Friday, February 10, 2012

Murray State Finally Loses: How Do Their At-Large Hopes Look?

Tennessee State 72, #7 Murray State 68
I don't really buy into the theory that being undefeated wears mentally on a team. There just is no real evidence to back it up. The media used close Murray State games against mediocre teams as evidence that they were struggling with the attention and expectations, and this loss as proof that they finally gave in to the pressure. But that's just post hoc rationalization. The reality is that Murray State had close games against mediocre teams intermittently all season long. They had close wins over Morgan State, Alaska-Anchorage, San Francisco and UAB back in November alone, for example. The reality is that no team is going to blow out every opponent. Murray State was going to have a bunch of close games, and they were eventually going to lose one. It's just so difficult to go undefeated. The only real thing that changed, I think, is what Murray State was seeing from opponents. Every road game for Murray State was against a team that was playing their own personal Super Bowl. What Murray State got from Tennessee State was a performance that no other team this season will likely see from Tennessee State.

And so because of that, I think Murray State is better than their computer ratings. The Sagarin PREDICTOR is 67th and their Pomeroy rating is 73rd, while I'd put them in the Top 50. But getting up to #7 in the polls? That was always a joke. Murray State would be a ten point underdog in Vegas against Kansas or Michigan State, yet a bunch of voters were putting Murray State ahead. They were doing what college football pollsters do: rating narrow wins over cupcakes better than narrow losses to elite opponents. It's why college football coaches would be insane to schedule anything but the easiest schedule possible. You get nothing for beating good opponents. Thank goodness these incompetent pollsters don't seriously impact college basketball the way they impact college football.

So what of Murray State's at-large hopes? In my most recent bracket I had them as a 9 seed, and that assumed one loss to an OVC opponent as well as a loss to St. Mary's. If they beat St. Mary's then I'll move them up, of course. But what if they lose to St. Mary's and then lose again in the OVC tournament? They'd be either 27-3 or 28-3, with wins over Southern Miss and Memphis, and a pair of bad losses. Would that allow them to sneak in as an at-large bid? They wouldn't be a lock, but I think they'd be in. No team with a won/loss record that good has ever been denied. But they'd be wise not to leave it to that. Their next game will be tomorrow against Austin Peay. Tennessee State is now in second place in the Ohio Valley at 9-4 in conference play. Their next game will be tomorrow against Tennessee Tech.

Gonzaga 73, #13 St. Mary's 59
This was about as good as Gonzaga can play, and about as bad as St. Mary's can play. This St. Mary's offense that has been unstoppable (1.17 PPP in conference play) was held to 0.95 PPP with a 42.7 eFG%. Their worst offensive performance in conference play prior to this was 1.06 PPP against Pepperdine. For Gonzaga, this was a breakout game for Kevin Pangos, who scored 27 points on 8-for-16 shooting, including 5-for-6 behind the arc. Pangos did have that remarkable 9-for-13 three-point shooting day against Washington State back in November, but considering the opponent and the situation I'd take this performance as the best game of his young career.

Even after this loss. St. Mary's still has firm control of the WCC. They're a game clear of Gonzaga, and will likely be double-digit favorites in every game the rest of the way. At 22-3 with wins over BYU, Gonzaga and Missouri State, without any bad losses, and a Sagarin ELO_CHESS rating that is 14th, they are still very safe for an at-large bid. If they can beat Murray State and win out, including the WCC tournament title, something like a 3 or 4 seed in the NCAA Tournament is still a possibility.

This was an important win for Gonzaga. Not just because it keeps their thin hopes of a share of the WCC regular season title alive, but because there was a risk of them falling onto the bubble. But now, for the time being, they're safe. The Zags are now 19-4 with a 3-4 record against the RPI Top 50, and a Sagarin ELO_CHESS that is up to 20th. They can easily afford two more losses the rest of the way without falling onto the bubble. Their next game will be tomorrow against Loyola-Marymount. St. Mary's will play tomorrow against Santa Clara.

Oregon 82, Washington 57
Next time somebody tells you that the result of a single game proves that Team A is better than Team B, remind them that Washington thumped Oregon by 16 points on New Year's Eve, and then were wiped out by 25 points here. Oregon isn't really that much better than Washington, of course. This game was all about the shooting disparity. Oregon had a 62.7 eFG%, while Washington's was 37.9%. To put those numbers in perspective, that was Washington's worst shooting offense and worst shooting defense this season in Pac-12 play. Meanwhile, this was Oregon's best shooting offense and best shooting defense this season in Pac-12 play. In other words, don't draw too many conclusions from this game - it was a statistical fluke.

This loss drops Washington into a tie atop the Pac-12 with California. They are still 9-3, and as I argued in my most recent bracket, I just can't see the Selection Committee leaving out a team that goes 13-5 in a BCS conference, even if the Pac-12 is down this season. But anything worse than 13-5? Washington is probably NIT bound. Getting to 13-5 won't be easy, though. They have a tough game at Oregon State on Sunday and also will close the regular season at UCLA. They also will play Arizona next weekend.

Oregon is closing in on the Tournament bubble as well. This win pushes them to 8-4 in conference play. They have wins over Arizona, Stanford, UCLA and Washington, along with bad losses to Oregon State and Colorado. That said, they are 0-4 against the RPI Top 50 and their Sagarin ELO_CHESS is 69th. Like with Washington, it's hard to see the Selection Committee keeping out a 13-5 Pac-12 team, but that would require a 5-1 finish for an Oregon team that still has road games left at California, Stanford and Oregon State. I don't see it. Even if Oregon gets to 12-6, they're still going to enter the Pac-12 tournament with work left to do to earn an at-large bid.

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