Sunday, March 02, 2014

Morning News: New Bracket, Wichita State Perfect, Virginia Wins ACC, South Carolina Stuns Kentucky, Oklahoma St Gets Crucial Win, And Much More

Congratulations to Virginia for unquestionably their best day this century.

New Bracket Projection It's Sunday morning, so I have a new bracket projection posted. The one change to the Field of 68 is Providence moving in and Georgetown dropping out. Poor Minnesota remains the first team out. Kansas drops from being a 1 seed to be replaced by Duke, though as I explain in the post, it's not like I feel good about any team as that last 1 seed. You can argue for about 5 or 6 teams to be projected there at this point.

The Last Word On Wichita St If you missed this yesterday, it's my 1600 word rant going through all of the #HOTSPROTSTAKES of this undefeated Wichita State team. Even if you don't care about them, the general points I'm making apply to all sorts of situations in previous years and will come up again in the future. Give it a read.

Virginia Beats Syracuse, Wins ACC This is arguably the greatest moment for Virginia basketball since Ralph Sampson was wearing their uniform. It's their first outright ACC regular season title since Sampson's 1980-81 title, and they did it in style, finishing the game on a 33-14 run. The Hoos were on fire, hitting 8-for-16 behind the arc. Syracuse was 5-for-22 on threes, but otherwise was fairly efficient on offense, still putting up 0.98 PPP. Virginia's offense continues to roll, and they're now second in ACC play with 1.11 PPP. They'll have the rep of a "great defense, mediocre offense" from the media because of pace-ism, but what's made the difference this season is just how good their offense has been.

This ACC title really shouldn't have been that much of a surprise. I've been arguing it will likely happen for a good month now. It's not so much because Virginia is better than Syracuse (they might be better than Syracuse, but they might not be), but because their schedule was so much easier. Syracuse had a cupcake schedule through the end of January, but finished the season running through the gauntlet. The fact that Virginia and Syracuse would play their only game of the season in Charlottesville was what really gave Virginia the edge.

Syracuse has now lost three of five. Their next game should be relatively easy (at home against Georgia Tech), but the close the season with another tough road game (at Florida State). Even if they beat Florida State, I think they need to win the ACC tournament to feel good about their 1 seed chances. A loss in the ACC tournament means that Syracuse will need some help to earn a 1 seed.

What about Virginia's seed? The problem that they have is that they didn't do a whole lot in non-conference play. They have wins over Syracuse, SMU, North Carolina, Pittsburgh and Florida State (twice), along with a loss to Green Bay. They're 4-4 against the RPI Top 50, which is good, but not really comparable to most of the other teams competing for 1 and 2 seeds. If the season ended now, they'd probably only be a 3 seed. If they win out between now and Selection Sunday they can maybe make a case for a 1 seed, but they'd need a whole lot of help.

South Carolina Shocks Kentucky Considering the strength of the opponent (or lack thereof), this is arguably the worst Kentucky performance this century. They were just brutally bad. Remember, this South Carolina team got swept by Auburn and lost to USC Upstate at home. They entered this game 1-14 against teams rated better than 100 in the Pomeroy ratings. Kentucky's offense was just horrific. They hit some easy baskets late in the game, but midway through the second half had an eFG% under 20%. By the end of the game they managed to get it up to 32.7%, but even that is their worst shooting performance of the season.

With two straight losses, Kentucky is plummeting in the wrong direction. They're now only 2-4 against the RPI Top 50, with a Sagarin PURE_ELO that has dropped to 39th. They at risk of dropping not just to a 7 seed, but maybe to the 8/9 game, which would be a nightmare for whichever 1 seed is drawn against them. Kentucky is still a dangerous team that is better than their resume.

Oklahoma State Gets A Crucial Win Over Kansas Oklahoma State absolutely needed to have a win here, and down the stretch it was Markel Brown and Marcus Smart making big plays. Over the final six minutes, Oklahoma State scored 14 points, all of which Brown and Smart either scored or assisted on. Smart did have a rough game before the final stretch, though, and he finished only 5-for-14 from the field.

This loss might cost Kansas a 1 seed, as they now have seven losses, which is about as many as a 1 seed can realistically have. And the bigger concern is Joel Embiid, who again appears to be having lower back problems. Kansas needs to have him healthy for the NCAA Tournament, and might choose to sit him out again.

