Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Surviving my first winter in the UP with basketball

By Blake Froling

I was warned many times about taking a job in the Upper Peninsula, especially since I had never even been there before.

"Do you know how cold it is up there?"

"They get so much snow up there!"

"Summer lasts about a month up there! What are you going to do?"

People tried to scare me about coming to the UP, but obviously those people have never spent much time here. The picture they painted was bleak: Marquette would be a one-stoplight town, they might have to fly in groceries until the ice roads form, you'll have to use sled dogs to get to work. Surprisingly, none of that turned out to be true.

Even once I got to the UP, people tried to scare me.

"Oh, just wait until the real snow comes."

"This is a piece of cake compared to what I'm used to."

It turned out to be a piece of cake for me, too. Never needed sled dogs to get to work, never got stuck in a snowdrift, didn't hit any deer and I didn't get frostbite. I actually enjoyed my first winter up here in the UP. Most of that was due to basketball, of course.

I didn't really know what to expect in terms of the level of play in high school basketball in the UP. There is a general bias downstate that UP basketball players can't compete with players below the bridge, they were all slow and nonathletic and overall the games would be boring. Those people obviously haven't heard of that unbeaten North Central team. They obviously haven't seen Carson Wonders or Trent Bell play. Those sentiments couldn't be further from the truth.

The intensity level of every game far surpassed most of the high school basketball I watched back home. My first game behind the mic turned out to be one of the most exciting: an overtime thriller between Westwood and Gwinn, complete with a buzzer-beater, plenty of lead changes and bruising inside play. It only took that one game to get me excited for UP basketball.

The excitement in the stands at every game and in the cities around high school basketball was something I wasn't used to. Just about every team has a commercial radio station covering their games, unheard of in metro Detroit. If there was a close game, it made the front page of the sports section the next day, unheard of in metro Detroit. High school games dominated the sports segments of news shows, something that also took me by surprise. People talked about games all over the UP, told me about all these great players I had to go see from all over the UP. All of this made my job a whole lot easier and much more enjoyable.

Every coach I've met so far was genuinely excited about their team and it showed in every interview. Westwood fans fondly remember Kurt Corcoran's emotional post-game speech after his Patriots beat undefeated Norway on the road (they still won't let him forget that he cried on the radio). You don't see that kind of passion and genuine love for the game in many places, but I definitely saw it here. The Gwinn girls started the season 0-12, but you'd never know it listening to coach Ben Olsen talk about his players every week on the Coaches Show. He gave one of the most heartfelt, honest and inspiring senior night speeches I could remember.

That kind of passion is what makes me excited to cover all these basketball games and to call the UP my new home. You can try to scare me all you want about how brutal next winter will be, but it's not going to work. Those hours in the gym will keep me warm through whatever impending blizzard you predict will hit Marquette.

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Predictions for Michigan, Michigan State in the first round

By Blake Froling

March Madness is upon us. Bracket "experts" will emerge from the woodwork, fresh off watching their first college basketball game of the year, to tell you with absolute certainty who will win the National Championship. I don't claim to be an expert, but I watch a ton of Michigan and Michigan State hoops, and I can say with a pretty good deal of confidence that Michigan will move on and Michigan State will be sent packing.

Michigan survived a harrowing plane incident to become the lowest-seeded team to ever win the Big Ten Tournament. After losing to Northwestern on "The Pass," the Wolverines are 5-0. They have five wins over tournament teams in their last 10 games. Derrick Walton Jr. is proving to the Big Ten voters why he deserved to be on the all-conference first team. Zak Irvin is finally coming into his own after being an enigma for most of the season. Moe Wagner's offense is blossoming before our eyes, even if his defense leaves something to be desired.

It might be surprising that a Michigan State grad is showering praise on the hated Wolverines. But hey, I'm a journalist now, I have to be objective (most of the time). Their first round opponent, Oklahoma State, is trending in the opposite direction of the Wolverines. They've lost three games in a row, albeit to Iowa State twice and Kansas, two of the top teams in the Big 12. Their last impressive win came all the way back in the beginning of February against West Virginia.

