Wednesday, January 01, 2014

Morning News: Houston Shocks UConn, Creighton Crushes Marquette, Illinois Takes Out Indiana, And More

Happy New Year, everybody.

Houston Shocks UConn Welcome to the AAC, UConn. The Huskies actually trailed by 21 points in the final minute of the first half, but a 21-3 run to start the second half tied the game up. Houston made six straight free throws in the final two minutes, though, and the final shot by Shabazz Napier was blocked. Obviously Houston's 7-for-14 three-point shooting was a factor, but there's no excuse to even be in a tight game against this team. The Cougars came into this game a brutal 1-5 against the Pomeroy Top 250. This is a terrible loss for UConn.

Louisville seems like the best team in the AAC, and this loss reinforces the idea that UConn is in the second tier with Memphis, Cincinnati and SMU. I don't think UConn is at serious risk of falling to the bubble, but it isn't impossible.

Creighton Crushes Marquette This game was never particularly close. Creighton opened up a 13 point first half lead that they pushed to 20 in the second half, never leading by fewer than 10. Interestingly enough, this didn't happen because Creighton shot the lights out (I've talked before about how Creighton always wins if they shoot well and always loses if they shoot poorly), but because Marquette's offense really scuffled. Creighton just launched threes all game (35 three-point attempts, 31 two-point+free throw attempts), and hit them at only a 37% clip (below their 43% season average). But Marquette had a 37.7 eFG%, which is the second worst shooting performance any team had against Creighton in 2013 (Indiana State had a 27.6 eFG% on March 9th). The 0.77 PPP that Marquette scored were the lowest any team has scored against Creighton since that same Indiana State game.

How much credit goes to Creighton's defense and how much to Marquette's offense? Probably a mixture of both. There's no question that Marquette's offense has been a mess so far this season. Pomeroy has dropped their adjusted offensive efficiency to 116th in the nation. The Golden Eagles don't have any bad losses yet, but they're 8-6 without any quality wins. They are at severe risk of being on the bubble in March. The only way they can be confident of making the NCAA Tournament will be if they get to 11-7 in Big East play. At 10-8 or 9-9 they'll have work to do in the Big East tournament.

Creighton remains in the mix for the Big East title (in my opinion) with Villanova and Georgetown. This is certainly a very nice start. If they do win the Big East title and take the Big East tournament as well, something like a 2 seed in the NCAA Tournament is realistic.

Illinois Takes Out Indiana... Was This A Bubble Battle? This was a really interesting, entertaining game. Tom Crean had a variety of confusing coaching decisions, none more so than limiting Noah Vonleh's minutes as much as he did late in the game. Vonleh spent most of the latter part of regulation and overtime on the bench, despite the fact that he was the only Indiana player not nicknamed Yogi who was playing well. What made this win particularly impressive for Illinois is that it came with a 2-for-17 three-point shooting performance. They got most of their scoring at the basket, much of it coming off turnovers (12 steals).

This game will potentially end up going down as a Bubble Battle. It's not controversial to call Illinois a bubble team (I have them as the last at-large team in the field in my most recent bracket projection), but Indiana looks like a bubble team as well. They don't have a single quality win so far this season. To earn an at-large bid they'll probably need a 9-9 Big Ten record with some quality scalps. Home games against Michigan State and Wisconsin over the next two weeks will be huge. They really need to win one of those two games.

Butler Misses An Opportunity Vs Villanova The opening day of Big East basketball on Fox Sports 1 was pretty great all around. Their non-live sports shows are even worse than the ones on ESPN, so I'm not recommending any of those, but what can you say about two great basketball games in the same day both called by Gus Johnson and Bill Raftery? Awesome. This is one of those games that I talk about where it's really dumb to try to draw any big conclusions about either team. This was a very even game in every way, and eventually one team was going to get a little lucky and win while the other was going to get a little unlucky and lose.

The issue for Butler is that they look like a bubble team, and a win over Villanova would have been huge for their resume. To make the Tournament, they probably need to get to 9-9 in Big East play, along with a win in the Big East tournament. They're 0-1 now, with a tough game at Xavier coming up on Saturday.

Villanova had been overly dependent on threes for most of this season, particularly that last game against Syracuse. The reality is that they're not a good three-point shooting team, and should be working the ball into the paint more. They achieved that in this game, getting 22 points from JayVaughn Pinkston, and with Darrun Hilliard earning 14 free throw attempts. We'll see if this game was a fluke or a trend in that respect.

St. John's Falls Short Again St. John's has struggled against the zone all season. Xavier didn't run a true zone here (more of a match-up zone), but they still totally flummoxed the Johnnies. They were passive with the ball, mostly passing it around the perimeter and taking jump shots. They finished 25.9% on two-point attempts. Xavier, on the other hand, tore up the St. John's defense. Semaj Christon was slicing and dicing them at will, finishing with 8 assists. As a team, Xavier had 17 assists to only 9 turnovers.

St. John's desperately needed a quality win to get back onto the Tournament bubble. Up next they have a road game at Georgetown and a home game against Villanova. They'll need to pull an upset in one of those games to avoid an 0-3 start.

Xavier doesn't have any huge scalps, but they've beaten Tennessee, Cincinnati, Alabama, Wake Forest and now St. John's, with just a bad loss to USC. They should be in pretty good shape if they get to 10-8 in Big East play. If they can beat Butler at home on Saturday, they're probably going to get moved into my next bracket projection as an at-large team.

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