With only eight days remaining in the 2014-15 regular season, it’s time to check in on FiveThirtyEight’s NBA Power Ratings. If you’re wondering how these numbers work, the short version is that all 30 NBA teams are ranked according to a projection of their true talent over the upcoming week — and the upcoming week only — using Real Plus-Minus (RPM) player ratings provided by Jeremias Engelmann and Steve Ilardi. For more details on the methodology,1This week, we tweaked the simulation methodology to include the NBA’s official tie-breaking procedures. Before this week, we had been approximating tie breakers. see our introductory rankings post.The Eastern Conference playoff plot continues to thicken. Last Monday in this space, our model listed the Miami Heat and Indiana Pacers with playoff probabilities of 76 percent and 50 percent, respectively, with the Brooklyn Nets (38 percent) and Boston Celtics (25 percent) likely to be on the outside looking in.Now, the tables have turned.The Celtics, aided by a 3-1 record over the past week (and an improved power rating), now sport a 57 percent playoff probability and more expected end-of-season wins than either Miami or Indiana. Likewise, the Nets leapfrogged the Pacers and Heat by an even greater margin after going 4-1 over the past week-plus. Brooklyn’s chances of making the playoffs are now nearly 77 percent, a radical departure from its 17 percent postseason probability of two weeks prior.And if Brooklyn and Boston are now in the driver’s seats for the final pair of Eastern Conference playoff berths, that means the Heat and Pacers are currently both underdogs to make the postseason. Miami has lost four straight games, and its power rating is down because several of its good RPM players (such as Luol Deng, Hassan Whiteside and Chris Andersen) are listed as day-to-day with injuries. And for its part, Indiana went 2-2 on the week-plus, but even at .500, the Pacers lost ground to the surging Celtics and Nets.The Heat have things a bit better than the Pacers. They face an easier remaining schedule, and the league’s tie-breakers favor them in the event of a tie with Boston and/or Brooklyn, which accounts for Miami’s superior playoff odds despite a projected win tally identical to that of Indiana. But for each team, it’s a big reversal from where they stood just a week ago.So while there’s little time left in the schedule, the Eastern Conference playoff picture is no clearer than it’s been the past few weeks — the front-runners to get in are just different.
Jeremy Lin returns to New York Monday night, to Madison Square Garden, where he ascended from an unknown fringe player to an international phenomenon.He is a Houston Rocket now; the Knicks did not match a three-year, $25-million offer he received in the summer. He said he has a confluence of emotions about returning to play in New York, where “Linsanity was born.“I’m definitely ready to get it over with just because I think in some way there’ll be some closure,” Lin told USA TODAY. “This will be the first return back to MSG, and there’ll never be another first return. We’re going to go out there, play and have some fun and enjoy it and move on.”Knicks guard Raymond Felton, who was acquired to take over the point guard spot, said Lin deserves a warm reception from Knicks fans.“What Jeremy did was amazing, was great,” Felton said. “I’m happy for him, he got his money. He’s the starting point guard in Houston. I used to watch him every game. But it’s time to move on. We’re 18-5, we’re 10-0 at home, so there’s no need to talk about that no more.”The Knicks are playing as well as any team in the league without Lin, while he and his Rockets are still seeking to find a groove.“Terrible,” Lin said when asked about how he has played this season. “I’m not doing close to what I’m capable of doing. It’s a matter of figuring out how to get myself to play more like myself within the system of everything that’s going on and a change of scenery.”Here’s a look at the numbers: In those magical 25 starts with the Knicks last year, Lin averaged 18.2 points, 7.7 assists, 3.7 rebounds and shot 44.5% from the field. He also had a career-high 38 points against the Los Angeles Lakers on national television, skyrocketing his popularity.In 23 starts with the Rockets, Lin has averaged 10.8 points, 6.0 assists and 4.0 rebounds and has shot 39.5% from the field. Ordinary numbers, and certainly not worthy what a player making his money. He did have 38 points against San Antonio last week, however.“The biggest thing for all us is comfort,” Lin told the newspaper. “When you’re comfortable, everything is easy, everything flows. Right now, we don’t have that exactly. We’ll get there though. We’ve shown glimpses. We’ll have some games where everything is perfect and free-flowing and everyone’s comfortable and we’ll have the ones like today where it’s just not quite there.“It’s a matter of battling through the adversity so we can get everybody more on the same page more consistently.”Rocket teammate James Harden said the hype around playing against a former team is overblown.“I don’t think Jeremy’s really caught up in going back and trying to make an individual performance,” Harden said. “It’s good to see old teammates and coaches and fans, but to be honest, you guys, the media, really hypes it up to be bigger than what it is.”
