Wild’s once-iffy playoff hopes are now a near-certainty

I’m fascinated by the daily update on various teams’ chances of reaching the postseason that are provided in many leagues, including the NHL.

In the end, I’m not sure they tell us a whole lot we didn’t already know — something we discussed on the debut episode of the North Score podcast, available on Startribune.com and shortly on iTunes as well — but they at least give us some snapshots of how a team is doing.

The Wild, for much of this season, was hovering at or below a 50 percent chance of reaching the postseason in the simulations run by both Hockey Reference and Sports Club Stats. Injuries and early lackluster play put the Wild in danger of missing the playoffs after five years in a row of making it in.

You might have noticed the Wild has been winning a lot more lately, though, and not surprisingly its odds have improved dramatically. It’s been a particularly meteoric rise lately as other Western Conference contending teams — such as St. Louis, which the Wild thumped 8-3 Tuesday — have started to falter.

The result? Minnesota now has a 95 percent chance of reaching the postseason, according to both sites. Of note, too, is the most likely scenario now is that the Wild gets in as the No. 3 team in the Central, not a Wild Card.

The Vikings and Twins already made the playoffs this past year. The Wolves have a 97 percent chance of making it, per 538. If the numbers hold up, all four teams will reach the postseason in succession for the first time ever.

Then again, all it takes is a few losses for the numbers to dip down into more dangerous territory.

Tracing the Vikings’ QB dilemma back to a single date in November

If you are looking for a defining date in this whole confusing and wonderfully speculative Vikings QB situation, try this one: Nov. 8, 2017.

Here in late February, any Vikings comments about Case Keenum, Teddy Bridgewater, Sam Bradford or Kirk Cousins are either held tightly like state secrets or — in the case of Cousins — would amount to tampering before NFL free agency begins March 14. GM Rick Spielman did the delicate tap dance at the scouting combine Tuesday, saying a lot but not really saying anything (which is his specialty, and I mean that as a compliment).

But go back to Nov. 8, and you will find an eight-minute video clip of Vikings head coach Mike Zimmer talking about all four quarterbacks as frankly as he can (though again, without divulging too many secrets).

On that date, the Vikings made it official that they were activating Bridgewater and putting Bradford on injured reserve. There was all sorts of speculation that Bridgewater would supplant Keenum as the starter at some point, but all we knew on Nov. 8 was that Keenum would start and Bridgewater would be the backup for the first Vikings game coming out of the bye — at Washington, quarterbacked by Cousins.

Zimmer met with the media on Nov. 8, a Wednesday, and was peppered with quarterback questions.

*First, about Bradford’s injury, he said, “We didn’t expect it would be this long. … Nothing really changed, it just didn’t get better.” He was even asked — and quickly sidestepped — about Bradford’s impending free agency, a reminder that at that point Bradford’s return to Minnesota in 2018 wasn’t too far-fetched. “It’s really disappointing for him because he played so great in that first ballgame,” Zimmer said later of Bradford. “He’s done everything great since he’s been here.”

*Second, he was asked about Bridgewater — who was returning to the active roster for the first time since his horrific injury in the 2016 preseason. “Really he hasn’t had training camp, done anything,” Zimmer said. “We’re just trying to get him to where everybody feels comfortable. … For the most part, I thought he’s thrown the ball well. … He’s moving fine.”

*When asked about his plan at starting quarterback beyond the Washington game, Zimmer said, “We’re just going to go day to day and see how it goes.” Later, when pressed a little more about the subject, Zimmer added, “Case has done great, so we’ll just keep going from there and see how this thing plays out.”

*Last but not least, Zimmer was asked to assess Cousins and the Washington offense he was about to go up against. “Cousins does a nice job of getting the ball out quick,” Zimmer said. “They’re an excellent play action team.”

Vikings defensive lineman Brian Robison was also asked about Cousins and said, “They want to be able to establish the run and be able to have play-action and boot passes. Kirk is really good at that. He’s really good at making those throws.”

