Friday, January 20, 2017

2017 NFL Conference Championship Preview

We're down to the final four, and elite quarterbacks are the story in the NFL Playoffs.

It's conference championship weekend, and I'm trying to repress memories of what happened the last time my Packers made it this far. Fortunately, it's a different opponent and a different year, where anything can happen. On the other side, a pair of quarterbacks who have run this rodeo before return, as the two of them combined with the recently retired Peyton Manning have been to all but one of the last like 15 Super Bowls. For a league that claims to be all about parity, the AFC seems to run counter to that.

So without further ado, let's look at the two games coming up on Sunday.

Thursday, January 19, 2017

Game Notes: (WBK) Carthage College @ North Central College (1/18/17)

Final Score
NCC 87, Carthage 82

Game Summary
This was another competitive game, but the Cardinals (10-6, 4-3) had early control in this one as they led 14-6 five and a half minutes in thanks to domination in the paint. But the Lady Reds (8-7, 3-4) stayed with it and took their first lead with two minutes to play at 18-17, and added a couple free throws before the end of the quarter. The second quarter saw a fair amount of back and forth, with the Lady Reds leading by as many as six early before the teams started swapping leads. Carthage started to get a little separation late in the frame though, and took a 45-37 lead into the break. The Cardinals opened the second half guns blazing, hitting a couple threes, but Carthage had an answer to push the lead to nine. North Central responded with a 7-2 mini run to pull back within two, and eventually tied the game and grabbed the lead at the free throw line. Carthage answered with a three, but the Cardinals hit back to back triples to grab a four point lead, then added a pair of free throws before a Carthage basket cut the lead back to 65-61 going into the final frame. The Lady Reds wasted no time tying the game in the fourth, then the teams started swapping leads again before Carthage tied the game again at 79. The Cardinals hit four straight free throws, the Lady Reds got a three to make it a one point game again, but that was it, as the Cardinals answered with a layup, and iced the game with a pair of free throws with five seconds left.

Key Stats
  • Jamie Cuny (NCC): 4-10 FG (2-8 3PT), 6-8 FT; 16 pts, 8 reb (2 off), 2 ast, 6 blk, 2 stl. Jamie made her presence felt early, as she had three blocks in the first few minutes of the contest. It forced Carthage to start to back off a little bit, but she still made an impact at that end as well as on the glass. She was crucial during the second half on offense though, getting a couple layups to go as well as hitting a couple key threes, and she iced the game at the stripe.
  • Jessica Dahle (NCC): 4-10 FG (4-9 3PT), 2-2 FT; 14 pts, 1 reb. Dahle had a career high last night, which was key with no one else really having their threes fall (see below). She's got a pretty bright future in The System given her shooting, and Michelle Roof raved about her after the game last night.
  • Maddie Kaelber (CTG): 6-18 FG (4-14 3PT); 16 pts, 4 reb, 5 ast, 3 stl. The freshman would be a good fit in The System, considering she shot the most threes out of anybody. She looked pretty good, even though the shooting numbers don't really bear that out. She had plenty of open looks, and shot when she had them. Between her and Autumn Kalis, the Lady Reds shot their way back into the game after the early deficit and that kept them afloat.
North Central System Watch
  • Carthage Turnovers: 24. This number is a little low for what you'd like against The System, but it worked well enough. The Lady Reds were able to break the press multiple times for easy layups (they had 22 fast break points), but as the game wore on they started to get a little sloppy. The Cardinals forced 14 steals, paced by four from Anita Sterling. while Siarra O'Neill, Jamie Cuny, and Paula Zerante each notched two. North Central also forced a ten second backcourt call in the third quarter.
  • NCC 3PT: 9-49 (18.4%). Ye gods. It's been a struggle the last three times out for the Cardinals, as the box score shows a bunch of players with oh-fers. The most notable among the Cardinals last night were Caroline Heimerdinger (0-5), Michaela Reedy (0-4), Maya Walls (0-4), and Anita Sterling (0-4). The only redeeming part of last night was the third quarter, when the team heated up a little bit and shot 5-15 from beyond the arc, but they were ice cold in the fourth quarter, going 1-11. That they got away with it is something of a miracle.
  • NCC Charges Drawn: 0. Paula Zerante should have gotten one, but was called for a block instead. I don't think she was in the circle, and she was set, so I think there was a bad call that cost her. Carthage did commit an illegal screen in the second half that was pretty obvious from where I was sitting. The Carthage fans were not pleased, but a number of people after the game commented that they enjoyed my call of it (other than threes, opposing offensive fouls are my favorite thing to announce, because they're the best defensive plays you can make. Also, the charge needs to be kept as an official stat.)
CCIW Scoreboard Watch
Final Thoughts
I posited over on D3Boards that last night's game was a critical one, and it was: both teams were tied for fifth in the CCIW and needed a win to at least go into the second half of CCIW play with four wins to have a shot at the tournament. For the Cardinals to pick up a win like this, on a night where the threes weren't falling, especially against what I understand might be the team's biggest conference rival (something about a fight several years ago when I was an undergrad... I missed that game.) The win puts the Cardinals in fifth place, just a game out of a CCIW Tournament spot.

