Friday, January 27, 2012

Alabama Falls Onto The Bubble

South Carolina 56, Alabama 54
This game was no fluke. If anything, South Carolina should have won by more. The Gamecocks had five more offensive rebounds and six fewer turnovers, and this game was only so close because they shot an atrocious 5-for-31 on threes. Alabama has excellent perimeter defense, and South Carolina is not a good outside shooting team, but still... 5-for-31. I think that rebounding was key, though. Alabama has struggled to rebound the ball all year (they are 10th in the SEC with a 66.6 DR%). Their offense has struggled all year and they don't get a lot of easy baskets. They are spectacular perimeter defenders (their 41.2 eFG% against is third best in the nation), but if they don't get defensive rebounds then it can become very mentally frustrating.

It's not that Alabama is a bad team. In fact, they're rated 22nd in Pomeroy. But they're 0-4 in games decided by six points or less and are now 2-4 in SEC play with a Sagarin ELO_CHESS that's slipped to 46th. The Tide are only 1-6 against the RPI Top 50 (the one win came over Wichita State) and now have a bad loss to go with that. Considering that they're playing an "SEC West schedule", a 9-7 SEC record without any really big scalps would not look impressive on Selection Sunday. Even if Alabama finishes 8-2 and gets to 10-6, they'll still enter the SEC tournament without having assured themselves a place in the NCAA Tournament. The good news for them in the short term is that their upcoming schedule is soft, beginning with a game tomorrow at home against Arkansas.

This is the best win South Carolina has had this season by far and they're only 1-4 in SEC play. That said, they've been playing better the past couple of weeks, and I think that Bruce Ellington is a big part of it. He missed the first month of the season while he was playing on the football team, and even after joining the basketball team was struggling to find his way in the rotation after having missed so many practices and games. But the past couple of weeks he's been playing much better. He was only 5-for-14 from the field here, but he's a good ball handler and offensive creator. The Gamecocks will try to win their second straight tomorrow at Ole Miss.

#13 Florida 64, Ole Miss 60
Ole Miss jumped out to a quick 20-4 lead in this game. They have a lot of big bodies and were able to neutralize the Florida bigs for most of the game. But the problem in the second half was that their guards just couldn't keep up with the Gators' backcourt trio of Ervin Walker, Kenny Boynton and Brad Beal. A pair of threes by Kenny Boynton on back-to-back possessions with under five minutes to go were the key baskets that opened this game up.

This would have been a bad loss for Florida. With the comeback win they avoid dropping in the bracket, and they also keep their SEC title hopes alive. They're only one game behind Kentucky in the loss column with a home-and-home remaining. The one concern for Florida isn't so much a concern but an uncertainty: They haven't played Kentucky or Vanderbilt yet (they'll have a home-and-home against each), and their one game this season against Alabama will be on the road. They'll play Mississippi State at home tomorrow, which will mark their toughest game in SEC play so far. They did beat Florida State and Arizona, and they hung close in losses to Syracuse and Ohio State, but we won't know if they can beat an elite team until they actually do it.

Ole Miss came into this game with lovely RPI and Sagarin ELO_CHESS numbers, but with a 5-1 record in games decided by three points or less or in overtime. Their Sagarin PREDICTOR and Pomeroy ratings were outside the Top 100. In other words, they are due for some close losses. For the time being they are still 3-3 in SEC play with wins over Mississippi State and Miami (Fl) along with bad losses to Auburn and LSU. They will be at least a bubble team if they can get to 9-7 in SEC play, though I'd bet against it. Their next game will be tomorrow against South Carolina.

Wisconsin-Milwaukee 53, Butler 42
Butler has had a shocking number of horrific offensive efficiency games so far this season. They had a 28.9 eFG% and scored 0.67 PPP. It's the fourth time this year they've had an eFG% under 35%, and the sixth time they've scored less than 0.85 PPP. To put that in perspective, they only hit either of those low marks twice all of last season, with one being the National Title game. The problem continues to be backcourt play, which has been so inconsistent without anybody able to hit a shot. They have four guards that play regular minutes (Nored, Stigall, Hopkins and Aldridge), and they're shooting a combined 28.2% on threes. I give Brad Stevens credit for mixing up his lineup and trying new players, but if you don't have anybody on the perimeter that can hit a shot then there's not a whole lot that the coach can do.

The Butler frontcourt is still scoring efficiently. Even here, Khyle Marshall and Andrew Smith combined for 20 points on 9-for-21 shooting, with 8 rebounds, 4 assists, 4 steals and 3 turnovers... not that bad. And Wisconsin-Milwaukee deserves some credit here. They are third in the nation in 3P% against (25.2%). Butler's offense actually has been (other than here) playing better over the past month than they were back in November and early December.

This loss drops Butler to 6-4 and, with a home loss to Cleveland State, basically out of the Horizon regular season race. The key the rest of the season is going to be trying to figure out their offensive issues. They're running out of time before the Horizon League tournament. Butler's next game will be tomorrow at Wisconsin-Green Bay.

Wisconsin-Milwaukee moves only a half game behind Cleveland State with this win. They lost to CSU in Cleveland but will have a return visit on February 14th. With a soft upcoming schedule, it's really not so unlikely that Milwaukee could win a second straight surprise Horizon League regular season title. They'll play Valparaiso at home tomorrow before games against Youngstown State and Wisconsin-Green Bay.

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