Saturday, December 31, 2011

Iowa Shocks Wisconsin

Iowa 72, #11 Wisconsin 65
Pomeroy's ratings gave Iowa a 2% chance of winning this game. While the word "upset" gets abused by mindless media types who don't understand efficiency ratings, this was a true shocking upset. As is usual for an upset of this magnitude, it required more than one thing to go wrong for Wisconsin. First, their shooting was atrocious. They finished 3-for-28 (10.7%) on threes, and had a 37.0 eFG%. The only time in the past few years that Wisconsin shot worse than that behind the arc was that 36-33 abomination against Penn State in the Big Ten tournament last season. That eFG% is tied with a performance earlier this season against Marquette for their worst shooting since their NCAA Tournament loss to Butler last season. Second, Wisconsin's defense was uncharacteristically bad. They came into this game leading the nation (by far) in eFG% (Kentucky, at 40.0%, was second to Wisconsin's 36.1%). Yet Iowa torched them for a 50.8 eFG%, the worst Wisconsin has allowed in any game this season (UNLV, North Carolina, Marquette and BYU were all held to 46% or less).

I just threw a lot of stats out there. What do they mean? First, this game was a bizarre statistical fluke. It would be silly to think that Wisconsin is going to shoot 11% on threes this season or stop being an elite defensive team because of one crazy game. On a deeper level, I find it fascinating that Wisconsin two worst shooting days of the season, by far, have come at home in their losses to Marquette and Iowa. For years Wisconsin has had one of the widest home/road performance differentials, particularly with regards to shooting the ball. It had gotten to the point that announcers alleged that their rims were loosened, or that the ball they used was sufficiently different from other balls that it was giving them an unfair home advantage. Last year, for example, they had a 58.3 eFG% at home vs a 46.5 eFG% on the road. This year? It's 54.7% vs 52.4%. The sample sizes are still kind of small, but this suggests that Wisconsin is going to be a much more balanced home/road team this season for whatever reason.

I saw some people on my twitter feed saying that they're going to drop Wisconsin from the Top 25 for this loss, but that's insane. They're still likely going to be in the Top 5 of both Pomeroy and the Sagarin PREDICTOR. This loss is just a statistical fluke that shouldn't be considered a trend. Where this game matters is in the Big Ten standings, where Wisconsin has just spotted all of the top contenders a free game. It's going to dramatically reduce their chances of stealing the Big Ten title from Ohio State, and also severely hurts their chances of finishing in second place or even third. They will have to bounce back on Tuesday against Michigan State or they'll really put themselves in a hole. Their next game after that will be on the road at Michigan on January 8th.

This is a huge win for an Iowa team that was really reeling. Their non-conference performance was really disappointing: losses to Campbell, Clemson and Iowa State, and zero quality wins. Even after this huge win their RPI is still 145th, and their Sagarin ELO_CHESS will be in that neighborhood as well. But it gives them a much better shot at a respectable Big Ten record (7 or 8 wins, perhaps). They'll play on the road at Minnesota on Wednesday, and then will come home for a game against Ohio State next Saturday.

#17 Michigan State 68, Nebraska 55
Nebraska had an opportunity to start their first ever season in the Big Ten with a pair of home games. Unfortunately, those games were against Wisconsin and Michigan State. Both games ended up double-digit losses. Here, Nebraska just could not handle the Michigan State defense. Not only did they shoot 28% on their threes, but they only hit 44% of their twos as well. Keith Appling played well again for the Spartans (14 points on 5-for-10 shooting, along with 4 assists), and the team also got some quality minutes off the bench from Austin Thornton.

Michigan State is very quietly a real contender in the Big Ten. They started the season 0-2 with losses to North Carolina and Duke, but they're 13-0 since with wins over Indiana, Gonzaga and Florida State. Ohio State tripping up against Indiana today gives Michigan State an early one game lead over the Big Ten favorites. A key game for them will Tuesday on the road at Wisconsin. A win there and the Spartans will really be able to make a claim as the potential favorites in the Big Ten. After that they'll get a week off before a home game against Iowa.

Nebraska is now 0-2 with a road game Tuesday at Ohio State followed by a road game at Illinois next Saturday. In other words, there's a really good chance they'll be 0-4 heading into a home game against Penn State on January 11th.

Youngstown State 73, Cleveland State 67
This game got lost in all the action today, but it's a really shocking upset as well. Youngstown State is a perennial bottom-feeder in the Horizon, and Cleveland State had been arguably the best team in the league up to this point in the season. Both Pomeroy and the Vegas casinos projected a 13 point victory for Cleveland State. Cleveland State was held back here by the fact that they don't have an explosive scorer this season. They don't have a Norris Cole-type player that can get them a few baskets when they need them. When they fell behind in this game, they had grind their way back in, and just couldn't do it. The star for Youngstown State was Damian Eargle (20 points on 8-for-11 shooting, along with 10 rebounds).

Cleveland State was always a long shot for an at-large bid, but this just about ends whatever hopes they had. They now have three bad losses (Hofstra, South Florida and Youngstown State) and only one real quality win (Vanderbilt). But even with their at-large hopes effectively gone, they're still a prime contender to win the Horizon League. This loss sets them back, but they still have home games against Butler, Milwaukee and Detroit to go. Their next game will be Thursday against Illinois-Chicago.

This win will probably be the highlight of Youngstown State's season, though it is worth noting that they're 2-1 in conference play and will likely see their Pomeroy rating move up to around 200th in the nation (they haven't finished higher than 210th since the 2006-07 season). They only have two seniors in their regular rotation as well, so things are getting better for a program that, as I said, has been a perennial bottom-feeder. Their next game will be Thursday, against Loyola-Chicago.

Louisville's Offense Abandons Them At Kentucky

#3 Kentucky 69, #4 Louisville 62
You had to know what you were getting into with this game. The athleticism on these two teams is mind-boggling, but the game was just incredibly sloppy and out-of-control. There were 34 turnovers, 18 steals, 15 blocks and only 16 assists. There were 70 free throw attempts compared to only 37 made shots from the field. By my calculation this game had 80 possessions... and neither team broke 70 points. If there was one player that really stuck out, though, it was Michael Kidd-Gilchrist. We already knew he was the best player on Kentucky, but his poise and maturity stood out so starkly among all the craziness of this game. He looked like the one guy under control.

For Louisville, besides the fact that they were terribly sloppy offensively (if I'm right about the 80 possessions, then the 0.78 offensive efficiency for them is their worst since December 14th, 2010), this was something of a "changing of the guard" game. Last season, this team rose and fell with Peyton Siva. Every big win they had came when Siva hit big shots in the final minute. Heading into this season, it was assumed Siva would be even better. He was named Second Team All-Big East preseason - the only Louisville player honored at all. Yet what I've seen these past few games has been terrible inefficiency from him. He attacks the rim completely out of control, taking horrible shots, often with 20-25 seconds left on the shot clock. He never just works the offense. Siva's Pomeroy ORtg is under 100 this season, making him only the fourth most efficient Louisville starter.

In this game, Louisville went on runs when the ball came out of the hands of Siva, and went into the hands of Russ Smith. Smith had 30 points, on 10-for-20 shooting here. Smith was averaging 7.1 points per game through December 15th - he's averaged 20.6 since. In my opinion, Louisville needs to take the ball out of the hands of Siva. Siva is a great attacking player, and you can put the ball in his hands when you need a basket late in the game or shot clock, but the normal-possession offense needs to be run through the most efficient ball handler, and right now that's Russ Smith.

The good news for Louisville is that this game didn't count in the conference standings. They're still 0-1 in Big East play with a relatively soft upcoming schedule. They'll play at St. John's Tuesday, and then will play Notre Dame next Saturday. After that they'll play Providence and DePaul before their next really tough game, on the road at Marquette on January 16th. Kentucky also gets a soft start to their SEC schedule, against South Carolina, Auburn and Tennessee. They might not be seriously tested until they face Alabama on January 21st.

Seton Hall 67, West Virginia 48
I wanted to talk about one final game from last night. West Virginia has a tendency to struggle to score if they're not hitting threes and can't get out in transition. They were only 6-for-20 on threes here, and they forced only one steal. A lot of credit goes to the Seton Hall backcourt for hanging onto the ball, but I thought they just had a sound offensive strategy. Rather than asking the guards to create offense, they ran the offense through the bigs, allowing the guards to sit back. Herb Pope and Fuquan Edwin were unstoppable in the paint, combining for 32 points on 14-for-25 shooting.

Seton Hall is a team that is still a bit of a mystery. Their RPI has been awful high all season long, and after this win it's all the way up to 3rd in the nation. Their Sagarin ELO_CHESS is 15th, their PREDICTOR is 46th and their Pomeroy rating is 43rd. They have wins over West Virginia, Dayton, St. Joe's and VCU, with zero bad losses. They're 3-0 in games decided by five points or less, and two of those were decided in overtime. In other words, they're a pretty good team, but they've been a little lucky. And while they have several decent wins, none are great resume-builders. By Selection Sunday, none of those wins will be the wins they're bragging about. So everything is going to come down to Big East play, where they're off to a 1-1 start. In my opinion, a 9-9 Big East record puts them on the bubble, and a 10-8 record probably gets them in. One thing that works in their favor is a relatively soft Big East schedule. All Big East teams will play a second game against three different opponents, and Seton Hall is matched up with Rutgers, DePaul and UConn. They'll play UConn Tuesday, and then have a road game at Providence next Saturday.

