The Top 5 Backfields In The Men’s Division

Which pair of players constitute the best back field in ultimate?

Machine's Bob LIu at the 2012 National Championships
Photo by Brandon Wu — UltiPhotos.com

Multiple analysts contributed to this article; the lead writer chose to remain anonymous.

I know the 2014 Club Championship is going to start in a few days, but do you know what else is going to start soon? NBA basketball.

So in between sitting in the film room and trying to figure out if Jimmy Mickle can throw better hucks with his hair shaggy or close-cropped, I listen to podcasts about the NBA. That is how I came across a segment by Jalen Rose going over the top 10 backcourts in the NBA.

I naturally began thinking which team has the best back field in ultimate. I have certain strengths and weakness in coming up with this decision, so just like Jalen taught me, I’m going to lay out where I am coming from.

First, with one exception, I have not watched a single team attending Nationals this year play live. I have been able to watch a decent amount of film (every game involving a Nationals participant from this year). This naturally skews my opinion. I haven’t been able to watch film on every Nationals team (I’m missing Prairie Fire) and even then I am only watching a select few games.

Second, this is purely an opinion piece. Everyone in the comments that points out how wrong I am about player X and wonder how I could overlook person Y is probably right, but I can only operate on what I know.

Third, my distinction on a quality backfield is by no means universal. Different systems stress different things and my criteria might not reflect that.

With those caveats in place, here are the things I was looking for out of a backcourt:

– Duos: I know some teams like to run three handlers, but in reality there are often only two people running the rock (and at times only one).

– Range of throws: Everyone has big throws in the Men’s division, but being able to accurately hit any part of the field at any time stretches the defense the way that a long-range 2-guard stretches the basketball court and makes it easier on everyone else.

– Vision: Again, everyone at this level has good vision, but some people have a knack for finding the poached player at the right time and making it really hurt the defense.

– Aggressiveness: We all know that the San Antonia Spurs can run pick and rolls to kill you, but Manu Ginobili has to come into the game at some point in order to penetrate the defense. Similarly, while an ultimate backfield can reset-reverse you to death, we are going to reward those players who effectively penetrate the defense.

Possession: Antithetical to the previous point, a handling core has to be able to maintain possession at the right time. It is a fine balance.

We could consider every team, but here are the duos that I really looked at:

San Francisco Revolver: Ashlin Joye and Robbie Cahill
Chicago Machine: Bob Liu and Tom Annen
Seattle Sockeye: Danny Karlinsky and Aly Lenon
Boston Ironside: Brandon Malecek and Jake Taylor
Denver Johnny Bravo: Bart Watson and Brett Matzuka
Austin Doublewide: Jeff Loskorn and Trey LesMastres
Atlanta Chain Lightning: Jared Inselmann and Mark Poole
Toronto GOAT: Derek Alexander and Thomson McKnight
Washington DC Truck Stop: Markham Shofner and Alan Kolick

There are good rationale for all of these pairs, but, right now, I think the best backfield in the game belongs to Machine. For my money, Liu and Annen are hitting the right mixture of the criteria listed above. They have been excellent at possessing the disc for key stretches, giving their strong and tall downfield cutting corps time to get open against even the best defenders. They both are also willing to throw daggers at all times. Perhaps most importantly, their offense allows that in a way that other offenses don’t.

Revolver doesn’t ask Cahill or Joye to throw cross-field blades to open receivers. That isn’t a knock on Revolver; that is a compliment. Their offense is predicated on generating great one-on-one match-ups for their downfield cutters, which doesn’t necessitate much creativity from their handlers.

At the beginning of the season I would have put money on Bravo for having the best handler set. It certainly looks excellent on paper. Watson and Matzuka are a fantasy dream based on prior works. Here’s the thing, Matzuka ends up being too passive at times and Watson gets overly aggressive. Watson has the ability to throw people open, but sometimes a person with great on-disc skills decides to do too much and that leads to turnovers. Matzuka feels marginalized by the offense. He basically is running a seldom-used reset whose job is to get the disc back in Bart’s hand. To his credit, he is still using the Matzuka Special — a deep cut from the handler spot — to devastating effect on anyone who falls asleep guarding him.

Sockeye’s Karlinsky and Lenon suffer a similar fate. Remember, I only get to watch film, so it looks like Karlinsky is the truth…but Lenon has been less spectacular. With Watson’s miscues I feel like Karlinsky is the best single, aggressive handler out there right now, but he isn’t as possession oriented.

And that is why I keep coming back to Annen and Liu. On tape, Machine is able to grind resets incredibly well, giving their downfield stars time to get open. But every now and again Bob Liu decides to throw a bomb huck, or a Stubbs’ Special (pop-scoober to the break space) and it seems to be working.

So right now, going into Nationals, they are the handler crew that I want to watch. Could others have a better weekend? Sure. Do I think Machine is going to win Nationals? You’ll have to listen’ to Charlie’s predictions podcast. But right now I think Liu and Annen are doing all the things that a handler core needs to do to put their team in the right position to win.

***

Here are the Top 5 Backfields in Club Men’s ultimate:

5. Toronto GOAT: Derek Alexander is superbly creative and able to move the disc to nearly any spot on the field. Rarely turns it over. Thomson McKnight is not nearly as talented, but serves as a release valve and is also a rock with the disc, making him a strong possession oriented handler.

4. Seattle Sockeye: As noted above, Danny Karlinsky is one of the hottest players in the game right now. He lit up the fields in Lecco and was, for many, a surprise pick as Ultiworld All-Club 1st Team last year for his incredible performance at Nationals. Much like is the case for GOAT, his partner-in-crime, Aly Lenon, isn’t at the same level and serves more as a supporting role.

3. Denver Johnny Bravo: It will be interesting to see which battery takes the field in Frisco. Brett Matzuka has been a strong point when he’s been given the green light for more activity, but Bart Watson needs to dial it in. Still, the team is packed with throwing talent, including Brodie Smith, who was a major handler at Regionals.

2. San Francisco Revolver: Robbie Cahill hasn’t lost a step since coming back to the Men’s Division after a year playing Mixed. He doesn’t turn the disc over and can place the disc anywhere in a close range. Ashlin Joye has been one of the division’s elite playmakers for years, and had a case as the MVP at last year’s Nationals. Their ranking below Machine reflects more a style choice than a skill gap.

1. Chicago Machine: Bob Liu and Tom Annen are empowered to make plays but also called upon to maintain possession. They do both ably. Even though the team’s cutters are often hucking to each other, both players are equipped with plus hucks from multiple release points.

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    Ultiworld is the premier news media site dedicated to the sport of ultimate. This article includes the work of a number of our staff or contributors that have been identified within the piece.

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