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The Better Team

winnipeg Ddq_c76VAAAd-Vh“Well, they were the better team.”

Sometimes that phrase is a dodge when a player or team believes they were the equal of their opponent. Most times, though, it’s accurate.

The latest case in point: The Winnipeg Jets, who ended their memorable NHL playoff run with a 2-1 loss on home ice to the Vegas Golden Knights. The Jets had a head of steam coming into the series, thanks to their near-flawless play in the opening round against Minnesota and a gritty seven-game series win against President’s Trophy winner Nashville.

Against Vegas, though, the Jets just didn’t have it.

Oversimplifying things (largely because I listened to most of the games instead of watched them), goalie Connor Hellebuyck was more tentative than he had been in the first two rounds and stars like Mark Scheifele, Dustin Byfuglien and Patrik Laine never got on track the way they did in the first two series. Honestly, though, what appeared to do the Jets in more than anything else were turnovers.

If you needed any proof, Justin Marchessault’s two goals in Game 2 should serve as your lab example.

Marchessault’s goals looked like they punctured the Jets’ collective psyche, but again those were only representative. Winnipeg turned the puck over. A lot. That creates a lot of pressure on your netminder. And eventually, your goaltender will crack under all that pressure.

Besides the simple pressure placed on the defense, the Golden Knights took advantage where Winnipeg couldn’t.

And another thing that wore on the Jets was constantly playing from behind, or as one NHL broadcaster said this weekend, chasing the lead. Those of you familiar with basketball realize teams expend a significant amount of energy trying to erase double-digit leads, and often trailing teams come close or take brief leads but can’t sustain them in the end.

And so it ends, three wins short of an historic run to the Stanley Cup. Disappointing in that Vegas played the Jets’ game better than Winnipeg did. Hopeful, however, because this deep run in the playoffs could make the Jets the better team come Stanley Cup finals time in June 2019.



How Nebrasketball went from an NCAA team to an NIT 5-seed

iron n

There’s a lot of angst in Huskerville about why the Nebraska men’s basketball team failed to reach the NCAA Tournament despite a 22-10 overall record, a 13-5 conference record in the Big Ten and a 16-1 record at home.

From this uneducated vantage point about 250 miles south of Lincoln, Nebraska’s slide from the Big Dance to the National Invitation Tournament — as a No. 5 seed, mind you — comes down to five of the nine regular-season losses. I’m excluding the Big Ten Tournament beat-down by Michigan because, based on the fact NU was not a First Four Out, the Big Red would likely have had to win the tournament and gain the automatic qualifying bid. And, as you can see, the five losses on this list fall in two categories — tough losses to NCAA teams and losses to teams NU should have beaten:

  1. Nov. 23: UCF 68, NU 59. Shooting 25 percent in the first half and trailing by 18 at half was too much to overcome for the Big Red. It didn’t help the Huskers’ Big Dance chances that the Golden Knights finish the regular season 19-13, with their best win Dec. 3 against then-No. 24 Alabama (an NCAA Tournament team). UCF, by the way, did not make either the NCAA or NIT brackets.
  2. Dec. 9: Creighton 75, NU 65. Huskers held a five-point lead at half, built the advantage to eight early in the second half and trailed by three with just over 1 minute left but couldn’t seal the deal…a mantra in several close losses for Nebraska, both on this list and off. Had NU won here and, I think, any of the next three games on this list, Creighton AD and NCAA Tournament Selection Committee Chair Bruce Rasmussen would have had a lot more pause before leaving the Cornhuskers out of the NCAA Tournament (and putting Oklahoma in the tourney…but I digress…).
  3. Dec. 16: Kansas 73, NU 72. Nebraska’s best of several chances at the coveted Q1 win anywhere on its schedule, and it goes to the very last second before coming up short. At the time, it was Nebraska’s third loss in four games, including an 86-57 thumping by Michigan State to start the early-season skid. Had either Anton Gill’s 3-pointer or James Palmer’s follow-up in the final 20 seconds gone in, this win could have been enough to push NU into the Last Four In category. If it hadn’t been for the next two defeats…
  4. Jan. 22: Ohio State 64, NU 59. The third loss on this list to an eventual NCAA qualifier, and much like the Creighton game, the Huskers battled toe-to-toe with the then-No. 13 Buckeyes before Ohio State pulled away in the final four minutes. The loss offset a career game for Palmer, who went off for 34 points.
  5. Feb. 18: Illinois 72, NU 66. Nebraska came into the game on a six-game winning streak following the Ohio State loss and verbally marked the Illinois battle as a game it had to have with questions about its post-tournament direction already swirling…and then it just could not shake Illinois. In fact, the Illini were the team with the finishing kick, outscoring NU 14-5 over the final six minutes to pull the upset. NU then won its final two regular-season games, but in my mind this is the game that sealed the Huskers’ fate as a non-NCAA Tournament team.

