Monday, December 31, 2012

Cincinnati Grinds Out A Big Upset Of Pittsburgh

#8 Cincinnati 70, #24 Pittsburgh 61
I've talked several times before about my belief that Cincinnati will end up with more than their share of upset wins and upset losses this season. They have an explosive-but-inconsistent offense, paired with an elite defense. When Sean Kilpatrick and Cashmere Wright are putting up points in bunches, they can beat anybody. But their sloppy play at times (offensive turnovers, defensive rebounding and free throw shooting are all problems) is why Pittsburgh came into this game rated the better team by both Sagarin and Pomeroy, and why they were a six point favorite in Vegas.

But those sloppy problems? They weren't a problem here. Cincy hit as many free throws (25) as Pittsburgh attempted, making them at a 71.4% clip (well above their 61.6% season average). They only committed 8 turnovers (well below their season average of 13.6 per game), and held Pittsburgh to a 37.9 OR% (Pitt's lowest in six games, and well under their season average of 45.0%). And that, along with 16 and 18, respectively, from Kilpatrick and Wright, is why Cincy landed a really important victory.

Besides the win itself, this game also represents Cincy's last serious challenge for a few weeks. They'll be solid favorites in each of their next five games, meaning a realistic chance of moving up to around 5th or 6th in the human polls before a massive road game at Syracuse on January 21st. First things first, of course. Their next game will be against St. John's on Saturday.

Pittsburgh will be punished by the Selection Committee for their soft non-conference schedule. Their one premier non-conference opponent was Michigan, and they lost that game by five points. So they still have no big wins, despite a 12-2 record and a Sagarin ELO_SCORE that should stay in the Top 25 even after this loss. They head on the road next to play Rutgers and Georgetown, on Saturday and then the following Tuesday.

Harvard 67, California 62
The loss of Kyle Casey and Brandyn Curry really sabotaged the early part of this season for Harvard. They have no real chance for an at-large bid, and the Ivy League title race has been flung wide open. Princeton, and even Columbia, have a realistic chance to earn the Ivy League's auto bid. But Tommy Amaker's very young team has grown significantly as the season has gone along, and their level of play has clearly improved since November.

Laurent Rivard is the one returning starter from last season, and he's been superb. He led Harvard with 19 points here. But as has been the case in all of Harvard's best performances this season, they've been lifted by young guys who were either minor bench players or high schoolers last season. Here, Wesley Saunders poured in 18 points (on 6-for-13 shooting) and Siyani Chambers had a Phil Pressey-like 9 assists with 2-for-15 shooting from the field. Chambers looks like he's 10 years old, but his potential for growth over the next three seasons is massive.

This is a devastating loss for a California team that already resides on the Tournament bubble. They now enter Pac-12 play at 8-4 with this loss and zero quality wins. Their Sagarin ELO_SCORE has tumbled all the way to 68th, and they'd be NIT-bound if the season ended now. To work their way back into the Field of 68, they'll need to get to at least 11-7 in Pac-12 play. They get a bad break not playing Arizona at home, which will make it even more difficult for them to collect a quality scalp. They will open conference play on Thursday, at UCLA.

Harvard will continue their west coast swing tonight at St. Mary's, where they'll get another chance to deal a big blow to a bubble team. They will also play at Rice before opening Ivy League play at Dartmouth on January 12th.

Indiana State 77, Illinois State 75
This was the Missouri Valley regular season opener for both squads. Illinois State really needed this win, and almost pulled off an exciting, late comeback. Trailing by 11 with 3:30 to go, they actually pulled within 1 with 18 seconds left. After Indiana State hit one of two at the free throw line, Nick Zeisloft got a last second three-point attempt to win the game but couldn't hit it.

Pomeroy ratings Illinois State 47th, and they're actually 32nd in the Sagarin PREDICTOR, so they're obviously good enough to earn an at-large bid. But they have lost to Louisville, Northwestern and Indiana State by a combined 8 points, and are now 9-4 with no real big wins and this bad loss to Indiana State. They need to get to 12-6 in Missouri Valley play to have any chance at an at-large bid, and realistically need to reach 13-5. So an 0-1 start is a significant problem. Their next game will be Wednesday at home against Creighton, which is crucial for not only avoiding an 0-2 start, but it will also represent their best remaining chance for a premier win.

I've talked recently about the dramatically improved play from Indiana State. They don't have a realistic path to an at-large bid, but they might be the fourth best team in the Missouri Valley. And after taking out the third best team at home, they now have a realistic path to finishing as high as third in the final Valley standings. Their next game will be at Creighton, on Saturday. After that, their schedule will ease up for the next two weeks.

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