Just in case you missed the lunacy of it all, NBA commissioner David Stern summed up in one word Dennis Rodman acting as a quasi-U.S. diplomat in meeting with North Korea suppressor Kim Jong Un and calling him a “cool guy.”“Ridiculous,” the outgoing commish said.Rodman was in North Korea with the Harlem Globetrotters as part of a project for HBO. Somehow, the strange Rodman ended up attending a game and convening afterward with Kim, who has been a dictator and continues to defy United Nations acts on nuclear weapons.In an interview with Charlie Rose of 60 Minutes, Stern – suspended Rodman many times during the former player’s NBA career with the Detroit Pistons, Chicago Bulls and Los Angeles Lakers – did not hold back his disdain for Rodman’s laudatory remarks about Kim.”I think it’s ridiculous,” Stern said. “I think that if you’re going to meet someone with the record on human rights, and nuclear testing in a reckless way, counterfeiting U.S. dollars, and exporting a horrible brand of whatever it is that he’s exporting, starving his people, and locking them up, it should be done only in conjunction with the State Department with an agenda. If not, you shouldn’t go.”Rodman went on ABC on Sunday and rambled mindlessly about how the dictator was a basketball fan, a good guy and that Kim wants President Obama to call him, among other things. It was pointed out by interviewer Charlie Rose that Rodman did not intend to meet with the country’s leader when he arrived in North Korea.“No,” Stern said. “But then it was the burden of somebody to try to educate Dennis a little bit so he doesn’t come back and say, ‘The dude is really cool. His father was great. His grandfather was great. And really why doesn’t the President just give him a buzz?’ ”Surely, if this was an NBA matter, Rodman would be suspended by Stern indefinitely.
The semifinal games of the College Football Playoff are on Dec. 31. In the video above, FiveThirtyEight’s Neil Paine breaks down the two semifinal matchups. Share on Facebook
Average team pull-up 3-point attempts per game Across the league, stars are turning to the shot more in the postseason. LeBron James is shooting four pull-up 3s per game, up from 2.6 during the season, and making 43.8 percent of them. And after a slow start during the season, Steph Curry is shooting 41.5 percent on nearly six attempts per game. It’s a shot that can bail a team out when first and second options are taken away by the defense.But no one takes more pull-up 3s than the Rockets. During the regular season, Houston took 13.3 3s off the dribble; Harden alone took 6.8. During the postseason, those numbers have shot up to 18.1 per game for the Rockets and 9.1 for Harden. Harden’s uptick in pull-ups has come with a downturn in makes — he’s gone from hitting 33.3 percent during the season to 28 percent in the playoffs.Harden’s misses are often offset by the inordinate number of cheap shooting fouls he draws on these 3s, but he’s not the only player to see his accuracy numbers decline in the playoffs as he throws up more pull-ups. Isaiah Thomas shot 36.7 percent on pull-up 3s during the regular season, but is making just 22.9 percent of them in the postseason. Kyle Lowry led the high-volume pull-up 3 crowd1Players who averaged at least 3 attempts at pull-up 3s per game. at 42 percent during the season, but made just 27.6 percent in the playoffs. Same goes for Chris Paul, who fell from 39.1 percent to 31.3. This could just be noise in a small number of games — Paul George and Dennis Schroder both shot much better than their regular-season averages in first-round losses — but the players whose percentages plummeted tended to be the ones for whom the pull-up was the offense, rather than just one facet of it.There’s no surefire way to take away the 3-pointer in the NBA. Even without Harden pulling shots out of thin air, Houston began to figure out San Antonio’s strategy by using different players to set different sorts of screens. But it’s a whole lot easier to unlock a defense when the answer is as simple as pulling up and taking your shot. 2016-176.88.6 2014-155.37.5 Through May 7, 2017Source: nba.com SEASONREGULAR SEASONPLAYOFFS For a few games there, San Antonio’s defense seemed to be solving the Houston Rockets. After laying a 27-point mollywhopping on San Antonio in Game 1, Houston dropped Games 2 and 3 due in part to crucial defensive adjustments by the Spurs that threw Houston’s potent high-screen game into chaos. San Antonio began planting a rim protector under high screens, threatening to block James Harden if he drove, while keeping everyone else close to their men on the perimeter to discourage the drive-and-kick 3s that power the Rocket offense. It’s a neat little wrinkle in the series.But Houston can make all of that irrelevant with a wrinkle of its own: the pull-up 3. That’s exactly what the Rockets did at the turning point of Game 4.With the Spurs trailing by eight with a little less than eight minutes left in the third quarter, LaMarcus Aldridge had switched onto Harden, who was isolated at the top of the key; everyone else stayed home. Harden could have easily driven past the big man and challenged at the rim, but that would be playing into San Antonio’s hand. Instead he stepped back for a pull-up 3. Rockets by 11. The next trip down, Harden peeled off a screen and, with Pau Gasol’s armpit in his face, drained an even more ridiculous step-back. Rockets by 14. The Spurs wouldn’t pull within single digits again.As the NBA moves more and more of its offense behind the 3-point line, teams are taking more pull-up 3-pointers than ever before. In the playoffs, due in part to 3-point-denying defenses and in part also to playing out more desperate situations, teams are taking even more than they do in the regular season. The Cleveland Cavaliers are attempting more than three additional pull-up 3s per game, with a marginal improvement in percentage; the Golden State Warriors, meanwhile, have made a tiny increase in attempts but a massive improvement in accuracy. 2015-165.97.5 2013-145.16.3
