Saturday, January 21, 2012

#1 Goes Down: Notre Dame Beats Syracuse

Notre Dame 67, #1 Syracuse 58
The big news prior to this game was that Fab Melo wouldn't be joining Syracuse for this road trip. It's been reported, though not confirmed by Melo or the school, that it's a lingering academic issue. Regardless, the loss of Melo caused a lot of people to pick the Irish as an upset pick this morning. The thing is, as important as Melo is to this team, I don't think he's the reason that they lost. Melo is dominant defensively in the paint, and he anchors the zone, but any zone can be defeated by a hot-shooting opponent hitting threes. Melo isn't going to defend three-point shooters. And it was Notre Dame that hit 6 of their first 9 threes, opening up an 18 point lead late in the first half.

The Irish shooting slowed down in the second half, of course, but the problem for Syracuse is that they're not an explosive scoring team. They are great at transition offense, but if you can avoid turnovers and get back on defense, the Orange aren't going to score that many points on you. That's a problem when Syracuse has to try to make up an 18 point deficit. The Irish did commit 17 turnovers and allowed 9 steals, but both of those numbers are below the Syracuse season average (18.6 and 10.1, respectively). The Irish also did a good job of getting back on defense, limiting the layups and dunks. And the forwards that got extra minutes with Melo out all seemed to play fine. James Southerland, for example, had 15 points on 5-for-10 shooting. The problem was the backcourt: Scoop Jardine, Brandon Triche and Dion Waiters combined for 19 points on 6-for-25 shooting in 82 minutes.

Of course, the reality is that this type of game was inevitable. In modern college basketball, it's nearly impossible for a team to go through a major conference undefeated. The fact that the Big East is down this year kept Syracuse undefeated longer than a team like Ohio State, but it was inevitable that they were going to lose to somebody. They're still in the driver's seat in the Big East and for a 1 seed. A share of the Big East regular season title and the Big East tournament title will earn the Orange a 1 seed in March. Their next game will be Monday night at Cincinnati.

This win pushes Notre Dame to 4-3 in Big East play and gives them a huge scalp, but their only other quality win came over Louisville and they have bad losses to Maryland and Georgia. It's hard to conceive of them having a shot at an at-large bid with anything less than a 10-8 Big East record, so they've still got plenty to do to work their way onto the bubble. Unfortunately, their upcoming schedule is brutal, with three tough road match-ups in their next four games, beginning with trip to Seton Hall on Wednesday.

Washington State 77, California 75
It's been a good weekend for Washington State, and a bad one for the Pac-12 conference. Just two days after upsetting Stanford, Wazzu came back today and upset California. They kept this game close by minimizing Cal's strength - their outside shooting (40.9% for the season, 30% here). I also really liked what Ken Bone did in the final ten seconds. So many coaches and announcers act like committing a foul when you're winning or tied late (not including "fouls to give") is some outrageous act, like the way Troy Aikman acts anytime an NFL coach does the correct thing and goes for it on 4th down (statistically, NFL teams should punt about 1/5th as often as they really do - all NFL coaches are overly risk averse). But the reality is that you can use fouls to your advantage. In this case, California got the ball back down by three with 9 seconds to go. Ken Bone had his guys commit a foul with 6 seconds to go to send them to the line. It's absolutely the correct strategy. In this case it nearly backfired because Justin Cobbs hit the first and missed the second, followed by Cal getting the offensive board and giving Jorge Gutierrez a chance for a three at the buzzer. But he missed the three and Wazzu won. but that's what tends to happen because so much stuff has to happen for that strategy to backfire that the odds are in your favor.

California has been the best team in the Pac-12 so far this season, but that doesn't mean much this season. This loss only drops them to 16-5 overall and 6-2 in the Pac-12, but they have zero RPI Top 50 wins and now have a pair of bad losses (Oregon State and Washington State). Their Sagarin ELO_CHESS will fall to around 35th after this loss. I think that they need to get to 13-5 in conference play to be confident about an at-large bid. If they finish 12-6 or worse then they're going to enter the Pac-12 tournament with work left to do. They have eight days until their next game, at home against Stanford.

Washington State has picked up two straight nice wins, but those are their only good wins of the season and they have a slew of bad losses (Utah, UC-Riverside, Oregon, Oklahoma, Washington and Colorado). They are also only 11-8 overall and 3-4 in the Pac-12. They will play at Arizona on Thursday, and even if they pulled another upset there they would still be several more wins in a row away from the Tournament bubble.

Colorado 64, Arizona 63
This was a brutal shooting game for Arizona. They hit a horrendous 3-for-20 behind the arc, including a Kevin Parrom miss at the buzzer that would have won the game. But Arizona has been streaky all season. They are shooting a very good 37.9% of their threes this season, but have hit below 20% four different times now. Streaky play can be an advantage when you're in an elite conference and can absorb some losses in exchange for a few big scalps. But in a Pac-12 conference where there are basically no quality wins to be had, and all sorts of potential bad losses? That's not going to work.

The Wildcats absolutely can't afford to finish worse than 12-6 in conference play to have a plausible shot at an at-large bid, and this loss drops them to 4-3. They have no wins against the RPI Top 50, and now have bad losses to both Oregon and Colorado. Their RPI is 68th and their Sagarin ELO_CHESS will likely fall to around 80th after this loss. Next week they will head home to play the two Washington teams, and then the week after that will head on the road to play the two Northern California teams.

This win pushes Colorado to 5-2, which puts them only a half game out of the lead in the Pac-12 standings. An at-large bid is also not impossible for them if they can get to 12-6 or better, though realistically they've probably got to win at least 13 Pac-12 games and then need to do well in the Pac-12 tournament to get onto the bubble.


Chris said...

I agree, it was inevitable for Syracuse to eventually fall. I was just pretty surprised it was to Notre Dame, not even a top 100 RPI school. Would've thought it more likely from UConn or Georgetown or even Cincinnati.

Jeff said...

Obviously hindsight is 20/20, but I think Notre Dame actually makes a lot of sense as a team that would give Syracuse trouble. The formula to beating Syracuse is to hit your threes and not turn the ball over. If you're sloppy with the ball and/or depend on having your perimeter players attack the basket to score, you're going to struggle against the Syracuse zone.