Sunday, February 02, 2014

Morning News: New Bracket, Arizona Loses A Game + Ashley, Syracuse Wins A Classic, Texas Topples Kansas, Baylor Stuns OSU, And Much More

Full video of the Weber State/Sacramento State finish. This is like one of those things you see on Sportscenter from a middle school game, but this could determine the Big Sky regular season champ.

It was a crazy Saturday of games, which necessitates me leaving off some very fun, important games. I don't want to have a 5,000 word Morning News post, basically. But below I'll talk about my new bracket projection, as well as the most important results from a day that had a whole lot of carnage for the Top Ten of the polls:

New Bracket It's Sunday, so there's a new bracket projection. As I talk about in the post itself, the thing that stands out is just how small the bubble is at this point. But despite all the action involving teams at the top of the bracket, the reality is that none of them really gained significant ground on each other, and there weren't too many changes in the projected seeds. Of the 68 teams in the bracket, Southern Miss and UC-Santa Barbara move in, while Indiana and UC-Irvine drop out.

Arizona Loses Ashley And Their Undefeated Record The end of this game was just bizarre. With the game tied, Nick Johnson missed a jumper, giving California about 15 seconds to get a game winner. Mike Montgomery did the smart thing which few coaches seem comfortable doing, which is letting everything play out without allowing the defense to set itself. Justin Cobbs made a nice move and hit a jumper in the corner to seemingly give California a two-point win, and the crowd rushed the court. The only problem was that 0.9 seconds were left, and by rule Arizona should have been given technical free throws. For some incomprehensible reason, the refs chose to ignore the rule, and Arizona lost.

This loss itself really isn't a big deal for Arizona, honestly. The reality was that they were never going to go undefeated. Syracuse won't either. It's nearly impossible to go 18-0 in a major conference nowadays. The real problem is Brandon Ashley, who injured his foot, and could be out for the season. Ashley is arguably the least important of Arizona's five starters, but he'd been having a very good season, and this really harms a team that wasn't big to begin with. Arizona basically plays a seven man rotation, so unless they have somebody on the bench who can step up, they're going to be running some version of a six-man rotation.

The comparison is Oklahoma State, which lost Michael Cobbins. Cobbins was, statistically, worse than his backup, but the problem was that they didn't have anybody to replace the backup's minutes. And scroll down to my post about Oklahoma State/Baylor to see what's happened to the Cowboys since the Cobbins injury. But... we have to see what happens. For now, I'm leaving Arizona as a 1 seed. They'll have to prove to me that the Ashley injury really damages their level of play before I drop them.

This is a huge win for a California team that was probably in the Field of 68 already, but with very little room to spare. They now are 6-3 in Pac-12 play with wins over Arizona, Oregon and Stanford to go with iffy losses to USC and UC-Santa Barbara. Their RPI has slid up to 42nd. Now that they're in the Field of 68, what do they need to do to stay in? A 5-4 finish (to get to 11-7 in Pac-12 play) will probably be enough.

Syracuse Wins A Classic Over Duke The pregame hype for this game was a bit much, but it delivered as much as it could have. This was a fantastic game that was tight the whole way. Rasheed Sulaimon's three at the end of regulation is a shot we'll see all season long. It's just unfortunate that foul trouble (and reffing in general) took away from this game a bit.

Duke had three players foul out while Syracuse didn't have a single player reach four. Both Jabari Parker and Amile Jefferson fouled out on Rakeem Christmas flops late in regulation and missed overtime. And early foul trouble meant that Coach K had to go deep to his bench much more than he wanted to. Marshall Plumlee in particular was useless against Syracuse, and had to play way too much simply to be a big body out there. As bad as the reffing was, and it certainly favored Syracuse overall, I did think that the fury over Rodney Hood's missed dunk late in overtime was overplayed. That was probably a foul, but that call wasn't egregious, in my opinion.

I've been arguing for a while that the ACC is a four team race, and I don't think this game changes that. Syracuse held serve at home, but they'll still have to head to Cameron Indoor, and the odds are very high that the reffing will flip back to Duke's favor in their home gym. Syracuse also still has to head to Pitt, Virginia and Florida State. The top of the ACC is going to be a bloodbath, and everybody is going to lose a few games. But that said, Syracuse is 21-0, and they'll move to #1 in the polls on Monday. It remains to be seen how much longer they can last before their first loss.

