PLAYOFF PROBABILITY MiamiWWL40 SCENARIOCHANCE OF HAPPENINGWISCOSUBAMAAUBUGACLEMMIA Alabama wins Iron Bowl60%84130 With two weeks of regular-season football left before the conference championships, the number of teams with any realistic chance of making the College Football Playoff has been trimmed down to about a dozen or so. (According to our CFP projection model, 10 teams have at least a 5 percent playoff probability, with four more clocking in between zero and 5 percent.) But that doesn’t mean the potential for chaos is any lower than it’s been all season — after all, which of that small group will make the selection committee’s Final Four is still very much up in the air. So as we wait for the relative calm of Week 121Only one matchup — Wisconsin vs. Michigan — features two Top 25 teams. to pass for the promise of disarray in Week 13 and beyond, let’s map out some of the scenarios most likely to give the committee fits over the next few weeks.Scenario 1: Auburn wins the Iron BowlAfter Auburn beat the bejeezus out of previously unbeaten and top-ranked Georgia last Saturday, the 8-2 Tigers opened the door for what could be one of the best longshot playoff bids in CFP history. In this scenario, Auburn would beat Alabama in the Iron Bowl on Nov. 25, giving them the SEC West crown on a head-to-head tiebreaker. The Tigers would then face Georgia in the conference championship game, where either outcome would inflict chaos. An Auburn victory there would practically assure the Tigers of becoming the first two-loss team to ever make the playoff (our model would give them a 94 percent chance of getting in), while a UGA win would make the Dawgs a solid but far from certain playoff pick (73 percent). The College Football Playoff’s ultimate doomsday scenarioThe only scenario in our 20,000 simulations where nine teams have at least a 10 percent chance of making the playoff after conference championships AuburnWWL20 * In conference championship game. Wisconsin loses Big Ten*57%6507022327055 Alabama also loses Iron Bowl227424855347256 Odds based on Big 12, Big Ten, SEC and ACC scenarios PLAYOFF PROBABILITY Current68%22%31% Auburn wins Iron Bowl40445432 * In conference championship game. PLAYOFF PROBABILITY SCENARIOCHANCE OF HAPPENINGOUTCUBAMAAUBUGAWISCOSUCLEMMIA The dilemma: Should Ohio State get in with two losses — particularly since the second was an ugly, 31-point shellacking by Iowa with three weeks left in the regular season? It seems unlikely, but consider that under the scenario above, the Buckeyes would also have had to beat Michigan on the road and knock off the previously undefeated Badgers, in addition to last week’s 45-point destruction of then-12th-ranked Michigan State. Of course, Wisconsin would have only one loss on its résumé, but its strength of schedule is weak enough that even after closing the season with games against ranked Iowa, ranked Michigan and (presumably) OSU, the Badgers wouldn’t be an obvious pick. This situation would also create quandaries outside the Big Ten, particularly if Scenario 1 from above also happens: Losses by Wisconsin and Alabama would destroy the committee’s tidy setup and force them to choose among as many as six one-loss teams and a handful of other two-loss squads. Good luck with that.Scenario 3: TCU runs the tableAt various times this season, it’s seemed as though Oklahoma was a long shot to make the playoff (after losing to Iowa State) and then a relatively strong bet (after beating TCU). But the Sooners still aren’t quite safe. The Horned Frogs could get their revenge with a win over OU in the Big 12 title game,3With head-to-head wins over both Oklahoma State and West Virginia, TCU would simply need to hold steady with them (at two in-conference losses apiece) over the next two weeks to make the conference championship on a tiebreaker. and throw the CFP picture into disarray in the process. A TCU victory would by itself give the Frogs about a 34 percent chance of making the playoff, but it would also make life extra-difficult for the committee if some of the nation’s other playoff favorites lose. Odds based on SEC championship scenarios WisconsinLWL0 Alabama also loses Iron Bowl1272651573545277459 Current41%29%68%22%31%69%53% Miami also loses ACC*137434856349730 Georgia beats Alabama*1950082 Miami also loses ACC*48285457378529936 Ohio StateWWW20 TCU beats Oklahoma*29%83473243345337257 The dilemma: What to do with Alabama? If the Tide don’t make the SEC title game, there’s a decent chance they won’t make the CFP either. In the universe where Auburn beats Georgia for the conference championship, our model assigns the Tide a 40 percent chance of becoming the second SEC team in — but Alabama would have to hope its case outweighs those of the other “at-large” style bids around the nation. Things get even more complicated if Georgia beats Auburn: Under that circumstance, our model would give Alabama a 49 percent chance of getting a CFP nod despite sitting out championship weekend, so it’s anybody’s guess what the committee would do. (Try explaining to either Georgia or Alabama if one gets left out of the playoff with the same number of losses as the other.) And none of this even touches on the craziness that would ensue if Alabama wins the Iron Bowl but loses the SEC championship to UGA, setting up a head-to-head circle of parity among the Bulldogs, Tide and Tigers.Scenario 2: Ohio State wins the Big TenThe most straightforward playoff scenario is one where Alabama, Wisconsin, Miami and Oklahoma all win out, leaving relatively little debate about who should be in. Three undefeated major-conference teams, plus another with just one loss?2In this scenario, Clemson and Georgia, each of whom currently has one loss, would by definition