The second season of the National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) starts April 12, which will be about the time people ask, “There’s a professional women’s soccer league?” Yes, there is: It’s the third attempt since 1999 at professionalizing women’s soccer in the U.S. The previous two leagues both folded after only three seasons, so to say that Year 2 is crucial for the NWSL’s survival would be an understatement.This season also carries the added pressure of needing to be really competitive in the run-up to summer 2015’s FIFA Women’s World Cup in Canada. If the U.S. national team hopes to have the best shot at the World Cup, it needs to be playing at the highest level. That means the rest of the players in the league (those who won’t be going to the World Cup) need to be very good. But it isn’t easy to entice international talent (or even domestic talent) with the lurking ghost of two failed leagues and a salary that typically ranges from $6,000 to $30,000 (with most players seeing the lower end of that range).Herein lies the biggest problem for the NWSL: To keep the league afloat, it is paying preposterously low salaries. And who can afford to play professional soccer for $6,000 per year? Mostly women in college or only a few years out, as well as those with minimal national-team-level experience. And though this modest budget has helped the league’s bottom line, it has made it more difficult to attract high-level players — well, high-level players who are not members of the U.S. national team.When the NWSL was organized, U.S. Soccer, the sport’s governing body, agreed to subsidize the salaries of U.S. national team players — typically the best and most expensive players in the league. Last year, the Canadian and Mexican federations agreed to do the same, so the league evenly allocated all national team players among the eight teams. (A ninth team, the Houston Dash, was added this year, so many players were reallocated.)With a roster squad of 20 — assuming each team has the maximum three “free” U.S. national team players and three “free” Canadian or Mexican national team players — this leaves 14 roster spots to be filled. Last year’s salary cap was $200,000, so, divided evenly, pay would be less than $15,000 per player for the entire season.On Wednesday, each team had to cut its roster to 25 players, with five more cuts to come before the season begins. We wanted to look at the distribution of talent in this season’s player pool to see who is trying to play professional women’s soccer. Below is a chart that illustrates the relative experience and age of the 228 players who remain (not all teams had released their roster cuts by Wednesday’s deadline):We counted one year out of college as finishing collegiate soccer in 2013, although technically these players are still in college (most are just about to graduate). For national team experience, we counted the number of consecutive years a player appeared in the full national team player pool. This data does not reflect international players who did not play college soccer and also probably over-represents younger players who are more likely to be released when the final rosters are cut to 20 in the coming weeks.Still, it’s interesting that the NWSL pool is dominated by players two years out college with zero years of national team experience — there are currently 42 of these women. The median number of years of national team experience is zero, which makes sense because the national team pool is very small — typically about 30 players per year. Almost half of the player pool is made up of women only one or two years out of college.This data doesn’t speak to the longevity of a player’s career, which varies wildly by individual. The data also doesn’t mean that a freshly graduated collegiate player is any worse or better than Christie Rampone, the league veteran with 17 years of national team experience. There are wunderkinds in every sport, but overall we think that more professional experience probably means more talented players.The main thing the data illustrates is that the NWSL is skewing young and inexperienced, which might have more to do with finances than soccer ability. For most players, and people in general, there are only so many years you can do the thing you love on a $15,000 annual salary before you have to move on.
It’s been a busy midterm week at FiveThirtyEight. Which is to say, a busy week evaluating the NFL at its mid-term point. After nine weeks of action, every team has played at least eight games, which means it’s time for the inaugural Skeptical Football Midterm Awards.Most Valuable PlayerAlso known as the “Best Combination of Passing Yards and Touchdowns by a Quarterback, Unless You’re a Running Back Who Rushes for 2,000 Yards or Breaks a Touchdown Record” Award.That MVPs are nearly always QBs is OK with me. Really, players at other positions can be extremely impressive, but the odds of the true “most valuable” player not being a QB in any given year are small — and even if some other player were theoretically more valuable, the odds that there’d be enough data to be confident of it are virtually nil. Imagine your team is lucky enough to have the best quarterback in football (whoever that might be) — is there any chance you would trade him for any other player, ever?1If you want to be nitpicky about the hypothetical: Assume all alternate players are average or replacement level, and that all players would cost the same amount. And that it would be for one year so age wouldn’t be a factor. And you are actually trying to win that year. Etc.Maybe it’s possible,2One of the best candidates I can think of for this kind of trade would be Randy Moss on the 2007 Patriots. He had a demonstrated record of turning mediocre QBs into superstars. but this definitely isn’t one of those years — there are probably five to 10 QBs right now whom you would never want your team to trade for any non-QB.So let’s talk about most valuable players. The fundamental metric for evaluating players of all positions should be some version of wins produced.3Ideally, championships. But typically this overlaps with wins. Because we can model the chances of a team winning at any point in a given game, we can determine how much those odds change on each play that a player is involved in — also known as WPA or Win Percentage Added. But this stat is extremely noisy and susceptible to huge influence from very random situations (a whole season can come down to whether the QB throws an incomplete pass or not on a single down with the game on the line).Since we can also model how many points a team ought to score — on average — from a particular starting position (down/distance/yard line), we can measure how much a player contributes to his team’s expected points. Since this is more granular than wins, it makes for a powerful proxy. But points can be skewed, too — mostly from plays during garbage time at the end of games, but also from very high-value but unpredictable plays such as fumbles.Then there’s the additional complication of who gets credit for what. It takes a village to complete a pass. And the running game — traditionally credited to running backs — is frequently set up by the pass. Plus, in some cases QBs even call plays themselves — so why shouldn’t they get credit for the entire offense?Chart of the weekSo to get a better look at the big picture, I’m plotting WPA against expected points added (EPA).4For balance, I’ve included the total win percentage above expectation per drive (including the running game) for WPA, but points above expectation from the QB’s passes alone for EPA. You can think of it as “raw passing contribution” on the x-axis and “overall effect on the bottom line” on the y-axis:The trend line is a quarterback’s expected effect on his team’s chances of winning based on his EPA. There are a number of reasons why a QB might be beating it, such as when the rest of his offense is strong (e.g., Alex Smith with Jamaal Charles), or he might contribute a lot with his running (Russell Wilson), or he’s just gotten lucky (or been better) at the right times.I’ve given Aaron Rodgers a fair amount of flak around here for not “slinging” it enough. In my estimation, he hasn’t taken the necessary risks to improve his team’s chances of winning in the situations that can make such risks worthwhile. But he’s a great QB, no doubt. He’s third behind Peyton Manning and Philip