Monday, January 22, 2018

Once More Into the Gauntlet

I'm running a little behind on this feature, but it's one that I need to run.

Ever since I took over the PA gig at North Central, I've always taken a look at the conference standings at the halfway point of the schedule. It's good to get a look at what's going on and see where everyone stands with seven (or now, eight, with Carroll's return to the conference) games to play.

In a week and a half I'll have a look at where North Central stacks up regionally, but that's only because that's when the NCAA releases its regional rankings. For now, we're going to stick with the conference standings, for both the men and the women. Pictured at the start of each section will be a screenshot of the conference standings pulled from the Confessions of a Sportscaster sidebar as of Monday, January 22nd.

Saturday, January 20, 2018

2018 NFL Conference Championship Preview

After a decent picking weekend in the Wild Card round, I whiffed pretty badly in the Divisional Round. I went 1-2-1 against the spread and 1-3 straight up. Clearly, I needed to listen to Gregg Easterbrook's continued wisdom about the higher seeds being more successful in the divisional rounds.

And thus Championship Weekend is upon us, as we have our final four teams left. Three of the four quarterbacks still standing are quarterbacks who, before the season, I would have laughed at you for saying made it to this point; the fourth is Tom Brady.

But what happens from here? Let's take a look at each of the conference championship games.

Saturday, January 13, 2018

Game Notes: (MBK) Wheaton College @ North Central College (1/13/18)

Final Score
NCC 75, Wheaton 66

Game Summary
This was a fantastic game. Alex Sorenson got the Cardinals (11-4, 5-2) off to the early 2-0 lead, but the Thunder (11-4, 5-2) answered with an 8-0 run to take early control of this one. About four minutes in, it was a 13-4 lead for the Thunder and they seemed poised to make it a laugher. But the Cardinals found their poise and hit some key shots to get back into it, finally tying the game at 28. It turned into a back and forth affair the rest of the half, ending with a tie at 41. Wheaton took the early advantage in the second half, escaping a 43-all tie to take a four point lead, but the Cardinals fought back to trade a couple leads before Wheaton took another four point edge with 8:06 left. Over the next six minutes, the Cardinals embarked on a 10-0 run to take a six point lead and force a timeout, then scored six of the next seven over the next couple minutes to end the contest.

Key Stats
  • Alex Sorenson (NCC): 9-15 FG (1-2 3PT); 19 pts, 10 reb (4 off), 2 ast, 3 blk, 1 stl. After having three straight monster performances at home, Alex has come back down to earth the last few games. He was still a key part of this win, notching nine points and four boards in the first half, while not having to worry about foul trouble. He then was a key part of North Central's offense in the second half, scoring the basket that gave North Central the lead for good, then added the insurance bucket for good measure. He also played phenomenal defense, and again, didn't have to worry about playing conservatively, as he finished the night with just two fouls.
  • Connor Raridon (NCC): 2-8 FG, 3-4 FT; 7 pts, 6 reb (1 off), 6 ast, 2 blk. Connor seems to have settled in this season primarily as the facilitator. He didn't have a particularly good night, having to work pretty hard to get into a good shooting position in the post, but he hit a key jumper that capped the 10-0 run and forced a Wheaton timeout with 2:20 to play. The fact that he keeps going in and getting rebounds, finding open players for baskets, and playing excellent defense just adds to his work.
  • Aston Francis (WHE): 10-26 FG (8-18 3PT), 3-4 FT; 31 pts, 7 reb (1 off), 2 ast, 1 blk, 1 stl. Francis has been an absolute monster this season, and coming off a 40 point outing at Augustana on Wednesday, he was the player to watch tonight. He was hot early on, hitting a bunch of contested threes that really got Wheaton in the driver's seat in the first half. But the Cardinals kept getting bodies on him and made him work, as shown by the fact that he needed 26 shots to get his 31. Also a key factor: Francis had six turnovers in this one.
Mike Schauer Watch
The Wheaton head coach is getting his own mini feature this season because he's one of the more fiery in-game coaches in the CCIW (though nowhere near the top of the list). Last year he demanded an out of the box warning to get the refs to listen to him (he was granted said warning) and would later do his best Grey Giovanine impersonation complete with suit coat rip off regarding what probably should have been a shot clock violation. This year, he got upset with some of the foul calls. I can't totally blame him; North Central jumped out to a 10-2 advantage in fouls early in the first half before Wheaton got the benefit of six of the next seven foul calls. The anti-Wheaton trend carried over into the second half as the Cardinals got into the bonus fairly early. Again he complained about the clock, as supposedly it started way too early in the final minute. I didn't get a good enough look, but he made a major scene of it, yelling at the table about how "this happens every time we come here!"

