Tuesday, 20 March 2018 19:53

Bad beats abound during March Madness

The number one overall seed in the 2018 NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament fell to the 64th overall seed -- the first time a 16-seed has beaten a one-seed in the history of the Final Four tournament. But that one upset hardly tells the story of the bad beats abound during March Madness.

Bad Beats Betting the Spread

My friend and I experienced the bad beats abound during March Madness on a blue chip parlay betting the spread -- even though I had planned to not bet the spread beforehand. We placed $20 on Duke, Kentucky and Kansas to cover their respective spreads because the $76 payout on our $20 bet was too attractive to avoid. (We made another $20 parlay bet on the same three teams to win outright to cover our potential loss on the spread parlay.)

Duke doubled the 10.5-point spread against Rhode Island, and Kentucky easily covered the 5.5 points by which they were favored, winning by 20. Kansas just had to win by five over Seton Hall and we would have won almost $150.

With 1:20 left, Kansas led by eight, but then Khadeen Carrington scored seven points in a minute to keep Seton Hall just five points back. After a pair of free throws by Malik Newman, we were good, leading by five. But there was plenty of time for Seton Hall to get off a three, and despite being well defended, Myles Powell knocked down a fade-away three as the buzzer sounded to deliver our money to the house.

We managed to find one of the few bad beats specifically betting the spread. I even went to Vegas with a plan for betting the Final Four that included never betting the spread, but the potential payout for betting the spread was just too attractive for me to avoid.

If you were betting on Texas Tech to cover the 11.5-point spread over Stephen F. Austin, you were disappointed that the Red Raiders didn’t try to score in the final 20 seconds while up 10. If you had your money on Purdue covering the four points by which they were favored, you were ecstatic when Dakota Mathias hit a three-pointer with 17 seconds left to push the Boilermaker lead to five. Even after Kelan Martin hit a layup to cut the Purdue lead to three with three seconds to play, if P.J. Thompson hits the front end of a one-and-one, you at least get your money back. If he hits both free ones you’re a winner. That had to hurt.

Bad Beats Betting the Over/Under

You might not have predicted Buffalo upsetting Arizona let alone covering the nine-point spread. But you might have been willing to bet that the two teams would score more than 158 points. The brutal irony in Buffalo’s drubbing of Arizona is that the Bulls actually took their foot off the gas pedal after Wes Clark hit a three to make it 89-64 with 1:17 left. The four points Arizona scored the rest of the way was two points short of 159 and a win for those betting the over.

The First-Round Upsets

Eight of the 32 first-round games ended with an underdog on top. University of Maryland-Baltimore County led the charge with its win over top-seed, Virginia. But two 13-seeds (Buffalo and Marshall) also upset two four-seeds (Arizona and Wichita State).

Syracuse, an 11-seed and a team some said didn’t deserve to be in the tournament, upset six-seed Texas Christian University. Another 11-seed, Loyola-Chicago defeated sixth-seeded Miami. Tenth-seeded Butler rounded out the upsets by double-digit seeds with its win over seventh-seeded Arkansas.

Alabama and Florida State both upset eight-seeds Virginia Tech and Missouri, respectively.

The Second-Round Upsets

Six of the 16 second-round games resulted in upsets. Syracuse went on to upset Michigan State to make the Sweet 16. But Syracuse isn’t the only 11-seed in the Sweet 16. Loyola-Chicago also beat a three-seed in Tennessee to join Syracuse as a Cinderella.

Florida State is the next lowest seed left in the dance, defeating one-seed Xavier. Two seven-seeds also remain, as Texas A&M and Nevada defeated four-seed Auburn and two-seed North Carolina, respectively. Fifth-seeded Clemson beat fourth-seeded Auburn to conclude the second-round upsets.

New Odds for Sweet 16

Duke has the best odds of making the Final Four final and the second-best odds of becoming champion. They’ll face the lowest overall seed remaining in the tournament, Syracuse, whom they beat by 16 back in February. Syracuse’s zone defense was and still is superior to Duke’s, and it didn’t and still won’t matter.

Duke hit just two of 18 three-point attempts against the Orange zone, but the Duke zone sent Syracuse to the free-throw line just six times. The Blue Devils hit 14 of 16 free throws, 14 of which went to big men Marvin Bagley III, Wendell Carter Jr. and Marques Bolden. They hit 12 of those 14, which is well above their season average. Bagley shoots 62 percent from the charity stripe, Carter shoots 74 percent from the line, and Bolden hit 59 percent of free ones this season.

Syracuse will have to put the Duke bigs on the line again and hope they miss more often. It’s really the only chance they have unless they shoot the lights out against a Duke zone that has improved since they last played.

The team with the best odds to become champion is one-seed Villanova. They get a tougher test than Duke to open the Sweet 16, though. Fifth-seeded West Virginia will hope its full-court press can limit Villanova’s league-best scoring efficiency, a tall task for the gritty Mountaineers.