Rivers for EPA/drive, and leads WPA/drive by a wide margin. In fact, his WPA/drive is nearly twice Manning’s.But as I said, WPA can be deceiving. About 40 percent of Rodgers’s WPA for the entire season comes from a single touchdown scoring drive against the Dolphins, and about three-quarters of that comes from the last two plays of the drive alone. Dare I say? So far this season, Rodgers has been a “clutch” quarterback, coming through at the right times for the 5-3 Packers. That’s great for him, and Packers fans should be happy about it.But I’m still going to risk the Green-and-Yellow wrath and give the award to Manning anyway.Why? Because come on, the most valuable player in the NFL doesn’t just up and change from year to year because one QB has a few more good days than another. If Manning has been the MVP five times in the last 11 years, and there’s no evidence of him getting any worse whatsoever, what are the odds that someone has surpassed him?It’s like instant replay5Or any other situation involving a high burden of proof.: The ruling on the field is that Manning is still the best player in the NFL, and to overturn that ruling takes (nearly) indisputable evidence. That caliber of evidence rarely even exists in the NFL, and it certainly doesn’t in this case.Defensive Player of the Mid-YearFor all the complexity involved in statistically evaluating quarterbacks, it’s practically tic-tac-toe compared to evaluating defensive players. Sure, we record tackles, sacks, interceptions and forced fumbles (and now even more advanced things like how often a cornerback is targeted by the opposing offense), but for any given player these touch on a tiny fraction of plays he’s involved in.And allocating responsibility on defense is even harder than it is on offense. Football is a dynamic game. An advantage may be created in one spot and realized in another. If one of a team’s interior linemen draws a lot of attention, that may lead to a defensive end getting an abnormally high number of sacks. The effect of an advantage might also be distributed diffusely, such as when a cornerback is so good that he constantly single-covers the opponent’s best receiver, freeing up other options for the other defenders.6The even worse scenario is that a defensive player could be so good that his team chooses to spend less money on defense.In other words, I’m flying pretty blind. I’m pretty sure Deion Sanders was good. But, say, Reggie White, I don’t know. Probably. So rather than try to solve the impossible, let me fall back on a classic cop-out: Who’s the best player on the league’s best defense?Which brings me to…Twitter question of the week It doesn’t matter whether the Dolphins are “underestimated.” But it does matter that the Dolphins’ defense has been really, really good this year.Dolphins opponents have scored about half a point per drive less than their expectation (and Miami has faced a tougher-than-average schedule).7It’s such an offensive year that a defense holding par versus the models is good for ninth-best in the league. While there is still variance to deal with, we don’t have to caveat the results as much as we do with QBs: The sample sizes are relatively big, and the measurement is more direct. However, the Dolphins’ WPA still takes a pretty big hit from that one Aaron Rodgers comeback drive in Week 6 (take that out and they’d be almost 10 percentage points higher in WPA).In other words, as good as it’s been, Miami’s D somewhat underperformed in the first half of the season. As always, I’d expect some regression to the mean in the second half of the season, but there’s good reason to expect the team not to regress as much as normal.So who’s the best player on the Dolphins’ defense? Based on stats alone, I have no idea. But I can consult the most objective authority on player value that I know: “Madden 15.” According to the game, Cameron Wake is the best player on the Dolphins (defensive or otherwise) by a wide margin:So there you go, Wake wins my DPOY award by virtue of being the most respected Dolphin among video-game programmers (aka the Hacker Gods of the worlds we simulate.)Rookie of the Mid-YearI love tracking rookie quarterbacks, but mostly because predicting their future performance is an interesting endeavor that has little to do with their quality of play. Unlike the contenders for “most valuable player” awards, rookie QBs are rarely very good — or if they are, we probably can’t tell because the best ones tend to play for crappy teams. So it is this year, where the most efficient rookie QB is still well below league average.Rookie “of the year” is also different from “most valuable” rookie, because it opens the door for rookies who may be incredibly good at their position even though their position isn’t the most important.One rookie is not only good for his position, but has arguably been the best in the league. My Rookie of the Year (so far) award goes to Chandler Catanzaro, placekicker for the Arizona Cardinals:Catanzaro has yet to miss this year — one of only four perfect kickers remaining8The others are Adam Vinatieri, Nick Novak, and Josh Brown. — and he has the highest points above expectation per attempt of all kickers. And unlike other stats in football, delivering the points expected of them is basically 95 percent of what kickers do (occasionally they have to tackle), and they’re 95 percent responsible for it (they can get bad snaps or the offensive line can let through a blocker). This is why I love kickers: They’re some of the only entities in the NFL we can evaluate with any precision.There’s still a fair amount of variance, of course, but it’s all very measurable and predictable.9For example, in Week 8 the NFL had a great week of kicking (14th-best in 14 years), but this past week kickers were pretty bad, putting up the 190th-best week (of 230) in that period. For the diehards: Skeptical Football’s most valuable kicker from Week 9 was Billy Cundiff, and its least valuable was Patrick Murray: And it’s not like it would be shocking for a young kicker to be among the best in the league.Comeback Player of the Mid-YearIsn’t it a bit weird that Peyton Manning has five MVP trophies, and also has a Comeback Player of the Year award? Like, his mantle wasn’t crowded enough, so they had to give him another award for having neck surgery. Other winners include Matthew Stafford, Tom Brady, Drew Brees, and … Chad Pennington? Twice?How I could approach this award empirically was bugging me, but then it was staring me right in the face: Practically half of what I write is about QB “comebacks.”Incidentally, I keep coming back to this issue10For continuity, I’m giving Gunslinger of the week to the Oakland Raiders’ Derek Carr, who had two interceptions in a Week 9 comeback effort that ultimately fell just short against the defending NFL champion Seattle Seahawks. not because I’m enthralled by the quasi-mystical power of the comeback clutch-osity, but because it’s where I think a lot of QBs are too conservative — and their teams’ chances suffer as a consequence. It’s sort of like the NFL statisticians’ obsession with coaches not going for it enough on fourth down.Given my own obsessions, then, this is the award that’s most important to get right. So, to aid my analysis, I’ve created a chart to profile each quarterback’s comeback game. But instead of focusing on specific comeback thresholds (like the normal 9-point second-half deficit I often work with), I compared how each quarterback did relative to expectation for all scenarios, based on his expectation in each scenario. (E.g., if a QB has a 10 percent chance of winning, I’ll treat it the same whether that 10 percent is due to being down a small amount in the fourth quarter or a large amount in the first quarter.)11To do this, I first took every play that the quarterback was involved with, then plotted whether his team won or not (relative to his team’s expected win rate before the play). Unfortunately, since there are thousands of data points, that just led to two black lines. So to see what was going on I used R to create a smooth curve. (Using geom_smooth() in ggplot2. Since each QB has more than 1,000 data points, R uses a generalized additive model.) That gave me the regression’s estimate for how often the QB would typically win given a prior probability.I plotted a handful of Skeptical Football’s favorite QBs for comparison …Experimental chart of the weekAdmittedly, this is an unfair