After losing superstar Kawhi Leonard in free agency last month, it’s highly unlikely that the Raptors will repeat as NBA champions in 2020. But on some level, Leonard’s departure could make Toronto the league’s most interesting club this season.The team was an impressive 17-5 during the regular season1Although it’s worth pointing out that the Kawhi-less Raptors were 13-0 against teams that failed to reach the postseason, while going just 4-5 against clubs that made the playoffs. when Leonard sat out. The Raptors play in the weaker of the two conferences, and might be looking at an Eastern Conference in which three or four rosters, at most, will enter the campaign clearly more fortified than their own. Forward Pascal Siakam showed signs last year of being a burgeoning star and now, without the ball-dominant Leonard, will likely be asked to do far more on the offensive end.There’s an additional aspect of the Raptors worth watching. The team has a number of solid vets on the team who are headed into the final season of their contracts, leaving Toronto in a spot where it could push as far as possible for a playoff run, or, if its ceiling becomes obvious, pivot and trade to bolster their future.If Toronto is to exceed expectations again, Siakam — the league’s Most Improved Player — would almost certainly have to take another step (or spin move) forward by becoming the team’s No. 1 offensive option. And while there are some metrics that inspire confidence on that front — his field-goal percentage last season, for example, was almost as good without Leonard on the court as it was with him2It was just over 55 percent when Siakam shared the floor with him, and 54 percent when Leonard was on the sideline. — there are a handful of things to look for, and perhaps even some reasons to doubt that another seismic leap is on the way. For starters, his usage rate last season, at just under 21 percent, was one of the NBA’s lowest among those who averaged 15 or more points per game. His usage will almost certainly need to increase, which could then dent his efficiency. (As a sidenote: This concept is what made Leonard’s ascent in San Antonio so incredible. His usage spiked, but he was somehow just as efficient despite taking on more offensive responsibility.)Though it seems easy enough to accept the notion that Siakam will need to shoot more, it’s worth considering at least two more things. First, he’ll likely see each team’s best defender now that Leonard is gone; and secondly, without Leonard, he won’t be able to play off the ball as much.The second factor is significant because of where Siakam is most comfortable shooting. He developed into a solid 3-point shooter from the corners — where he could hang out while sharing the floor with Leonard and All-Star Kyle Lowry — last year, at better than 41 percent. But Toronto’s need for him to handle the ball,3Related in all this: The 33-year-old Lowry has set career-lows in free-throw rate each of the last two seasons, perhaps an indication that he’s been less aggressive the past couple years as he’s beginning to age. especially in screen-and-roll scenarios, will likely put Siakam at the top of the key more often, which complicates things since he shot just 27 percent from above the arc, tied for the NBA’s 10th-worst mark.4Of those who took at least 50 such shots.If Siakam isn’t quite ready for the role of a lead scorer night in and night out, it helps that the Raptors are a team that often thrived without relying too heavily on one player throughout most of the 2018-19 regular season. Of course, Leonard was an enormous part of that and picked up all the necessary slack come playoff time. But no other club enjoyed such a variety of players driving to the basket. Backup point guard Fred VanVleet shone in the later stages of the postseason and can play with the starters at times to help ease the ball-handling responsibilities on Siakam and Lowry.One other key in all this: Toronto may not have to score all that much. Yes, Leonard and Danny Green were huge contributors to the Raptors, who ranked in the top five in effective field goal percentage defense. But even without those two, Toronto enjoys a pretty solid defensive core that can still orchestrate switches (they were this postseason’s most efficient switch defense by a mile) and reliably step up in help scenarios, while Lowry is one of the best charge-takers in the game. OG Anunoby, who missed the playoffs after an emergency appendectomy, will be integral in replacing Green on that end. Aside from him, Toronto picked up a pair of free-agent wings in Rondae Hollis-Jefferson and Stanley Johnson, who underwhelmed in their initial stops after being taken in the first round of the 2015 draft, but are low-risk gambles for a team that’s looking for more