Indeed, the Pro Football Focus stats back that up. Last season, Cousins had a 118.7 passer rating when using play action — second-best in the NFL.

If we want just a little more insight into what the Vikings thought of Cousins going into that game, here’s defensive coordinator George Edwards: “He made some great throws at the end of that game in the fourth quarter,” Edwards said of a game-winning drive against Seattle the previous week. “He hit one on Seattle’s bench and then came right back and hit one on the other side of the field. Those were big plays that led to that score. He’s got confidence in his receivers. He’ll let it go, and they do a good job of getting open down the field.”

Keenum ended up throwing for 304 yards and four touchdowns in a 38-30 win over Washington, but he also threw two costly interceptions that almost helped Cousins — who was 26 of 45 for 327 yards, one TD and one INT — bring the Redskins all the way back.

The Star Tribune reported that Zimmer told Fox’s broadcast crew in a Saturday night production meeting that “Teddy Bridgewater will be our quarterback at some point,” and said after the game, “I’ve got a plan, and we’ll just see how it goes. Sometimes plans change, but we’ll see how it goes. We’ll sit down this week and we’ll visit about it and we’re going to go from there.”

But Bridgewater was the backup that Sunday and ultimately only appeared briefly in mop-up duty in one game late in the season. Bradford was activated for the playoffs ahead of Bridgewater — a sign his knee was at least healthy enough at that point to compete — but he never played.

On Nov. 8, it was anyone’s guess as to who would be the Vikings’ QB in 2018. The smart money was probably on Bridgewater, with Bradford a possibility and Keenum a longer shot. Now it’s still anyone’s guess, with Keenum and Bridgewater the most likely of the in-house candidates even in light of this week’s reports that the Vikings don’t plan on using the franchise tag on Keenum and that Bridgewater will in fact be a free agent.

But the smartest money just might be on Cousins — the only quarterback Zimmer talked about that day who wasn’t currently on the team.

Even without Jimmy Butler, Timberwolves are better than they were last year

Jimmy Butler has made enough of an impact with the Timberwolves during his first season in Minnesota that it’s sometimes easy to forget that although he was the most important offseason acquisition made by the organization, he was hardly the only one.

So if your default expectation with Butler sidelined by a knee injury that figures to keep him out for at least most of the rest of the regular season is to assume the Wolves will regress to 2016-17 levels, when they went a disappointing 31-51, you might need to readjust your thinking.

Simply put, even with Butler out right now, the Wolves have an improved roster from a season ago. That’s particularly true if we isolate on the final 15 games of last season when Minnesota, already without the injured Zach LaVine, lost Nemanja Bjelica to a foot injury. Minnesota went 3-12 to close a frustrating year.

In the offseason, in addition to getting Butler in a trade for LaVine and point guard Kris Dunn (as well as draft pick Lauri Markkanen), the Wolves added Jeff Teague, Jamal Crawford and Taj Gibson in free agency.

Teague was essentially a 1-for-1 swap for departed point guard Ricky Rubio. Even if you defend Rubio to your grave and don’t love Teague — who has been fantastic lately, by the way — the combination of Teague and Tyus Jones has been objectively better than the duo of Rubio and Dunn.

Gibson was a straight add-on, and he’s been steady as the starting power forward while displaced starter Gorgui Dieng has been valuable off the bench. Crawford’s shooting runs hot and cold — he was 2 for 11 last night in Sacramento — but his streakiness has helped win more games for the Wolves than it has contributed to losses.

How much cornerstone young players Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins have advanced since last season is another question for another day — though it is one that will have significant bearing on whether the Wolves, who have won a pair of games by 18 points against bad teams since Butler’s injury, can sustain a high level of play as the schedule stiffens.

One thing not up for debate: Their supporting cast, even without Butler, is much better than it was a year ago and at least gives Towns and Wiggins a chance to carry the load down the stretch and into the postseason.