lose a second game in their respective conference championships. It’s the kind of smooth sailing the committee dreams about. You could also swap in Clemson for Miami and not add much chaos: If the Tigers beat the Canes for the ACC championship, Clemson would simply slide in as a lock for the CFP alongside the other three. But give Wisconsin a loss in the Big Ten title game — most likely to Ohio State, which our model currently has favored to win the conference — and the picture becomes much more interesting. * In SEC championship game. Auburn beats Georgia*2340941 OklahomaWWL30 Wisconsin also loses Big Ten*69275657379507461 Odds based on Big Ten, SEC and ACC scenarios RESULT TEAMWEEK 12WEEK 13WEEK 14PLAYOFF PROBABILITY Alabama beats Georgia*4010015 GeorgiaWWW100 The first domino to fall here would be Michigan beating Wisconsin this weekend (which our model gives a 24 percent chance of happening). Then Bama would need to lose the Iron Bowl, Georgia would beat Auburn for the SEC, Clemson would beat Miami for the ACC, TCU would beat Oklahoma for the Big 12 and Ohio State would beat Wisconsin for the Big Ten. (Plus, USC would need to win the Pac-12, most likely over Stanford.) Needless to say, it’s very improbable that all of those circumstances would line up together perfectly — but if they do, it could make for the most headache-inducing committee meeting in CFP history.Check out our latest college football predictions. Also, see what it will take for Notre Dame, Clemson, Washington, Penn State and Oklahoma to still make the playoff.CORRECTION (Nov. 16, 2017, 2:45 p.m.): A previous version of this article misstated the scenario in which Wisconsin would finish the season with one loss. This exact scenario happened 10 times in 20,000 simulations. ClemsonWWW100% SCENARIOCHANCE OF HAPPENINGALABAMAAUBURNGEORGIA The dilemma: Under the most extreme of the scenarios above, the committee would have no major-conference undefeated teams to choose from, but plenty with one loss (Alabama, Clemson, Miami, Wisconsin and possibly Georgia) and even more with two (TCU, Oklahoma, Ohio State, USC, Notre Dame, Penn State, Oklahoma State and possibly Auburn and Washington or Washington State). Add in the fact that several of the two-loss teams would have beaten a fellow contender for a conference championship, and it would make for a tremendous mess. Even after three years of studying the CFP committee’s behavior, our model is pretty uncertain about who would be picked under such a scenario, aside from its relative confidence that Clemson would make it if it wins the ACC.Scenario 4: The messiest of them allOut of all 20,000 simulations that go into our CFP predictions each week, 10 (or 0.05 percent) spat out a scenario where nine teams had at least a 10 percent chance of making the playoff after every single game was played. This is the ultimate doomsday scenario — where our model basically has no idea who the committee will pick for its Final Four, despite analyzing its previous choices and poring over the usual norms of college football rankings going back nearly a century. Current58%10%68%22%31%41%29%69%53% TCUWWW20 Georgia beats Auburn*1849373 USCW—W40 AlabamaWL—30
2009Red Bull RacingMark Webber14828472nd 2011Red Bull RacingMark Webber168414741st 2018Scuderia FerrariKimi Räikkönen157112572nd QualifyingRaces* 2017Scuderia FerrariKimi Räikkönen157516802nd 2012Red Bull RacingMark Webber126014701st 2008Toro RossoS. Bourdais147813728th 2015Scuderia FerrariKimi Räikkönen157916843rd *Race performance is adjusted slightly for starting grid positionSource: racing-reference.info 2007Sauber/Toro RossoHeidfeld/Liuzzi338%338%14th This teammate-versus-teammate approach isn’t perfect, particularly when it involves drivers who haven’t changed teams much. But it is able to infer one driver’s performance from how often he beats another driver of an established ability level. And Vettel is certainly established; he went into the season (and his partnership with Leclerc) with the third-best rating of any driver in the 2019 field, trailing only Hamilton and Red Bull’s Max Verstappen — another Leclerc-esque wunderkind (also 21 years old) trying to end the Hamilton-Vettel hegemony atop the F1 standings.For Leclerc’s part, he has risen from a relatively mediocre head-to-head Elo of 1454 after the Canadian Grand Prix on June 9 to a 1529 mark (fourth-best in the field) after back-to-back victories in Belgium and Italy these past two weeks. He has now outperformed Vettel in each of the past seven qualifying sessions and five of the past seven races (the only exceptions being Germany and Hungary). By coolly fending off the best attacks Hamilton and Bottas could throw at him, the “unflappable” Leclerc gave Ferrari a win at Monza — its home race — for the first time since Alonso did it in 2010. Along the way, he has given Vettel more fits than just about any teammate in his entire career: 2014Red Bull RacingDaniel Ricciardo9476325th SeasonTeamTeammateH2H WinsWin%H2H WinsWin%Champ. Rk 2013Red Bull RacingMark Webber178917891st 2019Scuderia FerrariCharles Leclerc6438575th 2016Scuderia FerrariKimi Räikkönen94315714th 1586815365 2010Red Bull RacingMark Webber136811581st Total Vettel’s teammates seldom challenge as much as LeclercHead-to-head comparisons between Sebastian Vettel and teammates — in qualifying and races — by season, 2007-19 In recent years, Formula One’s defining rivalry has seemed clear: Lewis Hamilton of Mercedes (and before that, McLaren) vs. Sebastian Vettel of Ferrari (and before that, Red Bull). The two have combined to win nine of the past 11 world driver’s championships, with the only interlopers being Jenson Button in 2009 and Nico Rosberg, another of Hamilton’s most bitter rivals, in 2016. Hamilton