Oklahoma State needed this game more than anything because they already had nine conference losses. They have two difficult games remaining after this one (vs Kansas State, at Iowa State), and likely will split those two games. It's extremely difficult to earn an at-large bid four games under .500 in conference play, so Oklahoma State needs to get to 8-10. With this win, a split in their final two games will get them there. Another win in the Big 12 tournament might well be enough to seal up an at-large bid.

Late Run Powers Memphis Over Louisville Louisville seemed to have this game in control late, leading by eight with under five minutes to go. But Rick Pitino seemed to leave Russ Smith on the bench too long with four fouls, and Memphis was able to get on a roll before Smith could get back in the game. But down the stretch, it didn't even matter that he was in the game, because Louisville simply couldn't hit a shot. They missed their final eight shots, seven of which were behind the arc. Memphis finished on a 15-1 run.

Is this Memphis sweep of Louisville meaningful? As far as determining which team is better, I don't think so. Louisville is clearly the better team. They were on the road and shot 4-for-23 behind the arc compared to 6-for-9 for their opponent, and still had the game in hand until the final minute. But this result means a ton for both teams in terms of seeding.

Memphis came into this game dangerously close to the bubble, at 4-6 vs the RPI Top 100 with a Sagarin PURE_ELO that was 50th. Their PURE_ELO is now a much safer 40th. Being 11-5 in conference play also helps. A split of their final two games should probably seal up an at-large bid.

Louisville has a problem in that they just don't have quality victories. Their five losses have all come against RPI Top 50 teams and all been very competitive, but their only quality wins came over Cincinnati and SMU. With an RPI that is 31st and a Sagarin PURE_ELO that is 29th, they're in danger of dropping to a 6 or 7 seed if they don't play well in the AAC tournament. And if they are, they could end up the best 6 or 7 seed ever. They're still rated one of the ten best teams in the nation by most computer ratings.

Michigan State Falls To Illinois Michigan State has fairly quietly lost six of their last ten games. Injuries have been a big part of that, but they actually had their whole roster back for this game. Neither Branden Dawson or Keith Appling looked like they were at full strength, but the fact that they were back on the floor means that the excuses are starting to melt away.

What's wrong with them? More than anything it's offense. During their seven game winning streak to start the Big Ten season, they cracked 1 PPP in six of seven games. They've fallen short of 1 PPP in four of the six losses during this slump. Their two worst offensive performances all season long have come in their last four games, and this Illinois game was a season low (0.82 PPP). And with a Sagarin PURE_ELO that has slid to 15th, Michigan State is at risk of dropping to something like a 4 or 5 seed.

Illinois isn't totally out of at-large consideration, but they need to win their final two regular season games and do some damage in the Big Ten tournament. The reality is that this Illinois team has played like a Tournament-quality all season other than January... but a 1-6 record in January will likely do them in.

VCU Beats Saint Louis It's been a tough week for the Billikens. They had the loss to Duquesne, but didn't get an easy bounce back, having to run right into #HAVOC. And St. Louis struggled against it more than they have at any time in the past couple of seasons. The Billikens committed 17 turnovers (the 27.7 TO% is their worst in conference play this season) and allowed 16 offensive rebounds (their 61.0 DR% is their second worst in conference play thus far). VCU dominated this game to the point that they shot only 3-for-16 behind the arc and still won fairly easily.

What does this two game losing streak mean for St. Louis? It's hard to panic about a team after a 19 game winning streak. But without any big non-conference wins, St. Louis is going to slide a few lines in the bracket. If the season ended now they'd likely be a 4 or 5 seed. A strong finish can get them back to a 3 seed, but anything higher than that seems unrealistic now.

This win should seal up VCU's at-large bid. They're now 10-4 in Atlantic Ten play with wins over Virginia, Saint Louis and Georgetown, along with a bad loss to Northern Iowa. Their RPI is all the way up to 15th, with their Sagarin PURE_ELO up to 27th. And this win over St. Louis is a really good sign for VCU's chances in the tourney, because they've proven this season what they couldn't prove last season: that they can beat a quality team that tends not to turn the ball over.

Xavier Consolidates Their Tourney Place With An Upset Of Creighton It's not exactly news that Creighton isn't the same team when they're not bombing threes. This year's team is better defensively than last year's team, but they're still going to struggle against quality opponents when their outside shots aren't falling. They hit 29% of their threes here, and are now 1-4 this season when shooting below 30% behind the arc (compared to 22-1 when shooting better than 30% behind the arc). Xavier got a big performance from Semaj Christon, who has maybe been a little bit more quiet this season than you'd have expected after last season's campaign but had 21 points, 3 assists and 4 steals here. Dee Davis (4-for-5 behind the arc) also hit some big shots.

