Sunday, February 16, 2014

Morning News: New Bracket, Florida Moves Closer To A 1 Seed, UConn Escapes, Pitt Loses Another Heartbreaker, And Much More

UConn won this game in overtime anyway, but let this shot at the end of regulation be a reminder that whether a final shot goes in or not is pretty damn random.

New Bracket Projection It's a Sunday, which means it's time for a new bracket projection. Click on the link to read all of the details and arguments. In brief, one change to the Field of 68 was made, which is St. Joseph's moving in to replace Southern Miss. The biggest change in seeding is on the 1 seed line, where Wichita State moves in and replacing Arizona, who drop to a projected 2 seed.

Florida Moves Closer To A 1 Seed Winning at Rupp Arena against a solid Kentucky team is impressive enough, but I was particularly impressed with how Florida did it. They're "a jump shooting team", but they didn't shoot well here, going only 3-for-13 behind the arc and having to deal with Kentucky switching in and out of a zone. But they were sharp, committing only 5 turnovers despite aggressively attacking the basket. Both Casey Prather and Scottie Wilbekin earned 12 free throw attempts, which combined for more than everybody on Kentucky put together.

Florida has been the top seed in my bracket projection for about a week now. That doesn't mean that I think they'll be the overall #1 seed, but that they're the safest 1 seed. They are dominating the SEC and have a fairly reasonable schedule the rest of the way - it's hard to see them losing more than one more regular season game. If they win the SEC tournament also, which they'll be a significant favorite for, they should earn a 1 seed.

Kentucky has that win over Louisville, but it's their only over a certain NCAA Tournament team. They've also beaten Missouri, Tennessee and Providence, but that adds up to only a 2-4 record against the RPI Top 50. So while their RPI is 15th, their Sagarin PURE_ELO is 31st, and they'd probably be something like a 5 seed if the season ended now, in danger of slipping another line or two if they drop a game like Tuesday's match-up at Ole Miss.

UConn Escapes With A Win Over Memphis If UConn had lost this game it would have been about as cruel as it gets, as Shabazz Napier's buzzer beater for the victory in regulation seemed to roll around the rim for seconds before rolling out. The thing was, this was not a vintage defensive performance by the Huskies. They lead the AAC in 2P% defense and are 8th in the nation in defensive block rate, but Memphis absolutely torched them here. The Tigers shot 57.4% on two-pointers, and did it by scoring 42 points on dunks and layups (compared to just 18 for UConn).

With their defense faltering, UConn won this game with a dominant offensive performance from Shabazz Napier and Ryan Boatright, who combined for 55 points and 10 assists, with only three turnovers. As a team, UConn turned the ball over only six times.

This loss probably takes Memphis out of contention for a share of the AAC regular season title, and they're only 3-6 against the RPI Top 50, but without any bad losses they still have very strong computer numbers (33rd in RPI and 36th in the Sagarin PURE_ELO). They'd have to fall apart pretty badly down the stretch to have to worry about the bubble. UConn is in an even stronger position, at 4-4 against the RPI Top 50 (their one loss outside the RPI Top 50 was against Houston). At this point, depending on how they finish, UConn is probably going to end up somewhere between a 4 and 8 seed. It's hard to see a realistic path for them to escape from that range.

Pittsburgh Loses Another Heartbreaker It's been a mentally exhausting season for Pittsburgh, particularly over the last two weeks. Their last five games have all come down to the final 30 seconds of regulation, with a pair going into overtime. They're now a tough 3-5 in games decided by six points or less, and just have been unable to get that signature win. North Carolina got a big game out of James Michael McAdoo (24 points and 7 offensive rebounds), who also had the key bucket to put the Tar Heels up by five with just over a minute to go after neither team had hit a shot from the field for more than two minutes. Down the stretch, this North Carolina team which has shot only 62% at the line this season (and 60% in this game) hit 5 of 6 free throws to seal up the win.

Pitt is still likely to finish something like 12-6 in ACC play, but they lack a signature win and are only 1-6 against the RPI Top 50 (without a game remaining against a team currently in the RPI Top 50). So they could end up with something ugly like a 7 or 8 seed in the NCAA Tournament, despite probably being one of the 20 best teams in the country. That's what close losses will do.

North Carolina has quietly played really good basketball over this current six game winning streak. It's a young team that just seems to be getting better. Their remaining schedule is difficult, but if they can steal a win at Florida State on Monday they'll be in the driver's seat for a top four finish in the ACC (and the bye to the ACC tournament quarterfinals that comes with it).

VCU Nearly Knocks Off St. Louis The Billikens nearly blew this game after leading by nine points with under five minutes to go. A 9-0 burst by VCU tied the game up, but the big shot was a Rob Loe three out of timeout. But just the fact that this game was so close was surprising for VCU, particularly on the road. History during the #HAVOC era is that VCU's kryptonite is teams that don't turn the ball over. Their aggressive defense leads to easy buckets if they don't get turnovers, and VCU's offense has always been very dependent on transition points. That's why they ended last year by getting destroyed by St. Louis and Michigan teams that were both excellent at preventing turnovers. They did get turnovers here (17), which is below their average, but good enough that they were able to get some easy baskets and nearly pull the upset.