Does Vikings’ decision not to tag Keenum tell us anything about Cousins, Teddy?

News reported Monday by NFL Media indicating the Vikings aren’t planning to use the franchise tag on QB Case Keenum tells us only one thing definitively: The Vikings aren’t interested in having Keenum for one season at $24 million.

In some ways, this isn’t terribly surprising. Keenum is coming off a career year and the offensive coordinator credited with tailoring a system to aid Keenum’s success is no longer in Minnesota. That’s a lot of money and a lot of trust for a team with Super Bowl aspirations, and it doesn’t solve any long-term questions.

Then again, it’s surprising in other ways. Keenum did lead the Vikings to the NFC title game. More than that, slapping the franchise tag on Keenum was the one sure thing the Vikings had in a very complicated, muddy offseason QB picture. If they wanted him, they could have him at a defined term and price.

As it is now, they still have options. But the Vikings would appear to have no guarantees. But maybe — just maybe — this news about Keenum also tells us something about two other quarterbacks: Teddy Bridgewater and Kirk Cousins.

We discussed that on Monday’s Access Vikings podcast (which was delayed by, you guessed it, the Keenum news, but is now available for listening and downloading).

My theories:

1) The Vikings wouldn’t have made this decision about Keenum so soon (they have until March 6 to decide on tags) if they didn’t feel like they have at least a reasonable chance of pursuing and landing Cousins when free agency starts March 14.

2) The Vikings believe they can sign Bridgewater to a make-good discount free agent deal if his contract does not toll — which appears to be the case per Tuesday’s reporting. Remember, for several weeks in 2017 it sounded like Mike Zimmer was itching to play Bridgewater instead of Keenum, and Teddy at Case at $24 million vs. Teddy at far less could be a compelling argument.

These are just theories, mind you — thought exercises during the relative February calm before the March storm.

New Twin Logan Morrison gave up Twitter after time drain, controversies

If you’re an active Twitter user who likes to check out the social media accounts of local athletes — particularly ones you don’t know very well — one of your first instincts upon hearing the news the Twins had signed Logan Morrison was to check out his Twitter profile.

Two numbers would probably jump out at you pretty quickly: Under the “CupOfLoMo” handle, Morrison has tweeted more than 15,000 times and he has more than 100,000 followers — not astronomical marks, but certainly more than your average non-star ballplayer. He has almost twice as many followers, for instance, than Twins second baseman Brian Dozier and has tweeted more than five times as frequently.

But you’ll also notice something else interesting: Morrison hasn’t tweeted at all since the summer of 2015, though the account is verified and still active. So what gives?

Well, in a Fox Sports interview in 2016 — in which the new Twins first baseman/DH was dubbed “baseball’s beloved Twitter pioneer” — Morrison explained simply, “I wanted to manage my time better.”

No argument there. As someone who has tweeted just south of 70,000 times, I often wonder how those fleeting seconds could have been spent differently. Much of what I tweet pertains to work — either promoting something either I or someone else has written or engaging with readers to better understand issues — but plenty of it doesn’t. Is it worth it to interrupt your day to share something (hopefully) clever, or is it simply enough to think it and move on?

Morrison decided the latter, though it also appears the decision wasn’t quite that simple. He had his share of battles with fans who he said had “keyboard disease.”

He also found himself in deserved trouble when he made a homophobic remark while battling with a fan and had some other hot takes that weren’t particularly well thought out.

Other times, he was engaging and amusing. One of his last tweets about sums it up: 10 seconds of lip-syncing to the Backstreet Boys’ “I Want It That Way.”

Maybe it’s too bad Twins fans won’t get to experience Morrison on Twitter. Or maybe it’s a sign that the now 30-year-old Morrison’s approach to life has matured just as his approach to hitting has matured, and we want it that way?