The Cardinals are on the road for a pair now, traveling to Elmhurst on Saturday for a key game that would put the Cardinals in fourth with a win, and then Carthage gets a shot at revenge next Wednesday up in Kenosha, where North Central hasn't won since 2006. That will be a good tuneup with Wheaton coming to town a week from Saturday to decide the fate of the universe.

Friday, January 13, 2017

2017 NFL Divisional Preview

We're fast approaching another weekend, and the NFL playoffs are in full swing. Just eight teams remain in the quest for the Lombardi Trophy, and the four best teams from this past season are back in action this weekend.

All in all, last weekend was relatively uneventful unless you're one of the idiots who's blowing the whole Giants-On-The-Boat thing out of proportion. Them spending the off day with their families back home or whatever probably wouldn't have changed their defense getting torched by Aaron Rodgers in the final 35 minutes of the game.

So with that out of the way, let's take a look at the four games on tap this weekend.

Thursday, January 12, 2017

Game Notes: (WBK) Augustana College @ North Central College (1/11/17)

Final Score
Augustana 83, NCC 76

Game Summary
This one started out okay as the Cardinals (9-6, 3-3) were able to get some early points, but the Vikings (11-3, 4-1) went on a 12-0 run to open up a ten point lead, which they would carry into the second quarter. The Vikings kept up the pace, leading by as many as 13 before taking a 47-35 lead into the locker room. North Central trailed by 17 early in the third quarter, but rallied to cut the lead to seven, but the Vikings closed the quarter on a 12-2 run to take a 67-50 lead into the final quarter. They kept it up early in the fourth and pushed the lead to 20. Just a couple minutes into the frame though, the Cardinals woke up and caught fire, exploding for a 19-2 run to cut the deficit to three. But the Vikings had a sustained possession that resulted in a pair of free throws, and North Central ran out of steam at the end.

Key Stats
  • Kaycee Kallenberger (AUG): 6-16 FG (0-1 3PT), 2-3 FT; 14 pts, 18 reb (7 off), 7 blk, 1 stl. I think the three attempted by Kallenberger was a typo in the stats, but whatever. Kallenberger should have done better from the floor, as she blew quite a few clean looks at layups, but she more than made up for it on the glass and on the defensive end. Her seven blocks are the most I can remember against the Cardinals in my tenure.
  • NCC: 16-27 FT (59.3%). This has been an alarming trend all year, and it continued at a bad time for the Cardinals. North Central hit just five of 12 free throws in the third quarter when they were making a mini run, and even just hitting three or four of those misses makes it a totally different ball game. The lesson, as always: make your damn free throws.
  • Shannon Ryan (NCC): 6-6 FG (3-3 3PT), 3-6 FT; 18 pts, 1 reb (1 off), 1 ast, 4 stl. Ryan had a monster game and did a decent Mayson Whipple impersonation. She had confidence getting to the rim at times, and was hitting her threes when a lot of other players were struggling. She'll need to continue to step up the rest of the way.
North Central System Watch
  • Augie Turnovers: 32. I thought for sure the way the game was going, NCC would end up with more turnovers than Augustana, but that was not the case. Augie had its struggles against North Central's press despite running one themselves, as the Cardinals picked up 16 steals led by four apiece from Ryan and Diamond Calicott.
  • NCC 3PT: 13-42 (31.0%). To be fair, this number is a little misleading. It was an awful night early on as the Cardinals were 7-30 after three quarters, and just 5-21 at the half. This is the second straight game of some struggles, though that fourth quarter rally skewed the numbers a little bit.
  • NCC Charges Drawn: 2+. I didn't do a great job of keeping track, but Anita Sterling drew two just in the fourth quarter alone. I think she may have had at least one more earlier on as well. Augie committed a number of offensive fouls, with Kallenberger picking up two on the offensive end in the first half.
CCIW Scoreboard Watch
  • @ Wheaton 73 (10-3, 4-1), Carroll 43 (1-12, 1-4)
  • @ Illinois Wesleyan 93 (9-5, 4-1), North Park 54 (8-7, 1-5)
  • Elmhurst 87 (11-3, 3-2), @ Millikin 57 (7-8, 1-5)
  • BYE: Carthage (8-5, 3-2)
  • (MBK): @ Carroll 72 (8-6, 3-2), NCC 65 (8-7, 2-4)
Final Thoughts
This one hurt. I figured going in that we would be in for a barn burner, but it didn't end up happening with the Cardinals' struggles from the line and beyond the arc. This was a winnable game, especially given that five minute stretch where the Cardinals exploded. It got the crowd into it, and I haven't heard Merner that loud for a long time. The video above doesn't do it justice. It also doesn't do justice to how that 19-2 run nearly killed me. I don't know how much more I could have turned it up had the Cardinals tied the game.