St. Louis now has a stranglehold on the Atlantic Ten regular season title, and are 23-2 overall. This is probably their best win of the season, but their only losses have been to Wisconsin and Wichita State, which is pretty impressive. Their Sagarin PURE_ELO has moved into the top ten, which means that they'll definitely be in serious contention for a 3 seed if they can win the A-10 tournament. It will be hard for them to move up to 2 seed, though, because of the lack of big wins.

VCU drops to 20-6 with this loss, with a 6-5 record against the RPI Top 100. Their RPI is 24th and their Sagarin PURE_ELO is 35th, so that's still definitely a Tournament resume, but they've been fading a bit over the last week or two. They could slip to something like an 8/9 game if they're not careful.

Smart-Less Oklahoma State Loses Again Welp. Oklahoma State is now 0-2 for the first two games of Marcus Smart's three game suspension and has lost six straight overall. And to be fair, the Cowboys certainly had a real chance here. Oklahoma only won because of a pair of clutch Buddy Hield threes followed by six consecutive made free throws in the final 35 seconds. But down three players from the eight man regular rotation that they started the season with, Oklahoma State just can't find bench production. Travis Ford gave his bench 24 minutes, but they combined for 1 point, 2 assists, 0 rebounds and 5 fouls. So... yeah...

There are a lot of folks in the media (at least the ones I see on twitter) saying that Oklahoma State is still pretty safe for an at-large bid, but I just don't see how that's true. I've said that a 9-9 Oklahoma State team should make the Tournament and an 8-10 Oklahoma State team will need to win a game or two in the Big 12 tournament. But right now? Their Pomeroy projected finish is 7-11. If they really do finish 7-11 (and their RPI and Sagarin PURE_ELO would likely be around the mid-50s to low-60s heading into the Big 12 tournament) they're probably heading to the NIT.

This win breaks a slump that had led to three losses in four games for the Sooners. It also gets them to 8-5 in Big 12 play, which is important with a fairly brutal finishing strength of schedule. At 7-6 against the RPI Top 100 and with a Sagarin PURE_ELO up to 25th, they look to be pretty safely in the NCAA Tournament. Even a 2-3 finish to the regular season shouldn't put them in too much danger.

Baylor Keeps Their Season Alive Against Kansas State Baylor only got into overtime here on a relative miracle, as a loose ball on a wild final play found its way into the hands of Brady Heslip, who had to rush the shot to get it out of his hands before buzzer. That three-pointer got them to overtime. In the second overtime, Kansas State's offense escaped them: they shot 1-for-8 while committing three turnovers.

This was a win Baylor absolutely had to have to stay a realistic at-large candidate. Their Sagarin PURE_ELO is up to a bubbly 58th, but they've got to get to at least 8-10 in Big 12 play to realistically have a solid at-large case. This win gets them to 4-8, which means they need to go at least 4-2 down the stretch.

This was a letdown game for Kansas State after the big upset of Kansas. They're still 7-5 in Big 12 play with wins over Kansas, Gonzaga, Texas, Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, George Washington and West Virginia. They'd still be looking at something like a 7 or 8 seed if the season ended now. They'll play TCU on Wednesday, but after that have a pretty brutal final stretch. Every game will be very losable.

Middle Tennessee Smokes Southern Miss After starting the season 21-3, Southern Miss has now lost consecutive games for the first time in more than a full year. This was just a dream start for Middle Tennessee, as they actually led by 18 points at halftime. 11-for-21 shooting behind the arc was the key reason for their domination, though they were scoring easily all over the floor. Their 67.1 eFG% was their best shooting day all season long, and the best shooting performance by any team against Southern Miss since January 22nd, 2011.

In a sense, this is a fluky loss for Southern Miss... there's not a whole lot you can do when your opponent is shooting like that. But their soft schedule means that their margin of error is so small. Their best win this season came against Louisiana Tech, and they are just 2-2 against the RPI Top 100 with three RPI 100+ losses. Their Sagarin PURE_ELO has plummeted all the way down to 67th. If the season ended now they'd be an NIT team, and realistically they're going to need to win the rest of their regular season games to have a good shot at an at-large bid if they fall in the Conference USA tournament.

Middle Tennessee has had a quietly successful performance in their first season in Conference USA. At 9-2 in conference play they're tied for first place. They're not a realistic at-large team, but don't sleep on them as the potential auto bid out of the conference tournament.