The guard play will be a key deciding factor in the matchup. Jawun Evans is one of the top guards in the nation and is a finalist for the Bob Cousy award for the nation's best point guard. Evans averages 19 points and six assists per game and will give fits to whoever draws the undesirable task of guarding him. The Cowboys also boast one of the top offenses in the nation, scoring about 85 points per game, but they leave much to be desired on the defensive end. That's why Michigan will win this game.

Michigan's offense is already steamrolling teams. Wagner is an absolute matchup nightmare (just ask Purdue) and the Cowboys won't be able to slow him down enough. With Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman emerging as a secondary scorer and DJ Wilson providing some explosiveness, the porous OSU defense will be left in the dust. But that strong offense will keep the Cowboys in the game.
Michigan 82, Oklahoma State 70

I've watched just about every game Michigan State has played this season, I've been to games in person, I've been to practices, I've talked to the players and I still have no idea what to make of the Spartans. Their youth makes them inconsistent, but also dangerous in the postseason. They will face a Miami Hurricanes team that is led by senior Davon Reid and junior Ja'Quan Newton. When scouting a Michigan State opponent, the first thing to look for is height. MSU simply can't beat good teams that outsize them (see Purdue).

In terms of size, Miami has a slight advantage. Their leading rebounder, Kamari Murphy, is 6-foot-8, but weighs 30 pounds less than MSU freshman Nick Ward. Miami has three more players 6-foot-10 or taller, but none of them start. What tips the scales in my mind is the lack of experience for the Spartans. They're anchored by four freshmen playing in their first NCAA tournament, two sophomores that played injured last season against Middle Tennessee, one junior who has no offense to speak of in Tum Tum Nairn and one senior who has never played major minutes for Michigan State until now in Alvin Ellis III.

Every Michigan State team in recent memory has had an elder leader on the floor that brought everyone together and became a coach on the floor, while simultaneously being a playmaking threat. Last season it was Denzel Valentine, the year before was Travis Trice and the year before that was Adreian Payne and Keith Appling. No one jumps out to me this year as a guy who can not only be the emotional leader, but also be the playmaking leader like all of those previous names could. Nairn is the emotional leader, but he's not even the best point guard on the roster. Miles Bridges is by far the best player, but as a freshman he simply doesn't have the experience to be the leader during the NCAA tournament.

Lack of size, lack of experience and lack of depth are what will doom the Spartans in the first round against Miami, but don't expect Tom Izzo's squad to go down without a fight.
Miami 65, Michigan State 60

Monday, March 6, 2017

Will lightning strike twice for Westwood boys?

By Blake Froling

When I first came to Marquette, everyone who talked to me about the job told me how exciting and incredible Westwood's run in the MHSAA playoffs was last year. No one had seen it coming, they said. I still can't believe it happened, others told me. I wish I could have seen it myself, just based on the stories people keep telling me.

A year later, Westwood needs lightning to strike twice if they want another magical run. They face off with West Iron County on Wednesday in the opening round of districts, at West Iron County, at 8 p.m. EST. It seems so long ago since these two teams faced off in the first game of the season, before I even got here. The Wykons came out on top 50-41 on December 5th, in case you forgot.

Since I arrived in Marquette, I've seen this Westwood team develop and consistently get better, and the results eventually reflected that. My first game was an overtime loss at home to Gwinn, when Austin Pierpont hit a crazy game-tying three from the corner. Since then, I've seen the Patriots grow in so many ways, taking their lumps along the way.

David Delarye has become an absolute force in the paint, exemplifying the "bull in a china shop" metaphor. He was raw in December, and maybe a little out of control at times. But now he's at the top of scouting reports and the subject of heated timeouts at the beginning of games for opposing coaches. He's a double-double threat on any given night, and his touch around the hoop has improved immensely.

