Friday, November 30, 2012

Miami And Virginia Are Better Than They Appear

Miami (Fl) 67, #13 Michigan State 59
Miami had to play without Durand Scott for the first three games of this season, getting him back for the Detroit game. In general it's too simplistic to say that a bad loss (such as Miami's loss to Florida Gulf Coast) wouldn't have happened if a key player was in the lineup, but Miami looked like a totally different team here. Scott is the best scorer Miami has, and beyond the offense he generates (15 points on 6-for-10 shooting here) he also opens things up for his teammates.

Miami won't get a pass for that loss to Florida Gulf Coast, of course. Nobody in March is going to care that Durand Scott wasn't there. But they will be forgiven that one bad loss if they can play well throughout the rest of their non-conference slate and then go 10-8 or better in ACC play - that should be enough to go Dancing. They have a very tricky stretch coming up, though, beginning with a road game at UMass on Saturday. They also will be play Charlotte and La Salle, and on the road at UCF. Just going 3-1 through those four games will be a pretty good performance.

There are reasons for concern at Michigan State here, namely the total lack of front court offense. They were going up against a pretty formidable Miami front line, but it's pretty bad when your entire front line (including the bench) hits four baskets from the field in an entire game. Certainly Michigan State isn't at any risk of missing the NCAA Tournament, but at this point they're not playing like a team that can contend for the Big Ten title. They now have a series of cupcakes up next, beginning with Nicholls State on Saturday.

Virginia 60, Wisconsin 54
This game was very similar to the Michigan State/Miami game for several reasons. Like Miami, Virginia suffered a "bad loss" early in the season that in retrospect isn't really as bad as it sounds (Virginia's loss was to Delaware). Like Miami, Virginia was boosted by the return of a very important player (Virginia's returner was Jontel Evans, their best point guard). Like Miami, Virginia is a team that should be getting more at-large hype than they're getting due to that one early loss when they weren't yet at full strength. And like Michigan State, Wisconsin both is not playing like a team that can win the Big Ten but simultaneously is not a team that in any way should fear missing the NCAA Tournament.

Virginia is a very tough match-up for Wisconsin with the way they play defense. Tony Bennett pushed his defense out well beyond the three-point line, taking away Wisconsin's outside shooters while knowing that they weren't much of a threat to attack the basket. That said, Wisconsin does have two very clear problems right now. The first is defensive rebounding - Wisconsin only had a 61.9 DR% here, and is only at 72.1% for the season. For comparison, their worst DR% over the past six years was 71.5%, playing the majority of games against elite opponents rather than cupcakes. Considering that their entire front court returns from last season, it's pretty incomprehensible why their rebounding has been so bad this season. A second problem is Ryan Evans, who is taking 25.3% of Wisconsin's shots when on the floor (leading the team) but is shooting an atrocious 39.6 eFG%. With so many good shooters around him, he has to stop forcing so many bad shots.

But while Wisconsin isn't looking great this year, there's no reason to panic over one bad game. They still look to me overall like a borderline Top 25 team, and they should be safely in the NCAA Tournament. But at this point, it's hard to see them challenging Indiana, Michigan or Ohio State at the top of the conference. They head home to play California on Sunday. Virginia comes home to play Wisconsin-Green Bay on Saturday and then Tennessee on Wednesday. By the way, considering the fact that Tony Bennett played his collegiate career at Wisconsin-Green Bay and then started his coaching career at Wisconsin (including a short stint as an assistant under Bo Ryan), it's amusing that he's playing those two teams back-to-back.

Purdue 73, Clemson 61
While several Big Ten teams had poor performances during the Big Ten/ACC Challenge, Purdue was not among that group - they were dominant here. Purdue led by 20 at halftime, and held a double-digit lead throughout the entire second half. Clemson was without Milton Jennings, who was suspended after an arrest for marijuana possession, but the real difference in the game was shooting, Purdue was hitting from all over the floor, and Clemson couldn't seem to get an open shot. In all, Purdue had a 59.2 eFG%, compared to a 43.1 eFG% for Clemson. For good measure Clemson only hit 55% of their free throws.

DJ Byrd broke out of an early season shooting slump, hitting 6-for-11 behind the arc. That outside shooting helped open things up for Terone Johnson, who had 13 points and 6 assists. Terone Johnson is a guy whose potential I've always liked, but he had gotten off to a slow start this season.

Purdue is only 3-3 after this win, with dicey losses to Villanova, Bucknell and Oregon State, but playing in the Big Ten means that they have plenty of slack in their at-large resume. If they can get to 10-8 in Big Ten play, as good as the conference is, that will go a long way toward erasing any those non-conference struggles. But that said, this is the first time all season Purdue has really looked like an at-large team, and it would be a mistake to overreact to one game.

The Boilermakers head home to face Xavier on Saturday. Clemson will head on the road to face South Carolina on Sunday. If they can avoid a bad loss there then they will have a nice opportunity on December 8th against Arizona. They don't have any bad losses so far this season, but they don't have any good wins either. Arizona would be a quality victory, if Clemson can pull off the upset.

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