US Women Are Stronger In The Tennis World Than US Men

American men’s tennis is at a nadir. No Grand Slam singles champion in 11 years. No Grand Slam singles semifinalist in over five years. The U.S. Open unfolding now in New York is the 12th straight Grand Slam without an American man in the quarterfinals, and the seventh of the last eight with none in the fourth round.1The only active American man to even reach a major semifinal is Robby Ginepri, who is 31 and ranked 204th in the world.American women’s tennis is led by the No. 1 player in the world, Serena Williams, who has won 17 Grand Slam titles and remains the favorite to win the U.S. Open for the third year in a row.I wondered, though: Are the American women a stronger force in world tennis than the American men are? Beyond Serena and Venus Williams — who are 32 and 34 years old, respectively — are the women any deeper and stronger than the men?To check, I downloaded the latest singles rankings from both the men’s ATP World Tour and the women’s WTA tour — every player in the world who has a professional ranking point, even just one.As of Aug. 25, the start of the U.S. Open, there are 2,232 ranked men and 1,323 ranked women. About one in 12 of the ranked women are from the U.S., more than from any other nation (Russia trails narrowly). U.S. men make up one in 16 of all ranked professional players, tied with France for most in the world.Counting ranked players is a pretty rough gauge of national tennis strength. A player outside the Top 500 will appear in few tour events, let alone Grand Slams. Getting a ranking can be a product of opportunity as much as merit. An American player who’s just as good as, say, an Algerian player lives much closer to events where he can earn points, and therefore doesn’t have to spend as much to play.So I went beyond merely counting ranked players and added up the ranking points for each nation. This is a decent proxy for how much money players have earned in the sport, because ranking points generally scale with earnings. The bigger the tournament, the more points and dollars are available; and the further a player advances, the bigger a piece of the pie she earns. By this math, Serena Williams’s 2,000 points for winning the U.S Open last year — which still counts in the latest 52-week ranking — is worth slightly more than No. 24 Sloane Stephens’s cumulative tennis accomplishments in the last year. And Serena’s annual achievements are worth about five Sloanes in national tennis strength.That feels about right. Having lots of Top 100 players is nice in the first couple of days of a Grand Slam tournament. Having one player who can consistently reach the last couple of days of a Grand Slam is much nicer.Here, the U.S. women dominate their peers, and their male counterparts. They hog 12 percent of the world’s female tennis talent — half again as much as runner-up Russia. The U.S. men have just 5 percent of global male talent. The U.S. trails four European nations — Spain, France, Serbia and Switzerland — that combined have less than one-half the population of the U.S.Just five years ago, American men and women were much closer in their global tennis standing. American men held 8 percent of tennis ranking points, compared to 10 percent for women. The women have rebounded slightly while the men have lost ground.American men’s tennis boosters can point to a few reasonable explanations. First, the men’s long-term slump is less precipitous than the women’s. I checked by downloading pre-U.S. Open rankings data from the ATP and WTA websites for prior years, with major help from my colleague, Paul Schreiber. At this stage of the season in 1999 — the first year for which WTA ranking data is available on the WTA website — American women commanded 21 percent of global tennis power. American men held 11 percent. The men have narrowed the gender gap even as they have fallen further behind the rest of the world.2Any comparison can look different depending on which dates we choose to start and end with. The U.S. men’s slow decline over the last 15 years followed a crash, from 26 percent heading into the 1990 U.S. Open and 18 percent in 1994.Globalization also has brought more competition to the men’s game. Over the last few decades, the sport’s footprint has expanded further beyond the traditional bases in the four Grand Slam-hosting nations (the U.S., U.K., France and Australia). This is particularly so in the men’s game. That’s partly because of unequal opportunities; many countries still haven’t given girls the same chance to play sports as boys, or have done so only recently. Economic incentives have also favored the men: The Grand Slams equalized pay only seven years ago, and many other tournaments still pay men more than women. There also are more men’s professional events, which helps explain why there are more ranked male players than female players.The result is that 104 countries have ranked men, compared to just 79 countries with ranked women. That represents an increase of 14 countries from this time in 1999 for the men, but a rise of just four countries for the women.American women also are competing with fewer talent bases around the world. Russia is the only other country with at least 5 percent of the world’s ranked women. Three other countries besides the U.S. have a share that big of all ranked men.Another way to understand the men’s relative struggles is that the Williams sisters might be outliers who skew the whole comparison. Their story often has been described as one of the most remarkable in sports history, and rightly so. Their parents, Richard Williams and Oracene Price, trained them at a very young age with the goal of making each the No. 1 player in the world. Their daughters each achieved that audacious goal, and did so outside the well funded national centers. They have remained so good, past the age that most other women’s greats retired, that they account today for more than one-third of all U.S. women’s ranking points.What if the Williams family had never picked up tennis rackets? Then U.S. women would account for less than 8 percent of global talent today, much closer to their male counterparts.3Comparable earlier figures are 5 percent before the 2009 U.S. Open, 13 percent in 2004 and 17 percent in 1999. American women other than the Williams sisters have rebounded slightly after a steep decline. That group includes a number of young players who could one day enter the Top 10 but so far have performed inconsistently, including Stephens, Christina McHale and Madison Keys. None of them — nor the other three American women who rank behind the two Williams sisters but inside the Top 50 — reached the third round of the U.S. Open.4Remove John Isner and Donald Young, the top two American men, from the sport and the U.S. men’s share of global pro tennis power drops just one percentage point, to 4 percent.Here’s an even more outrageous hypothetical: What if Richard and Oracene had trained two young sons instead of daughters, and Jupiter and Steve had the same success that Venus and Serena have had? American men would hog a greater portion of global tennis talent than American women would today.While that scenario is farfetched, it is rooted in the reality of a sport usually dominated by just a few superstars. Even when American tennis was much deeper than it is today, one or two singular talents carried most of the load for winning big tournaments and contending for No. 1. Jimmy Connors and John McEnroe gave way to Pete Sampras, Jim Courier and Andre Agassi. Those men won 41 of American men’s 46 Grand Slams in the last 42 years. Maybe it’s just a fluke that another player with that kind of talent hasn’t come around since Sampras and Agassi retired — or hasn’t played tennis.As it happens, Richard Williams, who is 72, has a two-year-old son. But if Richard has his way, Dylan won’t help pick up the mantle for the American men. “He’ll never be a billionaire in tennis,” Richard Williams said earlier this year. He wants his son to buy a gold mine. read more