Gonzaga checks in with the third-best odds to reach the final and win it all. Florida State stands between Gonzaga and the Elite 8, where either third-seeded Michigan or seventh-seeded Texas A&M will be waiting.

Second-seeded Purdue has the fourth-best odds to become champion despite having just the sixth-best chance to reach the final. That’s because Purdue has the toughest road to the Final Four, playing three-seed Texas Tech and potentially facing one-seed Villanova.

Fifth-seeded Kentucky has the fifth-best odds to be one of the Final Four and tournament champion and has one of the easiest paths to those ends. Ninth-seeded Kansas State awaits on Thursday, and if Kentucky wins, the Wildcats will either see seventh-seeded Nevada or 11-seed Loyola-Chicago.

Michigan has the sixth-best chance of reaching the final and becoming champ, with Kansas, a one-seed, checking in at seventh. The Jayhawks’ low odds despite their seed likely has to do with how Duke and Clemson have looked in the tournament thus far. Fifth-seeded Clemson smoked fourth-seeded Auburn by 29 in the second round, and Duke won both its games running away.

So if you’re looking to make back some of the money you lost on the bad beats abound during March Madness’s first two rounds, Duke and Villanova are the best bets to reach the Final Four.

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I’m going to Las Vegas for the first two rounds of the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament and intend to place a few bets while I’m there. I’m no college basketball expert, nor am I a sports betting expert. But I do know a little about both, and I have a guide for betting the Final Four so I can enjoy games I’d otherwise not watch and leave Sin City with some money in my pockets. So whether you’re in Sin City, Atlantic City, or wherever sports betting is legal, here are four tips for betting the Final Four to help you enjoy March Madness to the fullest.

1) Don’t bother betting the spread

The first rule of betting the Final Four is to bet the moneyline. Unless you have intimate knowledge of the teams playing the game, betting the spread during March Madness is just that -- madness.

More often than not, betting the spread will burn you. It’s hard enough to pick the winners of the 32 first-round games let alone determine by how much each team will win or lose. Sure there can be more money in it, but there’s nothing worse than picking the winner and losing your bet because of the spread. So don’t bother.

The over/under isn’t much better because determining how many points two teams will score can be just as risky as betting the spread. You’re still dealing with points instead of outcomes. Stick to the simplicity the bracket provides and pick the winners and leave it at that.

2) Parlay your way to the cashier

Pooling your picks together into one bet is a great way to win that money you left on the table by not betting the spread or the over/under. Out of 64 teams, you should be able to pick at least three teams you’re confident will win or lose and parlay them together for a satisfying win.

Parlays are also the most fun. Since more teams are involved, you’ll have a vested interest in watching more games. Parlays also give you an opportunity to enjoy winning and losing with friends. Have two friends each pick a team to add to your parlay and split the bet three ways. You and your friends will enjoy rooting on the same teams, and whether you win or lose, the entertainment you’ve received and bonding you’ve done thanks to your friendly parlay should make for a nice consolation prize.

3) Diversify your long-term investments

Putting your entire nest egg into one exchange traded fund or behind one business isn’t good investment advice. The same goes for sports betting. Betting on your favorite team to win it all isn’t a great way to invest your money. First off, you’re betting your heart instead of your head, which is only excusable if you win and tends not to happen on bets of the heart.

The only bets of the heart I’ve won are the two times Duke has won the National Championship since I started filling out a Final Four bracket (2010, 2015). Duke is the only winner I’ve ever picked since I started filling out a bracket regularly, but I’ve never actually had any money on it. Still, it’s a good example of what not to do, because I’ve been wrong 10 of 12 times. And while I have money down on Duke to win it all this season, I also have money on a few other teams.

Instead of picking your team to win it all, pick your team and then three others you think can win the championship. Maybe they’re your Final Four teams. Maybe they're FiveThirtyEight's projected Final Four. Maybe they’re the odds-on favorite, your local team, your alma mater, and a sleeper. Whatever combination you decide, when making the long bet on the champion, it’s best to have a few horses in the race with varying odds of winning. Your best bet would be to pick a pair of high-seeded, title contenders, one four- or five-seed, and one team with long odds you feel is best equipped to make a run to the Final Four. That way, if your favorite team is knocked out early, you still have reasons to watch and a chance to win your money back.

4) Budget busters to avoid in the first round

No guide for betting the Final Four would be complete without warning you of games for which you should simply sit on your wallet. No need for you to lose your entire roll in the first round because you bet the wrong way on a bunch of coin flips. These toss-ups will be fun to watch whether you’ve got money riding on them or not. I just don’t think you should risk your hard-earned money betting these games -- unless you know something I don’t.

Kentucky (5) vs. Davidson (12)

Since 1985, a 12-seed has upset a five-seed in all but four tournaments, and Davidson is probably the best 12-seed in the tournament. There’s just nothing safe about a 5-12 matchup, and with the spread at six points, this will likely be the biggest nailbiter of the 5-12 games.

