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, espnup.com 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.