Monday, December 17, 2012

Louisville Overcomes Slow Start Against Memphis

I know, folks. I'm behind on finishing up my recaps from the weekend. So I'll have two posts tonight going over the rest of those games. Here is the first one:

#6 Louisville 87, Memphis 78
Louisville was absolutely ice cold to open this game. In the first 11 minutes they shot 3-for-13 from the field (a 23.1 eFG%), falling behind by as many as 16 points. But those shots were eventually going to fall, particularly against a Memphis team currently 198th in the country in eFG% against (48.9%). Although worse than Memphis's shooting defense is their inability to keep opponents out of the lane. They are 237th in the nation in FTRate allowed, and they allowed a staggering 46 free throw attempts here, including 12 apiece to Russ Smith and Peyton Siva.

Memphis wasn't a particularly fundamentally sound team under John Calipari, and they've gotten awfully sloppy under Josh Pastner. They always play a lot of one-on-one offense, they are always bad on the defensive glass, and they are really bad about playing sound defense (they have been outside the Top 200 in the nation in FTRate against in every Pastner season so far).

But that all said, I don't totally understand all of the bashing Memphis got after this game. They were playing one of the five best teams in the country and only lost by nine. It's not a great result, but it's not embarrassing. That 16 point lead early was always a mirage - Louisville wasn't going to finish the game with a 23.1 eFG%. I know that Memphis hasn't had any really big wins under Pastner, but it's not like they get a lot of chances. Their conference stinks, and it's very hard to get quality teams to come play at their place. I think they've had three Top 25 teams come to the FedEx Forum in Pastner's entire tenure there. Memphis is still a good team that should win Conference USA easily and that will have the chance (with the right draw) to win a game or two in the NCAA Tournament.

This is arguably the best win Louisville has this season, although their victories over Illinois State and Missouri also came over likely NCAA Tournament teams. Regardless of their resume not being the best right now, they're playing really well. Pomeroy rates them the 3rd best team and Sagarin has them 5th, and in my view I lean toward Pomeroy here. Louisville shouldn't be seriously tested again until they play Kentucky on December 29th. Memphis has a relatively easy schedule until they play at Tennessee on January 4th.

Iowa 80, Northern Iowa 73
Northern Iowa fans can be forgiven for feeling like they should have won this one. Iowa was red hot, hitting 12-for-25 behind the arc, compared to 3-for-16 for Northern Iowa. And at the same time, Iowa earned 37 free throws, compared to 17 for Northern Iowa. I didn't watch enough of this game to know how much of that differential was due to homecourt reffing, but Northern Iowa is not a team that usually puts a lot of people on the foul line. They had a 75.5% FTRate in this game, which was more than double their second worst fouling performance of the season.

But none of that matters to Iowa, who have really turned things around after a slow start to the season. They had an iffy loss to Virginia Tech and had some unsettling narrow wins over cream puffs. But they've bounced back with back-to-back nice victories over Iowa State and Northern Iowa. It's looked for a while like the Big Ten has seven safe NCAA Tournament teams and four clear non-Tournament teams, with Iowa in the middle. Right now, you have to learn toward them being a Tournament team. As long as their play over the past two weeks isn't a fluke, of course.

Iowa has two cupcakes up next, but then has a brutal opening to their Big Ten regular season schedule (vs Indiana, at Michigan, vs Michigan State, at Northwestern, vs Wisconsin, at Ohio State, at Purdue). If they even achieve a 3-4 record over that stretch, that will be fantastic and have them right on pace for an at-large bid. The Indiana game opens things up on December 31st. Northern Iowa, now 6-4, heads to Vegas to play UNLV on Wednesday. They really need to win that one if they're going to get back into the bubble conversation.

VCU 73, Alabama 54
Alabama is not great at taking care of the ball or getting defensive rebounds. In other words, they were easy prey for VCU. The Rams only had 9 offensive rebounds (a 37.5 OR%), but the 11 steals led to a lot of easy layups. Traveon Graham is a VCU name to keep in mind going forward - he didn't play much last season but is very aggressive on the offensive end of the floor. His attacking style paid off here with 14 points that included 6-for-6 at the free throw line and 4 offensive rebounds.

VCU is 7-3 without any really big time wins (Memphis, Alabama and Belmont), but they're awfully good. Pomeroy has them up to 15th in the nation, and they're 12th in the Sagarin PREDICTOR. And for certain types of opponents (teams that struggle against the press or that can't protect the glass) they're just a nightmare to play. They will play Western Kentucky tomorrow, which will be their toughest game until they take on Lehigh on January 5th.

Alabama has lost three straight, including an iffy loss to Dayton. What's more surprising than their offense, which has never been good under Anthony Grant, is their scuffling defense. Last season they only allowed 0.90 PPP, including 0.92 PPP in SEC play. This season they've allowed at least 0.95 PPP in five of eight games against Division I opponents, including 1.17 PPP in each of their last two losses. They will try to bounce back on Wednesday at Texas Tech. Their final four non-conference games are all against likely RPI 100+ teams, but none is a true cupcake. Statistically, there's a pretty good chance that they're going to lose one of those four games, and that will pile yet another bad loss on their resume. They really need to try to find a way to get through those games unscathed.

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