While the NCAA’s decision to leave Nebraska out of the 2018 tournament may have surprised a lot of people, those that saw an NIT Tournament bid as at least a decent possibility were shocked the Huskers fell all the way to a 5-seed, meaning no first-round home game and a likely second-round battle with a top seed — in this case Baylor — if they get past Mississippi State on Wednesday night. The general statistics — no Q1 wins, a 2-3 overall record against Q2 teams, six wins against teams with plus-.500 records — don’t help, but I think NU becomes an NIT top seed just if it can beat UCF and Illinois. And I think NU gets into the Big Dance by winning one of the other three games.

Instead, Nebraska goes to the NIT for the 18th time and the first time since 2011. Hopefully, the Huskers feel spurned and roar through the tournament, getting their first title since 1996. My guess is the season ends well before that, capping a year of disappointment on several levels for the Big Red. At least it looks like Nebrasketball is trending up — finally — after a couple years where the so-called eyeball test had NU starting to circle the drain like it has done so many times in the past.


Piecing Together My Voice…And Other Stuff

with inwoodOver the past week, I’ve been dealing with some of the crud Ginny and the kids have had — although not to the same extent. At least, I didn’t think so until Friday night.

One of our broadcast stalwarts, Tim Miller, had come down with the flu (as has most of Emporia by this point), so I was asked to broadcast Friday’s Emporia High basketball doubleheader. We had plans for me to go to the Globetrotters game at White Auditorium, but with another world tour stop in Kansas coming this week, we made arrangements and I agreed.

My voice was somewhat scratchy going in. It was completely gone going out.

I’ve found out beforehand that I’m not one of those sportscasters that can dial down my call depending on my voice condition. And winter is typically a bad time for my voice anyways, but I figured I’d load up on cough drops and water and be OK.

Uh, no.

The girls game was, honestly, noncompetitive for the most point, so I didn’t really feel the need to put added stress on my call. On top of that, my partner, Steve Inwood, sensed things weren’t going well in the vocal department, so he extended a lot of his analysis into some play-by-play, which helped me as well.

And my voice was still hanging by a thread by the time the boys game started.

In my mind, I needed a second noncompetitive game. Honestly, I needed a change in mindset.

I’ve always approached sports play-by-play with two mental metrics:

  1. Am I accurately calling what’s happening in front of me?
  2. Am I capturing the rhythm, ebb and flow of the contest?

I’ve always prided myself as somebody who can do both reasonably well — because I believe both are critical components of a sports broadcast. You can call the action well, but you lose listeners if you can’t give people a sense of how a specific play fits into the overall flow of the action. On the flip side, you can capture the highlights of a given game — great catchphrases, raising your voice and the like — but if people can’t trust you’re actually telling them what’s happening on the court or the field, well, you’ve lost credibility and you won’t have much of a broadcast career. Unless you’re a conspiracy theorist…but that’s for another post.

Anyways, E-High promptly falls behind by almost double digits, and based on the first few minutes it looks like this will be a yawner. Before the first quarter, however, the Spartans get some things figured out, and just before halftime they take a brief lead, trailing by a point at the half. By this time, the decision to gear down my call has been thoroughly overridden by that two-pronged approach I’ve had in my head for a couple decades at least. I have a sense what’s coming in the second half — a game that comes down to the final four minutes — but I don’t expect eight lead changes in the third quarter followed by a brief burst at the end of the third quarter to give E-High a 4-point lead, followed by another pair of quick buckets to push the lead to eight early in the fourth period.

When you’re calling a run for the home team, especially in a tight game, the energy level goes up and the voice raises to match. In my case, it went from a reasonable facsimile of a voice to a series of nearly incomprehensible squawks as I’m trying to both capture the play and the emotion in the gym.

When the run reverses, the voice comes down but the intensity does not. And that’s what happened. Highland Park scored eight unanswered points in 90 seconds, including two deep three-pointers, to suck all the air out of the gym. They then added six of the next eight points, by my recollection, to take a four-point lead midway through the quarter.