Texas Topples Kansas This was a perfect game for Texas, and a nightmare game for Kansas. This was the best performance of the season for Texas, and they got big performances from all of their best players. Isaiah Taylor and Jonathan Holmes both cleared 20 points while Cameron Ridley controlled the paint with 4 blocks. At the same time, every key Kansas player had a bad game. Andrew Wiggins fouled out with 2-for-12 shooting, and Joel Embiid was bogged down with fouls as well. The lack of size allowed Texas to own the glass (a 48.7 OR%). Naadir Tharpe also struggled, with only 3 points and 3 assists.

This game means a lot more for Texas than Kansas. For the Longhorns, this is a legitimizing win. They've won six straight to move into second place in the Big 12 standings, with a real chance to stay there. They're off the bubble for now, and would have to lose a few games to fall back there. The only question is: Can they keep up this level of play, or will they regress back to where they were for the entire season up until these last three weeks?

For Kansas, they should still be in good shape for a 1 seed if they sweep the Big 12 titles. And they're still the heavy favorite to win the Big 12 regular season title. What this game says more than anything is how difficult it is to go 18-0 in a major conference nowadays. And for Kansas, if their worst performance all season long results in a road loss to a Top 25 team, that's a pretty good season.

Baylor Stuns Oklahoma State In Stillwater While I've spent much of this year talking about how wildly overrated Baylor was, the reality is that they have played even worse lately, particularly over the last week. Those home losses to Texas (by 14 points) and to West Virginia were particularly perplexing. Baylor can't be that bad, can they? The answer appears to be: No, they're not quite that bad. Even playing without starting point guard Kenny Cherry, Baylor actually had control of this game for the entire second half. They took the lead for the last time with around 16:30 left in the game.

What sparked this win for Baylor? Outside shooting, mostly. They hit 11-for-23 behind the arc, compared to only 6-for-21 for Oklahoma State. But they also won the rebounding battle and did a good job of bottling up Marcus Smart. Smart was goaded into an 0-for-7 day behind the arc, dropping his season average to 28.6%. He just has to stop taking those outside shots - there's no evidence that they're going to go in consistently.

The reality for Baylor is that due to a slew of big scalps, they'll have an at-large case if they can get to 8-10 in Big 12 play. They'll have to do some damage in the Big 12 tournament, but the bigger concern is actually getting to 8-10. Even after this upset, that's still an uphill battle. Their remaining schedule is rough, so Tuesday night's game against Kansas is a massive test.

The most important injury that nobody talks about is Michael Cobbins. Oklahoma State held 9 of 13 opponents below 0.95 PPP with him, but only 1 of 8 since. Oklahoma State's defense is still good, but it's not elite, which is what they had been looking like early in the season. And as their defense has tailed off, so has their overall level of play. In a league as strong as this year's Big 12, it's not out of the question that Oklahoma State could finish something like 9-9. They could really start sliding down the bracket.

Michigan State Falls To Georgetown This had the feeling of a trap game for Michigan State. They were short-handed with Adreian Payne and Branden Dawson still out, while Georgetown finally had their full lineup back together (not including Josh Smith, of course, who is done for the season), and they really just didn't play well. The one exception to that last sentence was Gary Harris, who was superb (20 points).

I don't think this game means a whole lot to Michigan State. If they sweep the Big Ten titles they'll still earn a 1 seed. It does increase the odds that they'll slip a seed line in March, though. This game means more for Georgetown, as they're still hoping to make the NCAA Tournament. Their Big East losing streak is still at five games, and at 3-6 they're going to have to get to at least 9-9 to have a realistic shot for an at-large bid. Their schedule is pretty reasonable over the next few weeks, so they'll have an opportunity to start collecting wins. Their margin for error is shrinking, but they still will get their chances.