and Vettel finished 1-2 in each of the previous two seasons’ standings, so the path to the F1 title seemed very likely to go through them in 2019 as well.This year, though, only one of the two has held up his end of the bargain. Hamilton currently leads the championship, 63 points clear of Mercedes teammate Valtteri Bottas. But instead of vying for the title as well, Vettel is all the way back in fifth place, 115 points behind his English archrival. The German hasn’t finished so low in the standings since 2014, his tumultuous final season with Red Bull.With the recent breakout of Vettel’s Ferrari teammate, Charles Leclerc — the 21-year-old rising star who just grabbed his first two F1 career wins in back-to-back races — there are legitimate questions as to which driver Hamilton should be more concerned about as a rival going forward. In fact, Leclerc has done so well in his second F1 season that the four-time world champ Vettel might not even be the No. 1 driver on his own team anymore.That this is up for debate speaks volumes about Leclerc’s meteoric ascent. The Monégasque phenom was a teenager in Formula Two just a couple of years ago, impressing as a test driver but failing to nail down a seat at a prestige team for his rookie F1 season. Leclerc joined Alfa Romeo-Sauber for 2018 instead and flashed his potential with a very strong qualifying performance against teammate Marcus Ericsson, whom he started ahead of on the grid 17 times in 21 races (81 percent) last season. But on race days, Leclerc finished slightly worse than he started,1Finishing in an average position of 12.5 versus starting at 12.3. beat Ericsson only 57 percent of the time (after adjusting for grid position)2To do this, I used a regression analysis to predict a driver’s percentile rank in a given race based on his percentile rank in qualifying. To make sure this factor didn’t get too much weight — since it’s kind of a chicken-or-egg question about how much grid position causes good race performances or is just correlated with them — I halved the effect when applying the adjustment. and notched only 39 points in the championship, finishing a distant 13th.(Besides, Ericsson wasn’t exactly the toughest competition; he didn’t secure an F1 ride in 2019 and currently competes in the IndyCar series.)Still, Ferrari saw the talent evident in Leclerc’s performance and pegged him to replace folk hero Kimi Räikkönen as Vettel’s No. 2 going into 2019. But Vettel’s place atop the pecking order seemed secure. He had spent most of the previous four seasons driving circles around Räikkönen, beating the 2007 world champion in 67 percent of qualifying runs and 73 percent of races. Although he couldn’t quite outduel Hamilton, finishing an average of 101 points behind him in the overall standings during those seasons, Vettel was still very competitive — and hopeful that a new 2019 design package would bring the Prancing Horse its first championship (as either a constructor or for its drivers) since the late 2000s.The early returns seemed like business as usual. Although Mercedes opened the season with an eight-race winning streak, as Hamilton took six of those checkered flags himself, Vettel had also outdriven Leclerc 12 times in 14 chances (including both qualifying and races) over the first seven events on the schedule. (The only exception was the Bahrain Grand Prix, where Leclerc won the pole and finished third to Vettel’s fifth.) Vettel even technically crossed the finish line first in Canada, only to see Hamilton be awarded the win because of a controversial penalty assessed when Vettel swerved back onto the track after a missed turn.Ever since that moment, however, Leclerc has surged past his older, more decorated teammate at a breathtaking pace. If we build an Elo rating using the same head-to-head approach that I used in this story about Fernando Alonso from last summer — which just compared teammate performances with each other (to control for differences in constructor quality) and gave qualifiers half-weight as compared with races — Leclerc moved past Vettel for the very first time in his career when he won the Italian Grand Prix last Sunday: Despite the back-to-back losses, Mercedes isn’t exactly worried about Leclerc chasing Hamilton down for the title. The quick circuits of the past two races probably favored Ferrari, with the superior straight-line speed of its SF90 car. And even after Leclerc’s big breakthrough, he remains 102 points behind Hamilton (and 39 behind Bottas) in the standings, with Ferrari running 154 behind Mercedes in the team tally as they look ahead to the season’s final seven races.But although Leclerc’s wins didn’t make much impact on the overall championship picture, they may have represented something of a turning point in F1 history. Going into 2019, Vettel had outqualified his teammates — a strong group that included Räikkönen, Daniel Ricciardo and Mark Webber — 69 percent of the time and outraced them 66 percent of the time in his career. Against Leclerc this season, those numbers are only 43 percent and 57 percent, respectively, and getting worse by the moment.Vettel entered the season as a championship contender and the clear standard-bearer for the sport’s most storied team. Now his place is in doubt. With another year left on his contract, Vettel probably isn’t going anywhere (despite tabloid rumors to the contrary), but it’s hard not to juxtapose Leclerc’s recent surge against Vettel’s growing tendency toward crucial errors and on-track decisions that put other drivers at risk. So the biggest question for the season’s home stretch isn’t whether Leclerc is the future of the sport — that now seems established — but rather, it’s whether Vettel can avoid being left in the past.