And then the Spartans responded, although they missed a critical pair of free throws with about 2:20 left and another pair with under a minute to go. Upshot: Highland Park leads by four with 20 seconds left, Emporia High hits a pair of free throws and the visitors throw the ball out of bounds.

So you say there’s a chance…

If anybody could tell what I was saying by that point without a translator, congratulations. And with the remaining shreds of my voice, I try to fill in everybody about the last five seconds: missed shot, offensive rebound, forced shot offline, offensive rebound, buzzer. Ball game.

Good guys lose game. Broadcaster’s voice a lost cause a loooong time ago.

Postgame from my microphone is a mixture of a whisper and a croak, and to be honest I should have just let Steve take over — possibly for the entire back half of the doubleheader. As I write this Sunday, the voice is finally starting to come back, although its nowhere close to full strength.

And as I write this, I’ve noticed several things about what it’s like when you don’t have your voice — or, in my case, a critical component of my job:

  1. If your voice is scratchy and squawky when it normally isn’t, your kids will laugh at you. Repeatedly.
  2. I’ve found it’s harder to avoid singing than talking. And the kids have made it so I can’t avoid talking. Such is life.
  3. Whispering at kids to get their attention only goes so far. And in our house, it’s not very far.
  4. There are a host of remedies for a blown-up voice. Many involve tea…and/or ginger…and/or whiskey. Haven’t tried the whiskey-related remedies yet.
  5. Timing is everything. I’m grateful I’ve had the weekend to rest the voice, relatively speaking. Having to turn around and try newscasts the following morning would have been a broadcast disaster in the making.
  6. I’m eternally grateful Sean Thornton saved over the postgame interviews and not the full games from Friday. Although it would be interesting to go back and listen to those at some point waaaaaaaay down the road.

I’m not sure how well the voice will do Monday — or how long it will last before it starts shredding again. And with this being a mild, breezy week fraught with high fire danger, it could be at least the rest of the week before I sound like I normally do. Anyways, thanks for listening in general. And thanks for staying with the broadcast Friday night. Hopefully, we’ll all be back to normal for Substate this week.

Big Red Fans, Welcome to Mediocrity


“Extremely disappointing.”

“Low point.”

Call it what you will, but Nebraska’s 21-17 loss today to Northern Illinois should leave no doubt that Big Red Football is not so big anymore. At least when you consider our place in the Division I football hierarchy.

NIU has actually done very well against Big Ten teams recently, but that’s no excuse for what we saw out of the Huskers this morning and early afternoon.

True, the defense had a much better day at the office — right until the deciding drive of the game late in the fourth quarter. But the offense should have pushed Northern Illinois up and down the field. Instead, we see a pair of pick-sixes and another underwhelming performance offensively.

Against an Ohio State or a Michigan, seeing this level of play would almost be understandable — given the turnover in coaches, a new defensive scheme and a new quarterback between seasons. But against Northern Illinois? After poor performances against Arkansas State and Oregon?

What we saw today may have been the low point of the Mike Riley Era. Unfortunately, it was also the continuation of the decline, the regression from a championship caliber team to a program now struggling to be considered a middle-level squad in a Power 5 conference.

Face it, Husker fans. Nebraska football has been sliding toward mediocrity since the end of the Solich days. It took a huge step backwards under Bill Callahan. It stepped back — briefly — towards above-average play under Bo Pelini before the us-against-the-world atmosphere surrounding the team famously imploded.

And now we have…this mess. We have full-blown mediocrity.

Is this what we can expect during what’s left of the Mike Riley Era?

When Riley was hired, I was one of the optimistic ones. I thought his tenure at Oregon State was fairly good, based on where he was recruiting. After the last full season of play by the Huskers, however, especially after how the 2016 season ended, my optimism faded. And the start of the ’17 season hasn’t helped.

Whether you booed or not during the Northern Illinois game (and I have no hesitation in saying I booed), feel free to be embarrassed. We will always be fans of the Big Red. But this phase of Husker football may not be ending anytime soon, even if leadership changes.

Cincinnati’s Meathead Meltdown

  About the only thing I can think after Saturday’s legendary meltdown by the Cincinnati Bengals is it was bound to happen to some team at some point.

There is so much blame to spread around, and regardless of where you apply your industrial-strength spatula you may not get it all. However, the Bengals not only failed on the field in their 18-16 loss to the hated rival Pittsburgh Steelers. They set themselves up for failure well beforehand.

