Thursday, February 11, 2010

The Tommies Are Back

The Tommies are back? Well, we're obviously not talking about the men, who now have won 120 games in the past 4+ years while losing 18, and have just clinched their 5th straight MIAC regular season title.

No, clearly we're talking about the women who, after finishing 1st or 2nd in the MIAC 17 times in 21 years, have done so in just one of the past 7 years. Still, after a pair of losing seasons in 2004-05 and 2005-06 (only the 2nd and 3rd in the program's history), the Tommies have a respectable 65-25 record the past 3+ years with a conference title in 2007-08.

So, what do you mean, they're back? Have they been away?

Well, yes, they've been away, compared to what's going to happen next.

By which I mean to reference the fact that they're playing some damn good basketball now that the MIAC and D3 seasons are heading into the stretch run. The evidence includes a complete thrashing of Bethel last night at the Tommies' temporary home, Gangelhoff Arena, 74-57, in a game that wasn't that close. That was the Tommies' 7th straight win by an average of 21 points, including revenge wins over Macalester and St. Cate's.

But not only that. Next year, and beyond, the sky's the limit.

Last fall I picked the St. Thomas women to win the MIAC title, largely due to Rachel Booth's transferring in from D2 St. Cloud State, where she was the NSIC tournament MVP last March. An all-star in D2 ought to be a superstar at D3, I thought. Well, maybe, but not necessarily right away. It took the Tommies awhile to get themselves organized, by which time they'd started out the conference season with a disappointing 3-3 and, then 5-4, and, then, 7-5 record.

Part of the problem was the lack of a home court this year. Schoenecker Arena has been razed to make way for the new Anderson Athletic and Recreation Center. So, home games were split between Concordia and Macalester. On January 2, St. Thomas lost a road game at Macalester 60-41. In January 30, they won a home game at Macalester 76-75. After starting 2-3 at "home," the Tommies have now won 5 straight.

The bottom line is that Coach Ruth Sinn has Booth and company looking like a well-oiled machine at the appointed hour.

St. Thomas 74 Bethel 57

Last night, for example, the Tommies jumped out to a 6-0 lead as Becky Theisen contributed 4 points and 2 offensive rebounds. She had her 4th offensive board and her 1st steal by the 17:00 mark, but Bethel soon had tied it up at 7. It was still 15-13 at 10:54 when the Tommies made their next move, a 9-0 run that extended the lead into double figures for the 1st time at 24-13. Ali Johnson had a 3 and a pair of assists during this run. Then, with the score 31-22, the Tommies scored the last 8 points of the half as Johnson contributed another 3, 2 assists, a rebound and a block.

In the second half, Bethel got as close as 13 before a 22-11 run made it St. Thomas 65 Bethel 41. Johnson scored the 1st 6 of those 22 points on a pair of 3s, and the rout was on.

Booth contributed 14 points, plus 6 rebounds and 6 blocked shots, and I think it's fair to say that she is nicely integrated into the whole scheme of things. She passed up shots to look to kick the ball out to her teammates on the outside. A reasonable person (such as myself) could say that she should have shot the ball more often than the 10 times that she did. (She made 5-of-10 shots, pretty much in line with her season's percentage of .517, but with less than her usual output of 6-and-a-half field goals made out of 13 shots per game.) She already owned the Tommies' season record with 63 blocks before last night, and she leads the team with 16 points and 9 rebounds per game.

Has she lived up to my designation of her as the MIAC pre-season player of the year? Probably not. I would now go with Ann Baltzer, who has been a tower of strength for the surprising Macalester Lady Scots with 16 points and 7 boards per game. Even among her own teammates, Booth is more of a "first among equals" type of contributor. Johnson, Jordyn Sears and Theisen are a formidable trio of perimeter players. Johnson is the 3 point bomber with almost half of her team's 3s so far this year. Sears is the assist leader while Theisen, statistically, just does a little bit of everything. Last night it was hitting the offensive board.

