Wednesday, January 02, 2013

Michigan State Falls To Minnesota; Are We Sure They're Good?

#9 Minnesota 76, #18 Michigan State 63
While the score was close for much of this game, it never felt like Michigan State had a real chance to win. They were fighting an uphill battle all day, and the Gophers pulled away late. And what has to really bug Michigan State about this loss is that they seemed to actually play really well. Keith Appling looked as good as he's been all season, scoring 16 points with 5 assists and 6 steals. They were also sharp behind the arc, hitting 5-for-11. But they got annihilated in the paint. Minnesota won the rebounding battle (a 48.1 OR% compared to a 28.6 OR% for MSU) and had a much easier time scoring in the paint (a 60.0 2P% compared to a 44.2 2P% for the Spartans).

Trevor Mbakwe played very well (11 points and 12 rebounds), and a lot of those two-pointers were dunks and layups off of penetration from Andre Hollins (22 points on 7-for-10 shooting, along with 6 assists), but I really think this result was more about Michigan State than Minnesota. The Gophers are a good team, but I'm not sure that they're as good as their ranking. Meanwhile, I'm really not sure that Michigan State is a good team. They had that upset of Kansas at the Georgia Dome back in early November, but besides that they just have close, hard-fought wins over Texas and Boise State, along with losses to UConn, Miami and this defeat to Minnesota. Pomeroy has them ranked 19th, and they're 26th in the Sagarin PREDICTOR, but in my opinion the Spartans still have work to do to prove that they're deserving of a Top 25 ranking.

Michigan State will come home to play Purdue on Saturday, and then will head out on the road to play Iowa on January 10th. If they fall to the Hawkeyes then we will have to consider the possibility of the Spartans falling all the way to the Tournament bubble.

The Gophers are now 13-1 with wins over Michigan State, Memphis and Stanford, and only a loss to Duke. They'll play Northwestern on Sunday, but we'll learn much more about them when they head on the road to Illinois and Indiana next week. I'll be very interested to see how they look against Tournament teams on the road, something which they haven't experienced yet this season.

#5 Indiana 69, Iowa 65
You wouldn't think that Iowa would be the type of team to give Indiana trouble, with the way they like to attack from end-to-end and don't play strong defense. Indiana struggles more against teams that can slow tempo and shut off their easy transition baskets. But Iowa was sharp here, despite their aggressiveness, and really forced Indiana to gut out this win. Victor Oladipo had another really good game, pouring in 14 points and 10 rebounds while leading the defense (though the myth that he's had a better season than Cody Zeller, which is gaining steam in the media, is a bit ridiculous). Will Sheehy was also sharp, scoring 13 points on 5-for-11 shooting off the bench.

This was Indiana's first true road game of the season, and getting this win is really important after their road struggles last season (In Big Ten games, they were 8-1 at home and 3-6 on the road). They will also play at Penn State on Monday, and have a road game at Northwestern in only a couple of weeks. It's a good way for them to ease their way into Big Ten road play. It's the second half of their Big Ten slate when they'll have their road games at Michigan, Ohio State, Minnesota, Michigan State and Illinois.

Iowa is 11-3, with a good win over Iowa State and a bad loss to Virginia Tech. Their RPI is only 81st, but their Sagarin ELO_SCORE is 56th, and they'd be a bubble team if the season ended now. Their issue is a lack of big wins. They'll get plenty of chances in conference play, of course. There's no way for them to get to 9-9 in Big Ten play without a few big scalps, and a 9-9 performance will be enough to at least put them in consideration on Selection Sunday. Their next game on Sunday, at Michigan.

#10 Gonzaga 69, #22 Oklahoma State 68
Oklahoma State had hit 7 of 9 shots from the free throw line with under ten seconds left in this game, when Marcus Smart attacked the rim, trying to tie the game back up. Kelly Olynyk fouled him to force him to score from the line, where the 80% free throw shooter clanged both. Kevin Pangos then got fouled and hit a pair of free throws on the other end, meaning that a Phil Forte three-pointer at the buzzer ended up being meaningless.

Despite the two tough missed free throws, Marcus Smart actually had a really good game here. He scored 23 points on 9-for-15 shooting, and added 6 assists. This was about as good as he's looked all season. And I've talked about this before, but Smart has become something of a Rorschach Test for basketball writers. While he was efficient here, he honestly hasn't been that efficient the rest of the season (he had a 44.8 eFG%). He's a very good player, and he is obviously a good NBA prospect, but he's still very raw and is a poor shooter. And so sportswriters who reject advanced stats and just focus on how good a guy looks think Smart is one of the two or three best freshmen in the nation and a contender for the All-American team. But those more statistically inclined recognize that shooting percentage is probably the most underrated part of rating a player. Guys who make highlight reel plays but shoot poorly will always be overrated, while guys who never do anything spectacular but score efficiently will always be underrated. For these reasons, I think Smart is overrated. Not for this game, where he was excellent, but for his season as a whole.

This is a crucial win for Gonzaga. Along with victories over Kansas State and Baylor, they now have three clear quality victories. BYU and St. Mary's are down this season, which means that there are no quality victories to be had in the WCC. With this win, Gonzaga can now seriously contend for a 2 seed in March if they can really run through league play. They will open conference play at Pepperdine tomorrow.

Even after this loss, Oklahoma State is rated as one of the 20 best teams in the nation by both Sagarin and Pomeroy. The problem is that they only have one quality win (North Carolina State) and also a bad loss (Virginia Tech). They just haven't played a tough schedule, and now they'll have to perform in conference play to ensure a good seed on Selection Sunday. They'll open Big 12 play at Kansas State on Saturday.

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