Thursday, January 23, 2014

Morning News: Minnesota Upsets Wisconsin, Michigan Holds Serve, Richmond "Upsets" UMass, VCU Whips Dayton, Plus Cal/USC and American/Boston U

Tekele Cotton almost got his entire arm above the rim. Goodness.

Minnesota Upsets Wisconsin This game got off to a rough start for Minnesota with Andre Hollins rolling his ankle on the first possession of the game, but otherwise this was basically a perfect game for them. They were just on top of their game offensively, finishing with a 62.5 eFG%, the best shooting performance against Wisconsin since November 14th, 2012. With Frank Kaminsky saddled with foul trouble, Maurice Walker (18 points and 9 rebounds) dominated the paint for Minnesota.

This result wouldn't be a big deal for Wisconsin (everybody is allowed a bad game every once in a while) except that it comes after two very tight losses (on the road vs Indiana and at home against Michigan, both of which came down to the final 30 seconds). So it naturally generates a "Wisconsin is falling apart" narrative. I don't see how the stats back that up, though. The Big Ten is the best league in the country this year, and you just can't freak out about competitive losses on the road against Tournament teams.

I know that I sometimes get redundant about this, but don't overreact to results of close games. If you think that teams get dramatically awesome and then dramatically terrible week after week, it means that you are bad at judging teams and overreact to random statistical quirks and luck in close games. This Wisconsin team is not significantly different from the one that was 16-0. Even when Wisconsin was 16-0 I had them 8th overall (the last 2 seed) in my bracket, and assuming that they beat Purdue on Saturday they'll be either a 3 or 4 seed in my next bracket. They were overrated at 16-0, but underrated now.

As for Minnesota, this is certainly a big win for their Tournament hopes. They're now 4-3 in Big Ten play with wins over Wisconsin, Ohio State and Florida State, without any bad losses. That's a Tournament resume at the moment, and if they get to 9-9 or better in Big Ten play then they'll probably get in. That said, I feel like we're rushing a bit too much to build up Richard Pitino as a great coach. Certainly there's no evidence yet that he's not a great coach, but right now he's coaching Tubby Smith's players and the team is basically a carbon copy of last year's team in terms of style. He's just driving this team in cruise control. He might end up being as great of a head coach as his father, but Pitino wouldn't be the first coach to look good with a successful team in Year 1 and then end up unable to repeat the success.

Michigan Holds Serve Against Iowa This game falls in the same category as the Wisconsin/Minnesota game. It certainly matters a lot for the resumes of these two teams, but does it really change how we feel about how good either of these teams are? Michigan was expected to win a close game at home, which is precisely what happened. The one thing that stood out was Nik Stauskas, who continues to be the best player in the Big Ten. He was dominant here with 28 points on 8-for-14 shooting, along with 5 rebounds and 5 assists.

Michigan heads to East Lansing for a game Saturday, and obviously an upset there would be massive. But assuming that they lose a competitive game, that won't really tell us much about them either. The true judgment of this Michigan team will come the next few weeks when they play Indiana, Iowa and Ohio State on the road, as well as Wisconsin and Michigan State at home. That's when we'll find out if Michigan is truly Michigan State's top Big Ten competition.

Iowa remains firmly in contention for the Big Ten title. They've got a huge game coming up on Tuesday at home against Michigan State. That's a game that they really need to win if they're going to take the title in March.

Richmond "Upsets" Massachusetts UMass had one of the weirder sets of computer numbers coming into this game. They came into this game ranked 8th in the Sagarin PURE_ELO but only 34th in the Sagarin PREDICTOR. How does the 34th best team have the 8th best resume? A 7-1 record decided by six points or less. They were overdue for a close loss, and they got that here, as Chaz Williams had a chance to tie the game with a few second left but missed. Richmond was favored by 3.5 points when this game tipped off, so despite all the "upset" headlines, UMass actually covered the spread.