West Virginia had a stronger set of non-conference wins than Seton Hall. They beat Kansas State, Missouri State and Miami (Fl), along with a bad loss to Kent State. They'll still need to go 10-8 in the Big East to feel good about an at-large bid, but at 9-9 they'll be better positioned heading into the Big East tournament than Seton Hall. They go to Rutgers Wednesday, and then get Georgetown next Saturday.

Virginia Tech 67, Oklahoma State 61
For whatever reason, nobody ever pays attention to games like this. I understand that it's not a conference game, but Oklahoma State is a bubble team and this is a very nice win for Virginia Tech. This is as good of a win as a win at Florida State or Virginia, but it won't get 1/5th as much attention, even from Hokies fans. The difference in this game was the fact that Oklahoma State doesn't really have a front court. They've been getting murdered on the boards all season, and that continued here (a 47.1 OR% for Va Tech, compared to 18.2% for the Cowboys).

Travis Ford is trying to recruit bigs, and I do think that he'll eventually fill out his front line. True freshman Le'Bryan Nash is already a good player, but he's still learning how to rebound. Michael Cobbins, a 2010 recruit, still needs to get in the weight room and to fill in his frame. 2012 recruit Kamari Murphy will also be asked to add size. But unless some of these young bigs develop quickly, Oklahoma State's chances of making the 2012 NCAA Tournament are starting to get a little bit long. They are only 7-6, and though none of the losses are that bad, they only have one decent win (Missouri State). The Selection Committee does care about win-loss records, and they're not going to give an at-large bid to a team that goes 17-16 (which is what Oklahoma State will be if they go 9-9 in conference play and win one game in the Big 12 tournament). That means that as good as the Big 12 is, Oklahoma State is going to have to go at least 10-8 in Big 12 play, and even at 10-8 will need to do some damage in the Big 12 tournament. They'll open Wednesday against Texas Tech.

Virginia Tech enters ACC play 10-3 with a pair of wins over Oklahoma State and zero bad losses. The ACC is down this year, though, so Virginia Tech won't feel comfortable if they only finish 9-7 in the ACC, particularly considering their history with the Selection Committee the past few years. They'll open next Saturday with a road game at Wake Forest, and then will play a home game against Florida State and a road game at Boston College. Those are all games that they should win. They just need to take care of business.

Princeton Knocks Off Florida St In Triple Overtime

Princeton 75, Florida State 73, 3OT
This was a very, very strange game. A mediocre Princeton team won on the road at Florida State despite a bad game from star Doug Davis (8-for-24 from the field, 2 rebounds, 0 assists). Florida State had only ten points in the first half, and ended the game with only nine assists. Despite an offensive flurry in the third overtime (13 points for FSU), they still finished with only 0.90 PPP. One thing that's gotten clear is that Florida State struggles offensively if they can't rebound the ball. They lost in the Bahamas to a Harvard team that held them to a 19.4 OR%. In the first half of this game, when they scored only ten points, they had a 17.4 OR%. It was because FSU rebounded the ball better the rest of the game (a 47.4 OR%) that they were able to get back into the game. They fell in overtime because of atrocious free throw shooting (50% for the game, 3-for-10 in overtime).

Florida State, a team that was looking like the clear third best team in the ACC, is suddenly looking like a bubble team. This is a bad loss, and they have zero quality wins. They have a home game against Auburn on Wednesday that you would think they'd win, but even with that win they'll enter ACC play needing to win at least nine games to have a shot on Selection Sunday. And unless they have a strong ACC tournament and/or there's a very weak bubble, FSU will probably need to go 10-6 or better. They'll open conference play January 7th at Clemson.

Princeton moves to 7-7 with their biggest scalp of the season by far (their previous best win came over Buffalo). The computers say that second place in the Ivy League is wide open (both Sagarin and Pomeroy rate Princeton very narrowly ahead of Yale for second), but you have to figure that with their personnel the Tigers are clearly the most likely team to challenge Harvard. They'll open conference play January 13th at Cornell.

Dayton 62, Mississippi 50
Dayton's defense, particularly their field goal defense, has been pretty bad this season, but Mississippi's offense has been worse. Ole Miss had a 39.8 eFG% and hit only 52% at the line. Only Buffalo shot worse against Dayton this season. Dayton was led by Chris Johnson, their best offensive player (16 points on 5-for-10 shooting, 5 rebounds, 5 assists). Ole Miss has now played 11 games this season against teams not from the SWAC. They have scored greater than 1 PPP in only three of them. That's tremendous offensive futility.

Ole Miss is now 9-4 with a win over Miami (Fl) and questionable losses to Dayton and Middle Tennessee St. They've actually dropped outside the Top 100 of both the Pomeroy and Sagarin PREDICTOR ratings. Assuming they can beat SMU on Wednesday, they'll need to go at least 9-7 in SEC play, and (with the unbalanced schedule) probably 10-6 or better to make the NCAA Tournament.

Dayton is a long way off from the Big 3 in the Atlantic Ten (Xavier, Temple, Saint Louis), but they shouldn't be counted out as an at-large contender. They're 10-4 with wins over Alabama, Minnesota and Ole Miss, along with weak losses to Miami (OH) and Buffalo. They'd be out of the Tournament if the season ended now, but with the strength of the A-10 (and the weakness of the Pac-12 and ACC), Dayton will be on the bubble if they can get to 10-6 or better in A-10 play. They open with a huge game on Wednesday against Saint Louis. Three days later they'll play at Temple.

Stanford 60, UCLA 59
UCLA's been playing a lot better over the last few weeks, and they nearly pulled a relatively big upset at Stanford. Lazeric Jones (26 points on 8-for-13 shooting) has become an offensive weapon - he's scored in double-digits in eight straight games after averaging only 9.0 points per game in the first five games of the season. The emergence of Jones has keyed the strong stretch UCLA has been on. They'd won five straight coming in here. Stanford hung on partially because of a strong offensive performance by Aaron Brown, who was 4-for-8 on threes and hit four straight clutch free throws late.

UCLA's been playing better, but they still don't have any great wins, and they had those awful losses to Loyola Marymount and Middle Tennessee State to open the season. They're back inside the Top 100 in the Pomeroy and Sagarin PREDICTOR ratings, but their resume is still really bad (their ELO_CHESS is 159th and their RPI is 167th. Even an 11-7 Pac-12 record, an unlikely event, probably wouldn't be enough to put them in the NCAA Tournament. And now they're 0-1. It's not looking good. They'll play on the road at California later today. Next week they'll play the two Arizona schools.

While UCLA is playing better, and this is a solid victory for Stanford, the reality is that a loss would have been brutal for Stanford's computer numbers. They're now 11-2 with wins over Oklahoma State and NC State, along with an iffy loss to Butler. As bad as the Pac-12 is, Stanford needs to get to 11-7 or better to feel confident in their at-large hopes heading into the Pac-12 tournament. They'll try to move to 2-0 later today against USC. Next week they'll be on the road against the two Oregon schools.

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.

Vanderbilt's Quick Start Blows Away Marquette

Vanderbilt 74, #13 Marquette 57
The start of this game was a nightmare for Marquette. They hit only 2 of their first 20 shots from the field, and Vanderbilt actually led 35-8 at one point. Not only did Marquette finish with only a 34.7 eFG%, but they only hit 53% from the line as well. Nothing was working. Vanderbilt got a tremendous defensive performance from Lance Goulbourne (16 rebounds, 3 steals, 3 blocks), though the straw that stirred the drink for Vanderbilt was clearly Jeffery Taylor (19 points on 7-for-14 shooting).

It's always a mistake to draw too many conclusions from small sample sizes. I argued on twitter against those in the media that panicked about the polls and insisted Marquette needed to be rated higher because they beat Wisconsin. And now I'm going to argue against those that overreact because of a fluke ten minute stretch to open this game. It's a bad result, but Marquette still enters Big East play with a legitimate chance to make a run at the conference title. They'll open up on Sunday against Villanova, and then will play at Georgetown on Wednesday.

I'm not ready to declare Vanderbilt "back" because of one crazy stretch to open this game, but with Festus Ezeli gradually getting close to 100% health there's no question that confidence is rising in Nashville. Their resume is still dicey for now, though. They have this win along with wins over NC State, Oregon and Oregon State. They also have bad losses to Indiana State and Cleveland State. Assuming that they beat Miami (OH) on Monday, they'll head into SEC play needing at least a 9-7 record to earn an at-large bid. And honestly, they probably need to get to ten conference wins to feel confident on Selection Sunday.

Illinois State 65, Northern Iowa 61
This is a tough loss for Northern Iowa. For one thing, they'll feel like they should have won this game. UNI had nine fewer turnovers, three more offensive rebounds and five more steals. But they finished with only a 44.0 eFG%, while Illinois State hit 50% of their threes and finished with a 58.5 eFG%. Illinois State just hit big shots while Northern Iowa didn't.

