State rivals set to battle in Sweet 16

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State rivals set to battle in Sweet 16

From Comcast SportsNet
BOSTON (AP) -- There are 347 schools playing Division I men's basketball. Thirteen are from Ohio. Four of those are among the 16 teams still playing in the NCAA tournament. Only one calls itself The Ohio State University. The flagship school from the leading basketball state in the nation -- in this tournament, at least -- will play Cincinnati on Thursday night in an East Regional semifinal that is as much a Battle of the Buckeye State as it is a chance to move one game closer to a national title. "What I've felt all along is it's just a tremendous state for basketball," said Ohio State coach Thad Matta, who also coached at Miami of Ohio and Xavier before taking over the Buckeyes in 2004. "I think a lot of times in the high school ranks it gets tabbed as a football state, just all the great players that they've put out. But just in the time that I've been there ... I've got a pretty good understanding of how passionate the fans are. It takes a lot of luck for four teams to get here, obviously. I think it speaks volumes to the level of basketball in the state." Although it is bordered by hoops hotbeds Kentucky (a state with nine NCAA titles) and Indiana (five), Ohio hasn't really been considered a basketball state since placing a team in four straight championship games from 1960-63. (Ohio State won the first, then lost the next two to Cincinnati; the Bearcats returned in 63 and lost to Loyola of Chicago.) Ohio State has won two football championships since then, but its appearance in the basketball title game in 2007 is the only one for the state since the 60s. Even -- gasp! -- Michigan, with three men's basketball championship since then, has more to show from its trips to the NCAA tournament. "Ohio, everybody knows them as a football state. But we have a little bit of basketball talent inside those borders," said Buckeyes forward Jared Sullinger, a Columbus native who is one of three Ohioans among the top four scorers on the team. "It's just finally showing now." And not just at Ohio State. Along with the Buckeyes and Bearcats, Xavier and Ohio have reached the round of 16 this year, with Xavier set to play Baylor in the South Regional semis and Ohio preparing for North Carolina in the Midwest. "I think the fact that you have four Ohio teams in the Sweet 16 is a sense of great pride for our state," Cincinnati coach Mick Cronin said. "In Cincinnati alone we have two, so it's great for our community. ... It's probably good that we're up here in Boston. We don't have to worry so much about the ticket requests for the game." Cronin said there isn't much of a rivalry with Ohio State because Cincinnati is tucked into the southern corner of the state, just over the Ohio River from Kentucky. The city as close to Louisville and Lexington as Columbus, and the Bearcats were in Conference USA with the Cardinals before they both joined the Big East. But there's more to it than that. Despite being separated by a little more than 100 miles along Interstate 71, Ohio State and Cincinnati have met just once since the 1962 championship game. In the meantime, there have been allegations flying both ways of recruiting violations, hiring snubs and scheduling snobbery. "It still kind of has bad blood between the two schools," Sullinger said. "So this one is going to be remembered for whoever goes to the Elite 8, and it's going to be a battle of Ohio." For the winner, though, there's more at stake: A spot in the regional finals, and a chance to bring back to Ohio its first NCAA title since 1962. "I think by us playing here in the Sweet 16, it's not about Cincinnati versus Ohio State. It's about advancing, trying to get to the Elite 8," said Bearcats forward Yancy Gates, a Cincinnati native. "Really we're just focused on trying to get to New Orleans like everybody else here. It's not about whether we're playing Ohio State or Florida State; it's about the task at hand."

White Sox: Jose Abreu's five-week tear filled with hard contact, fewer strikeouts

White Sox: Jose Abreu's five-week tear filled with hard contact, fewer strikeouts

Jose Abreu has made quite a turnaround from being a guy who was admittedly lost to bashing the ball like Abreu of old.

From April 19th on, Abreu has hit at another level, reminiscent of the performances he put on throughout an eye-opening 2014 campaign in which he was the unanimous American League rookie of the year winner. Over that stretch, Abreu has slashed at an absurd .347/.404/.677 clip with nine doubles, one triple, 10 home runs and 22 RBIs in 136 plate appearances.

Earlier this week, Abreu said the run is the product of trusting his tireless preparation.

"I struggled in the first few weeks of the season but I kept working," Abreu said through an interpreter. "Now I'm at this point where I feel very good and confident with my offense and things are going well for me. That's part of what you work for and if you work hard, you know the results will be there at the end of the day."

Two numbers that have improved significantly during Abreu's five-week tear are his average exit velocity and strikeout rate.