Davidson is one of the best in the tournament at limiting possessions, which could be a problem if Kentucky comes out a little wild, turns the ball over early, and finds itself playing catch up with very few possessions. And Davidson won’t give them many extra possessions, either. They don’t turn it over often or take bad shots, so they could have a chance behind senior forward Peyton Aldridge, who averages 21 points per game. If you’re looking to bet an upset, though, this would be one worth a look. Otherwise, leave it alone.  

Virginia Tech (8) vs. Alabama (9)

Alabama has relied on freshman guard Collin Sexton, described by Tully Corcoran of The Big Lead as “The Russell Westbrook of College Basketball.” Virginia Tech is the complete opposite, with six players to rely on for quality minutes and points. But Bama could be missing a formidable presence in the paint if Donta Hall isn’t cleared to play after sustaining a concussion in the SEC Tournament. Regardless of Hall’s status, I recommend staying away from this one. Virginia Tech is favored by two according to Intertops, so this one could be determined by a bad bounce.

Arkansas (7) vs. Butler (10)

The spread in this one is 1.5 points for Arkansas, but I’m not betting against a team with the Bulldogs’ postseason pedigree, no pun intended. I’m also not betting on a team that slows down the game like Butler, because that sort of play can’t help you when you’re behind, and it’s just not fun to watch. As someone who has watched Virginia play twice this season, I can tell you once was one too much.

The Razorbacks’ take risks on defense and could get burned by the sure-handed Bulldogs, who seldom turn it over. The Bulldogs have the shorter trip to Detroit and should be well-represented at Little Caesars Arena. Butler senior forward Kelan Brown needs to be great, or seniors Jaylen Barford and Daryl Macon will be too much for the Bulldogs. I like Arkansas, but I’m not confident enough to bet on it nor intrigued enough to watch it.

Missouri (8) vs. Florida State (9)

Intertops has Florida State favored by one point in this one, and that’s enough reason not to like it. Missouri just got six-foot, 10-inch freshman forward and projected top-five NBA draft pick Michael Porter, Jr. back from a back injury that cost him most of the regular season. His production being a question mark is likely why the Seminoles are favored, but Florida State defends the paint well regardless.

Florida State makes teams bet them from beyond the arc, so the Tigers will have to match their season average of 38.5 percent from behind the arc to stick with the Seminoles, who played a tough ACC schedule and struggled with the best of the best conference. They beat UNC by one, but their next best wins are over Clemson (a five-seed) and Miami (a six-seed). For that reason, I like Missouri, but I’m concerned about what Porter can do after shooting 30 percent from the floor in his return against Georgia on Thursday.

Rhode Island (7) vs. Oklahoma (10)

All bets are off when it comes to the streaky shooting of freshman phenom Trae Young. Rhode Island is favored by two, but if Trae Young is hot, you can tear up your bet on the favorite. If he’s not, you can breathe easier knowing he’ll simply be setting up his teammates with fantastic looks.

Some say the only reason Oklahoma made it to the dance is so the NCAA would attract more eyes to televisions because of this kid’s ridiculous shooting (at times) and passing prowess and confidence (at all times). He’s a dynamic player who should raise ad revenues for the NCAA that they won’t share with him.

Frankly, Oklahoma is lucky to have pulled Rhode Island instead of, say, Nevada, who beat the Rams. Arkansas earned a split with fellow seven-seed Texas A&M, and even the length of the Aggies would give the Sooners trouble, both shooting and rebounding the basketball. Verdict: someone on the selection committee wants Oklahoma to stay and dance for a while.

That’s not a knock on Rhode Island. I just think they’re the most vulnerable seven-seed. Danny Hurley’s Rams have the experience but not the size. The Rams don’t have anyone on the roster taller than six-foot, eight-inches, so Young should get good looks at the basket, and if his shot isn’t falling, the painted area will be open often. But will all those twos be enough to hang with Jared Terrell and the Rams?

Terrell attempts more than five threes per game and hits 41.5 percent of his long-distance shots. But Young averages more than 10 attempts from beyond the arc per game, sinking 36.1 percent of them. The math isn’t in Rhode Island’s favor, so the senior, Terrell, will have to lock down the freshman, Young, defensively and shoot more threes than he’s averaged this season for the Rams to advance. I like Oklahoma in this one, and would bet on it if the Sooners were treated like underdogs. The moneyline for them to win pays just $120 on a $100 bet, according to OddsShark. That's not worth a bet, but it will be a fun one to watch anyway.

*Creighton (8) vs. Kansas State (9)

This one comes with an asterisk because Kansas State may or may not be at full strength for this game. If they aren’t, go ahead and take Creighton. But if the Wildcats do get all-conference forward Dean Wade (foot) and all-conference guard Barry Brown (eye) back for Friday night, keep your money out of this one. You’ll enjoy watching it regardless.