The Missouri Valley Conference is playing its best ball in several years, and there's been a lot of talk about the conference earning three or four NCAA Tournament bids. The problem is that at-large bids are given to teams, not conferences, and right now I only see two clear at-large teams: Creighton and Wichita State. Northern Iowa is probably the third best team in the conference, but right now they just don't look like an NCAA Tournament team. They have wins over Iowa and Iowa State, along with losses to Ohio and now Illinois State. They're probably going to need to get to 13-5 in conference play to make the NCAA Tournament, and now they're off to an 0-1 start. They should be able to bounce back with a few wins, though, with home games against Evansville (Sunday) and Indiana State (Wednesday) up next.

If Northern Iowa isn't the third best team in the MVC, it could be Missouri State, but it could also be Illinois State. The Redbirds hadn't really achieved much of anything this season prior to this game, but the computers liked them quite a bit (their Sagarin PREDICTOR was 80th even before this game). This is their first quality win of the season (though that Rutgers win might turn into an RPI Top 100 win by the end of the season), and they've got losses to Fresno State and UNC-Wilmington. They're nowhere close to the Tournament bubble right now, but it's not impossible for them to get in the at-large discussion if they can get on a roll and win a few games in a row. They'll play at Southern Illinois on Sunday, and then have a huge opportunity on Wednesday at Missouri State.

Washington 95, Oregon State 80
Washington didn't shoot the ball well in this game (4-for-18 on threes), but overall they did play some really efficient basketball here, despite the frenetic pace (77 possessions, by my calculation). They committed only nine turnovers, and finished with 1.23 PPP. Considering the opponent, it's the best offensive performance Washington has had all season long. Tony Wroten scored 26 points and had 9 rebounds, and the Huskies also got a really nice game from Abdul Gaddy (13 points on 6-for-10 shooting, along with six assists).

This was the best Washington has played this season, and it led to their best win of the season. The latter half of that sentence, however, is not a good sign for a team hoping to make the NCAA Tournament. Washington has losses to South Dakota State and Nevada, and will need to go 12-6 or better in Pac-12 play to even have a chance on Selection Sunday. They'll try to move to 2-0 on Saturday against Oregon. With Colorado and Utah up after that, Washington should get off to a quick 4-0 start before moving to the more difficult part of their Pac-12 schedule.

Oregon State got some at-large buzz after that early season overtime victory against Texas, but they've faded since. They don't have any other quality wins, and now have losses to Idaho and Washington. They'll need to get to at least 11-7 in conference play to have a chance on Selection Sunday, and they could get really buried in a brutal schedule to start Pac-12 play (well... "brutal" by Pac-12 standards). They'll play at Washington State on Saturday and then head home to play the two northern California schools before heading on the road to play the two Arizona schools. They probably won't lose all of those games, but they could be underdogs in all of them.

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Rutgers Shocks Florida

Rutgers 85, #10 Florida 83, 2OT
Most college basketball fans outside New Jersey don't understand how big of a deal it was when Mike Rosario signed with Rutgers. He was a home town kid who was more than just a blue chip recruit, he was going to be the savior of the program. The pressure was immense, and in the end he left the program to play for Florida. Rutgers fans and players felt tremendously betrayed. That program is now rebuilding under Mike Rice, and this was their chance to show Rosario what he was missing. Rutgers got off to a slow start to this game, but seemed to flip a switch when Rosario checked into the game for the first time. Certainly the crowd came alive.

When you've got a game that goes into multiple overtimes there's always going to be a lot of luck involved, but Rutgers deserved a win like this. They're a better team than their putrid resume would suggest. Coming into this game they had losses to Princeton, LSU, Richmond and Illinois State, and zero wins over the RPI Top 200 (their best win came over Stony Brook). But this is a team that I believe has a real chance to win six or seven games in Big East play, and to potentially be a bubble team next season. They will open Big East play on New Year's Day at South Florida. Their schedule through the rest of January is pretty brutal, so it will do them a lot of good to get off to a positive start at USF.

Florida came into this game with a really solid resume, with their only losses coming against Syracuse and Ohio State. Though if you think about it, Florida is the type of team that should be inconsistent, what with their heavy reliance on the three-pointer and an offense that too often rushes things and rarely works the ball into the paint. They now have a couple of relatively easy home games (Yale and UAB) coming up before beginning SEC play, where they still do look like the top contender to Kentucky. Their first SEC game will be January 7th at Tennessee.

#7 Baylor 54, #14 Mississippi State 52
This game was not an offensive showcase, but both of these teams are very athletic and talented and it was a fun game. To put this game in perspective with a single stat - there were nearly as many steals (19) as assists (20). I was impressed with the way Mississippi State hung in this game - I thought they'd get beaten more soundly than this. The one worry was at the end of the game when Renardo Sidney mentally regressed by fouling out and then getting called for a technical for whining about the call. The gorilla in the room with Mississippi State is always maturity, and it will be key if Sidney can immediately get back to where he was for the first 38 minutes of this game, when he actually played quite well (10 points on 5-for-6 shooting). Arnett Moultrie is the best big on MSU, but if Sidney's not playing then their front court gets very, very thin.

Mississippi State will play Utah State on Saturday. With a win there they'll head into SEC play knowing that a 9-7 finish plus a win in the SEC tournament will probably be sufficient to earn them an at-large bid. They'll open SEC play on January 7th at Arkansas.

Baylor moves to 13-0, though three of those wins have been by three points or less. I doubt they'll stay undefeated past January 16th (they'll play at Kansas that day, and also have a tough game at Kansas State six days prior), but it's an impressive start to the season nonetheless. They'll open Big 12 play on Monday against Texas A&M.

Purdue 79, Iowa 76
After an up-and-down non-conference season, including that tough loss a couple of weeks ago to Butler, there were a lot of people thinking Purdue is only a bubble team this season. I'm not one of them, but I might have changed my mind if Purdue opened Big Ten play with a bad loss at Iowa. Honestly, the only reason this score was as close as it ended up was because Purdue couldn't keep Iowa off the line (29 free throw attempts compared to only 11 for the Boilermakers).

Iowa is, in a lot of ways, very similar to the Rutgers team I talked about at the top of this post. Iowa is also a team rebuilding under a good second-year coach that I expected to be feisty in conference play this season, but that got off to a poor start to the season. In Iowa's case, that meant zero quality wins along with weak losses to Campbell, Iowa State and Clemson. I still think they have the ability to win six or seven games in Big Ten play, but falling at home to Purdue isn't going to help that cause. They're unlikely to bounce back on Saturday at Wisconsin, and then will play Minnesota on January 4th. After that they play Ohio State and on the road at Michigan State. If they don't win at Minnesota they could go quite far into this season without a win in Big Ten play.

Purdue will probably make the NCAA Tournament if they can go 9-9 in conference play and then win at least one Big Ten tournament game. They have an important "taking care of business" game on Saturday against Illinois. After that they'll have to avoid a potential trap game at Penn State on January 5th.

Kyle Weems Sparks Missouri State's Win Over Creighton

Missouri State 77, #19 Creighton 65
Kyle Weems always has the potential to explode offensively like he did here, with 25 second half points on the way to 31 points for the game. But that was only half of the reason why Missouri State won a true road game at an excellent Creighton team. Creighton only scored 0.98 PPP, only their third game below 1.10 PPP this season. I had a post last weekend talking about Creighton's mind-boggling offensive stats, and the fact is that they still shot okay from behind the arc here (43%). But what happened here was that Missouri State's interior defense, which has been great all season, was spectacular. They held Creighton to a 35.3 2P%, by far their worst of the season.

Kyle Weems is a strong defensive player in his own right, but it's a team effort on defense for the Bears. Caleb Patterson, Jamar Gulley and Keith Patterson are all quality defenders. And that defense is a big reason why Missouri State, as weak as their resume was coming into this game, is still a very good team. The Bears now have their first quality win of the season, though they only have one soft loss to go with it (Oral Roberts). They're only 1-4 against the RPI Top 100, but they'll get plenty of chances to improve on that in a solid Missouri Valley Conference. Their immediate upcoming schedule, however, is relatively soft - they'll play Drake on Saturday and then Illinois State on Wednesday.

You never want to lose at home to anybody, and this will be a disappointing loss for Creighton, but they had built some slack in their resume after a strong non-conference performance. They have wins over San Diego State, Northwestern and Nebraska, and only have losses to St. Joseph's and Missouri State. They'll still be an at-large team if they can get to 12-6 or better in Missouri Valley play and perform well in the MVC tournament. They've got a huge game up next, on Saturday at Wichita State. After that they shouldn't be tested again until a game on January 10th against Northern Iowa.

New Mexico 89, New Mexico State 69
New Mexico State actually won at New Mexico back in mid-November. But in the rematch at their place? They were just taken to the woodshed by a New Mexico team hitting on all cylinders. New Mexico star Drew Gordon (23 points, 19 rebounds) outplayed New Mexico State star Wendell McKines (25 points, 15 rebounds), but the real difference was on the perimeter. Tony Snell was white hot (5-for-8 on threes, 9-for-9 at the line), and New Mexico as a team finished 12-for-24 on threes, with 9 steals.

