Tuesday, January 25, 2011

The Irish Shock Pittsburgh

#14 Notre Dame 56, #2 Pittsburgh 51
This game is why it's almost impossible to go undefeated in a major conference anymore. The Irish employed the perfect strategy, which was to squeeze the life out of this game. There were only 49 possessions in this game, the fewest possessions for any Division I game this entire season. Mike Brey knew that the more possessions a game has the more likely it is that the superior team will prevail. The star for Notre Dame was Ben Hansbrough, who was spectacular. The most glaring stat for me was that Hansbrough was 7-for-8 on two-point attempts, and also had 7 assists. Everybody knew he was taking the ball to the hole, and nobody on Pitt could stop him. And this brings up a common misconception that mainstream media analysts have, which is confusing a slow pace with good defense and bad offense. Pitt is 277th in the nation in tempo, so they don't score or allow many points per game (78.6 points for, 61.9 against). But their offense is actually spectacular - Pomeroy currently rates their offense first in the entire nation, and their defense only 37th. So while I was listening to the announcers of this game rail on about how amazing Pitt's defense is, the reality is that defense is their weakness. Not that Pitt has too many weaknesses. It's always a mistake to draw too much from one result. Pitt is still the solid favorite to win the Big East and to earn a 1 seed in the Tournament. Their next game will be Saturday, at Rutgers. As for Notre Dame, they quietly have a very impressive set of scalps. This year they've now beaten Pitt, UConn, Georgetown and Wisconsin. They are 7-3 against the RPI Top 50. Their RPI and Sagarin ELO_CHESS have both moved into the Top Ten, although both Pomeroy and Sagarin only rate them as the 26th best team in the nation. Their three conference losses mean that they're still a long shot to seriously contend for the Big East title, but they've now got the tiebreaker over Pitt and the top of the conference has gotten jumbled after some poor play by the top teams (Syracuse in particular, if they can't rescue themselves from a huge deficit against Seton Hall right now). I still think that something like a fourth place finish is most likely, but the way this team has improved throughout the season I wouldn't count them out just yet.

#17 Wisconsin 78, Northwestern 46
Obviously nobody saw a demolition of this level coming, but nobody should have been too surprised seeing Wisconsin walk into Evanston and exiting with a win. This season just feels like deja vu all over again for Northwestern. They've got an efficient offense and are beating the teams they're supposed to beat, but they keep coming up short against the big boys and are staring at another trip to the NIT. This game also featured a clear one-sided match-up: Wisconsin's deadly efficient offense (2nd in the nation according to Pomeroy - the best in the Big Ten) with Northwestern's atrocious defense (140th in the nation - by far the worst in the Big Ten). Northwestern is now 0-6 against the RPI Top 50 and 13-0 against everybody else. They are now 3-5 in Big Ten play and can finish no worse than 9-9 if they're going to have a shot at an at-large bid. They have a road game at Minnesota up next, tomorrow night. It will be the first for the Gophers since losing Al Nolen with a broken foot - a huge opportunity for a big road victory. As for Wisconsin, once again they are quietly contending for a Big Ten title after exactly zero buzz in the preseason. I still think Ohio State is the overwhelming favorite, but Wisconsin could easily finish ahead of Purdue for second place. They will get their chance against Ohio State, though, with a home-and-home still remaining. The Badgers next head to play a red hot Penn State team on the road before coming home for Purdue and Michigan State.

Kansas State 69, Baylor 61
Kansas State absolutely could not afford to lose this game. A loss would have dropped them to 1-5 in Big 12 play with a road game at Kansas (almost a certain loss) up next. What made this game bizarre to me was how well Kansas State shot free throws. They've been horrible at shooting free throws since Frank Martin got there, and they're averaging only 61% on the season, yet they hit 25-for-31 (81%) in this game, including 11-for-12 over the final four minutes or so. This is another decent win for Kansas State - they've also beaten Gonzaga, Washington State and Virginia Tech. But they remain 0-6 against the RPI Top 50 and 5-7 against the RPI Top 100. Their RPI is 57th and their Sagarin ELO_CHESS is 51st, and if the season ended now they'd almost certainly be headed to the NIT. Depending on who they beat, Kansas State might earn an at-large if they can get to 8-8 in conference play. But unless they shock Kansas that will mean a 6-3 finish to their regular season. But things could be worse, they could be in Baylor's situation. The Baylor Bears are 1-4 in games decided by single digits and are now 1-6 against the RPI Top 100, with an RPI and Sagarin ELO_CHESS that only narrowly are inside the Top 100. Sagarin and Pomeroy both rate them as the 45th best team in the nation, so they are due to start winning games, but they don't have too much time left. They are 3-3 in Big 12 play and have some easy wins ahead, but they need some quality wins to impress the Selection Committee. Home games late in the season against Texas and Texas A&M are their best chances.

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