Looking Ahead

And everybody will be back next year for St. Thomas except reserve post Andi Olson, who scores 3 points per game. Forwards Johnson and Jazmin Townsend are a sophomore and a junior, respectively, and so are guards Sears and Theisen a sophomore and a junior, respectively.

Then comes word of 2 new recruits who are rumored to be joining the Tommies next year: Maggie Weiers, a big, strong, 6-3 post from New Prague, and Taylor Young, a 6-0 guard who recently set the Edina career scoring record. Like Booth, these are girls who surely can play D2 ball and, like Booth, they are girls who surely will excel at D3. I would have thought that both would be going D1--Weiers is every bit the player, for example, that her teammate Hannah Strop is, and Strop is going to D1 South Dakota State.

Either one of these two players dropping down to D3 would be a coup for any program. But both of them? More MIAC titles would seem achievable. And national prominence, such as was enjoyed during the Ted Riverso era--4 D2 Final Fours and a national championship in 1991? I'd say yes.

But first, there's work to be done yet this year. An MIAC regular season title seems out of reach right now. But nobody is going to be happy to be playing the Tommies in the post-season tournament. The way they're playing now--and the way the other leaders have slipped up from time to time--the Tommies could even be termed the favorite. If the playoffs started today, it looks like St. Thomas would get Hamline at "home" and then, if victorious, a visit to arch-rival St. Ben's, where the Tommies already own a 66-65 win. If still kicking at that point, another road trip would be likely, this time to St. Peter and Gustavus, over whom the Tommies already have a 77-63 win.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Software Review: LiveStats; SideArm good, NeuLion disgraceful

How many people track basketball games-in-progress on the Internet? I have no idea. But there must be a lot of us, because LiveStats* applications are proliferating all over the place. I must have followed 150 games or more on LiveStats* during January alone--everything from the Timberwolves and Gopher men and women, to the MIAC and Northern Sun, and to other NBA, Big Ten and college games. The one thing you won't find yet is high school games on LiveStats* applications.

*I'm using LiveStats as a generic here, though the truth is that LiveStats is one of the brand names for these types of applications, though even then there are competing LiveStats apps, so LiveStats is in fact more of a generic than not. Other brand names include GameTracker and Game Channel.

But what they all have in common is they present screens in your Web browser, and then populate those screens with live, real-time feeds from basketball games in progress, generally right from the official scorers' automated stats system. Popular screen formats include scoreboard icons, and box scores, and play-by-play, summaries of team stats, and the like. There are even purported re-enactments of the play, but most of those are in embarrassingly rudimentary video game style (think early Pac Man) that detract from rather than enhance the LiveStats experience.

LiveStats applications of varying degrees of sophistication are available anywhere and everywhere--on sports news sites such as Yahoo Sports and ESPN, and on your favorite team or conference Web sites. I use Yahoo Sports as my vanilla day-to-day, minute-to-minute source for sports updates, and when I click on an NBA or NCAA box score of a game that is in progress, I get a rudimentary LiveStats app. There's a box score, but there's also a truncated play-by-play (after the game is over, it goes away and what's left is just the box score). On the other hand, if I click on GameChannel for the same game, I get a fully-featured LiveStats application.

I've seen and used maybe a dozen different systems, maybe more, and at the present time, I would say that the best, most useful system is one called SideArm LiveStats and its used, believe it or not, by many of the small colleges in the MIAC and Northern Sun conferences. I'll describe what I mean by a "fully-featured LiveStats application" by describing what a SideArm screen looks like. (Actually, there's more than one SideArm "look and feel." Personally, I like the one that would probably be described as more rudimentary, such as is used by the Winona State Warriors of the NSIC among many others.

Go to the Winona State Warriors Web site, click Multimedia > LiveStats > Basketball, Men's, and you'll see an example of the most perfect LiveStats screen yet devised. The other SideArm screen format--one that's used by St.Mary's of Winona and the MIAC and Minnesota State-Mankato of the NSIC--has a little more glitz but also a little less utility.