comparison: QBs who play for stronger teams are going to win more often than ones who play for weak teams, so that will certainly affect their “curves.” But what’s fascinating to me are the shapes.To start with, Peyton Manning not only wins a larger percentage of games than he is “supposed” to, but he exceeds that rate with just about the most perfect curve of anyone in the entire data set. It’s as if his game is starting to approach a mathematical ideal of good quarterbacking.12It also makes Manning a great point for comparison. For other QBs, we see more variation — some of it random, and some of it following pretty clear patterns:Tom Brady and the Patriots have basically matched Manning in situations where they ought to have a low probability of winning, but in games they were supposed to win 80 percent of the time, they’ve only won 80 percent of the time. For shame.Aaron Rodgers (as expected), has a pretty unremarkable record (relative to his own high standard) in situations where his team is expected to lose, but does very well in competitive games or games in which his team is front-running.Philip Rivers is sort of a less extreme version of Brady. This surprised me because I’ve previously thought of him as a slightly less good but slightly less gun-shy version of Rodgers. But it looks like they’re actually quite the opposite (notice how the blue and yellow lines make an X shape).And that brings us to Matthew Stafford and Tony Romo. Perhaps not coincidentally, both are Gunslinger of the Week recipients this year (Stafford has won twice), and both have extremely lopsided curves: Note how Stafford wins about as much when his team has a 40 percent chance of winning as when it has a 75 percent chance. This suggests, as I theorized last week regarding Tim Tebow, that Stafford’s comeback success may not be as much a conscious adjustment to sling it more when trailing. Instead, it could be that his perma-risk game is naturally calibrated to extracting as much win as possible from underdog scenarios, but also leads to a lot of blunders that cost his team wins otherwise.13Or it could just be that the Lions are terrible and only win at all because of Stafford’s superhuman efforts. You decide. If you combined the way Stafford plays when his team is down with the way Rodgers plays with his team ahead, you’d have a heck of a QB!Tony Romo’s curve is a little less dramatic than Stafford’s is, but it’s still pretty clear. Let’s look at it on a scale of 0 to Manning:Romo’s practically Tony Manning when his team is way behind. But then he’s more like a normal quarterback in more even situations, and makes more mistakes when his team is ahead.But the “comeback” award doesn’t care how a quarterback plays when he’s ahead, and this season Romo has played great when trailing. He has taken the kinds of risks I like to see (high touchdown rates and high interception rates when trailing), and those have translated into wins. His average passes go more than 10 yards downfield when Dallas is trailing by a large amount, and he has added roughly 3 percent to his team’s chances of winning every drive — good for third-best in the league. (I’ve posted a plot of air yards vs. win percentage added on Twitter). Moreover, when you factor in DeMarco Murray’s WPA troubles because of fumbles, almost all of the Cowboys’ success on offense has come from Romo.Oh, and he came back to play in the fourth quarter with a broken back.So Romo wins my Comeback Player of the Mid-Year Award, and hopefully he can come back from his back troubles to sling it up some more. (In which case, could he win the actual comeback trophy as well? Can you come back in the same year that you go out?)And one more thingWith the awards handed out, let’s part ways with the win curves for some other quarterbacks as well. Again, I’d consider Manning the high baseline — Andrew Luck’s curve looks slightly better than Manning’s, though it’s over a much shorter career. I’ll leave you with the results and you can find your own narratives.Reminder: If you tweet questions to me @skepticalsports, there is a non-zero chance that I’ll answer them here.Charts by Reuben Fischer-Baum.
Florida coach Will Muschamp landed his highest ranked recruit in his short time as the Gators’ coach in Vernon Hargreaves III, the fourth-rated best player in the country.A five-star prospect, Hargreaves tweeted: “I can officially say I am committed to THE University of Florida ! #GoGators CHOMP CHOMP”.The 5-foot-11, 185-pound defensive back chose Florida over Clemson, Vanderbilt, Notre Dame and Miami.Hargreaves, who has already committed to play in the Under Armour All-America game in January, becomes the highest-ranked Florida commit. Seventeen of Florida’s 18 verbal commits are rated four-star prospects or higher, and 12 are listed on the ESPN 300.In his junior season, Hargreaves had 49 tackles, two interceptions and a sack on defense, while adding 13 receptions for 313 yards and three touchdowns for a Wharton program that finished the season with a record of 5-6 after advancing to the FHSAA Class 8A state playoffs in 2011.The son of Vernon Hargreaves, Jr., an assistant under Skip Holtz at South Florida, he gave his father’s school some consideration. At the same time, his sister, Karina, attends Florida, and she was definitely pro-Gator. “All day. Whenever she texts or calls me, it’s ‘come to Florida,’” Hargreaves said. “It’s funny, though.” Asked who recruited him harder, his dad or his older sister, Hargreaves answered without hesitation.“My sister, definitely,” he said.It also helped Florida that Hargreaves gained an affection for Florida assistant Travaris Robinson, who was in charge of recruiting him.“He’s a good guy, he’s funny, energetic and he’s telling me the truth about Florida,” Hargreaves said. “He’s not telling me lies – not saying I’m going to come in and start or anything crazy like that.”Although Hargreaves continues to be on pace to graduate from high school early, he revealed on Saturday afternoon that it was not certain he would actually enroll in college for the spring semester at this time.
The U.S. Anti-Doping Agency plans to strip cyclist Lance Armstrong of his unprecedented seven Tour de France titles and ban him for life.The harsh punitive measure follows Armstrong’s decision drop the fights against the drug charges that have followed him for years and figures to tarnish his legacy as one of the sport’s greatest ever.Armstrong, who retired last year, declined to enter USADA’s arbitration process because he had simply grown tired of the allegations of cheating that have dogged him for years. He has consistently pointed to the hundreds of drug tests he passed over the years as proof of his innocence while winning Tour titles from 1999-2005.“There comes a point in every man’s life when he has to say, ‘Enough is enough.’ ,” he said Thursday. “For me, that time is now.”Armstrong called the USADA investigation an “unconstitutional witch hunt.”“I have been dealing with claims that I cheated and had an unfair advantage in winning my seven Tours since 1999,”he said. “The toll this has taken on my family and my work for our foundation and on me leads me to where I am today – finished with this nonsense.”USADA reacted quickly, treating Armstrong’s decision as an admission of guilt before saddling him with the label of cheater. Under the World Doping Code, Armstrong could also lose other awards, event titles and cash earnings, while the International Olympic Committee could possibly look at revoking the bronze medal he won at the 2000 Sydney Olympics.USADA contends that Armstrong has used banned substances as far back as 1996, including the blood-booster EPO and steroids, as well as blood transfusions to boost his performance.Armstrong walked away from the sport in 2011 without being charged following a two-year federal investigation into many of the same accusations he faces from USADA. The federal probe was closed in January, but USADA announced in June that it had its own evidence of Armstrong’s wrong-doing. The agency also claimed it had 10 of Armstrong’s former U.S. Postal Service teammates who were ready to testify against him.Armstrong became a household name in America after his Tour wins and storied comeback from testicular cancer and helped lift the sport to unprecedented popularity.Created in 2000, USADA is recognized by Congress as the official anti-doping agency for Olympic sports in the United States.