CCIW Scoreboard Watch
  • @ AUG 66 (12-3, 4-2), CRL 62 (4-11, 0-6)
  • IWU 76 (12-3, 5-1), @ NPU 75 (4-10, 1-5)
  • @ CAR 63 (9-6, 4-2), ELM 57 (10-5, 3-3)
  • Bye: Millikin (8-7, 1-5)
Final Thoughts
The atmosphere in this game was absolutely fantastic. Given the rivalry between the schools and the proximity, it's no surprise that Wheaton brought a ton of fans, including a very rowdy student section that really got into the game. Honestly, I think they outworked the North Central student section by quite the margin, with really only the band and the group of alums and former players sitting behind the table getting their shots in. But this was the kind of atmosphere that makes basketball a lot of fun. It was loud, which is awesome.

Big picture wise, this was a huge win. Wheaton has been the resurgent team in the conference this year and came into tonight in first place. They end the night in third with the tiebreaker, as Illinois Wesleyan survived a monster night from Colin Lake and North Park to grab first place. North Central settles into second with one more to go in the first round of the double round robin and a key head to head victory for the tiebreaker.

The Cardinals have the bye on Wednesday, and close out their non-conference schedule with Finlandia University on Tuesday. I won't be able to work that game, so there won't be a Game Notes post Tuesday night/Wednesday morning about the contest. I leave my seat and microphone in capable hands though, and I'll be back for the next home contest, which will be Wednesday the 24th against Millikin.

Game Notes: (WBK) Wheaton College @ North Central College (1/13/18)

Final Score
Wheaton 72, NCC 55

Game Summary
I was worried this game was going to end up a lot like last year's matchup, as the Thunder (11-4, 5-2) scored the game's first six points and seemed to be in total command. But the Cardinals (4-11, 2-4) bounced back and ended up tying the game at eight. Wheaton started to pull away again with the next eight points, but the Cardinals kept it around that margin, trailing 20-13 after one. The Cardinals scored the first four points of the second quarter to cut the lead to three a couple times, but went into a scoring drought for the final 5:43 of the half. The Thunder couldn't pull away though and took a 28-20 lead into the break. Wheaton got the lead into double digits almost immediately into the second half and began to pull away in the third as they got hot from the floor. They led by as many as 26 before settling in with a 55-31 lead after three. Midway through the fourth, the Cardinals went on a 13-3 run to bring the margin back to the mid-teens, and the Thunder couldn't push the lead back over 20, while the Cardinals ran out of steam.