young talent to put around Siakam.In a way, Hollis-Jefferson and Johnson being under the microscope is emblematic of the team as a whole. Team president Masai Ujiri is going to want to take constant stock of just how good this team is to get a sense of how he should handle things come February, when his phone figures to be ringing off the hook ahead of the trade deadline. Lowry, VanVleet, Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka are all set to be free agents next summer,5Potentially leaving Toronto with considerable cap space next July and could appeal to teams seeking to make the sort of magical run Toronto did last season.Barring an injury or something else unforeseen, the Raptors should still have more than enough to make the playoffs this season. FiveThirtyEight’s projection model gives them an 85 percent probability of reaching the postseason, and a 4 percent chance of reaching the NBA Finals. But it will be even more interesting to see exactly where Ujiri’s dividing line falls, between deciding that it’s worth pursuing another deep playoff run versus selling off assets to pivot toward the future.
On Tuesday, Major League Baseball celebrated Jackie Robinson Day, honoring the 67th anniversary of Robinson eradicating baseball’s color barrier. The eponymous event, which fills baseball fields with the spectacle of countless players sporting No. 42, is a great reminder of Robinson’s legacy. It’s also a prime occasion to remind people that — despite his legendary small-ball artistry — yes, sabermetrics thinks he was an awe-inspiring ballplayer, too.The topic recalls a great Rob Neyer post from more than a decade ago. Writing during the height of baseball’s culture wars (“Moneyball” had been published a month earlier), Neyer attacked the notion that sabermetrics wouldn’t have appreciated the skills of Robinson and other speedy African-American players (such as Rickey Henderson, whose playing style and tremendous value made him, in many ways, Robinson’s spiritual descendant).“You can accuse Bill James and sabermetrics of many things, but you cannot accuse them of not appreciating Jackie Robinson and Rickey Henderson,” Neyer wrote. “Those two brilliant players — not to mention Joe Morgan and Willie Mays and Cool Papa Bell and Barry Bonds, and hey let’s not forget Henry Aaron and Frank Robinson and Tony Gwynn and Eddie Murray — could play for any general manager.“If you think that sabermetrics doesn’t have a place for them,” he continued, “then you don’t understand sabermetrics. Because there’s not yet been a sabermetrician born who wouldn’t drool at the thought of Rickey Henderson and Jackie Robinson at the top of his imaginary lineup.”Yes, Robinson ranks just 108th all-time among position players in lifetime wins above replacement. But that’s a function of the late start he got to his career (he was a rookie at age 28) and his relatively short playing stint. Robinson was the National League’s seventh-best position player by WAR in 1948, his second season, then led the senior circuit in the statistic in 1949, 1951 and 1952, while also finishing second in 1950 and fifth in 1953.By 1954, Robinson was 36 and his quickness was on the wane (that year he posted a career-low speed score of 4.6, the only time he was ever below the league average of 5.0). He would retire after two more seasons. But that 1948-53 peak was as good as anybody’s ever been. Literally. Only four position players in MLB history — Willie Mays, Babe Ruth, Honus Wagner and Lou Gehrig — had more WAR between the ages of 29 and 34. Numbers like that are why, despite Robinson’s short career, James ranked Robinson as the fourth-best second baseman ever in “New Historical Baseball Abstract.”So much for sabermetrics underappreciating Robinson’s skills.WAR can measure Robinson’s terrifying impact on the basepaths (he generated 31 more runs than an average player). WAR also takes into account his defensive value — total zone data estimates that Robinson saved 81 more runs than an average defender (primarily at second base, but with a little third base, first base and outfield mixed in). According to defensive WAR, Robinson saved the Brooklyn Dodgers 10 wins with his defense, combining his contributions relative to position and the importance of those positions in the overall structure of the defense.Most importantly, though, WAR accounts for the fact that Robinson was 261 runs better than average with his bat. Because of the highlight-reel baserunning plays, people often forget that Robinson was also an incredible hitter. He topped a .295 batting average eight times, winning the NL batting crown in 1949 with a .342 average. He also had the majors’ seventh-highest on-base percentage during the course of his career (1947-56), drawing a walk on 12.8 percent of his plate appearances in addition to his outstanding ability to hit for average. And his isolated power was 19 points better than the league average, so Robinson had some pop (even if his slugging percentage was driven in part by 54 career triples).In sum, Robinson was an all-around sabermetric star. There isn’t an area of the game where the advanced stats don’t consider him very good, if not one of the best ever. The notion that somehow Robinson has lost his luster as we learn more about what makes for winning baseball couldn’t be further from the truth. If anything, sabermetric stats help us appreciate Robinson’s greatness even more.