Draws And Politics At The World Chess Championship

On Saturday, as thousands of protesters, dissatisfied with the results of the presidential election, were marching from Union Square to Trump Tower, just a few miles north, the two grandmasters sat down in the spaceship to play again. Game 2, with Karjakin handling the white pieces, began with the all-too-familiar Ruy Lopez opening, a staple of chess for 500 years. The rest of the game was an equally uncreative and plodding affair. One prominent grandmaster on Twitter called certain passages “flaccid.” After just under three hours, and not much else to speak of, they arrived at a second draw. (The computer chess engine Stockfish was in full agreement, seeing both games as nothing but deadlocked.) The last time the World Chess Championship was held in New York City, titleholder Garry Kasparov met challenger Viswanathan Anand on the 107th floor of the south tower of the World Trade Center. They played their first game on Sept. 11, 1995.That tower is now gone, a new one stands nearby, and the grandest board in chess is again set in lower Manhattan. This year, the venue is the new Fulton Market Building in the South Street Seaport, an area of the city that was ravaged by Hurricane Sandy in 2012. It was rebuilt and has been thriving in recent years.The players are different, too. Magnus Carlsen of Norway, ranked No. 1 in the world, is defending his title against Russian challenger Sergey Karjakin, ranked No. 9. The first weekend of their best-of-12 match is in the books, and after two games — and two draws — the score is level at 1-1.This year’s chess venue is sparse and sleek, heavy on concrete and hypermodern black-and-white branding. Large flat-screen televisions dot the open floor, providing live views of the tense and slowly unfolding games. The sellout crowd mills around, stealing meaningful-looking glances at the game on TV, listening to live commentary on headphones, eating sandwiches and playing their own games of speed chess in the cafe’s Eames-style dining chairs.The two grandmasters play alone in a separate room, accompanied only by two stoic match arbiters. On the inside, the room resembles the bridge of a sci-fi spaceship. To the spectators on the outside, though, it evokes a reptile house in a zoo. You enter the dark, hot and humid viewing gallery through thick black curtains. You’re hushed as you enter and reminded to silence your phone. The lights inside are dimmed, and an eerie purple light glows from behind the thick glass of the one-way mirror. You can see Carlsen and Karjakin, leaning in close to each other over the board in deep thought. They can’t see you.In Game 1, Carlsen, playing with the white pieces, chose an unusual opening called the Trompowsky Attack. The joke around the Fulton Market Building on Friday was that he played it as a homophonic nod to the new president-elect. There was truth to the joke. Asked after the game whether his choice had anything to do with Donald Trump, Carlsen replied: “A little bit.”“I’m a big fan of Donald Trump,” Carlsen told Norway’s TV2 in March (in Norwegian). “Trump is incredibly good at finding opponents’ weaknesses. He speaks only about that the other candidates are stupid or smelly. There should be more of this in chess, too.” Carlsen then offered a Trumpism of his own: “Karjakin is incredibly boring!” Karjakin, for his political part, is an avowed supporter of Vladimir Putin.By the end of that first game, each side had pushed its wooden army as far as it’d go — two phalanxes scrumming at the center of the board. No further blood was drawn, however, and the players agreed to a draw after the 42nd move and just under four hours of play. (Draws are quite common in championship chess.) The actor and chess fan Woody Harrelson was on hand for Game 1. The star of “True Detective” brought to my mind that show’s oft-quoted line, bastardized from Nietzsche: “Time is a flat circle.” In chess, and at this championship, what’s old is new again, and moves and characters are strangely familiar. Donald Trump made the ceremonial first move at a qualifying event for that 1995 New York championship, at Trump Tower. And Rudy Giuliani, then the mayor and now rumored to be high on the list to be Trump’s attorney general, made the ceremonial first move in those finals. (Giuliani was late — and made the wrong move.)Carlsen remains the heavy favorite, although his chances according to my Elo-based simulations have dipped from 88 percent at the start to 84 percent now, as Karjakin has held serve.1I simulated 10,000 iterations of the remainder of the match using the players’ current Elo ratings and assumed that they draw half their games, as grandmasters historically tend to do. The players seemed to sense that the large crowds were getting a bit restless. “I ask you for your understanding that this is a long match,” Carlsen said at Saturday’s postgame press conference. “Not every game will be a firework.”Game 3 begins Monday afternoon. I’ll be covering the rest of the match here and on Twitter. read more

The Heat Do as Much Damage in the Fourth Quarter as in

With just over five minutes left in Game 2 of the NBA’s Eastern Conference finals and the Miami Heat trailing by three, LeBron James threw a wild alley-oop attempt toward Dwyane Wade. The ball sailed 10 feet over Wade, off the backboard and into the hands of Indiana Pacers center Roy Hibbert. At that point, the win probability models at InPredictable gave the Heat just a 29 percent chance of winning.Then the Heat turned those probabilities inside out, outscoring the Pacers 15 to 8 in the last five minutes of the game; James and Wade scored all 15 points.Poof! After a frustrating fourth-quarter performance by Indiana, its home-court advantage was gone. The series is tied 1-1.Maybe we should have seen this coming; end-of-game struggles have been all too common for the Heat’s opponents in these playoffs. Through Tuesday night, the Heat have outscored their opponents by an average of 14.7 points per 100 possessions in the fourth quarter, the best mark by any team in the playoffs.Miami Heat Point Differential Per 100 PossessionsThe Heat’s differential by quarter was fairly even in the regular season, although there’s a tilt toward the second half. Miami has often gotten off to slow starts in the playoffs, but, more often than not, the Heat have finished by blowing teams apart down the final stretch. If we narrow the focus to those mystical “clutch” moments (less than five minutes left in the game, neither team ahead by more than five points) the Heat’s per 100 possession point differential jumps to a ludicrous +82.1 (of course, that’s in a sample of just 14 minutes, three of which came in Tuesday night’s game).Seeking matchups to exploit in the fourth quarter has been part of a consistent pattern in the Heat’s rotations. Nine different five-man units have played at least five or more fourth-quarter minutes for the Heat in the playoffs, compared with just four such units in the first quarter. Of those nine units, six have a positive point differential. Only one of those first-quarter units does.Case in point: In Game 2, guard Norris Cole and big man Chris Anderson gave the Heat a boost of energy and defensive intensity off the bench in the first half. Seeing how effective those two were early in this game, Erik Spoelstra, the Heat’s coach, left them in for almost the entire fourth quarter. The key stretch, when the Heat turned a four-point deficit into a six-point lead, came when Cole and Anderson were playing with James, Wade and Chris Bosh. That lineup had not played a single minute for the Heat in the playoffs before Game 2.The Pacers have shown they can compete with, and beat, the Heat. But doing that four times in a series will require much more in-game consistency, because on most nights the Heat are building toward something. read more

