hope for all soft-tossing, scrawny left-handed starting pitchers who wear their socks high and hair on the longer side. I see him out on the mound and wish he represented us, as a collective group, better.

To get one last look at him before putting the last nail in the coffin, I tuned into the Thursday Reds vs. Indians Spring Training affair. Sowers was starting, his first time on the mound since a successful shoulder surgery and rehab.

Talk about perfect symmetry; he shared the mound with Homer Bailey of Cincinnati. These two Ohio pitchers have been given way too many opportunities by their front offices. Fans keep making excuses for them, hoping one day something will miraculously click. Neither has lived up to the first-round draft hype that they received. Lucky for Bailey, his fastball does not top out at 86 miles per hour. Ultimately, that is why he is slated for a fourth spot in the Reds rotation and why Sowers will soon not have a home.

You cannot make a Major League living with a belt-high fastball at batting practice speeds. I do not care what hand it comes out of. Watching that game Thursday only confirmed what I have seen out of Sowers for years.
As I flipped back from the end of the Murray State thrilling finish, Reds’ leftfielder Johnny Gomes hit one a country mile to right center. The 1-1 pitch was on the outer half of the plate and elevated. If you are C.C. Sabathia, you can get away with this pitch. If you are Jeremy Sowers, this pitch is in a perfect place for a Major League hitter to extend his hands. He has a 10% career swinging strike percentage (swinging strikes divided by total strikes) meaning players like Johnny Gomes do not come up empty when Sowers makes a mistake.

The top half of that second inning opened with three straight hard-hit balls. The Gomes’ homerun was sandwiched by a Scott Rolen single up the middle and Wladimir Balentien rocket passed Luis Valbuena at second.

I know it was Spring Training and I know it was his first start back from injury. I also am aware that he only gave up two runs. The problem I had was that I saw no growth whatsoever. He has not digressed, but he has definitely hit his ceiling.

For pitchers like Sowers I like to look at the strikeout-to-walk ratio. Knowing that they cannot record many punch-outs, “crafty” lefties need that walk total to be equally as low. Last year, Sowers posted one more walk than strikeout (51/52). A ratio under one is not what any GM is looking for in a Big League pitcher.

Not to hound on his stats, but another alarming number is 1.50--his 2010 WHIP. Most people think this statistic is reserved to fantasy owners and sports nerds. I feel it is very telling. Starting pitchers, as creatures of habit, are heavily affected by pitching from the stretch. Case and point: Mark Buerhle. He is not the greatest pitcher in the modern era, but he does epitomize what momentum can do for a pitcher. If he starts to develop a groove, it becomes like a basketball player that never moves from the same spot on the court. It becomes harder for the opposition to interrupt his quick pace; a skill that has earned him two career no-hitters.

Having to think about a base runner disrupts this flow completely. WHIP measures how many runners a pitcher puts on base each (on average) per inning. By the numbers, Sowers must work from the stretch at least once every inning. Consequently, he has never looked comfortable on the mound.

If you think he has trade value, ask yourself this simple question: would you want a guy with an 18-30 record, 5.18 ERA, 5.6 average innings pitched per game (below average for a starter), and a .283 opponent’s batting average?

The conclusion of this piece
is filled with sorrow. I feel for him. He is 26 years-old and his Major League baseball career is probably over. I do hope he lands on his feet; it just will not be with my team.

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Friday, March 19, 2010

OU Better Believe It

W. Ross ClitesYour City Sports-Cleveland

Kent, OHIO -- Everyone knows that the NCAA Tournament is a guard showcase. Teams, led by a star in the backcourt, negate the seeds in front of the school names. Last night, the Georgetown Hoyas found out that the task of beating an underdog gets exponentially harder when the team has two shining guards.

There are (14) seeds that have won First-Round games before. Never like this. No double-digit seed maintains a steady double-digit lead. Not against a good coach like John Thompson III. Not against a team that was one week removed from the Big East Tournament finals. Ohio never bought into any of that.

I am still in amazement at the domination; Georgetown was never in this game. Ohio even pushed the Hoyas deficit to 19 at one point. This was not a buzzer-beater like Murray State over Vanderbilt earlier in the day. This was methodical. The Ohio Bobcats have become master surgeons in the way they operate offensively. Any spot on the floor that they intend to get to, they do. Any kick-out three in the corner they have open, they knock it down. Their guard penetration is their inside-outside game and, right now, it cannot be stopped.

No one quite knows where this level of execution has been all season, but the important thing to Coach John Groce is that it is here now. As soon as the calendar flipped to March, the Bobcats flipped the switch to the “on” position.

On Thursday night, the Bobcats left Dunkin’ Donuts Arena in Providence, Rhode Island with a 97-83 win. That is not a misprint. 97 points. Only Kentucky put up more points (100) on Day 1--they played a (16) seeded ETSU team and not a Big East powerhouse. On the season, Georgetown only allowed 65.3 PPG to their opponents. The Bobcats’ lateral ball movement in half-court sets as well as their quick transition outlet passes had Georgetown laboring. The Hoyas were always one second too late.