Before the champion Miami Heat faced the challenger Indiana Pacers Wednesday night, the teams engaged in a battle of verbiage that did not indicate they were chummy. And the action on the floor exemplified the advancing animosity between to the teams.LeBron James needed a cotton swab in his nose to keep playing in the fourth quarter after he was whacked in the face. Dwyane Wade spent the final minute of the game icing his right hamstring.Indiana center Roy Hibbert took an elbow to the face that left him so groggy he didn’t even remember getting hit. How’d he get it? James was called for a flagrant foul when he drove to the basket and sent the 7-foot-2, 290-pound Hibbert crashing to the ground. When Hibbert got up, he stumbled. Eventually he had to leave the court to change his blood-spattered jersey, but he refused to sit against the Heat.Wade and Lance Stephenson were assessed technical fouls over a shoving match. Stephenson was ejected midway through the fourth quarter after picking up his second technical for celebrating a basket.But that’s what the Heat extracted from the Pacers: pure emotion. The Pacers earned an 84-83 win in a physical game. In the process, they let it be known that they have the audacity necessary to challenge the Heat.“They’re the champs, they’re going to bring out the best in us,” said bruising forward David West, who made a 3-pointer with 50.2 seconds to go. “They bring out the best in anybody. I thought we just had enough fight.”There were potential fights all night, a display of bravado that Indiana believes is necessary against the champions. More than that, the Pacers played better, if only by a little bit, on a night when James was brilliant. The four-time MVP had 38 points on 9-for-15 shooting, eight rebounds, five assists. However, James and Wade each had six turnovers.Miami managed only one basket over the final 3 minutes, 23 seconds. James and Chris Bosh both missed late jumpers that would have given Miami the lead, the last an airball by Bosh from just right of the top of the key as time expired.“They’re a tough team, psychologically against most teams they have the edge,” West said. “They’ve got the best player in the game. Their pedigree, their entire organization, you understand what you’re going to get.”Evan Turner, a 25-year-old, replaced Stephenson in the lineup and made two strong plays down the stretch that pulled the Pacers back from a four-point deficit.“When I got back in, coach said, ‘Welcome to the rivalry,’ ” Turner said.
During the 2015 regular season, the Broncos and Panthers allowed the NFL’s fewest and second-fewest yards per play, respectively, and finished 1-2 defensively in Football Outsiders’ defense-adjusted value over average (DVOA) ratings. It’s only the eighth time the top two DVOA defenses1Using estimated ratings for seasons prior to 1989. have met in a Super Bowl, and the average defensive index of the teams involved ranks third all-time, trailing only Super Bowls XIV and IV. Everyone is obsessing over the study in contrasts at quarterback — Cam Newton vs. Peyton Manning — but it’s the two defenses that should be taking center stage in the lead-up to Sunday, because by just about any measure, this is one of the best defensive matchups in Super Bowl history. BroncosRunning the ball against the Broncos’ defense is like running into a brick wall erected around another, thicker brick wall. It had the league’s fourth-best defensive DVOA against rushing plays during the regular season and was particularly fearsome up the middle, allowing the league’s fourth-fewest expected points per rush between the tackles. According to ProFootballFocus.com’s player grades, defensive end Derek Wolfe was the eighth-best interior run defender in the NFL; Danny Trevathan and Brandon Marshall also ranked among the top 11 run defenders at linebacker, with Von Miller ranking ninth against the run among edge rushers. If the Broncos have a weakness against the run, it’s in short-yardage situations — they allowed the league’s second-highest power success rate2Defined as the percentage of runs that achieved a first down or touchdown on third or fourth down with 2 yards or less to go, or on first- or second-and-goal from the 2-yard line or closer. — but they offset that with one of the league’s highest rates of stuffing runners behind the line of scrimmage, and they almost never allowed long runs. Only 7.4 percent of carries against the Broncos went for more than 10 yards, the third-lowest rate in the league.And Denver’s ability to stop the run is by far the weaker aspect of this defense. According to DVOA,3Again, indexed relative to the league’s distribution of pass defenses. the 2015 Broncos’ pass D ranks as the 11th-best of the Super Bowl era after blowing away the competition this season. The Panthers’ DVOA against the pass ranked second in the league but was about two-thirds of a standard deviation worse than Denver’s. 2012Chicago140130136 What makes the Broncos so great at defending the pass? For one thing, they led the league in adjusted sack rate, with coordinator Wade Phillips dialing up five or more pass-rushers on 42 percent of opposing pass plays, fourth-most in football. Those plays are statistically graded as blitzes, but in a Denver 3-4 alignment featuring some of the game’s top pass-rushing linebackers, the lines between a blitz and a D-line that simply creates pressure on its own start to blur. According to PFF, Miller was the top pass-rushing edge defender in the game, and his partner on the opposite side, DeMarcus Ware, ranked sixth. Meanwhile, Wolfe and Malik Jackson also finished among the top 11 pass-rushing interior linemen. And when the Broncos do need to blitz from unusual places, safety T.J. Ward can create havoc; he tied for sixth among DBs with a pair of sacks this season.But the front four is only part of the equation — a blitz-heavy scheme falls apart quickly without the ability to cover receivers. This Denver D doesn’t necessarily rely on its secondary as ball hawks; Aqib Talib’s modest total of three interceptions led the roster, and the team’s interception rate was merely average. Instead, all of the Broncos’ primary defensive backs (Talib, Ward, Chris Harris Jr., Darian Stewart and Bradley Roby) and linebackers (Trevathan and Marshall) ranked among the upper quartile at their positions in PFF’s coverage grades, sticking to receivers so effectively that only St. Louis allowed fewer air yards per completion. (“Grading” players is often a fool’s errand, since you can never be sure about coverages and assignments, but when pretty much the entire secondary grades out in the upper crust, those problems are minimized.) And no team allowed fewer overall passing yards per attempt or yards per completion than the Broncos did.PanthersFor all the lofty achievement and outright dominance by the Denver squad, the Panthers’ defense might actually have the edge in star power: Not only will it have arguably the best player on the field Sunday in LB Luke Kuechly, but Carolina’s D also outearned Denver’s in first-team All-Pro selections (3 to 1) and tied it for Pro Bowl nods (4 apiece).It’s indicative of the way these defenses stack up: Carolina’s top defensive players — Kuechly, CB Josh Norman, LB Thomas Davis (playing Sunday with “a plate and probably around 11 or 12 screws” in his arm, which he broke during the NFC championship), DT Kawann Short — can hold their own with anybody on Denver’s roster. But the lesser Panthers defenders aren’t quite as good, which makes Carolina’s statistical profile sort of “Broncos Lite.” Their strengths are similar, but the Panthers