The concern with UMass is that as good as their resume is, they don't really have a "name brand" win that stands out. Things like neutral court wins over New Mexico and Clemson and road wins over Ohio will all impress the Sagarin PURE_ELO, but the Selection Committee is not really going to care too much. Which means it's not implausible for UMass to fall back to the bubble. But I'd bet against it. UMass should finish somewhere between 10-6 and 12-4 in A-10 play, and that should be enough to keep them clear of the bubble.

This win puts Richmond back in the bubble conversation. They're 13-6 overall and 3-1 in A-10 play, with wins over UMass and Dayton to go with losses to Wake Forest, Hawaii and St. Bonaventure. They're going to need more quality wins to earn an at-large bid. At minimum they need a win or two more over VCU/St. Louis/George Washington and at least a 10-6 A-10 record.

VCU Whips Dayton VCU has, in a lot of ways, the opposite resume to UMass. They're a very good team that just hasn't been able to translate it into a quality resume. They have only one RPI Top 50 win (Virginia) and their Sagarin PURE_ELO is only 36th. So they're in the Field of 68 right now, but only barely. The top of the A-10 is strong enough, however, for VCU to build a resume in conference play. Starting in the second week of February they will start getting their shot against teams like St. Louis and UMass.

Dayton has really been floundering of late. They started the season with wins over Gonzaga and California, but haven't had a quality victory since. Instead they've had bad losses to USC and Illinois State, and they're now 1-3 in Atlantic Ten play. They'll have to get to at least 9-7 to be in bubble contention, and realistically need to be even better than that, which means that the margin of error for them is getting pretty small.

California Goes Down To USC Welp. California had been playing really good basketball for three weeks, running up a 5-0 Pac-12 record, so they were probably overdue for a reality check loss. The story for California this season has been defensive inconsistency. When they were struggling around Thanksgiving and early December they allowed more than 1.2 PPP in four of six games. During their six game winning streak heading into this game, they had held four of six opponents to 0.95 PPP or fewer, including a game where they held Washington to a 31.8 eFG%. But here? USC sprung for a 56.5 eFG% and 1.17 PPP.

That 5-0 start to Pac-12 play built California a buffer between them and the bubble, so this one bad loss doesn't drop them out of the Field of 68. But considering their mediocre non-conference performance, they will need to finish at least 11-7 in Pac-12 play to earn an at-large bid, and probably need to get to 12-6 or better. Meanwhile, this is USC's first Pac-12 win of the season, and it's not like they could blame bad luck in close games. Their closest loss this season to a Pac-12 opponent was by 19. So this is a nice win for Andy Enfield, but his team is a long way from contending near the middle of the pack.

American University Smokes Boston University With the two 6-0 teams in the Patriot League going at it, you had to expect a competitive game. And even though Boston University came in as the team that I projected as the champ and which was higher ranked in the computers, it wouldn't have been surprising to see American hold serve on their home floor. But a 30 point win? That's nuts. And what makes that score crazier is that rebounding was even, American University committed 8 more turnovers and BU took more free throws. What happened was that American University shot the lights out, hitting 68% of two-pointers and 79% of 3-pointers (11-for-14). That adds up to an 84.5 eFG%, which is the second best by any Division I team in any game this season (Mt. St. Mary's had an 86.3 eFG% performance against Norfolk State). If we restrict ourselves just to intra-conference games, only three teams in the last decade have had better shooting days, led by Creighton's staggering 92.5 eFG% against Southern Illinois on February 14th, 2012.

So is American now the favorite in the Patriot League? It's easy to say yes, of course, They have this big win and are now leading in efficiency differential in conference play (+0.12 PPP to +0.08 PPP) and in the computers. It's not obvious, though. This shooting performance was quite obviously a fluke, and it would be a mistake to expect anything like it again. So depending on how these two teams play on Saturday, it's possible that I'll keep BU the favorite. Both head on the road for a game on Saturday.

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