The reality is that New Mexico is just playing much better than they were two months ago. They started the season by losing to New Mexico State and Santa Clara, but have won nine straight now, including victories over Oklahoma State, Missouri State, Washington State and New Mexico State. They've slid into the Top 25 in both the Sagarin PREDICTOR and Pomeroy ratings. They will play St. Louis in a huge non-conference game on Saturday. If they can win there, then even an 8-6 conference record will probably be enough for an at-large bid.

New Mexico State is now 8-5, with a bad loss to UTEP and only that one nice win over New Mexico. It's hard to see a path for them to an at-large bid, but they are clearly one of the favorites in the WAC (Utah State and Nevada are probably their two top rivals). They'll open conference play on January 7th at Louisiana Tech.

North Dakota State 96, Oakland 69
To say that North Dakota State shot the lights out here is an understatement. They hit 60% of their threes and finished with a 74.6 eFG%. That's not just their best shooting performance in nearly five years (since a January 20, 2007 game against Winston Salem State), but it's the second best shooting performance by any team in the nation this season that had more than 75 possessions in a game (UNLV shot slightly better against in a game played last night as well, against Central Arkansas). In fact, Oakland fought to a draw in the rebounding and turnover battles of the game, and earned more than twice as many free throw attempts, so shooting was the real difference in this game.

This is a game that didn't get any attention outside Summit League fans and media, and there's a reason for that. It's going to be a one-bid league, so this game doesn't really affect the at-large hopes of any team from any other conference. But the Summit has four dominant teams, and these are two of them (Oral Roberts and South Dakota State are the other two). However it happened, for North Dakota State to destroy Oakland like this is notable.

North Dakota State shouldn't have much trouble with IPFW on Friday, but then they've got a huge road game at Oral Roberts on January 5th. A win there would really give them a step up in the battle for the Summit regular season title. Oakland, meanwhile, has a chance to bounce back in a big way tomorrow at South Dakota State. They'll also play Oral Roberts at home on Tuesday.

Georgetown Wins On The Road At Louisville

#12 Georgetown 71, #4 Louisville 68
Georgetown looked to have this game under control late, leading by 11 with a little more than four minutes remaining. But that's when Rick Pitino's Louisville team turned on that patented frenetic full court press, and things began to fall apart. Georgetown's next four possessions ended on a trio of turnovers and a bad rushed shot from Hollis Thompson trying to break the press. Louisville went on an 11-0 run over that stretch, tying the game. But the Hoyas are experienced and poised and they hung in there, and eventually Louisville self-destructed on offense. Peyton Siva is a great player, particularly in the clutch, but sometimes he forces some awful shots when he feels like his team needs him. He needs to have more faith in his teammates.

This game is huge for the Big East pecking order. Syracuse was, and remains, the Big East favorite, but Louisville was considered by many to be the second best team. After two awful narrow wins over Charleston and Western Kentucky, Louisville now falls at home to Georgetown and in no way looks like the second best team in the conference. I do think Louisville will eventually turn things around, but a home loss to Georgetown is going to be a huge hurdle to try to overcome.

Louisville will try to stop their slide on Saturday at arch-rival Kentucky. After that game they'll get a breather, beginning with a home game against St. John's on January 3rd. Georgetown will play Providence on Saturday, and then gets ready for a big home game against Marquette on January 4th. Marquette is one of the teams that might end up the second best in the Big East, and Georgetown can't throw away a big road win by falling at home to Marquette.

#17 Michigan State 80, #15 Indiana 65
I thought that this would be a "reality check" game for Indiana, but it ended up just being a bizarre game all around. The most jarring stat is the fact that Indiana went on a 25-2 run at one point... and still lost by 15. A big reason was a 20-0 run for Michigan State that put the game out of hand, sparked by 9 points from Adreian Payne and a bogged-down Indiana offense. The IU offense bogged down because after Cody Zeller got into foul trouble the team became very perimeter oriented and went cold from the field.

Derrick Nix did some good work for Michigan State inside (14 points and 5 rebounds), though the Spartans star here was definitely Keith Appling (25 points, 6 rebounds, 7 assists). Appling's outside shooting in particular opened up the paint for players like Nix and Payne.

Michigan State isn't getting any hype as a potential Big Ten contender, but their resume is getting hard to ignore. They lost their opening two games to North Carolina and Duke, but have won 12 straight since then, including victories over Florida State, Gonzaga and Indiana. They have to avoid a letdown on Saturday at Nebraska, and then will have a huge opportunity on Tuesday at Wisconsin. A win at the Kohl Center would make the Spartans a contender to win the entire conference.

This loss is no reason to worry for Indiana. The Hoosiers played well, and in no way looked like one of those fraudulent teams that beats up on soft competition out-of-conference and then gets exposed once they show up for conference play. They acquitted themselves well here at the Breslin Center, and will try to carry that momentum into a huge home game on Saturday against Ohio State. Their next game after that will be January 5th against Michigan.

West Virginia 83, Villanova 69
There was a scary moment in the second half here, when West Virginia star Kevin Jones took a hit to the head and fell to the ground. It looked like it could have been a concussion or worse, but after some time in the locker room he got stitched up and got back into the game. The star for the Mountaineers in this game was actually Truck Bryant (34 points, 3 assists and only 2 turnovers). As a team, West Virginia committed only seven turnovers all game long.

Villanova, as has been the case all season long, got weak play from their perimeter players. They hit only 3-for-14 behind the arc (they're at 31% for the season), and committed more turnovers (15) than assists (12).

Villanova is now only 7-6 overall with a road game at Marquette coming up next, on Sunday. A loss there, besides dropping them to .500 overall, would also drop them to 0-2 in Big East play, knowing that they probably need to get to 10-8 in Big East play to have a shot on Selection Sunday. Their schedule does ease up after that with home games against USF and DePaul.

West Virginia has wins over Kansas State, Missouri State and Miami (Fl) to go with this one, and only one potentially bad loss (Kent State). They don't look like they have a shot to finish in the top four or five in the Big East, but at least they look clearly like a Tournament team (which is more than can be said about Villanova). They'll play at Seton Hall on Friday and then on the road at Rutgers on January 4th. Their schedule gets really brutal in February, so it will behoove them to rack up wins against softer opponents in December and January.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Is Pittsburgh A Bubble Team?

Notre Dame 72, #22 Pittsburgh 59
After Wagner knocked off Pitt over the weekend, I talked about how crucial the first two Big East games would be for the Panthers. The reason I said that was because of Pitt's shockingly weak non-conference performance. They have only one quality win (Oklahoma State) and have that bad loss to Wagner. The fact is that they're probably going to need to get to 9-9 in Big East play just to make the NCAA Tournament. And that's why these first two games, at Notre Dame and at home against Cincinnati, matter so much. Pitt just can't afford to lose games they're supposed to win if they're going to ease their way to a .500 or better record. With this loss they're looking more and more like a bubble team.

Statistically, Pitt's biggest problem this season is defense. Pomeroy currently rates their offense 10th in the nation and their defense 159th. And yes, they did give up a horrible 1.24 PPP against Notre Dame here. But what stood out to me watching this game was how bad the Pitt offense looked. Efficient offense has been a staple of Pitt basketball in the Jamie Dixon era, but they looked lost on offense here. They finished with a 40.8 eFG%, their worst shooting performance of the season. Of course, Pitt only had a 41.7 eFG% in that loss to Wagner, and scored a combined 0.97 PPP in the two games. So Pitt's problems aren't just on defense. Their offense hasn't been good.

This was a nice, tough performance from a Notre Dame team that clearly hasn't folded up the tent on the season yet, despite the season-ending injury to Tim Abromaitis. This is their first quality win of the season, but they don't have any awful losses (Georgia and Maryland are their two worst losses), and they're up to 64th in the Pomeroy ratings. They'll probably have to get to 10-8 in Big East play to have a real shot at an at-large bid, but they're off to a good start. They'll be back in action January 4th at Cincinnati, and then will play at Louisville on January 7th.

Pittsburgh, as I said, will try to avoid an 0-2 start on New Year's Day against Cincinnati. After that their schedule eases up with games at DePaul and at home against Rutgers.

Illinois 81, Minnesota 72, 2OT
This was a game between two struggling teams that really needed a 1-0 start to Big Ten play. I think Illinois is the better of the two teams, but they struggled mightily here at home. They committed a brutal 21 turnovers, and were only saved by cold Minnesota shooting (a 40.6 eFG%). The key for Illinois was Meyers Leonard, who is clearly going to be a contender for First Team All-Big Ten. He destroyed the Minnesota bigs with a variety of nice moves in the paint, and ended up with 20 points (on 6-for-10 shooting), 11 rebounds and 5 blocks. The Illini also got a second straight nice performance from Joseph Bertrand off the bench (32 points combined in the past two games, after only two points total in his previous six games).