Nathan Beckman has the three C's you want in a point guard: he's cool, calm and collected. Even if he doesn't always light up the scoreboard, which he certainly can do on any given night, he makes the offense flow so much better when he's on the floor. Ethan Burke is the ultimate glue guy, a scrapper with blazing speed. He wreaks havoc on defense and at times fearlessly drives to the hoop, where he can be out-sized by almost a foot.

Every coach I talk to before games brings up Westwood's defense. It's unrelenting, it slows teams down and it even frustrates opposing stars at times, who are used to scoring at will. The Patriots will need that defense to step up in a big way on Wednesday.

If the Patriots can keep the Wykons in the 40's, they have a very good chance of winning. However, the offense will need to pick up in the playoffs. Westwood has only broken the 50-point mark in five of its 19 games, hence why the game needs to stay in the 40's. The Patriots have been shooting the ball better as of late, but if they can do it on the road in the playoffs remains to be seen.

For lightning to strike twice, they also would have to defeat one of the top teams in the UP in the district finals, if they can get there. Norway and Iron Mountain are the early matchup at West Iron County High School on Wednesday, and it's a shame that one of the top five teams in the UP has to go home on night one. Such is life without seeding in the MHSAA playoffs.

The Patriots are 0-4 against these two teams, but played Norway tight both times, losing by seven and nine points. Iron Mountain and Carson Wonders were tougher for the Patriots, but the Patriots played a more competitive game at Westwood.

The odds are slim that lightning will strike twice for the Patriots, but the odds were slim for last year's team as well, and it turned out alright for them. Or so they tell me.

Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Can they do it again? Westwood faces Norway in districts

By Blake Froling

March Madness is officially upon us. 

The Westwood girls basketball team will face off with Norway for the third time this season after drawing the Knights in the first round of the district playoffs. Norway dominated a mistake-filled matchup at Westwood in January, 41-17. Against all odds, the red-hot Patriots marched into Norway last week on their senior night and pulled off the upset 54-53, handing the Knights their first loss of the season. Now, game three.

Before the second game, Kurt Corcoran was going back and forth on whether it was a good idea to win that night. Should they "poke the bear" before districts, or lay low and try to catch them off guard in the third game? Well, winning on senior night is certainly poking the bear, but Westwood will be ready.
The Patriots closed out the season playing their best basketball of the entire season, winning five of  their last six games. The lone loss came by two points to Negaunee on a controversial ending. 

The two freshmen starters, Tessa Leece and Madelyn Koski, are no longer playing like freshmen. Koski dropped a career-high 28 points on Norway in the second matchup, including 13 free throws in the fourth quarter alone. Leece has turned into a sniper with a quick release and a nuisance for opposing teams on defense. Junior Liz Farley is a mid-range machine and a defensive stopper.

Corcoran watched the boys make a miraculous run in the state tournament last season. Now he wants his team to start a run of their own. But first, Norway.

Beating Norway the second time might be even harder than doing it the first time. No longer is Westwood an unknown underdog, just happy to be there. They're a legitimate contender, and Norway won't be caught sleeping again.

Jordan Kraemer, Norway's top scorer, was out with foul trouble early in the first quarter of the second game and was virtually a non-factor in the first half. That likely won't happen again. She finished the game with 23 points, 17 of those coming in the fourth quarter as she nearly brought Norway back by herself. If Westwood can limit Kraemer to 20 or less and neutralize her teammates, they have a chance.

Layups are also key. It seems simple, but sometimes the Patriots struggle under the hoop. Going against Norway's press, they get a lot of layup opportunities. In the first matchup, there was a lid on the basket for the Patriots. In the second, those layups fell. If they can convert on their breakaway layups off the press, Westwood will be in good shape. Easier said than done against the Knights.  

So will Westwood be moving on? Your guess is as good as mine. 

Who: Norway Knights (19-1, 11-1) vs. Westwood Patriots (12-8, 7-5)
Where: West Iron County High School
When: 6 p.m. EST
Listen on ESPN UP 970 AM, 93.3 FM, or the ESPN UP App

Monday, February 20, 2017

NBA All-Star Weekend has become a sad joke

By Blake Froling

I used to look forward to the NBA's All-Star Weekend. Not anymore.