Just over five minutes into the first game of the 2017-18 NBA season, Gordon Hayward went up to catch a lob pass. The ball sailed out of reach, and Hayward crashed to the floor, dislocating his ankle and fracturing his tibia. Whatever faint title aspirations the Celtics may have harbored for this season ended with that play. The main question now is whether Hayward will be able to make a full recovery, and we likely won’t find out this season. The short-term question is easier to answer, and more urgent: Just how bad is it going to get?To figure out what fans can expect from the remaining 81 games, I used FiveThirtyEight’s revamped CARMELO projections to redistribute Hayward’s 30 or so projected minutes per game to the rest of the expected rotation. As you would guess, the new projection was ugly: 37 wins — 10 less than our initial 47-win prediction for Boston, which was already low compared to the team’s preseason expected win total according to Vegas lines (about 53.5 wins). Forty-seven wins would have been a disappointment; 37 would be a catastrophe, and it would likely mean missing the playoffs. Semi Ojeleye8.0-1.9-1.8 36.645.4 Kyrie Irving34.03.9-2.1 Shane Larkin12.0-0.5-1.6 Marcus Morris29.00.00.0 Jayson Tatum26.0-1.4-0.7 How the Celtics line up without HaywardThe Celtics’ projected performance (now that Gordon Hayward is out) based on FiveThirtyEight’s CARMELO player projections Marcus Smart34.00.50.6 Guerschon Yabusele5.00.50.0 Guerschon Yabusele5.00.50.0 Shane Larkin12.0-0.5-1.6 Al Horford28.00.11.6 Abdel Nader5.0-1.7-0.3 PLAYERMIN. PER GAMEOFF +/-DEF +/- Jayson Tatum26.0-1.4-0.7 Team total—-0.1-1.8 Abdel Nader5.0-1.7-0.3 Kyrie Irving34.03.9-2.1 Aron Baynes10.0-2.51.1 How the Celtics line up if Jaylen Brown exceeds expectationsThe Celtics’ projected performance (now that Gordon Hayward is out) based on FiveThirtyEight’s CARMELO player projections, assuming Jaylen Brown plays as well as Jae Crowder Replacement level—-1.7-0.3 The only halfway comforting thing about this projection for Boston is that a lot of that falloff is wrapped up in conservative projections for two players: Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum, the team’s high-lottery selections from the past two drafts. Tatum is 19 and Brown turns 21 next week, so this isn’t really a surprise, but Hayward’s injury forces Boston to rely on two young players who may not be ready and hope that one or both can grow up fast. It’s probably a reach to expect too much out of Tatum in his first year, but Brown played well at times down the stretch last season and had a few solid appearances during the playoffs. Brown also scored a career-high 25 points in Tuesday night’s loss, flashing to the rim and being a pest on defense. If Boston salvages its season, it will need a lot more games like that.Brown is a polarizing prospect around the league. He had an uneven season in his first year, and he lacks the polish of Tatum, who was the third overall pick in this year’s draft out of Duke. Brown isn’t a great shooter or passer and doesn’t score with the efficiency teams hope for from their peripheral players, but he’s already a capable perimeter defender and the sort of top-shelf athlete who looks at home banging bodies with LeBron on national TV. He has a long way to go, but so did Paul George when he logged a rookie season not so different from Brown’s.Equally important as Brown’s potential is the fact that his projected contribution this season is absolutely terrible, coming in slightly below replacement level (meaning he’s expected to be a little worse than any random free agent a team could sign off the street). Minute to minute, CARMELO believes that he contributes about as much, offensively and defensively, as Knicks’ backup guard Ron Baker. So he wouldn’t have to do much to outperform his expected level.Given how many minutes Brown was expected to play — and how many more he’ll have to take on now that Hayward is out — that projection weighs down Boston’s expected win total considerably. For instance, if Brown were to improve his average offensive and defensive contribution to the level of fourth-year guard Marcus Smart, the team, even without Hayward, would project to win about 42 games. If he improved just a bit more — say, to the level of departed swingman Jae Crowder — that number creeps up to 43 wins. Still not what Boston had in mind coming into this season, but a far cry better than 37 wins and out of the playoffs. Jaylen Brown29.01.20.7 Marcus Morris29.00.00.0 PROJECTED RECORDWL This is of course a sort of tautology: If Boston’s players play better, we expect them to win more games. And there isn’t much point in using projections if we throw them out whenever it’s convenient. But in this case, the Celtics’ fortunes are tethered to just the sort of prospect who is capable of making a leap ahead of where his past performance would imply he’ll be.Check out our latest NBA predictions. Terry Rozier19.0-0.7-0.8 Replacement level—-1.7-0.3 Marcus Smart34.00.50.6 PROJECTED RECORDWL PLAYERMIN. PER GAMEOFF +/-DEF +/- Jaylen Brown29.0-1.9-0.7 Aron Baynes10.0-2.51.1 Terry Rozier19.0-0.7-0.8 Al Horford28.00.11.6 Team total—1.8-0.9 4339 Semi Ojeleye8.0-1.9-1.8
Petra Kvitova, the tennis star from the Czech Republic, is 6-feet tall, left-handed and can crush her forehand and serve. She has won Wimbledon twice in her career, the only currently active woman to accomplish that feat besides Venus and Serena Williams, who each won their first two from 2000 to 2003. At the moment, Kvitova is ranked No. 6 in the world, and was once ranked No. 2. The week before this year’s Australian Open began, she won the Sydney International by thumping four players, including three-time Slam champion Angelique Kerber, and beating the relentless Ashleigh Barty in a three-set final.Oh, one more thing: There’s good reason to believe she won’t last long in this month’s Australian Open. Of all the women with at least two major titles since 1968, when the Open Era began, none have lost as often, on average, at Slams as Kvitova, the master of disaster.On Monday in Melbourne, Kvitova had an unusual performance: She easily won her first round match by beating Magdalena Rybarikova in straight sets, 6-3, 6-2. Kvitova looked a bit shaky in the first set, when she lost her serve twice and landed just 45 percent of her first serves. But she was much cleaner in the second set, and now — maybe — she can relax and have a strong tournament. She also could improve her winning percentage at majors, which was 70.2 percent at the start of the tournament, the lowest figure among the