Friday, January 31, 2014

Morning News: Cincinnati The AAC Favorite? Also, Providence Falls To Marquette, UCLA Escapes, San Diego/St. Mary's, And Much More

In the future, try not having both of your heels over the charge circle line when Norman Powell is coming at you at full speed.

Cincinnati The New AAC Favorite? This was billed as the game of the night, and it definitely lived up. Just a really fun game to watch from start to finish. Cincinnati actually led by 17 points at the under-16 timeout, but a 14-0 Louisville run completely turned the game around. Russ Smith and Montrezl Harrell sparked the run, and were both excellent in the second half. But down the stretch run, Louisville weirdly fell apart. In the final five minutes of the game, the only points they scored came on free throws they earned after Cincinnati intentionally fouled while up three with under 10 seconds to go. Russ Smith went several possessions without seeing the ball, which is unacceptable. The weirdest moment came when Cincy was up by 3 with 38 seconds to go and Louisville let 30 seconds run off the clock without fouling (reminiscent of rival Kentucky's bizarre failure to foul in the final 15 seconds the night before).

So is Cincinnati the AAC favorite? It depends what you mean by that question. Cincinnati is the favorite to win at least a share of the AAC regular season title. They're two games clear of Louisville in the loss column and have the road victory for the tiebreaker. But are they actually the best team? That's tough to say. Both Pomeroy and Sagarin still rate Louisville a bit better. In conference play, Louisville still holds the PPP margin advantage (+0.20 vs +0.17). Keep in mind that three-point shooting was a bit fluky here (Louisville is the better 3P% team, but was out-shot 38% to 29%), and you never want to overreact too much to a 40 minute sample size when you have 20 other games to look at.

So is Cincinnati or Louisville "better" and the AAC tournament favorite? At this point, I still lean slightly toward Louisville. I think overall they've been slightly better this season, and they have the higher talent ceiling. But is this a big gap? No. This isn't a Baylor/Kansas situation. It's easy to look at the information available and view Cincy as the better team. I won't argue much with you.

Providence Falls To Marquette If the season ended two days ago, Providence would have been in the NCAA Tournament as an at-large team. I don't think there's much debate about that. And even after this loss, they'd still probably be in. But the reason they're not in my bracket is because this won't be the last clunker they play this season. It's the problem with only playing six players - it's just so hard to keep up strong play consistently. Providence played some really good basketball during that five game winning streak, but they were never going to keep that level of play up for another six weeks.

This game was not exactly a shooting clinic, as the two teams combined to shoot 5-for-30 behind the arc. In the end, there wasn't much difference between these two teams, honestly. But Marquette needed this game badly, as they'd fallen off the bubble altogether. They're still only 12-9 overall, and at 4-4 in Big East play will realistically need to get to at least 11-7 to have a good shot at an at-large bid. They have a key road game coming up at St. John's on Saturday. They'll be underdogs in Vegas, but really can't afford to lose it.

Providence is 5-3 in Big East play with wins over Creighton, Xavier and Georgetown to go with a bad loss to Seton Hall. They're 48th in RPI and 44th in the Sagarin PURE_ELO. It's probably a Tournament resume at the moment, but they'll need to get to 10-8 in conference play to have a good at-large case.

UCLA Escapes Eugene UCLA got out of Eugene with the win here... somehow. UCLA actually led by 11 points with about six minutes to go, but a 14-0 run by Oregon was sparked by Joseph Young (7 points, 1 steal and 1 offensive rebound during that 14-0 stretch). A Jordan Adams basket and a free throw tied the game up, leading to a bizarre finish. UCLA had a poor possession that led to a missed 20-footer, but on the rebound got a held ball which gave them the ball back on alternate possession. Able to hold for the final possession, Travis Wear scored, but with about five seconds left. Joseph Young immediately grabbed the ball and was screaming down the court against a confused UCLA defense when Dana Altman called a timeout. This allowed a UCLA team with no timeouts to set their defense and prevent Oregon from getting a good final shot.

Oregon has had some bad luck during this 1-6 stretch (three of the losses have come by four points or less), but that just balances out their good luck early in the season (3-0 in overtime games). On net, Oregon is what they are, a bubble quality team that  is at 2-6 in Pac-12 play and desperately in need of a win. If they can hang around the bubble, the season-closing week with home games against the two Arizona teams could be massive.