Derek Jeter And the Other Worst AllStar Starters of the Past 40

When the American League takes the field in Tuesday’s MLB All-Star Game, Derek Jeter will walk out of the dugout to what is sure to be thunderous applause and take his familiar place at shortstop.That’s nothing new. Jeter, who plans to retire at the end of this season, has been named an All-Star 14 times in his storied career, starting the game at shortstop nine times. This year, though, he’s playing at nothing near an All-Star level. According to wins above replacement (WAR), Jeter has been one of the AL’s worst shortstops this season.It’s tough to get too worked up, though, about Jeter getting the starting nod — however undeserved — in the final All-Star Game of his career. Although Erick Aybar of the Los Angeles Angels almost certainly warranted the accolade instead, baseball has a long history of awarding statistically unjustified All-Star Game starts. Surprisingly, though, the worst All-Star starting bids (since 1974 — excluding 1981, due to the players’ strike — according to FanGraphs’ WAR through the end of June for the season in question) are not exclusively the realm of sentimental picks like Jeter:Forty-year-old Cal Ripken Jr.’s 2001 All-Star Game start was awarded purely out of legacy, and it’s been frequently compared to Jeter’s this week. Ripken, however, had the worst first half of any All-Star Game starter from the past four decades, having played much worse than Jeter has thus far in 2014. Ripken’s first-half triple-slash line in 2001 was .240/.270/.324 (good for a 56 Weighted Runs Created Plus); Jeter’s 2014 line is .272/.324/.322 (80 wRC+), despite playing in a more difficult offensive environment. Jeter may not be playing like a typical All-Star, but he hasn’t been as bad as Ripken was at the same age.Perhaps more interesting is the fact not all — or even most — ill-advised All-Star starting picks went to sentimental selections. Of the 50 worst starters listed above, there are more players under age 30 (18) than 35-or-older (16). For most of the prime-aged players who started the All-Star Game despite poor first halves, though, their presence can be explained by a good season the year prior. This phenomenon is fueled by baseball’s long-standing confusion over whether the All-Star Game is supposed to honor the players who played best in the first half of the season in question, those who played best since the previous All-Star Game, or simply the best players in general.Jeter falls into none of those three categories, but he will carry on the proud tradition of the legacy pick when he takes the field tonight. read more

The ACC Is Having A Bowl Season For The Ages

2015SEC119+9.2+1.7+25.6+5.9 Expected wins and point differentials are according to pre-bowl Elo ratings. Conferences classified as “independent” were excluded from the ranking.Source: College Football at Sports-Reference.com Big 1264+7.3+0.9+19.1+2.7 Pac-1263-10.3-0.4+5.8+1.5 CONFERENCEBOWLSWINSPOINT DIFF./GAMEWINSPOINT DIFF./GAMEWINS Sun Belt64+5.8+1.7+1.4+1.0 VS. EXPECTEDVS. FBS AVERAGE 2013SEC107+3.1+1.0+19.5+4.6 Big Ten103-4.2-1.5+6.4+0.8 Which conference is winning the 2016-17 bowl season? MWC74+2.9+0.1+2.9+0.1 CUSA74+1.2+0.5-2.1-0.0 Expected wins and point differentials are according to pre-bowl Elo ratingsSource: College Football at Sports-Reference.com 1996SEC55+10.0+2.2+27.0+4.0 Independent22-8.5+0.4-6.1+0.5 2002Big Ten75+8.9+2.6+19.8+3.9 It’s also the second-biggest gap for any conference since 1936, trailing only the SEC’s 5.9 excess wins of a season ago.1If you’re curious, here’s the all-time top 10: 2008SEC86+7.0+2.3+18.1+4.2 VS. EXPECTEDVS. FBS AVERAGE 2006SEC96+9.7+2.1+20.7+4.1 2016ACC118+10.3+3.2+18.5+5.0 If Clemson knocks off the historically dominant Crimson Tide in the CFP championship game — and Elo gives that scenario a 33 percent chance of happening — the ACC would take over the No. 1 slot.2Again — this is, in part, a function of there being so many more bowls nowadays. If we limit ourselves to conferences with at least six bowl entries since 1970 (the year bowls stopped matching Division I-A/FBS teams with non-FBS ones), the 2015 SEC ranks seventh on a per-game basis, and the 2016 ACC 16th. But it’s also worth remembering that as a conference’s bowl contingent grows, the quality of its worst bowl-bound teams also decreases, depressing its per-game rating.Now, there are a few caveats to be had there. Although the ACC has won far more than we’d expect against a very tough slate of opponents, it’s also gotten a little lucky in the process. According to the Pythagorean formula, which generates an expected record based on the points a team scores and allows, the ACC’s bowl record should be more like 7-4 than 8-3, which matters when discussing the razor-thin margins atop all-time leaderboards. Relatedly, its adjusted scoring margin (+18.5) doesn’t even rank No. 1 this season; the Big 12 has a +19.1 mark, albeit in half as many games. By contrast, the SEC was +25.6 in bowls last season.ACC teams were favored by Elo in only four of the conference’s 11 bowls, and although one of those favorites lost (Pittsburgh in the Pinstripe Bowl), the rest of the ACC’s bowl teams picked up the slack with five upset victories. (Including Clemson’s 31-0 rout of Ohio State in the Fiesta Bowl.3Although Vegas listed Clemson as 1-point favorites, computer power rankings such as Elo and ESPN’s Football Power Index were (wrongly) slightly higher on the Buckeyes.) When the SEC won nine bowls last season, it was only a slight improvement on the 7.3 they were expected to win going into the bowls. The ACC’s eight wins this year are much more out of step with the 4.8 wins Elo would have predicted, a gap that will grow to 5.5 wins if Clemson upsets Alabama.Regardless of how much good fortune has been involved, however, the ACC has been the class of this year’s bowls. And a Clemson victory on Monday night would add more than just one bragging right to the conference’s trophy case. ACC118+10.3+3.2+18.5+5.0 SEC126-0.5-0.3+11.0+2.7 1998Big Ten55+9.7+2.5+25.9+4.2 2014SEC127-0.5+0.0+14.0+4.0 After Oklahoma cruised past Auburn in Monday night’s Sugar Bowl, college football’s 2016-17 bowl season is nearing its finale. The only game left? Next Monday’s national championship game between Alabama and Clemson, a rematch of last year’s title tilt. That game — a 45-40 Alabama victory — concluded a dominant season for the Crimson Tide’s Southeastern Conference, one that punctuated the first nine-win bowl season by a single conference in college history.But in a surprise twist, it’s Clemson and the Atlantic Coast Conference — not Alabama and the SEC — that are winning the bowl battle once we adjust for expectations. And with the Tigers carrying the conference’s banner into the title game, the ACC has a chance to top last year’s SEC for the most impressive bowl season ever.The ACC has gone 8-3 this bowl season, already the second-most wins by a conference in a single bowl season since the AP poll era started in 1936. (Of course, because bowl season has become so bloated in recent years, this year’s ACC teams have also played in the third-most bowls ever, tied with four other conferences since 2013.) But the ACC’s record is still notable because of its difficulty: FiveThirtyEight’s Elo ratings — which estimate the relative quality of every FBS team — would have expected an average team to go 3-8 against ACC teams’ bowl opponents, losing by an average of 2.7 points per game. Instead, ACC teams have won by 7.6 points per game. That five-win gap between the ACC’s bowl record and what Elo would have expected from an average group of teams is easily the biggest of any conference this season: 2007SEC97+4.3+2.6+15.7+4.9 Most dominant bowl seasons by conference, 1936-2016 MAC60-4.5-2.1-5.7-2.3 YEARCONFERENCEBOWLSWINSPOINT DIFF./GAMEWINSPOINT DIFF./GAMEWINS American72-9.5-2.5-3.0-1.5 read more

