Friday, December 30, 2011

Welcome To The WCC, BYU

Saint Mary's 98, BYU 82
This is BYU's first season since leaving the Mountain West. They've gone independent in football, and are in the WCC for basketball. The WCC hasn't been as good as the Mountain West has been, but the conference is no slouch, and Gonzaga and Saint Mary's have accomplished as much as any Mountain West teams have over the past decade. And while both of those teams are strong at home, St. Mary's has one of the best homecourt advantages in the nation. The Gaels haven't lost a home conference game to a team other than Gonzaga since the 2006-07 season.

BYU actually shot 7-for-13 behind the arc in this game, but they struggled to get offense in the paint. Brandon Davies seemed unstoppable when he got chances (11-for-18 from the field), but Saint Mary's limited his opportunities in the second half and nobody else from BYU could pick up the slack. Saint Mary's, on the other hand, had an array of players putting up points, with six players scoring eight or more. The Gaels finished 61.3% on twos, compared to 47.3% for the Cougars.

BYU was always going to struggle to win at McKeon Pavilion, but it's a missed opportunity to build up a resume that is surprisingly soft. They have a bad loss to Utah State, and the closest thing they've got to a quality win came over Oregon. Their Sagarin ELO_CHESS has fallen all the way to 50th, which would probably narrowly leave them out of the NCAA Tournament if the season ended now. I think they'll need to get to 12-4 or better in conference play, along with a pair of wins combined over Gonzaga/St. Mary's to feel comfortable about their at-large hopes.

St. Mary's was a team that for the first six weeks of the season was beloved by the computers but had nothing to show for it. A week ago today they had zero quality wins and a weak loss to Denver. But the computers, as they usually are, had a reason they were rating St. Mary's so highly. Saint Mary's is an efficient offensive team, and they lock down the paint defensively and on the defensive boards. And over the past two games they've dominated Missouri State and BYU, winning both games by 16 points. They're now 22nd in the Pomeroy ratings and are in the Top 20 in all of the Sagarin ratings. A 12-4 WCC record should earn them an at-large bid. They've got an easy schedule the next couple of weeks, beginning with a road game at Pepperdine tomorrow. Their next big test will be January 12th against Gonzaga.

Oregon 92, Washington State 75
Oregon couldn't miss a shot in this game. Their 78.6 eFG% was the second best shooting performance by any BCS conference team this entire season (Tennessee hit 80.2% in a game against UNC-Greensboro on November 11th). And what was interesting about this shooting performance was that they hit 75.8% of their twos despite only six offensive rebounds and only three steals. They weren't getting cheap baskets, they were just getting to the basket at will out of their halfcourt offense. And the fact is that while this was an extreme example, I've been unimpressed with the Wazzu defense all season long. It's a combination of bad effort, bad teamwork (switching), and underwhelming execution. It's why Washington State has underperformed so badly this season.

Washington State was one of the teams I whiffed on preseason. I thought they were going to be a sleeper bubble team. Instead, they're currently 8-5 with zero quality wins and bad losses to UC Riverside and Oregon. Their Sagarin ELO_CHESS has slipped outside the Top 100. As bad as the Pac-12 is, they'll need to finish 11-7 or better to have a chance at an at-large bid. They certainly can't afford to open with a pair of home losses to the two Oregon schools, so their game Saturday against Oregon State will be essential. Next week they'll play on the road against the two conference newcomers, Utah and Colorado.

Oregon hasn't been good this year, either. This is the best win they've had all season. But they have avoided any bad losses thus far, and that's why their Sagarin ELO_CHESS is a surprisingly strong 56th. They'll continue their Washington road trip tomorrow at the Huskies. Next week they'll head home to play the two northern California teams. If they can get through that stretch at 3-1 they will start looking like a plausible at-large team.

Cincinnati 56, Oklahoma 55
Both Oklahoma and Xavier embarrassed themselves in that brawl, and I don't want to blame one team for starting it as opposed to the other, but it's worth noting that the worst acts of violence were performed by Cincinnati players. And while I thought neither team suspended their players long enough, there's no question that the impact of the suspensions has been felt much, much more by Xavier than by Cincinnati. Xavier lost their next three games: against Oral Roberts, Long Beach State and Hawaii. Those losses can't be all blamed on the missing players, but it's hard not to note that the team went 8-0 with wins over Vanderbilt, Purdue, Cincinnati and Butler before the suspensions, and then lost three straight to mid-majors after the suspensions. Cincinnati on the other hand? They followed that Xavier game with four games against cupcakes. This is the first decent team they've had to play, and only Yancy Gates and Cheikh Mbodi were still under suspension. Both have one more game on the bench, on the road at Pittsburgh. Even if they lose that game, the suspensions will have had almost no long term impact on their resume. That's just not right.

Cincinnati did have to come back from a 12 point deficit with six minutes to go in the game. Jacquon Parker played tremendous down the stretch, single-handedly outscoring Oklahoma 8-6 over the final four minutes of the game. After Romero Osby hit a basket to put Oklahoma back in front by a point, Cashmere Wright hit the game-winning layup with 8.8 seconds to go. Steven Pledger missed the potential game-winner just before the buzzer.

This is Cincinnati's first quality win of the season, and they've got a bad loss to Presbyterian. It's not a Tournament resume, but it's close enough that a 9-9 Big East record will give them a shot for an at-large bid heading into the Big East tournament. They have that Sunday game at Pittsburgh, and then will have the rest of their suspended players back for a Wednesday home game against Notre Dame.

Oklahoma is like Cincinnati in that they have a relatively soft resume so far, but are close enough to the bubble that a solid conference performance will earn them an at-large bid. They have no bad losses, and no great wins either (though wins over Arkansas, Washington State and Oral Roberts are all decent wins against teams that could end up in the RPI Top 100). As good as the Big 12 is, a 9-9 conference record for Oklahoma will probably put them in the NCAA Tournament. They have a tough opening schedule, though. They start with a road game at Missouri on Tuesday, then a home game against Kansas and a road game at Oklahoma State. With a total home-and-home round-robin in the Big 12 this season, however, it all evens out in the end.

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