Monday, February 20, 2012

Michigan Deals A Serious Blow To OSU's Big Ten Title Hopes

#19 Michigan 56, #6 Ohio State 51
It was readily apparent just how important this game was for the entire Michigan program. College Gameday was in town, the students were fired up, and the idea of delivering a huge blow to the Big Ten title hopes of arch-rival Ohio State was a huge motivator. Trey Burke took charge in the clutch again, and finished with 17 points and 5 assists. As for the Buckeyes, the one player who can't be blamed for this loss is DeShaun Thomas. He scored 25 points, essentially half of the entire team's output. But other than Thomas? His teammates combined for a brutal 30.6 eFG%. Aaron Craft and William Buford seemed too satisfied launching jumpers all game, and both ended up with a pile of bricks.

Ohio State is 1-3 in games decided by five points or less. They are 21-2 in all other games, and one of those two losses came when Jared Sullinger missed the Kansas game with an injury. And that bad luck is why they will potentially fall out of the Top Ten in the human polls even though I'd still vote them #1. They're still #1 in the Sagarin PREDICTOR, though Pomeroy has them a very close #2 behind Kentucky. But while the human polls don't matter, the Big Ten standings do, and Ohio State has been dealt a very serious blow to their regular season title hopes. They're a game behind Michigan State, and will have to beat them in East Lansing to have a chance. Their schedule before that is no Cupcake City either. They'll play Illinois on Tuesday.

This win pulls Michigan into a tie for second place in the Big Ten, and barring a crazy collapse down the stretch they will end up with a bye through the first round of the Big Ten tournament (the top four teams in the standings will get the bye). Unlike Ohio State, the Wolverines have been quite lucky in close games. They are 6-2 in games decided by five points or less. And so they are now 7-5 against the RPI Top 50 with a Sagarin ELO_CHESS that is all the way up to 12th. With a strong finish, a 3 seed in March is very much in play. If the Wolverines can somehow win the Big Ten tournament, even a 2 seed in the NCAA Tournament is possible. Their next game will be on Tuesday at Northwestern.

Auburn 65, #23 Mississippi State 55
As I've said many, many times, you can't escape your team quality. The fact that your team won a whole bunch of close games in a row doesn't mean that they "willed their way to win", but (for the most part) that they were lucky. Elite teams don't win a lot of close games - elite teams blow out inferior opponents. And that's why I was so sour on Mississippi State when every other bracketologist had them as a 5 or 6 seed in the NCAA Tournament. I saw a team that was 7-1 in games decided by five points or less and knew that they'd eventually fade, which they have. They lost two straight games in overtime and then fell here. And now their Sagarin ELO_CHESS has tumbled all the way to 50th.

There's a lot of talk now about Mississippi State's slump, but I don't really think they're playing significantly worse than they were in November and December. Remember, this team beat Detroit and Utah State by a combined nine points in December games. Two weeks ago they only beat Auburn at home by three points. There isn't much difference between a three point home win and a ten point road loss against the same team. This Mississippi State team was never a Top 50 squad, despite their absurdly high ranking in the AP and Coaches Polls.

So what does Mississippi State have to do to salvage this situation and go Dancing in March? As I've said all season, I think that 9-7 in SEC play and a win in the SEC tournament will be enough. If they only finish 8-8 then they'll probably need a couple of wins in the SEC tournament. They are now 6-6 with Kentucky coming to town on Tuesday. Obviously a win will put them firmly on the right side of the bubble, but with a loss they'll head on the road for a crucial game at Alabama on Saturday.

It's been a grinding rebuilding process at Auburn for Tony Barbee. This is his best win of the season, and his team is now 4-8 in SEC play and 14-12 overall. They will play at Florida on Tuesday. Unless they pull that upset (and they'll be 20 point underdogs), they'll come home to play Arkansas to try to stay above .500.

Houston 73, Southern Miss 71
Speaking of teams that have been lucky in close games: Southern Miss. They came into this game with a 10-2 record in games decided by five points or less or in overtime. Throw in some quirkiness with the horrible RPI metric, and Southern Miss has actually spent most of the season ranked in the Top 15 of the RPI. Even after this loss to Houston, they're still 11th in the RPI. But being ranked 52nd in the Sagarin PREDICTOR and 54th in Pomeroy means that when you drill it down, Southern Miss isn't any better than a bubble team. Memphis is the class of Conference USA.

It's been a tough season for Houston, but if there's one thing they can do it's get after the offensive boards and get to the line, and that's what they did here. Houston dominated the boards (a 46.4 OR%, compared to a 28.6 OR% for Southern Miss) and earned 22 free throw attempts (compared to 13 for Southern Miss). With this win, Houston pushes up to 12-13 overall and 4-8 in conference play. Their next game will be Wednesday at Marshall.

This loss imperils the chances the Golden Eagles have of a Conference USA title. They're now tied with Memphis in the standings, and will close the season with a difficult road game at Marshall. They also will have to get past a road game at UTEP coming up on Wednesday night. Southern Miss is still 3-2 against the RPI Top 50 with a Sagarin ELO_CHESS that is 27th. So they can easily lose a game down the stretch without falling onto the bubble. But two bad losses and then a loss early in the Conference USA tournament? It's not inconceivable that Southern Miss fans might have to sweat out Selection Sunday.

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