Who Are The NBAs Best Defenders Right Now

For the past few seasons, the best defenders in the NBA have been some combination of Draymond Green, Rudy Gobert and Kawhi Leonard. But with Leonard and Gobert out for all or much of the season so far and Green’s production falling off just a bit, we’ve got some new blood in contention to be the NBA’s best defender.To put a number to this, we’ll use data from Second Spectrum that shows us both the total number of shots defended by a player and how much he affected those shots. There are a few ways to get at this, but we’re going to use “quantified shot probability” (qSP) — which determines the expected value of shots defended using shot distance, shot location and defender position, among other variables — and “quantified shot making” (qSM) — which subtracts the expected effective field goal percentage on those shots from the actual eFG to determine how much of an effect the defender had. In other words, does the defender make shots worse? And if so, by how much?We’ve used metrics like this in the past, but the rub with this set is it adjusts for who’s taking the shot, meaning weak defenders who guard bad shooters don’t get as much credit, and defenders tasked with guarding superstars aren’t punished for their assignment — the star’s excellence is baked into the stat.The per possession numbers will look a little different from the overall effect — players like Tarik Black and Marreese Speights have defended a lot of shots very well in short minutes — but this chart should demonstrate that there is a wide spread on defender effect. What we’re missing here, though, is how many shots a defender actually affects. Kevin Durant, Golden State WarriorsThe Warriors are unfair. Draymond Green — for my money the best defensive player in the league — has for whatever reason been a little off during the first quarter of the season, possibly because the Warriors can sleepwalk to a bare-minimum 2-seed. He’s not been bad, mind you, just not quite as dominant as usual. That’s left quite a lot of slack in the Golden State scheme, and Durant has picked up more than his fair share of it. Golden State ranks eighth in defensive rating, down from second a season ago, but that almost feels like a threat more than a falloff given how flat the team has looked at times. Beware, it says, this is a top 10 defense even while almost completely half-assing things, just on the virtue of Kevin Durant showing up to work. Durant has been improving as a defender for years, going back to his time with the Thunder. (If you ever go back and watch the 2016 series between OKC and San Antonio, watch Durant on defense — he was the best defensive big man in that series.) His style is also entirely his own: KD gives up relatively “great” shots — ones his opponents would be expected to turn into 52.3 eFG against an average defender, or about what Austin Rivers gives you as a defender. Not great. But because Durant is so long, so mobile and so smart positionally, the actual shots against him fall at a rate of just 45.2 eFG. This still happens within the overall Golden State system — Andre Iguodala and Steph Curry have similar opponent eFG numbers, albeit on fewer shots defended — but Durant’s role has him not only locking down his own man but also covering up for lapses by his teammates.Green may remain the more important defender for the Warriors — he’s the anchor, and what he does from his position is impossible to replicate. But Durant’s play so far has been the strongest on a Golden State defense that should end up being a top-3-type unit, at minimum. But despite the limitations, these metrics are a pretty good way to look at who’s having the best defensive season. A few players stand out on the list: Honorable mentionGiannis Antetokounmpo and Joel Embiid have both been outstanding through the first quarter of the season, but they don’t have quite the same track record as some of the players listed above. Just the same, neither seems to be a fluke. We’ll be a little more certain how permanent their new defensive excellence is by the All-Star break. The same goes for Kristaps Porzingis, who last season was in the tier just behind Gobert and Green for overall defensive value, but this year fell off early before making up some ground in the past few weeks.Some others seem more like early-season mirages — Josh Richardson, Gary Harris and Eric Gordon are all having excessively good years by the metrics but are playing way above the levels they had in previous seasons.Check out our latest NBA predictions. Anthony Davis, New Orleans PelicansFrom the time he was a rookie, Anthony Davis has had all the tools. He’d block shots and steal alley-oops and tug on his shorts and check the opposing point guard 30 feet from the basket. He came into the league as a destructive defensive force, but for reasons ranging from injury to scheme to sheer offensive burden, Davis’s aggregate effect on the defensive end hasn’t always lived up to the promise of those moments. This season, it has. Davis ranks seventh in the league in shots defended overall, and the defense gets 12.7 points per 100 possessions worse when he sits down. That’s nearly double his defensive on/off split from last season, which was already by far the best of his career.Partly this is because of his partnership with DeMarcus Cousins. Defensive intensity hasn’t always been Cousins’s strong point, and that’s still true today, but he has defended the most shots in the league, and done so while holding opponents to a middle-of-the-road 51.4 eFG on shots he defends. Not great, certainly, but it’s a respectable backstop for the defense.Because of Cousins’s role as a reliable constant, Davis is free to cover more ground without making risky moves to get back into plays. And because of that, his personal foul rate is at an all-time low (2.6 fouls per 100 possessions). This allows Davis to do what he does best — stick to his man, rotate to help in the paint without overextending, and blitz spot-up shooters on the perimeter faster than anyone else his size in the league. Here we’ve got total shots as well as the qSM (the difference a defender makes on each shot) plotted against each other to show who’s affecting how many shots to what degree. This isn’t perfect. For one, a great defender doesn’t simply challenge shots — he denies them from happening, forcing a team to reset its offense. But by the same token, great defenders also work their way back into plays, affecting shots by playing smart help defense and covering acres of ground. Another thing these numbers don’t reflect the is overall quality of the shot — there are a few defenders who don’t depress value of each individual shot by as much as others but who force opponents into low-quality shots in general (through hard work and smart positioning) so that the overall effect is the same. Marcus Smart, Jaylen Brown and Al Horford, Boston CelticsThe Celtic defense has continued to crush opponents. Boston is 18-4, with a league-leading defensive rating (100), the second-lowest effective field goal percentage allowed (48.6) and a roster full of live-bodied defenders who can switch practically any assignment. Even Kyrie Irving is chipping in on the effort. But while every Celtic is doing his part, some parts are more critical than others. It’s undeniably been the play from Smart, Brown and Horford that has carried the Celts so far.Smart does not possess the most graceful set of skills, but what he provides is unmistakable to anyone watching. He’s all over the floor, hounding ball handlers, bodying up on bigger players in the post and bumping cutting players he isn’t even guarding, like a middle linebacker jamming a slot receiver.Brown is a little different. While the Boston defense is built on interchangeable pieces switching and denying an offense space, it also needs players who can stick to their man across multiple screens, then square up and check their man as he plants and drives. Brown has stepped into that role and dominated so far. He can fight over screens (or just outright avoid them) to allow the defense to keep its shape, and he has the quicks to shut down first steps with the length to challenge pull-up attempts.Horford, meanwhile, does not have nearly the same reputation as the other two, but this season, he looks livelier than he has in the past when making switches, and he has defended the most shots of any Celtic. The newfound agility in space is especially important — because the defense will semi-regularly ask him to survive on an island against a wing, but also because his role at the center of the defense requires him to scuttle shooters who’ve just run over two or three screens trying to escape Smart or Brown. read more

