Friday, January 12, 2007

It Ain't November Anymore

The theme of today's game recaps: It's not a big deal to lose a game or two early in the conference season, but soon enough you bury yourself so far in the standings that you'll never get out. I'm looking at you, Washington. I'm looking at you, Wichita State. Duke and UConn... watch out:

Georgia Tech 74, #11 Duke 63
What is there to say about Duke that hasn't already been said? I'd say that I was surprised by how Tech just pushed the Dukies around on the inside. They outrebounded Duke 29-18, and shot 56% due to their bigmen. Teams don't usually have 28 turnovers and beat the Blue Devils. Now, 0-2 isn't the end of the world, but Duke needs to start winning now if they want to finish near the top of the ACC. Duke has three winnable games in a row, followed by a home matchup with Clemson. A win there would put them in position to get back to second place in the ACC (I don't think anyone is catching UNC this year). A loss or two, however, will leave Duke hopelessly back in the standings.

#1 North Carolina 79, Virginia 69
While Duke is struggling, UNC is just dominating everyone right now. Virginia, to their credit, played them as tough as just about anyone else has recently. They had a lead early in the second half, and stayed within single digits until the very end. Honestly, it's hard to find a weakness with this Tar Heels team. All fans of the ACC have to be looking forward to their trip to Clemson next week. As for Virginia, they are really entering the make-or-break section of their schedule. A game at Boston College, followed by two games at home against Maryland and Wake Forest, then a game at NC State. All are winnable. All are losable. Within a couple of weeks we should know whether Virginia will be a Tournament team or not.

Marquette 73, #22 UConn 69
If I had to take a guess at Connecticut's problems so far this year, I would say that their schedule was a big mistake. They scheduled a series of patsies, heading straight into the Big East schedule to which they added a game at LSU. With all of the defections to the NBA, this team has a ton of youth, a lot of guys straight out of high school. All of them are used to beating up on inferior competition, so they learned nothing new by beating up on inferior competition throughout November and December. So they entered the West Virginia game still green, against a Mountaineers team that had already faced a few tough challenges. Then, after that loss, the Huskies had to head out to LSU for a game that would have been tough to win under any situation. Now, they're in a freefall, with a must-win game against St. John's tomorrow. A loss there, followed by a very possible loss at Pitt, would drop the Huskies to 0-4 in the Big East. That would, of course, eliminate the Huskies from any chance of winning the conference.

Illinois-Chicago 73, #12 Butler 67, OT
I explained in detail, back in November, why Butler isn't going to get a very high seed in March. I'm not going to rehash, but this is exactly what I was talking about. This loss won't drop Butler out of the Top 25, but another loss in the near future likely will. Similarly, how can Butler expect to climb back up in the polls when their next two games are against Youngstown State and South Dakota State? In all honesty, the Bulldogs had been playing with fire, with several close games recently. The fact is that they will have good nights, and bad nights. Sometimes they'll shoot 33% from the field, and when that happens they will occasionally lose to teams like UIC. Butler has done enough that they can withstand another loss or two in conference and still make the Tournament. But by no means are they going to do much better than #11 seed I have them in the most recent BP65.

#6 Kansas 87, #10 Oklahoma State 57
As we've all learned about Kansas over the last three years, no team has more ups and downs than Kansas. This game, clearly, was a good night for a Jayhawks team that has enough talent to beat anyone. But if we're going to dismiss the losses to Oral Roberts and Depaul as flukes then we have to be fair and dismiss games like this as well. One thing that actually worried me about this one were several blown dunks by the young Jayhawks. Immaturity has been the cause of their upset defeats in the past. It doesn't matter when you're up 20+ points, but when you're in a close game it's immaturity like this that will cost you the win. Kansas needs to watch out if they want to stay in control of the Big 12, because not every game will be this easy.

#23 Washington State 73, California 56
There's no question that this Cougars team is for real, and that they can play absolutely anybody tough. They are already 4-1 in conference, with a win over Arizona and only a 3-point loss at second-ranked UCLA keeping them from a perfect record. Even more amazing is that this team's roster sports only one senior, and no obvious stars to jump to the NBA. They could be a really elite team next year, if they aren't already. As for California, their underperformance in recent weeks is almost as shocking as Washington State's overperformance. They are really missing Leon Powe, who isn't exactly getting a ton out of his rookie year either - he's making near the league minimum and has scored a total of 71 points near the halfway point of the season. Cal needs to improve quickly, because right now they look like only the sixth best team in the Pac-10. The selection committee doesn't usually like to take that many. The Golden Bears lack any good out-of-conference wins, and two bad losses, so they probably need 11 wins to feel good about a Tournament bid. They have a good opportunity to get on the right track tomorrow against Washington.

Stanford 78, #24 Washington 77
Speaking of the Huskies, what happened to this team? They looked so good against LSU, and definitely have the out-of-conference resume of a Tournament team. But you can't go below-.500 in conference and go anywhere, regardless of who you beat. Especially with how strong the Pac-10 has been. Washington needs to pull an upset tomorrow at Cal and next week at Washington State (when was the last time those words have been uttered) or they are likely going to fall out of the BP65 altogether. A loss would give them five losses in conference. Figure they need atleast 10 conference wins for a Tournament bid, and that would mean only three losses the rest of the way. With games at Arizona and Oregon, and home games against UCLA and Oregon, it's hard to see that happening.

Indiana State 68, Wichita State 63
This backslide by the Shockers is amazing everybody. You wouldn't expect this out of a team with so many older, experienced players. Sometimes teams just have bad shooting nights, but Wichita State has had too many bad shooting nights lately for this to be a fluke. The good thing about being in the Missouri Valley is that every game is winnable, and there are a lot of "quality" wins. The bad news is that the talent is so evenly spread that no one can really go on a huge run. We know from experience that this conference is going to be a mess, with several teams within two games of the lead. Which means that Wichita State is in a lot of trouble. It's hard to see how they can possibly win the conference anymore. With the wins over LSU and Syracuse, they don't have to win the Valley, but they need to go almost perfect the rest of the way if they want an at-large bid.

Bradley 48, Southern Illinois 46
Speaking of the messy Missouri Valley, yet another game that makes the standings confusing. What surprised me about this game was how Southern Illinois actually lost. I didn't watch the game, so I can only judge what I've read. The Salukis outrebounded the Braves 34-17, and shot at 45% to their 37%. The only statistic that can account for their loss are the 20 turnovers, which are an especially large amount when you consider how few possessions there are in a typical Southern Illinois game. And this highlights what has continued to be their weakness over the last few years. The Salukis always play good defense, and usually rebound well, but they just really struggle to get good shots. Sometimes they turn the ball over a lot, sometimes they just shoot poorly, but they are never going to score a lot of points. It's what causes them to always be a good team, but never a great team. Still, they remain very alive in the at-large hunt.

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