two-or-better Slam winners in the women’s Open Era. Margaret Court961090.6%– Jennifer Capriati1404077.8%– Virginia Wade1224971.3%– Chris Evert2993789.0%– Kim Clijsters1323181.0%– Mary Pierce1425074.0%– Amelie Mauresmo1314375.3%– Tracy Austin611580.3%– Billie Jean King1272484.1%– Maria Sharapova1944979.8%– Martina Hingis1533282.7%– Li Na903174.4%– There are seven other active women who, like Kvitova, have won at least two major titles. All of them have won more of their matches at Slams (Kerber, who had 10 first-round major losses in her first five years on the tour, is still ahead of Kvitova with 70.5 percent). Since Kvitova’s second Slam victory, she has gone no further than the quarterfinals at a major. She has only done that twice, both times at the U.S. Open, in 2015 and 2017. In the rest of her majors she has not gotten past the fourth round. In her career, Kvitova has lost in the first round of a Slam nine times. Serena Williams, who has won 23 majors, is 331-45 at Slams (88 percent) and has lost in the first round only once.Two of Kvitova’s first-round losses occurred last year, in the Australian Open and Wimbledon, the best tournament for her game. (At Wimbledon, she lost to Aliaksandra Sasnovich 6-0 in the third set of their match. Sasnovich had never gone past the third round of a Slam.)So how can a player with so much talent, and so much power, end up looking timid and uncertain? After a promising career start, Kvitova approaches the early rounds of Slams as calmly as when parachuting from an airplane. “When I was younger, I played better on the Grand Slams than the other tournaments,” she said after losing in the first round of Wimbledon last year. “Now is the time when I’m playing better on the other tournaments.” Asked more about the defeat, she said: “The nerves were there again.”Worries at the beginning of a Grand Slam tournament are not uncommon — even Roger Federer, who has won 20, has spoken about being nervous in the first round. But the best players in the world usually overcome that.Some of Kvitova’s more recent woes could be due to the time she was attacked at home by a man with a knife in December of 2016. She didn’t return to the game until the 2017 French Open, which she lost in the second round (she had the same result at Wimbledon). But later that year at the U.S. Open, she reached the quarterfinals, her best result since 2015.Kvitova still has time to cure her Grand Slam disease. She is 28 years old and a natural on the grass of Wimbledon, despite her first-round loss there last year. At the Australian Open, she has an excellent draw, facing unranked players until the fourth round. Her opponent in that round could be Aryna Sabalenka, an up-and-coming 20-year-old who was beaten in straight sets by Kvitova in the Sydney International. Sabalenka is seeded No. 11.Even if Kvitova never improves her Slam winning percentage and finishes her career in last place, well, someone has to be there. She could just call herself the most unpredictable multi-Slam winner in women’s tennis history — not ideal, but definitely unique. Hana Mandlikova1424078.0%– Steffi Graf2783289.7%– Monica Seles1803185.3%– Lindsay Davenport1985179.5%– Victoria Azarenka1244274.7%– Petra Kvitova923970.2%– Arantxa Sanchez Vicario2105479.5%– Evonne Goolagong Cawley1292782.7%– Serena Williams3314588.0%– PlayerWinsLosesWin% Justine Henin1412883.4%– Garbine Muguruza602273.2%– Svetlana Kuznetsova1526171.4%– *Excluding this year’s Australian OpenSource: WTA Venus Williams2667278.7%– Angelique Kerber984170.5%– Kvitova’s Slam performances are the worst of her peersWinners of multiple Grand Slams by Grand Slam record, 1968-2018* Martina Navratilova3064986.2%–
By all accounts, sophomore guard Lenzelle Smith Jr. is the Ohio State men’s basketball team’s fifth man. Sophomore forwards Jared Sullinger and Deshaun Thomas, along with senior guard William Buford, provide the Buckeyes with most of the scoring and sophomore guard Aaron Craft gets headlines for his toughness and defense. But Smith Jr. often lurks in the background of OSU’s starting five, quietly filling up the stat sheet. There was nothing quiet about Smith Jr.’s performance in OSU’s 80-63 victory against Indiana Sunday. The fifth man stepped into the forefront before a national audience and exploded for 28 points and seven rebounds. At halftime, Smith Jr. had outscored the entire Indiana team, 18-14. It was a performance nobody saw coming, including Indiana coach Tom Crean. “Lenzelle went above and beyond today,” Crean said. “He averages about four shots a game and today he was 10-of-12. He was the difference in the game.” Perhaps more surprising than the performance itself was the timing of it. Smith Jr. admitted to feeling under the weather during OSU’s loss to Illinois Jan. 10 and missed a few practices while recovering. “He’s had strep throat,” Matta said. “I honestly didn’t know if he was going to play. He didn’t practice Thursday. He didn’t practice Friday. He wasn’t even here.” Smith Jr. said it was difficult being away from his teammates while he was sick. “It’s been tough because I had to be away from my team,” he said. “This is my family so not being by these guys is hard for me. I got some great sleep and chicken noodle soup though.” Smith Jr. returned to practice Saturday and Matta had a game plan waiting for him. “When I got back yesterday we had some different sets that were specifically for the guys leaving me (open),” Smith Jr. said. “It turned out to be good.” Matta said that in the team’s first matchup with Indiana, he noticed the Hoosiers were double teaming the post off of Smith Jr. He expected Indiana to employ a similar strategy Sunday and when they did, Smith Jr. capitalized. “That’s probably a coach’s dream because you’re making them pay for the adjustment they’re making,” Matta said. “(Smith Jr.) did a tremendous job with that.” In the second half, Indiana changed their defensive strategy and stopped leaving Smith Jr. to double team the post. Sullinger capitalized and scored 14 points in the second half. “It works both ways with me and Lenzelle,” Sullinger said. “If I kick out to Lenzelle, Lenzelle is wide open in the first half. Then all of the sudden they start sticking to Lenzelle … so Lenzelle started kicking it back to me. It’s just a two-way street.” Crean said that when the Buckeyes are able to look to guys like Smith Jr. to make teams pay for focusing more on Sullinger or Buford defensively, OSU is as dangerous of a team as there is in the nation. “They can win the national championship with that,” Crean said. “That’s what it comes down to.”
