Monday, February 24, 2014

Morning News: Michigan Grabs Control Of The B1G, SMU Gets A Huge Program Victory, Utah Bounces Back

National Coach of the Year?

Michigan Grabs Control Of Big Ten Michigan State shot the ball really well in this game, hitting 39% of their threes and 68% of their twos. They finished with 1.13 PPP, which is above their season average. But Michigan looked a lot like last season's team in the way they were coldly efficient, committing only three turnovers. Caris LeVert (23 points) carried Michigan in the first half while Nik Stauskas (25 points) took over late. Stauskas not only hit several big shots, he also had two important assists to help put the game away in the final few minutes.

It's a little hard to tell what to make of this Michigan team. With this win they take firm control of the Big Ten. They have a one game lead over Michigan State with the tiebreak, and a two game lead over Iowa and Wisconsin, with a very reasonable final four games. The computers project a 3-1 finish for Michigan, and that will be sufficient to earn the 1 seed in the Big Ten tournament. And certainly they haven't had an easy Big Ten schedule - they've played Michigan State, Iowa, and Wisconsin twice, with their one game against Ohio State coming on the road.

At the same time, their +0.08 PPP differential is only fourth best in league play (behind Michigan State, Iowa and Wisconsin), and they've been a lucky 3-0 in games decided by five points or less, as well as 7-0 in games decided by single digits. Also, when you consider their relatively soft non-conference schedule, it's hard to see a path to a 1 seed for Michigan, even if they win what might be the nation's best conference. Considering the 7 total losses, the only hope for a 1 seed is for Michigan to win out (including the Big Ten tournament) and then hope for some luck. Although really, the difference between a 1 seed and a 2 or 3 seed is vastly overstated. Announcers love to talk about how many more 1 seeds make the Final Four or win titles than 2 seeds... well no kidding, they tend to be better teams! If you control for team quality, the average difficulty of path isn't significantly harder for a typical 2 seed than a typical 1 seed.

The concern for Michigan State is Keith Appling. He didn't look anything like himself and continues to be very ineffective. In three games since returning from injury, he's played a total of 69 minutes with a total of 9 points, 12 assists and 8 turnovers. In his defense, he provides more value than just his stats. By drawing defensive attention, he makes Gary Harris better. In nine Big Ten games before Appling's injury, Harris averaged 18.7 points per game. The three games without Appling he averaged only 11.3 points per game, including a season-low 6 against Wisconsin. Since Appling came back? 21.3 points per game. The question is: Is Appling causing his injury to take longer to heal by playing. If he's not, he definitely still makes his team better. But if he is, Michigan State needs to be willing to risk another loss or two to get him healthy for the NCAA Tournament.

SMU Gets A Huge Program Victory Over UConn SMU came into this game very firmly in the Field of 68. They were only 44th in RPI, but their RPI is artificially deflated due to six games against teams with an RPI of 260th or worse. The Sagarin PURE_ELO is a more accurate view of where the Selection Committee sees resumes, and it was 35th coming into this game. After this win it's now up to 29th. But being firmly in the Field of 68 on February 23rd doesn't mean you'll still be there on Selection Sunday, and that's what makes this victory huge. SMU hasn't been to the NCAA Tournament since 1993, but this win almost makes it a certainty that they'll be back in 2014.

UConn will be frustrated by their offensive effort here. They hit only 30% of their two-point attempts, scoring only 14 points in the paint all game long. Neither Shabazz Napier or Ryan Boatright could get their shots to fall all game long. The good news for them is that I don't think this game will mean too much in the long run. They weren't realistically a contender for a share of the AAC title anyway, and they're still pretty safely in the NCAA Tournament. They're 9-5 in conference play and 8-5 against the RPI Top 100, with only one bad loss (Houston). They still have Rutgers and South Florida to go, and beating those two teams will be sufficient to lock them into the NCAA Tournament, even if they lose their games to Louisville and Cincinnati (and they'll be favored for that Cincy game in Vegas).

Utah Bounces Back, Crushes Arizona State This Utah team is a funny one to try to figure out. They're obviously better than their W-L record... but how much better? This season they're a staggering 1-7 in games decided by five points or less. They're ranked 346th in the Pomeroy Luck rating, which makes them the unluckiest team in any major or premier mid-major conference. Sagarin rates them the 39th best team in the country and Pomeroy has them 35th. And here are the PPP efficiency margins in Pac-12 conference play:

+0.17 Arizona
+0.13 UCLA
+0.07 Stanford
+0.04 Utah
+0.04 California
+0.03 Oregon

So statistically, Utah has been the fourth best team in the Pac-12, and no matter which computer rating you prefer, Utah is as good as the Pac-12's bubble teams. They've just had excruciating losses in close games, including an 0-3 record in overtime games. The problem is, as much as "the eye test" gets talked about in the media and by people on the actual Selection Committee, the reality is that it doesn't matter at all. You're judged on your resume, and Utah's resume just isn't particularly impressive. They're 7-8 in conference play and 4-8 against the RPI Top 100, with wins over UCLA, BYU and Arizona State to go with bad losses to Washington and Washington State. Not only are they not even a bubble team right now, but they have an uphill battle just to sneak into the NIT. So watch out for them as a sleeper in the Pac-12 tournament, but realistically they're not a serious at-large contender.

Arizona State ran into a buzz saw here, and this game was never competitive. They trailed 41-15 with 5 minutes left in the first half. Their 35.4 eFG% was their worst shooting game all season long. This is a game to just throw out and forget about. The reality is that they're still firmly in the NCAA Tournament with an 8-6 Pac-12 record and that big win over Arizona. They're 34th in RPI and 31st in the Sagarin PURE_ELO, and numbers like those will never get left out of an NCAA Tournament. They do have to be wary of some difficult games down the stretch, but a 3-1 finish will probably lock them into the Tournament. If they only go 2-2 in their final four games, they'll likely have to win a game or two in the Pac-12 tournament to avoid stressing out to Selection Sunday.

1 comment:

Thomas Beindit said...

Not exactly sure Michigan had a "soft" non-conference schedule as much as they just didn't win the big games. Iowa State and Duke on the road. Plus, they got Arizona at home when they were playing at full strength. Plus, Stanford on a neutral court.