Big picture wise, this one hurt. The Cardinals are still in the mix at 3-3 in the CCIW, but that's only good for sixth place now. All three losses have come from that three-headed monster atop the standings, and two of those losses have come at home. But all three losses were by single digits, Wesleyan has had some injury issues, Wheaton might not be as good as they've been in years past, and this Augie team can be beat. That's what made last night so tough. Coach Roof said after the game what I mentioned already: free throws and threes. If they do a little better there, last night's game would have been the stuff of legend. It still is to a degree, but the result wasn't what I would have liked.

The Cardinals are on a bye this weekend, which will be good for them to rest up a little bit and prepare, because their next game is a key one at home against Carthage. The Lady Reds are a half game up on the Cardinals pending Saturday's result, and with only the top four teams making the CCIW Tournament, it's a critical matchup for standings position even though there are still 10 games left.

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

2016 Death to the BCS Playoffs: Championship

It's Tuesday morning, the National Championship Game in the College Football Playoff saw a titan toppled at the last second, but in an alternate reality, the Death to the BCS Playoffs reaches its conclusion tonight as well.

About a month ago, at the conclusion of the regular season, I took the ten conference "champions" (in quotations because Penn State was banned from the Death to the BCS Playoffs, and I cannot tell you how much schadenfreude I got from them losing to USC) and six deserving at large teams entered a tournament to decide a national champion slightly differently from what the College Football Playoff did.

Our first round saw a few upsets, including reality's national champion getting bounced by a #14 seed. The quarterfinals and then the semifinals saw the home teams advance, however, so we got a #1 versus #2 matchup in this year's title game.

Like in prior years, the Death to the BCS Championship Game is played at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, so the weather in Pasadena at kickoff time is taken into account. I decided to just simulate this title game as a best of three, with the "clinching" game serving as the official result. Depth chart information for each team will be taken from Don Best's handicapping website. All simulations are provided by Let's crown a champion.

Monday, January 9, 2017

Game Notes: (MBK) North Park University @ North Central College (1/7/17)

Final Score
NPU 76, NCC 73

Game Summary
The Cardinals (8-6, 2-3) got off to a good start inside, and went outside a little bit as well to jump out to an early 8-4 lead. The Vikings (10-2, 3-2) hung around however and eventually turned it into a game of traded leads before hitting back to back threes to take a five point lead. The Cardinals would trail by as many as seven in the first half and would close the gap to just one with about a minute left, but a foul on a three led to three free throws and a 39-35 North Park lead going into the break. In the second half the Vikings caught fire from beyond the arc and were able to build a couple of ten point leads, and with 10:42 left made it a 14 point game. An 8-2 Cardinal run narrowed the gap to eight, and North Central kept up the pressure from there and would tie the game at 71 with just over two minutes to play. North Park answered with a second chance bucket, North Central tied it again with a minute to go, and a foul with 27 seconds to go led to a pair of free throws to make it 75-73. The Cardinals blew a wide open layup, forced a foul, and the Vikings only hit one to make it a three point game with 16 ticks left. North Central committed an offensive foul, intentionally fouled, saw North Park miss both free throws, and called a time out, but the desperation three fell short both on time and on distance as the Vikings escaped Gregory Arena with a win.