The Eastern Conference Battle Just Escalated Quickly

Not everybody has been bought out yet. But there are a few key ones, Tony. Among them: Robin Lopez, who’s thought to be headed to the Warriors. Wesley Matthews, who sounds set on Indiana.natesilver: What if Houston traded Chris Paul for the Lakers’ young guys this summer?Not that crazy if AD goes elsewhere, right?chris.herring: I don’t think the young Lakers shoot well enough to put them around Harden.But that idea is still kind of fascinating. I don’t trust CP3 health-wise beyond this year — especially not with that money he’s making. So they would be smart to get something for him if someone is willing to give them a king’s ransom.natesilver: The 76ers really need a buyout guy. The drop-off from their starting five to their bench is about as steep as you’ll ever see.tchow: Scouring on NBA Twitter right now, and Wayne Ellington (Tar Heel!!) is another name that is being mentioned a lot.chris.herring: Yeah. Ellington def isn’t playing with Phoenix, so he’s another — maybe to the Rockets, even. He waived a no-trade clause to leave Miami, so he’d probably only join a contender.natesilver: Speaking of Philly, the Fultz move actually opens up some cap space, so they could decide to keep Harris and target another max guy if Jimmy Butler leaves.chris.herring: That Harris deal was such a big, interesting move for them.Being able to keep him as insurance depending on what happens with Butler — who isn’t my favorite long-term max option anyway — is huge. Harris is also a lot younger than people realize because Philadelphia is already his fifth team at age 26.tchow: He’s only 26???natesilver: I like it more for the Sixers than a lot of people do, in part because it gives them several different options going forward.chris.herring: Yep.natesilver: Also, if Ben Simmons is your point guard, you need forwards who can make a 3.chris.herring: I was tough on them last year, but can we circle back to the Pistons right quick? Because they are seemingly punting on this season. They gave up Stanley Johnson for Thon Maker, which I don’t mind on its own. Thon could be good. But they dealt away a very decent/good player in Reggie Bullock to the Lakers.neil: And according to our projections, Detroit has a 56 percent chance of making the playoffs!chris.herring: THAT’S WHAT I’M NOT UNDERSTANDINGneil: Same.chris.herring: Like, there’s a possibility they could be trading themselves out of the playoffs.Now, maybe that risk isn’t terrible — especially now, with what happened with the Wizards.neil: Making the playoffs is a pretty low bar, especially in the East. But Detroit has only done it once since 2009.natesilver: Top to bottom, Detroit has to be in one of the worst situations in the league. They’re stuck in that in-between zone, but without very many young assets to pull them out of it.chris.herring: As it stands, they still wouldn’t be in. And I feel like they hurt their chances, if anythingtchow: Yea, I was about to say. Detroit making the playoffs might be surprising, but if you look at the East, who else would be the 7 or 8 seed that seems more probable? 56 percent seems about right to me.neil: The Wizards basically blew everything up. (Although I was a little surprised Bradley Beal wasn’t on the move.)chris.herring: Miami. I trust Erik Spoelstra and that group more than Blake Griffin and the Blakettes.natesilver: If the Pistons decide they want to blow things up, then I wonder if they’d consider moving Blake this summer.chris.herring: I guess they probably want to build around him going forward. But yeah, Blake probably should be moved. He could make several teams really interesting.tchow: Man, I feel so bad for Wizards fans.chris.herring: Yeah. Speaking of the Wizards, I liked the Bulls jumping in on the Otto Porter situation. Some Bulls’ fans didn’t like it. But Chicago has done literally nothing to make itself more appealing to free agents this summer. So they sacrifice that space by getting Porter, who’s young. But they at least have a young vet who is decent on both ends to put around that young core.natesilver: There are so many teams with max cap slots open that some of these “bad” contracts, e.g. Blake or CP3 or maybe Kevin Love, could start to look like assets.All of those guys can still play obviously, but they get very expensive in the back half of their contracts.tchow: Aren’t all those teams waiting for the summer though, Nate?natesilver: Yeah, I think the summer is going to be totally wild. Dallas also cleared a max slot, or close to it.chris.herring: Yeah! The Dallas situation was big. Last week, when we discussed them, we talked about how they didn’t have space. By moving Barnes now, they do. Accelerates the timeline quite a bit, which you obviously want to do now that you have Luka Doncic and Kristaps Porzingis together.chris.herring: LOL neil: I didn’t realize FuckJerry was referring to Jerry Buss.Loltchow: LOLnatesilver: But maybe the Lakers deserve some blame for that. The chemistry around the team is really weird and there are a lot of mixed messages about what their objectives are.chris.herring: Completely. I don’t think it was ever fair to assume they could get the deal done. But I do understand L.A.’s frustration if, as reported, they weren’t even getting counteroffers back from the Pelicans.natesilver: A lot of the better deals of the past few years, like Paul George or Kawhi Leonard or on a smaller scale Mirotic today, are just about teams being opportunistic.Instead of trying to call their shots.chris.herring: Yeah. It would’ve been something had Milwaukee or Toronto been able to land Davis. Probably too big of a gamble for Toronto, and maybe Milwaukee didn’t have enough outside of Giannis.But the gamble for PG paid off; especially considering OKC generally isn’t in play for the biggest free agents because of location.natesilver: It was sorta funny that AD’s list included the Lakers plus three teams that didn’t really have pieces that fit.neil: Yeah, there was another conspiracy theory floating around that that was to provide cover when eventually talks circled “back” to the Lakers.chris.herring: Yeah. It was Lakers or bust this whole time.natesilver: If the Knicks get the No. 1 pick, what are the odds they flip it for Davis? Gotta be at least 50/50, no? It just feels like a very clean transaction.chris.herring: Nate, I think the Knicks would be very well-positioned if they win the lottery. They would have the No. 1 pick (Zion Williamson), two recent lottery guys — in Frank Ntilikina and Kevin Knox — AND the future first-round picks they just got from Dallas.I don’t think too many teams can touch that. Not a whole lot in the way of players who can make a big, immediate impact. But Zion alone is something you can sell to your fans, as well as a boatload of future picks. And now that the Davis saga is being pushed out to the offseason — and with Boston perhaps being put in a weakened situation, given the lack of clarity around Kyrie — the team that wins the lotto could be best position to make NOLA an offer.tchow: Circling back to things that did happen, outside of the AD saga, the story of these trades seems to be about the moves the top Eastern Conference teams made. FWIW, this is how the top of the East looked a week ago, compared to now: neil: I love the East horse race this season! I think the favorite changed hands, like, three times in the last few days. Everyone is making their move now that LeBron is out of the picture.chris.herring: As they should!tchow: The King is gone — the throne is wide-open. It’s like “Game of Thrones” in the Eastern Conference.chris.herring: I really do like the Mirotic trade for Milwaukee. When I tweeted about it, someone said, “Yeah, but how does he help them against Golden State?” Milwaukee hasn’t gotten out of the first round since 2000. They have a real chance to make the finals now, with an elite player, offense and defense and an explosive scheme that allows them to rain threes.tchow: So. Many. Shooters.neil: Right, Ray Allen and Sam Cassell were Bucks the last time they were in a spot like this.chris.herring: Mirotic isn’t perfect. But he really helped AD and the Pelicans down the stretch last year. Can certainly help Milwaukee.tchow: All right, enough about the trade deadline. Who’s ready for the All-Star draft?Check out our latest NBA predictions. chris.herring (Chris Herring, senior sportswriter): While there wasn’t the blockbuster deal that some thought might come at Thursday’s NBA trade deadline, there were plenty of moves — and non-moves — that affected each of the top teams in the East and will factor heavily in the playoff race from here on out.And on the flipside, there are a handful of teams that aren’t in contention that made trades I liked for their future. (And one that did almost nothing, which confuses me.)This is insane, by the way: The way the Pelicans handled this whole scenario is ridiculous.neil: So petty.tchow: The NBA is the pettiest league. But that’s also what makes it the best league.chris.herring: Although the Lakers’ core wouldn’t have had me excited to make a deal, either.neil: No, and I think part of it was New Orleans feeling like planting a flag for the small-market teams of the league. The Lakers can’t just have anyone they want whenever they want.natesilver: If Lonzo Ball and Brandon Ingram had played, like, 20 percent better this season, everything would be so much