Abreu entered Wednesday 39th in the the majors with an average exit velocity of 90.5 mph this season, according to Baseball Savant.

But Abreu wasn't hitting the ball nearly as hard early this season, which was littered with weak contact. Abreu stumbled out of the gate with a .157 average, one extra-base hit and only five RBIs in his first 54 plate appearances. Through the first two weeks, Abreu's average exit velocity was 89.0 mph on 31 batted-ball events, which was slightly down from last season's 89.6 mph average and significantly down from 2015, when he averaged 90.9 mph.

Since then, however, Abreu has seen a significant increase in hard contact. Over his last 92 batted-ball events, Abreu is averaging 92.6 mph, a total that would qualify for 15th in the majors this season. Included in that span is 35 balls hit 100 mph or more.

But Abreu's success isn't just related to how hard he has hit the ball. He's also made much better contact this season and is striking out less than ever. Abreu struck out 14 times in his first 54 plate appearances (25.9 percent). But since then, he has whiffed only 17 times in 136 plate appearances, good for a 12.5 percent strikeout rate.

His season K-rate of 16.3 percent, according to Fangraphs.com, is down from a career mark of 19.6 percent.

"You have started to see him heat up a little," manager Rick Renteria said earlier this week. "He's given us solid at-bats. He's in a good place right now."

Actually, it's a great place and one Abreu hasn't done with consistency since 2015. He once again looks like the hitting machine he was for most of his first two seasons and the final two months of 2016.

Abreu is on pace to hit 36 home runs this season, which would match his 2014 total. His current wRC+ of 138 is his highest since he finished 2014 at 167.

Last season, Abreu didn't hit his 10th home run until June 18. He hit his 11th homer on June 23 and then didn't hit another until August 4. That stretch raised myriad questions both inside the organization and externally about whether or not Abreu would return to prominence as a hitter. Perhaps inspired by the August arrival of his son, Dariel, Abreu finished 2016 with a flurry, hitting .340/.402/.572 with 14 home runs in his final 241 plate appearances.

General manager Rick Hahn said last September that the stretch was important for White Sox evaluators to see.

"It certainly makes you more confident as you see him over the last six weeks, projecting out that he's going to be that same player that he was for the first two years of his career," Hahn said. "Earlier, when he was scuffling, you looked at some of the things he was doing from his approach or some of the mechanical issues he might have been having and you felt confident he was going to be able to get back. But in all candor, you like seeing the performance match what you're projecting and we've certainly seen that over the last six weeks."

The White Sox offense has benefitted from Abreu's leap back into prominence. The team has averaged 4.53 runs per game this season and is 9th in the American League with 204 runs scored and 17th overall in the majors. But the increase in offense still hasn't helped the White Sox improve in the standings. While Abreu is glad to be on the roll he is, he'd prefer if his team is along for the ride.

"We're are passing through a tough moment, a rough stretch," Abreu said. "For me as I've always said the team is first. I want to thank God for how I've performed through this rough stretch. But it's not something makes me feel happy because we didn't win as many games as we wanted to win. It's tough."

92 Days to Kickoff: Plano

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92 Days to Kickoff: Plano

CSNChicago.com preps reporter "Edgy" Tim O’Halloran spotlights 100 high school football teams in 100 days. The first 75 team profiles will focus on teams making strides across Chicagoland and elsewhere in the state. Starting Jul. 31, we’ll unveil the @CSNPreps Top 25 Power Rankings, leading up to kickoff on Friday, Aug. 25.

School: Plano

Head coach: Brad Kunz

How they fared in 2016: 7-3 (4-1 Interstate 8 Large), lost to Manteno in the 4A  opening round action.

2017 Regular Season Schedule:

Aug. 25 – Johnsburg

Sept. 1 – @ Harvard

Sept. 8 – Herscher

Sept. 15 - @ Sandwich

Sept. 22 - Manteno

Sept. 29 – @ Coal City

Oct. 6 - Streator

Oct. 13 - Reed-Custer

Oct. 20 - @ Westmont

Biggest storyline: Can the Reapers reload?

Names to watch this season: Senior DB Mauricio Perez Senior DB Alec Chavez

Biggest holes to fill: The Reapers will need to replace 20 graduated starters from a season ago, and that group also included several multi-year starters for Plano.

EDGY's Early Take: The Reapers no question have work to do this summer, yet head coach Brad Kunz and staff always finds a way for Plano to compete in the Interstate 8 conference and beyond.