Hours before the Australian Open started in Melbourne on Monday, BuzzFeed News and the BBC published results from a joint investigation showing that tennis authorities hadn’t punished male pros repeatedly flagged for suspicions that they were fixing matches — deliberately losing, or arranging for their opponent to lose, to maximize their or others’ betting profits. Tennis authorities quickly gathered in Melbourne for a news conference responding to the charges, saying they had “thoroughly investigated” any evidence brought to them.The process by which tennis investigates alleged match-fixing is so secretive that it’s impossible to judge the accuracy of authorities’ response. But the BuzzFeed-BBC report, and its aftermath, does provide a case study of how difficult it is to evaluate what could look like suspicious betting activity. It’s possible to use data analysis, as BuzzFeed did, to raise questions about certain matches and players; it’s much harder, and may be impossible, to use that data to accuse specific players of throwing matches without the additional investigative powers tennis authorities wield — and according to the BuzzFeed-BBC report, often aren’t using.As part of the investigation, John Templon, an investigative data reporter for BuzzFeed News, spent more than a year analyzing 26,000 professional men’s matches and found 15 players who lost matches with unusual betting patterns “startlingly often.” (Match-fixing is also believed to occur in professional women’s tennis, but the BuzzFeed-BBC investigation focused only on men’s tennis, so we are in this article, too.) BuzzFeed and BBC didn’t name these players, citing a lack of evidence of wrongdoing and possible alternative explanations for underperformance, including injury. But BuzzFeed did release an anonymized version of the data it used on GitHub, including a file containing betting odds and the year for 129,271 matches.Quickly, people wrote on Twitter and on GitHub that the data could be de-anonymized, thereby identifying the 15 players Templon mentioned. Ian Dorward, a London-based tennis bettor who used to set and adjust tennis betting lines for a bookmaker, emailed me the list of what he believed to be the 15 names. After Chris Bol, a data analyst based in Utrecht, the Netherlands, published the same names, Dorward went public with his findings, which criticized BuzzFeed for making the data relatively easy to crack.1How could the data be de-anonymized so quickly? Dorward told me he went through the process step by step, analyzing the big data set of matches. First he identified outlier players: Those who are almost always favorites are likely the very top players. Then he found unusual matches, like those that weren’t completed. That allowed him to identify some opponents. And so on, repeating the process. Bol used a different method, comparing the anonymous players’ annual win-loss records with those of actual players and finding the ones with the closest fit. The GitHub user said by email that finding odds for any single match on OddsPortal.com, the source for BuzzFeed’s betting-odds data, one would have a good chance of finding in the BuzzFeed data a unique match with those same odds and year, and repeating that process could identify the players. The user compared it to how anonymized AOL search data released in 2006 could be matched to individual Americans. BuzzFeed hasn’t confirmed the list of names — we’ll call them the BuzzFeed 15 — though the methods Bol and Dorward used appear straightforward and arrive at the same names. Asked for comment, BuzzFeed investigations and projects editor Mark Schoofs sent a statement by email. “The betting data we used in our analysis is publicly available — that’s how we got it,” Schoofs said. “In our journalism, we try to show as much of our work as possible, which is why we made the algorithm public.”Dorward looked more closely at eight matches that BuzzFeed’s analysis flagged and concluded that for each one, there was “no evidence of anything suspicious.”“It’s very, very dangerous to make blasé assumptions about a match being dubious because of prematch movements,” Dan Weston, a tennis analyst and trader who writes for the website of the sports book Pinnacle, said in a telephone interview. (Using only data on betting and results to demonstrate fixing has proven problematic in other sports.)“By itself, the analysis of betting data does not prove match-fixing,” Schoofs said in his statement. “That’s why we did not name the players and are declining to comment, and also why our investigation went much wider than the algorithm and was based on a cache of leaked documents, interviews across three continents, and much more.”So how could a player lose matches with big odds movements “startlingly often” without fixing matches?Well, lots of ways:A player could tank a match — deliberately lose it — without fixing. Sometimes players stand to make more money by losing early in one tournament so they can get to another. Other times, players might collect a bonus or appearance fee for showing up to a tournament they’d rather not play and then lose early so they can rest and focus on a bigger upcoming tournament.No. 1 Novak Djokovic was accused of doing just this — showing up to collect a bonus but losing deliberately at a tournament in Paris — in 2007 by the media and tennis-forum posters at the time, and by an Italian newspaper this week. At the time, Djokovic said he wasn’t well. Djokovic said Wednesday that he didn’t throw the match: “It’s not supported by any kind of proof, any evidence, any facts. … It’s not true.”Deliberately losing a match is punishable by a fine, but is a much less serious offense than fixing a match for gambling purposes.Bettors could have inside information on a match outcome without the player’s involvement. For instance, if the player isn’t at full strength, his coach, trainer, spouse, family members or friends might know it before betting markets do and use that knowledge or pass it on to other bettors. It might not even involve an insider at all. In the early rounds at small tournaments, a fan who happens to overhear a conversation or witness an injury at practice could trade on that knowledge before anyone else in the betting markets knows.Betting markets could simply get the opening odds wrong. BuzzFeed’s analysis identified matches for which at least one of seven major bookmakers’ odds moved by so much from when the market opened to when it closed — generally, the day or so between when a matchup is set and when the match starts — that one player’s implied chance of winning decreased by more than 10 percentage points. That typically happens when many bets are placed against the player, suggesting the initial odds were too bullish on his chances. Bookies then adjust the line to increase and balance betting volume and to reduce their exposure.Heavy betting against the player could mean some bettors know he’s going to lose. But it could also mean that many bettors spot favorable odds for reasons that the bookmaker isn’t taking into account. Often bookmakers use an algorithm to set initial odds. Depending on how sophisticated it is, that algorithm could fail to take into account injuries, or a bad matchup, or lack of play on the court surface. The more obscure the athletes involved, the more likely sports books are to whiff with their opening bid. (For reference, professional bettors in the U.S. say they focus their energies on a single, relatively unnoticed part of the sports landscape — say, backwater college basketball conferences or Major League Soccer — and use their expertise on this little swath of the sports cosmos to beat the relatively uninformed book. These bettors will often also make arrangements to trade their picks for another bettor’s picks in a different, equally obscure sport, which is how syndicates are formed and lines are moved.) Many of the flagged matches involve little-known players in third-tier tournaments, making the lines vulnerable to a well-informed bettor.BuzzFeed’s analysis included only the 39 players who lost 11 or more matches in which the odds moved heavily against them, and the 15 players it flagged were ones who lost far more of those matches than would be expected. BuzzFeed also corrected for what’s known as the multiple-testing problem, which can produce spurious results that look statistically significant, by using a Bonferroni correction — and it still found four players with significant results. So that should help mitigate concerns about any one match being a false positive. But some players are particularly tough for bookmakers to handicap, whether because they’re coming off an injury, or because they don’t play that often, or because they’re ranked higher than their true talent after a run of good luck that bettors, but not the bookmakers’ algorithms, account for. These kinds of reasons could help explain the presence of several of the players Dorward identified as being on BuzzFeed’s list. They’re also why alternative sourcing is so crucial; BuzzFeed provides supplementary evidence where it can, but as we’ll cover below, seemingly straightforward things like video of the matches in question can be hard to come by.The details of how BuzzFeed chose to do its analysis could affect which players are flagged as losing suspicious matches suspiciously often. BuzzFeed’s analysis is impressive in many ways. It’s vetted by two professors of statistics, covers 26,000 matches, excludes books with opening odds that are major outliers, accounts for multiple testing and chooses the same bookmakers that Dorward says he would have used. But any analysis involves making choices, and the more robust findings are ones that hold even when different reasonable choices are made.To check that, we enlisted the help of Jeff Sackmann, a tennis data analyst who wrote his own code, at our request, to collect and analyze tennis betting data. He checked more than twice as many matches — nearly 63,000 — from late 2008 through the start of this year. These included matches from the ATP World Tour and Grand Slam tournaments, which are included in BuzzFeed’s analysis, but also from Challengers, the sport’s minor league, where prize money and public attention are lower and the risk of match-fixing is believed to be higher.Following BuzzFeed’s methodology,2Dorward wrote by email that he identified the seven bookmakers BuzzFeed used: Bet365, Bwin, Pinnacle, Unibet, SBOBET, Ladbrokes and 188BET. BuzzFeed and Sackmann both excluded odds for each match from books that disagreed with the median implied winning probability by more than 10 percentage points. Sackmann found similar results for his expanded data set, including the same four players topping the BuzzFeed 15 list by losing the most matches relative to expectations. However, he also found that some players excluded from the analysis because they had too few flagged losses otherwise would have appeared because they lost every match with big odds movements.Sackmann also found that the results had less statistical significance — just one player, not four, lost a significantly larger number of matches than expected, after applying the Bonferroni correction. That’s in large part because Sackmann made one different choice: He used the median of all bookmakers’ opening odds for the true probability of a player winning the match, as opposed to the probability suggested by the opening odds from the bookmaker that had the biggest odds movement. That bookmaker usually was more bullish than its competitors about the player’s chances, so using its odds makes the player’s loss seem more surprising than it really was to the market as a whole. Also, Sackmann tested all players with at least 10 matches in which the odds moved heavily against them — not just players with 11 or more losses in matches like that.He also checked how the analysis would differ with a different set of bookmakers.3He chose 5Dimes, Island Casino, Bestbet, Jetbull, DOXXbet, Bet-at-home and Tipico because these are the ones with the most odds data in the database, excluding the seven BuzzFeed used, for matches for which five or fewer books set lines. He set the cutoff for flagged matches at 8 percentage points, not 10, to get roughly the same number of matches. When Sackmann used the same methodology that reproduced BuzzFeed’s list above, but with this set of bookmakers, he got very different results. Most of the names he identified as losing these matches surprisingly often were not the same as the ones he identified using BuzzFeed’s list of