are slightly inferior to Denver whether they’re defending the pass or the run.Stylistically, however, the Panthers do operate differently in some important ways. At the most elemental level, they run a 4-3 scheme that relies less on creative blitz packages and pressure from the edges, instead using Short to generate a pass rush from the middle of the defense, and fellow DT Star Lotulelei to occupy blockers and eat up space. The end result was fewer sacks and less pressure overall, but that only makes Carolina’s performance in coverage even more impressive. Despite giving opposing passers the league’s sixth-most seconds in the pocket per drop-back, the Panthers allowed the 11th-fewest air yards per attempt and seventh-lowest completion percentage.It all starts with Norman, who has few peers when it comes to blanketing receivers. Alongside him, the Carolina secondary is littered with such solid cover DBs as Kurt Coleman, Roman Harper, Cortland Finnegan and Tre Boston, all of whom PFF rated among the top half of their respective positions in terms of pass coverage. This depth proved important because Carolina used five or more defensive backs on 463 pass plays this season (26 percent more than the NFL average), more than any other team despite a banged-up secondary that suffered a number of key losses.Speaking of which: The only glaring hole in the DB corps might be Robert McClain, whom PFF rated as one of the worst cover corners in football since signing with Carolina at midseason after a rash of injuries befell the team. But coverage ratings for individual players often don’t tell the whole story, and the rest of Carolina’s roster rates well in pass coverage — Kuechly was graded by PFF as the game’s best cover LB. The all-around cover skills of Carolina’s entire D helped them yield the league’s second-lowest rates of yards per attempt and yards after the catch.Against the rush, Carolina profiled a lot like Denver: It was poor at stopping runners in power situations (worst in the league, in fact), but it also stuffed a lot of runs behind the line of scrimmage. The biggest difference is that, unlike the Broncos, the Panthers did yield some long runs; they ranked 15th at preventing what Football Outsiders calls “open field” yards — i.e., rushing gains starting more than 10 yards beyond the line of scrimmage — per carry (Denver ranked second). That’s one reason why this is a good run defense but not a great one.All told, this is the 15th-most evenly matched defensive matchup in Super Bowl history according to DVOA. And the quality of offensive competition each defense will face ought to help level the playing field even more. Denver’s historically great D is facing a very good Carolina offense led by the suddenly amazing Newton at QB; Carolina’s great-but-not-historically-so defense is facing one of the worst offenses to take the field in a Super Bowl — particularly when it comes to passing.The Super Bowl is all about pomp and spectacle, razzle and dazzle, offensive fireworks and star quarterbacks booking FastPass times at the tea cups. Sometimes that leaves little room for an appreciation of subtler things, like defense. But in this case, all eyes should be on that rougher side of the football — it will be a long time before you see another defensive clash of this caliber on Super Bowl Sunday.Check out our live coverage of Super Bowl 50. 2004Buffalo135129135 Source: Football Outsiders, FootballPerspective 2008Pittsburgh133125133 DEFENSIVE DVOA INDEX 1974Pittsburgh139130138 1982Miami12785143 1980Washington11886132 1998Miami133114137 2002Tampa Bay146114148 YEARTEAMOVERALLVS. RUNVS. PASS 2013Seattle137114140 1970Minnesota135118136 Best pass defenses of the Super Bowl era (1966-2015) 1988Minnesota144121146 1999Tampa Bay12791134 1994Pittsburgh131114132 2015Denver135120135 1977Atlanta127115132 1969Minnesota134123132 1991Philadelphia150147142 1985Chicago135119137 2009N.Y. Jets136114134 2003Baltimore135125132
Entering Denver’s Monday night AFC West showdown with the first-place Kansas City Chiefs, there are few people who hold out much hope for the Broncos’ offense. The unit is perhaps the most beleaguered in the NFL right now. (And there are some really beleaguered units out there — have you watched the 49ers?) After routing the Dallas Cowboys in Week 2, Trevor Siemian and the Broncos have scored just three touchdowns in their past four games — and in their last outing were completely shut out by the Chargers.Now Denver is 3-3, with two more games against divisional leaders looming after tonight. But here’s the interesting thing about the Broncos’ apparent unraveling: The offense may be terrible, but it’s been terrible for three years — including the 2015-16 Super Bowl title run.A closer look at the numbers reveals that the vaunted Denver defense is perhaps not getting enough share of the blame. The Bronco defense is hardly struggling, but Denver’s recent formula for winning allows very little margin for error, and this year there’s been some error.Over the previous two seasons, the Denver defense was truly dominant — No. 1 in Football Outsiders’ DVOA1Defense-adjusted value over average, explained here. for both 2015 and 2016. The Broncos also finished first in passing yards allowed, first in passing net yards allowed per attempt and fourth in total points allowed in both seasons. This despite well-documented struggles at quarterback that limited the offense’s output.While the Broncos’ defense is ranked No. 1 in total yards allowed in 2017, it’s lagging behind the 2016 and 2015 editions in many key metrics. Going into Week 8, the Broncos were ranked fourth in defensive DVOA, and they were allowing a ninth-best average of 5.5 net passing yards per attempt — worsened from league-leading marks of 5.0 in 2016 and 5.1 in 2015. They’re now allowing an average of 19.7 points per game, up from 18.5 in 2015 and 18.6 in 2016.The uptick in points per game might be due to some decline in the unit’s play in high-leverage spots. Per TruMedia, before this weekend’s games, the Broncos were ninth in rate of first downs allowed per pass attempt, down from third in 2016 and first the year before. After two straight years of far surpassing the rest of league in defensive expected points added,2EPA is a metric popularized by ESPN’s Brian Burke, capturing down-to-down effectiveness based on game situation. the Broncos’ 44.84 is a very distant second to the Jacksonville Jaguars’ 83.84 — which shows the Broncos are still great at slowing offenses but not quite as great as they’ve recently been.The other culprit is the Broncos’ lack of turnovers. They’ve forced just four turnovers through six games, which currently ranks 30th in the NFL. That’s an average of 0.67 turnovers per game, down from 1.69 in both 2016 and 2015.All these stats paint an almost-complete picture of what’s going on: The Broncos are allowing slightly more yards, first downs and points to come out of the passing game while forcing far fewer turnovers, so they’re less effective at stopping opponent drives.3For the record, the Broncos had the No. 1 per-carry run defense in 2015, fell to No. 18 in 2016 and currently rank No. 2, per Pro Football Reference. But these swings haven’t made much impact on overall defensive effectiveness because of the pass-heavy nature of the NFL — and how dominant the pass defense has been.It’s easy to point to the offense here, too. If you have an offense that can’t win the field-position battle and can’t give the defense time to breathe, it’s hard to dominate on defense. This year, Broncos opponents’ average start position is 32.5 yards out, the