Creighton can score the rock and do so faster than just about anyone in the tournament, averaging 84.3 points per game. That’s an insane pace, but K. State held its opponents to less than 68 points per game, so don’t be surprised if this one ends up coming down to a final possession. The spread is two in favor of Creighton, and I wouldn’t be surprised if they don’t cover. But I’m not going to find out the hard way.    

So there are four tips for betting the Final Four so you can hold onto your money throughout March Madness and come home from the big dance feeling like a winner.

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The eventual champion of the 2018 NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament may not get a chance to hang a championship banner from its rafters if the Federal Bureau of Investigation wants it that way.

Given what we know about the investigation uncovering recruitment violations committed by seemingly every competitive college basketball program, 2018 might be a repeat of 2013. If you remember, Louisville emerged from March Madness as champion that year only to have that championship vacated for paying escorts to “recruit” players. While those 40 alleged acts warrant the punishment received, not all recruiting violations should be treated equally. Some shouldn’t be violations at all.

For instance, it is alleged that the FBI has a recording of Arizona head coach Sean Miller speaking of a $100,000 payment to secure freshman center DeAndre Ayton, who could be the top pick in this year’s NBA Draft. Ayton makes Arizona a legitimate title contender, and one of those teams who could win the national championship only to have it taken away. This, too, would warrant a punishment on par with Louisville’s.

Handing out bags full of money is obviously a violation of the NCAA’s “amateurism” policy -- a policy alleged to exist to preserve the “integrity” of collegiate athletics while coaches and athletic directors “earn” million-dollar salaries on the backs of slave labor. You used to have to go pro to earn pro money. Now coaches can avoid the humiliation of failing at the highest level and still live like they made the big time.

Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski is one of those coaches, and many wonder how he manages to recruit the best high school players without violating NCAA rules. Being the winningest coach in the history of NCAA Division I basketball and having a chance to win a national championship every year can’t be only reasons why Duke has secured the top three high school recruits next year. He must be breaking the rules, right? Well, Krzyzewski wasn’t implicated in the FBI investigation, but one of his players was.

Duke University freshman forward Wendell Carter, Jr. is accused of violating the NCAA’s amateurism policy because his mother, Kylia Carter, had dinner with ASM sports agent Christian Dawkins and may or may not have paid for it. The meal cost $106.36, and Wendell Carter, Jr., who was a junior in high school at the time, wasn’t even there. This is where the NCAA can start revising its amateurism policy.

Buying someone food should never affect the eligibility of a student-athlete to compete in collegiate athletics, whether that food is consumed by the student-athlete or a member of that student-athlete’s family. Kylia Carter took time out of her day to accommodate Dawkins and discuss the future of her son. She shouldn’t have to pay for a meal -- a meal she might not be able to afford -- just to talk to someone about her son’s future, whether it be with a college coach or a sports agent. Wendell shouldn’t have to pay for his meals, either, regardless of who’s buying. If an agent wants to wine and dine him, Wendell shouldn’t have to say, “I can’t accept because I’m an amateur.”

Not a single collegiate athlete or high school recruit should have to pay a dime for food. This is the least the NCAA can do with its billion-dollar revenues: provide a per diem for meals to all NCAA student-athletes and stop considering meals as “benefits.”

Meals are calories; they are fuel. The athlete does not benefit from eating a meal. They might enjoy it, but there isn’t a meal in the world or a chef in the world capable of persuasion. No decisions are being made like Cypher’s decision to mutiny in The Matrix because of the juiciness of a steak. Let the student-athletes eat. Hell, for some of them, that dinner with an agent might be the last fancy meal they ever eat. They could tear their ACL the next day and never hear from another agent or college coach again.

Even when those recruits get to college they incur costs for calories. If you’re unaware of how meals work in college, here’s a crash course. Most colleges and universities include meal plans with room and board. That was the case when I attended the University of Washington as a freshman. Since I was living in the dorms, which all freshmen are required to do unless they’re living with family, I was required to pay for a meal plan. I didn’t want a meal plan. I wanted to buy groceries and cook my meals in the dormitory kitchenette, but there was no way around it. I had to buy a meal plan.

So I bought the cheapest meal plan available, and while it allowed me to buy groceries from the campus market, those groceries were much more expensive than they were at nearby grocery stores. The only way I could use my meal plan money, though, was using my student ID card, which, of course, was not accepted anywhere but on campus. It’s a convenient monopoly on food for the university, which probably helps offset the losses incurred when Amazon revealed to students the true price of their textbooks when purchased anywhere but a college bookstore.

The worst part about the meal plan is if you don’t use it you lose it. At the end of each quarter, I ended up drinking a gallon of milk every few days just to meet the minimum spending requirement of my plan so I could get the rest of my money refunded. You read that right: there’s a minimum amount you must spend in order to get your own money back from the college.