This is a missed opportunity for Minnesota. They're going to struggle to win road games in the Big Ten, and this would have been a nice one to start Big Ten play. Their problem on the road is going to be the lack of a go-to scorer. When their opponent gets going on a run and the crowd gets involved, Minnesota just doesn't have a player they can rely on to get a basket.

The Gophers have a quality win over Virginia Tech and only one dicey loss (Dayton), so even with an 8-10 Big Ten record they'll be in the bubble discussion on Selection Sunday (assuming they get a big scalp or two along the way). But even 8-10 is going to be difficult. Their next game will be Sunday at Michigan. If they fall to 0-2 then a January 4th game at home against Iowa becomes something of a must-win.

Illinois has this win along with a win over Gonzaga, and zero bad losses. They also will need to get to 8-10 to be in the bubble discussion on Selection Sunday, and will be in good shape if they get to 9-9. They'll play at Purdue on Saturday, and then at Northwestern on January 4th.

#11 Wisconsin 64, Nebraska 40
Nebraska's first ever Big Ten game was always going to be difficult against Wisconsin and with both Jorge Brian Diaz and Dylan Talley out with injuries, but this was just such a classic Bo Ryan game. Watching the game the teams seemed very even the entire way, but then you'd look at the scoreboard and see Wisconsin up 20. The Badgers defense is just so suffocating (they're leading the nation in both 2P% and eFG% against, and are third in the nation in 3P% against) and they play at such a slow pace that each point scored against them feels epic. Then they'll go on a run on offense where they'll hit a couple threes in a row, and complete a 10-0 run that feels like it might as well be a 30-0 run. It's incredibly demoralizing for their opponents.

The big concern for Wisconsin, and it was on display here, is scoring consistency. Even against a Nebraska team missing a key big and that isn't great on the boards when healthy, the Badgers still only got six offensive rebounds, and they almost never get out in transition. Since they launch so many threes (their 3PA/FGA ratio is 66th in the nation) it means that their offense is often just a launched three followed by all five players rushing back on defense. There's no question that on average Wisconsin has a very efficient offense, but if they get in a rut where they go cold behind the arc, they have the potential to go very, very long stretches without scoring. And it makes you wonder if they'll be consistent enough on offense to win more than 12 or so games in Big Ten play.

Wisconsin shouldn't have too much trouble on Saturday against Iowa. They'll play Michigan State on Tuesday before two tough road games at Michigan and at Purdue. Nebraska will continue on with what is a brutal schedule to start Big Ten regular season play. Four of their first eight games in Big Ten regular season play will be against Wisconsin and Ohio State (yikes). They'll play Michigan State on New Year's Eve before a road game at Ohio State on Tuesday.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Kansas State Is Better Than We Thought

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.

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Wagner Knocks Off Pitt

Wagner 59, #13 Pittsburgh 54
Weird things happen during final exams, and a number of quality teams ended up struggling with inferior opponents. While this game was going on it was Louisville struggling with a Western Kentucky team that was 24 point underdogs. Louisville pulled that game out, but Pitt fell here. Pitt was sloppy (18 turnovers) and couldn't hit a shot (41.7 eFG%). To put this in perspective for a Pitt team that is always efficient under Jamie Dixon, not only was this 0.89 PPP performance their first game under 1 PPP of the season, but it was their their first sub-1 PPP performance since a 62-59 loss at Louisville back in February. Wagner is a solid defensive team, but there's no question that this result was more of a fluke than anything else.

But fluke or not, it's going to be on Pitt's resume all season long. And while they've played fairly well this season, they've played a very soft schedule and it's led to a soft resume. They have wins over Oklahoma State, La Salle and Tennessee, along with losses to Wagner and Long Beach State. To put in perspective how soft that resume is, their Sagarin ELO_CHESS has fallen all the way to 76th. I still think they're going to be one of the best teams in the Big East, but that's a precarious belief. If they head into Big East play and lose a couple of games early, I'll jump off the bandwagon. They will open on Tuesday at Notre Dame, and then will play Cincinnati on January 1st. Both are games that they should win if they're as good as I think they are.

This is the defining win for Dan Hurley in his second season at Wagner. It's a fluke win, but Wagner did play well and will have this win to buoy their confidence all season long. I picked Robert Morris preseason to win the Northeast Conference, but I picked Wagner as a sleeper. Robert Morris is still my pick to win the conference, but Wagner may have passed LIU as the top conference contender (LIU did beat Wagner by five points at home a few weeks ago, but I'm not sure a five point win at home proves too much). Wagner will get back to conference play on January 5th at Fairleigh Dickinson.

#7 Baylor 83, West Virginia 81, OT
The key for Baylor in big games this season has been hot outside shooting, particularly by Brady Heslip, providing just enough offense to earn the win that their quality defense sets up. And indeed, Brady Heslip hit 5-fo-7 behind the arc here, and was joined by Juco transfer Pierre Jackson's 4-for-7. Baylor has had five quality wins this season: BYU, San Diego State, St. Mary's, West Virginia and Northwestern. In those five games, Heslip hit 20-for-37 (54%) of his threes. In their six other Division I games he hit 13-for-33 (39%). As a team, their four best three-point shooting performances against Division I opponents came against those quality opponents.

In my view, those statistics have to even out. Either Baylor is going to stop shooting so well against elite opponents, or they're going to start shooting better against bad opponents. It's probably going to be a little bit of both, but I do think that if they're not hitting outside shots against top opponents they're going to struggle to score enough points. They will play Mississippi State on Wednesday, and then will open Big 12 play January 2nd against Texas A&M. Before the month of January is out they'll play road games at Kansas, Oklahoma and Kansas State, as well as home games against Texas and Missouri. Surely they'll be cold shooting behind the arc in several of those games. We'll find out soon enough if they can pull any of those games out.

This is a tough loss for West Virginia because they did play well. Kevin Jones led them with 28 points and 17 rebounds (he's got to be a contender for the first team All-American squad, right?), and true freshman Jabarie Hinds had the best game of his short college career (18 points on 7-for-11 shooting, along with 7 assists and only 2 turnovers). Baylor just shot well enough to barely escape with the win in overtime. WVU's resume is still solid. They have wins over Kansas State, Missouri State and Miami (Fl), with just one questionable loss (Kent State). They're rated 33rd by both the Pomeroy and Sagarin PREDICTOR ratings. The Big East is a little bit down this year, but a 10-8 conference record should be enough for an at-large bid for West Virginia. They'll open up conference play on Wednesday against Villanova.

Long Beach State 65, Auburn 43
Long Beach State is off to a good start to their trip to Hawaii. After handling an under-manned Xavier team, they destroyed a solid Auburn team here. And they won despite a nothing game from star Casper Ware (2-for-10 shooting from the field, 3 assists, 3 turnovers). Larry Anderson and Eugene Phelps picked up the slack with a combined 29 points on 10-for-14 shooting. More than anything, Auburn's defenders just couldn't stay in front of the slashing LBSU attacks. Long Beach State earned 25 free throw attempts, to only six for Auburn.

The bright spot for Auburn, as badly as they got beaten, was Frankie Sullivan. He missed nearly all of last season with a knee injury, but this was his best game since coming back - 22 points (including 6-for-9 on threes) and six rebounds. Sullivan is probably the best player Auburn has, and him returning to his best can only be a good thing. The fact is that despite this loss, Auburn is still 8-2 without any real bad losses (though zero good wins either). They'll play UTEP later today, and with a win there might actually start believing that they get up close enough to the bubble to have some relevant basketball games in February and March for the first time in three seasons. They also will play a road game at Florida State on January 4th before opening SEC play on January 7th at Vanderbilt.

Long Beach State has a chance to win the Diamond Head Classic tonight against Kansas State. They already beat Xavier and Auburn at this tournament, to go with that win over Pittsburgh back in November. They only have one bad loss (Montana) and have pushed their Sagarin ELO_CHESS up to 39th. They'd need to get that ELO_CHESS up closer to 30th, which would mean beating Kansas State and then finishing 13-3 or better in Big West play, to have any shot at an at-large bid. It's still an extremely long shot. But LBSU, with the Big West auto bid, could have a shot at an 11 or 12 seed and a real chance to win at least one game in the NCAA Tournament. Their first key conference game will be January 5th against a surging Cal Poly team.

Missouri Survives Illinois, Butler Knocks Off Stanford

#8 Missouri 78, #24 Illinois 74
This game was between two teams that I think are ranked too high in the polls, but it was a fun game with a wild neutral court crowd. For most of the game, Missouri was playing the efficient offense we've seen from them all season. But with a ten point lead and a little under ten minutes to go, they seemed to regress for a few minutes. Over the next three minutes they committed four turnovers, allowing an 11-0 run for Illinois to take a one-point lead. The Tigers settled down, though, and escaped with a four point win.

The story for Illinois, without question, was Joseph Bertrand. The sophomore came into this game averaging 3.2 points in 11.2 minutes per game. But he exploded for 18 points on 9-for-9 shooting in this game. He helped make up for another slow game from Sam Maniscalco, who has cooled off after a hot start to the season. After averaging 13.3 points per game with a 67.0 eFG% in November, he's down to 7.5 ppg with a 34.6 eFG% in December.

