I Love the Only Defensive Team in the Pac-12

The Pac-12 schedule gods like the Cardinal.

Oregon?  Oh, you want them at the Farm?  Check.

Crummy teams on the road?  How about Washington State and Colorado?  Check.

Dangerous Pac-12 South games at home?  No problem.  UCLA and Arizona have to visit you.  How’s that sound?  Check.

One tough road game, sorry you can’t have everything.  Yes, the Trojos early on at the Coliseum.  Sorry, but that’s the only schedule hiccup to which you have to consent.  Cool?  Check. Continue reading


USC Football – Fields of Red or Seeing Red

USC’s Pac 12 schedule sets up nicely for 2015. Home games against Stanford, Arizona and UCLA may provide that extra ‘umph’ needed in those nail-biters. Two road games present challenges. At Arizona State is tough, but at Oregon (next to last regular-season game) is even worse.

Here are my projected scores for USC’s upcoming season:

  • Toss-up – Home vs. Stanford – Model Score: 33-33
  • Toss-up @ ASU – Model Score: 34-32 win
  • Win – Home vs. Washington – Model Score: 40 – 26 win
  • Win – Home vs. Utah- Model Score: 37 – 29 win
  • Win – @ Cal -Model Score: 37 – 29 win
  • Win – Home vs. Arizona – Model Score: 37 – 29 win
  • Win – @ Colorado – Model Score: 41 – 25 win
  • Loss – @ Oregon – Model Score: 27 – 39 loss
  • Toss-up – Home vs. UCLA – Model Score: 34 – 32 win

Breaking down USC’s schedule, I predict the following:

  • For Sure Wins (games that SC should win by 2 touchdowns or more):
    Washington and Colorado.
    ** A loss to either one of these teams would be unforgivable if you’re Coach Sark. By definition, these are games you should win. Can turnovers, injuries and/or ‘bad’ nights swing 2 touchdowns? Sure. But the stars really need to align for Washington or Colorado to pull these upsets.
  • Should Wins (games that SC is favored by a single touchdown): Utah, Cal and Arizona. Any of these losses would be problematic for SC. They are a touchdown+ favorite, but an 8-point cushion is still significant. Utah’s defense will keep them in reach. Arizona’s offense will keep them in reach. Cal, playing at home, should stay relatively close.
  • Too Close to Call (games in which SC is statistically tied): Stanford, ASU and UCLA. Breaking these games down each presents a unique challenge.
  • Stanford will be a very good barometer of where USC is at and where they’re headed for 2015. The Cardinal defends. They make tackles and they force your offense to go the length of the field piece by piece. The Big Red defense wins first down more often than anyone else in the Pac-12. This key defensive metric is the critical difference between 2nd and 7 to go vs. 2nd and 8+ to go. Winning that extra yard or two is something Stanford consistently does – just ask Oregon. When Oregon loses to Stanford – and they do – it’s because, defensively, Stanford wins 1st down. How USC stays on schedule: 1st & 10, 2nd & 7 (or less), 3rd & 4 (or less), is critical to this game.  If this game was a road game (see Oregon e.g.) I’d pick Stanford. Because it’s at the Colesium, it’s too close to call. Can SC lose and still win the Pac-12 South? Yes. Win it, though, and SC stays on track for even bigger (national) prizes.
  • ASU is always a tough win to get – especially in Tempe. Especially after Stanford and their physicality, this is a potential hang-over game for SC. Contrasting the Cardinal and the Sun Devils, it’s hard to find two more different teams. Stanford will run at you, double TE’s, smash-mouth football. ASU will throw everything at you, including multiple formations, faster pace, and the kitchen sink. Using my model, this game is too close to call. It’s critical to SC’s Pac-12 South hopes, but it could be their second Pac-12 loss in two games.
  • UCLA – Rivalry games – at the end of the year – are always tough to model. Injuries and a whole season of adjustments are unknowable at this point. Statistically, I have SC winning a close one (34 – 32) but that’s well within the margin. Two things work in SC’s favor on this game:
    • Their losing streak to the Powder-Blues. Reversion to the mean dictates that this year “should” be their (SC’s) year in the Battle for LA.
    • Their offense is better. To beat UCLA, you have to score points. SC hasn’t been able to do that in this particular game the past few years. They will this year. This game could be for the Pac-12 South title, or both of these teams could be 2 or 3 games out of that race. Such is the nature of a 9 game conference schedule.

