Friday, February 05, 2010

Conference USA Continues To Be A Mess

Memphis 85, UAB 75
The final score doesn't do justice to how close this game was. Neither team led by more than six points the entire game until the final minute of the second half. UAB is actually a convenient match-up for Memphis for two reasons. For one, Memphis has a big problem with depth, but UAB isn't deep either. Memphis was able to win while getting 54 of their 85 points from Elliot Williams and Wesley Witherspoon. In addition, the biggest weakness that Memphis has is defensive rebounding, yet UAB is a very small team that often goes with a four guard lineup and only collected ten offensive rebounds (basically a draw, since Memphis had eight of their own). This game result also continues to muddle up the picture in Conference USA. As I've been saying for a while now, the key for the conference being a multi-bid conference in the NCAA Tournament is for two or three teams to separate themselves. Marshall has seemingly fallen off the bubble, so the five team logjam has turned into a four team logjam, but that's still too many teams together. The conference will not get four Tournament teams. Memphis is one game off the conference lead at 6-2, but Sagarin rates them the top team, narrowly ahead of UTEP. Pomeroy goes the other way, putting UTEP slightly ahead of Memphis. But UTEP is actually tied atop the conference standings with Tulsa, with both at 7-1. And none of that mentions UAB, the team that seemed to have the best Tournament resume of any of these C-USA teams just a week ago. Even with this loss UAB is still 18-4 overall, including 4-4 against the RPI Top 100, and their Sagarin ELO_CHESS is best in the conference at 38th. They can probably afford one more regular season loss while still making the NCAA Tournament, but a second loss before the C-USA tournament will put them firmly on the bubble. As for Memphis, they are still only 3-4 against the RPI Top 100, with a couple of bad losses (SMU and UMass). There's no chance they'd earn an at-large bid if the season ended now. But even though they have long odds for an at-large bid, I still like their chances to win the conference tournament because they have the team experience, and also have the most pure talent in the league, and the confidence of all of their dominance in recent years.

#22 Northern Iowa 59, Wichita State 56
Northern Iowa pretty much was the definition of a team grinding out a game here. They were ice cold from the field, but they dominated the boards (32 to 22), and earned eight more shots from the field and five more from the line. Their starting lineup has three stars (Adam Koch, Jordan Eglseder and Kwadzo Ahelegbe), and all three played well here. Northern Iowa has been below the radar because they don't have any big wins. This was probably their best win of the season. But even without the attention-grabbing win, their resume's pure numbers are fairly overwhelming. They are 7-1 against the RPI Top 100, and 20-2 overall, with an overall Sagarin rating that has snuck into the Top 30 in the nation. They can probably afford two losses in their final seven games while still staying a safe NCAA Tournament team. Wichita State is the best hope the Missouri Valley has for a second at-large team, but their chances are starting to get long with this loss. They are 8-4 in the Missouri Valley and 4-2 against the RPI Top 100 (including wins over Texas Tech and Northern Iowa), but they also have several mediocre losses (Illinois State, Drake, Creighton). Their RPI is 47th and their Sagarin ELO_CHESS is 45th. If the season ended now they'd probably miss the NCAA Tournament as one of the first teams out. But the Missouri Valley isn't what it used to be, and it's very difficult for a Valley team to work its way back into the field of 65 after it has fallen out. They get an opportunity for another quality out-of-conference win at Utah State during Bracketbusters, but overall they can probably afford only one more loss in the regular season if they're going to be a likely at-large contender on Selection Sunday.

Texas A&M 77, Missouri 74
This was a fairly surprising result, even though Texas A&M seems to always have Mike Anderson's number (they are the only Big 12 team he hasn't beaten since he became coach at Missouri). The Aggies are a pesky team that has the ability to hang with just about any team. Missouri forced 20 turnovers, which is par for the course for the team ranked first in the nation with 12 steals per game. But Texas A&M more than made up the difference by completely dominating inside, collecting 15 offensive rebounds (compared to 16 defensive rebounds for Missouri), leading to a whole lot of easy baskets and free throws for their big men. Texas A&M's front line took 25 free throws, which is more than the 21 that the entire Missouri team took. They also managed to foul out Keith Ramsey and Zaire Taylor, and put two other Missouri players into foul trouble. With this nice win Texas A&M moves into a tie for third place in the Big 12 at 5-3, and they conveniently still have home games left against Kansas, Texas, Baylor and Oklahoma State. They will very likely make the NCAA Tournament if they can get to 9-7. If they finish 8-8 then their at-large hopes will likely come down to their play in the Big 12 tournament. As for Missouri, they fall to 4-3 but have a fairly easy remaining schedule (five of their nine games remaining come against the three worst teams in the conference: Colorado, Nebraska and Iowa State). Sagarin and Pomeroy both rate them as one of the five best teams in the Big 12, a conference which will get at least six Tournament teams. They are still in a very good position.

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