Michael Rand started RandBall with hopes that he could convince the world to love jumpsuits as much as he does. So far, he's only succeeded in using the word "redacted" a lot. He welcomes suggestions, news tips, links of pure genius, and pictures of pets in Halloween costumes here, though he already knows he will regret that last part.
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Greetings and salutations, Nuclear Warheads. The first of many massive Premier League weekends of 2015 is upon us. There are title, top-four and relegation implications aplenty.
Oh! Don’t forget, there is also a tackle football game this Sunday night worth watching. This has been one of the most enjoyable Super Bowl build-ups in recent memory. You know you have loved every second of it. The whole deflategate thing was ridiculous, but that is what made it so great.
For the first time in recent years there haven’t been the force-fed storylines. Remember when America pretended to care about Jerome Bettis for two weeks playing a Super Bowl in his hometown of Detroit — as if it were some well-known fact he was from Detroit. Or last year when it was just nice-guy QB vs nice-guy QB and all we had was a bunch of people accusing Richard Sherman of being a thug? This year is so much more fun!
The ‘talk about the game!’ crowd is missing the point. We don’t want to talk about the game itself. As much as we love football in this country, very few people actually understand it. I played high school football and barely have a working concept of how offenses and defenses work. But that is what makes football so great. You don’t need to know how/why the safety blew the coverage on the 86-yard bomb; you just cheer when you see it. You don’t need to know which tackle missed his assignment that led to Russell Wilson getting a piledriver into the turf; you just high-five the nearest dudebro when it happens.
We LOVE storylines like deflategate. It just adds to the circus that is the Super Bowl, which, at this point is more like a WWE title match than it is a sporting event — which I believe is a good thing. This has game has everything. The good-guy Seattle Seahawks against the ball-deflating bad-guy Patriots. The grumpy Bill Belichick against the possible 9/11 Truther Pete Carroll. The owner of the cheating Patriots being buddy-buddy with the evil Roger Goodell. The media getting their feelings hurt by Marshawn Lynch after all the sacrifice they made to make the NFL what it is today. Oh, and don’t forget about the TAKES. HOT ONES. Some of the hottest takes ever. Throw in halftime show starring Katy Perry’s outfits and a new Fast & Furious 7 commercial and we may have the greatest Super Bowl of all time.
And all of it will be a nice way to wind down on Sunday night after the main event of Chelsea playing host to Manchester City on Saturday morning.
Onto the matches!
No. 1: Manchester United vs Leicester City at Old Trafford
When: Saturday at 9:00am on NBC Sports Network
Last year: The last time the newly promoted Leicester City played at the Theater of Dreams was back in 2004, when the proprietor of this here column was still in high school. United won 1-0 on a Gary Neville goal. United would go on to finish third that year behind some Invincible Gunners and the Blues led by Claudio Ranieri.
Nothing like starting your weekend off with a 4 vs 20 Premier League match! Slim pickings before the main event of Chelsea vs City. I rank this one slightly ahead of the 6:45am offering of Hull City vs Newcastle. Oof. I got carpal tunnel just typing that.
They may dwelling in the cellar but don’t sleep on these Foxes! They have knocked both Newcastle and Tottenham out of the FA Cup this month. Their last four in the league include wins over Aston Villa and Hull and a 2-2 draw at Anfield against Liverpool. Love to see this kinda fight from a newly-promoted side that could just as easily board up shop and call it a year.
Sitting on 17 points, a win could get them out of the drop zone completely. It was a rough road back to the Premier League for the Foxes after relegation in 2004. They even dropped down to League One in 2008 before finishing first in the Championship a year ago. It would be cool to see them stay up. They have a cool logo and play at a place called King Power Stadium – by far the coolest stadium named after a company.
United don’t exactly come into this one dealing aces. They have only won two of their last five in the Premier League and couldn’t find the net in a scoreless draw against League Two side Cambridge United. To put that into baseball terms for those new to soccer, it would be like the Yankees or Red Sox failing to beat a Single A minor league team. Whoops!
This has been a weird year for United. They sit in fourth on 40 points but they aren’t … what is the word I am looking for … good? Or maybe consistent is a better word. Either way, It appears to be only a matter of time before Arsenal (39 points), Spurs (37) or Liverpool (35) pass them in the battle for the last two Champions League spots. All three of those clubs have won four of their last six league matches.
United can’t afford to lose any ground now. They are in a very soft spot of their schedule that includes a run of matches against Leicester City, West Ham, Burnley, Swansea and Sunderland. After that, they have a gauntlet from March 16th to May 15th that includes Spurs, Liverpool, Manchester City, Everton, Chelsea and Arsenal.
United are the betting favorites to get the win Saturday and I can’t argue with that. Hopefully those plucky Foxes keep things interesting while we wait for the big 1 vs 2 showdown.