4 Paths for USC

  1. The fields bloom Trojan Red. They squeak a win out against Stanford, survive ASU the next week and go on a 5-game winning streak to Arizona. Get by them, beat almost-cellar-dweller Colorado and roll into Eugene as the undefeated South leader. Can SC beat Oregon in Eugene? Yes, but it’s a very tough out. Even losing to Oregon, this Trojan Red scenario puts them back in a Pac-12 title tilt against the Ducks a few weeks later.
  2. Good but not (USC) Great. They drop one of their first 2 tough games to either Stanford or ASU. Neither loss is fatal, but they’ll be disappointing to SC fans. The Trojans should get well at home on Washington, Utah, at Cal and Arizona at home. Only Washington is a ‘for sure’ but going into that Oregon game with a loss or two is very solid.
  3. Slipping but still has a pulse. Lose both games to Stanford and ASU and things could be very nasty. Washington should be a win, but at 1-2, Utah is no picnic. Lose to Utah, no shame there actually, and now you’re SC and you’re 1 & 3 in your first half of Pac-12 play – not where SC is used to being. Trojan fans won’t care that those 3 are in the top 5 of the Pac 12. They’ll be pissed. At Cal is no gimmie anymore either. If the Trojans head to Eugene with 3 or even 4 losses, GameDay won’t be there.
  4. Armageddon. 3 Ingredients:
    1. Lose to Washington or Colorado. These are games you (SC) have to win. Drop one of these and the vultures will circle – fast.
    2. Lose 2 of the 3 Too-Close-To-Call games: Stanford, ASU and UCLA. Again, opening with Stanford and at ASU is a tough two-step. Drop them both, stumble against the Huskies and they’ll be calling for Sark’s head.
    3. Lose 2 of the 3 Should-Win games: Utah, at Cal, Arizona. These three are good (not great) teams. My model says every one of them is an 8-point dog. That’s a pick-six and two-point conversion. Pretty small margin.
      Doing the math, SC losses could pile up – fast. With their expectations, that’s death.

Could they go 8-1? Yes. How about 3 – 6? Yes, but it’s unlikely. Stanford and ASU will tell us a lot. Win them both and national playoffs aren’t crazy hopes. Split them and you still have a Pac-12 shot. Lose them both? Katie bar the door.

50%? That’s Enough

Over this summer, I’ve read several how to teach innovation books.  The best was Tony Wagner’s Creating Innovators. Because of it, I’ve come to following conclusion:

I’m trying to teach too much content.

Or “I’m not pushing enough cognitive load out to my kids.”
IMG_0328So, I’m planning on 50% next year. From me – that is, I’m putting it out to the kids.  Looking like most other history courses in the universe, my 50% will comprise:

  • key-word outlines and write-ups from the readings,
  • lectures, discussion, simulations
  • review and assessments.

The other two 25% segments are going to come from

  • team-work (deliverables and peer-ratings) and
  • burning question (a historical question that you (the student) formulate and answer over the course of the quarter.

15166287248_67fa2983b3_kWhy my 50%? Because we – as a class – need a common story.  A backbone if you will.  In the 90’s (when I started), the constructivists told us to just release the hounds and that the academic fields would (magically) bloom with educational harvest.  That model sucked – still does.

Merrimack College student Kara Smith student teaching at the Lawrence Family Development Charter School, in Lawrence, MA on December 7, 2010.

However, we all have those rule-follower students (tell me what to do so I can get an A).  We want them to have to think for themselves.  More importantly, I want them to have to innovate and “do” history as opposed to listen to it.

So, if I want innovation, I have to be disciplined.  For me, discipline (in 2015-16) will look like:

  • Test-dates in concrete
  • 2 out of every 4 instructional days are 50% days (common-story/backbone days)
  • 1 day per week is a team-day (either simulation/discussion or team writing)
  • 1 day per week is for my kid’s Burning Question.  ** This doesn’t mean I’m not right next to them, checking on progress, asking questions, helping them refine.  It does mean that I’m killing something in my teaching schedule so they have time to do history.

Tony Wagner points out in his book, “Most of us don’t remember what was taught, but we remember how we learned.”

I’m trying for more ‘how’ and if that means less ‘what’, game on.

The Game’s Changing

Here are three posts that are worth every basketball player/coach/fan’s time:

  • Andrei Kirilenko is the best player you’ve never heard of.  Neil Paine shows how valuable AK was (he’s retiring).  Kirilenko was ahead of his time.  He could shoot with range, he could pass and he rebounded.  Sort of sounds like most 4’s in the NBA now doesn’t it?  Why?  Because the post-up game is on the decline in the NBA.
  • Interrupting the Post-Up Eulogy, Zach Lowe shows how throwing the ball into the post isn’t what it used to be.  Most of us remember Shaq in the paint, punishing people from the post, in the early 2000’s.  Now we have Curry and Co. penetrating and pitching.  Lowe shows why the post up has declined and why it won’t disappear.
  • The post-up is disappearing because – surprise – NBA defenses are getting smarter.  Zach Lowe, again, shows how the 2.9 seconds rule is changing the NBA game.  Because the NBA has allowed more leeway for help defense, the lane is now clogged.  So, teams are figuring out ways to move the defense before they’re trying to score.

