Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Northwestern Is On The Ropes

Penn State 65, Northwestern 41
This was as poor of an offensive performance as Northwestern has had in a long time. They scored two points in the final 13 minutes of the first half and finished 2-for-21 behind the arc. Their 0.69 PPP on offense was their worst since a 70-37 drubbing at Illinois more than three years ago. And this hardly could have come at a worse time, in a game that I called "probably a must-win game". Northwestern is now 4-9 in Big Ten play knowing that they probably can't afford to finish worse than 8-10. That means they need to find a way to navigate their remaining schedule with a 4-1 record, despite road games at Wisconsin and Indiana, and at home against Minnesota. Their next game is at home against a rapidly improving Iowa team on Thursday night. The Indiana road game follows that, on Saturday.

Talor Battle surpassed 2000 career points during this win, which pushed his Nittany Lions to a respectable 6-7 Big Ten record. They have wins over Wisconsin, Illinois and Michigan State, along with a bad loss to Maine. Their RPI is 65th and their Sagarin ELO_CHESS is 73rd. They will have to get that ELO_CHESS inside the Top 60 to get themselves onto the bubble, which probably will require a 3-2 finish against a fairly tough schedule. They play Minnesota on Thursday night and then head to Wisconsin on Sunday.

Xavier 71, Duquesne 63
Almost nobody in the mainstream sports media will admit it, but the reality is that this was a more impressive win than Xavier's road victory at Georgia earlier in the week. Even after this loss Duquesne is rated as a Top 40 team by both Sagarin and Pomeroy, while both computer ratings have Georgia around 60th. In addition, Duquesne has a relatively strong homecourt advantage. They came into this game 9-2 at home with those two home losses coming against non-conference RPI Top 25 opponents (West Virginia and George Mason). And last season Duquesne was 10-4 in true home games and 3-12 in true road games. Tu Holloway is an explosive offensive player, and he led all players with 20 points, but the difference in the game was in the paint, where Kenny Frease and Jamel McLean both scored in double-digits and combined for 21 boards while shutting down Duquesne's under-sized front line. Xavier actually committed nine more turnovers than Duquesne, but shot 54% on two-point attempts, compared to 38% for Duquesne.

Xavier has won 10 of their last 11 games to move to 9-1 in the Atlantic Ten with a 9-4 record against the RPI Top 100. Their RPI is 19th and their Sagarin ELO_CHESS is 31st. There's no question that they'd be in the NCAA Tournament if the season ended now, most likely with a seed in the 8-11 range. The concern is their play down the stretch. Xavier is 6-2 in games decided by five points or less or in overtime and the computers are unimpressed. Their remaining schedule is soft, with only one game left against the RPI Top 100 (Dayton). A 5-1 finish and a win or two in the A-10 tournament will lock up a Tournament bid for them. Anything less than that and they'll be on the bubble.

Duquesne is the opposite of Xavier in that the computers like them but they can't win a close game (0-4 in games decided by five points or less or in overtime). They are 8-2 in A-10 play but have only one win against the RPI Top 50 (Temple), and a Sagarin ELO_CHESS that is 77th. Their remaining schedule has some potential quality wins on it, however, with road games at Richmond and Dayton as well as a home game against Rhode Island. They can't afford to finish worse than 5-1 over that stretch, however, or they'll almost surely be going to the NIT.

#20 Syracuse 63, West Virginia 52
We can over-analyze this game, but the reality is that what happened here is simple to explain. I talked in-depth about Syracuse here, and pointed out that the reality is that for Syracuse this season they win just about every time they hold an opponent under 1 point per possession, and lose just about every time they don't. So what happened in this game? 61 possessions and 52 points for West Virginia (0.85 PPP). And if you dig down into the stats you see that the Syracuse zone was even more efficient than that. Zones are always vulnerable to hot three-point shooting, but when the Syracuse zone is clicking they make it virtually impossible for opponents to get uncontested shots from inside 15 feet. In this game West Virginia hit 11-for-22 behind the arc, but only 6-for-25 (24%) on two-pointers. I don't understand why the Syracuse zone fell apart for a few weeks, but it's back and playing well, and the Cuse will be a tough team to beat as long as that's the case.

Syracuse moves to 8-6 in Big East play with a home game against Rutgers up next. Despite the losses they are still rated 12th in the Sagarin ELO_CHESS, and if they finish strong they should be in line for a 3 or 4 seed in the NCAA Tournament. West Virginia falls out of the top half of the Big East with this loss and they are now 7-6 in conference play. The Mountaineers are a solid 8-9 against the RPI Top 100 with wins over Vanderbilt, Georgetown and Purdue, and zero bad losses. Their RPI is 22nd and their Sagarin ELO_CHESS is 26th. With those wins a 9-9 Big East record should suffice in earning them an at-large bid, but that will require a 2-3 finish against a brutal schedule. They will play Notre Dame at home on Saturday and then head to Pittsburgh next Thursday. I do think West Virginia will get to 9-9 in the end, but it won't be a cakewalk.

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