easier.neil: That’s definitely true.chris.herring: I think the Pelicans’ social media team just called the Lakers’ offer the equivalent of the Fyre Festival. neil: Hard as it is to believe a LeBron James team misses the playoffs.chris.herring: The Clippers are interesting because even after dealing Harris, they aren’t by any means in a bad spot.natesilver: Yeah, the Clippers have a lot of guys on expiring contracts, so they have incentive to play hard.In the abstract, the Kings are not tanking, but our numbers hate Harrison Barnes, so that trade didn’t help their chances at all.chris.herring: I didn’t like that deal for the Kings.I like that they’re going for it. But I didn’t love trading Justin Jackson.The Bulls’ deal for Otto Porter was better, IMO.neil: But it also felt like the Lakers and AD overplayed their hand a little here. It felt like an orchestrated effort to bully the Pelicans into trading a generational player for less than attractive prospects. And the Pelicans didn’t blink.To hear some tell it, out of spite.chris.herring: There were a handful of things that played out today that I didn’t understand.tchow: Fellow Justin Jackson fan here, checking in.chris.herring: Toronto’s deal for Marc Gasol was interesting. He’s a former defensive player of the year but has slowed down. You deal Jonas Valanciunas, Delon Wright, CJ Miles and a second-rounder for him. I don’t know how much better that makes the Raptors. Maybe Gasol is less of a defensive liability, but Valanciunas could beat up on second-string bigs pretty well. And I like Wright’s versatility at times.What did our projections have on that one? The way the Raps handled deadline was interesting. You kept hearing Lowry’s name floated around, etc.neil: Our projections still like Gasol quite a bit. Mainly for his defense.chris.herring: Also, to Nate and Neil’s question about the Lakers, at this point, I’m more interested in how the youngsters play from now on. Many of them had never been through this, with it being public that they’re all for sale. How they respond, how hard LeBron pushes himself and how much the Lakers push him will say a lot about whether they’re in the playoffs. It may not be totally worth it for LeBron to push himself to the limit, given how old he is and how slim a chance they have of taking out the West’s contenders.natesilver: I think literally every player on the roster other than LeBron was rumored to be going to New Orleans at some point, which can’t have helped with morale.chris.herring: Exactly.neil: Probably no coincidence they lost by 40+ on Tuesday.chris.herring: YUP.natesilver: Plus, the Lakers’ plan B isn’t that bad. Sign Klay Thompson or something this summer, give the young guys more chance to develop, and be opportunistic; there are still several ways you could end up with AD, and if you do, you’re going to have a lot more assets to surround him and LBJ with.chris.herring: Some teams surprised me by not making a deal today. I thought Atlanta — with guys like Kent Bazemore, Jeremy Lin — could have dealt away a vet to get something in return. Utah seemed to want Mike Conley, yet Memphis decided not to trade him just yet.But I love Orlando getting Markelle Fultz. They badly need someone at point guard. So I like the first-round pick as a gamble there.tchow: But our projections HATE Fultz, Chris.chris.herring: Of course. He hasn’t been good yet!neil: I don’t think anybody’s projections know what to do with Fultz.natesilver: Fultz isn’t a guy that projection systems are set up to deal with.neil: Right.chris.herring: One team that continues to confuse me some is Houston. They kind of cheaped out. Moved James Ennis for very little. Picked up Iman Shumpert, but also dealt away Nik Stauskas right after landing him in a trade. All seemingly to stay beneath the luxury tax. Those guys could’ve been useful. Maybe not great, but useful. On a team with a ton of injuries and little depth.It would be interesting to know how James Harden views that sort of thing as he’s doing everything by himself, damn-near.natesilver: Shumpert with good coaching/management could be an interesting fit. But yeah, Daryl Morey is sort of a home run hitter, and this felt like him fouling off a few pitches instead.chris.herring: True. They’ve always been bold, when it comes to certain things, that boldness pays off. They washed their hands of Carmelo Anthony a lot earlier than some would have, but they turned things around shortly after. Now the Lakers are interested in picking Melo up off the waiver wire, apparently.tchow: Speaking of Melo, Chris, in the beginning of the chat, you mentioned something about buyouts, and I keep hearing NBA circles talking about a robust or much coveted buyout market this time around. Who are some of the players that are being circled right now? I have no idea why it’s “robust.”chris.herring: neil (Neil Paine, senior sportswriter): Chris, this has to be up there with the most active deadlines ever.chris.herring: So what stood out to you all as the deadline came and went? The trades themselves are over, but a number of teams seem likely to keep an eye on the waiver wire for big names that could become available via buyout.I have to be honest: I loved Milwaukee’s trade for Nikola Mirotic.neil: Yes, a week ago, the Bucks were third-best in the East in our ratings. Now they are No. 1. (At least, in terms of full-strength rating.)chris.herring: They took four second-rounders and the spare parts they got in deals from the past couple of days to get a stretch big who fits their offense perfectly.Tobias Harris is a more complete player than Mirotic, but the fact that they could get the deal done without giving up much on the personnel side was really impressive.natesilver (Nate Silver, editor in chief): What stood out to me is that the biggest losers of the whole trade deadline period were the Lakers and the Celtics, even though they didn’t make any moves. (Well, the Lakers traded for Mike Muscala, but I’m not sure that counts.)tchow (Tony Chow, video producer): It doesn’t.chris.herring: The Sixers could have benefited from a deal like Milwaukee’s.neil: Yes, the Sixers gave up a ton in that Harris deal.tchow: The thing that stood out to me is it seemed like Toronto, Milwaukee AND Philadelphia all made moves with the assumption that their time is NOW. They all seem to believe they can win, if not the NBA Finals, then at least the East. Now, obviously, all three of them (four if you include Boston) can’t make it out on top, so it’ll be interesting to see who, if any, regrets these moves at the end of the season.natesilver: The Celtics were the biggest losers because all three of the other Eastern contenders made trades that make them much tougher outs. Obviously Philly gave up a lot more to do it than Toronto or Milwaukee did, and I agree that the Mirotic trade is the best of the three.chris.herring: That’s interesting, Nate.natesilver: The opportunity cost of not making a move is pretty high if you’re Boston.Especially if they’re now underdogs to make it out of the second round, which won’t help their case for keeping Kyrie Irving.chris.herring: I actually didn’t feel like Boston was a massive loser here. On the one hand, yeah, they didn’t change the roster. But they also seem to have played a role in Anthony Davis not being moved, which is a win in some ways, no? I guess it depends on whether you’re looking at short-term (which you probably have to, since the Celtics are a contender) vs. long-term/summer.neil: Certainly Davis staying in play for the summer is a win for Boston, although Davis’s agent and his father have said he’s not interested in signing long-term in Boston.natesilver: My thing is like: Kyrie has very openly flirted with the idea of leaving. And both the Knicks and the Clippers, two of the most attractive destinations, have totally cleared their books in way that make them very plausible fits for him.chris.herring: That’s certainly truenatesilver: The Celtics have to fade a lot of risks: AD openly griping about going there, Kyrie not leaving, the Knicks getting the No. 1 (or maybe the No. 2?) pick — in which case their offer for AD could be pretty darn attractive — and maybe none of the Lakers players having a breakout in the playoffs, which would make them more attractive trade assets, too.chris.herring: All completely fair.tchow: Yea, if the Celtics get knocked out in the first round or even the second round of the playoffs this year, I feel like they’re going to really regret not making any moves before this deadline.natesilver: Like, what if the Celtics had traded for Tobias Harris as a rental?chris.herring: Maybe I’m just of the opinion that the Celtics doing nothing AND watching AD get dealt to the Lakers would’ve been worse for them.natesilver: The weird thing about Boston is that they don’t have any obvious weaknesses, so they’re a little hard to improve unless you’re actually getting a star. But still…chris.herring: I don’t know if I would have liked them dealing for Harris, who is kind of a taller Jayson Tatum with less upside, given their difference in age.neil: Are the Lakers even going to MAKE the playoffs?tchow: Maybe? Right now, we project them to be a 9 seed.chris.herring: That’s a good question, Neil.natesilver: We have them as 2-to-1 underdogs, although they’re going to benefit from the Clippers semi-tanking. And maybe our numbers don’t account for motivation, as much.tchow: read more

