As usual, too many important games on Saturday's slate. So I'll give you my take on the afternoon games with Tournament implications:
Oregon 84, #21 Arizona 74
A very important match-up, with huge Pac-10 implications. UCLA and Washington State seem to be a step ahead of everybody else, but third place is up for grabs. These two teams are in the battle, as are California, USC and Stanford. Even Washington could be part of the conversation. So not only did Oregon win this one, but they won it at the McKale Center. And once again, Arizona shows us flashes of brilliance followed by long stretches of mediocrity. It seems like this team just zones out for long stretches of time. In this one, they allowed themselves to fall nineteen points behind before getting dragged back into by the crowd. To be fair, Jerryd Bayless was absent yet again. But it's got to be distressing to an Arizona fan to see that incredible crowd going wild while the players seem absent-minded. On the plus side, Chase Budinger finally showed real consistency. He is such a talented player that if he can keep his head in the game every night he will be an All-American. As for Oregon, it's the same old from Ernie Kent - Kamikaze Kids, Version 2.0. Today, it was Malik Hairston stepping up with 29 points. But the star changes every day for the Ducks. There is no one man that you can dedicate yourself to shutting down if you're coaching against Oregon. I was bashing Oregon earlier this season because they were way over-hyped and placed in the Top Ten in the polls. But now that they're back out of the Top 25, I think people are sleeping on these guys. People have no perspective anymore - people just jump on and off bandwagons after a game or two. They're still a good team. Not a Top Ten team, but certainly a threat to make a Sweet Sixteen run.
#17 Butler 73, Valparaiso 65
A tough loss for a Valpo team that was up by as much as nine points in this one. A win here would have put Valpo two games up over Butler in the Horizon, along with the well-being of knowing that they'd taken the game at Hinkle Fieldhouse. Even with the loss here, they're still tied with Butler, with the opportunity to get their lead back when these two teams meet again on February 5th. Valparaiso is now 9-4, with their four losses coming on the road to Vanderbilt, Wisconsin, North Carolina and Butler. Pretty impressive. Even with the loss today, the RPI is still at 33. The strength of schedule will obviously start to drop, so the Crusaders need to keep winning to stay in the bubble discussion. They can probably lose one more game in conference (assuming it's not to a bottom feeder). Let's say they win 14 of their final 15 conference games and then lose in the Horizon Tournament final at Butler (remember, the regular season champion gets the Horizon final at home), that would make Valpo 25-6 with an RPI around 35. Hard to see that not getting into the Tournament as an at-large. As for Butler, what else is there to say? They're looking pretty safe for an at-large, even if Valpo edges them out in the conference tournament.
Arizona State 72, Oregon State 53
Don't look now, but Arizona State is 12-2. Sure, the schedule stinks, but it's still a great start for a team that has struggled to break .500 in recent years. And this win follows an even more impressive win over Oregon, which puts the Sun Devils at 2-0 in the Pac-10. I haven't actually seen this team play yet this season, but it seems clear that they're getting production from more than just superfrosh James Harden. I'll definitely make sure to catch these guys the next time they're on tv so I can actually analyze their bubble chances properly. No need to do that for Oregon State, a team that seems headed for another season at the bottom of the Pac-10. As I type this they have an RPI of 266, compared to the next worst team in the conference at 101 (Washington). Yikes.
#15 Vanderbilt 97, UMass 88
Another big deficit overcome for this year's cardiac kids, Vanderbilt. UMass was up by as much thirteen, as well as an eight point lead early in the second half. And all of this in Nashville. Still, Vanderbilt has shown quite a knack for winning these close ones. In the end, this stuff has to even out. It's like how you can bet on major league baseball by assuming that all teams will regress back to their Pythagorean record. You can't really do that for college basketball because the opponents vary so wildly in their ability, but the Sagarin PREDICTOR is usually a decent substitute. I do, however, think that Sagarin is underranking the Commodores at 54th. This team is probably a marginal top 25 team, in the 20-35 range. The undefeated record is nice, but that bubble should get burst next week when they head to Tennessee. I would probably also bet against them the next week when they head to Gainesville. But the SEC is weak this year, so Vanderbilt could come out of this as the second best team in the SEC. Hard to see the second best team in a BCS conference getting anything much worse than a five or six seed. For Umass, you have to feel like they missed a big opportunity today. The RPI is still an insanely good 13, but it just seems like they're getting overshadowed by the Atlantic Ten teams with more glamor wins, like Xavier and Dayton. The Minutemen get a shot to earn their way into everyone's bracket prediction when they head to Dayton on the 16th. The RPI will drop as they move into the conference schedule and the strength of schedule weakens, so they will need another resume-building win. Syracuse and Boston College are nice, but not enough in and of themselves.