Saturday, December 22, 2012

South Dakota State Takes Out Undefeated New Mexico

South Dakota State 70, #16 New Mexico 65
Because of the snowfall throughout the upper midwest, South Dakota State had to take a 1,200 mile bus ride to get to New Mexico, arriving in town only late last night. But a mere bus ride can't slow down Nate Wolters, who was superb. He scored 28 points on 9-for-15 shooting, adding a game-high 7 assists as well. New Mexico also just played poorly offensively. They forced 10 steals, but only hit 12 of 30 two-point attempts (30%). South Dakota State isn't a team with an imposing front line (they're 290th in the nation in 2P% against), so this was all on poor New Mexico offensive execution.

New Mexico moved up to #16 in the polls by opening the season 12-0. That said, they had won five of those games by five points or less or in overtime, so they were way overdue for a loss. They're not one of the 20 best teams in the country. They are a contender in the Mountain West, though. They have road games at Cincinnati and St. Louis before they start conference play. A split in those two games will be a fine result for them.

South Dakota State has probably already destroyed their at-large hopes with so many missed opportunities, as well as a terrible loss to Hofstra. This will be their only quality non-conference win. But despite those struggles, Nate Wolters is the reason why South Dakota State has been my pick to win the Summit since the preseason. They'll get a huge test in their conference opener, on the road at North Dakota State on December 29th. Those two teams are the two clear conference favorites, so a road win for the Jackrabbits would be huge.

Mercer 66, Alabama 59
Alabama, honestly, just got outplayed here by Mercer. Mercer had 16 assists on 22 made baskets - something that would have been inconceivable the past couple of years, when Anthony Grant had one of the ten best defenses in the nation. Langston Hall had 7 assists and only 1 turnover for Mercer. Alabama finished with only a 43.3 eFG% and 0.96 PPP.

You can get away with a mediocre offense when your defense is dominant. To put that in perspective, Alabama went 8-8 last season when scoring 1.00 PPP or less. This season? Only 1-3, despite softer competition. They are now 7-4 with this loss and an iffy loss to Dayton. They still need to beat Tulane and Oakland before starting SEC play (neither game is a total gimme). Considering how poor the SEC has been so far this season, the Tide will need to go at least 10-8 in SEC play to have a chance at an at-large bid, and probably need to get to 11-7.

With Belmont gone from the Atlantic Sun, Mercer was my preseason pick to win the league. They have bad losses to Wake Forest, Illinois-Chicago, Denver and Georgia, but also now have wins over Alabama and Florida State. So they're nothing like Belmont was in recent seasons, but they still have the ability when they're playing well to scare a quality opponent. They'll open conference play on New Year's Eve against Stetson.

Fairfield 60, St. Joseph's 57
St. Joe's was ice cold here, only hitting 17 shots from the field and finishing with a 37.3 eFG%. It's how they managed to only have 8 turnovers but still finished with under a point per possession.That said, Fairfield does this to teams. While Sydney Johnson will always be known as a "Princeton offense coach", the reality is that his successful teams have always been built around strong defenses. His teams are aggressive and quick on defense, and they were able to shut down St. Joe's here.

St. Joe's had that early season win over Notre Dame, but hasn't had a good win since. And they now have losses to Fairfield, Villanova and Florida State. Their RPI has fallen to 98th and their Sagarin ELO_SCORE won't be much better. They really can't afford any more non-conference losses if they're going to be in a good position to earn an at-large bid. They will next play Iona on Friday, followed by a road game at Drexel the following Monday.

I talked a few days ago about a potential three-way battle between Canisius, Iona and Loyola-Maryland for the MAAC title. But Fairfield obviously needs to be in that discussion, too. And as I've talked about on twitter, the MAAC is deeper at the top than it's been in seven seasons. It's a wide open and strong league this year. That said, Fairfield has already suffered a home loss against Canisius, so they're a little bit behind the eight ball right now. They will play at Old Dominion on Friday and then will return to conference play with their road game against Canisius, on January 3rd.

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