All three are worth the time and all three make me – ex-coach, ex-player and current-fan – think about the game.  What else are we going to do before college football starts, watch baseball?

May 6th Links

Links for “May the 4th Be With You”

May the 4th be will you today.
Here’s some of the best stuff I’ve read the past couple of days.  Feel free to discard or ignore whatever isn’t in your zone.

What a difference a year makes – End of Duncan, Gino, Spurs & Pop

In less than a calendar year, the San Antonio Spurs have gone from World Champs to 1st Round Exiters.  **Only the 5th time this has happened since the early 80’s.

Granted it took an amazing shot from Chris Paul to knock them out, but knock them out it did.  That shot leaves only two things to now watch in the NBA world:

  1. The playoffs – as they continue (Here’s a great preview of Hawks v. Wizards as an example)
  2. Tim Duncan – does he retire?

The playoffs are fun and the volume of close games will continue to intensify (although the Clips/Spurs series was terrifically entertaining).  However, Duncan’s decision will have greater long-term consequences than this year’s champ.  When he steps off the stage, so will Pop, and so will the Spurs.

The reality is Father Time is especially cruel in the NBA.  Last year, Duncan and Co. looked (and were) unstoppable.  Just ask LeBron and D-Wade.  The Heat got beat and beat bad.  (Lebron looked around and voted with his feet (and wallet) on the future outlook of the Heat.)

Fast-forward 1 year:

  • Ginobli’s on the bench in the last 5 minutes of a game 7.
  • Tony Parker cannot check Chris Paul on crucial possessions and
  • the Spurs biggest plays are being made by Danny Green and Kawhi Leonard.  Duncan did make two stay-alive free-throws before CP’s shot.

My guess is that Duncan’s done.  He played well this series, but he knows they (the Spurs) are only getting older.  Unlike Kobe who doesn’t want to ever hang it up, TD has a sense of his time and his time’s conclusion.

His footwork is still what every aspiring post-player should watch.  Go on YouTube and study it if you’re playing.  But his surrounding cast is tired and tiring.  Congratulations to the Clips and Spurs, but know that you saw the end of an era last night.

ERA doesn’t equal good/bad pitching


Living a few hours from Safeco field, I hear about Felix Hernandez a lot.  For many years he was the only bright-spot for Mariners fans – until the past few seasons.  Felix is a great pitcher, no doubt, but how great?

If we answer with ERA, we have to consider that there are at least 5 things that affect a pitcher’s ERA (earned run average):

  • the pitch that leaves his hand
  • luck
  • the defense behind the pitcher
  • the ball-park &
  • sequencing.

The pitch that leaves his hand is the ONLY thing the pitcher controls.

Felix has no control:

  • of whether the batter reaches on a bad pitch and sprays it to the opposite field – luck.
  • on whether his left-fielder made a good jump on contact (or whether he has the actual speed to get there before the ball lands) – defense.
  • of which ball-parks he pitches in.  Contractually, Felix can choose to play half his games at Safeco, but the other 50%?  That’s determined by the M’s schedule, not Felix.
  • on the sequencing.  Imagine the following two sequences
    1. Two outs, Felix gives up a single, a single, a home-run and then records the final out.
    2. Two outs, Felix gives up a home-run, a single, a single and then records the final out.

In scenario # 1, Felix’s ERA took a “you gave up 3 earned runs this inning” hit.  In scenario # 2, his ERA was only 1 run for that inning.  Same number & kinds of hits, different sequence.

Despite the opinion that statistics ruin baseball, stats are crucial to understanding it.  As the Nate Silver at 538 says,

the better advanced statistics are all about deepening our understanding of how the game is played.

What makes baseball fun to me – is the statistics.  The games are – by and large – boring.  But the numbers they produce?  Those are fun to play with and analyze.  I realize that’s geekdom-central talking but sorry.

For example, let’s go back to Felix Hernandez.  What if we stopped looking at his ERA and started looking at his FIP (Fielding Independent of Pitching). What this stat looks at is a pitcher’s strikeouts, walks, hit by pitches and home-runs.  It compares those four stats with the league-average of defense behind the pitcher.  So that strips out luck and sequencing.

To see Hernandez’s dominance consider the following from Fan Graphs:

Year       ERA       FIB

2009   2.49      3.09

2010   2.27      3.04

2011   3.47       3.13

2012   3.06       2.84

2013   3.04       2.61

Despite an ERA that fluctuates from 2.5 to 3.5 – depending on the year, Hernandez has gotten better every year as a pitcher.   How do we know?  His FIB. This is a very valuable stat – to him and to Mariners.

A stat like FIB is why I pay attention to baseball.  Whether I watch the games or not.