Tuesday, March 01, 2011

Texas & Villanova Continue To Slide

Kansas State 75, #8 Texas 70
You have to give Jacob Pullen a ton of credit for toughing out a painful hand/wrist injury to lead his team to a shocking victory. Rodney McGruder led the team with 22 points, including 4-for-6 behind the arc, but nothing happens on K-State's offense without Pullen creating the opportunities. It's jarring when he's out of the game, because Will Spradling isn't half the athlete, and had no chance of penetrating against the Texas perimeter defense. After an 11-0 start to Big 12 play, Texas has now lost three of four, to Nebraska, Colorado and Kansas State. As Jerry Palm joked on his twitter feed last night, it's like they're trying to single-handedly play the entire middle of the Big 12 into the NCAA Tournament.

Already, the media is reminding us of last season, when Texas began the season 17-0 and collapsed to a 7-10 finish. That said, let's not overreact. In fact, I'm going to try to set a record by correctly giving you an argument counter to intuition on Texas for the third time this season. In the preseason, when they were ranked 25th, I told you they were the most underrated team in the polls. Then, when they were at the peak of their power and moving to #1 in everybody's polls, I told you to chill out: they were overrated and were due for a couple of bad losses down the stretch. And now, I'm telling you not to overreact again - Texas is not going into a tailspin. In fact, Texas isn't even really in a tailspin. They've just been unlucky. Last season the tailspin started with a series of blowouts: they lost to Kansas State by 9 and then UConn by 14, then lost by 9 to a horrible Oklahoma team and had three 15+ point losses (Texas A&M, as well as twice against Baylor). They were losing games that they deserved to lose. Over this current stretch where they've lost three of four? The three losses have been by a combined 10 points, and they've got a 23 point destruction of Iowa State in the middle. With a little bit of luck nobody would even be calling this a slump.

That's not to say there aren't problems for Texas. Their defense, which had been rated #1 overall by Pomeroy, has fallen apart lately. After not allowing more than 1.10 PPP since 2010, they've done it in all three of these recent losses. Some of that's just been hot outside shooting, but Texas has played worse in all aspects of defense. One interesting stat is Free Throw Rate (FTR), which is a stat that Pomeroy kindly provides that is simply FTA/FGA, and is a measure of how well a team plays defense without fouling. The gold standard in that stat is Ohio State, a team leading the nation with a FTR of 20.1%. Texas had been leading the Big 12 with a FTR of under 30% in conference play, and had not allowed a rate higher than 38.2% since before Christmas. They were worse than 38.2% in all three of these recent losses. In fact, if you draw a line at 38.5%, Texas is 1-5 this season when they are worse than that for a game (with the one win coming over North Florida), and 23-1 when they're under that line (the one loss was that overtime debacle against UConn). FTR is a good proxy for lazy defense, particularly defensive rotations. That tells me Texas needs to focus and exert maximum effort on defense. If they do then they'll be fine. Nobody is going to out-talent or out-athlete them.

This is a huge win for Kansas State. They had been only 2-5 on the road against the Big 12 prior to this win, and they've now got a second big scalp to go with that win over Kansas. They're up to 9-6 in conference play and have a Sagarin ELO_CHESS that is all the way up to 25th. I don't want to say yet that they've "locked" up an at-large bid, because if K-State loses out and the bubble gets a lot stronger, then stranger things have happened. But a win on Senior Night on Saturday against Iowa State would definitely be the clincher. A win there will also (possibly) lock up the fourth seed in the Big 12, which will give them a bye through to the Big 12 tournament quarterfinals.

#7 Notre Dame 93, #19 Villanova 72
Villanova actually didn't play that badly in this game. Really. They were definitely outplayed, of course, but not outplayed in a way that a team losing by 32 points in the second half usually is. Notre Dame was just absolutely unconscious behind the arc. The Irish hit their first four shots from behind the arc and hit 11 three-pointers in the first half. For the game they shot 20-for-32 behind the arc. The 20 three-pointers were a school record. The Irish locked up a double-bye in the Big East tournament with this win, and at 13-4 they still have a shot at winning the Big East regular season title if they can win at UConn on Saturday. With the struggles of Texas and Duke, Notre Dame is starting to get a little bit of 1 seed buzz. Neither Sagarin or Pomeroy rates them as a Top Ten team, but they're 7-0 in games decided by five points or less or in overtime, which is why their resume is so impressive. I think they probably have to win the Big East tournament to earn a 1 seed, which I don't see happening, but they certainly have firmed up their argument for a 2 seed.

Villanova has lost five of seven, and the two wins in that stretch were an overtime win over DePaul and a three point win over Seton Hall, so they really have been in a collapse over the past few weeks. The collapse has been total, with every aspect of their game decaying. The catalyst seems to be the decision making of the Two Coreys and Maalik Wayns, who too often rush shots and don't involve their teammates in the offense. That kind of bad play tends to trickle down to all other aspects of the game. Unless Villanova wins at Pittsburgh on Saturday (not going to happen) they will finish 9-9 in Big East play, likely finishing in 11th place. Not only does that mean they would have to play in the first round of the Big East tournament, but if the season ended now they'd actually be matched up with that dangerous Providence team. Unless the bubble gets much stronger and Villanova loses every game between now and Selection Sunday, there's no way Nova can actually end up in real danger of missing the NCAA Tournament, but a few weeks ago who'd have thought that this team would actually enter March still worried about just getting into the Big Dance?

#14 Florida 78, Alabama 51
This game was actually tied at halftime, and Alabama was looking great at Gainesville. The problem is, Alabama's offense is putrid. Their defense is great, but once they fall in a hole it's so hard for them to dig out, and some hot outside shooting sparked an 11-0 Florida run early in the second half to blow this game wide open. Alabama just doesn't have the horses to come back from double-digits against a team as good as Florida. But this result is precisely why Alabama had such an uphill climb to make the NCAA Tournament. Bama fans forget just how embarrassingly bad they were out-of-conference, going 8-6 against a schedule rated 289th toughest by Pomeroy. Their best win came against Lipscomb and they lost to St. Peters, Providence, Iowa and Seton Hall. They were making an interesting bubble case when they were 11-2, but they're now 11-4 out of the atrocious SEC West, and have what is basically a must-win game at home against Georgia on Saturday.

With so much carnage going on at the top of the S-Curve, Florida is quietly moving up. They've won seven of eight and are up to 23-6 overall, including 12-3 in SEC play. The Gators are 9-2 against the RPI Top 50 with wins over Xavier, Kansas State, Kentucky, Vanderbilt, Tennessee (twice) and Georgia (twice), along with weak losses to Jacksonville, Mississippi State and South Carolina. Their Sagarin ELO_CHESS is up inside the Top 20, and they'd be a 4 or 5 seed if the season ended now, with a real possibility of sliding up as high as a 3 seed. The Gators will play on Saturday at Vanderbilt, and regardless of the result they'll have the top seed in the SEC East, which will give them a bye into the SEC quarterfinals.

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