The anatomy of an upset centers on cherishing the ball and catching fire from the perimeter. This was the job description for guards Armon Bassett and D.J. Cooper and they delivered. Ohio had only 11 turnovers to Georgetown’s 18. The Bobcats also shot 56.6%... from three. That is an impressive stat for an overall field goal percentage. Exchanging buckets with your opponent rarely gains separation on the scoreboard. The exception, as it was last night for Ohio, is when you gladly trade 3s for Georgetown 2s. It only got worse for the Georgetown when they tried matching perimeter jump shots and came up with empty one-and-done trips.

As for Ohio’s defense, the world now knows how to baffle a Princeton-style knifing offense. Play an active 2-3 zone, clog the paint, and frustrate their bigs. Georgetown’s Austin Freeman, who averaged 16.7 points on the season, was held to 9. Every call against the Hoyas seemed to derail their comeback more and more. They had that “just not our day” look in their eyes and Ohio took full advantage.

The crowd adopted the Bobcats, which is customary for a neutral crowd in a site far from both team’s home courts. Fans will rally around the upset. The Providence faithful setup the momentum surges and the Ohio three-point barrage added the dagger.

At this point, I want to expand on something I touched on two days ago. It makes this upset even more remarkable. On March 7, the Bobcats season was seconds away from ending. Their record was 17-14 (7-9) as they traveled to Muncie, Indiana for the first round of the MAC tournament. If they lost the game, there would likely have been no postseason appearance of any kind. Not even the lowly CollegeInsider.com Tournament would have taken them. And there they sat--ten points down with ten minutes until the start of the off-season.

The Ohio Bobcats, the nine seed in the MAC, had only one option to appear in the Big Dance. They had to start an improbable series of victories through the best competition in their conference. It began on Ball State’s home court in the (8) vs. (9) match-up. For reference, the Cardinals of Ball State had an unimposing RPI of 213, a far cry from Georgetown’s 7. Yet, it took a lay-up by Bassett, with under 30 seconds to play, to send the game to overtime. Bassett finished with 25 points in the extra-time affair. Ohio: 85, Ball State: 77.

After surviving that contest, they were rewarded by playing the MAC regular-season champion, Kent State Golden Flashes, in the quarterfinals. The Bobcats rolled to a 17-point victory, with 38 points coming from their leader. I am too embarrassed by the Kent performance to comment further.

In the MAC semifinals, Ohio was once again paired with a heavy favorite. Miami sought to contain Bassett with a slow-down half-court game. They succeeded in limiting the Bobcats to just 54 points, shooting 38% from the field. Only four players for Ohio scored in the game. The trouble for the Red Hawks was that 28 of those points came from Bassett and 18 were poured in by DeVaughn Washington. Miami also underestimated what Ohio’s 2-3 zone defense could do to their own point total. The Bobcats prevailed to the MAC Finals with a 54-42 win.

In the finals they had to deny Akron a repeat MAC Tournament Championship. In typical Cinderella fashion, the Bobcats needed overtime. The game had 24 lead changes; the final one coming in the extra five minute period. Late-game free throws by Cooper sealed the win. The MAC Trophy was unexpectedly headed to Athens, Ohio. Like a broken record, Bassett scored 25 points in the 81-75 victory. He was the clear-cut Tournament MVP, averaging 29 points per game.

Former Thad Matta assistant at Ohio State, Coach John Groce has rallied his team in the fading hours of the college basketball clock. It is a shame the MAC Coach of the Year Award is handed out after regular-season play. He overcame an injury-riddled season that also saw a dismissal of one player and a five-game suspension to another. The lineup juggling forced Groce to call upon true freshmen to play beyond their years. Players like Cooper stepped up.

If you think of it, they have been playing the underdog role for the past eleven days. What other tournament team was an underdog in every game in their conference tournament? This is a mental advantage for Ohio. They are veterans of being written off.

For everyone outside the locker room, this run through the conference tournament was enough of an accomplishment to fall back on. Ohio should have been satisfied with just playing in the NCAA Tournament. And it is not like they had any chance of winning. They had to scratch and claw just to win a mid-major bid and (14) seed. Georgetown was one defensive stop away from winning the Big East Tournament in Madison Square Garden. They were as hot of a team as anyone in the country during the week prior to the NCAA Tournament. In hindsight, maybe no one was playing as refined a game of basketball as Ohio.

I had predicted that Ohio would lose in the First Round, as did most of the country. I did say that Bassett would still get his 25 points, though. He did me seven points better.

The Group of Death, the Midwest Region, is no less scary now that Georgetown has been knocked on. The face of Death has simply changed forms; it now looks like an Ohio Bobcat.

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