If UCLA can win at Oregon State or Sunday they'll move into the Top 25 polls, though they still have some very clear holes. They only have one true big man and he's foul prone (Tony Parker, who fouled out of this game). It means that they tend to lose the battle for points in the paint, and they also tend to earn fewer free throws than their opponent. At 6-2 in conference play they are clear of the bubble for now, but nearly every game the rest of the way is one that they can realistically lose. I wouldn't be totally shocked if they regress a bit.

Shooting Disaster For Saint Mary's The St. Mary's Gaels had quietly been putting together a decent at-large resume. They came into this game 16-5 overall and with a Sagarin PURE_ELO that had slid all the way up to 39th. They actually played good defense in this game, holding San Diego to just 4-for-11 shooting on layups and dunks, but this was a Saint Mary's shooting debacle. They finished with a 27.0 eFG%, their worst shooting day in almost 12 years, when they had a 26.6 eFG% on March 3rd, 2002. With 15 offensive rebounds they managed to score 0.74 PPP, but that was still their worst offensive performance since November 26th, 2005. The four starters not named Brad Waldow shot a combined 4-for-31 from the field. Oof.

Now with five losses against teams currently ranked outside the RPI Top 100, Saint Mary's has an uphill battle to get back onto the bubble. They have a remaining home-and-home against BYU along with a home game against Gonzaga, and they probably need to win at least two of those three games.

Nebraska Upsets Indiana The first half went pretty well for Indiana. The second half? Not so much. They were outscored 41-23, and were once again made absolutely impotent by a zone defense. This is not a new thing for Tom Crean's Indiana teams - they are completely confounded by zone defenses and have been for a while now. The leading scorer in the game was Terran Petteway, who is now averaging 18.2 points per game 53.0 eFG%. He's become staggeringly efficiency all of a sudden after being a very poor player for Texas Tech two seasons ago. He has to be on the short list of most improved players in the nation.

If Indiana misses the NCAA Tournament, this loss will be a key reason why. It drops them to 3-5 in Big Ten play and 4-7 against the RPI Top 100, with a Sagarin PURE_ELO that has slid all the way out to 74th. If the season ended now they would be in the NIT. They're going to have to win at least 6 of their final 10 regular season games to have a plausible at-large case, which makes Sunday's game against Michigan a massive opportunity. They really have to find a way to win that one.

Cold Shooting Does In Louisiana Tech Louisiana Tech had the advantage in the paint in this game, but they couldn't hit a jump shot. In all, Louisiana Tech was 8-for-39 on jump shots, including 8-for-33 behind the arc. UTEP was able to be more aggressive offensively, forcing fouls and getting to the free throw line. Vince Hunter alone earned 16 free throw attempts en route to a game-high 26 points.

This loss is significant in the Conference USA standings, and also deals a significant blow to Louisiana Tech's at-large hopes. In the standings, it drops Louisiana Tech from a tie for first into third, while UTEP replaces them in a tie for first with Southern Miss. If UTEP can somehow steal the win at Southern Miss on February 22nd, they could be the favorite to take the CUSA regular season title.

Louisiana Tech drops to 17-5 overall with a win over Oklahoma to go with bad losses to Louisiana-Lafayette and UTEP. They're 5-5 against the RPI Top 200 with an RPI that has dropped to 74th and a Sagarin PURE_ELO of 49th. Despite the relatively strong PURE_ELO, the Selection Committee will hold the lack of quality wins against them, and if the season ended now they would not be an at-large team. Considering the fact that they don't play another quality team the rest of the way, the Bulldogs might have to win the rest of their regular season games to earn an at-large bid.

UC Irvine Goes Down Big The top of the Big West Conference is tight, and this result just muddies things even further. UC Irvine came into this game leading the league, but this result creates a three-way tie for first place. Alan Williams was the best player for UCSB, scoring 26 points with 9 rebounds. Once UC Irvine fell behind big early, they started launching up tons of threes trying to get back into the game, and ended up a mediocre 9-for-29 behind the arc.

Is UCSB the new favorite in the Big West? You can make the case. With this big win they have moved into first place in efficiency margin in conference play (+0.12 PPP, with UC Irvine second at +0.10 PPP). Both Sagarin and Pomeroy now rate them the best team in the league. And so you don't want to overreact to 40 minute sample sizes, but it's not like it was particularly clear that UC Irvine was the better team before this game tipped off anyway. So at this point, I think the answer is "yes", UC-Santa Barbara is the new favorite in the Big West. And unless things change after Saturday's games, UCSB should expect to be in my bracket projection on Saturday night.

No comments: