For the last 15 years, Nigeria has wallowed in soccer mediocrity — an ignoble plight for the most populous country on a continent that covets the sport. That changed Sunday when the Super Eagles won the Africa Cup of Nations, defeating Burkina Faso, 1-0.The win touched off an enormous celebration in Lagos, where thousands of delirious fans had gathered to watch the final moments of the tournament at Teslim Balogun Stadium.“We went there, we conquered,” a man who called himself Baba Daniel said to the Associated Press. “We fly; we are an eagle.”Once, Nigeria was a soccer stalwart. However, it turned quickly and badly for the Super Eagles. They have gone 13 years without a victory in the World Cup. It did not even qualify for the 2006 tournament. It was so bad that Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan said he would not allow his country’s national teams to compete because of their substandard results.But FIFA, the sport’s governing body, said it would ban the team over political interference, and Jonathan acquiesced just before the deadline. Then there was a quartet of federation officials charged with corruption after allegations they embezzled money from the team’s tournament funds in South Africa. In short, it was a mess.All that made the win Sunday that much more significant.“President Jonathan urges all Nigerians to imbibe the positive lessons of the Super Eagles’ success because the fulfillment of the country’s immense potentials for greatness will be more speedily attained if more Nigerians resolve to emulate the team’s exemplary unity,” Jonathan said in a statement as Nigeria captured its third African Cup of Nations.“I don’t know how to just express myself,” Daniel said to the AP, “but I’m so flabbergasted. I’m so happy.”The win was a reprieve, if only briefly, from that country’s struggles through a bloody Islamic insurgency, debilitating poverty, sparse electricity and other spirit-stifling challenges.“I’m a proud Nigerian,” fan Cynthia Ejimnkeonye said to the AP. “I love this country with my last blood.”
The most anticipated matchup of the divisional round of the NFL playoffs might be the Atlanta Falcons’ No. 1 scoring offense against the Seattle Seahawks’ No. 3 scoring defense. But the game between the two teams may be decided when the ball is in Russell Wilson’s hand.When the two met in Week 6, the Seahawks edged the Falcons in Seattle, 26-24. But both teams have played a lot of football since then, and though Wilson has already led the Seahawks to eight playoff wins in his young career, he might not have enough talent around him to go into the Georgia Dome on Saturday and end the Falcons’ season.The most obvious change to either team has been the Seahawks’ loss of safety Earl Thomas; his five-year Pro Bowl streak ended when he missed five of the Seahawks’ last six regular-season games with injuries. With him patrolling the backfield, the Seahawks allowed just 16.4 points per game. In the Seahawks’ five regular-season games without him, opponents averaged 22.4 points, including 34 points in a home capitulation to the already-eliminated Arizona Cardinals.But as much as the Seahawks have missed Thomas, it is their offense that has struggled with explosiveness and consistency all season. The 26-6 final score of last week’s wild card game against the Detroit Lions might make it look as though the Seahawks are back to business as usual. But going into the fourth quarter the score was just 10-6.While the Seahawks’ offensive line earned praise for its dominant run-blocking performance against Detroit, it also allowed slumping Lions pass-rusher Ezekiel Ansah to register two sacks, as many as he tallied throughout the regular season. The Seahawks will have a much tougher task on Saturday when they face the Falcons’ Vic Beasley, who had 15.5 sacks in the regular season.Tailback Thomas Rawls set a franchise playoff rushing record against the Lions, but going into the rematch with the Falcons there’s little depth behind him. Christine Michael, the Seahawks’ top rusher in the first Atlanta game, now plays for the Green Bay Packers. Head coach Pete Carroll told reporters that C.J. Procise, who has been out since Week 11 with a shoulder injury, will be a game-time decision; fifth-round rookie Alex Collins would be the only option behind Rawls if Procise can’t go.Between Michael, tailback C.J. Spiller and receiver/returner Tyler Lockett, 43 percent of the Seahawks’ 333 total yards in Week 6 were produced by players no longer on the Seahawks active roster, and the Falcons still outgained them 362-333 in that game. Wilson targeted wideouts on just 43.2 percent of his attempts; according to Pro Football Reference’s charting, he attempted only two passes deeper than 14 yards all day. He threw no touchdowns.The lack of deep passing that day was partly by design, to keep opposing pass-rushers off the banged-up Wilson.“We’ve been careful in how we would expose Russ,” head coach Pete Carroll later told the team’s official site. “He was begging us to do more and all that, but we were trying to do the right thing by him, and he was doing phenomenal things just to play for the last two months.” But Wilson’s adjusted yards-per-attempt didn’t increase meaningfully after that interview.Though three rushing touchdowns got Seattle the points they needed to win in Week 6, they might not have happened if the Falcons hadn’t set them up: Ryan’s sack-fumble on his own nine-yard line led to the game’s first score; his interception near midfield set up the last one.Even then, it almost wasn’t enough. The Seahawks’ final go-ahead field goal still left Ryan and company with a 1:57 to drive for a game-winning score; a controversial fourth-down no-call sent them packing:Since that play, however, the Falcons spent the season improving — and proving themselves the better team.In Football Outsiders’ Weighted DVOA, which prioritizes recent performance, the Falcons are the No. 4-ranked overall team at 19.8 percent; the Seahawks are ranked 14th at 4.7 percent. While the Seahawks’ offense ranked 17th in both season-long (-2.7 percent) and weighted (-2.1 percent) DVOA, the Falcons’ defense rises from 27th (8.1 percent) to 22nd (5.6 percent) when recent games are more heavily weighted.Now Wilson will have go on the road and score more points against the improved Falcons than Ryan can score against the Seahawks’ struggling defense.Check out our latest NFL playoff predictions.