Key Stats
  • Colin Lake (NPU): 5-11 FG (3-7 3PT), 5-5 FT; 18 pts, 1 reb, 2 ast, 2 stl. As a team, North Park was excellent from beyond the arc, but Lake led the effort with a trio of triples and those three free throws right at the end of the first half to make a one point game a four point game. Lake also had a pair of steals to help key North Park forcing the Cardinals into mistakes.
  • Jordan Robinson (NPU): 4-5 FG (1-2 3PT), 5-8 FT; 14 pts, 6 reb (2 off), 4 ast, 2 stl. The early favorite for CCIW Player of the Year did not disappoint, though he only played 27 minutes, getting pulled in the first half with two fouls. These numbers don't scream "Player of the Year" caliber, but Erwin Henry did a good job limiting him, though he still got his. He hit what turned out to be the game-winning free throws, even taking into account that he missed three of them in the final seconds that nearly caused him to wear goat horns.
  • Alex Sorenson (NCC): 10-16 FG (1-3 3PT), 2-4 FT; 23 pts, 11 reb (4 off), 2 ast, 1 blk. North Park is a smaller team, so getting Sorenson going was a key in this game, and he got the Cardinals off to that hot start. He was almost unstoppable in the paint, but he missed that wide open layup on the same called play that tied the game at 73. It ruined an otherwise excellent night for the preseason All-American.
CCIW Scoreboard Watch
  • @ Carroll 66 (7-6, 2-2), Millikin 49 (2-11, 0-4)
  • @ Carthage 75 (10-3, 4-1), Elmhurst 67 (5-8, 1-3)
  • @ Illinois Wesleyan 84 (11-3, 3-2), Wheaton 75 (6-7, 2-2)
  • BYE: Augustana (10-3, 3-1)
Final Thoughts
This one hurt. North Park is one of the better teams in the conference, and they showed why with a gutsy road win. I didn't even mention North Park's Juwan Henry, who went 7-16 from the floor for 17 points, four assists, and three steals, and hit his usual bevy of tough layups and step back jumpers. Dude is the most talented offensive player I've seen in my time working Division III basketball. I've also been hard on the Vikings, him and Jordan Robinson in particular for their demeanors the past two years, but I have nothing to nit pick about this year. Both were gentlemen on Saturday, so maybe they've finally matured, and that's part of why North Park is such a good team this year.

I definitely think the Cardinals miss Connor Raridon. Guys like Tommy Koth and Matt Cappelletti, who have seen some extended time of late, especially the latter, are good rotation pieces, but it's hard to replace Connor's production. He was still in a cast on Saturday, and I don't know anything further about his prognosis, but the Cardinals need to start winning games and stay afloat for when he returns.

The Cardinals embark on a three game road trip with a bye in between, starting with their first game against Carroll in a quarter century up in Waukesha on Wednesday night. The Pioneers have adjusted fairly well to the CCIW, sitting at 2-2 so far, but for the Cardinals this is as close to a "must-win" game as you can get without it actually being "must-win."

Game Notes: (WBK) North Park University @ North Central College (1/7/17)

Final Score
NCC 88, NPU 87

Game Summary
Early on, it looked like the Cardinals (9-5, 3-2) were going to have their way in this game as they scored the game's first nine points. But the Vikings (8-6, 1-4) shot their way back into the contest from beyond the arc, though early foul trouble got the Cardinals to the line early and often, which was enough to keep North Central up 27-24 after one. The Vikings stole momentum immediately in the second quarter, tying the game on their first possession, then grabbing their first lead the next time down. North Park would lead by as many as seven, but a 10-2 Cardinal run flipped the script and got NCC back in front, as they took a 45-41 lead into the locker room. North Park came out strong in the third quarter, and managed to overcome leads of as big as six to tie the game, but the Cardinals had an answer every time, and would go into the fourth quarter up 68-64 after a late North Park three. Back to back Cardinal threes early in the fourth gave North Central an eight point lead, but a 7-0 Viking run made it a one point game. North Park would tie the game at 80, and then again at 85, but both times the Cardinals answered with a huge three, and after a layup with 52 seconds to go, it was a one point game. The Cardianls weren't able to get a bucket, and the Vikings had 20 seconds to win the game. A missed jumper was tipped out of bounds by the Cardinals with 7.8 left, allowing for one final attempt, but it was blocked, and North Central was able to run out the clock.

