Wednesday 29 November 2023

Smith, Doets, Buntz

The back end of 2022 was quite the time for Michael Smith, getting his first major after being touted to win one for probably half a decade, if not longer, then going one further by winning the worlds and moving up to number one in the world. Since then, what? Don't think it's unfair to say that he's underachieved in 2023, many people thinking he'd push on to great things, but the numbers are way down, not even scoring in the top 10 of players here, and the amount of titles he's actually won has been minimal - just getting the one Pro Tour where he edged out Gary Anderson in a deciding leg, and then one Euro Tour in Munich - both of these in the first half of the year. Sure, he's not played everything so maybe some floor titles were left unpicked, but in the majors it's not been great either. The UK Open saw him get a trivial win over Ian White, before running into Luke Humphries (a loss that looked worse at the time than it does now), would see similar in the Matchplay, steamrollering Steve Beaton before losing to Chris Dobey, semi final of the Grand Prix seems fine especially the manner he got there, not losing a set, albeit against a cushy opposition set at that level, before we get to the business end and it was last 16 loss to Peter Wright in Dortmund, losing out at the group stages in Wolverhampton on leg difference, and then having a first round reverse (which we called) to Richard Veenstra at Minehead. He was at least competent enough in the Premier League to reach the playoffs where he lost in the semis to Michael van Gerwen, but it's not as if unranked majors made up for a shortfall. It does appear that his statistics appear better in televised events, so maybe he can pick things up, but defending this title on the face of it is going to look like a big ask.

Kevin Doets will make a first appearance here, after being very close on more than one occasion previously, I'm wanting to say he got into the last man out spot on at least one occasion, possibly from before he won his tour card, which he obtained in 2022 but could do with getting the first round win to be secure in holding it beyond this tournament, being just above the cutoff line as we stand. Doets, still only 25 so with a lot of scope to improve, is here primarily through the Pro Tour - he had a horrific European Tour season, qualifying for just the one event where he got an expected win over Callum Goffin before losing to Ryan Searle. It was the floor which did it, and Doets had a breakthrough run to a final in September, losing out in the final to Luke Humphries, but not before he had beaten three seeds in Ross Smith, Gabriel Clemens and Mike de Decker to get there. A further six board wins indicates a good level of consistency, and statistically he appears to be doing enough to justify retaining his card with upside in the future. The TV events were limited, but he did have a nice UK Open run, being seeded into round two and then beating Jules van Dongen, Radek Szaganski and Martin Lukeman before coming up a couple of legs short against Adam Gawlas. He wasn't close enough to get into the "difficult" majors, naturally was nowhere near Dortmund with that European Tour run, and missed out to Kim Huybrechts in the Grand Slam qualifier, but the steady floor performances saw him get a middling seeding at Minehead recently, where he edged out Jose de Sousa before pushing Damon Heta fairly close in round two. He's got a solid game, and it would be good to see him do enough to not need to return to Q-School in January.

Stowe Buntz is also making a debut, and is someone that people knew very little about prior to this year, first showing up occasionally in CDC events late in 2022 but was just a name in the draw at that stage. 2023 has seen a big breakthrough though, with a hat-trick of CDC wins in August in the one weekend, taking two finals over highly touted prospect Alex Spellman and the third over previous Ally Pally competitor Jim Long. That brought Stowe to the attention of the in depth darting community, and it's the tour rankings in general that has got him to this event, but it was the Grand Slam which really made him a known name. Qualifying for it after winning the CDC Continental Cup in October, running out with wins over Jake Macmillan, Larry Butler, Jacob Taylor and then Jason Brandon, he was placed in a tricky looking group with Peter Wright, Stephen Bunting and Dave Chisnall, but was able to come out the winner of it somehow, the highlight being a 5-1 crushing of Peter Wright with over a 100 average, and then nicking the second game against Stephen Bunting to qualify. He'd lose to Chisnall but did enough to win the group and face Andrew Gilding, where he was able to get out into a 5-0 lead and hold on for a 10-5 win and face Bunting in a rematch in the quarter finals. Stephen would be too strong there, running out a very comfortable 16-8 winner, but the prize money will certainly set Buntz up for a possible Q-School run. Question is how good is he? Outside of that game against Wright, Buntz didn't average over 90 in any of the Grand Slam matches, had a similar experience in the Continental Cup with a great first game showing a 104 average but then not even managing 85 in the remaining rounds, and the overall average on the CDC tour was only a shade under 87, which while deflated somewhat compared to the Pro Tour given levels of opposition, was only good enough for sixth on that tour, way behind Spellman and van Dongen, as well as a clear point behind Lauby, Cameron and Gates. He's shown the ability to easily outperform his general level when needed, as well as to grind out a longer game, however against someone with the consistency of Doets, he might need to do both. 

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