bookmakers.In its article, BuzzFeed writes that at least six of the 15 players it identified “have been flagged to tennis authorities by outside sources.” But the overlap could just mean that BuzzFeed and the outside sources were studying similar data with similar methods. Many of these outside sources named by BuzzFeed were using betting data as their basis for suspecting players of fixing; some, in fact, were part of the betting industry — a firm, a watchdog, a sports security association that collects alerts of suspicious betting from bookmakers. And some of the decisions BuzzFeed made in its analysis — such as where to set the cutoff in odds movement for a match to be worthy of more investigation — were based on suggestions from sports-betting investigators.None of this means that the BuzzFeed 15 haven’t fixed matches — just that, as BuzzFeed and the BBC themselves have made abundantly clear, the data analysis by itself isn’t conclusive.“It’s incredibly difficult to actually prove fixing,” Dorward said in a telephone interview.So what would be more conclusive?Other betting data. Tennis betting experts say the market has moved toward so-called in-play betting — bets placed during a match, as odds shift in response to what’s happening on the court. So, for instance, when a player wins a set, or a game, or even just an important point, bookmakers or betting exchanges quickly change the odds to reflect the increase in his probability of winning the match. That creates opportunity for bettors who know the fix is on to bet against the player who is ahead with even more favorable odds than the prematch line. BuzzFeed published a document from a 2008 investigation into match-fixing that identified several matches with that kind of suspicious betting pattern — including the sport’s most well-known example of suspected match-fixing and two other matches whose participants can be identified from the scores and opponent listed. None of the players involved are among the BuzzFeed 15. In-play betting data is available for purchase from some past matches, though it is difficult to use because it is not coded with information on the score at the time of bets. We also don’t have data on betting volumes and on maximum bets, which would show whether large amounts of money were at stake in flagged matches.Video evidence. Former player Daniel Koellerer — who was banned for life from pro tennis for fixing but denies the accusations — told the BBC that it would be easy for a pro to go unnoticed while fixing matches. But not every fixer covers his tracks well. Being able to review video of suspected matches would at least let authorities (or casual but interested onlookers) scrutinize a player’s effort throughout a match. However, not all matches are televised, and video is hard to get after the fact even for those that are. Tennis authorities ask YouTube to pull unauthorized matches and make video of archived matches available on the subscription site TennisTV for just seven days. Some older matches are available through the ATP Media Digital Archive, but this includes just one of the matches flagged for any of the BuzzFeed 15.Other corroborating evidence. This could include texts between or about players, bank records and other information.BuzzFeed and other journalists don’t have ready access to this kind of data. But tennis authorities do. The Tennis Integrity Unit — backed by the men’s and women’s pro tours, the four Grand Slams and the International Tennis Federation — can compel players to turn over phone and bank records, and it has access to detailed betting data. “Co-operative agreements with the betting industry, regulators and other parties (including ESSA, Betfair, UK Gambling Commission) can provide immediate real-time access to gambling market intelligence,” TIU spokesman Mark Harrison said in an email.Is the TIU using all of this information, along with tips about players suspected of fixing, and pursuing it as far as it can? The TIU says yes. It also maintains extreme secrecy around its operations, going so far as to not reveal details of its inquiries even in the rare cases when it announces a punishment. “TIU estimates that most, if not all, of the 18 successful corruption charges laid since 2010 would not have been achieved without the ability to work in confidence,” Harrison said.Maybe the TIU really has done all it can to root out corruption, chasing every player whose name comes across its desk. Maybe some turned out to be red herrings, like some of the BuzzFeed 15 might turn out to be. Maybe others really are fixing — giving in to the temptation to earn far more than they can by playing to win — but have gotten wise to tennis’s investigative approach and avoid using their phones or bank accounts. Or maybe fixing is very rare, and suspicious betting usually has innocent explanations.However, experience from other sports tells us there is also good reason to suspect that when sports regulate themselves, oversight can be lax. That’s really what’s at the core of BuzzFeed and the BBC’s reporting, more than the data analysis: a group of six former tennis insiders on one side saying tennis authorities haven’t followed up on what the former insiders think is compelling evidence of match-fixing, and on the other side those same authorities saying they have followed up, but confidentiality rules bar them from saying much more.Andrew Flowers contributed analysis to this article.