T. Hardaway1996MIA2.8+7.5-1.0Lost first round The best trade deadline pickups rarely swing the playoffs R. Allen2003SEA5.5+4.6+1.2Missed playoffs D. Mutombo2001PHI2.2-2.2-2.6Lost NBA Finals C. Drexler1995HOU5.5+2.4-5.9Won NBA Finals G. Wallace2011POR2.6+2.6+0.8Lost first round L. Nance1988CLE3.3+3.8-3.0Lost first round T. Kukoc2000PHI2.2+2.7-0.5Lost conf. semis D. Ainge1989SAC2.6+4.9-0.7Missed playoffs PLAYERYEARNEW TEAMPOST-TRADE WAROFFDEFPLAYOFF OUTCOME S. Marbury1999NJ2.8+11.6-6.6Missed playoffs B. Miller2002IND2.6+2.3+0.6Lost first round J. Mashburn1997MIA2.8+2.2-4.3Lost conf. finals J. Hornacek1994UTA2.2+3.3-1.5Lost conf. finals Historically, productive deadline pickups don’t often go hand in hand with deep playoff runs. They can help their new teams’ bottom lines — since 1987, each additional WAR produced by a newcomer after the deadline has been associated with a 0.9-point improvement to his team’s efficiency differential, compared with the team’s differential before the trade. But oftentimes those players are shipped into situations where no amount of productivity can keep the ship from sinking or drag an average roster to playoff greatness.And even the stars who go to good teams can arrive to mixed results. Drexler, like Jamal Mashburn in 1997 and Dikembe Mutombo in 2001, played well after landing in his new destination, but his team’s net efficiency sank dramatically down the stretch of the regular season before righting itself in the playoffs.Furthermore, because trades involve, uh, trade-offs between teams, sometimes star deals simply re-allocate strengths from one side of the ball to the other. The biggest post-deadline boost in offensive efficiency since 1987 belongs to the 1999 New Jersey Nets, which added offensive dynamo Stephon Marbury and improved their efficiency at that end by 11.6 points per 100 possessions … but also got worse on defense by 6.6 points per 100 possessions. (Marbury didn’t exactly lock opponents down on D.)Likewise, the biggest boost in defensive efficiency belongs to last year’s Jazz, which improved by 10.6 points per 100 possessions on D after jettisoning defensive sieve Enes Kanter and installing Stifle Tower Rudy Gobert as starting center … but also got worse by 2.3 points per 100 possessions on offense. That’s still a clear win for the Jazz, but it shows that blockbuster deadline trades rarely come off perfectly clean, without some downside to go with the benefits.Which brings us back to Frye and the Cavaliers. Frye’s no superstar — his wins added are modest despite his impressive RPM because he logged only 17 minutes a night in Orlando, a number that isn’t likely to increase given Cleveland’s existing frontcourt situation. But he’s in what’s historically been a sweet spot for deadline pickups: He’s coming to an existing title contender at very little cost, where he’ll be asked to fill a specific (yet important) role. There are no guarantees on the NBA trade market, but low-risk/moderate-reward moves like the one the Cavs made to grab Frye are often the deadline deals most associated with solid playoff outcomes. A. Robertson1993DET2.8+2.5-0.9Missed playoffs B. Davis2005GS3.1+11.0-1.9Missed playoffs M. Camby2010POR2.6+0.8+1.8Lost first round B. Sura2004ATL2.2+8.5-6.7Missed playoffs M. Thornton2011SAC2.4+1.2-1.1Missed playoffs Source: Basketball-Reference.com Unlike last year, the 2016 NBA trade deadline was a bit of a snoozer. Nineteen players were dealt on Thursday, deadline day itself — the 12th-most since 1987. In the traditionally busy two weeks leading up to the cutoff, however, only seven others were moved, which means the raw activity around this year’s deadline was basically average. Quality wasn’t exactly bursting out over quantity, either. As a group, the traded players averaged almost exactly zero wins above replacement per 82 games this season, the eighth-lowest rate among trade deadlines since ’87. (Of course, it could be worse — sometimes an entire crop of trade targets can average out well below the replacement level, as happened in 1992.)Most of this year’s trades were made by teams jockeying for playoff position (Charlotte’s Courtney Lee pickup comes to mind), collecting future assets (Detroit snagged Tobias Harris and Donatas Motiejunas in separate deals this week) or dumping disgruntled