A week after giving up 49 points to Indiana, No. 7 Ohio State (7-0, 3-0 Big Ten) is scheduled to host Purdue (3-3, 0-2 Big Ten) this weekend. Escaping Bloomington, Ind., after nearly relinquishing OSU’s 18-point lead in the fourth quarter was more of a relief than a joyous celebration, Buckeyes’ first-year coach Urban Meyer said. Meyer addressed the Buckeyes’ great escape from Bloomington and Purdue coach Danny Hope likened OSU’s offense to that of the Wisconsin Badgers during the weekly Big Ten teleconference Tuesday. Meyer addresses the defense, again Earlier this week Meyer indicated that he would be more involved with the team’s defense. The first-year coach provided insight on what exactly he will be doing to improve a unit that has allowed an average of 43.5 points in the last two games. “It’s my job to prepare the team and we are having some struggles on defense,” Meyer said. Though his fingerprints will likely be more prominent on this week’s defensive game plan, Meyer indicated that he is not trying to undermine his coaching staff. “In no way am I going to go in there and change what we do,” Meyer said. “I’m just going to support our staff and support our players.” Meyer said the defense’s performance was “painful to watch” against Indiana and admitted that when the Buckeyes recovered an onside kick late in the game to secure a victory, he had trouble enjoying the moment. “Instead of the joy of victory, it was relief that the whole thing was over,” Meyer said. An improved offensive line The defense might be struggling, but Meyer said that he is very pleased with the team’s running game and, in particular, with the play of the offensive line. Meyer said the unit has come a long way since he took over as OSU’s coach. “The area that’s most improved is our offensive line play,” Meyer said. “They are not playing perfect, but they’re playing much better than they have since our staff’s been here. (I’m) very pleased with that so far.” The offensive line was instrumental in the Buckeye’s 52-49 win against Indiana, as OSU rushed for 353 yards. “The offensive line is giving them a chance,” said Indiana coach Kevin Wilson. “I think (it’s) one of the reasons they are playing at a high level and scoring points.” Badgers like the Buckeyes? This might be the first and only time you hear someone say the Buckeyes’ spread offense is similar to Wisconsin’s smash-mouth style. Both teams would prefer to run than pass, but OSU tends to line up in the shotgun, spread out with multiple receivers, while Wisconsin plays tight, “I-form” football. However, Hope said that there is a glaring similarity between the two offenses. “Wisconsin is a physical football team with great backs and Ohio State is a physical football team with great backs,” Hope said. Purdue didn’t fair well against Wisconsin’s “great backs,” last week. The Badgers gashed Purdue’s defense for 467 yards rushing while senior running back Montee Ball rushed for a career-high 247 yards. This weekend poses, perhaps, an even tougher challenge for Purdue’s defense, as they travel to Columbus to face the nation’s eighth best rushing offense. The Buckeyes average 263.6 yards per game on the ground this season. “We’re going to have to tackle somebody,” Hope said. Dual-threat dÃ©jÃ vu Michigan and Michigan State will face off in their annual meeting this weekend in a contest with major conference implications on the line. The Spartans are 1-2 in conference play, and a loss to their in-state rival would effectively eliminate them from the race for the Big Ten title. Michigan State has won the last four meetings against Michigan, but the Spartans have never won five in a row against the Maize and Blue. In order to capture its historic victory, MSU will likely need to contain Michigan’s senior quarterback Denard Robinson. The Spartans faced a similar challenge on Sept. 29 against OSU when sophomore Braxton Miller torched the MSU defense for 136 yards rushing. Miller and Robinson are both athletic quarterbacks who can extend plays that would otherwise end in losses, and then turn them into big gains. Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio said that in order to win, his Spartans have to tackle Robinson when they get the chance. “It’s those loose plays, when you have a guy bottled up, it’s those plays that cause you a lot of anguish,” Dantonio said. Miller currently ranks as the nation’s sixth best rusher with 912 yards on the season. Robinson trails him with 804 yards, but the senior has played in one less game.
In an up-and-down season, the Cincinnati Bengals have shown flashes of brilliance only to be followed by disappointing losses to teams with losing records. They can only hope the trend ends Sunday. On Sunday, the Bengals (4-5) routed the Super Bowl champion New York Giants, showing the football world what Cincinnati’s young athletes can do when their execution is on point. Quarterback Andy Dalton had a career day, throwing four touchdowns and ending a streak in which he had thrown at least one interception in every game this year. The Giants’ talented defensive line was not successful in pressuring Dalton and failed to register a sack. As a result, Dalton, the AFC Offensive Player of the Week, picked apart a defense that had been carrying New York in recent weeks. Meanwhile, Cincinnati’s defense went to work on Giants quarterback Eli Manning, forcing him into a day to forget and making the MVP candidate look discombobulated and frustrated. The 31-13 triumph was more than Bengals fans could have asked for. To put that win into perspective, the San Francisco 49ers are widely perceived as being a championship contender. The Giants embarrassed San Francisco at home, 26-3, four weeks earlier on Oct. 14. Immediately after, experts began to doubt the 49ers championship pedigree while declaring that the Giants, the NFL’s 2011 champs, were still the team to beat in the NFC. When Cincinnati dominates the Giants the same way New York handled the 49ers, it raises eyebrows around the league. In addition to the margin of victory and level of competition, there were a number of other positive elements of last week’s win. Bengals running back Cedric Peerman had a productive game, proving he is worthy of sharing the load with fellow running back BenJarvus Green-Ellis. And perhaps the best bit of news is that the Bengals