Manti Te’o’s girlfriend did not exist, as it turns out, and a flabbergasted nation wonders aloud how the Notre Dame star linebacker could be duped, as he claims.The story goes that Te’o met Lennay Kekua on the Internet and began a “relationship” with her, although he never actually met her. On Sept. 12, his grandmother died. Within hours, he received news that “Kekua” had died of leukemia. This made big news, that the player carried on with a heavy heart of two deaths.Well, Deadspin.com blew the whole thing up, reporting Wednesday that the woman did not exist. Te’o issued a statement saying he was part of a cruel hoax.Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick said in a news conference Wednesday night that coaches were informed by Te’o and his parents on Dec. 26 that Te’o had been the victim of what appeared to be a hoax. Someone using a fictitious name “apparently ingratiated herself” with Te’o, the school said, then conspired with others to lead him to believe she had died of leukemia.“On the morning of Dec. 26, very early morning, Manti called his coaches to inform them that while he was in attendance at the ESPN awards show in Orlando, he received a phone call from a number he recognized as having been that he associated with Lennay Kekua,” Swarbrick said. “When he answered it, it was a person whose voice sounded like the same person he had talked to, who told him that she was, in fact, not dead. Manti was very unnerved by that, as you might imagine.”The school hired an investigative firm that determined Te’o was duped into an online relationship with a woman whose death was then faked by the perpetrators of the hoax.“I want to stress, as someone who has probably been as engaged in this as anyone in the past couple of weeks, that nothing about what I have learned has shaken my faith in Manti Te’o one iota,” Swarbrick said Wednesday night.Annette Santiago, Te’o’s 72-year-old grandmother, died in September. Six hours later he said he was told that “Kekua” had lost her battle with leukemia. After Notre Dame’s 20-3 win over Michigan State on Sept. 15, Te’o said:“My family and my girlfriend’s family have received so much love and support from the Notre Dame family. Michigan State fans showed some love. And it goes to show that people understand that football is just a game, and it’s a game that we play, and we have fun doing it. But at the end of the day, what matters is the people who are around you, and family. I appreciate all the love and support that everybody’s given my family and my girlfriend’s family.”According to Deadspin, the only photos that have been found online that identified Kekua are actually pictures of another 22-year-old woman. That woman, not named in the report, told Deadspin one of those photos likely was shared by Ronaiah Tuiasosopo.Deadspin contacted friends and relatives of Tuiasosopo, and the website reported that they believe Tuiasosopo created Kekua.A Notre Dame source told ESPN he believes Te’o was not involved. But a friend of Tuiasosopo told Deadspin he was “80 percent sure” that Te’o participated and did so with publicity in mind. According to the Deadspin report, Te’o and Tuiasosopo have been in contact via Twitter, including exchanging several friendly messages last summer.Te’o said in his statement:“This is incredibly embarrassing to talk about, but over an extended period of time, I developed an emotional relationship with a woman I met online. We maintained what I thought to be an authentic relationship by communicating frequently online and on the phone, and I grew to care deeply about her.“To realize that I was the victim of what was apparently someone’s sick joke and constant lies was, and is, painful and humiliating.“It further pains me that the grief I felt and the sympathies expressed to me at the time of my grandmother’s death in September were in any way deepened by what I believed to be another significant loss in my life.“I am enormously grateful for the support of my family, friends and Notre Dame fans throughout this year. To think that I shared with them my happiness about my relationship and details that I thought to be true about her just makes me sick. I hope that people can understand how trying and confusing this whole experience has been.“In retrospect, I obviously should have been much more cautious. If anything good comes of this, I hope it is that others will be far more guarded when they engage with people online than I was.”
Whether it’s a case of friendly cross-pollination or premeditated incest, something curious has been happening between the worlds of boxing, mixed martial arts and professional wrestling. The lines between them have increasingly blurred. Never more so, it would seem, than with Floyd Mayweather and Conor McGregor’s megafight on Saturday on the Las Vegas Strip, which looks to smash pay-per-view and gambling records largely on the strength of combining the top draws from boxing and MMA and packaging the event as WrestleMania.All three sports — let’s call pro wrestling a sport for simplicity — sell. And all three sports have a history of selling, often for a lot of money, on pay-per-view television. WrestleMania, professional wrestling’s flagship event, was occasionally bought by more than a million households, and some recent UFC engagements have brought in handsome sums in the high eight-figures. A few boxing matches in the past three decades have cracked the 2 million mark, all involving Mayweather — among them, his fights against Oscar De La Hoya in 2007 and Canelo Alvarez in 2013. The Mayweather-McGregor fight is expected to sell 5 million buys at $99.95 a pop.1For high definition. Standard definition is available for the low, low price of $89.95. At that total, it would top even the mountainous numbers done by the Mayweather-Manny Pacquiao fight in 2015. Saturday’s bout could be seen by 50 million Americans. And while that fight could make $1 billion all told in a single night, the early incentives for cross-pollination were poverty and despair. If you’re searching for storybook endings in American life, boxing is one of the worst places to look — and has been for well over a century. It’s left many of its most iconic heroes broke or buried under debt — and in some cases, desperate for a payday.Even after earning upwards of $5 million in his career, former heavyweight champion Joe Louis found himself $500,000 in debt to the IRS and had to keep going until Rocky Marciano literally beat him from the ring and into retirement in 1951. Louis was still in debt but had a crazy idea to try and keep the IRS off his back. Sixteen years before, Louis had knocked out Primo Carnera, a gargantuan Italian former world champion known as the the “Ambling Alp” at Yankee Stadium. Carnera had fought 102 fights over 18 years and, surprise surprise, also managed to leave the sport broke. Before the year was out, Carnera gave professional wrestling a whirl. He was undefeated in his first 120 matches — staged though they were. This all sounded too good to be true for Louis, and so he followed Carnera’s lead. And pretty much every era-defining prizefighter