Key Stats
  • Wheaton: 27-66 FG (40.9%). I'm running the full game lines here, but I'm going to break this down by halves, because it really tells the tale. The Thunder shot 11-36 in the first half (a 30.6% clip), missing quite a few jumpers, which helped keep the Cardinals in the game. They went 16-30 (53.3%) in the second half and started hitting those jumpers. It was a bad three point shooting night (6-26, 23.1%), but they hit more than enough mid range jumpers to pull away.
  • Jordan Myroth (WHE): 2-4 FG (0-1 3PT), 0-2 FT; 4 pts, 6 reb (3 off), 5 ast, 1 blk, 4 stl. I could have gone a number of directions with this one. Jennifer Berg had seven points and a game high 13 rebounds, Hannah Frazier scored a game high 15, and Maggie Dansdill added 12, but Myroth did all the little things really well in this one, filling the stat sheet in a number of categories. She earns the nod today.
  • Lyndsay Brennan (NCC): 4-7 FG, 2-4 FT; 10 pts, 8 reb (1 off), 2 ast. Brennan had the best day offensively for the Cardinals, doing a decent job getting to the basket and getting a few layups to fall. On a night where Mayson Whipple didn't really have it as much (3-15 FG, including 2-8 from deep), Brennan needed to do a little more, and just didn't quite do enough. She had a pretty good game overall though.
North Central "System" Watch
  • Wheaton Turnovers: 13. Wheaton always played very well against The System, and while the Cardinals don't run it traditionally anymore, they still use a lot of full court pressure, and unfortunately 13 turnovers isn't good enough. The Cardinals notched five steals, paced by two from Bekah Foley. For reference, North Central had 15 turnovers.
  • NCC 3PT: 8-28 (28.6%). This is about par for the course for the Cardinals. I have to credit Wheaton for playing suffocating defense on the perimeter and limiting the damage, especially in the second half holding the Cardinals to 3-12 from outside.
  • NCC FT: 9-14 (64.3%). North Central seems to be starting to figure out its free throw shooting. Part of it once again was getting its actual good shooters to the line, but they just plain shot a little better today. This should put them over 60 percent for the season.
CCIW Scoreboard Watch
  • @ AUG 89 (10-5, 3-3), CRL 54 (5-10, 2-4)
  • IWU 83 (13-2, 6-0), @ NPU 53 (8-7, 3-3)
  • @ CAR 71 (10-5, 3-3), ELM 67 (8-8, 4-3) (OT) 
  • Bye: Millikin (5-10, 0-6)
Final Thoughts
In past years, I've gotten really bummed after the inevitable losses to Wheaton. I feared the worst tonight. The worst didn't happen. Wheaton missed a bunch of its jumpers early, and that helped keep the Cardinals in the game. Unfortunately, and what wasn't really covered up above, was that the Cardinals missed a ton of layups in this one. By the third quarter Wheaton figured out the shooting backgrounds and started to hit their shots again, which enabled them to pull away. I really have to credit the Cardinals though for refusing to give up, making that late run to turn a laugher into something a little more reasonable. I can live with a 17 point loss to Wheaton, especially when the team gave their all.

This was an emotional night, as before the game we had a ceremony to honor the late Helen Muleya, who played for North Central from 2010 through 2012. I didn't really know Helen, but hearing about her passing last May broke my heart. Michelle Roof gave Helen's family her jersey from her time at NCC, which was a very moving moment. It was also alumni night, and it was good to see a lot of players I've gotten to know over the years.

Big picture, falling to 2-4 in the conference isn't great. But amazingly, the Cardinals are only a game out of a CCIW Tournament spot. It seems way too optimistic to still be talking this for North Central, but even though they've struggled this season they're starting to figure things out as we go along. They close out the first half of conference play at Augustana on Wednesday and at Elmhurst Saturday afternoon.

Friday, January 12, 2018

2018 NFL Divisional Preview

Twelve teams entered, and now only eight remain in the hunt for the Lombardi Trophy. I've missed out on a quest to hit 11-0 against the spread and straight up. Clearly this is my punishment for correctly guessing the score of Super Bowl XLIII.

I did a decent job picking in the Wild Card round, getting three of the four winners, though underdogs ruled the day in terms of the point spread, leaving me 2-2 in that regard. We'll see what ends up happening this time, as historically the bye favors the home teams to the tune of a nearly 3 in 4 chance of advancing to the conference championship round.

So without further ado, let's look at the matchups for this weekend.

Thursday, January 11, 2018

Game Notes: (WBK) Millikin University @ North Central College (1/10/18)

Final Score
NCC 91, Millikin 78

Game Summary
This was a little nerve wracking at the very beginning as the Big Blue (5-10, 0-6) jumped out to a 5-0 lead, but the Cardinals (4-10, 2-3) had an answer with a 12-2 run to grab the lead. It was fairly back and forth from there, with the Cardinals leading 20-18 after one. North Central led for a chunk of the second quarter but couldn't pull away, and the Big Blue took control in the latter part of the frame, leading by as many as five before taking a 39-37 lead into the locker room. Millikin opened the second quarter strong with an 8-2 run to push their lead to eight and got it as high as nine with 4:14 left in the stanza. But the Cardinals answered with an 11-0 run to get back into the contest, though they would trail 56-55 after three due to a foul at the buzzer. The teams traded the lead a time or two early in the frame, with Millikin grabbing its final lead with 6:36 to play before a 13-2 Cardinal run effectively sealed the deal. The Big Blue padded the final score with a ton of fouls in the final two and a half minutes but were unable to mount a comeback.