Ohio State Tops Wisconsin By 1 The media has vastly overplayed the "collapses" by Wisconsin and Ohio State, so the narrative out of this game was always going to be about a "tailspin" for whichever team lost. It's pretty silly. Wisconsin lost this game by 1 despite some brutal 3-for-17 three-point shooting and the fact that they shot 5-for-12 from the line in the final 8 minutes. Coming after their historically bad shooting night against Northwestern (their worst eFG% in a game in over 8 years), Wisconsin just needs to get back to hitting jump shots. Still, despite the shooting slump, Wisconsin is sitting strong in the Big Ten's PPP differential standings:

+0.16 Michigan St
+0.14 Michigan
+0.12 Iowa
+0.07 Wisconsin
+0.01 Ohio State
-0.02 Indiana
-0.03 Minnesota

In other words, Wisconsin is still probably the fourth best team in the Big Ten, and not significantly different in quality from the top of the league. The panic about their level of play is overblown.

Ohio State needed this win more than Wisconsin. Unlike Wisconsin, they didn't have a bunch of quality non-conference wins. Their resume actually looked very bubbly heading into this game, and this win should quiet the bubble talk for at least a little while. At 4-5 in Big Ten play, they should be fine for the Tournament if they get to 9-9. This win means that a lot less is at stake in their road game at Iowa on Tuesday. They can now afford a loss there.

SMU Smokes Memphis This wasn't an "upset" as SMU was favored by two point in Vegas, but I don't think anybody saw SMU crushing Memphis like this. They led by as many as 25 points midway through the second half before taking their foot off the pedal. SMU controlled the paint here, shooting 71% on two-pointers and holding Memphis to just 8-for-18 on layups. Markus Kennedy (21 points and 15 rebounds) led the way for SMU while Joe Jackson (22 points, 8 rebounds, 6 assists) had another big game for Memphis.

SMU has quietly been assembling a solid NCAA Tournament resume. They're up to 17-5 overall and 6-3 in conference play, with a 2-3 record against the RPI Top 50 and a Sagarin PURE_ELO that has cracked the Top 50. Their remaining schedule is relatively soft, and a 6-3 finish will seal an at-large bid. Even a 5-4 finish (to get to 11-7 in AAC play) will probably be enough.

Memphis slides to 6-3 in conference play with this loss. They have wins over Louisville, Oklahoma State and LSU, while all of their losses have come against the RPI Top 50. So for the most part, Memphis is just playing for NCAA Tournament seed at this point. They're sliding around between 6 and 9 seeds, basically.

Iowa State Takes Care Of Business Against Oklahoma This game was probably closer than Iowa State expected it to be. They led almost the entire game, but could never really put it away until the final 30 seconds. Rebounding has been a problem for Iowa State in the Big 12 this season, and it was a problem again here. Iowa State is now dead last in the Big 12 in OR% in conference play, and third-to-last in DR%. But after four losses in five games, Iowa State will be very happy with a victory over a Tournament quality opponent.

Oklahoma still has a very nice resume. They're 6-3 in Big 12 play with a win over Oklahoma State and without a bad loss, but it's a soft resume, and they've been lucky to achieve it (5-1 in games decided by five points or less). So while Oklahoma would be easily in the Field of 68 if the season ended now, don't be totally shocked if they lose a few games and end up on the bubble by late February.

With their recent losses, Iowa State is no longer a serious contender for a 2 or 3 seed in March, but they're likely somewhere in the 4-6 range. There was never a reason to panic about this team, and they're still in contention to get up to second place in the final Big 12 standings.

UMass Loses their Second Straight Back when UMass was 16-1, I talked about how they weren't nearly as good as their resume. They were 7-1 in games decided by six points or less. Since then, they're 0-2 in games decided by six points or less and 1-3 overall, and that luck has evened out. They now have a resume more in line with the type of team they really are. Their RPI is still 10th, but their Sagarin PURE_ELO is going to be in the mid-30s after Saturday's results are taken into account (the new numbers have been posted as of the time this post went live). The weakness of UMass is interior size and sloppiness with the ball, and they've lost the rebounding and turnover battles by a significant margin in each of their last two games.

Is UMass a bubble team? Not yet. They're still 17-4 overall and 10-4 against the RPI Top 100. But at only 4-3 in Atlantic Ten play, they need to get to 10-6 to feel comfortable heading into the Atlantic Ten tournament. The A-10 is not as strong as it was last season, and if UMass goes 9-7 or 8-8 then they'll have to do some damage in the A-10 tournament to avoid the NIT. They've got some difficult games remaining, so don't think that getting to 10-6 will be a gimme.