has, too: Muhammad Ali, Joe Frazier, Mike Tyson and, most recently, Floyd Mayweather, who took on the 7-foot, 400-pound “Big Show” at WrestleMania XXIV.Prominent boxers have also ventured into MMA’s octagon with not entirely promising results — and this is an actual blood sport we’re talking about, rather than a prearranged show. That list includes former heavyweight champion Riddick Bowe, three-weight world champion James “Lights Out” Toney and Olympic heavyweight champion Ray Mercer. In what would be both his first and last match, Bowe was knocked off his feet five times by kicks to the shins. He eventually collapsed in the second round clutching his shin, and the bout was stopped. He retired from MMA with a record of no wins and one loss. Toney’s entire MMA career proved even more brief, after losing in the first round to Randy Couture. Mercer fought two kickboxing matches (lost both) before moving on to MMA. He embarked on his MMA career with an exhibition against Kimbo Slice in 2007 and was promptly choked into submission. Yet Mercer gained his redemption in his — to date — only official MMA bout, punching Tim Sylvia’s lights out after all of nine seconds.Brock Lesnar, who in 2002 defeated “The Rock” to become the youngest WWE champion in history, is one of few to make the transition from the staged rings of pro wrestling to actual, professional combat. After first trying his hand at NFL — he got as far as a few preseason games with the Minnesota Vikings — Lesnar turned to MMA in 2006, first fighting in the K-1 Mixed Martial Arts League. Soon the UFC came calling and signed Lesnar, who had been an NCAA champion wrestler for the University of Minnesota, to a contract in 2008; he would go on to fight in several major pay-per-view fights for the UFC, including four that sold over a million buys.McGregor isn’t the first superstar to move from the octagon to the boxing ring. One of MMA’s greatest fighters, Anderson “The Spider” Silva, tried the same thing back in 1998. He faced the not-exactly-household-name Osmar “Animal” Luiz Teixeira and after all of six minutes, Teixeira’s pugilistic skills proved too much for fellow Brazilian Silva. To protect him, Silva’s corner threw in the towel in the second round. Silva’s unparalleled genius in the octagon translated into his losing to someone even charitably described as a journeyman boxer; if this is any litmus test of what to expect from McGregor squaring off against Mayweather — one of boxing’s all-time greatest fighters — the current +400 money line somehow doesn’t reflect it.McGregor isn’t even the first UFC superstar to express an interest in fighting Mayweather. In 2014, MMA’s biggest star, Ronda Rousey, issued a challenge to Mayweather to fight her in an intergender MMA bout. Perhaps Rousey took her inspiration for proposing this fight from the world of boxing, where the first ever licensed intergender fight took place at Seattle’s Mercer Arena in 1999, between 36-year-old boxer and landscaper Margaret MacGregor (no relation) and Canada’s Loi Chow. MacGregor won every round. Only this week, rumors were swirling that Rousey would leave behind her two iconic losses and MMA career to join the ranks of the WWE.Speaking of pivoting to new careers and rising to unexpected heights, the cross-pollination among these fighting sports has recently reached a place of prominence in American life. President Trump, a prominent character in both boxing and professional wrestling, solidified his bona fides for the Oval Office with his tenure on “The Apprentice,” exploiting this dynamic better than anyone.But it didn’t start with Trump, and it won’t end with him, either.Win, lose, draw — or disqualification — Conor McGregor’s antics in the lead-up to his contest against Mayweather have amounted to what would be the greatest audition tape ever sent to Vince McMahon. If that audition were successful, it would make him the first crossover star to participate as a showcase attraction, at the highest level, in MMA, boxing and wrestling. The Triple Crown of spectacle.
The New York Mets are on some kind of tear right now. With a 9-4 victory over the Philadelphia Phillies on Wednesday night, the Mets have won 21 of their last 29 games — a run that dates to July 25 and the handful of player acquisitions the team made before MLB’s trade deadline.The biggest catalyst for New York’s sudden success has been a vastly improved offense. Over that red-hot 29-game stretch, they’re averaging 6.2 runs per contest, or 46 percent more than the National League average.1After adjusting for park effects. By contrast, the Mets were scoring just 3.4 runs per game before their hot streak began, or 11 percent below the NL average. New York’s shift from ranking 26th in park-adjusted runs per game2Indexed relative to the league. through July 24 to No. 1 in the month-plus since is by far the biggest offensive turnaround any team enjoyed over that span:But how much of this improvement should we expect the Mets to retain going forward? To get a general sense of how much regression to the mean tugs on scorching August performances like those of the 2015 Mets, I gathered Retrosheet data on all MLB teams in the expansion era3Since 1961. and measured how much of a team’s August scoring-index boost (relative to its scoring index through July) carried over into September and October.4Including regular-season games only. The effect was slight, but significant: About 21 percent of a team’s August hike in scoring rate is “real,” in the sense that it can be expected to continue into subsequent months.And the Mets have reason to believe they can hang on to more than 21 percent of their offensive gains. One of their trade-deadline pickups, outfielder Yoenis Cespedes, leads the team in offensive runs above average over the past 30 days. So at least part of New York’s scoring surge is due to talent they’ve added since July (as opposed to existing players simply hitting better, which is less sustainable). And, as our friend Jonah Keri pointed out Monday, the Mets also have the easiest schedule in baseball over the remainder of the season.Combine it with New York’s 86 percent probability of making the playoffs, and the Mets are looking like a far more credible World Series threat than they were earlier in the season.
