Saturday, January 07, 2012

Marquette Plays Well But Can't Knock Off Syracuse

#1 Syracuse 73, #20 Marquette 66
Marquette has really struggled against zone defenses the past few seasons, and nobody plays zone defense better than Syracuse. I thought this game would be a blowout, and that's what it looked like early. Syracuse actually led by 23 points in the first half. But in the second half Marquette really impressed. They stepped up their defensive pressure. Not only were they able to shut down the Syracuse offense, but they were able to get out in transition to get some easy baskets. The Golden Eagles actually pulled within two points at one point, but couldn't quite get over the hump.

With this win Syracuse moves to 17-0 and 4-0 in the Big East, and they've firmed up their hold on the #1 spot in the rankings. That said, I think this success has more to do with the weakness of the top and middle of the Big East than anything else. They just don't have a real rival this year. Syracuse is slightly more talented offensively this year than they've been in recent years, but they're the same team they always are - they still struggle to score if their defense isn't creating easy baskets in transition.. Certainly they're the favorite to win the Big East and to earn a 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament, but I'm just saying that I wouldn't pencil them into the Final Four just yet. Keep this in mind when you consider that they have a soft upcoming schedule, and have a pretty good chance of staying undefeated through the month of January.

Marquette is a very good team, and by Selection Sunday I expect their resume to be very strong, but at the moment it's a lot weaker than most people think it is. They've lost four of their last six games, and that upset of Wisconsin remains their only win against the Pomeroy Top 60. Their schedule does ease up a bit with a home game Wednesday against St. John's, and then a home game against Pittsburgh next Saturday. An interesting game will be on January 16th against Louisville. That game could end up being one gigantic 40 minute fast break, from one end of the floor to the other.

Iowa State 74, Texas A&M 50
This was the game where Texas A&M had to hold the line. They got off to a slow start to the season and had an iffy non-conference performance (no big wins, and a bad loss to Rice). Then they lost to Baylor and came in here with a possible 0-2 start looming, and a tough upcoming schedule. This wasn't a "must win", since obviously Texas A&M can go on a five-game winning streak in February and make up for all of this, but it was a mental must-win. There was a real risk that if they couldn't take care of business here that they'd plummet to the bottom of the Big 12, never to be seen from again. And remember, this Texas A&M team was talked about preseason as a contender to win the Big 12.

Not only did Texas A&M lose this game - they were annihilated. Their offensive efficiency just continues to be brutal. They finished with a 34.3 eFG% and 0.77 PPP. They've faced 13 Division I opponents this season, and scored greater than 1 PPP in just four of them - and all four of those teams are rated worse than 280th in Pomeroy. Overall they're scoring 0.95 PPP this season, which is the worst in the Big 12. In two Big 12 conference games so far they're averaging 0.75 PPP, which is almost unbelievable. Their offense can't possibly continue to be this bad all season long, but they're running out of time to turn their season around. They'll play at Texas on Wednesday, and then will come home to play Texas Tech next Saturday.

I'm somewhat rationalizing here, but a plausible argument can be made that it would take a team chock full of transfers to begin to jell. Certainly it would explain why Iowa State has shown a dramatic improvement since the early parts of this season. In November they lost to Drake and Northern Iowa, and nearly lost games to Northern Colorado, Lehigh and Providence. But they have been on a 7-0 run since December, beating Iowa and then Texas and now thrashing Texas A&M. At this point, they're looking like a plausible bubble team. As strong as the Big 12 is, Iowa State will at least be a contender on Selection Sunday if they can get to 9-9 in conference play. They are now 2-0 heading into Wednesday home game against Missouri and then a Saturday road game at Kansas. An upset in either game would really start earning Iowa State some national media attention.

St. John's 57, Cincinnati 55
This was an exciting win for St. John's, coming on a Moe Harkless tip-in at the buzzer, but the reality is that they were badly outplayed. Cincinnati committed 14 fewer turnovers (and had 7 more steals) and had 13 more offensive rebounds. The problem was that despite taking 27 more shots from the field, they had a putrid 30.9 eFG%, the worst they've shot since the brawl game against Xavier. It takes an extraordinarily bad shooting performance to lose a game when you take 27 more shots than your opponent, and that's what Cincinnati did here.

At some point Cincinnati was due for a reality check, having won seven straight games since the brawl. But even with this loss they have still nosed their way back into the at-large discussion. They have wins over Pittsburgh, Notre Dame and Oklahoma, along with a bad loss to Presbyterian. A 9-9 Big East record and a win in the Big East tournament will give them a good chance of making the NCAA Tournament. They are now 2-1 heading into a road game at Georgetown on Monday. Should they fall there they'll have a big home game next Saturday against Villanova. After that they head on the road to put UConn and West Virginia and then will play Syracuse, so that Villanova game looms as an important match-up. A loss there and Cincinnati could find themselves staring at a six game losing streak.

St. John's has been playing better the past few weeks. The addition of Amir Garrett has helped, and the loss of Nurideen Lindsey hasn't really mattered too much (Lindsey shot 46.2% on twos and committed 4.1 turnovers per game before transferring out). This is their best win of the season, and they're now 2-2 in the Big East heading into a tough road game at Marquette on Wednesday.

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