Key Stats
  • Mayson Whipple (NCC): 11-19 FG (5-11 3PT), 9-10 FT; 36 pts, 3 reb, 6 ast, 3 stl. Mayson's had some decent games this year after coming back from that knee injury, but this was far and away her best. She was able to get to the basket with ease and added an excellent stepback game from beyond the arc. She ended up padding her final totals thanks to Millikin going foul happy late en route to a tie for the third-highest scoring game in program history.
  • Michaela Reedy (NCC): 6-6 FG (5-5 3PT), 2-2 FT; 19 pts, 7 reb (1 off), 1 ast, 1 stl. Fun background story in this one: apparently Michaela's boyfriend bet her ice cream depending on her scoring output last night; ten points and it was his treat. Needless to say, he's paying up after one of the best outputs I've ever seen. She hit three in the early going of this one and put me on record watch, but she only played 20 minutes in this one and didn't get a ton of opportunities, but she made the most of them.
  • Yanni Sadler (MIL): 9-14 FG (0-3 3PT), 5-7 FT; 23 pts, 4 reb (1 off), 4 ast, 3 stl. Sadler did a good job getting to the rim and running Millikin's offense last night, while also wreaking some defensive havoc with the three steals. She couldn't really stop Whipple on the other end, but all in all had a good game.
North Central "System" Watch
  • Millikin Turnovers: 23. North Central's full court pressure did its job in this one as they harassed Millikin into a fair number of turnovers. This total includes a shot clock violation early where Millikin failed to get a shot off when inbounding with three seconds to go, an inexcusable ten second count in the backcourt, and a five second inbounding call. Of the remaining 20, ten came on steals, with Mayson Whipple and Jessica Dahle each posting three.
  • NCC 3PT: 14-33 (42.4%). After an abysmal shooting performance four days ago up at Carroll, the Cardinals absolutely caught fire in this one. Michaela Reedy was a big part of this, but you had Whipple's excellent game combined with pretty good performances from other players as well. You're going to have games like this here and there, and if they can keep it up, they can get back into a competitive race.
  • NCC FT: 19-27 (70.4%). I think it's very important to note here that these numbers are somewhat skewed. The Cardinals were around their season average through three quarters with a 4-7 night, a 57.1 percent clip. But with Millikin fouling a ton in the final couple minutes, in particular fouling players on the Cardinals who are good free throw shooters, brought this number up significantly. The Cardinals' season clip improves greatly as they're almost up to 60 percent for the year, but they need to keep this up.
CCIW Scoreboard Watch
Final Thoughts
I talked with Michelle Roof after the game, who lamented the lost opportunity this past Saturday up in Waukesha (the Cliff Notes: NCC fell behind by a bunch early but fought back, held Carroll to three second half field goals but missed their last 11 field goals and lost by eight). She said they needed this one, which they absolutely did, and while it wasn't necessarily pretty at times, they got the job done. Mayson Whipple looked like her old self and Michaela Reedy got free ice cream, as the Cardinals took care of business. They've lost both of their road conference dates but are 2-1 against CCIW opponents in Gregory Arena.

The win puts them in a four way tie for fifth place, just one game back of North Park for the fourth and final CCIW Tournament spot. I feel like this team is starting to figure things out and they're going to be a tough opponent the rest of the way, but it's not easy coming up. The Cardinals welcome in Wheaton on Saturday, a team that's won 16 straight against the Cardinals. I keep saying it every year, but hopefully this time things will be different.

Friday, January 5, 2018

2018 NFL Wild Card Preview

I had a mediocre performance in the finale of the 2017 Pigskin Pick 'Em, which was enough to get me to .500, but not enough to overcome Adam catching fire to win the contest. Kudos to him. And now, my attention turns to the NFL playoffs.

It's weird following a playoff that doesn't have my Packers in them, something that hasn't happened since I was a sophomore in college. I'm old.

But even with them not in, we've still got 11 exciting games on tap, and I want to make sure I get a look at them all. I'll go a little more in depth than we did for the Pigskin Pick 'Em contest, but come the Super Bowl I'm hoping Adam and I will have our usual prop bets thing again.

In the meantime, here's a look at the four games coming up this weekend.