might have found a legitimate threat to play opposite from wide receiver A.J. Green, the league leader in receiving touchdowns with nine. Rookie wide receiver Mohamed Sanu made an athletic grab for a first down on his first catch of the game against the Giants, establishing Dalton’s confidence in him. Dalton later found Sanu in the end zone for his first career receiving touchdown. The 6-2, 210-pound Sanu, who threw a 73-yard touchdown pass against the Redskins, continued to put his versatility on display, picking up a third down lined up at running back. Now it’s time for Cincinnati to come back down to earth. They cannot afford to overlook their next opponent. On paper, the Bengals have a huge advantage in their next matchup. The Kansas City Chiefs (1-8) have had just about everything go wrong for them this year. They’ve been outscored by double digits six times already. They have fluctuated between two quarterbacks who can neither stay healthy nor perform at a consistent level – Matt Cassel and Brady Quinn have six touchdown passes and 15 interceptions between them. Their lone bright spot is in a rushing attack that ranks fourth in the NFL. Look for Kansas City to feed the ball to featured back Jamaal Charles in order to avoid exposing their quarterback to a Cincinnati pass rush that has been on a tear in recent weeks. Fortunately for the Chiefs, their biggest weakness on defense is against the run. Meanwhile, the Bengals are averaging only 3.7 yards a carry and rank 25th overall in rushing. This means that Kansas City, ranked eighth against the pass, can focus on shutting down Cincinnati’s greatest strength – an aerial attack with budding stars. Moreover, the Chiefs might have recently turned a corner. On Monday, the Chiefs played the Pittsburgh Steelers and would have won if not for a few unfortunate breaks, some of which were the result of questionable officiating. More importantly, Kansas City showed signs of pride and grit. On a number of big plays (though two of them were overturned by penalties) the Chiefs celebrated and even taunted Pittsburgh. In no way did they seem to be shrinking from the challenge of playing a team regularly in championship contention. Lastly, the Chiefs’ Arrowhead Stadium is normally one of the most disruptive atmospheres for visiting teams, though such has not been the case this year. But the opportunity to play a team as inconsistent as Cincinnati might just inspire the home crowd enough to throw the Bengals off their game. After starting 3-1, the Bengals were upset by three teams with losing records: the Dolphins (1-3 at the time), the Browns (0-5 at the time) and the Steelers (2-3 at the time). In order to make the playoffs, Cincinnati simply cannot lose another game against an inferior opponent. The Bengals are slated to play at Kansas City on Sunday at 1 p.m.
The No. 7 Ohio State men’s tennis team will begin its pursuit of an eighth-straight Big Ten title as it kicks off conference play this weekend at Penn State. The Buckeyes (13-2) will begin Big Ten play against the Nittany Lions (5-6) for the third-consecutive year in 2013, having recorded 7-0 shutout victories in each of the previous two meetings. The match in State College, Pa., over the weekend will also mark the 29th all-time meeting of the two programs, with OSU holding a commanding 22-6 lead in the series. Since 2006, OSU has been perfect against Big Ten opponents, rattling off a 71-0 conference record and holding a reign of seven straight conference titles under coach Ty Tucker. This year, Tucker said the team goals are no different. “The first goal every year is to get that Big Ten title … people want to keep the streak alive of winning Big Ten championships and having something tangible at the end of the season and going through life that they did some pretty amazing things,” he said. “But the competition is tough, the coaching is great and we’ve got to be ready.” “It’s kind of a pressure for us, because we have (seven) years’ pressure on our shoulders, so it’s kind of a pressure thing, but also kind of a good thing to come out knowing that we are kind of a favorite,” junior Blaz Rola said. “We still have to come out and give 100 percent for us to go off the court with a win.” This season, the Buckeyes have struggled on the road, with both regular season losses coming from away matches (No. 11 Texas A&M, No. 1 Virginia). In conference play, the Buckeyes face many of their toughest opponents at venues away from Columbus, including No. 17 Illinois, No. 20 Northwestern and No. 21 Michigan. Improved road performance is something Tucker emphasized as a key to success as the season continues. “You’ve got to be 10 percent better than the team on the road to get the road win, so we’ve got to know the competition that we play, and we’ve got to go in there and understand that when we’re at home, you have two or three chances to win a set. But on the road, you get one chance, and you’ve got to take it,” he said. “On the road, you’re not going to get the calls you get at home, and it’s not going to be nearly as familiar.” During the 2012 campaign, OSU’s 4-3 championship match loss against Illinois in the Big Ten Tournament was the team’s only stumble in conference play. This season, many Buckeye players are looking forward to the April 12 rematch with the Illini. “That final (in the tournament) really hurt us. We can’t wait to play (Illinois) again. Last year, I guess it was a really bad day for OSU, and we’re really, really looking forward to playing them again, and hopefully we can come out on top,” Rola said. OSU will also face several strong conference rivals on its home court this season. The Scarlet and Gray will attempt to defend their 160-game win streak at the Varsity Tennis Center as they face off against Indiana, Wisconsin, Minnesota and Michigan State squads – all of whom are ranked within the top 75 teams nationally. With a target clearly painted on their backs, the leaders on this year’s Buckeye squad said the team has what it takes to send a message to the rest of the conference. “(We have to) show what we’ve got in the Big Ten season, and show the other top teams that ‘Wow, they’re beating everybody pretty good,’ so that’s our goal,” said redshirt senior Devin McCarthy. The Buckeyes are scheduled to begin their match against PSU at noon on Saturday.