Federal college basketball probe shows entire NCAA is out of control

For the second consecutive week, Yahoo.com’s Pete Thamel has delivered a story chronicling just how widespread the corruption in NCAA college basketball really is. Last week, in tracking the fallout from an FBI probe that netted 10 arrests back in September relating to agents and coaches arranging payments for players, Thamel wrote: “The breadth of potential NCAA rules violations uncovered is wide enough to fundamentally and indelibly alter the sport of college basketball.”

That story was short on concrete specifics, but the follow up — authored by Thamel and Pat Forde — that went live early Friday named names and teams ensnared in payments and/or improper benefits, including former North Carolina State star Dennis Smith, 2017 NBA No. 1 pick Markelle Fultz and Michigan State star Miles Bridges. In all, “the documents show an underground recruiting operation that could create NCAA rules issues — both current and retroactive — for at least 20 Division I basketball programs and more than 25 players.”

Based on how slow these proceedings tend to move, since the rich and powerful tend to protect the rich and powerful, it seems unlikely any of this will interrupt this year’s March Madness. The bigger takeaway to me is this:

A case so widespread like this is not about players getting money, it’s about a broken system in which corruption is the norm. The NCAA has a history of punishing schools under the umbrella of “lack of institutional control.” The argument there often goes like this: Either a school knew rules were being broken and looked the other way (or actively covered them up), or the violation was so egregious and widespread that leaders should have known about it even if they claim they didn’t.

So what happens when the entire system is out of control? It seems to me the same argument could be made here about the entire NCAA — that either leaders at the top knew about a system of corruption that included at least 20 schools (and quite likely more), or they should have known.

NCAA President Mark Emmert released a statement Friday that begins, “These allegations, if true, point to systematic failures that must be fixed and fixed now if we want college sports in America.” He pointed to an independent commission formed after last fall’s indictments as an indication that the NCAA is “committed to making transformational changes to the game and ensuring all involved in college basketball do so with integrity.”

Even if we take that at face value, it’s not enough. What incentive do  the millionaires at the top of the NCAA food chain have to change? And why should a governing body that oversaw this level of corruption be allowed to punish schools without itself being punished?

Those will be questions that need answering as this investigation advances.

Everything you need to know about curling and the U.S. gold medal match

Team USA is into the men’s curling gold medal match as a result of another stunning upset early Thursday over Canada. You are quite possibly swelling with national and state pride, a symptom of the curling fever that afflicts even the best of us once every four years.

If your knowledge falls somewhere between “what is curling?” and “that eighth stone came in heavy, don’t you think?” here are some things to hopefully get you caught up and ready for a late one Friday night/Saturday morning.

*OK, so can you tell me about the curling basics? Sure! In the case of the men’s final between the U.S. and Sweden, each team will have four members. The leader of each team is called the skip. Each team of four throws eight stones (the roughly 40-pound rock that slides down the ice) per end — akin to an inning in baseball — alternating shots between teams. There are 10 ends in a match. The object is to get as many of your stones as possible into the circular scoring area, called the house. For each stone at the conclusion of and end that is closer to the center than any opponent stone, a team gets one point. Being the last team to throw is a big advantage, called the hammer. The team that did not score in the previous end gets the hammer in the next end. The team with the most points at the conclusion of 10 ends wins.

*How did we get here? Well, some say it’s just a big cosmic accident while others … wait, no. How did the U.S. get into the gold medal match? It was not easy. In fact, it’s one of the best upset/redemption stories in recent memory.

John Shuster, Team USA’s skip and a native of Chisholm, was on the bronze medal-winning USA team in 2006 but had two rocky Olympic experiences in 2010 and 2014 that ended well short of medals. It looked like more of the same early on in Pyeongchang, as the U.S. fell to 2-4 through the first six matches of the tournament. But the Americans won their next three matches — including their first-ever win over Canada in the Olympics — to improbably reach Thursday’s semifinals. In a rematch with Canada, the U.S. again prevailed with a calm 5-3 victory.

