Thursday, December 18, 2008

Big East Begins To Sort Itself Out

Cleveland State 72, #11 Syracuse 69
Surely nobody saw that 60-foot miracle coming. And since Syracuse probably would have won this game in overtime, this was clearly a fluke loss. But what wasn't a fluke was Syracuse letting this game become tied in the final seconds. When you put yourself in a bad situation, bad things will sometimes happen. And it's games like this that make me continue to say that you can't pencil Syracuse into the Tournament quite yet. They are undoubtedly good enough to make the Tournament, but how many more of these types of losses will they have? And what will happen if Eric Devendorf gets a serious suspension? Still, Syracuse is 10-1 with wins over Florida, Kansas and Virginia, and they get a great chance to bounce right back Saturday evening at Memphis. Even a loss to Memphis would most likely put them 11-2 heading into the Big East season, knowing that a 10-8 Big East record would most likely be plenty to get them into the Tournament. So they're a likely Tournament team, but they're not nearly a lock.

#19 Tennessee 80, #23 Marquette 68
A good win for a Tennessee team that might have tumbled all the way out of the Top 25 here. In fact, a loss for them might have knocked the entire SEC out of the Top 25, since it's unlikely for any SEC team to crawl back in by the time next week's rankings come out. It's a pretty remarkable drop for a conference that for a while there was as good as any conference. Still, even a loss here wouldn't have changed the fact that Tennessee is a very good team that is the strong favorite to take the SEC. The idea that a team with Wayne Chizm and Tyler Smith as players and Bruce Pearl as a coach not being a top team is preposterous. Even with the losses to Temple and Gonzaga. For Marquette, I really like the improvement that Wes Matthews has shown. For the past two years, Marquette was about Dominic James and Jerel McNeal, while Matthews was something of an afterthought. Yet while James and McNeal appear to have plateaued in their playing careers, Matthews has progressed tremendously and is now leading the team with over 20 points per game on the season. He led them here with 30 points on only 12 shots from the field. Unfortunately, Tennessee is the kind of team that will always be tough for this Marquette team to beat. For one thing, Marquette often likes to press teams with their athleticism, but they're not going to out-athlete Tennessee. Secondly, Marquette can be inconsistent at times and will beat themselves if given the opportunity, but they're also explosive enough that they'll beat any team that takes five minutes off from a game. So they will beat teams that don't come out with energy, but Bruce Pearl's boys are always going to be fired up and flying all over the floor. Marquette now drops to 8-2, with only a game at NC State standing between them and an 11-2 out-of-conference record. Like Syracuse, a 10-8 Big East record will probably be enough for a Tournament bid.

Arizona 69, #4 Gonzaga 64
Arizona may be painfully inconsistent, but they're also full of athletic talent. And they found a way to slow this game down and grind it out against a Gonzaga team that really likes to run and push the ball on offense. Gonzaga's defense also showed some impatience, as they broke down late in possessions and gave Arizona some open shots, leading to 7-for-10 shooting from behind the arc for the Wildcats. But if you're an Arizona fan, don't get too excited just yet. Part of being an inconsistent team is occasionally looking great. In fact, if I were a betting man, I'd pick UNLV to take them down on Saturday afternoon. Arizona also gets a shot at Kansas before the Pac-10 regular season starts, and they could really use a win there if they fall to UNLV. An 8-4 out-of-conference record would mean that a lot of wins will be needed during Pac-10 play, and with how weak that conference has looked the Wildcats might need an 11-7 record there. For Gonzaga, they can make up for this loss when they get UConn on Saturday afternoon. They also have another game against Tennessee. They can afford to split those two games if they can run the table in the WCC. Otherwise, they're probably out of the running for a 1 seed.

Saint Mary's 78, Oregon 73
I laid out a challenge for Saint Mary's, and they seem be passing it with flying colors so far. I said that they needed at least two wins out of four road games (Kent State, San Diego State, Oregon and Southern Illinois) to be serious at-large contenders. It turns out that the San Diego State game was on a neutral court, but the point was to see if they could win away from their great home court advantage, and they proved that they could. They still have SIU on Saturday, but they're already in good shape even with a loss there. The Gaels are now 8-1 with a relatively easy remaining out-of-conference schedule (other than the SIU game, of course). I would say that a 10-4 WCC record would give them an excellent shot at making the Tournament, even if they fall to SIU. For Oregon, they continue to lose to good teams, but they continue to lose. This loss drops them to 4-6 with two relatively dangerous mid-majors left to go before the Pac-10 season starts. Even with wins there, the weak Pac-10 schedule will mean that Oregon will almost surely need a 12-6 conference record plus a win or two in the Pac-10 tournament to earn an at-large bid. Even an 11-7 conference record would probably leave them out of the hunt for an at-large spot.

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