Without much competition, it was regarded as probably the most entertaining all-star event out of the four major sports. Baseball lost its only meaning when it no longer decided home field advantage for the World Series (which was a dumb idea itself). No one cares about the NHL all-star game, or even realizes it's going on until you're sitting at home flipping through channels and stumble upon it, only to quickly move on. The Pro Bowl features a dodge ball game, which is all you need to know about that.

Which leaves us with the NBA. 10 years ago, it was must-see TV for sports fans, not just die-hard NBA fans or John Legend fans. The best of the best competed in the slam dunk contest, making it one of if not the most electrifying events of the NBA regular season. Now we have D-League players competing, and when that happens, the fans lose.

The highlight of the weekend was watching a 7-foot-3 Latvian "unicorn" who is younger than me (!!!) dribble through cones and pass a ball through a net. Kristaps Porzingis set the Twitter world ablaze and gave depressed Knicks fans some hope by winning the skills challenge. The three-point contest was a snoozefest, as usual.

Then Sunday night came around, and the game itself was ready to save the doomed weekend. Wrong.

We all know that no one ever plays defense in the All-Star Game. I accept that. But when you have Steph Curry actually lying on the floor to avoid challenging the Greek Freak on a dunk, you have to draw the line.

Even though the game featured silly scoring numbers, it was just straight up boring. I could have scored 20 points against their defense! I doubt there's any solution to this problem because no player wants to get hurt in a meaningless game, and most NBA players abhor defense to begin with. The league also won't ever cancel the game because of the ridiculous amounts of money they make off of it. Millions of people will tune in year in and year out, no matter how atrocious the level of play is.

That doesn't mean I can't still complain about it.

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

NMU men's basketball eyes the future as season winds down

By Blake Froling

The first half of the season was not kind to the young Northern Michigan University Wildcats. A 3-9 record with five of those losses by 18 or more points was not how they envisioned the season starting. The outlook was bleak and the team lacked one of the most important elements in all of basketball: size. The Wildcats just couldn't hit a groove and were repeatedly bit by the injury bug. Then the coaching staff decided to shake things up.

Why not take that size disadvantage that would cripple most teams and create favorable match-ups instead? Make the other teams have to adjust to you instead of the other way around. The new and somewhat radical five guard offense hit the floor for the first time at Saginaw Valley State, and it didn't disappoint.

NMU went into hostile territory against a team that had previously been nationally ranked and looked poised to make a run at the Great Lakes Intercollegiate Athletic Conference title. The Wildcats found themselves down eight points at halftime, a lead that assistant coach Charles Belt said would have been insurmountable for this team early in the season, especially when you consider NMU's dominant point guard Naba Echols only scored nine points and collected more fouls than assists.

But the Wildcats had turned a new leaf, outscoring SVSU by 14 in the second half en route to an 82-76 victory. That success was quickly followed with another road victory two days later at Wayne State in Detroit, 75-71, the first time NMU had earned a road sweep in three years.

However, it's not like everything has completely changed since that weekend and the Wildcats are dominating college basketball. They still own a 5-11 conference record and will likely miss the GLIAC tournament. They still have their bad nights, including 23-point home loss to Grand Valley State, but the seeds are already being planted for next season.They're 4-5 since changing their approach and using the five-guard offense, not world-beating but a noticeable improvement.

"The growth of our players in such a quick amount of time is just a testament to them," said Belt. "You have to give a ton of credit to those guys for actually taking those early games and learning from them."

Eleven players will be returning for the Wildcats next season, including seven of their top eight scorers. Freshman Will Carius, who scored 29 points one night earlier in the year and was a runner-up to Mr. Basketball in Iowa, only played in 10 games this season before needing back surgery. He will surely play a major role in next year's team. Oh, and he's 6-foot-7.

Freshmen have combined to start 33 games this season for NMU, Point guard Naba Echols, only a sophomore, averages 16 points per game. He's also second in the GLIAC in assists.