St. Louis Blues goaltender Martin Brodeur, who retired Tuesday, is a sure first-ballot Hall of Famer, having backstopped the New Jersey Devils to three Stanley Cups while setting the all-time record for most goaltending victories. He was also arguably the best puck-handling goaltender ever, inspiring subsequent goalies to leave the crease so often the NHL instituted new rules to curtail the activity. In the mainstream view, Brodeur’s legacy will be that of the consummate winner and innovator.Brodeur’s statistical legacy, however, has always been more complicated. Although he excelled in traditional goaltending categories like wins and goals-against average, his career also coincided with the advent of more sophisticated hockey analysis. For instance, Brodeur led the NHL in wins nine times, and finished in the top five on five other occasions — but suddenly it made less sense to credit the goaltender for the entire quality of his team. Brodeur had the second-lowest goals-against average of his era, but that number needed to be adjusted for the quality of his defenders (he faced the league’s second-lowest rate of shots per minute). And all that fancy puck-handling? Turns out it barely matters, if at all.One of the first analytical hockey blogs I can remember was called “Brodeur Is A Fraud.” Clickbait-y title? Sure. But behind it was a crusade for statistical thinking that mirrored the early efforts of sabermetricians in baseball. Brodeur took on outsize importance to the author (eventually revealed to be a Canadian accountant named Philip Myrland) because he was symbolic, a stand-in for all of the players overrated by traditional numbers. Brodeur was the flashpoint where conventional wisdom abutted hockey’s burgeoning analytics movement.So, with the benefit of further statistical advances, where does Brodeur stand? According to Tom Tango’s wins above replacement (WAR) method, Brodeur rates as the fourth-most valuable goalie since 1983-84, when the league officially began tracking save percentage.A lot of that is attributable to Brodeur’s durability. As Cam Charron wrote, Brodeur wasn’t a whole lot better than average at stopping pucks on a per-shot basis, but he did it for an extremely long time. Brodeur has 59.5 career WAR; a completely average goalie would have posted almost exactly half that — 30.0 WAR (which itself would rank 17th since 1984) — if he’d played as much as Brodeur did. By comparison, a league-average net-minder would have just 28 percent of Patrick Roy’s WAR total, and 23 percent of Dominik Hasek’s, if he matched their playing time.This is not necessarily a knock on Brodeur. Perhaps more advanced metrics don’t view him as favorably as his high win total seems to warrant, but they also recognize the long-term value of consistent quality (he was above-average every season but two between 1993-94 and 2009-10) at a position where excellence is so difficult to maintain.
There was a time when Ramon Sessions could shoot, pass and score well enough to offset some of his incompetence on defense. Sadly, those days are long gone. CARMELO calls for Sessions to not only play ruinous defense, but also to significantly hurt his team on offense when in the game. The result is a negative wins above replacement projection, drifting toward zero (presumably when teams realize how awful Sessions is). It wasn’t long ago that Nene was one of the game’s premier big men. That time is over. He never could stay healthy, even in his prime, so the relatively low number of minutes CARMELO projects for Nene isn’t a surprise. But his lack of per-minute offensive effectiveness is a recent development, fueled in part by drastic downgrades in shooting efficiency and foul-drawing, to go with worsening rates of offensive rebounding and turnovers. What started as a slightly negative trend upon his arrival in Washington has become a legitimate concern, and CARMELO thinks 2015-16 will be the final season in which Nene’s defensive skills outweigh his disintegrating offense. We’re inaugurating our NBA player projection system, CARMELO, with 2015-16 season previews for every team in the league. Check out the teams we’ve already previewed here. Learn more about CARMELO here. Washington certainly has the top-end young talent to someday move beyond .500 land. Our long-term forecast1Judging from CARMELO-projected wins above replacement over the next six seasons. ranks three Wizards among the top 100 NBA players in projected future value: John Wall (10th), Bradley Beal (20th) and Otto Porter Jr. (77th). But for now, the Wiz are biding their time in the middle of the NBA pack — and that may not be as bad a strategy as it once seemed, particularly in the perennially weak Eastern Conference.You can find projections for all the Wizards (and the rest of the NBA) in our interactive, but here’s what CARMELO thinks about Washington’s key players in 2015-16: For two years running, the Washington Wizards have epitomized a “solid team,” averaging 45 wins with a pair of second-round playoff exits. It used to be argued — including by yours truly — that such status was undesirable, since those kinds of teams seldom find a springboard to greater things. In fact, teams stuck around .500 get doubly punished in the NBA: They have little chance of winning a title, yet are