The SideArm Game Status Page

In the upper left there's a scoreboard. It's not 3D, it doesn't pretend to be the scoreboard in the arena. It just does what needs to be done, presenting the team names, the score and the time remaining. The score by halves is there, too, but that's more of a "nice to have" than a "need to have" feature. (The more the app tries to mimic any "real" object that you see in an arena or gymnasium, the less I like it. All of that stuff just gets in the way.)

To the right is your menu, enabling you to drill into and expand any of the content you see here on the Game Status page.

Below the scoreboard you've got your summary team stats and your abbreviated box score for each team.

Finally, near the center/right of the screen you've got your play by play for the current half.

These are the essential elements of any statistical package, and so they're the essential elements of a competent LiveStats system. What makes this the nearly-perfect LiveStats screen is that it's all here in one place. You can track the game in the play by play window, and watch the team and individual stats at the same time, without having to toggle to another page. And, yet, you can toggle to another page for additional detail if you want. But, because the graphics are functional but not fancy, the download time to go from page to page is acceptable within the context of an event in which you don't want to miss the details as they occur because you're stuck in limbo between pages.

Problems, Problems, Problems

Not that SideArm is truly "perfect," by the way. But the problems that are endemic to these applications are less serious in the SideArm system than in any other app I've seen. The 2 most frustrating features of these systems include:

1. Toggling between pages. This is by far the most frequent problem, though not necessarily the most annoying. And it's caused by the wasted screen space that is devoted to the completely useless Pac-Man "re-enactments" of game action, which are in fact not re-enactments at all but just little canned graphics that represent things like a FG made, FG missed, FT made, FT missed, rebound, etc. Every FG made, in other words, looks exactly like every other FG made, so it doesn't really tell you a damn thing. Except, well, it tells you that the designer of the app doesn't know shit about basketball and basketball fans. But anyway, because as much as half of the screen in some systems is dedicated to this useless stuff, the actual data won't fit on one screen, and so you've got to toggle to see all of the data. Not only that, but the video game garbage slows the whole app down to the point that the wait between screens exceeds the time between meaningful entries into your play by play, so you miss stuff. It's among the most hopelessly incompetent features that I've seen in any software app in probably a quarter-century.

2. Scrolling within the play by play. Sometimes the system falls behind and then dumps several plays into the play by play all at once, and you've got to scroll back to see what happened. This happens more in some systems than others, and specifically it seems to happen mostly in systems with those stupid Pac-Man visualizations. They take longer to run on-screen than they do in the real game. So anyway, they get behind and then you've got to scroll back. The problem is that all systems have automatic refresh features that bring you down to the most current play, which is a reasonable feature. But it overrides the manual use of the scroll. So it can be fiendishly difficult to scroll back, to find, to read and to understand some previous play or plays before you're bumped back to the bottom. If you're 5 or 6 plays behind, which happens with these systems, it can be utterly impossible to review the data until the half or the game is over and the auto-refresh is turned off. It's a function, first, of the frequency of refresh, and some refresh with ridiculous frequency, like every 3 or 4 seconds, others might give you 8 or 10. (And, just to be clear, those that refresh most frequently do not necessarily have any new data to present when they do. In fact, those that refresh the most frequently [i.e. that interfere with your efforts to scroll manually] are the same ones that have new data to present least frequently. Go figure.) And some scroll controls are hopelessly clunky and unresponsive in the first place--and you can guess that that is most likely the case in those apps where all your system resources are going to running to useless video game elements. And, those are the systems that create the need for scrolling most often. So, like I said, for some systems, all of this just snowballs to the point where the play by play is almost useless. If the system missed something, just forget about it because you're just not going to be able to reconstruct it with those applications until after the game is over.

So, the underlying issues are wasted screen space and the inability of the system to "keep up" with the play by play. Systems that don't do that eliminate these 2 problems right from the get-go, though it's true that every system that I've seen has some degree of difficulty associated with scrolling manually within the play by play. SideArm is probably the least clunky of them all.