No. 2: Chelsea vs Manchester City at Stamford Bridge
When: Saturday at 11:30am on Big Boy NBC
Last year: Chelsea stole all three points in the 90th minute after Fernando Torres (seriously) took advantage of a miscue between Nastastic and Hart and slotted home a 2-1 winner. The local Chelsea supporters in Minneapolis celebrated accordingly.
Blargh. Where to even start?
Nice little sports weekend for NBC, huh? They get the best sporting event in the world AND the Super Bowl. Everything is coming up Peacock!
I guess lets just start with the basics. League-leader’s Chelsea hold a 5-point lead over second place Manchester City. Chelsea can run their lead to 8-points heading into February with 14 matches to play. City can trim the lead to a much more manageable 2 points and everybody boldly proclaim THE TITLE RACE IS BACK ON!! Or they can tie and we can end the day where we started.
That is what we know. But as I sit here and write this on Thursday afternoon there is still plenty of unknown. Will Costa be able to play? Did Chelsea sign Cuadrado? Did Jose Mourinho have a good birthday? Will Rand cheapen something on Twitter before the day is out?
OK. Enough time has passed that I now have answers to the above questions.
Well, lets start with Costa. His three-match suspension from the FA was upheld Friday after he appealed on Thursday. The suspension comes from Tuesday’s League Cup match vs Liverpool where Costa stepping on Emre Can was ruled intentional and violent.
Listen, we can debate until steam comes out our ears if this deserved a suspension or not but it will be pointless. Only Costa knows for sure if he meant to do it. Obviously the side you take depends on the color of the jersey you wear each weekend. On one hand, he wasn’t looking down at Can when he placed his foot and was clearly trying to run off. On the other, it was a chippy game and he had a similar incident later against Skrtel.
Regardless of your stance on Costa and Chelsea (Cam was fine, by the way), it always stinks when big players can’t play in these potentially title-deciding matches. Which brings us to Manchester City, who will be without midfielder/super hero Yaya Toure while he continues into the knockout round of the African Cup of Nations with Ivory Coast.
This just adds to the already long list of decisions both managers need to make heading into this game. Manuel Pellegrini knows a loss will not only likely cost City a chance at the title, but could also cost him his job. City were embarrassed and out-classed two week ago by Arsenal at home. Then, he makes the idiotic decision to have his team fly home from a friendly four time-zones away the night before playing, and getting beat 2-0, by the mighty Middlesbrough in the FA Cup. City have only taken full points in one of their last four league matches and know they need to come out attacking against a Chelsea backline that shipped four goals at home last week to Bantams.
Mourinho has the upper-hand here with the five-point lead, but still faces numerous tactical decisions. Does he start the 36-year old Drogba up top in place of Costa or does he go with the Loic Remy? If Cesc Fabregas and his 17 assists and tight hamstring can’t play, does he go defensively and start Jon Obi Mikel knowing that City are going to be pressing? Lord knows you don’t have to twist Jose’s arm into playing for a draw. Or is the chance to step on City’s necks at home and go 8-points clear too much to pass up?
SO MANY QUESTIONS. WHY IS IT NOT SATURDAY NOW?! I PICKED THE WRONG WEEK TO STOP SNIFFING GLUE.
All this and we haven’t even touched on the return of Frank Lampard to his emotional and spiritual home of Stamford Bridge. He has to start, right? There is no way he doesn’t start. Chelsea fans, although a bit hurt with how things have gone down, will know doubt give him the ovation of all ovations. Afterall, it was Chelsea that let him go. He thought he could keep playing at a high-level and has proven that. So good on him. I, like a lot of Chelsea supporters, would do about anything for Lamps. Lend him some cash? Sure. Wash his car? Absolutely. Drive across the Canadian border to hide a body? Totally. Lets take my car. We love that handsome, goal-scoring, trophy-lifting lad so much. We just hope he doesn’t score any goals Saturday and doesn’t lift any trophies come May. He can still be handsome, though.
Enough juicy storylines to satisfy even the boldest of palates. In the 38-game playoff that is the Premier League, this is one of the biggest. Too emotionally invested to offer a prediction here. Enjoy the match. The Chelsea contingent in Minneapolis is watching at Brits. Haven’t decided if I will be there. I do much better at home during matches like this, where pacing around and swearing is less frowned upon.
No. 3: Arsenal vs Aston Villa at Emirates Stadium
When: Sunday at 7:30am on NBC Sports Network
Last year: Believe it or not, Villa got the money at the Emirates last August 3-1. This led Arsenal supporters to believe the sky was falling, only for them to go on a multi-month run at the top of the table, only for them to flame out and confirm their supporters’ original fear that the sky was falling. Classic.
