Kansas State 77, Long Beach State 60
This was supposed to be something of a rebuilding season for Kansas State. They earned a 5 seed in last year's NCAA Tournament, but lost their two best players (Jacob Pullen and Curis Kelly) to graduation. Pullen in particular is an impossible replacement - every big win they had the past few years came with Pullen at his best. The offense just bogged down whenever he wasn't creating. Nobody thought they'd stink this season, they were just considered a likely bubble team preseason.
And maybe in the end Kansas State will end up on the bubble, but so far they've looked really good. There are two big reasons for that. First, Will Spradling has taken a leap as a player. Last season he was a steady player who didn't turn the ball over, but who didn't make much happen either. He was never a catalyst for offense. That's changed now - this season he attacks and creates offense for himself and his teammates. Second, Kansas State's 2011 recruiting class has been better than expected. Thomas Gipson and Angel Rodriguez are two true freshmen that have played well (Gipson has actually started all 11 games so far this season), and the best player from this class in the end might be 7-footer Adrian Diaz.
Kansas State has wins over Alabama, Virginia Tech, Long Beach State and UTEP, and only a double-overtime loss to West Virginia. They should destroy Howard on New Year's Eve, and then will head into Big 12 play knowing that a 9-9 record should be sufficient to put them in the NCAA Tournament. They get a brutal start to their schedule, however (at Kansas, vs Mizzou, vs Baylor, at Oklahoma, vs Texas), and need to be careful not to get discouraged if they get a couple of early losses.
Long Beach State will be disappointed with how they played (5-for-18 with 0 assists and 4 turnovers for Casper Ware isn't going to cut it against a quality opponent), but a loss like this doesn't really affect them long term. They're not going to earn an at-large bid, so these early season games are about improving as a team, and about playing well enough to earn an 11 or 12 seed on Selection Sunday. Long Beach State has finally finished their brutal schedule (despite being 5-6 they are rated 12th in RPI because of a SOS rated 1st in the entire nation). They head into Big West play as the favorite, but not overwhelmingly so. UCSB is a quality contender, and Cal Poly is a legitimate sleeper. Long Beach State will open up on January 2nd at UC Irvine, and then will have a home game against Cal Poly on January 5th.
Saint Mary's 77, Missouri State 61
This game is a few days old, but I wanted to talk about it briefly because it's a game that mattered for both teams. Through December 20th, St. Mary's was one of those mystery teams - the computers loved them, but they hadn't really played anybody. They had no quality wins, and a loss to Denver. On December 22nd they got their first chance at a quality opponent, and what was bothersome wasn't just that they got destroyed by Baylor, but how they got destroyed. Two things drove the success St. Mary's had against cupcakes early in the season - they shot much better and were very sound on the defensive boards (they lead the nation with a 77.2 DR%). Against Baylor they allowed a 44.0 OR%, and gave up an unusually good 54.8 eFG% against. It had to make you wonder if what St. Mary's did against the cupcakes they played was just a mirage.
Obviously one good game against Missouri State doesn't prove anything, but the Gaels did get back to what they do best. They allowed only three offensive rebounds all night, and held Missouri State to a 47.2 eFG%. Overall they held Missouri State to 0.95 PPP, well under their 1.03 average. It's an encouraging bounce back game as they get ready for their WCC season opener against BYU. St. Mary's will need a couple of wins over BYU and/or Gonzaga to have the quality wins the Selection Committee will be looking for. A couple wins like that along with a 12-4 or better conference record and a decent performance in the WCC tournament will probably be enough for an at-large bid.
Missouri State is a pretty good team. They're 62nd in the Sagarin PREDICTOR, and they're 72nd in the Pomeroy ratings. But they just haven't found the winning formula against quality opponents, and their resume just is not good at all. They have zero quality wins, and a mediocre loss to Oral Roberts. Their Sagarin ELO_CHESS is 98th and their RPI is 111th. Other than a potential BracketBusters game they will not play another quality non-conference opponent, so any hopes they have at an at-large bid rest on a tremendous performance in Missouri Valley play (13-5 or better). They'll open in a big game tomorrow night at Creighton. After that they get a relatively easy game at home against Drake on New Year's Eve.
UTEP 83, Auburn 76
To be fair to Auburn, they were the better team on the floor (although I only watched about half of the game). They won the rebounding battle and had more fast break opportunities, and they shot better inside the arc (52.9% vs 47.2%). But UTEP got hot behind the arc, going 9-for-13 as a team. Michael Perez and Jacques Streeter, who came in with only 25 combined made threes in their first ten games, hit 7-for-10 here. But this came at a bad time, in a game that Auburn really couldn't afford to lose.
Auburn lost to both of the RPI Top 100 teams they've played so far (Seton Hall and Long Beach State), and now have a bad loss. A road win at Florida State on January 4th will be their final chance for a quality win before heading into SEC play. Unless they pull that (very unlikely) upset, their at-large chances will start getting quite long. They'll probably need to finish 10-6 or better in SEC play. Considering that they begin SEC play at Vanderbilt and then against Kentucky, they could be buried before they even really get going in conference play.
UTEP has been an up-and-down team this season. They now have a few wins that vary from good-to-decent (Clemson, New Mexico State, Auburn), but they've also got a couple of bad losses (Stephen F Austin and UT-San Antonio). It's unlikely that they'll get on the kind of resume needed to get up close to the Tournament bubble, but they'll be a tough team to beat each night in Conference USA, and will be a contender in the C-USA tournament in March.