Saturday, February 05, 2011

Washington Loses Again

Oregon 81, #19 Washington 76
You think Washington wants out of the state of Oregon as fast as possible? Two days after getting shocked by Oregon State, Washington gets shocked again by a mediocre Oregon team. Once again they lost the ball handling battle (Oregon had 9 steals and 8 turnovers), and once again Washington's offense struggled to get scores at key times. Really, I'm not entirely sure what to make of this Washington team. I don't think they're any different from a team like UConn or Syracuse, other than the conference that they're in. The point is that when UConn and Syracuse go in a slump for a few games they lose to teams like Seton Hall, Georgetown and Providence - nothing too awful. And then when they get hot they make up all of that lost ground with narrow victories over teams like Louisville and Villanova. The problem in the Pac-10 is that hot streaks lead to 31 point victories over Oregon State and 17 point victories over Arizona - neither of which is going to excite the Selection Committee any more than an 8 point victory over either of those teams. But when they slump they don't lose to Seton Hall by 22, they lose to Oregon by 5. And while the computers don't see a difference between those two results, the Selection Committee sees a huge difference. And that's why Washington is a very good team, but is now on the bubble. If they make the Tournament (which I still expect to happen), keep an eye on them as a sleeper Elite 8 team. They will very likely be the best team in the entire field relative to their seed.

But of course, Washington has played themselves all the way back to the bubble now. They are 7-4 in Pac-10 play with wins over Arizona and UCLA, and bad losses to Stanford, Oregon and Oregon State. Their RPI is 42nd and their Sagarin ELO_CHESS will be close to 50th. I think Washington needs to get to 12-6 in Pac-10 play along with a win in the Pac-10 tournament to assure an at-large bid. If they finish 11-7 they'll probably need to win twice in the Pac-10 tournament. As for Oregon, they've been surprisingly feisty of late on their bizarre new home floor. They played their last four homes games against Washington, Washington State, USC and UCLA, and managed to win three of the four. Their Pomeroy rating will move into the Top 100 with this win and their Sagarin PREDICTOR might as well. They're still a long shot to make the NIT this season (they might play one of the lesser postseason tournaments, like Oregon State has the past couple of years), but it's not out of the realm of possibilities that Oregon could become a bubble team next season. They're definitely improving rapidly.

Memphis 62, Gonzaga 58
It's amazing how badly Gonzaga misses the Elias Harris and Steven Gray they thought they were going to have this season. Both of them were basically invisible in crunch time, with absolutely every offensive play being run through Robert Sacre in the paint. Sacre is a good player with a good array of post moves, but when none of Gonzaga's perimeter players scare anybody it allows defenses to collapse on Sacre with multiple defenders (for example, Gonzaga's last real chance, when Sacre got the ball down by 2 and was stripped by a help defender with five seconds to go). Of course, the reality is that this game might not end up mattering. The chances are not great that either of these teams will earn an at-large bid. Memphis has six RPI Top 100 wins, but they're very soft (University of Miami, Marshall, UAB, Southern Miss, UCF, Gonzaga), and they've got a bad loss to SMU. Their RPI is 45th and their Sagarin ELO_CHESS is likely to very close to 50th. If the season ended now they'd be narrowly out of the Field of 68. To earn an at-large bid Memphis probably needs to go 6-2 or better in their final eight games (to get to 11-5 in Conference USA play) and then they need to win a game in the CUSA tournament. Their next game is Wednesday night, on the road at a reeling Central Florida team.

Gonzaga has a better set of wins than Memphis. They've beaten Marquette, Xavier, Baylor and Oklahoma State. They've also got bad losses to San Francisco and Santa Clara. Their RPI is 79th and their Sagarin ELO_CHESS will likely be very close to 75th. With a road game at Saint Mary's being their only remaining quality opponent, I don't think Gonzaga can earn an at-large bid without finishing undefeated the rest of the regular season. And even if they do that they'll still have an uphill battle and they'll need to hope for a weak bubble. I think Gonzaga is going to the NIT this season.

Alabama 65, Tennessee 60, OT
Quick: which team has the best record in SEC play this season? That's right, it's Alabama and their 7-1 record (Florida is now 7-2 after the win over Kentucky, then Tennessee is 5-3, and every other team has four or more losses). Alabama won this game the way they've won games all season - with aggressive pressure defense. They forced 18 Tennessee turnovers (including 12 steals), and held the Vols to a 38.1 eFG%. Alabama's Pomeroy stats are really startling if you check them out. They are 141st in Adjusted Offense, and 7th in Defense. On eFG% they are 162nd on offense and 2nd on defense. Turnover percentage? 267th on offense, 40th on defense. It's just ridiculous how awful their offense is, and how good their defense is. I give Anthony Grant a lot of credit for working with the hand he was dealt. He's obviously doing a great job of motivation, and added energy always means more on the defensive end of the floor than the offensive end (where precision and skill are more important). Alabama came into this game rated 39th by Pomeroy and 48th by the Sagarin ELO_CHESS, and those numbers will just get better after this win. So does this mean that the SEC West might actually get an at-large team into the NCAA Tournament this season?

Probably not. The reality is that as pesky as Alabama is, their resume is still very weak. They're suffering from the same problems that many Pac-10 teams are suffering from - the weakness of the conference they're in makes it really difficult to build a resume without big wins out-of-conference. Even after this win Alabama is only 6-7 against the RPI Top 200. They have two RPI Top 100 wins (Kentucky and Tennessee) and four RPI 100+ losses (Providence, Iowa, St. Peter's and Arkansas). Their RPI is 97th, and their Sagarin ELO_CHESS will likely be near 95th. In my opinion, they'll have to finish at least 12-4 in SEC play to have any shot at an at-large bid. They still have road games at Tennessee and Vanderbilt, so I really don't see that happening. Alabama is still something of a long shot, even with that 7-1 record. Tennessee is still 6-2 against the RPI Top 50, but that's deceptive because of how bipolar they've been this season. They've got wins over Pittsburgh, Villanova, Memphis, Missouri State, VCU, Vanderbilt and Georgia. But they've also got losses to Oakland, Charlotte, USC, Charleston, Arkansas and Alabama. Their Sagarin ELO_CHESS will likely be in the 40-45th range tomorrow morning. What Tennessee has going for them is the fact that the Selection Committee prefers teams with big wins and bad losses to teams with neither. Historically, with the 64/65 team field, the Selection Committee almost never took more than one at-large team outside the ELO_CHESS Top 50. With the expanded field I could see two or even three teams coming from outside that Top 50. That means that Tennessee will remain in a good position for an at-large bid if they can finish strong and can stay 55th or higher in ELO_CHESS. The Vols head on the road to play Kentucky and Florida next week. I think they'll be happy if they can come out of that with a split.

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