I know what you’re thinking. “Aren’t these student-athletes on scholarship?” Well, some of them are, but most aren’t. Most have scholarships covering tuition only. Some have no scholarship at all. But even those with “full-rides” aren’t getting full-rides. There aren’t meal plans for collegiate football players who need to consume more than 4,000 calories per day. And who do you think pays for something a student-athlete needs that isn’t included with their meal plan? A coach or university administrator can’t or they could be found in violation the NCAA’s amateurism policy.

Consider this: a six-foot, 10-inch, 200-pound college freshman is still growing into his body. His coaches have asked him to bulk up, which means consuming more protein. I don’t know if you’ve been to college lately, but the last I was there (2013), the cafeteria didn’t have many protein-packed options. You could usually find chicken in some way, shape or form, and hamburger, but there’s only so much meat you can eat. Fish can be found, but a student-athlete can’t be expected to pound tuna sandwiches, peanuts and jerky after a workout. Pounding a protein shake, though, provides the muscles with what they need immediately, but you won’t find protein powder for sale on too many campuses. That’s a cost incurred by the athlete to fuel the vehicle that creates the revenue they’ll never see.

Slave owners fed their slaves because their revenue depended on it, but like the NCAA, fed them just enough to do the work and nothing more. The NCAA is on the verge of suffering a similar fate as those slave owners. The chatter slaves must have heard about the Union paying runaway slaves to serve as soldiers in the Civil War after Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address is an uncomfortable simile to the NCAA’s amateurism problem. The appeal of playing for money internationally is growing and costing slave owners recruits, and talk of the G-League serving as a development league for high school recruits unwilling to attend college must feel like a Gettysburg Address waiting to happen to the NCAA.

If the NCAA doesn’t do something to appeal to new recruits, they stand to lose everything, because the NCAA isn’t a billion-dollar industry without March Madness, and March Madness isn’t March Madness without the best “amateurs” in the world.

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The Minnesota Timberwolves are a mess without Jimmy Butler, and the question isn’t whether Butler will be able to return for the playoffs, but if the Wolves can make the playoffs without him.

Karl-Anthony Towns did everything he could to carry his Wolves to a win in Portland to no avail on Thursday night. He scored 34 points on 11-of-19 shooting, went 11-for-12 from the free throw line and grabbed 17 rebounds, which was still only good enough for a -6 plus/minus. But a -6 plus/minus is better than not having Towns on the floor.

Towns followed Thursday’s performance with an ejection in the closing minutes of the first half the following night in Utah -- a game in which his plus/minus was +6 and replaced by the -2 of Gorgui Dieng, who scored six points and grabbed four rebounds in 19 minutes. Towns couldn’t have picked a worse time for the first ejection of his career.

Minnesota nearly pulled off a comeback without Towns, but things spiraled out of control in the fourth quarter -- as usual -- culminating in Jeff Teague lowering his shoulder into Marco Rubio, sending him into the seats with 5:20 to go and the Wolves down nine. It was the first time in franchise history the Timberwolves had two players ejected in the same game. Head coach Tom Thibodeau also earned two technical fouls. While the Wolves’ struggles on defense and scoring in the fourth quarter without Butler were evident on Thursday, their collective frustration and lack of leadership was ever present on Friday.

The Timberwolves might be leading the NBA’s Northwest Division despite the consecutive losses in consecutive nights, but they are not a lock to make the playoffs let alone win the division. The Denver Nuggets, the eighth seed in the Western Conference currently, are just two games behind the Wolves in the standings. Utah is just four games back after its win on Friday, and things only get tougher for Minnesota.

The Wolves play 10 of their remaining 16 games against teams with records above .500 and another against a young, running Laker squad that gave the Wolves trouble when Butler was on the floor. The Wolves probably don’t have to worry about the Los Angeles Clippers taking their spot in the playoffs. While the Clippers are just a game and a half behind Denver for the eighth seed in the West, they play 16 of their final 21 games against teams over .500.

The Jazz are most likely to replace the Wolves in the playoffs. They play nine of their 20 remaining games against teams above .500. So not only do the Jazz have four games in hand to gain ground on the Wolves, but they play an easier schedule, despite three back-to-backs to Minnesota’s two.

It wouldn’t be unrealistic to see Minnesota lose its next six games, which would make for an eight-game losing streak. The Wolves’ current three-game losing streak is the longest of the season, but they host Boston and Golden State, visit the Wizards and Spurs, and then host the Rockets and Clippers -- all teams above .500. A single win during that stretch would be a huge lift for a young team struggling to manage its emotions in the face of adversity.

During the same stretch, Utah has already beaten Sacramento and get to face Orlando, Indiana, Memphis, New Orleans, Detroit, Phoenix, Sacramento again, and the hapless Hawks. If the Jazz can win just four of those eight remaining games, and Minnesota goes winless, Utah would be just half a game behind Minnesota in the West, and Butler would still be out at least another five days.

