Saturday, February 18, 2012

New Mexico Thumps UNLV

Apologies for not posting all day. I haven't had any time on my computer, so now it's time to catch up on a day of results. Obviously I won't get to all of it tonight, so I'll finish catching up tomorrow. I will still have a new bracket out late tonight as scheduled, though.

New Mexico 65, #11 UNLV 45
I think there are two important lessons to absorb from what New Mexico has done the past couple of weeks. First of all, as sample sizes increase, team results will always tend toward team quality. New Mexico was a team with superb computer numbers (inside the Top 20 in both Pomeroy and Sagarin) but without good results. Their only big win had come over St. Louis, and they had a bad loss to Santa Clara. But in the past couple of weeks? They've gone undefeated, including consecutive double-digit wins over Wyoming, San Diego State and now UNLV.

Second of all, New Mexico demonstrates the value of playing in a quality conference and having a lot of quality opponents on a schedule. Even though they struggled to close the deal in tight games early in the season, they had additional opportunities down the stretch. They got a second shot at San Diego State, and a second shot at UNLV. Teams like Belmont and Middle Tennessee State have played great basketball this season, but just don't have any big wins, and they won't get any more chances before the NCAA Tournament. And that's why both of those teams are going to need to win their conference tournaments to make the NCAA Tournament, while New Mexico suddenly looks safe for an at-large bid.

New Mexico is now the clear favorites to win the Mountain West regular season title, and anybody who has paid attention will put them in their Top 25 on Monday. They are now in the Top 25 in every single computer rating, be they team quality ratings or team resume ratings. They are 8-3 against the RPI Top 100, and will have to play at Colorado State on Tuesday and then at TCU next Saturday. After that they'll finish the regular season at home against Air Force and Boise State, two games that they should win pretty easily. If they can even go 3-1 over this stretch they'll lock up an at-large bid, regardless of what they do in the MWC tournament. And it's hard to see them performing worse than 3-1.

UNLV has now lost three of their last four games and is going to have to figure out what has happened to their defense. They've allowed a total of 1.16 PPP in these three losses. Throw in New Mexico's superb defense here, and UNLV's offense fell apart - a 25.8 turnover percentage, their worst in conference play so far this season.

I'm not ready to panic about UNLV yet. Yes, they've had a slump the past two weeks, but there's no obviously structural reason why this should be. Their personnel hasn't changed. And it's always smart to avoid overreacting to a small sample size of games where a team shoots this poorly and allows opponents to shoot so well. That has the whiff of statistical noise. The Runnin' Rebs head home now for a relatively soft finish to their regular season. They'll play Boise State and Air Force at home this week.

#8 Michigan State 69, #17 Wisconsin 55
Michigan State has played tremendous the past couple of weeks, and it continued here. The Wisconsin offense couldn't get anything going. The Badgers have had several games this year where their shooting totally fell apart, but I felt here that their awful shooting (a 38.7 eFG%) had more to do with the the Michigan State defense than anything else. Wisconsin also seemed tentative on defense, allowing Michigan State to torch them more than any other team in Big Ten play thus far. The 54.3 eFG% that Michigan State had was way better than the 50.9 eFG% that Iowa had on New Year's Eve, the previous best shooting performance Wisconsin had allowed this season. In fact, this is only the second time all season that Wisconsin has allowed an eFG% against greater than 49%. A lot of credit goes to Keith Appling, who's been inconsistent at times this year, but has been explosive in the hole when he's been on his game. He had 20 points on 6-for-12 shooting (including 8-for-10 at the line) here.

Michigan State is suddenly, arguably, the favorite to win the Big Ten regular season title. Ohio State is the better team, but they'll have to beat Michigan State in Columbus, and also will have to navigate a tough schedule down the stretch. Michigan State has a tough schedule as well, of course. They'll be at Purdue tomorrow, and then will head to Minnesota on Wednesday. Both of those bubble teams will be desperate for big wins, so they'll come to play. Purdue has had some bad off-court issues, though, and will be without Kelsey Barlow and DJ Byrd.

Wisconsin falls to 8-5 with this loss, only a half game ahead of Indiana for fourth place in the Big Ten. Fourth place matters a whole lot this year since the expansion of the conference means that only the top four teams will all earn first round byes (in previous years, the top five had earned byes). Wisconsin has Penn State coming to the Kohl Center tomorrow, which shouldn't be too much trouble. But then they'll head to Iowa on Thursday before a road game at Ohio State. The Iowa game will be tough, but a loss there and a loss to Ohio State will likely drop them out of fourth place.

Drexel 69, Cleveland State 49
It's truly perplexing what has happened to Cleveland State the past two weeks. Two weeks ago they were looking like a potential at-large team, but now they've fallen apart with four straight losses. And it's not like there's been a single cause of this slump. Against Valparaiso they couldn't hit a shot (a 26.9 eFG%). Against Butler they couldn't take care of the ball (16 turnovers in only 61 possessions). Against Wisconsin-Milwaukee they actually shot the lights out (a 69.6 eFG%), but were beaten badly on the boards (10 offensive rebounds for UW-Milwaukee vs 5 for Cleveland St) and gave up 1.32 PPP. And here? Once again they couldn't hit a shot (32.5 eFG%). Trevon Harmon was a brutal 9-for-26 from the field.

To be fair, there's been a little bit of bad luck here. They Butler and Wisconsin-Milwaukee games both came down to the final possession, so Cleveland State deserved to win one of those games. But even just losing three of four is disappointing, particularly with this type of thumping by Drexel. Cleveland State's Pomeroy rating has dropped from the mid-40s to the mid-70s in about two weeks. And they've gone from a bubble team to a team with basically no realistic chance of getting back to the bubble. Their next game will be Tuesday at Wisconsin-Green Bay.

Drexel isn't getting any at-large hype, but you can make a good argument that they should. They've won 21 of their last 22 games, including a victory over VCU and this destruction of Cleveland State. The problem is, that's it for their quality wins, and they have bad losses to Norfolk State, Delaware and Georgia State. They've been undone by a weak schedule that has left them only 9-5 against the RPI Top 200 (0-2 against the RPI Top 50). Their Sagarin ELO_CHESS is still going to be around 65th, even after this win. So despite the fact that Drexel is playing great basketball, the reality is that their schedule undoes any realistic at-large chances. They'll need the CAA tournament title. The Dragons will play James Madison on Wednesday, and then will close the regular season next Saturday at Old Dominion.

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