Saturday, February 12, 2011

Utah State Could Be An Interesting Bubble Case

Idaho 64, #17 Utah State 56
I haven't had time the post the past 24-48 hours (major computer problems - eventually had to reformat the whole damn thing), so I'm catching up with some games from the week. I'll start talking about today's games later this afternoon. As for Utah State, they are well aware how tough it is to go undefeated all season long in a mid-major conference. This wasn't their first scare - Hawaii took them to double overtime two weeks ago - but this is their first loss in conference play, dropping them to 22-3 for the season. Despite the 22-3 record, Utah State's overall Tournament resume is dubious. They are 0-2 against the RPI Top 100, with their best win coming over Long Beach State. Their six point loss at BYU (BYU is undefeated at home this season and hasn't won a game by less than six points to anybody) was a quality performance, but will mean nothing on Selection Sunday. Their at-large resume could come down to a road game at Saint Mary's next Saturday, part of Bracketbusters. Saint Mary's has an outstanding homecourt advantage, so that will be an uphill battle for the Aggies. If they lose that game but win out before falling in the WAC tournament championship game they'll be 29-5 on Selection Sunday. Can a 29-5 team be denied? No team with 29 wins has ever been denied an at-large bid. In fact (somebody can look up this stat - I'm doing it from memory), I don't believe any team has ever been denied an at-large bid with more than 26 wins. But Utah State would have to sweat out Selection Sunday regardless. It's hard to argue for admission to the NCAA Tournament when you haven't beaten an at-large quality team all season. Remember, last year's Utah State earned a slightly-controversial at-large bid, but did it with ten wins against the RPI Top 100, including wins over BYU and Wichita State. As for Idaho, they are now 7-5 in WAC play and are clearly improved over last season, but they're not near being a Top 100 team yet.

St. John's 89, #9 UConn 72
It's remarkable how much better St. John's plays when they're in Madison Square Garden. They just feed off the crowd and play with twice the energy that they do even in their other home games (at Carnesecca Arena). When your school puts you in The Basketball Mecca instead of a small campus arena it naturally feels like a bigger game, and you're going to have more energy. And the Johnnies have now blown away both Duke and UConn at the Garden over a short span of time. And this was a deserved win. St. John's hit 53% behind the arc compared to only 41% for UConn, but UConn took many more shots behind the arc (27 vs 17), so statistically that's basically a draw. The difference in the game was the 47% two-point percentage for St. John's vs 34% for UConn. The St. John's guards (particularly Dwight Hardy and DJ Kennedy) were getting to the rim at will while UConn was stuck launching contested jumpers. All players shoot worse on long two-pointers than on threes because it's easy to mentally learn exactly how hard to launch a ball to hit a shot when your foot is on the three-point line, but having to mentally figure out changing distances adds an extra degree of effort. Another big key for St. John's was ten turnovers on 71 possessions, a 14.1 TO%. St. John's struggles offensively when they're turning the ball over. They're always very aggressive offensively, so if they're not turning the ball over they're going to score a lot.

St. John's has a resume that in a lot of ways is basically the polar opposite of Utah State. They are only 14-9 on the season, but with five wins against the RPI Top 50 (Georgetown, Duke, Notre Dame, UConn and West Virginia) along with two bad losses (St. Bonaventure and Fordham). The strong strength of schedule has their RPI all the way up to 20th, and their Sagarin ELO_CHESS is 25th. There's zero question whether they'd be in the Tournament if the season ended now. They'd be looking at a 6-8 seed, in fact. But at 6-5 in the Big East they still have business to take care of. I think they need to get to 9-9 in Big East play and then need to win a game in the Big East tournament. If they do that they'll have great computer numbers, although you know some members of the Selection Committee will be wary of what would be an 18-14 overall record. They still have several hard games to go, beginning with a road game at Cincinnati on Sunday.

UConn also is 6-5 in Big East play after this loss, but all five losses this season have come against the RPI Top 50, and they've got wins over Kentucky, Michigan State, Texas, Villanova and Tennessee. They'd most likely be looking at a 3 or 4 seed in the Tournament if the season ended now. The Huskies only have to play Providence at home tomorrow, but on Wednesday will have a game against that streaking Georgetown team.

Illinois 71, #25 Minnesota 62
I give credit to Bruce Weber for really shaking up his starting lineup for this game. He's been very disappointed with his team's senior leadership, particularly Demetri McCamey, the team's face and star. So he shook things up by benching McCamey and Mike Tisdale, the team's best big man, to start the game. McCamey did play 30 minutes off the bench and wasn't great or terrible (17 points on 6-for-11 shooting, 4 assists and 5 turnovers), but with him on the bench the Illini worked the ball inside more, getting Mike Davis 17 points (his second-highest total in Big Ten play this season) and 9 rebounds. Tubby Smith also has shaken up his starting lineup, moving Austin Hollins into the starting lineup to end that goofy one-guard starting lineup they were playing with after Al Nolen went down. But it didn't help - Minnesota is still struggling handling the ball and ended up with 16 turnovers.

Illinois needed this win after losing five of their previous seven games, and it moves them to 6-5 in Big Ten play, which actually puts them into fourth place. They still have a fairly tough schedule remaining, with a home-and-home against Purdue along with road games at Ohio State and Michigan State. The Purdue home game is next, tomorrow afternoon. Even if they lost here I wasn't going to be too worried about Illinois falling to the NIT, but they're still not completely out of the woods. I think they can lock up an at-large bid if they can get to ten Big Ten wins. Minnesota, on the other hand, is now 1-4 since losing Al Nolen to fall to 5-7 in Big Ten play on the season. They are 5-6 against the RPI Top 100 with wins over North Carolina, West Virginia and Purdue, along with two RPI 100+ loss (Virginia and Indiana). Their Sagarin ELO_CHESS is 37th while their PREDICTOR and Pomeroy ratings have both fallen out of the Top 40. They will lock up a Tournament bid if they can get to 9-9 and then win a Big Ten tournament game, but they're unlikely to get to nine Big Ten wins. An 8-10 finish is more likely, which could leave them with a bunch of work left to do in the Big Ten tournament. Of course, don't forget that last season Minnesota entered the Big Ten tournament with a ton of work to do and forced their way into the NCAA Tournament by making it to the Big Ten championship game, including a 27 point win over Purdue en route. But as I keep re-iterating, I am still not sold on this team playing without a true point guard - their offense is averaging only 1.01 PPP since Nolan was hurt, compared to a season average of 1.07.

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