Sunday, December 29, 2013

Morning News: Syracuse Pulls Away From Villanova, Kentucky/Louisville Narratives, Mitch McGary Out & UMass Escapes Providence

Kentucky fans are thrilled to beat their arch-rivals, but this is their real concern.

New Bracket Projection It's Sunday, so there is a new bracket projection posted. The changes were mostly academic this week. Notre Dame had to drop out of the Field of 68 because of losing Jerian Grant, and Saint Mary's had to drop out because of their terrible week in Hawaii. But who should move in? That was the difficult question. I went with Arizona State and Illinois, but there are easily a half dozen other teams I could have gone with. Meanwhile, the top of the bracket stays basically unchanged. Of the 12 seeds getting a 1-3 seed, only one changed this week.

Syracuse Pulls Away From Villanova Villanova is a team that takes almost half of their shots from behind the arc, and so against the Syracuse zone this game was bound to come down to how well they shot the three ball. And that is precisely what happened. Villanova got off to a hot start, hitting 5 of their first 8 behind the arc, and jumping out to a 25-7 lead. But the rest of the game they shot a brutal 5-for-23 behind the arc, and the Orange just chipped away at that lead. The final score is deceptive, as Syracuse hit 14 free throws in the final four minutes, but Villanova was never going to win this game shooting 32% on threes.

Syracuse has been at their best when Trevor Cooney has shot well, and he continues to be impressive. He hit 5-for-8 behind the arc here, pushing his season average up to 51%. The question with Syracuse has been how real this offensive outburst from Cooney and Tyler Ennis is. Both have come from absolutely nowhere to become efficiency monsters, and to turn this Syracuse team into a plausible national title contender. It's possible that they'll turn into a pumpkin eventually, but the longer this goes on the more we have to just accept that Cooney and Ennis are who they have played like the last two months.

Villanova is no longer undefeated, though I'm sure Villanova fans all would have signed up for this during the preseason. The concern with them going forward is this big dependence on outside shooting, particularly when they're not even a great outside shooting team (32.6% so far this season). So can they win consistently enough to win the Big East? At this point I'd bet against it. But they're definitely a contender, and they definitely are playing like a 3-5 seed in the NCAA Tournament.

Kentucky Proves That They've Figured Out How To Win LOL. Just kidding. I was having fun pregame joking on twitter that whether two or three three-pointers go in or out will determine whether a thousand lazy sportswriters will write their "Kentucky is too young and they still haven't figure out how to win" or their "Kentucky's young players are growing up together and have finally figured out how to win" article. And you can get a taste of that genre here, here and here. In reality, if Louisville had shot their season-average 35% behind the arc instead of 23%, they would have probably won the game and we'd be back to the "Kentucky still hasn't learned how to win yet" articles.

In the end, this game was what we expected it to be, with Kentucky controlling the glass and Louisville having the superior backcourt. If Louisville had Gorgui Dieng they'd probably be the best team in the country. But they don't, and even without Julius Randle (more on him in a moment) Kentucky controlled the paint. And the Harrison twins played probably their best game so far this season, limiting the gap between them and Russ Smith and Chris Jones.

The reality all along was that the panic over Kentucky was dumb. Like Kansas, all three of Kentucky's losses have come away from home, against very good teams, by an average of around four points. Kansas has more premier wins, which is why I have Kansas slightly ahead of Kentucky, but I've had both teams as 1 seeds all regular season. The media will get their freaking out about those two teams being too young over with by mid-January, and they'll start climbing the polls again. The real concern for Kentucky is the Julius Randle injury. It didn't seem to be particularly bad, but if he's out for a significant period of time then obviously that's a huge problem. Stay tuned on that one.

Louisville is most likely one of the five or six best teams in the country, but they played a soft non-conference schedule and have no big wins yet. In the AAC, their number of "big wins" will be limited, too. It's going to be difficult for them to earn a 1 seed without other top teams falling in their conference tournaments. That's why I have Louisville as a 2 seed at the moment.

Mitch McGary Out Indefinitely This is a tough blow for Michigan, obviously. I thought McGary was very overrated coming into this season (all most people saw of him were his two big NCAA Tournament games, which were outlier performances), but he's struggled even worse than I thought he would, and it's been obvious that something has been physically bothering him. He now is at serious risk of missing the entire rest of the season, though that will have to be determined later. Michigan is still an NCAA Tournament team without him, but I already thought they were a step below the Big Four in the Big Ten (Michigan State, Ohio State, Wisconsin and Iowa), and this just makes it even more certain that they'll finish in fifth or sixth in the conference.

UMass Escapes Providence In Overtime Bryce Cotton tried his best to be the hero of this game. He sent this game into overtime, and then hit a clutch three late in overtime to potentially send the game into a second overtime. But UMass had enough time after a Trey Davis missed jumper for Derrick Gordon to grab the rebound and throw it back up for the game winner. Cotton was the star of the game, scoring 24 points with 5 rebounds and 5 assists, but he just didn't get enough help from his teammates. Tyler Harris had a nice game also (16 points, 9 rebounds, 5 assists), but Providence just lacks depth in their lineup right now. UMass had six different players score between 8 and 14 points here.

This would have been a big win for Providence's bubble hopes. They remain on the bubble for now, but like Stanford they seem to lack the depth to win consistently enough in conference play for an at-large bid. UMass, assuming that they beat Elon and Miami University, should make the NCAA Tournament with a 10-6 or better Atlantic Ten record. So they should be able to get in without too much trouble.

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