Marquette Clawing Closer To An At-large Bid Just two weeks ago, Marquette was only 12-10 overall and not even particularly close to the bubble. But with their third straight win, they are right back in serious contention. This was just a magical offensive night for Marquette, as they shot 50% on threes and 89% at the line while committing only five turnovers. The 1.35 PPP are their most in a conference game since an 84-50 drubbing of Cincinnati on January 4th, 2009.

Marquette is still only 15-10 overall, but they're 7-5 in Big East play with a Sagarin PURE_ELO that is up to 57th. Their most important game of the season thus far will be on Wednesday against Creighton at home. They need quality scalps, and they also probably need to go 4-2 or better down the stretch.

Xavier has lost four of six to drop to 7-5 in Big East play and 6-6 against the RPI Top 100, with a Sagarin PURE_ELO down to 39th. Those are Tournament-quality numbers, but the lack of big wins (1-3 against the RPI Top 50) mean that they won't get the benefit of the doubt if they're one of the final teams in or out of the Field of 68 on Selection Sunday. Down the stretch they'll get both Creighton and Villanova at home, and really need to win at least one of those two games to firm up their spot in the Big Dance.

BYU Steals A Win At Saint Mary's Honestly, the WCC probably wanted St. Mary's to win this game. They had the stronger resume of these two teams coming in here. But this was a weirdly disjointed game, as neither team could shoot the ball. The teams combined to hit 19% behind the arc and 59% at the line. However, Tyler Haws and Kyle Collinsworth (a combined 15-for-28 on two-pointers) were able to generate a lot of offense in and around the paint.

This loss drops St. Mary's to 19-8 overall, with their best win coming over either Louisiana Tech or North Dakota State, and with a slew of bad losses (San Diego, Santa Clara, George Mason, South Carolina and Hawaii). Their RPI is 59th and their Sagarin PURE_ELO is 55th, but the lack of quality wins means that they'd definitely be NIT bound if the season ended now. Realistically, they're going to have to win their final four regular season games to have a decent at-large case, and that includes a must-win home game against Gonzaga on March 1st.

BYU is 18-10 overall with wins over Texas, Stanford and Saint Mary's (twice), along with bad losses to Portland, Pacific, Pepperdine and Loyola-Marymount. They're up to 7-7 against the RPI Top 100, but their Sagarin PURE_ELO is still only 65th, which would keep them out of the Tournament if the season ended now. They've got their home game against Gonzaga coming up on Thursday. A win there followed by wins over Portland and San Diego will give them a good chance for an at-large bid, but without the Gonzaga win it's going to be really difficult.

UMass Beats George Washington This was a tough game to watch for George Washington fans, as their team just could not hit a jump shot. Combing two and three-pointers, George Washington shot a brutal 21.6% on shots that weren't layups or dunks in this game. Despite that, they hung in by mostly bottling up Chaz Williams (3-for-11 shooting, 6 assists, 3 turnovers), and by benefiting from 46% UMass free throw shooting.

This game got lost on a busy Saturday, but it was arguably a Bubble Battle. UMass wasn't on the bubble yet, but with four losses in their last seven games they were getting close. Their RPI is 19th and their Sagarin PURE_ELO is 20th (and no team with computer numbers that high has gotten left out in the modern era), but they're going to need to get to 10-6 in a less-respected Atlantic Ten to feel safe about their at-large bid. They've got remaining home games against VCU and St. Louis, and a 1-and-1 split there should be sufficient to put them into the NCAA Tournament.

George Washington has hit the toughest part of their schedule, and they've lost two straight and three of five. They have wins over Creighton and VCU this season, along with a bad loss to La Salle. They're 8-6 against the RPI Top 100, with an RPI that is 38th and a Sagarin PURE_ELO that is 43rd. That's a resume that puts them on the bubble, though if the season ended now they'd still likely be in the Field of 68. Considering their remaining schedule, a 3-2 finish probably will get them into the NCAA Tournament, though they'll want to avoid a 1-and-done performance in the A-10 tournament.

Missouri Holds Off Ice Cold Tennessee Tennessee has had some weirdly terrible three-point shooting games, and it's killed them against quality opponents despite not being a team that shoots a lot of threes. This is the sixth time this season they've shot below 20% behind the arc, and they're 1-5 in those games. In fact, Tennessee is 1-8 this season when shooting 31% or worse behind the arc, compared to 14-2 when shooting better than 31% behind the arc. You would expect three-point shooting to impact wins and losses that dramatically with a team like Creighton. It makes no sense for Tennessee, and I'm not going to try to come up with an explanation.

This was a classic Bubble Battle. Both of these teams are now 6-6 in SEC play, though Missouri has a slightly better set of wins and fewer bad losses than Tennessee at the moment. The computers back that up, as both of these teams have a Sagarin PURE_ELO between 50th and 60th. Considering their soft remaining schedules, neither of these teams is realistically getting in unless they go at least 4-2 down the stretch, and even with a 10-8 final SEC record they're still going to need a win or two in the SEC tournament. Note that Missouri has to head to Tennessee for each team's regular season finale.

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