The Warriors Should Be Worried About The Rockets

Embed Code More: Apple Podcasts | ESPN App | RSS | Embed FiveThirtyEight This week on Hot Takedown, we’re joined by FiveThirtyEight editor in chief Nate Silver as we look ahead to the second round of the NBA playoffs and the potential Warriors-vs.-Rockets rematch. Some experts are picking Houston to advance, but our model still favors Golden State. Who’s right? As for the other opening rounds, with the exception of the all-knotted-up Nuggets-Spurs series, the higher seeds seem likely to advance — which leads us to ponder some possible restructuring of the NBA’s playoff format.With the NFL draft starting Thursday, the big question on everyone’s mind is whether the Arizona Cardinals will take Kyler Murray with the No. 1 pick. We discuss Murray’s draft position and take a look at the draft value of quarterbacks in a year when there aren’t a lot of great QB prospects available. As for the teams in general, is it better to draft for need or draft for talent?We’re also introducing a new segment called “Get Off My Field.” This week, Nate thinks there are too many home runs and strikeouts in baseball.Here’s what we’re looking at this week:Chris Herring writes about Russell Westbrook’s continued playoff woes.We’re following the playoffs with our NBA predictions.We eagerly await Kirk Goldberry’s new book, “SprawlBall: A Visual Tour of the New Era of the NBA.”Michael Salfino explores the value of different NFL draft positions.We marvel at Giannis Antetokounmpo laughing in the face of the laws of physics. read more

Freshmen spark Buckeyes in seasonopening victory

For the past two seasons, the Ohio State men’s basketball team was, for the most part, all Evan Turner, all the time. But with Turner now in the NBA, the Buckeyes appear to be, after one game, much more balanced. In Friday’s 102-61 win over North Carolina A&T, five Buckeyes scored in double figures, including freshman forward Deshaun Thomas with a team-high 24 points. Thomas, who scored 15 points in the first half, shot 10 for 16 from the field including 2 for 3 from outside the arc. “I was feeling it,” Thomas said. “When you’re on the bench, you have to be ready to play and play hard, and that’s what I did.” Known for his prolific scoring in high school, Thomas admitted that it took him a while to get up to speed in other areas of the game, specifically his defense. Though Thomas might not be quite as good as he needs to be yet, coach Thad Matta said the freshman showed how much he’s improved with his performance. “Deshaun has been so focused on his defense in practice,” Matta said. “We always tell the guys, ‘When you focus on the defense the offense will come’ and I think he found it today.” Freshman Jared Sullinger, despite a less-than-stellar first half in which he played just eight minutes and scored only three points, finished with 19 points in his OSU debut. But it was his 14 rebounds that Sullinger said were most important. “What I focus my game on is how many rebounds I get,” Sullinger said. “That’s something that has been established by my brothers and my father. (My father) being my basketball coach in high school, he told me if I don’t get a lot of rebounds, I’m not trying hard.” Senior center Dallas Lauderdale recorded his first career double-double with 12 points and 13 rebounds to go along with eight blocks, and guards William Buford and David Lighty both scored in double figures, with 11 and 10 points, respectively. The Buckeyes play at No. 11 Florida on Tuesday. read more