OSU sophomore guard Asia Doss (20) defends during a game against Northwestern on Jan. 28 at the Schottenstein Center. Credit: Samantha Hollingshead | Photo EditorAfter playing on the road for the past two contests, the No. 7 Ohio State women’s basketball team (21-4, 13-1) gets to play on its home court for the next week.Occupying the Big Ten’s top spot, the Buckeyes are set to face off against Nebraska (17-8, 8-6) Thursday at 6 p.m. at the Schottenstein Center. After a win over Michigan State on Sunday, the Huskers come to Columbus looking to keep their energy alive and pull off an upset in the mid-February matchup.The Buckeyes, however, are more focused than ever, keeping their eyes focused on the mission while understanding that every team that steps onto the hardwood against them is looking to take away their crown. “Everybody wants to take the person that’s on top out,” said junior forward Shayla Cooper. “Every night we need to come prepared.”OSU coach Kevin McGuff has harped on the mental toughness his team must have coming down the stretch of the regular season and heading into the conference tournament, especially because of its high ranking. But for now, the Scarlet and Gray are determined to take care of business one game at a time.In the all-time series history between the two programs, Nebraska holds a 7-5 lead. Nonetheless, OSU was the team that came out on top last time, a 78-60 victory in March to finish the 2014-15 regular season.Precise post playWhen it comes to Nebraska’s scoring attack, the Huskers turn to their freshman forward Jessica Shepard. Her scoring average of 20.6 points per game ranks fifth in the Big Ten. OSU sophomore forward Alexa Hart (22) during a game against Northwestern on Jan. 28 at the Schottenstein Center. Credit: Samantha Hollingshead | Photo EditorShepard understands the game well for a freshman and knows when to kick the ball out to her teammates when the defense begins to collapse. Being one of the top 3-point shooting teams in the Big Ten, the 6-foot-4 Shepard keeps her head on a swivel to find the open woman and get high-quality shots. With the Buckeyes having a guard-heavy roster, their main focus will be to protect the paint and prevent Shepard from being an offensive threat.“(The Cornhuskers) have a really nice post player,” Cooper said of Shepard. “And they have really nice shooters that spot up. We just have to defend the post and get out to the 3-point shooters.”Shepard’s effectiveness doesn’t end with the scoring column, though. She dominates the boards as well, averaging 8.9 rebounds per game, including 3.2 offensive rebounds per contest. With these statistics in mind, OSU will need to go back to the fundamentals and make sure it boxes out on all defensive possessions to prohibit second-chance opportunities. The Buckeyes are in second-to-last place in defensive rebound percentage. Conversely, the Cornhuskers — powered by Shepard’s prowess on the glass — are third in the conference in that category. Rebounding, it seems, will be a major factor in declaring a winner. Senior SundayThe Buckeyes are slated to play their last home game of the season Sunday against Illinois. It will be the second meeting between these two teams this year. The first matchup came on Feb. 1 in Champaign, Illinois, when OSU won 80-70. The OSU women’s basketball program will honor its two senior guards, Ameryst Alston and Cait Craft, on Sunday in a pregame ceremony, as it scheduled to be their last moments in scarlet and gray at the Schott in the regular season.The two have been fixtures of McGuff’s team since he arrived in Columbus, starting each game they played in during the last three seasons. Alston in particular has been one of the standouts of the program’s history, as she was on the All-Big Ten first team during her sophomore and junior seasons and recently eclipsed the 2,000-point mark for her career.This season, Alston has started all 25 games, averaging 18.8 points and a team-high 3.8 assists per contest. Craft has started the 24 games she appeared in, averaging just 4.9 points per game but ranking third on the team with 23 3-pointers made and regularly receiving the opposition’s top defensive assignments.Tipoff for the matchup against the Fighting Illini is set for 2 p.m.
Somebody asked Ohio State center Dallas Lauderdale if he was happy with his performance in Friday’s win over California, a game in which the junior blocked seven shots. Before he could answer, junior guard Jon Diebler gave his two cents. “I like having him back there,” Diebler said.It seems clear that this OSU team doesn’t need a lot of points from the center position, with all of the scoring coming from other positions. If his performance Friday was a sign of things to come, Lauderdale is ready to be that dominant defensive presence the Buckeyes need.“Coach [Thad Matta] always tells me to own the paint,” Lauderdale said. “Anything in the paint, offensively and defensively, is mine. I really take that to heart and that’s what I need to do.”Lauderdale said that mentality was not something that came right away. He said he didn’t own the paint as a freshman or for most of his sophomore season. It was not until the end of last year, Lauderdale said, that he really began to understand his role on the team.“We need a post presence to just go hold down the post and open things up for the wings so that they can do what they do,” Lauderdale said. “Owning the paint is going to open things up for the wings. [The other centers and I] can’t just fade into the background.”With Lauderdale returned from a hand injury, the Buckeyes have regained the low post presence that was lacking in his absence. Kyle Madsen and Zisis Sarikopoulos sufficed as temporary replacements, but neither has the defensive prowess of Lauderdale. With Lauderdale back, Diebler said the Buckeyes have confidence in their second line of defense. “If I get blitzed, my man Dallas is back there,” Diebler said. “Just having a guy, a threat back there and knowing that he can not just block shots, but alter shots, it gives you that much more confidence on defense.”Lauderdale’s development as a shot blocker is encouraging, Matta said, and he has adapted an ability to keep the ball in bounds after a block.Last season there were a number of times Lauderdale would block a shot into the second or third row of the stands, and although the thunderous blocks were a sight to see, they allowed the opposition to retain possession. Now, Lauderdale seems to have changed his style. “He had a block against Cal where he blocked the ball back in bounds, which is a huge step,” Matta said. “I actually saw in his eyes, when he saw that he could block it he realized he could deflect it back in bounds. Those are little things that hopefully we continue to expand on.”Lauderdale acknowledged that in the past he might have had a flair for the dramatic. But now, after studying some of the game’s greats, he has become the shot blocker Matta wants him to be. “I pay attention to old school blockers such as Bill Russell, how he always kept it in bounds,” Lauderdale said. “I’ve also been watching Dwight Howard and how he just catches it. Instead of swatting it into the stands I might try and catch one.”