A third issue:

3. Finding the application in the first place. There are a number of different conventions for how to locate the LiveStats application on a team Web site, but most of them are found in one of 2 places.

• Like Winona State, many have a Multimedia control in their Toolbar, and LiveStats can be found under there. In other cases, however, there's a Multimedia control, but that's not where you'll find LiveStats. Or, others don't have a Multimedia control at all.

• Some put a LiveStats icon on their schedules, so you have to find the Home page for the team in question, click on the schedule for that team, find today's game, and click on the LiveStats icon. Or, more and more, there's a Schedules control on the Toolbar, which seems to be designed primarily as a Quick Link to LiveStats, live audio and live video applications. Click on the team and game in question, and you'll get a dialog box showing the various ways to interact with that game, including LiveStats.

• And then there are all the rest of the methods, which mean that you have to hunt and peck. There's no rules of thumb and no rhyme or reason. If it's not under Multimedia and it's not on the Schedule, then God help you. It could be any-freaking-where.

Rating the Systems

The other problem is that users cannot yet choose their preferred LiveStats system. You decide what game or games you want to track, and the chances are there's only one highly-featured system to choose from (and then maybe a more rudimentary system like Yahoo Sports "box scores" as a back up; I've sometimes abandoned the more fully-featured systems for the reasons listed above and gone to a simpler system such as Yahoo box scores that provides less data but more reliably). So you use the tool that your team or sports Web site decides you should use. And sometimes people choose the worst damn systems.

I'm only going to comment on a few systems that I'm especially familiar with. There are many other apps out there.

1. SideArm. Still, SideArm is the best system I've seen. SideArm is a product of Internet Consulting Services, Syracuse, NY, which wants to build the whole darn Web site for college sports programs, and usually does. LiveStats is just one small part of the much larger system that includes live audio and/or video, podcasting, merchandising, newsletters, fund-raising, news releases, Halls of Fame, even recruiting services. It's probably a bit much to judge the quality of all of this other stuff by their acumen in designing their LiveStats app, but it sure looks like the folks at SideArm know college sports and sports fans and, oh yes, the Internet and Web technology.

As I mentioned above, SideArm LiveStats right now is the state of the art system. All the other systems can be evaluated basically by enumerating the things the SideArm does and they don't. The best thing about SideArm, however, is the one thing that you want as a user of these apps. You want the app to run at the speed at which the action takes place. You don't want to sit and wait and wait and wait for information when you know damn well that somewhere there's a basketball game that isn't waiting around for you. You don't want the app to be slowed down with stupid, uninformative graphics, and when you want to click to a different screen, you don't want the screen download to run more slowly than the game you're tracking. SideArm does all of that. It's not fancy. And I mean that in the best possible way. It gets the job done. Why is that so hard?

2. Game Channel. I access Game Channel from Yahoo Sports to track NBA games. For some reason, Game Channel lets me track NBA games whereas it tells me that I don't meet the system requirements to use Game Channel for college games. Specifically, apparently NCAA games only run on Game Channel if you've got IE Explorer and a new enough Windows OS. Well, screw that. But what I like about the NBA Game Channel app is, again, that everything is on one page. Actually, every else is too big and the play-by-play is too small. Have I said that play-by-play is the heart of any system? Without play-by-play, you're not even a real LiveStats application. Why can't people get the play-by-play right? Well, here it's a pretty fine play-by-play tool except that it's schmusched into the too-small dialogue box on the extreme right-hand side of the screen. A larger, more central play-by-play would just be good common sense. Still, it runs, it runs quick enough, and I can even scroll back in the play-by-play without too much trouble.

3. Yahoo Sports Box Scores. As mentioned above, when you click on box score for a game-in-progress on Yahoo Sports (NBA and NCAA men), you get more than a box. You get a truncated play-by-play, too. It only shows recent plays, maybe a eight to ten or 12 lines of text, and once a play gets older than that and it disappears from the dialogue box, it's gone, there's no mechanism to retrieve it. Not only that, but the play-by-play and boxes are truncated also in terms of what specific events they capture. The play-by-play and box only capture shots--made or missed--plus fouls. No rebounds, no assists, no nothing else. So it's hardly an all-purpose tool. But it runs and runs fast, so it's a good down-'n-dirty tool for a cursory update rather than fully tracking a game.