Lavender leads Buckeyes to Big Ten Tournament title

INDIANAPOLIS — The Ohio State women’s basketball team slogged through confetti and streamers as it cut down the nets after claiming its third consecutive Big Ten Tournament title Sunday. Following a Feb. 6 loss to Northwestern at the Schottenstein Center, the Buckeyes had a 4-6 record in Big Ten conference play, and their future seemed bleak. Fast-forward to 3:30 p.m. Sunday. OSU (22-9), the Big Ten Tournament’s No. 5-seeded team, was tipping off in the championship game against No. 2-seeded Penn State (24-9) at Conseco Fieldhouse. Fast-forward again to about 5:25 p.m. At that moment, the Buckeyes were hoisting the Big Ten Tournament championship trophy above their heads at midcourt as confetti showered over them. The title was the fourth in program history. Senior center Jantel Lavender and junior guard Samantha Prahalis propelled the Buckeyes to the victory, grabbing a game-high 23 points apiece. Lavender, Prahalis and sophomore guard Tayler Hill were named to the Big Ten All-Tournament team. Lavender was also named the tournament’s Most Outstanding Player. The Buckeyes’ heroes of the quarterfinal and semifinal rounds were senior guard Brittany Johnson and Lavender, respectively, and it appeared that Prahalis assumed that role in the first half against Penn State. The Lady Lions led, 12-8, at the first media timeout, thanks to a balanced offensive attack led by junior guard Zhaque Gray. Prahalis had an early answer for Gray, scoring six points in the first half during a 13-4 run that put OSU ahead, 21-12, with just more than 11 minutes until halftime. The teams went on to match each other nearly bucket for bucket, for much of the first half. Prahalis continued to drive the Buckeyes’ offense, accumulating 14 points and three assists. Prahalis said Penn State’s defense allowed her open looks at the basket. “I had a lane,” she said. “Every night is different for me. It’s just what the game brings.” Lavender added nine points of her own as OSU took a 44-39 lead to finish the half. But eight points from Gray and 12 from Penn State sophomore guard Alex Bentley meant the Big Ten title was far from decided. But the Buckeyes were within 20 minutes of accomplishing a goal that seemed unattainable in early February. A determined Lavender opened up a personal 6-0 run to extend the Buckeyes’ lead. Then, a steal and some quick passing led to an easy layup for her, which extended the lead to 59-46 in the second half. OSU supporters cheered, and Lavender signaled to the fans for even more noise as she ran back on defense. Hill drilled a step-back jumper to increase the Buckeyes’ advantage to 63-49 with less than 13 minutes remaining. OSU was on its way. Penn State redshirt sophomore forward Mia Nickson scored 15 points, with 11 coming in the second half. But it wasn’t enough to help the Lady Lions claw back into the contest. Bentley misfired on numerous 3-point attempts as OSU extended its lead. Johnson missed a 15-foot jumper after nearly letting the shot clock expire, and Lavender hauled in the offensive rebound with 2:12 remaining. The Buckeyes retained possession for the remainder of the game, coasting to an 84-70 win. Lavender credited the win, at least in part, to OSU’s experience in prior Big Ten title games. “I definitely think our experience here has helped us win this game,” Lavender said. “I think us having that experience in the last three years (helped us to) just deal with three games in three days.” That’s exactly what the Buckeyes did. OSU had to overcome No. 4-seeded Iowa, No. 1-seeded Michigan State and No. 2-seeded Penn State before the indoor fireworks could be detonated overhead at Conseco Fieldhouse. Each opponent presented a different challenge, but the Buckeyes were up to the task. By virtue of its 10-6 regular-season record in conference play, OSU earned a bye into the tournament’s quarterfinals and began play Friday against the Hawkeyes (22-8). Lavender and Prahalis, the Buckeyes’ top two scorers, were slow to get involved on the offensive end of the court that night, but Johnson picked up the slack. Johnson scored a season-high 23 points on 8-of-16 shooting, and her 7-of-14 shooting from 3-point range was instrumental in OSU’s 71-61 win. “I was just in the zone, I guess,” Johnson said following the game. “I just wanted to step up and help my teammates out. That’s what I did.” After her team suffered elimination from the tournament, Iowa coach Lisa Bluder said Johnson is a threat on the court. “You’ve got to know where she is all the time,” Bluder said. “She is a really, really good 3-point shooter.” On day three of the tournament, OSU played Michigan State (26-5) with a berth in the championship game on the line. Lykendra Johnson, Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year, was standing between the Buckeyes and a third consecutive tournament title — literally. But Lavender made quick work of her with a historic performance. Lavender torched the Spartans for 37 points, a Big Ten Tournament single-game scoring record, en route to a 72-57 win. Lavender also tied the tournament’s single-game record with 15 field goals on 15-of-20 shooting to help the Buckeyes get to Sunday’s championship game. With his team on the doorstep of history, OSU coach Jim Foster lauded the Buckeyes’ focus after Saturday’s win. “We’re smart enough, patient enough,” Foster said. “Good teams don’t get real high and don’t get real low. We just go about our business.” Despite her record-breaking performance, Lavender did not emphasize her personal accomplishments, but focused instead on what her team did well in its three wins against the Spartans this year. “The times that we’ve played Michigan State our team has really (understood) who we are as a team,” Lavender said. “It’s not any different situation, except for the number by our team is No. 5, and I think we’re playing like the No. 1 seed right now.” Lavender said after Saturday’s win that she “likes playing at Conseco Fieldhouse.” Sunday’s championship game against the Lady Lions afforded her, along with senior teammates Johnson, guard Alison Jackson and forward Sarah Schulze, a chance to exit the arena as Big Ten champion one last time. Foster said the 2010–11 team is better than the previous two teams he coached to Big Ten titles. “I would say this was the best team of the last three,” Foster said. “I think how we won this is a reflection of that.” With the win, the Buckeyes clinched the Big Ten’s automatic berth to the NCAA Tournament. The Buckeyes now await the announcement of their seeding and opponent. With the NCAA Tournament still to come, Prahalis said her team has a good sense of where it is and where it’s been. “We’re very confident,” she said. “We don’t forget where we was a month ago. All we have is each other.” OSU will represent the Big Ten in the NCAA Tournament for the ninth consecutive year. read more