Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Nerlens Noel Leads Kentucky Over Ole Miss

Kentucky 87, #16 Ole Miss 74
This game was supposed to be the Marshall Henderson show. The hype around him has been growing like crazy, and ESPN had about 6 montages of his play and behavior ready to go before and during this game. But in the end, Henderson wasn't the top story. In fact, even the horrendous officiating (pretty even against both sides, but just one of the worst reffing performances I've seen all season) wasn't the top story. The top story was Nerlens Noel, who completely dominated the paint.

The key moment came at 9:53 to go in the game, when Noel picked up his fourth foul with Kentucky leading by 17. Ole Miss quickly went on a run, and after Calipari rushed Noel back into the game he started off just backing off defensively out of fear of a fifth foul. Over a four minute stretch, a 13-0 Ole Miss run pulled them within four points. But over the final 5:30 of the game, Noel had five blocks, and made the paint a complete no-go in a way that I haven't even seen Jeff Withey do. In all, Ole Miss hit only 33.3% of their two point attempts in this game. Their only hope was for Henderson to start launching threes... which he did, though it was a lot of quantity over quality. I haven't seen a player since Jimmer Fredette take so many fade away three-pointers. He finished the game 2-for-11 behind the arc.

I've been pointing out for some time that Kentucky is very underrated. The classic argument that you hear from the media is "I don't care what some computer says - they haven't proven that they can beat good teams!" That is, of course, garbage. If you're a borderline Top 25 team in terms of quality, as Kentucky is, then you will eventually beat your share of good teams if you get enough chances. Now, the fact that the SEC is terrible this season (by far the weakest of the six BCS conferences) means that Kentucky won't be able to improve their NCAA seed much higher than a 7 or 8 seed (in my most recent bracket projection I had them as a 9), but they're certainly capable of beating good teams, as they did here.

Now 5-2, Kentucky will play at Texas A&M on Saturday, followed by a Tuesday night home game against South Carolina. They also will play Auburn, another team they should beat easily, before their big game in Gainesville on February 12th. Kentucky is the SEC team most capable, in terms of pure talent, of giving Florida a tough game. A potentially 8-2 Kentucky game on a five-game winning streak and full of confidence will be a very interesting test for the Gators.

Ole Miss is 17-3 overall and 6-1 in the SEC, with a win over Missouri along with a bad loss to Indiana State. Their Sagarin ELO_SCORE is currently 35th. They're still a Tournament team at the moment, but their cream puff non-conference schedule means that they could easily fall onto the Tournament bubble if they don't finish 12-6 or better in SEC play. They have to play at Florida on Saturday, and they also a road game at Missouri the following weekend.  But other than that, their remaining schedule is pretty much a joke.

Indiana State 68, #15 Wichita State 55
Indiana State came into this game knowing that their front line cannot compete with the Wichita State front line. Wichita State has been scoring at will in the paint all season, but has only one regular that shoots better than 34% behind the arc. I give Greg Lansing a ton of credit for going with a zone defense here and goading Wichita State into launching up those low-percentage outside shots. In all, Wichita State threw up 28 of their 59 shots from behind the arc, They ended up with a 34.7 eFG%, which was their worst shooting performance since a 32.0 eFG% against Georgetown on November 27, 2008.

Indiana State has one of the more perplexing at-large resumes right now. They are 14-7 overall and 7-3 in the Missouri Valley, with wins over Miami, Missouri and Wichita State, along with bad losses to Morehead State, Southern Illinois and Illinois State. Their RPI is 37th, but they are 3-4 against the RPI Top 100 with three RPI 100+ losses, and a Sagarin ELO_SCORE that is still only 78th. And considering the fact that I can't find a computer rating that has them as one of the 60 best teams in the nation, I don't see how one can project Indiana State to work their way into the NCAA Tournament. So at this point, despite those nice wins, Indiana State is still clearly NIT bound.

The key for Indiana State will be home games against Creighton and Wichita State. They need to win at least one of those two games and will need to go at least 13-5 in Missouri Valley play to have a good shot at an at-large bid. They'll play at Drake on Saturday, and then will have their home game against Creighton next Wednesday.

Wichita State falls to 19-3 and 8-2 in conference play with this loss. This loss isn't that much of a killer, but the Shockers still have road games left against Creighton, Northern Iowa, Indiana State and Illinois State. They have to be careful or they could start piling up some losses. The Northern Iowa road game is up next, on Saturday.

Oklahoma 74, Baylor 71
Oklahoma almost blew a pretty big lead here. The Sooners led by as many as 14 in the first half and by 16 in the second half. And with with 2:40 left in the game they still led by 11. But two turnovers and a pair of missed free throws allowed that lead to melt all the way down to one. In the closing seconds, Baylor had the ball down by three. Oklahoma tried to foul Pierre Jackson but couldn't get the call. After he missed a three-pointer, the ball found its way to Brady Heslip, who took a three that hit every corner of the rim but just didn't fall in.

Steven Pledger and Amath M'Baye both scored 20 points for Oklahoma. Their play was needed because Romero Osby was destroyed inside by Isaiah Austin. Austin had 12 offensive rebounds, which is the most recorded by any Division I player this season, and the most in a BCS conference game since Jon Brockman also had 12, against Stanford on January 8, 2009.

With this win, Oklahoma moves to 5-2 in Big 12 play, with wins over Oklahoma State and Baylor, along with a bad loss to Arkansas. At 6-5 against the RPI Top 100 and with a Sagarin ELO_SCORE narrowly inside the Top 40, they'd definitely be an NCAA Tournament team if the season ended now, and probably need to get to 11-7 with a win in the Big 12 tournament to stay there. Their next game will be on Saturday, against Kansas State.

Baylor drops to 5-2 in conference play. Nobody is going to challenge Kansas for the Big 12 title, of course, but this loss could mean a lot in the battle for second place. At only 5-5 against the RPI Top 100, Baylor is closer to the bubble than most people realize. They have a tough week coming up, too, with a road game at Iowa State on Saturday followed by a road game at Oklahoma State next Wednesday.

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