furthest-downfield starting position in the NFL.But again, Denver’s defense should be used to this. The previous two iterations of the Broncos’ defense weren’t helped much by the offense and special teams, either; their opponents’ average start positions from their own end zone of 29.5 yards in 2015 and 29.3 yards in 2016 ranked 30th and 23rd, respectively. The field-position woes are also inflating the Broncos’ yardage defense; they’re ranked No. 1 partly because their opponents have the shortest distances to go.Really, the Broncos’ consistency has been remarkable — this year’s dip aside — especially considering the personnel changes. Pass-rusher DeMarcus Ware and safety T.J. Ward were two of Denver’s five Pro Bowl defenders from 2015; the former has since retired, and the latter was released at the beginning of the season. But plenty of superstar talent remains, including All-Pro pass-rusher Von Miller and All-Pro cornerbacks Chris Harris and Aqib Talib — and new arrivals like free-agent DT Domata Peko have made an impact.It’s literally impossible to win when a team’s offense is shut out, as the Broncos’ was in Week 7. But if Denver’s defense can regain the slight edge it had the past two years, the team doesn’t need Siemian to perform like Peyton Manning did in 2014. It just needs Siemian to perform like Manning did in 2015, when taking care of the ball in big games and moving the ball in key spots were enough to win an NFL championship.
If you ask the people who know Fabiano Caruana what Fabiano Caruana is like, they will tell you that Fabiano Caruana is, you know, just a normal guy.He likes movies. He likes music. He likes to eat. He works out. He goes on dates.Just a normal guy.Just a normal guy who is ranked second in the world in chess. A normal guy who was pulled out of school after seventh grade to do nothing but play the ancient and intricate game. A normal guy who is a hairbreadth away from prying the No. 1 position loose from probably the best player ever to play the game. A normal guy who, beginning Friday, will sit down at a table in London with this probably-the-best-ever player, Magnus Carlsen of Norway, in a grueling, weeks-long battle for the world championship of chess. A normal guy who could be the first American to win the title since Bobby Fischer in 1972. Real 99.99999999th percentile stuff.Just a normal guy. Sher told me one more chess story. It was about another Soviet former world champion, Tigran Petrosian. Someone once asked Petrosian which was the happiest day of his life. “The day I became world chess champion,” Petrosian said. That person then asked him which was the unhappiest day of his life.“The day after that,” he said.FiveThirtyEight will be covering the world chess championship match, which begins Friday, here and on Twitter. Caruana himself is a hard person to reach these days. After initially agreeing to provide FiveThirtyEight access to pre-championship training sessions, Caruana’s managers (he has two) declined to make him available for an interview. So instead I turned to his father, Lou.It all started with some squirming Lou told me. Caruana was just a normal kid.“He was fidgeting in school,” Lou explained when I visited him this spring in St. Louis. “So to increase his concentration, we thought it would be a good idea if he started playing chess.”The person who ran Fabiano’s after-school chess program in Brooklyn made what was, in retrospect, perhaps the most important phone call in recent U.S. chess history, informing his parents that Fabiano exhibited a remarkable amount of talent for someone of such a young age.Fabiano’s first tournament was soon after, in May 1998, in Queens. After that, he played every day. He played nights and weekends. He got even better. After six months, his dad stood no chance against him.So they turned to a mentor. I met Miron Sher, a Russian-born grandmaster, in the predominantly Russian neighborhood of Brighton Beach in Brooklyn, where he has lived for the past decade. He carried a chess magazine featuring Caruana and Carlsen on its cover, so that I’d recognize him.Sher was Caruana’s chess coach for “four years and 10 months, before he left to Spain.” Those were formative years, which saw Caruana’s U.S. Chess Federation rating climb from 1300 (a player in the dubiously named “fourth category”) to 2305 (a “life master”). Sher remembered those exact numbers correctly. We sat on a bench at the boardwalk, talking over crashing waves, staring at an ocean that stretches to the lands where Caruana came of age.“Fabiano does not think about a life without chess,” he said. 12345678hgfedcba 87654321abcdefgh Something like bishop to f4 seems natural (at least to me) here, since it would attack the black pawn. But Caruana opted for something more subtle: He moved his rook to a2, which gives black a very hard time when white later moves his pawn to b4, exposing an attack on black’s bishop. Chess.com called the move “unnatural.” Robert Hess, an American grandmaster, told me it was “spectacular” and “an extremely strong and obscure move.”It’s also the move the computer recommends.But Caruana can also play like a human being. “I think Fabiano’s chess is testy,” Sher said. “He is a sharp player. He is an emotional player.”Just a normal guy with quirks and idiosyncratic preferences. A guy, for example, who favors the Petrov defense. “Frankly, the Petrov is what I think about when I think of Fabi, since that’s ‘his’ opening,” Hess said. “He’s found a way to not just try to equalize with it, but also play for more than just equality.” That opening — in which Caruana has the black pieces and mirrors the white pieces’ first two moves — looks like this and was exhibited to great effect in a game from this year’s Candidates Tournament, which sent Caruana to the world championship. Another early appearance was in 2002 in the New York Daily News. That story featured a photo of a 10-year-old Caruana in an oversized T-shirt staring at a chessboard and grasping a bishop. He was taking on 15 opponents simultaneously in Bryant Park in Manhattan. He didn’t lose a single game.When you look at stories like those, Caruana’s championship bid seems preordained, the unavoidable result of an intense, prodigious and celebrated chess upbringing. But another quick search of the archives turns up dozens of other names that have also had their chess picture in the paper, and have also been teased by the press as The Next Bobby Fischer: Josh Waitzkin, Carissa Yip, Hikaru Nakamura, Eric Hicks, Jorge Zamora, Michael Wilder, Steven Zierk, Robert Lau, Gata Kamsky, Vinay Bhat, Ray Robson, Jordy Mont-Reynaud, Alan Tsoi, David Newmuis, Jeff Sarwer, Kayden Troff, Sam Sevian, etc., etc.You almost certainly haven’t heard of most — or any — of these people. None of them has played for the world championship of chess. Caruana will. Caruana makes his move during an event with the Turinese Chess Club in 2008. Caruana became a grandmaster at the age of 14. Pigi Cipelli/Archivio Pigi Cipelli/Mondadori Portfolio via Getty Images Caruana, left, and Wesley So, the top American grandmasters, play in the Candidates Tournament in Berlin this past March. Caruana won the tournament, which sent him to the world championship. Sebastian Reuter/Getty Images for World Chess Indeed, one way to measure the strength of human players these days is to measure how often their moves agreed with the moves a computer would’ve made. Chess.com has done this with its CAPS system, as did two scientists from Slovenia. Computers are the closest we have to a Platonic ideal of how chess should be played. As a result, top players train with them extensively. The defending world champion Carlsen matched the computer’s moves 85.3 percent of the time — more machine than man. Fischer did it 83.5 percent of the time.Caruana, too, can play like a machine. This summer he faced Wesley So, another top American grandmaster, in a rapid game with hefty pro-chess-circuit implications. After 25 moves, Caruana, with the white pieces, faced this position: Here’s an old Caruana family legend. While traveling in Europe, years ago, Caruana and his parents boarded a plane — one of many planes that he’s boarded in his young life. Once seated, he immediately pulled out a little chess set and began to play the game that has come to define him. The plane taxied and accelerated and took to the sky, cruising high above the earth at hundreds of miles an hour toward their destination. A rapt and oblivious Caruana kept playing, transfixed. Eventually he looked up, turned to his father and asked him a question.