Do Ohio State players realize how impressive their streak of dominance against the “team up north” is? OSU has won eight of nine games against Michigan since coach Jim Tressel took over, including six in a row. Center Mike Brewster said part of the reason for the team’s success against the Maize and Blue is that the players never stop thinking about the game. “The Michigan thing, it’s always on our mind, even since camp, when we have our Maize and Blue period,” Brewster said. “That’s always very important to us.” Also at stake this year is a record-tying sixth consecutive Big Ten championship, which would be No. 35 in OSU football history. Will OSU approach Wisconsin-like rushing numbers against an overmatched Wolverine defense? Last week against Wisconsin, Michigan gave up 357 yards rushing even though the Badgers played without running back John Clay, reigning Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year. At one point, the Badgers ran the ball 28 consecutively against the Wolverines. Expect more of the same on Saturday against the nation’s No. 92 rush defense. Running back Dan “Boom” Herron could extend his streak of 10 straight games with a touchdown and cross the 1,000-yard threshold this season. How long can Denard Robinson keep Michigan in the game? One thing the Wolverines have going for them is quarterback Denard Robinson, their one-man offensive wrecking crew. Last week, Robinson became the first player in NCAA history to pass for 1,500 yards and rush for 1,500 yards in the same season. He leads the Big Ten in rushing and has accounted for 30 total touchdowns this year. Tressel knows his defense faces a tall task in containing the 6-foot, 190-pound sophomore from Deerfield Beach, Fla. “He’s got great quickness. He’s tough and he’s got a live arm,” Tressel said. “He’s hard to get on the ground. He’s just a great player.” Is this Rich Rodriguez’s last trip to Columbus as Michigan’s coach? Michigan athletic director Dave Brandon is running out of reasons to keep Rodriguez, who has a career record of 15-20 and a dreadful 6-17 conference record. He’s winless against OSU and Michigan State, the program’s top two rivals. However, this season has brought small improvement. At 7-4, the Wolverines are bowl-eligible for the first time under Rodriguez. On the other hand, a blowout loss to OSU, coupled with a poor bowl game showing, might be enough for Michigan to move in another direction. What would an OSU win mean for the team’s BCS bowl hopes? Unless Wisconsin falls to Northwestern on Saturday, OSU likely won’t play in the Rose Bowl. Not only did the Badgers beat the Buckeyes, but they also rank ahead of OSU in the BCS standings. Even if OSU was to beat the Wolverines by 80, it probably wouldn’t be enough to jump Wisconsin. However, a win for OSU on Saturday virtually assures the team of another BCS bowl appearance, possibly the Sugar Bowl, making it OSU’s eighth BCS appearance in 10 years under Tressel.
Two days after missing out on the opportunity to earn a share of the Big Ten title, Purdue senior forward JaJuan Johnson learned he won’t walk away from this season empty-handed, as he was named the Big Ten Player of the Year for the 2010–11 season. Johnson beat out Ohio State freshman forward Jared Sullinger, who appeared to have a lock on the award for the first three months of the season before seeing stat lines decline in February. Sullinger won four Big Ten Player of the Week awards this season. Johnson finished the regular season as the Big Ten’s leader in scoring and blocks, with averages of 20.5 points and 2.4 blocks per game. He was also the conference’s No. 4 leader in rebounds, pulling down 8.1 per game. A native of Indianapolis, Johnson’s top scoring performance — 31 points — came in Purdue’s Dec. 18 win against Indiana State; however, his best all-around performance came in the Boilermakers’ Feb. 27 win against Michigan State, when he scored 20 points and posted season highs in rebounding and blocks, with 17 and seven, respectively. In winning the award, which has been given out annually since the 1984–85 season, Johnson became the third Boilermaker to be named the Big Ten’s top player, joining Steve Scheffler (1989–90) and Glenn Robinson (1993–94). Besides winning the Big Ten Player of the Year award, Johnson was an All-Big Ten first-team selection, and was named the Big Ten’s Player of the Week on Feb. 28. Johnson wasn’t the only Boilermaker to beat out a Buckeye for an award, as Purdue coach Matt Painter was chosen as the Big Ten’s Coach of the Year. The Buckeyes, however, didn’t walk away empty-handed, as Sullinger was named the conference’s Freshman of the Year, and freshman point guard Aaron Craft was named the Big Ten’s Sixth Man of the Year. Craft downplayed the individual significance of the award. “I am fortunate to play on a team full of incredibly talented players,” Craft said in a press release. “I am grateful to have had the opportunity to contribute this season.” Sullinger echoed the humbleness of his classmate’s reaction. “I was honestly surprised to hear I was named Freshman of the Year,” Sullinger said in the press release. “There are a lot of talented freshmen in the Big Ten.” Besides their individual awards, Sullinger was named to the All-Big Ten first team, and Craft was named to the All-Defensive team. Both freshmen were also named to the All-Freshman team. Other Buckeyes honored Monday include fifth-year senior forward David Lighty, who was named to the All-Big Ten second team and All-Defensive team; junior guard William Buford, who was selected to the All-Big Ten second team; senior guard Jon Diebler, who was named to the All-Big Ten third team; and senior center Dallas Lauderdale, who was named the Buckeyes’ Big Ten Sportsmanship award honoree. “We are fortunate to play in a tremendous league with outstanding players,” Matta said in the press release. “To have five of our top six players recognized with postseason honors is a tribute to their hard work.” Big Ten action resumes Thursday with the Big Ten Tournament in Indianapolis.