Illinois is 11-2, but with only one really nice win (Gonzaga). I picked them preseason to make the NCAA Tournament, and still think they will, but they're looking more and more like a bubble team. I think they'll most likely earn an at-large bid if they can finish 9-9 or better in Big Ten play. They open against Minnesota on Tuesday, and then head to Purdue on Saturday.

Missouri continues to find ways to win. They move to 12-0 with a decent collection of scalps (California, Villanova, Illinois and Notre Dame). I think they're going to slow down as the season goes along and opponents find ways to disrupt their offense flow, but at the very least they have to be considered one of the Big 12 title contenders. They will play at Old Dominion on Friday, and then open Big 12 play on January 3rd against Oklahoma.

Butler 71, Stanford 66
This was a tight, well-played game. Both teams played sound defense, which kept things close the entire way. Butler's offense, which had been atrocious for the first month of the season, has come alive their past three games. The biggest reason for the improvement has been that Ronald Nored has taken a bigger role in their offense and has been more aggressive. The story in this game, though, was Jackson Aldridge. The true freshman was expected to be an immediate impact player, but had been off to a slow start before this game (15 points on 5-for-7 shooting).

Butler is still only 6-7 after this win, including losses to Evansville, Valparaiso and Ball State. They've basically blown any chance at an at-large Tournament bid, but they're playing better. As good as Cleveland State and UW-Milwaukee have been this season, I still believe the Horizon League is Butler's to lose.

Stanford was probably the lone unexpected bright spot in the Pac-12 in the early going this season. They hadn't had a bad loss all season. But for the time being, at least, this loss to Butler will be a "bad" loss. Stanford fans will need to root for Butler to improve their resume. Even if that comes to pass, Stanford is going to need to win a lot of games to prove themselves in a poor Pac-12. I think they will need to finish 11-7 or better to go Dancing. Even 11-7 will be iffy without a good performance in the Pac-12 tournament. They'll open on Thursday against UCLA.

#23 UNLV 85, California 68
California is a team that the computers like a lot, but they haven't translated that into any wins of note yet. They are 10-3 without any bad losses, but their best wins came over Georgia and Denver. Their problem against quality opponents has been offense, which has become bogged down in all three of their losses (a combined 0.88 PPP). And now, it's left California heading into Pac-12 play without any big scalps. And obviously they won't be picking up any in conference play.

California could potentially be an interesting call on Selection Sunday. If they go 12-6 in conference play and win a couple of games in the Pac-12 tournament they'll finish the season 24-10, but with a soft Sagarin ELO_CHESS and a possibility of only one or two RPI Top 50 wins. It will be reminiscent of many mid-major resumes. I think Cal will need to overwhelm the Selection Committee with their number of wins. I'd like to see them get 25 wins to feel comfortable putting them in the bracket.

UNLV, my preseason pick to win the Mountain West, is looking more and more like a solid Sweet 16 contender and Final Four dark horse. They are 13-2 with wins over North Carolina, California and Illinois - all by double-digits. They're up to 18th in the Pomeroy ratings and 12th in the Sagarin PREDICTOR. They have three weak opponents coming up before opening Mountain West play on January 14th at San Diego State. An 8-6 record in Mountain West play should be enough to put UNLV in the NCAA Tournament. Anything beyond that will just be about improving their seed.

W-11 BP68

Happy Holidays everybody. We're 11 weeks from Selection Sunday, nearing the New Year, and thankfully done with the fall semester finals. That means most of the big leagues will be starting conference play this coming week. It's certainly exciting to finally get those games underway. The first bunch will be on Tuesday night, when we'll open with Pittsburgh/Notre Dame, Wisconsin/Nebraska, Minnesota/Illinois and Providence/St. John's. Minnesota/Illinois is probably the most interesting of those games because both teams are potential bubble teams.

Despite there not being a ton of action this week, I did make a few changes to the teams in the bracket. I decided to hang onto Northern Iowa as the last team in the field, but dropped Washington out. In their place I moved in Southern Miss. Among the auto bids, I gave in and dropped Ball State as the MAC favorite, putting in Ohio in their place. Kent State is the other top contender in that league. In the Southland, I've finally become convinced that Pat Knight's Lamar team deserves to be in over Stephen F Austin.

Remember, this is a projection of the final bracket on Selection Sunday, and not a listing of how I think teams would be seeded if the season ended now:


2. Duke
2. Florida
2. TEXAS (BIG 12)
2. Louisville

3. Kansas
3. Wisconsin
3. UConn
3. Pittsburgh

4. Marquette
4. Baylor
4. Georgetown

5. Alabama
5. Michigan

6. Missouri
6. Indiana
6. Xavier

7. West Virginia
7. Purdue
7. Vanderbilt

8. BYU
8. Florida State
8. Michigan State
8. New Mexico

9. Saint Louis
9. San Diego State
9. Virginia

10. Illinois
10. California
10. Saint Mary's
10. Northwestern

11. Texas A&M
11. Stanford
11. Virginia Tech

12. Wichita State
12. Kansas State
12. Oklahoma State
12. Southern Miss
12. Northern Iowa


14. OHIO (MAC)



Teams seriously considered that just missed the cut:
Miami (Fl), NC State, St. Joseph's, Cincinnati, Seton Hall, Villanova, Minnesota, Oklahoma, Marshall, Missouri State, Oregon State, Washington, Washington State, Mississippi, Mississippi State

Other teams with a decent shot, but that need to improve their resume:
Clemson, Dayton, Nebraska, Iowa State, VCU, Central Florida, Cleveland State, UW-Milwaukee, Indiana State, UCLA, Oregon, Arkansas, LSU, Denver, New Mexico State

Other teams I'm keeping my eye on, but that need to dramatically improve their resume:
Georgia Tech, Maryland, Duquesne, La Salle, Richmond, St. Bonaventure, Notre Dame, Providence, Rutgers, South Florida, Iowa, Drexel, James Madison, Old Dominion, Tulane, Tulsa, Kent State, Drake, Illinois State, TCU, Boise State, Wyoming, USC, Auburn, Georgia, South Carolina, Tennessee, Charleston, Oral Roberts, Middle Tennessee St, Nevada

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Texas A&M Falls To Rice; Are They Any Good?

Rice 65, Texas A&M 58
It's been hard to know what to make of this Texas A&M team. They entered the season with their brand new head coach, Billy Kennedy, diagnosed with early-stage Parkinson's before playing their first game. Coming into this game, the Aggies had zero bad losses, but zero quality wins either. They had walked their way into the Top 25 last week just through inertia, even though most of their computer ratings were outside the Top 100. But now they have a bad loss, and their Sagarin ELO_CHESS is 194th and their RPI is 247th. Are they really that bad of a team?

I don't think they're that bad. First of all, they were just ice cold from the field in this game, with a 41.5 eFG% (Rice was 54.5% for comparison). And the computer ratings designed to measure team quality aren't quite as harsh. Pomeroy rates them 84th and their Sagarin PREDICTOR is 127th. When you consider the fact that Texas A&M has only played a handful of competitive games (and only a couple of them with star Khris Middleton, who missed close to a month with a knee injury) and that the computer ratings are still relatively inaccurate this early in the season, it would be a mistake to count the Aggies out. But they definitely need to prove themselves by beating a quality opponent.

Despite the fact that Texas A&M will finish their non-conference slate without a single good win, the strength of the Big 12 will allow the Aggies to work their way onto the Tournament bubble very easily. A 10-8 Big 12 record, with a couple of big scalps along the way, will definitely put them in the discussion on Selection Sunday. They'll start their journey on January 2nd at Baylor. If they fall there, a home game January 7th against Iowa State becomes a key game. A loss there would really put A&M behind the eight ball.

This is Rice's first quality victory of the season, though they've only got one bad loss (Lamar). They're very unlikely to be one of the top few teams in Conference USA, but they'll get a chance to prove themselves in the next few weeks. After playing Texas A&M-Corpus Christi on Wednesday, they'll play at Texas on December 31st and at TCU on January 4th before opening Conference USA play on January 7th against a quality Marshall side.

#16 Georgetown 70, Memphis 59
It's become overwhelmingly clear how Memphis scores points. In transition they're lethal, and if you start turning the ball over against them it's going to turn into a rout. But if you take care of the ball and force them to score out of a slow-paced half court offense? They're awful. All the Tigers ever seem to do in that situation is take turns attacking their man one-on-one. This is generally a futile plan, particularly against zone defenses.

This was never on display better than here against Georgetown. Early in the game the Hoyas were turning the ball over, allowing Memphis to get out on the run. They had five turnovers during a 6:30 stretch in the first half during which they were out-scored 17-8 by Georgetown. The Hoyas then started off the second half with a 15-3 run during which they committed zero turnovers. They eventually got the margin up to 21 points, and seemed to have the game in hand. Three quick successive turnovers for Georgetown led to a quick 8-0 spurt by Memphis to make the game competitive, though the Tigers never got closer than eight and ended up losing by 11.