You can’t miss the blatant self-control problems displayed in the final minute by Vontaze Burfict and Pacman Jones. The potentially crippling shoulder-to-head hit by Burfict followed by Jones losing any semblance of cool immediately afterward were the final straws in the Bengals clawing defeat from the clutches of victory.

But there’s more. Coach Marvin Lewis lectured his players, notably Burfict, about maintaining composure as the game teetered in and out of control in the second half. Yet he put Burfict — and Jones, a noted hothead — back on the field at the game’s most critical point.

He had to. Or at least he felt he did. Despite their emotional control problems, Burfict and Jones are among football’s best defenders. And talent rules more decisions now than any other factor in sports. At least in most cases.

But Lewis and the Cincinnati coaching staff, try as they did, could not get those two players to play under control when it was most desperately needed.

So there is that failure. 

And there’s more. Burfict and Jones, who have both had more than their share of Meathead Moments in their NFL careers leading up to Saturday night, were pursued by the Bengals because of their talent and potential. It was a calculated risk, weighing potential against potential — the potential for brilliance (witness Burfict’s interception that seemingly sealed a win with under two minutes left) against the potential for catastrophe (which is what most of us will remember from the game). Other players were available that could have made plays and kept their cool. The Bengals decided against those options.

Somebody was bound to lose a playoff game in this fashion, this ugly, unhinged manner that we saw unfold like a train wreck Saturday.  It didn’t have to happen, but the Bengals primed themselves to be that team well before this weekend.

Qualms About Cueto

It’s a pretty good thing the Kansas City Royals are steaming towards the American League Central title. Otherwise, there would be a lot more worry about the Royals’ pitching staff.

The concerns have been mumbled about Yordano Ventura and Danny Duffy all season. Other grumblings have been focused on which Royal woul claim the No. 5 starter position — Jeremy Guthrie, Chris Young and lately Kris Medlen — almost by default.

But the biggest concerns are now revolving around one of a handful of players who are supposed to lead the franchise back to the World Series this fall.

Johnny Cueto had his fourth straight ghastly outing today: 3 IP, 5 earned runs allowed, 7 hits. It’s his shortest outing in a Royals’ uniform, but the three prior starts weren’t much better:

6 IP, 13 hits, 6 ER

5 IP, 8 hits, 6 ER

6 IP, 9 hits, 4 ER

What gives?

If you listen to the Royals’ coaches, it’s nothing more than the pitching equivalent of a hitter’s slump. I get that. But if that’s the case, you would look for different results. Hitters go from getting under fastballs and popping them up to trying unsuccessfully to pull breaking pitches away to being ahead to being late — all in a 20-at-bat slide.

Cueto’s problem has been consistent. He has missed up and out over the plate. Seriously, if you look at where his pitches have been hammered the hardest, Cueto did better teeing up his offerings than he could have done with an actual tee.

The Royals may be unpleasantly surprised this offseason by their rotation and the resulting impact on their bullpen. It would be unfortunate if the team’s signature acquisition for this stretch drive would be be one of the disappointing reasons the Royals fail to reach the World Series.

So Tom Brady Likes Deflated Balls…and the NFL Likes a Deflated Balls Controversy…

tb images

Well, the NFL came down hard on Tom Brady and the Patriot Way yesterday for DeflateGate.

Four game suspension. A seven-digit fine. Loss of draft picks. All because Brady allegedly conspired with some staffers to take some air out of footballs.

I personally don’t care about the entire situation, although it is funny to me to see the Patriots having to squirm the way they have been in professing innocence since the ruling was handed down from on high. And it will be very interesting to see Brady defend what he did (or didn’t do), especially because he’s apparently had chances to speak up and hasn’t done so.

The only thing I can think of is…why are we believing the NFL on this? The league (more specifically Commissioner Roger Goodhair) totally sullied itself on how it handled the domestic violence cases from last year. Completely, totally, thoroughly dropped the ball on that issue. And you’re telling me we automatically have to take the NFL’s verbiage as gospel simply because a former player is overseeing discipline?

Look. I understand it looks like Brady and the Pats cheated, even though there’s hardly any impact likely on the games Brady played. They may well have. But I have a hard time taking anything the NFL says at face value without looking for a salt mine in the zip code.

