#23 New Mexico 88, San Diego State 86
This was one of the more important games of the weekend, even if the folks at ESPN didn't think so. San Diego State played well here, with six players in double figures, but they had no answer for a red hot Darington Hobson. With 29 points, 12 rebound and six assists, this was clearly Hobson's best game of the season (he even hit a miracle shot at the halftime buzzer that ended up being the difference in a two-point win), and it came at a great time. But before I talk about New Mexico, I want to talk about San Diego State, a team that seems to have the same resume every season. In the last three seasons they have finished with 20 or more wins each time, finished above .500 in the conference each time, and ended up in the NIT each time. They're again on a pace for a 20 win season, and a +.500 record in the Mountain West, and again they would be out of the NCAA Tournament if the season ended now. They are 5-4 in the Mountain West and 16-7 overall, with a 3-5 record against the RPI Top 100. Their best wins are over New Mexico and Arizona, and they have bad losses to Pacific and Wyoming. Their RPI is 39th, but their Sagarin ELO_CHESS is 59th. Multiple teams in the RPI Top 40 miss the Tournament each season, but it's rare for a team outside the ELO_CHESS Top 50 to get in. An ELO_CHESS of 59th will not get a team in, so the Aztecs have ground to make up. Their next big game is this coming Saturday afternoon, at home against UNLV. If they can win that game then they will probably be favored in every remaining regular season but one (at BYU on February 24th). As for New Mexico, they remain in a tie atop the Mountain West at 7-2. Their remaining home games are against weak opponents, and they rarely lose at the Pit under any conditions, so the key to winning the Mountain West regular season title will be the road games, particularly the road games at UNLV, Colorado State and BYU. UNLV and BYU are the two teams New Mexico is tied with atop the conference. The first of those three games is the one at UNLV, on Wednesday night. It looks like it will be another game on that awful Mountain West network. It's like the Mountain West conference is devising new ways to keep great Mountain West action off of tv channels that anybody in this country actually gets. It's frustrating for me, because I'd love to watch a game like New Mexico vs UNLV.
Illinois 78, #5 Michigan State 73
Tom Izzo made a tactical mistake here, I think, in starting the game without Korie Lucious. With Kalin Lucas out, Lucious is the only real point guard left on the roster. And Lucious is a very good player, but he has a tendency to get too excited from time to time and to make stupid mistakes. By keeping Lucious on the bench it not only keeps the team without a real ball handler on the floor (Chris Allen handled much of that, and did so poorly, with two turnovers to start the game and with four turnovers for the game, with only one assist), but also negatively affected his play when he finally got to play. Lucious was frenetic and out of control when he got on the floor, and probably would have been better off working his jitters out on the floor to start the game rather than stewing on the bench. Lucious ended up playing 30 minutes, but he committed six turnovers, mostly because he was trying too hard to make great players rather than letting the game come to him. And ball handling was the difference in this game, with Michigan State committing nine more turnovers than Illinois. They dominated the boards and shot better, so they would have won if they hadn't turned the ball over so much. Of course, Kalin Lucas might not be out much longer. He went through warm-ups for this game, and simply decided that he couldn't play in the game, but he could potentially play tomorrow night against Purdue. It will be essential that he come back soon, because Michigan State's lead atop the Big Ten has almost entirely evaporated, and they've got some more very tough games upcoming. Speaking of tough upcoming schedules, there might not be another team in the country that has it worse than Illinois. Their remaining schedule is: vs Ohio State, at Purdue, at Michigan, vs Minnesota, at Ohio State, vs Wisconsin. The "breather" in that schedule is a home game against Minnesota, a likely Tournament team. But Illinois has done wonderfully against the weak part of their schedule, building up an 8-3 Big Ten record. You never want to go into Selection Sunday on a big losing streak, so the Illini have to win some of those games, but not many of them. If they can finish even 2-5 to get to 10-8 then I think they'll have a great shot at an at-large bid. If they can win even three of those seven games and then get a win in the Big Ten tournament then that should be enough to lock them in.
UTEP 73, Tulsa 59
Jerome Jordan held up his end of the bargain for Tulsa here, dominating the game with 20 points on 7-for-11 shooting. But nobody else on Tulsa played well at all. The rest of the team shot 33% from the field, was out-rebounded and pretty badly and committed 14 turnovers. UTEP also got another very good game from Derrick Caracter, who has really come to life this season after such a disappointing tenure at Louisville. This is a huge victory for UTEP in that it puts them temporarily in control of Conference USA. They are alone in first place at 8-1, although the other three top teams in the conference (Tulsa, UAB and Memphis) are all sitting menacingly with only two losses. Also, this win moved UTEP ahead of Memphis in both the Sagarin and Pomeroy ratings, and they are now the highest rated team in the conference in both computer rankings. As for their at-large chances, their RPI is 58th, but the RPI should never be taken too seriously. Their Sagarin ELO_CHESS is 47th, which is much more important. Last year there were six teams in the ELO_CHESS Top 50 that missed the NCAA Tournament (and zero teams outside the ELO_CHESS Top 50 that got in), but only one higher than 42nd, and that team (Penn State) went on to win the NIT. So UTEP is very close to being in a very good place. Their next key game is the return game at Tulsa, which will be February 20th. As for Tulsa, they entered the season as the team considered most likely to knock off Memphis, but they have really fallen back to the point that they might only have the fourth best resume in the conference. But they're still on the bubble, with a 17-5 overall record, and a 2-4 record against the RPI Top 100 with a win over Oklahoma State and only one weak loss (on a neutral court against Nebraska). Their RPI is 62nd, their Sagarin rating is 70th and Pomeroy has them 69th. The good news is that they have plenty of good opponents left (vs Memphis, at Marshall, at Marshall, vs UTEP, at Duke, at Memphis) against which to gain quality wins. It's been quite a few years since a Conference USA team woke up on February 13th with six remaining regular season games against RPI Top 100 opponents.