La Salle 69, #19 VCU 61
You can make a pretty good case that this was the best week La Salle basketball has had since joining the Atlantic Ten in 1995, an era during which they have not made the NCAA Tournament (they last went to the Big Dance in 1992, when they won the MAAC). But this week they took down a pair of ranked teams in Butler and VCU, and tossed themselves into both the Atlantic Ten regular season race and the NCAA Tournament bubble discussion.
The key to beating VCU is not turning the ball over. That sounds like a dumb and obvious statement, but it's not just the transition offense, but the under-reported fact that VCU's half court defense actually isn't that good. Full court pressing will always take away from your half court defense, but VCU is a below-average defensive rebounding team (they came into this game 10th best in the Atlantic Ten) and 2P% defense (tied for 206th in the nation). La Salle committed 14 turnovers, which is well below the 20.1 that VCU is forcing per game. On top of that, La Salle locked down on VCU's offense. Juvonte Reddic had a big 22 points, getting much of his offense in transition, but his teammates combined to shoot only 29.8% from the field.
With these two big wins back-to-back, La Salle is now 3-2 against the RPI Top 50, although one of those wins was over Villanova (fairly high likelihood of not being an RPI Top 50 win on Selection Sunday). At 14-5 overall, their RPI is all the way up to 27th, though their Sagarin ELO_SCORE will probably still be in the high-50s. If they can get to 10-6 in Atlantic Ten play (they're currently 4-2) and win a game in the A-10 tournament then I like their chances to earn an at-large. At 9-7 they'll have longer odds.
VCU has now lost consecutive games to fall to 4-2 in Atlantic Ten play. The conference is a mess now with eight teams within one game of first place, though I still think VCU and Butler are a class ahead of the field. And because I think Butler's struggles against the press match them up poorly with VCU, the Rams are still my pick to win the A-10 automatic bid. But with an RPI that is 38th and a Sagarin ELO_SCORE that will slide out to near 40th, their NCAA Tournament seed is tumbling. They're now a long shot to earn higher than a 4 seed in the Tournament, even if they go on a long winning streak.
VCU's next game will be on Wednesday at an underrated and tough Rhode Island team. La Salle's next game will be on Wednesday against UMass.
#18 NC State 91, North Carolina 83
Midway through the second half it seemed like this game was over. NC State led by as many as 23 in the first half and 28 in the second half, and still led by 17 with 3:15 to go. Over the next 2:30, NC State committed four turnovers and missed the front end of a one-and-one, while UNC hit five of six, with three of those hits coming from behind the arc. So somehow, North Carolina pulled within 5 with around 36 seconds to go, as the camera cut to panic-stricken NC State fans around PNC Arena. Scott Wood and Lorenzo Brown had to combined to hit six consecutive free throws to ice the game.
Lorenzo Brown was the best player on the court for either team, scoring 20 points with 11 assists. TJ Warren also put his little twitter flap to bed with 19 points (on 9-for-12 shooting) off the bench. NC State's offense continues to roll (a 54.6 eFG% and 68.8 assist rate here), but the late Tar Heels rally reinforces the concerns about NC State's defense. Their defense is mediocre enough (0.98 allowed in ACC play is fourth worst in the conference) when they're trying that it becomes full-fledged matador defense when they take their foot off the pedal. North Carolina scored 50 points in the final 13:30.
With this loss, the Tar Heels continue to linger near the Tournament bubble. They are now 13-6 overall and 3-3 in ACC play, with wins over UNLV and Maryland along with a bad loss to Texas. At 7-6 against the RPI Top 200, their RPI is 35th, which is close to where their Sagarin ELO_SCORE should be tomorrow. If the season ended now they'd be in the NCAA Tournament, but not with a lot of room to spare. Even at 10-8 in ACC play they might need a win in the ACC tournament to lock up an at-large bid. At 9-9 they'll be right on the fat part of the bubble.
NC State moves to 5-2 in ACC play with this win. I think Duke and Miami are probably out of reach for them, but Virginia is probably their only serious contender for third place. Every other team besides North Carolina is being outscored in ACC play, and UNC is only barely outscoring their opponents (+0.01 PPP).
NC State's next game will be at Virginia, on Tuesday. North Carolina will also play on Tuesday, on the road at Boston College.
#9 Butler 83, Temple 71
Both of these teams have played to their opponent all season long (which is why their resumes are becoming increasingly weird), so I expected this game to be close. But buoyed by the return of Rotnei Clarke, Butler was really sharp offensively. Clarke led the way with 24 points as Butler hit 60% of their 2s, 40% of their 3s, and had more assists (16) than turnovers (14). Khyle Marshall dominated inside with 19 points on 9-for-11 shooting. Khalif Wyatt did his best to lead Temple (22 points, 6 assists and 4 steals), but he didn't get enough help from his teammates.
Butler is now 16-3 overall and 8-3 against the RPI Top 100 and an RPI that is up to 10th. If the season ended now they'd be a 3 or 4 seed in the NCAA Tournament. The season doesn't end now, though, and I do think Butler is due for another bad loss or two. Their three very narrow wins over Gonzaga, Indiana and Marquette mean that they're not as good as their resume. I think they're more likely to end up somewhere around a 5 seed or so. Their next game will be a tough one, on Thursday at St. Louis.
Temple is 13-6 overall and 2-3 in the Atlantic Ten, with wins over Syracuse and St. Louis along with bad losses to Canisius, St. Bonaventure and Xavier. They are only 3-4 against the RPI Top 100 and their Sagarin ELO_SCORE is right around 50th. I think that a 9-7 finish in the A-10 will put them squarely on the bubble. If they get to 10-6 then a win in the A-10 tournament should earn them an at-large bid. Their next game will be on Wednesday against Richmond.