also unlikely to acquire a franchise player in the draft.But the unexpected rise of clubs such as the Atlanta Hawks, who last season won 60 games after years spent posting near-.500 records, gives hope to others trying to build from the middle. And for what it’s worth, FiveThirtyEight’s CARMELO thinks the middle is exactly where the Wizards will be again. (I do mean “exactly,” too — our projections call for them to finish 41-41 in 2015-16.) Having moved past the knee injury that cost him half the 2012-13 season, John Wall keeps getting better and better. Three years ago, the improvement was on offense; seemingly all at once, Wall boosted his assist rate, slashed his turnovers and started shooting more efficiently, all despite carrying a bigger offensive burden. Then, last season, Wall transformed into one of the league’s best defensive point guards, without sacrificing his offensive output. As a result, CARMELO thinks Wall will be a top 10 NBA player over the next six seasons — though it also bears mentioning that his top comps tended to produce only a few more great seasons before entering long and steady declines. Read more:All our NBA player projectionsAll our 2015-16 NBA Previews The 3-and-D wing is an underrated species of NBA player — or at least it was until very recently. But even among that group, Jared Dudley is often overlooked. Sure, Dudley seldom scores, shoots almost nothing but jumpers, doesn’t rebound and wasn’t obviously good on defense until last season (his only campaign spent with the defensive-minded Bucks). But CARMELO thinks those solid defensive metrics were mostly legit, which gives Dudley real 3-and-D value when combined with his tendency to let fly from downtown on offense. Then again, CARMELO also links Dudley to a bunch of guys whose offensive skills eroded not long after they turned 30. CARMELO giveth, and CARMELO taketh away. After a breakout 2014-15 campaign, what can Bradley Beal do for an encore? Quite a bit, if you ask CARMELO. Our projections see Beal continuing to develop his offensive game, cranking out a steady stream of 5-WAR seasons2For reference’s sake, think of a player roughly as valuable as Greg Monroe, Ty Lawson or Luol Deng was last season. for the foreseeable future. What might keep Beal from reaching the truly elite class of wings, though, is his defense — as was the case with many of his top comparables, Beal hasn’t convinced CARMELO that he can ever be much more than an average contributor at that end of the court. Somewhat quietly, Marcin Gortat has ranked among the NBA’s top 10 or so centers over the past five seasons. What’s driving his value? Mainly it’s an unusual combination of durability, rebounding, defense and efficient finishing around the basket. But it’s no coincidence that many of his comps are relics of a bygone age of big men — Gortat plays the way most centers did a generation ago. And at age 31, he’s reached the stage of his career at which those players started to deteriorate. Don’t be surprised if Washington needs to search for Gortat’s successor soon. It’s to Kris Humphries’s credit that he turned around what had been a sub-replacement-level career through six NBA seasons and has become a functional NBA player in the five years since. He has plenty of limitations — particularly on offense — and his presence as one of Washington’s key bench players speaks volumes about the Wizards’ overall lack of depth, but he can be counted on to grab rebounds, play decent defense and stretch the floor a little with the threat of mid-range jumpers. After a completely dreadful rookie season in 2013-14, Otto Porter Jr. was one of the NBA’s most-improved players last season. CARMELO thinks he can build on those gains and maintain an above-average level of play for many years to come, even if he never really provides much in the way of scoring punch. Porter’s a great argument for why versatility is so important in a wing prospect: When the ability to create shots doesn’t translate to the pros, a well-rounded game can provide a nice fallback. In Porter’s case, he does enough positive things on defense and the glass to compensate for a microscopic assist percentage and comparatively small usage rate.
The Ohio State men’s basketball team took over the No. 1 ranking in the latest ESPN/USA Today coaches’ and Associated Press Top 25 polls, released this afternoon. Now the Buckeyes (18-0, 5-0 Big Ten) just hope their reign lasts longer than the OSU football team’s did. Off to their best start since beginning the 1961-62 campaign 22-0, the Buckeyes play seven of their next 10 games against ranked opponents. OSU earned 28 of 31 first-place votes in the coaches poll and 49 of 65 top votes in the AP. The OSU football team held the nation’s No. 1 ranking for one week in mid-October before losing at Wisconsin, 31-18, and falling in the polls. Also today, point guard Aaron Craft earned the nod as Big Ten Freshman Player of the Week. Craft scored a career-high 19 points in the Buckeyes’ 69-66 win over Penn State on Saturday. OSU has swept the award through the first 10 weeks of the season, with forward Jared Sullinger winning eight times and forward Deshaun Thomas once. Sullinger is a National Player of the Year candidate, averaging 17.6 points and 9.9 rebounds per game, both team highs.