*Is curling exciting? I guess that’s up to you to decide. It doesn’t inherently sound exciting to watch competitors slide giant rocks down the ice, while teammates frantically sweep the ice to clear a path, but it is oddly mesmerizing. At its best, it’s a little like watching a high-stakes golf tournament. The drama is in the tension and the thin margin for error.

*How can I watch the gold medal match? Here’s where it gets a little tricky. I’ll be on the lookout for watch parties, but the match vs. Sweden is slated to start at 12:35 a.m. Saturday, and it will end long after traditional 2 a.m. bar close time. Some local curling clubs might have viewing parties, but those might be members-only. Your best bet might be to host your own party for the final, which will be shown live on the NBC Sports Network.

The match will last somewhere between 2.5 to 3 hours, so don’t expect it to end before 3 a.m. If you’re in for the long haul, put on a pot of coffee. Or grab some energy drinks. Mix in some vodka if that’s your thing. I’m not your dad.

Five must-watch moments from U.S. women’s hockey team’s gold medal win

Let’s start with a confession: I almost didn’t stay up for the U.S. women’s hockey team’s thrilling 3-2 shootout win over Canada in Wednesday night/Thursday morning’s gold medal game. I nodded off after putting my oldest daughter to bed and woke up at the end of the first period in a serious haze. The second period was a sleepy blur as I shook it off — much like it was for the Americans, I suppose, who led 1-0 after one period but trailed 2-1 after two.

But I made it. A lot of you did, too. If you bailed in the name of sleep, or if you just want to relive the glory of the U.S. victory, I’m here to help. Here are five must-see moments from the game:

1) I won’t make you wait for the best moment of the night. We’ll lead things off with Jocelyne Lamoureux-Davidson’s goal in the sixth round of the shootout, which proved to be the winner. The hands and composure required to pull this sort of thing off in this specific situation … I can’t even imagine. Play this loop over and over whenever you are sad. Pour it straight into your veins.

2) Of course, there wouldn’t have been an overtime or a shootout or a gold medal if not for Monique Lamoureux-Morando, twin sister of Jocelyne, and this sweet breakaway goal late in the third period to tie the score 2-2.

3) U.S. goalie Maddie Rooney was stellar in the shootout, but this save near the end of overtime, with Canada on the power play, was even more remarkable. Canada thought it had just won the gold … until Rooney reached back with her stick and managed to keep the rebound out of the net.

4) The jubilation of winning gold and snapping Canada’s streak of four consecutive gold medals in women’s hockey? Yeah, the emotion was pretty amazing.

5) Silver isn’t exactly the opposite of gold, but in this case it was as much an opposite as light and dark, hot and cold, pleasure and pain. There was no better illustration of Canada’s disappointment than Jocelyne Larocque removing her silver medal immediately after it was placed on her.

Can you Digg it? Jessie Diggins, Stefon Diggs and an unlikely comparison

Just two weeks into 2018, Vikings wide receiver Stefon Diggs delivered what seemed like it would stand as the signature moment in Minnesota sports for the entire calendar year — if not more — when his leaping catch and run walkoff TD against the Saints rescued the Vikings from a playoff collapse.

Barely a month later, Diggs has been equaled — and perhaps topped — by another Minnesota athlete, Jessie Diggins, and her exhilarating cross country skiing gold medal.

Their two accomplishments appear to have nothing more in common than that loose connection of “Minnesota sports,” but let’s take a closer look to find some interesting similarities.

*First, obviously, the names: Yeah, I’ll admit this is where the whole weird idea started. You can’t spell Diggins without Diggs. Both start with the same first four letters. The pun headlines are not only endless, they’re the same. Can you Digg it?

*OK, but check out the numbers: Honestly, I didn’t even notice this — quite possibly because I have trouble paying attention to details and am maybe not that bright sometimes — until a reader responded to my tweeted picture of Diggs and Diggins side-by-side.

Diggs wears No. 14 for the Vikings, a number he got to pick. It’s kind of an unusual number for a wide receiver, since most of them wear 80-89, but receivers are also allowed to wear 10-19. Only four other players in Vikings history have worn No. 14 — quarterbacks George Shaw, Brad Johnson and Joe Webb, along with kicker Fred Cox. Diggs is the first receiver to wear that number.