Despite being forced to play a man down after junior goalkeeper Alex Ivanov was sent off for a handball outside the penalty box in the 70th minute, the Ohio State men’s soccer team ended up playing to a scoreless tie in double overtime against Wright State.Ivanov was forced to charge a Wright State forward as he progressed down the right side of the field. When the attacker shot the ball, Ivanov jumped in front of the ball and hit the ball with his hand, while outside the penalty box.Junior goalkeeper Andrian McAdams, a transfer from Akron, was subbed in when Ivanov was forced to the bench.McAdams said he was prepared to come on if he was needed.“I was happy to go in,” McAdams said. “I was really excited most of all and happy we (could) keep the shutout.”Ohio State junior goalkeeper Alex Ivanov kicks the ball in a game against Wright State Sept. 17 at Jesse Owens Memorial Stadium. OSU and WSU tied, 0-0 in double overtimeThe Buckeyes started slow, allowing the Raiders to go on the attack early. As the game progressed each team had their fair amount of opportunities. Freshman midfielder Christian Soldat was heavily involved in the attack, firing two shots on the night but was unable to find the back of the net.“Sometimes things just don’t go your way,” Soldat said. “I just got (to) focus a little harder and put one in.”As the game went into overtime, OSU continued to battle on the defensive side. But the attack slowly diminished as the Buckeyes were only able to record one shot throughout the overtime periods.Wright State racked up 18 fouls compared to OSU’s eight. In addition WSU sophomore forward Brett Elder and junior midfielder Chris DuPont each received a yellow card for arguing with officials.Coach John Bluem was not surprised by the physical play of the Raiders.“I don’t want to say it was characteristic of their team, but we weren’t surprised there were a lot of fouls in the game,” Bluem said.Bluem was disappointed in the Buckeye’s performance.“We weren’t at our best,” Bluem said. “The one thing I will give our team credit for is they come to battle and they keep fighting.”Due to his red card, Ivanov will have to miss OSU’s next match.OSU (2-2-2) continues its streak of in-state matchups as the Dayton Flyers come to town Friday at 7:30 p.m.
Junior guard Shannon Scott (3) sets himself on defense during a game against Dayton March 20 at First Niagara Center. OSU lost, 60-59.Credit: Ritika Shah / Asst. photo editorThe ball bounced off the front of the rim and fell to the floor at the First Niagara Center. Ohio State’s season was over.Dayton had a 60-59 advantage when the buzzer echoed throughout the rafters and signaled the end of the careers of two of the most accomplished players OSU has ever seen — senior guards Lenzelle Smith Jr. and Aaron Craft.But as their season ended Thursday in the NCAA Tournament’s second round, next season’s outlook is somewhat of a mixed bag with the unexpected departure of a bench player and an incoming Top 5 recruiting class.As it currently stands, OSU is set to have just 11 players on scholarship when practice for the 2014-15 season opens this fall. Losing Craft and Smith Jr. will likely hurt from a leadership standpoint, but coach Thad Matta has five returning players who are on scholarship and will be seniors, provided forward LaQuinton Ross doesn’t bounce to the NBA.“Both guys, you look at how many games they’ve won here, championships they’ve been a part of, it’s really an amazing four years,” Matta said of Craft and Smith Jr. March 7. “With that said, both guys have had a major impact on this program in terms of making it better. And that’s what we ask guys to do.”Craft said in the locker room after his final game as a Buckeye that junior guard Shannon Scott needs to step up as a leader next season, but filling that void can’t just fall on him.“Obviously he has some big games under his belt and he’s experienced this, but it’s not just going to fall on one guy’s shoulders. Guy like (junior forward) Sam (Thompson) can help, too,” Craft said.The number of players on scholarships is one less than it would have been even with the departure of Craft and Smith Jr., because sophomore guard Amedeo Della Valle told Matta and his staff Saturday that he intends to head back home to Italy and pursue a professional career in Europe. Della Valle posted a message to his personal Twitter account, @Ame_DV_33, Saturday afternoon announcing his farewell.“I wouldn’t trade this experience with anything else, B1G Champions, the run to the Elite 8, the 12-0 year, man was that special,” the message read. “It is now time for me to begin new experiences as I decided to head back to Europe to continue to play PRO basketball.”So with three men gone and the potential to lose another in Ross — who said his decision would come “in the next couple of weeks” — Matta and company have some rebuilding to do.Matta signed yet another top 5 recruiting class for next season, bringing in guard D’Angelo Russell, forwards Keita Bates-Diop and Jae’Sean Tate and center David Bell. It’s a class Matta said he’s excited to coach.“The biggest thing with this particular class is we got what we wanted,” Matta said Nov. 14.Russell, 21st in the ESPN top 150 rankings, is likely to figure largely in the rotation next year to help replace Craft and Smith Jr.’s production. Tate is recovering from surgery for a torn labrum in his right shoulder and is out for the rest of his senior season so it remains to be seen when he will be 100 percent, and Bates-Diop and Bell likely have their work cut out for them to get minutes unless Ross leaves.Another player who will figure into the equation is current freshman guard Kam Williams, who sat out all year after battling through mono and missing the bulk of training camp.All season long, something appeared off with the team, whether it be a lack of instinct, absence of ability to consistently put points on the board or an undependable post presence.“(Fans) deserve an answer. They deserved an answer all year. They’ve seen us play well, and they’ve seen us play like this,” Craft said after the loss to the Flyers Thursday. “Nothing is guaranteed and that’s one of the tougher things to get across from people. My time’s done now, so it’s on these guys to learn from what this season’s been. How hard it’s been. How difficult we’ve made it on ourselves at times. That’s what they gotta do.”Returning to try and fill in the blanks are juniors in Thompson, Scott and center Amir Williams, who all averaged at least 7.5 points per game in OSU’s 25-win campaign. Junior center Trey McDonald is also set to return, but he only averaged 2.0 points per game and 1.7 rebounds off the bench this season.Scoring points will be a premium for the Buckeyes next year, as aside from Ross, no one really stepped up to be that second scorer the team so desperately needed.“It’s one of those things where everybody wants to be that guy. But the guys got to be willing to do the things in terms of work ethic and in terms of the system and knowing that,” Matta said. “You see guys have great off-seasons, and hopefully we have that.”