“When are we going to take off?” Running on my laptop, Stockfish, the powerful chess engine, assesses black — Caruana, in this case — with about a half-pawn disadvantage after the first two moves. Nevertheless, Caruana won the game. Sher is 66 years old and has taught chess for 47 of those. Caruana was one of his most devoted students. Sher estimates that during Caruana’s years under his tutelage, Caruana solved some 23,500 chess problems. Caruana’s family invested in an early and expensive digital chessboard, imported from the Netherlands, which could be hooked up to a computer. Caruana studied David Bronstein’s classic 1953 volume, 384 pages dense with chessboard diagrams and chess move notation. He studied former world champion Boris Spassky’s collected games. He digested Mark Dvoretsky’s “Endgame Manual.”In 2004, when Fabiano was 12, the Caruana family decamped for Europe. The tournaments were stronger, the competition was tougher, and the top coaches were in greater supply. Caruana flew up the ranks. He became an international master in 2006. He became a grandmaster in 2007. He entered the world’s top 100 in 2008 and has never left. In 2015 he was lured back to the United States. He became No. 2 in the world — one match away from the pinnacle of his game.And now, he’s just a normal guy. I joined Yuanling Yuan, a top Canadian women’s player with a degree in economics from Yale, in a Manhattan cafe. Caruana and Yuan met at (where else?) an international chess tournament in 2016. He’s a normal guy. He’s got friends.I asked Yuan for her best Fabiano Stories — what anecdotes encapsulate this normal guy? “Let me get a moment to collect my thoughts,” she said. Over the next half-hour, a handful of anecdotes, telling or not, emerged.One, he often orders healthy food. Two, he’s ridden on and enjoyed roller coasters. Three, he loves the game Plants vs. Zombies — “It’s his nightly ritual.” Four, he yells and screams when he plays certain strategy card games. And five, if chess doesn’t work out, he’d become a bean farmer. (Or least that’s the running joke, given the purported etymology of his first name.) In other words, he’d be a normal guy. Caruana, age 10, takes on 15 challengers simultaneously in Manhattan. He didn’t lose a single game. Keith Torrie / NY Daily News Archive via Getty Images
Thursday night marks the return of NBA hoops, with teams entering the homestretch of their season. A few are fighting for their playoff lives, while others will try to avoid a late-season collapse. And for a handful of others, just playing basketball again figures to be a good thing, if only to shift the conversation from off-court turmoil that could bubble over.With that in mind, we analyzed five of the league’s most interesting storylines as we prepare to dive into season’s second half.What’s going to happen with the Celtics?Even after the Raptors got Kawhi Leonard and the Sixers got Jimmy Butler, the Celtics carried great expectations this season. As a club that made it to Game 7 of the conference finals without Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward, getting back at least to that stage with both of them healthy seemed like almost a given.Fast-forward to now, though, and it’s clear that there’s no guarantee they’ll get that far. The Bucks have joined the league’s elite. The Sixers have gone all in. And the Raptors are solid on both ends.Complicating matters, too, is the fact that Irving, a free-agent-to-be, is no longer willing to commit long-term to the idea of being a Celtic — a situation that has reporters and fans alike parsing his every word in interviews. (Irving’s exit would make it more difficult for the team to entice star big man Anthony Davis into staying in Boston for the long haul if the Celtics rolled the dice and traded for him.)No, Jaylen Brown hasn’t been as impressive as he was in his second year. And Al Horford, a defensive stalwart in years past, hasn’t been as consistently good on that end this season.Still, Hayward, whose mental blocks this season had left him struggling to look like himself, has shown positive signs as of late.1Although he sprained his right ankle (not the one he had surgery on back in 2017) earlier this week and is questionable for Thursday’s showdown with the Bucks. And more importantly, the Celtics — for all their early season struggles — remain in the top 10 in both offense and defense, which generally signifies a true contender.Whether they can make good on that level of promise is key because of how drastically their roster could change this summer, for better or worse.Can the Bulls’ rebuild be a blueprint for a team like the Hawks?It’s been far from a stellar season for the Bulls, who fired their coach early on, then saw players take issue initially with their hard-charging replacement. But the club has shown progress the past couple of weeks since trading for wingman Otto Porter, who looks to be a great fit on both ends with shoot-first players like Zach LaVine and Lauri Markkanen.Some fans didn’t like the move, as Porter’s hefty contract all but took the Bulls out of the running for a max-level free agent this summer. But there’s value in acquiring solid players who can complement your young core. The best evidence of that so far: The Bulls have logged a net rating of 14 — meaning they outscore opponents by 14 points per 100 possessions — in the 110 minutes that Porter, LaVine and Markkanen have shared on the court thus far. Not too shabby for a club that’s been beaten by 8.5 points per 100 plays on the year to this point.The early Chicago returns could serve as a blueprint for the rebuilding Hawks, who have young, budding talents of their own in John Collins, Trae Young and Kevin Huerter. The youngsters have each had their moments of offensive brilliance,2And Young, who struggled early on, has improved considerably — both in his passing and his perimeter shooting. He’s logged almost a 3-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio in February, and he’s up to nearly 40 percent this month from the 3-point line. but the trio, defensively challenged to put it kindly, has been outscored by 5.6 points per 100 possessions.Finding veterans who can consistently defend at a high level to play next to them, and developing those three on D, will go a long way in determining when and whether Atlanta can turn it around.The MVP race could come down to the wireMaking sense of this year’s MVP race has been a challenge. Just when Giannis Antetokounmpo seemed to be the clear leader for the award, given his eye-popping numbers for the team with the best record in the sport, James Harden came bursting through like the