Diggins, coincidentally, was also wearing No. 14 on her bib during Wednesday’s race in Pyeongchang. Maybe it’s lucky?

Overcoming history: Diggs made believers out of Vikings fans who had witnessed countless playoff losses over the years — many in excruciating fashion. “It’s a storybook ending, and it never ends that way,” Diggs said in the immediate aftermath of the catch.

Diggins was feeling a similar pressure while trying to deliver the first Olympic medal of any kind by a U.S. woman in cross-country skiing. “It’s been hard not to let it get inside my head, and race for myself,’’ Diggins said after her gold medal performance.

On the call: Men with Minnesota connections went viral in both cases with their descriptions of the dramatic finishes.

Vikings radio play-by-play voice Paul Allen famously screamed, “ARE YOU KIDDING ME? IT’S A MINNEAPOLIS MIRACLE!” as Diggs caught the pass from Case Keenum, stayed in bounds and sprinted for the end zone.

Chad Salmela of Duluth was part of the two-man broadcast team for NBC that called Wednesday’s race. Known and beloved by viewers already for his energetic calls, Salmela went through the roof for the dramatic race. “HERE COMES DIGGINS! HERE COMES DIGGINS!” he screamed as Diggins made her move and eventually won.

The finishes themselves: Diggs scored at the last possible moment, ending the game with literally no time left.

Diggins and teammate Kikkan Randall trailed the relay until the final turn, when Diggins pushed hard to cross the finish line 0.19 seconds ahead of the silver medal winning team from Sweden.

And yes, I suppose the big difference is that Diggins got a gold medal while Diggs got a harsh dose of reality a week later in Philadelphia. But neither will be forgotten for a long time. And like Diggins said Wednesday after the race, “If one too many people says, ‘OK! I believe it! You’re going to go win it,’ then it becomes less fun. Because winning is not the full end game for me.’’

Toxic culture of NBA’s Mavericks exposed by Sports Illustrated investigation

As stunning stories of sexual misconduct and abuse of power rippled through politics and Hollywood during the past year — with the powerful #metoo movement gaining steam with each exposed transgression — I had more than a few conversations with people wondering how sports had managed to largely avoid the wave.

So many of these stories of awful and often illegal behavior, after all, were tied up in money and power — and sports has plenty of both.

It seemed like only a matter of when, not if, athletes and powerful executives around them would start to experience a comeuppance. There have been individual stories in recent months — including one very relevant to Minnesota involving Twins third baseman Miguel Sano — and a couple of months ago it reached the NFL with a searing report on the NFL’s Panthers.

And now we have another important Sports Illustrated piece about the toxic culture within the corporate offices of the Dallas Mavericks.

In an investigation, SI found a “corporate culture rife with misogyny and predatory sexual behavior: alleged public fondling by the team president; outright domestic assault by a high-profile member of the Mavs.com staff; unsupportive or even intimidating responses from superiors who heard complaints of inappropriate behavior from their employees; even an employee who openly watched pornography at his desk.”

The worst of the bunch appears to be former team president and CEO Terdema Ussery, but the issues were widespread. Owner Mark Cuban, in full damage control mode, has fired two people in the wake of the report and appears sincere about wanting to fix the culture. The question persists, though: how does an owner like Cuban, who has a reputation for being “proudly hyperattentive,” as SI calls it, either not know about or not fix a problem that has persisted for so long?

By the way: If the type of behavior exhibited by Mavericks officials is “locker room talk,” as President Trump infamously said, the actual locker room isn’t the problem in Dallas. A former female Mavericks staffer is quoted in the piece saying, “I had hundreds of interactions with players and never once had an issue … they always knew how to treat people. Then I’d go to the office and it was this zoo. … My anxiety would go down dealing with players; it would go up when I got to my desk.”