4. CBSSports Game Tracker or Live Stats. I'm guessing that CBSSports provides a variety of inducements, promotional considerations, and whatever, to rope in your major NCAA conferences and programs, 100 percent of which use a CBSSports application for LiveStats and other stuff. The problem is that these CBSSports LiveStats apps are the worst. I'm thinking that somebody's brother-in-law runs the LiveStats shop and has pictures of somebody upstairs doin' stuff they hadn't ought to do. There is no other plausible explanation for how an organization like CBSSports could be involved with such a major league loser of an operation.

The bottom line is that the CBSSports LiveStats apps exemplify everything that reeks in these applications. Half the screen space displays these incredibly moronic Pac Man figures gliding about a basketball court doing absolutely nothing that actually looks like basketball. I mean, there are hoops and there are little orange round things that bounce around. But, seriously, I've been to a basketball game and I've never seen a Pac Man figure hit a 3 point shot or go to the floor for a loose ball. This screen concept and design gives incompetence a bad name.

And I'm guessing that because the video game elements suck up all of the system resources, the whole things runs slower than molasses and therefore is often behind the action on the floor. Sometimes the scoreboard element will show a score like (I'll make up a score here) 42-35 with 7:00 left. But the Pac Men will still be enacting something that happened when the score was 38-33 with 9:00 left. And so the scoreboard will flash "42-35, 7:00" but then quickly go back to the older score and time, and re-enact all the plays that came between 9:00 and 7:00. By the time it finally gets down to 7:00, you know that the game has moved on, too, and there's probably 5:30 left and a new score that hasn't been posted yet.

And the play-by-play will often freeze up for 3 or 4 minutes at a time. You know damn well that the game is moving on, but you're not seeing any new play-by-play, nor any new score, until the Pac Men are done with their stupid little dance. Then, suddenly, the play-by-play will download 2 or 3 minutes' worth of plays. In order to find out what you've missed, you've got to scroll back, but the app won't let you do that because it's refreshing every 3 or 4 seconds. Even throughout that period of 3 or 4 minutes where you got no new data, the scroll still bumped you down to the bottom every 3 or 4 seconds, thereby preventing you from using that time for your own purposes insofar as your purposes might have been to review the play-by-play.

Now, the good news is that the play-by-play is among the most complete, what with assists and steals and blocks and turnovers and substitutions and all that stuff. But as soon as the play-by-play gets a little bit behind, you're never going to be able to look at all of that data anyway.

Like I said, launch this app and, suddenly, it's 1985.

5. NeuLion CBSSports LiveStats. CBSSports has 2 or 3 different LiveStats systems that it allows within its larger Web environment. I only remember that one of them is called NeuLion. Whether the folks who put it together are from Penn State or wherever, I don't know. Nor do I know what they've been smoking, but My God! Everything I said about CBSSports Live Stats generally (above) holds true, and then add that this is just the most klunky and buggy one of them all. Oh, and did I mention that this is the app that the Sports Information Office at the University of Minnesota, my alma mater, chose to thrust upon an unsuspecting Minnesota public. Ouch, that hurts.

For any number of Gopher games, both men and women, once the game ended the play-by-play purged about half of the data. It would show a play--let's say a FG made at 10:00 and the score tied 44-44. The very next play would be with 0:56 left in the game and the score 72-68. Sometimes it would do this for both the 1st and 2nd halves, sometimes just for the 2nd half.

Trying to use the app in real time is just as bad for the reasons I've mentioned above. Manually scrolling to see the plays you've missed (because the system missed them in real time) is among the most frustrating experiences I've had with a software app of any kind in many, many years and I've got about 50 applications in my Dock, everything from MS Office to Web browsers to your photo and movie and music software to you name it. This NeuLion software is just a total disgrace.