Kool-Aid Man, forcing himself into the conversation with a historic scoring streak.There are a couple of other players, like Philadelphia’s Joel Embiid3Who, as a precaution, will miss at least the next week with left-knee soreness. and Oklahoma City’s Paul George, whose outstanding play deserves consideration, too. But this will more than likely end up being a two-man race.Harden’s offensive domination over the past two months has shifted a narrative that was shaping up to be a runaway for Antetokounmpo. Yet it’s worth watching whether some level of voter fatigue (Harden won the award last year, whereas Antetokounmpo has never been a front-runner before) comes into play. And there are those who dislike Harden’s iso-heavy style, even though he’s had little choice but to rely on that, given the injuries his team has suffered.So it wouldn’t be surprising if Antetokounmpo eventually gets the nod here, particularly if the Bucks end up finishing in first place.Can LeBron will the Lakers into the playoffs?It would be jarring to watch all-time great LeBron James go from making the NBA Finals eight straight years to not even making the playoffs in his first season out West. But it’s more than a mere possibility at this point: FiveThirtyEight’s projection model currently has the Lakers with just a 26 percent probability of reaching the postseason.We wouldn’t be surprised in the slightest if James can get the Lakers over the playoff line. Aside from his own individual greatness, the Lakers are in the process of wrapping up a difficult stretch in their schedule this month, with seven of their nine games as road tilts. Their fortunes figure to improve when the calendar turns to March.The bigger question is whether it’s ultimately worth it for James to go into overdrive simply to earn a No. 8 seed and a first-round date with the two-time defending champion Warriors.4Of course, if the Lakers really turn it on and end up with a No. 7 seed or better, there’s no telling what might happen in a seven-game series. As his five-week injury5The first one we’ve seen sideline him for that long. earlier in the season illustrated, James isn’t getting any younger. And while it’s nearly certain that he won’t take his foot off the pedal because of where the Lakers are in the standings, there’s an argument to be made that his energy would be better spent next season, once L.A. has another top-flight player to pair with him.Will Denver emerge as the top challenger to Golden State out West?Denver has been near the top of the standings all year, while clubs like the Thunder and the Rockets started slow before getting back on track to contend for home-court advantage in the first round.The Nuggets seemingly deserve the benefit of the doubt in this discussion. Aside from having led the conference standings earlier in the season, they still own the West’s best record against quality competition — even slightly better than the Warriors’ mark against teams .500 or better. Their defense hasn’t been as good as it was to start the season, but they still have enough balance — in both their first and second units — to get the job done. And after Golden State, Denver is basically neck-and-neck with Oklahoma City in net rating in the West.If anything gives us pause about the Nuggets, it’s their lack of playoff experience. It’s uncommon for a team that hasn’t been in the playoffs to suddenly make a deep run upon getting there, which might explain our model feeling better about a team like Houston, Oklahoma City or even Utah.But the beauty of all this, of course, is that Denver — after being eliminated in the last game of the regular season in 2018 — will get a chance to set itself apart over these final 25 games.Check out our latest NBA predictions.
The Ohio State men’s basketball team scrimmages at J.O. South in preparation for the NIRSA Championships this weekend. Credit: Fallon Perl | Lantern reporterThe Ohio State men’s and women’s club basketball teams, the Ballstars, are set to compete Friday through Sunday in the 2017 National Intramural Recreational Sports Association National Basketball Championships, which are being held at the RPAC for the second consecutive year.The men’s team earned the title of Men’s Club National Champions at the tournament last year. Bryce Spees, men’s club team president and fourth-year in logistics management, said they are hoping to uphold their status as defending champions. The women’s team lost last year to Wisconsin in the final four after beating the team in the regular season.The men’s team has been focusing on different areas, both offensively and defensively, that will lead them closer to their goal of maintaining their status as champions, Spees said.“We’ve been working on playing as a team and always playing with intensity because we’ve struggled to do that a little bit,” Spees said. “We’re just making sure we’re engaged all of the time, but I feel like the past couple of weeks we’ve been doing a really good job of that.”With an abundance of talent on the offensive side of the ball, Spees said he believes that efficient shooting shouldn’t be the team’s main concern.“Ryan Murray and Marquis Gaines played extremely well in our tournament a couple of weeks ago, and they were both on the All-Tournament team for this tournament last year, so we’re definitely hoping for a strong performance out of those guys again,” Spees said.On defense, however, communication and rebounding are points of emphasis..“As long as we take care of the things that we can control, like, taking care of the ball, taking good shots and playing good defense, we’ll be happy,” Spees said. “The main goal is to win the whole thing. We did it last year, and we know we have the guys to do it again this year.”The women’s team, on the other hand, owns a record of 26-1 this year, its only loss being the first game of the season. The team is looking forward to competing and possibly being able to have a rematch with Wisconsin.“We knew we could beat them, but it was just a different time and a different game,” said women’s club team president and fourth-year in exercise science education Megan McKean.In order to better prepare for the tough competition it will face this weekend, the women’s team had the opportunity to scrimmage the OSU women’s varsity basketball team during a training session Tuesday.“It’s just great competition,” McKean said. “We’re trying to get better people in here because we’re not beating up on each other enough. We’re also making it very adamant that people attend practice because just having good attendance here allows us to have more effective drills and better practices.”At the tournament, games will be played constantly from Friday through Sunday, which can make it feel like the club team’s equivalent to March Madness, said Sandra Dickos, fourth-year in marketing.“You’re playing a lot of games in a short amount of time, so sometimes your legs aren’t there, especially for the last games,” Dickos said. “People get hurt, people get in foul trouble because they get tired, so it’s like an entirely different dynamic as you go further down the bracket.”Though the back-to-back games can be taxing, the women’s team hopes it has learned from its Final Four knockout last year.“We have a threat for every position, and our bench is really, really good,” McKean said. “They could be our starting five, which is why I believe we have a lot of depth and ability, and a lot of skill. Hopefully we can win it all, because the goal is always to be able to put our year on the banner.”The NIRSA Basketball Championships begin Friday at the RPAC at 4 p.m.