This match actually has some huge implications that I am guessing a lot of people need to be reminded about:
You can’t eat buffalo wings all day on Super Bowl Sunday unless you start in the morning. And what better way to start your day with a breakfast 12er while watching Arsenal beat Aston Villa?
On paper, this seems like a cut-and-dry Arsenal win, so that means they will absolutely find a way to pooch it. Kidding. This match even seems Arsenal-proof.
Villa are bad. Real bad. Their last wins came with back-to-back victories against Leicester City and Crystal Palace on December 2nd and 7th. That was two months ago. Their last win before those? You have to go back to September.
Villa have been flirting with relegation the last three seasons, finishing 16th and 15th twice. Their 22 points is good for 15th in the league right now but they are only 5 points away from the bottom bunk. Making matters worse, they haven’t scored a goal in over 500 minutes.
The Gunners are riding high after their shock-win over City two weeks ago. They are also lone big club to survive The Great FA Cup Massacre of 2015 last weekend. So they’ll bag three points this weekend and, depending on what United and Southampton do, could find themselves back in the top four. That should give them plenty to smile about heading into next Saturday’s derby at White Hart Lane against rivals Spurs.
Alright, that will do it for this week. This thing has gone over 2,000 words and I don’t want to make Rand cranky on a Friday having to read through this entire thing to find the lines I put in that aren’t suitable for his family-friendly newspaper’s website.
Enjoy the first big sports weekend of 2015. Tweet me your Wing Count over the weekend.
A day before his first scheduled game against his old team, Love spoke to reporters in Cleveland about the type of response he expects to get at Target Center on Saturday. Per ESPN.com:
“Truthfully? ‘Booooooooo!’ That [will be] probably more of that and then a mix of cheers,” Love said after Cavs shootaround Friday in preparation for their game against the Sacramento Kings. “It’s tough. I think of going back to Portland that first time when I did not choose to go to University of Oregon and went to UCLA, it was very mixed, more boos than cheers. Over the years, it slowly became more cheers than boos. But we’ll see. [Saturday] will be one of those times where they can tell me how they really feel.”
We’ll be curious, too, to see/hear the reaction. Our guess: polite applause from the masses, with some lusty boos from the die-hards.
By the way: Love also said he watched “The Return” video the Wolves promotional staff put together and said it was great.
“That’s hilarious,” Love said, taking the high road when asked about the video. “I thought it was really funny because Mike is one of those guys that every day wakes up and it’s like sunshine and blue skies, so for them to do that, it was pretty good.” Love credited the Timberwolves’ public relations staff for coming up with the bit. “More often than not, I have a pretty dry sense of humor,” Love said. “So, it was pretty funny. I saw it, I was waiting for it, waiting for it: ‘The Return of Mike Miller.’ That was pretty good.”
What we do know after six starts, though, are these things:
*He gives the Wild a chance this year that it flat-out wouldn’t have had without him. Minnesota had a 9 percent chance of making the playoffs at the All-Star break, according to their record and a simulation of the rest of the season from Hockey Reference. Since then, Minnesota has 2-1 and 1-0 wins on the road. Dubnyk was solid in the first; he was spectacular in the second, a blanking of Calgary on Thursday in which me made many tremendous saves — including a third-period breakaway and an underrated pad stop in the final seconds. The Wild would have earned, at most, one point in those two games had either Darcy Kuemper or Niklas Backstrom played. Instead, they got the full four — in regulation, which was particularly huge against Calgary — and have nearly doubled that playoff probability to 17 percent already. It’s still a long way to go, but it’s a good start.
*Though he’s a free agent after this season, he’s the kind of goalie that has found a long-term home in Minnesota before. Manny Fernandez was 26 and in search of playing time when the Wild picked him up. Backstrom was playing in Finland before the Wild grabbed him at age 28. Dwayne Roloson was an undistinguished journeyman before finding a home in Minnesota at age 32. Those three goalies have the most wins in Wild history. Dubnyk, 28, has put up respectable numbers on bad teams. Maybe this is the right fit for both the short and long term?
Even if this is just a rental, though, Dubnyk has proven — so far — to be a smart acquisition. There’s nothing like good goaltending to give a team hope, and that’s what the Wild (finally) has this year.
It’s January, and none of the games are even close to being played yet. Spring training is still a month away. And even when real games happen, they will be played on the field, not paper.
Still, Baseball Prospectus’ PECOTA projections for team records came out this week, and they are not kind to the entire AL Central — and the Twins in particular.
The Tigers are projected as the division winner with a mere 82-80 record. The Twins? They’re dead last at 70-92, which is also the worst projected record in the entire AL.