This is the second time Georgetown has beaten Memphis this season, and they've also got a victory over Alabama, and their only loss was by four points in Maui to Kansas. It's the resume of a team that is clearly a contender in the Big East. Syracuse is the favorite in that conference, but Georgetown (along with Louisville and Marquette) can give them a run for their money. Speaking of Louisville, they'll host Georgetown on Wednesday for the Big East opener for both squads.

Memphis falls to 6-5, though that's not as bad as a lot of analysts are making it out to be. They have wins over Belmont, Tennessee and the University of Miami, and not only do they not have any bad losses, but several of their losses have been close. Last season Memphis went 14-2 in games decided by five points or less or in overtime, causing the media to wildly overrate them heading into this season. This year their luck has returned to normal, and they're looking like a bubble team if they fall in the Conference USA tournament.

I do think this year's Memphis team is better than last year's team, and they are still the favorites in Conference USA. They have three different decent home opponents left (Robert Morris, Charlotte and Tennessee) before they open C-USA regular season play on January 7th at UAB.

#21 Creighton 87, Northwestern 79
More often than not, a hot shooting performance is just a fluke. Every team will have a game once in a while where they hit 50% or more of their threes and over-perform. It's always a mistake to draw too many conclusions from a game like that. But at some point hot shooting stops being a fluke and starts becoming a trend. Creighton has hit 50% or more of their threes in five of their 11 games this season, and their 44.7% overall rate is third best in the nation. Their effective field goal percentage has been 60.0 or higher in five games as well, and their overall 59.4% rate is leading the nation.

The stats for Doug McDermott, in particular, are mind-blowing. He's hit at least 50% of his three-point attempts in eight of 11 games this season, and is at 57.8% for the season. That three-point percentage is third in the nation among players that have attempted 40 or more. McDermott's 70.6 eFG% is fourth best in the nation. And McDermott is no spot-up shooter - he's taken 37.1% of Creighton's shots when he's on the floor, which is tied for the 7th highest shot rate among all Division I players. Among players that have participated in at least 40% of their team's minutes this season, McDermott is second in Pomeroy offensive efficiency rating behind only Weber State's Damian Lillard. McDermott and Lillard are tied for the national lead with 25.4 points per game.

With all those stats aside, the fact is that Northwestern acquitted themselves well here. They forced seven steals, committed only ten turnovers, and had 22 assists on 29 made baskets (true freshman Dave Sobolewski had a career-high eight assists), and did this all despite just an okay game from star John Shurna (18 points, 9 rebounds, 6 assists). Some better play from Shurna and some slightly better shooting and they could have pulled off a huge road upset.

Northwestern again has partially crippled themselves with a soft non-conference resume. They have no bad losses, but only a couple of decent wins (Seton Hall and LSU). They'll need to go at least 9-9 in Big Ten play to have a plausible shot at an at-large bid. They'll open Big Ten play on the road at Ohio State on Wednesday. Creighton is now 10-1 with wins over San Diego State, Northwestern and Nebraska, along with a road loss at St. Joe's. They'd be an NCAA Tournament team is the season ended now, but the margin of error isn't great in the Missouri Valley. To earn an at-large bid they'll have to get to at least 12-6 in conference play, and probably will need to achieve a 13-5 finish. They'll open against Missouri State on Wednesday, and then have a huge road game at chief MVC contender Wichita State on New Year's Eve.

Friday, December 23, 2011

Xavier, Still Not At Full Strength, Falls To Long Beach St

Long Beach State 68, #15 Xavier 58
Tu Holloway returned for Xavier, but they were still without Mark Lyons and Dez Wells. Holloway is Xavier's superstar and potential All-American, of course, but without Lyons and Wells the Xavier perimeter attack is very thin. Long Beach State focused their defense on keeping Holloway from harming them, and they succeeded (only 17 points and 4 assists). Xavier just doesn't have enough weapons with Lyons and Wells suspended to keep up with Long Beach State's attack. Keep in mind that this game was no "upset" - Long Beach State was actually favored in Vegas by two points.

I know that Xavier fans want these games with suspended players to be ignored, thinking that it's not fair to judge the team without so many players. But besides the fact that a suspension isn't a punishment if the games don't count, it's just a fact that the Selection Committee never takes injuries/suspensions into account on Selection Sunday. Your resume is what your resume is - you don't get a pass because players are missing, even if it's because of an injury and the player is back and fully healthy for the NCAA Tournament.

Xavier will be back at full strength for the Atlantic Ten regular season, and they are clearly one of the three teams with a plausible shot at winning the conference (Temple and Saint Louis being the other two). These two losses without the suspended players (to Long Beach State and Oral Roberts) will hurt their seed in March a little bit, but not too much. They're still very much in contention for something like a 3 or 4 seed if they can win the A-10 regular season and tournament titles. They'll play Hawaii tonight, and then either Clemson or Southern Illinois or Sunday.

Long Beach State has handled their brutal non-conference schedule about as well as could have been expected. They have wins over Xavier and Pittsburgh, and only one bad loss (Montana). They'll play Auburn tonight, and then either Kansas State or UTEP on Sunday. It's still not impossible for Long Beach State to contend for an at-large bid, but they'd have to win their final two games in Hawaii and then basically go undefeated the rest of the way. I wouldn't bet on it. They'll need to earn the Big West's auto bid.

#7 Baylor 72, Saint Mary's 59
Saint Mary's is one of the few real unknown teams left in Division I. They've been blowing away cupcakes, and the computers like them, but they only have one win against anything close to a quality opponent (Northern Iowa) along with a potentially iffy loss against Denver. What's worrying about this loss is that their defense had been their strength in their games against cupcakes, but their defense was torn up by a very mediocre Baylor offense, despite Baylor not shooting well behind the arc (36% on threes, 55% on twos). Baylor finished with 1.14 PPP here, which is their best offensive performance against a Division I team (not including games against SWAC teams, which might as well be non-Division I).

On offense, Saint Mary's doesn't have any bigs that have a chance of challenging the long Baylor interior defenders, so they were reduced to chucking up threes, but couldn't hit any (5-for-20). That's why they failed to put up too much of a fight in this game. I don't think there's reason to get too down on Saint Mary's, though. This is just a single game performance, after all. They'll play better against smaller front lines, too. The addition of BYU to the WCC also makes it a lot easier for a team like Saint Mary's to build an at-large resume in conference play. They'll get a chance for a quality win against Missouri State tonight, and then will open WCC play against BYU on Thursday.

Baylor moves to 11-0 with wins over Saint Mary's, BYU, San Diego State and Northwestern. There's no question it's been impressive, and better than just about anybody thought they'd see. In years past, Baylor has been plagued with inconsistency (particularly on offense and on the defensive boards), so we'll have to see if they catch that bug again as they get ready for Big 12 play. They'll play West Virginia tonight, and also will face Mississippi State before opening Big 12 play on January 2nd against Texas A&M.

West Virginia 70, Missouri State 68, OT
West Virginia needed overtime to win this game, but they played well and showed guts in key moments. They probably would have won this game more easily if they could have hit some shots (they had an incredibly 16-to-2 offensive rebounding advantage), but they didn't and needed some clutch play from Gary Browne (including a miracle three-pointer with under two seconds to go to send the game into overtime). Kevin Jones was a monster, with 17 points and 13 rebounds (7 offensive).

This was a win West Virginia needed. They came into this game with losses to Kent State and Mississippi State, and victories over Kansas State and Miami (Fl). Their resume would have started looking bubbly if they'd fallen here. Instead they'll have a chance to collect a really nice scalp tonight if they can knock off Baylor. They'll open Big East play on Wednesday against Villanova.

I know there's a lot of talk about the Missouri Valley earning three or four teams to the NCAA Tournament, but I'm not seeing it right now. Creighton and Wichita State both look like solid Tournament teams, but Northern Iowa's resume is looking dicey (they'll need to go 13-5 or better in conference play to have a serious at-large shot), and I'm most likely going to drop them from my bracket tomorrow night. And Missouri State is behind even UNI. The Bears have only one win close to a "quality" win (over Nevada), and a mediocre loss to Oral Roberts. Overall, Missouri State is only 7-4 with a Sagarin ELO_CHESS that has slipped to 100th. They'll get a chance to get much closer to the bubble if they can beat Saint Mary's tonight. Otherwise they'll be 7-5 when they open Missouri Valley play on Wednesday at Creighton. Without a win over Saint Mary's, even a 13-5 conference record probably won't earn them an at-large bid (they'd need to make the finals of Arch Madness, and would need a weak bubble).

Middle Tennessee St Is Another Mid-Major To Watch

Middle Tennessee State 68, Ole Miss 56
This game was tight most of the way, and Ole Miss actually led with under ten minutes to go. But over the next 4:30, Middle Tennessee went on a 13-1 run driven by four Ole Miss turnovers. For the game, Ole Miss finished with 21 turnovers and had only a 43.3 eFG% (ending up with a brutal 0.81 PPP). And offense has been a problem for Ole Miss all season long. Their 0.96 PPP is 230th in the nation. Their strong defense slowed down a hot Middle Tennessee attack, but not enough.