Butler had surgery for a torn meniscus in his right knee on Sunday, Feb. 25. The expected recovery time is four to six weeks, which keeps him out until March 25 at the earliest. You can be sure the moment Butler is physically cleared to play, he will play. That’s just his nature, which is probably why he and Thibodeau are inseparable. They’re both old-school ballers.

Given the best case scenario, Butler could return in time to get his feet under him during the Wolves’ final eight regular season games. But the Wolves won’t likely be able to extend Butler the courtesy of easing back into the game. The Timberwolves need Jimmy Butler just to make the playoffs. By the earliest time Butler can play, Minnesota could be 39-35 and no longer in control of its postseason destiny. While Minnesota has the Knicks to recover from the grueling stretch of their schedule and end a potential eight-game losing streak, the Wolves play in Philadelphia the very next day.

Luckily, the Jazz enter the tough stretch of their remaining schedule during Butler’s potential return. After playing in San Antonio, the Jazz travel to Golden State and then play host to Boston and Memphis before an April 1 game in Minnesota that will be bigger than anyone could have imagined when the two teams met in Minnesota’s home opener of the renovated Target Center on Oct. 20. If the Jazz win the games they should and lose to Indiana, New Orleans, San Antonio, Golden State and Boston, they’ll enter that game in Minnesota 41-35.

If Butler can’t return in four weeks, the Wolves can take some comfort in their schedule while they wait. Memphis, Atlanta and Dallas fill the schedule prior to the April 1 meeting with the Jazz, giving Minnesota a chance to gain some ground on Utah. Wins in all three of those games would put Minnesota at 42-35 -- a half game up on Utah.

Regardless of where the Wolves sit in the standings come April 1, winning that game would give them the tiebreaker over the Jazz. A loss wouldn’t eliminate Minnesota, though. Utah has to deal with the running Lakers twice, the Clippers, the Warriors and the Trail Blazers to finish the regular season. The Wolves also visit the Lakers, but get Memphis at home and Denver twice to close the regular season.

If it takes Butler the six weeks to be physically cleared to play, the Wolves will have him for two games at home against Memphis and Denver. Whether he returns at all will depend on where the Wolves are in the standings at the time, but odds are they’ll be fighting for their playoff lives rather than resting their legs for the playoffs. Without Butler, the Wolves are the worst defensive team in the NBA, according to Chris Hine of the Star Tribune. With him, they have the 11th best defensive rating in the league. They have five days off to prepare for the visiting Celtics on Thursday in a nationally televised game.

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The Minnesota Timberwolves were fourth in the NBA’s Western Conference after a comeback win over the Portland Trail Blazers in Minneapolis on Monday, but there are glaring problems with the wolfpack that could derail its playoff hopes.

The Minutes

Tom Thibodeau, unsurprisingly, is overworking his starters. All five of his starters are averaging more than 33 minutes played per game. That’s right, Taj Gibson is averaging 33 minutes a night because he has the highest on-the-floor/off-the-floor plus/minus of anyone on the team (+23).

In Thursday’s 23-point win over Sacramento, which was a 24-point Timberwolves lead entering the fourth quarter, Jimmy Butler, Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins played 36, 35 and 34 minutes, respectively. That’s just one minute less than their average for the season. With two minutes left and a 20-point lead, Wiggins and Towns were still on the floor. That’s just creating risk where there is none.

It’s not as if Butler, Towns and Wiggins are playing more minutes than anyone ever has. But all three are in the top 15 in minutes played per game this season. No other team has three players in the top 15 in average minutes played.

The result has been multiple collapses late in games. The Timberwolves were torched by Ben Simmons back-cuts over and over again in the fourth quarter against Philadelphia on Tuesday at Target Center. A nine-point lead with 6:06 left evaporated in less than four minutes.

The Timberwolves led by 13 over the the Wizards at home with 9:51 to go in the third quarter. By the end of the third quarter it was a one-possession game. They lost. They led by six with 9:04 to go at Phoenix and lost by eight. And they led by 11 with 9:57 to go against Detroit at home and lost by three.

All told the Wolves have lost three games by one possession, one in overtime, and one more by four points. This was a big problem for Minnesota last season. The Wolves logged a .391 winning percentage in close games in 2016-17, fifth-worst in the league. They’re 14th with a .545 winning percentage in close games this year, so things are looking up. But as the minutes add up, the fourth quarters get tougher and tougher.

How to fix it: Give Jamal Crawford and Gorgui Dieng more minutes. Thibodeau finally played Crawford in the fourth quarter of Monday’s game against Portland, resulting in 23 minutes played. Crawford played all 82 games for the Clippers last year, averaging 26.3 minutes per game. He’s averaging 17.7 minutes per game this season, and his numbers don’t indicate a falling off. Both his offensive and defensive ratings are actually better than they were last year. The legs of Minnesota’s best defender, Butler, would be grateful for Crawford’s minutes in the fourth quarter. Butler also benefited directly from Crawford’s presence on the floor in the fourth.