Key Stats
  • NPU: 13-36 3PT (36.1%). Usually against The System you don't see a ton of threes taken, but North Park has some good shooters on their team. Liz Rehberger, after going off for 42 last year, only scored 14 but went 4-8 from deep, while freshman Emmy Gryna hit five of 13 from beyond the arc. This kept North Park in the game.
  • NCC: 24-35 FT (68.6%). I've been taking note of late about North Central's free throw shooting; they've been struggling for much of the year, but this was a key for the Cardinals' victory tonight. North Park committed nine fouls in the opening quarter alone, and the Cardinals were able to take advantage of the opportunities for free points. This is crucial going forward.
  • Jamie Cuny (NCC): 2-6 FG (2-5 3PT); 6 pts, 4 reb (1 off), 1 ast, 5 blk. Jamie's been battling recurring injuries to her shoulder for much of the season, which is probably why she didn't start on Saturday. But she didn't look the part of an injured player; she made an impact on defense early on, but it was her clutch play late that sealed the deal. She hit a three to make it 83-80 North Central, then hit what ended up being the game-winner inside of two minutes. And to top it all off, she had the key block of Shaylee Sloan with time running out to seal the victory.
North Central System Watch
  • NPU Turnovers: 28. North Park had the predictable troubles with the press, though most of their turnovers came from North Central's 20 steals. Paula Zerante had four, Diamond Calicott picked up three, and five Cardinals each notched two. The Cardinals also forced a backcourt violation that I motioned for for a second or two at the table before the trailing ref made the call... but in hindsight, we may have gotten away with it. Oh well, it makes up for a five minute stoppage for a shot clock reset on a ball that clearly hit the rim.
  • NCC 3PT: 10-46 (21.7%). Usually when there's a shooting night like this where seemingly everything was rimming out, you'd expect a North Central loss. But they hit threes when they needed to, and got enough of an effort at the line and in the paint from players like Natali Dimitrova to overcome the rough night and get the win.
  • NCC Charges Drawn: 1. Anita Sterling was back at it, drawing one in the early going. Paula Zerante tried to draw one in the final minute but didn't get the call, possibly due to a lack of contact.
CCIW Scoreboard Watch
  • @ Carroll 75 (1-11, 1-3), Millikin 73 (7-6, 1-4)
  • Elmhurst 59 (10-3, 2-2), @ Carthage 56 (8-5, 3-2)
  • @ Illinois Wesleyan 66 (8-5, 3-1), Wheaton 65 (9-3, 3-1)
  • BYE: Augustana (10-3, 3-1)
Final Thoughts
I was nervous about this game going into it. North Park insiders noted a struggling Viking team, but that wasn't the team I saw come into Merner on Saturday. North Park played this road game about as well as you can play a road game, and just came up short. Meanwhile for the Cardinals, it was a great home win and their third straight in CCIW play. After that tough 0-2 start with five point losses to the preseason favorites, the Cardinals have taken advantage of the teams they're supposed to, and they're right in the thick of the race.

This was a huge win especially in light of the fact that North Central was less than 100 percent. Siarra O'Neill did not dress for this one, and Mayson Whipple is out for the rest of the year after suffering an injury in the Roosevelt Classic a week and a half ago. Fortunately, players like Paula Zerante and Caroline Heimerdinger stepped up and filled her shoes. Zerante took over Mayson's point guard spot on the Hero Line, and played very well considering she was in foul trouble pretty much the whole night.

North Central has another tough test on Wednesday as they welcome in Augustana. The Vikings are undergoing a resurgence under head coach Mark Beinborn, who has instituted an up-tempo offense that has the Vikings second in the CCIW in scoring. We're going to be in for a barn burner, and possibly the second game this season where the combined scoring record gets broken, but it's also a crucial game between CCIW Tournament contenders.