Silver lining, we suppose, if you root for the Twins? Nobody is expected to be good in the division, so in theory Baseball Prospectus is saying this thing is wiiiiide open. If the Twins can overachieve, maybe they have a chance?
As you’ve noticed in the past couple weeks, we’re getting more and more interested in advanced hockey stats. We’re not entirely sure why, since we’ve only dipped toes into other more widely accepted advanced stats in baseball and basketball. Maybe it’s the hipster in us; we only want to like something if we’re in on the ground floor.
In any event, Own The Puck put together a great tool and posted it Thursday. Basically, it compares the 390 forwards starting in 2012-13 and running through now (so about 2 1/2 seasons) who have played at least 500 minutes of 5-on-5 action in the NHL, taking a look at two main areas: puck possession and production.
Possession is where we get into the real advanced stats — one called “usage adjusted Corsi percentage.” If you want a long explanation of what it is, this is a good primer. The short version, as explained to us by @BobaFenwick on Twitter, is that UAC% “measures how much a player drives possession based on deployment, linemates, and competition.” It’s kind of like WAR in baseball. You’re attempting to strip out all other factors to determine, in a vacuum, how well a player drives puck possession, obviously a valuable asset in hockey.
Production is easier to measure: Own the Puck takes a look at goals, assists, points and scoring chances, all per 60 minutes played.
The particularly nice thing about the new tool is that it creates bar graphs for each metric, showing where each player ranks among the 390 forwards in each category and separating them out in to 1st-through-4th liners in each category in terms of production.
Of particular interest are four Wild forwards: Jason Zucker, Thomas Vanek, Jason Pominville and Zach Parise. Here is what stood out to us in each case (we can’t link to the individual bar graphs because it’s a drop-down menu, but we’ll show Zucker’s to illustrate):
*Zucker: His numbers are all over the map. In terms of UAC%, which again is essentially driving puck possession when all other factors are stripped away, Zucker is barely a third-liner and ranks in the bottom third of forwards.
Goals scored? Zucker is elite. As in, fifth-best out of all 390 forwards in terms of 5-on-5 goals scored per 60 minutes. Assists? He’s 12th-worst among the forwards. Scoring chances? He’s top 30.
Basically he’s a guy who doesn’t drive possession well, but when he gets the puck he’s extremely dangerous as a goal-scorer and a chance-producer but not as a set-up man for others. He an interesting mix of marginal and elite.
*Vanek: Much like Zucker, Vanek is a high-end producer, but a low-end puck possessor. His UAC% is in the bottom 50 out of the 390 forwards (not bottom 50 percent, bottom 50). But he’s top-10 in assists and top 25 in points (again, overall numbers and not percentages). In production, he’s a first-line forward (from 2012-present, remember). In possession, he’s a fourth-line forward.
*Parise: His numbers are strong across the board, as one would expect. But what’s nice is that the numbers reflect exactly the kind of player he is. In terms of possession and scoring chances he’s elite — top 40 in both cases. In terms of production (goals, assists, points), he dips down to a borderline first-liner/top-end second-liner.
*Pominville: He’s interesting in that the numbers show he’s a clear first-line forward when it comes to possession, goals, assists and points. But scoring chances? He’s below average, ranking around 250th of the 390 forwards. That could indicate Pominville gets a lot of second assists to boost his totals — and that he’s good at making the most of his scoring chances.
If you’re interested about other NHL/Wild players, we suggest you get lost in the maze of the drop-down menu. Bring a box of tissues if you look at Dany Heatley.
|New England||5:30 PM|
|Coll of Charleston||68||FINAL|
|Mount St Marys||77||FINAL|
|William & Mary||84||FINAL|
|Central Conn St||55||FINAL|
|Miss Valley St||75|
|Sam Houston St||63|
|South Dakota St||69|
|East Tenn St||61|
|Long Beach State||65|
|Fla Gulf Coast||74|
|Stephen F Austin||61|
|SE Missouri St||70||FINAL|
|San Jose St||41||FINAL|
|San Diego St||62|
|New Mexico St||53|
|UC Santa Barbara||55||FINAL|
|Utah Valley U||59|
|Mount St Marys||64||FINAL|
|Central Conn St||83||FINAL|
|East Tenn St||48|
|Sam Houston St||74|
|No Dakota State||52||FINAL|
|South Dakota St||82|
|New Mexico St||74||FINAL|
|Utah Valley U||58||FINAL|
|Miss Valley St||74|
|San Diego State||70||FINAL|
|San Jose St||62|
|UC Santa Barbara||54|
|Stephen F Austin||64|
|(7) Oregon State||68|
|SE Missouri St||62||FINAL|
|Fla Gulf Coast||67||FINAL|
|Cal State Fullerton||70||FINAL|
|Long Beach St||74|