Dieng has seen his minutes nearly cut in half from last season, from 32.4 to 17.7 per game. He hasn’t been quite as effective, but he was playing power forward last season. He’s still capable of more than 17.7 minutes per game at center, which would keep Towns fresh for the fourth quarters.

The Threes (or lack thereof)

The Timberwolves finished five of 29 from beyond the arc against the 76ers last Tuesday, and had made five percent of their shots from beyond the arc until Jimmy Butler hit consecutive threes late in the fourth quarter that allowed the Wolves to force overtime. They were missing their best perimeter shooter in Nemanja Bjelica, though.

Even with Bjelica, the Wolves are 20th in three-point percentage and third to last in three-pointers attempted. They lack shooters, and given their defensive struggles, keeping up with the Rockets and Warriors will be a challenge. Scoring 107.7 points per game just won’t cut it against the West’s best.

How to fix it: Trade for Tony Snell. This should thrill Thibodeau, who has been trying to get the Bulls band back together. Snell is fourth in the league in three-point percentage, ahead of Klay Thompson, but he’s missed time with left patellar tendinitis. Assuming he’s healthy and his 70-point increase in his three-point percentage from last year is no fluke, he’s exactly what Thibodeau and the Wolves need, but the Bucks will want a lot in return. Snell would likely require a player and a draft pick.

The Bucks need a center and the Wolves have four on the roster. Dieng could end up being one piece they seek, which would clear some money for the Wolves, but leave them with 17 minutes going to Cole Aldrich, unless Justin Patton is ever able to play. A backup center can be had for less than $14 million, though. Kyle O’Quinn and his $4 million salary could be brought in from New York for a second-round draft pick, or Dewayne Dedmon of the Hawks could be a short-term solution at $6 million.

The Bench

The Wolves’ bench has been atrocious. Only the Pelicans have been worse, so it’s not as though Thibodeau needs to make up a reason for giving his starters minutes. Luckily, adding depth prior to the trade deadline is always a possibility. Besides Crawford, the Wolves don’t have bench players who can create their own open shots. Tyus Jones is barely a facilitator, and Bjelica is a spot-up shooter.

How to fix it: Adding a guy like O’Quinn would be a boost given his box plus/minus of five points above average per 100 possessions, and that’s mostly due to his defense. Dieng’s is .8.

Acquiring Ersan Ilyasova from Atlanta would improve Minnesota’s bench, too. His offensive and defensive ratings per 100 possessions this season are the best in his career and would be even better if he was playing fewer than the 23.5 minutes per game he’s currently averaging.

So while there are many problems with the Minnesota Timberwolves, they can be fixed through trades. Acquiring bench players at the deadline will at least give Thibodeau options that will save his starters’ legs, but Thibodeau still has to be convinced the team would benefit from his starters playing fewer minutes.


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If you’ve driven near downtown Minneapolis lately, you’ve surely noticed how different (and better) Target Center looks on the outside. Target’s mascot Bullseye looks much more at home shaking his tail on the north side of Target Center overlooking Target Field. But it’s what’s inside Target Center that makes the new Minnesota Timberwolves experience worth every penny.

The Product

There has never been a Timberwolves team with so much potential. What head coach and president of basketball operations Tom Thibodeau has done with the roster over the last few years is extraordinary. Everything the team lacked last season has been addressed. The Timberwolves now have the lockdown defender who can guard anyone on the floor in Jimmy Butler.

Thibedeau has vastly improved the bench, which has already paid dividends, with Jamal Crawford taking over the fourth quarter in the home opener against Ricky Rubio and the Utah Jazz. And the potential of Andrew Wiggins and Karl-Anthony Towns is getting closer and closer to being realized with every game. The two have already won a huge conference, road game at Oklahoma City in the closing seconds, with Towns providing the hard pick that freed Wiggins to bank in a buzzer beater on Sunday night. Beating Russell Westbrook, Carmelo Anthony and Paul George on their own court is no small feat, regardless of how early it is in the season.

While many of these Timberwolves are still pups (Towns is 21 and Wiggins is 22) and will continue to experience growing pains closing out games, they are already 2-0 in close games this season. They were 26th in the league with a .391 winning percentage in close games last season. The product is definitely worth watching.

The Package

The Timberwolves are wrapped in a newly beautified building, but the amenities inside the building are what make a visit to Target Center worth every penny. The new Daktronics LED video display features 4,300 square feet of display space, making for a better view of replays than you’d have from the comfort of your own home. Each of the four main displays are approximately 18 feet high by 33 feet wide.