players (Markieff Morris and Lance Stephenson were sent packing by the Suns and Clippers, respectively). These are the kinds of incremental moves that help a franchise in the long run. But nobody would characterize them as blockbusters, and hardly any involved the handful of teams that have a chance to win the 2015-16 NBA championship.If any contender received consensus praise at the deadline, though, it was Cleveland, which snagged Channing Frye for Anderson Varejao, Jared Cunningham and a couple of draft picks. The advanced analytics have always crushed hard on Frye — he currently ranks eighth among power forwards in ESPN’s Real Plus-Minus, ahead of Anthony Davis (!) — with his classic stretch-big mix of long-distance shooting, decent-enough rebounding and surprisingly solid defensive metrics. (To that last point, RPM actually thinks Frye’s defense is a far bigger contributor to his bottom-line impact than his offense.) Let’s face it — nobody will be shocked if Frye ends up hitting a huge shot or two for the Cavs during what’s probably going to be another deep run in the Eastern Conference playoffs.And when it comes to deadline pickups, players like Frye often make a more indelible postseason mark than the types of big-name superstars everyone was hoping to see moved Thursday, anyway.Statistically, the best deadline acquisition of the past 30 years1Including players acquired within two weeks of each season’s deadline. was Clyde Drexler — clearly not a role player, even in his twilight — who produced 5.5 WAR for the Rockets after getting shipped to Houston for Otis Thorpe in 1995. Drexler went on to help Houston capture its second straight NBA title, but that makes him an exception among hyper-productive deadline pickups: T. Kukoc2001ATL2.2+5.0-8.9Missed playoffs P. Gasol2008LAL3.5+4.1-2.3Lost NBA Finals R. Jackson2015DET2.2+2.1-0.4Missed playoffs TEAM EFF. CHANGE J. Salmons2010MIL2.4+2.7+3.2Lost first round V. Radmanovic2006LAC2.2+1.1-0.7Lost conf. semis T. Gugliotta1995MIN3.3+5.1-1.8Missed playoffs T. Ratliff2004POR3.5-0.8+3.6Missed playoffs W. Williams1996MIA2.2+7.5-1.0Lost first round J. Kidd2008DAL3.9+1.4+1.4Lost first round
OSU sophomore Seth Kinker (37) fires a pitch during a game against Morehead State at Bill Davis Stadium on April 12. OSU won 1-0.Credit: Lantern File PhotoOhio State redshirt senior pitcher Adam Niemeyer had been through this game before. Navigating through the loser’s bracket of the 2016 Big Ten Tournament, the right-handed pitcher started Ohio State’s 11-4 win over Michigan to continue its championship run. As the Buckeyes faced another elimination game against the Wolverines in the 2018 tournament, Niemeyer took the mound again, coming to the same result with No. 7 Ohio State defeating No. 3 Michigan 5-3 on Friday afternoon. In the first meeting between Ohio State and Michigan in 2018, Niemeyer allowed one run on five hits, walking one batter with five strikeouts. Even though the Wolverine offense had opportunities to score, Niemeyer and the rest of the pitching staff limited its production with runners on base, allowing three hits in 20 plate appearances with runners on. The first time through the order, Ohio State could not get anything going against Michigan left-handed starter Ben Dragani. With only two base runners, including one walk, the Buckeyes recorded five flyouts in the first two innings of the game, striking out only once. As the lineup turned over, so did the outlook for the Ohio State offense. Starting with sophomore designated hitter Dominic Canzone hitting a double down the left field line, the Buckeyes recorded four hits on four consecutive pitches, scoring their first two runs of the day on an RBI double by senior left fielder Tyler Cowles and an RBI single by senior right fielder Noah McGowan respectively. After a three-run sixth inning, including senior first baseman Bo Coolen’s first home run of the season, the Buckeyes finished the day with five runs on nine hits, hitting .364 with runners in scoring position. Michigan cut Ohio State’s lead down to two in the seventh inning on a two-RBI single by Brock Keener. However, senior right-handed pitcher Seth Kinker closed the door on Michigan with 1.2 scoreless innings. Ohio State will face No. 1 Minnesota in the tournament semifinal at 10 a.m. Saturday.