Middle Tennessee State is team that hasn't been relevant nationally since.... well, I can't remember the last time they were relevant. But they looked terrific in two very-well played games against Belmont (they lost the first in double overtime, and won the second by three points), and they also have wins over UCLA and Akron to go with this win. A loss to UAB is their only mediocre loss thus far, and their Sagarin PREDICTOR is all the way up to 40th (Pomeroy has them back in 60th). There's no question that they'll be a dangerous team if they can make the NCAA Tournament... but that's going to be a tall task. The fact is that the Sun Belt has several strong teams this season, and both Denver and Florida Atlantic will pose tough challenges. Florida Atlantic was my preseason pick to win the conference, and I still stand by that pick. But any of those three teams will be a scary Round of 64 opponent in March.

Mississippi's inability to score the basketball has been sinking their season. They now have losses to Southern Miss and Middle Tennessee, with the closest thing to a quality win being an overtime home victory over the University of Miami. They'll get a chance to bounce back on December 30th at Dayton, but even if they can pull the upset in that game they'll still have an uphill battle in SEC play to work their way onto the bubble. That means probably going 10-6 or better, which I don't see as likely.

#12 Florida 84, Florida State 62
This is only the second time in the past 12 months that Florida State has given up 80 or more points, and the other time was on the road at North Carolina last season, which should put in perspective what Florida did here. The Gators did two things very well here. First, they got around FSU's tremendous halfcourt defense by getting out in transition with 12 steals. Second, they took advantage of the one FSU defensive weakness - defensive rebounding (Florida had a 36.4 OR% here).

Florida State's poor defensive rebounding is something they should able to fix. They have tremendous size and athleticism and are excellent on the offensive boards. But like so many other teams that rely on size and athleticism, they haven't felt the need to learn how to box out (Baylor sticks out as another team with this affliction). The Seminoles right now are 8-4 without any bad losses, but they don't have a single quality win either. I do think they're a borderline Top 25 team, but eventually they've got to turn that into wins. They still will play Auburn and Princeton before beginning ACC play, but neither of those will turn into quality wins. This means FSU will have to get some big wins in conference play. They'll get home games against both North Carolina and Duke, so those are two games that really stand out as key opportunities for the Seminoles.

Florida now has this win to go with wins over Arizona and Texas A&M, and both of their losses came to Top Ten opponents (Ohio State and Syracuse). With some hiccups by Alabama and all sorts of struggles for Vanderbilt, Florida is looking like the clear top contender to Kentucky in the SEC. They'll play a potential trap game next Thursday at Rutgers, and then will play Yale and UAB before opening SEC play at Tennessee on January 7th.

Alabama 69, Oklahoma State 52
Alabama had really struggled over the past two weeks, so it was good for them to get back in the groove of things with a dominant victory over Oklahoma State. They had given up a jarring 1.04 PPP in their previous four games, but returned to the suffocating defense we expect with only 0.78 PPP allowed here. Oklahoma State couldn't get an open shot all day, and finished with a 35.5 eFG%. And keep in mind that Alabama did this without star JaMychal Green, who sat out with a shoulder injury.

Despite all their struggles the past two weeks, Alabama really only has one potentially bad loss (Dayton) and they have wins over Purdue, Wichita State, VCU and now Oklahoma State. It's a good resume, though they've lost ground in the SEC and now only look like the third best team (behind Kentucky and Florida). They have a potential trap game on January 3rd at Georgia Tech before beginning SEC play on January 7th at Georgia.

Oklahoma State has played fairly well this season, but it absolutely has not translated into results. They don't have any bad losses, but they're only 6-5 overall with a road victory over Missouri State being the closest thing they've got to a quality win. I think they'll be a bubble team in March, but they've got to start winning some of these games against quality opponents. They have a potentially tricky game Wednesday against SMU, and then will play Virginia Tech before opening Big 12 play on January 4th against Texas Tech. If they can beat both SMU and Virginia Tech then a 9-9 conference record will get them onto the bubble, though they'll still probably need to get to 10-8 to earn that at-large bid.

North Carolina Rolls Texas

#6 North Carolina 82, Texas 63
For Texas, this was just one of those days that young teams go through. They fell behind early against a very experienced North Carolina team, and just started playing afraid. They couldn't keep North Carolina from getting out in transition, and while neither team put on a defensive rebounding clinic it was Texas that just got annihilated (a brutal 45.7 DR%). Superfrosh Myck Kabongo is struggling with an injury, and after a relatively inefficient first half, Rick Barnes just sat him for the entire second half to save him for another day. There's no question that Texas will be a lot better in March than they are now. And if there was one bright spot it was another of their star freshmen (Jonathan Holmes) having a career day (16 points on 6-for-11 shooting, 6 rebounds and 3 blocks).

For North Carolina, they were just clicking. This was the best they've looked all season. They dominated the boards, forced plenty of steals, had Kendall Marshall dealing dimes, and Harrison Barnes was aggressive with the ball (26 points on 9-for-15 shooting). In some ways there's not a lot to learn about North Carolina from this game. We knew they had this type of game in them - they just have to find a way to do it consistently against teams that can slow them down offensively and can push then off the offensive glass.

This was North Carolina's final quality opponent before beginning ACC play. They have wins over Wisconsin, Michigan State and Texas, with zero bad losses. There's no question that if they win at least a share of the ACC regular season title and then win the ACC tournament that they'll earn a 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament. They'll begin ACC play on January 7th against Boston College.

Texas has wins over Temple and UCLA with two potentially dicey losses (NC State and Oregon State). I think it's safe to say that three Big 12 teams have played better than Texas so far - Kansas, Baylor and Missouri. But there's also no question that Texas has more room to grow than any other team in the Big 12. They're going to be so much better in March than they are now, and even with this bad game it's still clear how much better they're playing than they were six weeks ago. And that's why they're still my pick to win the Big 12. They will play Rice on New Year's Eve before opening Big 12 play at Iowa State on January 4th.

Ohio 76, Northern Iowa 59
This was one of the more shocking results all season. Ohio has played well this season, but they've done it quietly against a soft schedule. To go into Cedar Falls and blow out Northern Iowa by 17 points in a game they never trailed (and led by double-digits for the final 18 minutes of the game) is impressive for any team, let alone a MAC squad. They did shoot the ball very well (11-for-21 behind the arc), but that wasn't why they won the game. The biggest advantage Ohio had this game wasn't perimeter offense, but perimeter defense. They ran the excellent Northern Iowa outside shooters off the arc, and forced eight steals (they are second in the MAC with 8.4 steals per game).

Heading into this game, Ohio had a win over Marshall and a loss to Louisville, and then a bunch of wins over inferior foes. The computers liked them, but they didn't have a resume-building win. They have one now. While their Sagarin ELO_CHESS rating (currently 3rd) is obviously ridiculous, I do think that their Pomeroy rating of 41st is about right. Ohio deserves to be in that class of mid-majors like Iona, Long Beach State, Belmont, Murray State and others that will be a scary opponent in the Round of 64 in the NCAA Tournament.... if they can get there. The MAC is better than it's been the past few years, and both Kent State and Ball State will be serious competitors to Ohio. The Bobcats will go play a couple of cupcakes next before playing Robert Morris on January 2nd. They'll open MAC regular season play on January 7th at Bowling Green.

Northern Iowa will have to hope Ohio keeps this play up, because it won't help their resume if Ohio falls out of the RPI Top 100. They don't have any bad losses otherwise, and do have wins over Iowa State, Iowa, Old Dominion and Wisconsin-Milwaukee. It's a bubblicious resume. They will probably need to finish 13-5 or better in Missouri Valley play to have a realistic shot at an at-large bid. They will open conference play on December 29th at Illinois State.

Seton Hall 69, Dayton 64
Seton Hall sure isn't getting a lot of attention for a 10-1 Big East team. Though honestly, they haven't really earned it. They've played a soft schedule and had to get lucky just to get to 10-1. In their previous game before this one they needed overtime to win by three points at home against a Mercer team that had three players foul out. And this win against Dayton, which is their best win of the season so far, was honestly a bit lucky. They lost the rebounding battle (The Hall had a staggeringly low 1 offensive rebound) and committed two more turnovers, but were saved with 50% three-point shooting.

It also took overtime for this Seton Hall team to beat St. Francis (NY), and they went 2-1 against the other decent teams they've played (Northwestern, VCU and St. Joe's). Despite the 10-1 record, I don't think they'd be in the NCAA Tournament if the season ended now. With only one cupcake left before beginning Big East play, they'll probably need to go 10-8 to earn an at-large bid. If they go only 9-9 in Big East play then they'll have work to do heading into the Big East tournament. They will open Big East play next Wednesday at Syracuse.

This loss is a missed opportunity for a Dayton team that could have used a quality win. They did knock off Alabama, but that's more than outweighed by losses to Buffalo, Miami (OH) and Murray State, along with this loss. They're sitting in the 70-80 range in all the Sagarin and Pomeroy ratings, which I think is about right. They'll play Illinois-Chicago on Friday, and then a week later will get a chance for a decent win against Ole Miss. They'll open Atlantic Ten play with a bang against Saint Louis and then on the road at Temple.