Following the example set by the Minnesota Twins, the troughs in the men’s bathrooms are now gone. And while concession prices might be a little higher than in the past (a Coca-Cola will cost you $6 and a water $5), the accessibility to food and refreshments regardless of your location has improved considerably. There are more local and healthy options available, including a Walleye Sandwich at Lord Fletcher’s in Section 136 and Tuna Togarashi at the Life Cafe in Section 106. (Hint: the lines at the concession stands offering healthier options are always shorter than those offering burgers and hot dogs. I didn’t spend any time in line at the Life Cafe during the home opener.)

The Presentation

Jimmy Butler taking the microphone prior to the home opener and welcoming everyone in attendance to the new Target Center was a fabulous way to present the new product to the people. Better yet were the pregame introductions.

While the new uniforms are a little blah, at least the advertisement for Fitbit isn’t overdone, and at least the Timberwolves are advertising a health product. Once the neon green, alternative jerseys debut, though, they’re going to catch on like football did in Seattle when they went to a similar color scheme.

The new Timberwolves logo is a vast improvement, though. The old logo didn’t convey much through imagery. Sure, the Timberwolf was menacing, but the only way you knew the team was from Minnesota was due to the word “Minnesota” in the logo. The new logo can stand alone without words and conveys not only where the team resides, thanks to the use of the North Star, but it also conveys what sport the team plays, with a basketball included in the background. It’s also an homage to the original Timberwolves logo, which was much better than the last attempt and utilized a similar shade of green used now.

The Timberwolves organization mostly aced their rebranding. The only thing that could have been done better are the jerseys, and those change pretty regularly. If you haven’t seen a Timberwolves game yet, now’s the time to get down to Target Center.


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Last week I tweeted that I thought the Minnesota Timberwolves had the best shot of dethroning the Golden State Warriors the soonest, and the Wolves seem to be thinking the same thing with their pursuit of Jimmy Butler. The Wolves’ core of young talent is undeniable, and the veteran presence of Ricky Rubio at point guard has been working wonders (ninth amongst PG in real +/-). Offensively, the Wolves are dangerous. On defense, they’re disastrous.

The Wolves have a big problem allowing open shots. Only the Los Angeles Lakers allowed a higher adjusted field-goal percentage than Minnesota’s 53.5 percent. They were tied with Sacremento at third to last in points per shot allowed. So a defender is what Minnesota needs, and Butler can defend every position on the court.

Butler was worth 3.8 defensive win-shares last year. That’s second-best to only his 2013-14 campaign. His value added over a replacement player (VORP) was a career-high 6.3. Best yet for Minnesota is that Butler was at odds with Chicago Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg all season and never seemed to complain while working under Tom Thibodeau.

Also, the Bulls were high on Kris Dunn last year, and the Wolves really have no place for him if Butler is added to the mix, moving Andrew Wiggins to the two. It would take more than Dunn to get Butler, so the Wolves could be floating Zach LaVine, who’s recovering from knee surgery, and Gorgui Dieng, who will make over $14 million next year. He made just $2.35 million this season.

“But what about the center position?” you might ask. True, the Wolves are lacking center depth after waiving the oft-injured Nikola Pekovic. Well, there are a trio of college centers right around the area where Chicago picks at 16. My favorite post player down there is probably power forward John Collins of Wake Forest, though. He nearly averaged a double-double last season playing against the powerhouse that is the ACC.

Kentucky power forward Adrice Adebayo is also enticing given his age (19) and size (six-foot-ten, 242 pounds). He averaged 13 points and eight boards playing 30 minutes per game in the SEC. Jarrett Allen was no slouch at Texas, either, going for 13.4 points and 8.4 rebounds per game. He’s also six-foot-ten and weighs in at 233 pounds.

Then there’s seven-foot-two Anzejs Pasecniks of Latvia, about whom I know very little. He hit six of 13 threes in international play this year and averaged five blocks per game in very limited minutes. Size plays, though, and Pasecniks has it in spades. He’s not going to be the ideal guy to start at center on day one in the NBA, though. He’s going to take time and has taken time to develop and earn minutes in international play.

I doubt Adebayo, Allen or Pasecniks are NBA-ready, starting centers when the 2017-18 season begins, which means the Timberwolves likely lose Dieng as a trade chip. They’ll need someone to hold down the block while the rookie develops, and Cole Aldrich is not that someone. My cousin thinks Nemanja Bjelica could play the four, with Towns moving to the post if the Wolves trade Dieng and have no one else but a rookie and Aldrich as bigs. He predicted all this would happen yesterday and is a trade whiz on NBA 2K, so I generally trust his basketball logic. I doubt that’s the situation the Wolves desire, though. They’re looking to compete in the playoffs and put a halt to the Warriors’ dynasty.

The Wolves might not even be looking to pick in the first round at all, which would be very valuable to the Bulls, since trading Butler is officially announcing a rebuilding effort. I expect Butler to be a member of the Timberwolves before they use the seventh pick in the NBA Draft. It starts at 6 p.m. CST on ESPN and online using WatchESPN.


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