Rainy conditions at Jesse Owens Memorial Stadium weren’t the only downside to the Ohio State men’s soccer team’s loss Wednesday. The No. 5-ranked Louisville Cardinals, which ended OSU’s season a year ago in the NCAA tournament, snapped the Buckeyes’ 12-game unbeaten streak with a 1-0 win. An 82nd minute goal from Louisville redshirt senior midfielder Kenney Walker gave the Cardinals the score they needed to come out on top. Louisville entered the game averaging 2.33 goals per game, but the first half of the game was a defensive battle. Louisville controlled the ball for most of the first half, but OSU junior goalie Matt Lampson was up to the task, making five saves in the half. The Cardinals attempted nine shots to OSU’s four in the first half. “(Matt) had a lot to do tonight,” OSU coach John Bluem said. “He handled everything that was thrown at him very well.” Junior midfielder Chris Hegngi stopped the Cardinal’s shooting streak, putting a shot slightly outside of the net with just under 11 minutes left in the first half. It was the only Buckeye shot-on-goal of the first half. At the 40-minute mark in the second half, Hegngi found OSU freshman forward Kenny Cuningham just feet from the net. Cunningham’s header brought the crowd to its feet, but his effort glanced off the crossbar and the game remained scoreless. “I saw it in the air and put my head on it,” Cunningham said. “I thought it was going in, but it was about six inches, maybe a foot from the line.” Inside the 37-minute mark of the second half, Cardinals senior forward Colin Rolfe put a shot on goal that appeared to be destined for the back of the net. But Lampson came up big, diving to ground just far enough to make a one handed stop and leaving the game tied. With 8:24 left in the contest, a Louisville throw-in was kicked around OSU’s penalty area and eventually made its way to Walker. Walker cracked a shot through the crowd of Buckeyes and Cardinals and the ball rolled by Lampson, giving the Cardinals the 1-0 lead. Hegngi got a wide open shot with under a minute left, but the ball sailed wide left. “It was really close… I just tried to get it to the post,” Hegngi said. “It was like an inch away. I’m really sorry I couldn’t score there.” The Cardinals went on to win, 1-0. “We know how we can play,” Cunningham said after the game. “We know we can go against anyone in the country.” Bluem said it was unfortunate that his team couldn’t score in the contest, saying, “If Cunningham scores five minutes into the second half on the header that hits the crossbar and we go up 1-0, then we make life very difficult for them.” On Sunday, the Buckeyes open Big Ten conference play at Michigan. Kickoff is set for 4 p.m.
Shelby Lum / Photo editorJunior setter Taylor Sherwin serves the ball during a match against Dabrowa Sept. 4, at St. John Arena. OSU won, 3-2.The beat rolls on for the No. 23 Ohio State women’s volleyball team.The Buckeyes picked up three wins at the Four Points By Sheraton Seminole Invitational over the weekend to win the tournament, pushing their record to 6-0.OSU earned a five set victory against No. 16 Western Kentucky and then beat No. 15 Florida State 3-1 on Friday before sweeping unranked Florida Gulf Coast Saturday. It’s the first time the Buckeyes have started 6-0 since 2006.Coach Geoff Carlston said OSU “showed a lot of toughness” to beat Western Kentucky and that he was happy with how his offense performed on Florida State’s home court.“(I’m) just really happy with how our offense played against Florida State in a hostile environment,” Carlston said.The Buckeyes were led by outside hitter Kaitlyn Leary against the Hilltoppers, as the senior recorded her second double-double of the season with 20 kills and 10 digs.Freshman middle blocker Taylor Sandbothe and classmate Kylie Randall, an outside hitter, added 15 and 11 kills respectively. Another freshman, defensive specialist Valeria León, played in four of the five sets.Randall said in an email it was a huge accomplishment for her and her classmates to play a role as freshmen.“It was a huge accomplishment for all of us,” Randall said. “It felt really good to contribute and make an impact on and off the court.”Junior setter Taylor Sherwin tallied 47 assists and senior libero Davionna DiSalvatore added 16 digs.Against the Seminoles, Leary picked up a career high 27 kills while Sandbothe and Randall tied for second on the team with 11 kills apiece. Sherwin added 55 assists and senior defensive specialist Julianne Mandolfo had a team best 18 digs.Even though OSU won in straight sets, Florida Gulf Coast kept the second and third sets in question until the very end. The Buckeyes finished with 25-15, 28-26 and 26-24 set victories.Carlston said the match showed his team is able to keep up a high quality of play in tight situations.“We were down 24-21 in the third set and won the next five points straight,” Carlston said. “We are able to play well under pressure.”Leary again led the match with 19 kills and Randall completed 10 of her 16 attacks with two errors for a .500 attacking percentage.Sherwin continued her strong play with 34 assists to finish the tournament at a total of 136 after being named the tournament MVP and Big Ten setter of the week at the NIU Invitational to open the season.Carlston said Sherwin showed great decision making ability throughout the tournament.“Taylor Sherwin’s choices this weekend were as good as they’ve been since she’s been here,” he said.Junior setter Gigi Meyer, the daughter of OSU football coach Urban Meyer, had 30 assists and three service aces for Florida Gulf Coast.The Buckeyes return to Columbus this weekend for the Sports Imports DC Koehl Classic. They are scheduled to play Indiana University, Purdue University at Indianapolis Friday at 7 p.m. before matches on Saturday against Southeast Missouri at 12:30 p.m. and Xavier at 7 p.m.