Stingers Up as Austin Willis Latches On With Raiders

austin images

Helmets off to Austin Willis, the former Emporia State wideout who is on an NFL team. How good does it feel to say that?

Willis, who scampered by defensive backs routinely for touchdowns and big plays the final three years of his career at ESU, was offered a deal by the Oakland Raiders over the weekend. Sub-4.4 speed helped to gain the Riders coaching staff’s attention, but Willis also must have demonstrated an acuity for picking up on things quickly for them to maintain interest.

After spot duty on special teams his freshman year, Willis gradually added playing time and by his junior year he couldn’t be rooted out of the starting lineup, catching 10 touchdown passes as a junior and accumulating over 2,000 receiving yards in his career.

Numbers like that would get instant notice if Willis was in a Division I Power 5 conference. Even though Willis played in the toughest football conference in Division II, his name wasn’t mentioned all that much — if at all — leading up to the NFL Draft.

Such is life if you play football in any other level than D-I.

On KVOE’s Morning Show earlier this week, Ron Thomas made a great point in that technology now has made it much easier for scouts to unearth talent. I wouldn’t go so far as to say things are tilting in favor of D-II athletes, however. Even with the stated goal of trying to find talent everywhere, there is a reason NFL rosters are so heavily stacked with D-1 players. It’s the best college competition and players have proven themselves at what is basically a minor league football level. So it makes sense to keep the attention on D-1, often — and unfortunately — at the expense of D-II players or other levels who just need a chance to show they can measure up.

Willis got his chance. And he measured up.

Besides being a big win for Willis, this is also a major recruiting coup for ESU. The Hornets now have had several players get more than a cursory look by NFL teams since Garin Higgins became coach, like Chris Poston and Adam Schiltz, who has been with Tennessee TItans’  and the Kansas City Chiefs’ practice squad during his career. It’s not being part of the 45-man roster, but at least the dream is still viable without going to Canada or Europe to play. If Willis can stick with the Raiders, Emporia State stands to benefit as impressionable teenagers look for a place to play college football.

Can Willis capture some of the magic that kept Rod Smith of Missouri Southern as one of the NFL’s elite receivers and that’s propelling John Brown, a Pittsburg State wideout, to stardom? Perhaps. There’s nothing he can do about his size, so he will have to be a precise route-runner, possess soft hands and a spongy brain, and make himself versatile — likely special teams — to make it hard for the Raiders to cut ties. Austin Willis has made it this far because of those qualities, and a door has opened as a result. He’s poised to walk through to stardom if everything works out in his favor.

Bullpen Basics (translated: How Playoff Chances Hinge on Relievers)


Earlier this fall, right around the time when he said he didn’t see any reason why the Kansas City Royals couldn’t make the 2014 playoffs, Hall of Fame broadcaster Denny Matthews made an interesting point.

Time was when teams could not only get to the postseason but could make a deep run if they had four quality starters and a top-notch fireman (yes, I just dated myself). Go back into baseball history and look at some of the best starters in the game. How many games did they go start to finish?

You could start seeing things change as teams went from four-man to five-man rotations in the 1980s, but still the emphasis was the same: quality starters plus shutdown stopper equaled an above-average playoff chance.

Matthews’ point was this: the game has further evolved where the entire pitching corps has to be solid. If you want the best chance of a deep postseason run, you need a solid offense, good defense and no weak links in your pitching staff. A lockdown relief corps has now become a necessity, not a passing fancy.

This is why the Detroit Tigers, now down 0-2 in the American League Division Series to the Baltimore Orioles, should have no business advancing to the World Series, let alone the ALCS.

Some of the initial regular season numbers don’t look bad (Joba Chamberlain, 69 G, 63 IP, 3.25 ERA; Phil Coke, 62 G, 58 IP, 3.88 ERA; Al Albuquerque, 72 G, 57.1 IP, 2.51 ERA), but some look positively awful (Joakim Soria, 13 G, 4.91 ERA; Joe Nathan, 62 G, 4.81 ERA despite 35 saves). Tigers relievers had a 4.29 ERA and a 1.48 WHIP during the regular season.

Then you see these numbers, both starters and relievers, in the first two games against Baltimore:

tigers pitchers

Granted, Tigers relievers didn’t get any help from their defense in Game 1. On top of that, short series tend to throw stats totally out of whack. But in this case, the stats just don’t lie.

Strange things happen in the playoffs. If the Tigers advance, some very, very strange things happened along the way.

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