Ohio State senior guard Joey Lane (14) throws his arms up for the crowd to cheer at the end of the game against Iowa on Feb. 26. Ohio State won 90-70. Credit Cori Wade | Lantern PhotographerEvery pregame ritual is the same for Joey Lane.He leads Ohio State onto the court, bouncing a basketball violently against the court as soon as his feet touch the hardwood.As the lineups are announced, he makes his way to the post area, greeting each starter with a handshake, custom-made for each one.Lane then makes his way to the end of the bench, a familiar home to the senior guard. He knew, when choosing Ohio State, he would forgo an opportunity at significant playing time. But Lane was fine with that.As tip-off nears, “Joker and the Thief” by Wolfmother begins to ring in every corner of the Schottenstein Center. Lane, physically pushing his fellow teammates, begins to jump up and down to the beat of the song, waving the towel that usually lives around his neck.What Lane has coined as the “towel gang” is not unique to Ohio State. The senior guard said he stole is from another school, a school he would not disclose.But what the “towel gang” represents to Lane is unique: It’s his role for Ohio State. A role that has remained for four seasons and survived a coaching change, a losing season, an NCAA Tournament run.And it’s more than just to be a walk-on. It’s more than running the scout team or pumping up his teammates. It’s more than just a name for the student section to chant when the Buckeyes have an insurmountable lead.Lane’s role is to be the best teammate he can be, a teammate he will be for the final time at home Sunday. This was Lane’s job, the role he was given. A role that, when asked about fulfilling for the final time at Value City Arena, made him break down in tears and embrace senior guard C.J. Jackson and redshirt senior guard Keyshawn Woods. It was a role he never thought he would have.Clad in scarlet and gray from an early age, Lane grew up watching Greg Oden, Evan Turner and Aaron Craft, who he took as his favorite player, adopting the Buckeye guard’s No. 4 jersey as his own at Deerfield High School in Deerfield, Illinois.Lane wanted to be like Craft, but was also trying to be realistic, viewing this hope as too far-fetched.“The dream was to play here,” Lane said. “I never thought in a million years as a 5-foot-9 guy my junior year of high school that I would ever be able to do that.”But he got his chance.As a senior at Deerfield, Lane was named captain of the basketball team, allowing him the decision to choose where his team could train over the summer. So he chose an Ohio State basketball camp, giving him the chance to play on the court he watched as a fan throughout his childhood.Lane and his team excelled, going 8-0 during the camp and putting the Ohio State coaching staff on notice. At first, the conversation revolved around finding the right school for Joey, looking for a Division-II or Division-III school that gave him the opportunity to play regularly.Ohio State senior guard Joey Lane leads the Buckeyes onto the court prior to the start of the game against Maryland on Jan. 18. Ohio State lost 75-61. Credit: Casey Cascaldo | Photo EditorLane flipped the script, shifting the conversation to finding out if there was any chance to live out his far-fetched dream. Ohio State head coach Thad Matta made that dream a reality, naming Lane as the first preferred walk-on in program history.“I’m forever indebted to the guy because he gave me the chance,” Lane said.After Matta’s departure from the program, that love could have been quickly taken away with a new coaching staff.Lane was granted a scholarship in his first two seasons at Ohio State, what his father Scott referred to as a “one-year deal.” With a new coaching staff, a scholarship for a walk-on was not guaranteed.Chris Holtmann had never met his inherited preferred walk-on. But the former Butler head coach knew what his impact had been.In their first meeting, the newly named Ohio State head coach reassured Lane he had a major role to play moving forward, using a word Matta and his staff had never used when talking about him: leadership.“They said, ‘You know what, the fact that you care so much about the university, that means something,’” Lane said. “That resonated with them.”According to Lane’s mother Nancy, one of Joey’s former coaches told him, “Know your role and be the best at it you can be.” From that moment forward, Lane embraced that role.Morphing into whatever opponent the Buckeyes will next see, he began to lead the scout team — preparing the team for its upcoming opponent in practice and allowing him the opportunity to get out of his shell, shooting really deep shots or even posting up in the paint.