St. Joe's is quietly 15-6 overall and 5-2 in Atlantic Ten play, with this win to go with a bad loss to Temple. Their RPI is up to 53rd, but the lack of quality wins would keep them out of the NCAA Tournament if the season ended now. Next week will probably be the most crucial for them in the regular season, with home games against St. Louis and VCU. They absolutely need to win at least one of those two games, and then need to get to at least 10-6 in A-10 play. If they can, they'll be in the bubble discussion heading into the A-10 tourney.

Kentucky Bounces Back At Missouri The panic over Kentucky after that LSU loss was a bit much. This Kentucky team has been inconsistent defensively, but they have offensive weapons all over the court. This game was more of the same, with neither team playing much defense to speak of. Missouri managed to score 1.18 PPP but still lost. Jabari Brown and Jordan Clarkson (a combined 61 points on 21-for-34 shooting) were superb for Missouri, but Julius Randle dominated the paint (18 points, and as many offensive rebounds as the entire Missouri team had combined). Aaron Harrison (21 points) was again an offensive spark plug for the Wildcats.

While Florida looks like the team to beat in the SEC, they still have to play their home-and-home with Kentucky. Two weekends from now will be the game at Rupp, which will probably be a must-win for Kentucky if they want to win the SEC regular season title. Remember that as soft as the Kentucky resume is, they're better than their record. They're 0-5 in games decided by five points or less, and are outscoring SEC opponents by 0.15 PPP. Expect them to play better down the stretch and go 13-5 or 14-4 in conference play.

This is a missed opportunity for a Missouri team that looks to spend the rest of the season on the bubble. They're 4-4 in SEC play and just 1-1 against the RPI Top 50, with an RPI that has slid to 51st. They should be in decent shape if they can get to 10-8 in SEC play, though that won't be easy if they lose on Tuesday at Florida.

Dayton Beats George Washington This was a tough game for George Washington, having to play without both Maurice Creek and Joe McDonald. Considering the fact that Dayton probably should have expected to win this game at home even against a healthy George Washington team, this result is not really a surprise. The problem that everybody always forgets about is that the Selection Committee will not know or care that George Washington was shorthanded in this game. On Selection Sunday, they'll be judged on their wins and losses, regardless of who was on the court for each game.

George Washington came into this game 17-3, but it was a relatively soft resume. They have wins over Creighton and VCU, with a bad loss to La Salle. They'lI get another shot at VCU, St. Louis and UMass, so they'll  get their chances to firm up their at-large credentials.

Dayton, despite only being 2-5 in Atlantic Ten play, is not out of at-large contention. They're 14-8 overall and 4-5 against the RPI Top 100, with an RPI that has slid up to 65th. If they can go 7-2 down the stretch they'll put themselves into the bubble discussion.

Northwestern Upsets Minnesota Just like we all predicted three weeks ago, Northwestern is in fourth place in the Big Ten. Just in the past two weeks, they've won at Indiana, Wisconsin and Minnesota. That said, Northwestern isn't the fourth best team in the Big Ten, or even close. The reality is that they've been pretty damn lucky to win these games. All five of their Big Ten wins have come down to the final minute, while all five losses have been blowouts. They are still last place in the Big Ten in PPP differential in conference play, at -0.13 PPP.

Despite the fact that Northwestern is going to slide back down the standings a bit, this has still been a very successful first season for Chris Collins. Northwestern has gotten staggeringly better defensively, and simply needs more scoring talent. If you're a Northwestern fan, you have to feel really confident that Chris Collins is going to be the coach to finally lead you to an NCAA Tournament.

Minnesota drops to 4-5 in Big Ten play, with their last two losses coming to Nebraska and Northwestern. Their tough overall strength of schedule and the quality of the league means that they should still make the NCAA Tournament if they get to 9-9, but that's gotten more difficult. They have a key "taking care of business" coming up, with a road game at Purdue followed by a home game against Indiana. They'll be favored for both games, but not by much. They can't afford too many more losses.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Northwestern is starting to remind me a bit of Bo Ryan's first team at Wisconsin.