Freshman center Myles Howard, who stands 6-foot-9 and  about 200 pounds soaking wet, is developing into an elite rim protector, ranking second in the GLIAC in blocked shots. Head coach Bill Sall is a master at developing post players, and if Howard puts in the work and adds some weight, he could become a dominant post player.

Sharpshooting freshman Marcus Matelski averages nearly three made three pointers per game, ranking him among the best in the conference. Belt also said he's also one of NMU's best defenders, something that's rare among pure shooters.

Another freshman, Sam Taylor, is starting to heat up, just as the Wildcats are. He's averaging 16 points in the last three games and is shooting at a ridiculous 50 percent rate from beyond the arc. Add in a rare upperclassman like Jordan Perez who has been a constant in the starting lineup, and you have a Wildcat squad that is looking to make some noise next season.

"The last thing that happens in the process is the winning part, that always comes last," said Belt.
"You have to value the part of the process of guys coming to the gym on their own wanting to shoot; how loud the gym is when we practice, it's not a quiet practice it's loud, there's energy; the guys playing and competing hard. With five games left, there's not one guy on this team that's ready for March."

The last part of the process, the winning part, should come to fruition next season, and don't be surprised when it does.

Monday, February 6, 2017

Brady's the GOAT and the Falcons looked like the Lions

By Blake Froling

He may be one of the most polarizing athletes in all of pro sports, but there is one opinion that is not up for debate anymore: Tom Brady is the greatest football player of all-time.

Even if the Patriots hadn't made that historic comeback against the Falcons in Super Bowl LI last night, he still would have been the greatest of all-time, as much as it pains me to say it. Once the Patriots started to get some momentum, you could sense Terrific Tom wasn't going to make this easy on the Falcons.

Down 28-3 in the third quarter, a comeback was almost impossible. According to ESPN Stats and Info, the Patriots had a 0.5% chance of winning that game. But the stats didn't take into account Brady, Belichick and the insufferable Patriots' greatness.

Brady put together the best Super Bowl performance ever after going down 28-3. In the fourth quarter and overtime, he went 21-27 passing for 246 yards and a touchdown. Near perfect football.

Some people are saying the Falcons choked this game off. In a way, yes, but that would diminish the gravity of this comeback. Consider this: the Falcons defense was on the field for 93 plays, adding up to the biggest play disparity in NFL postseason history. These guys were gassed, and their offense didn't do them any favors in the second half.

After going up 28-3, Atlanta ran just 16 plays on four drives, ending on a punt, fumble, punt and punt, all while taking minimal time off the clock. It's no wonder Brady looked surgical as the game wound down.

So yeah, I guess the Atlanta offense did kind of choke, but you can't pin this all on the defense. Matty Ice could have iced the game when the Falcons got the ball back up 28-20 with 5:53 to go in the game. All Atlanta needed was a three-plus minute drive and a field goal and the game would have essentially been over. After marching down to the New England 22-yard line, I thought they had a chance to do just that. Like the Lions do every Sunday, they got my hopes up, only to crush them in the end.

Here's what followed for Atlanta: rush for a loss of one yard, sack for a loss of 12 yards and a holding call to pull them out of field goal range. That was how Atlanta's Super Bowl chances died. If you squint and turn your head to the side, you could see some Honolulu blue and silver on that Super Bowl field.

After that, you knew Brady was going to lead the Pats down the field for a touchdown. You knew they'd get the 2-point conversion. You knew Atlanta wouldn't be able to score after squandering all of their timeouts. The only chance the Falcons had was to win the overtime coin toss, and they couldn't even do that. The rest was just a formality.

Here's the most frustrating part for all the Brady haters out there (myself included): he's not even done yet.

By the time he takes the first snap of the 2017 season, Brady will be 40 years old and will still out perform all the twenty-something hot shot quarterbacks in the league. Even though the Revenge Tour is over, Brady is far from done, and that should scare the 31 other teams in the NFL.