“Throughout my four years, I’ve been Denzel Valentine, I’ve been Carsen Edwards, I’ve been anyone that you can imagine,” Lane said.Lane became engrossed in game plans and scouting reports, calling out his teammates when something did not go as planned on the court. The walk-on did have an increased opportunity to use that knowledge on the court during games more than he had in Matta’s tenure. In his junior season, Lane played in seven games for 20 minutes, matching his career total, but made only 1-of-7 attempts from the field. But this was not Lane’s priority. He had accepted the position he was in. “Any playing time I got was gravy. I never in a million years thought I would play significant or meaningful minutes,” Lane said. “I never worked any less hard because I never thought I would be playing.” Instead of making an impact on the court, Lane began his attempt to extend his legacy passed his four seasons of eligibility. Prior to the start of the 2017-18 season, then-redshirt senior guard Andrew Dakich was looking for a school with which to end his collegiate career. As soon as he stepped foot onto Ohio State’s campus, he was introduced to Lane, who showed him around campus, grabbing a meal with him and incoming freshman forward Kyle Young.“I didn’t really know him at all before I got here, and he was really comfortable,” Dakich said. “He’s easy to talk to. That first moment, we kind of started to become teammates.” With his love for the university and with what Dakich calls an enthusiasm and energy unique to the walk-on guard, Lane took an important part in helping build the future for Ohio State, being called to host about every recruit that visited. When he recruits, Lane said he does not try and push Ohio State on the high school players. Instead, he said he talks about how special of a place he thinks Ohio State is. “I love Ohio State. I would sell my soul for Ohio State, and that’s what I try and do to these kids,” Lane said. Holtmann said Lane has been a tremendous recruiter for the Buckeyes, calling him a great advocate for the university, having the ability to successfully convey the message of the program to recruits and their families. But talking to recruits on visits, Lane wants to make one thing perfectly clear. “Their life will be a lot better than mine,” he said. This is the aspect that makes coaches, teammates and those around Lane believe why he has found success at Ohio State: his relatability. “He’s like the Ohio State University poster child,” Nancy Lane said. “It’s his dream school and he’s living out his dream.” Dakich, now a graduate assistant coach for Ohio State, calls Lane the connector with the student section, building the relationship between the men’s basketball team and the fanbase, becoming the face of a team he does not play much for. But that does not mean this fanbase does not want him on the court. If Ohio State holds a seemingly insurmountable lead at the end of the game, Dakich, Holtmann and the rest of the coaching staff know what is coming. Ohio State senior guard Joey Lane (14) sings “Carmen Ohio” with teammates after their game against Cleveland State on Nov. 23. Ohio State won 89-62. Credit: Casey Cascaldo | Photo Editor“We want Joey. We want Joey.” It was a chant Lane thought about on the bench prior to the Northwestern game on Feb. 20. When it began to happen, as thousand of fans began to chant his name with the Buckeyes en route to a 63-49 victory, Lane thought it could be one of the last times he heard it. “It’s a hard feeling to put into words because it’s dumb, but it’s awesome at the same time,” Lane said. “First of all, it means we are winning, which is very important. But it also means they care about me, they like me, they see what I am doing and they appreciate it.” For Lane, the chants have worked more than they ever have before. In his final season, coming into the final regular season game of the season, the senior guard has played in 13 games for 35 minutes, hitting 4-of-6 from the field, including 3-of-4 from 3. But to his parents, those chants are validation. It makes them feel like their son, who could have had way more playing time at a smaller school, made the right decision. “We raised our kids to be good people,” Nancy Lane said. “To do the right thing, to be a good friend, to be a good teammate and to put others first. When you see other people embrace that, it’s powerful.” For Dakich, Lane signifies everything a program wants in a walk-on. For Holtmann, Lane has earned the right to be praised, to have his name chanted to come into the game. “He’s really easy to care about, easy to like, easy to want to see him be successful,” Holtmann said. “He’s easy to root for.” But for Lane, it’s just another aspect of his role. It’s being the same guy he was in high school no matter the playing time he receives. To be the positive reinforcement, the teammate, the friend on the bench. To have the custom handshake with each player, to bounce up and down to “Joker and the Thief” courtside as the ball is tipped. It’s a role that he will have at the Schottenstein Center one final time Sunday, the last time he will lead Ohio State onto the court, bouncing the basketball violently against the court as soon as his feet touch the hardwood. It’s something Lane has not thought about much. But it’s something he said will be surreal. “I’ll definitely have to soak it all in and look at my family, that’s for sure,” Lane said. “It will be pretty darn cool because it’s somewhere I never expected to be.”