Xavier was in the Field of 68 before this win, but definitely in the vicinity of the bubble. This win takes them off the bubble for the time being. They're 10-6 in Big East play, with an 8-7 record against the RPI Top 100 and a Sagarin PURE_ELO up to 31st. Even a 1-1 split in their final two games will likely be enough to get them to the Tournament, though they'll want to avoid a one-and-done in the Big East tournament just to be sure.

Creighton has been hanging on the periphery of the 1 seed debate, though with this loss dropping their Sagarin PURE_ELO to 13th, they might be out of that competition. They probably need to win out, including winning the Big East tournament, to have any kind of chance.

UConn Wins Ugly Over Cincinnati This game was physical and ugly, in a lot of ways. Cincinnati managed to commit 20 turnovers and 20 fouls with a 33.3 eFG% and still only lost by six. You know it's a rough game when the lasting image is TV Teddy Valentine doing TV Teddy Valentine things and getting in Mick Cronin's face after a questionable call.

In the grand scheme of things, this game probably meant much more to Cincinnati than to Connecticut. Cincy is trying to win an AAC title, and they couldn't gain ground on a Louisville team that also lost. Cincinnati still has a very strong resume (5-5 against the RPI Top 50), but they're probably going to have to win out to do better than a 4 seed in the NCAA Tournament.

UConn, meanwhile, is in that early-March purgatory where they're really just playing to move up or down the bracket a seed line or two. They're not a serious contender for a share of the AAC regular season title, but they're also not at risk of falling to the bubble. They're now 11-5 in AAC play and 9-5 against the RPI Top 100, with a Sagarin PURE_ELO that has climbed to 22nd.

Iowa State Falls To Kansas State This game was pretty simple: Iowa State couldn't hit a jump shot. They finished just 7-for-27 behind the arc, with a 40.2 eFG%. They are now 0-3 this season when finishing with an eFG% below 45%. Melvin Ejim was a monster with 30 points on 10-for-18 shooting, but his teammates let him down. Iowa State's bench combined to shoot 0-for-11 from the field.

Kansas State was a 2.5 point favorite in Vegas, so this certainly wasn't a surprising result. Kansas State has taken advantage of their winnable quality games, though, and they're now 7-5 against the RPI Top 50. Only seven teams in the country have more RPI Top 50 victories. Their Sagarin PURE_ELO is 28th and their remaining schedule is difficult, but they have the type of quality wins to make a run at something like a 5 or 6 seed if they can play well in the Big 12 tournament.

Iowa State slides to 10-6 in Big 12 play. They're 11th in RPI and 8-5 against the RPI Top 50, which sounds great, but those numbers are a bit inflated. Their Sagarin PURE_ELO is a more realistic 16th. Considering the fact that they're likely not as good as their resume (Pomeroy only has them the 26th best team in the country), the Cyclones are more likely to slide a bit than rise a bit down the stretch.

Utah Beats Colorado Utah was actually favored by 7 points in this game, which probably surprised a lot of people. This Utah team is really good, though. I've talked before about how unlucky they've been in close games, and how they're rated by both Sagarin and Pomeroy as one of the 40 best teams in the country. The problem for Utah is that "We're looking for the 36 best at-large teams" and "the eye test" are nonsense that don't happen. They're still well outside the Field of 68.

Utah's biggest problem is that their non-conference strength of schedule was garbage. Their non-conference strength of schedule is ranked by Pomeroy as 350th out of 351 teams (only Mississippi State is worse), and they went and lost to Boise State also. So despite being 8-8 in Pac-12 play, they're only 5-8 against the RPI Top 100, with an RPI that is 80th and a Sagarin PURE_ELO that is 63rd. They probably deserve to be in the at-large discussion, but they're probably going to need to win their final two regular season games (at California and at Stanford) plus a game or two in the Pac-12 tournament to get in.

When Colorado was 9-5 in Pac-12 play, they were safely in the Field of 68. The problem was that their finishing schedule is absolutely brutal (by Pac-12 standards, at least). After losing to Arizona they had to finish with three road games against quality opponents. So far they're 0-1. And if they can't win at Stanford or Colorado they'll drop to 9-9. A sweep to get them to 11-7 would probably send them Dancing, but is unlikely. So Colorado is most likely entering the Pac-12 tournament with work left to do.

Dayton Stays Alive With Win Over UMass The Atlantic Ten isn't particularly great this season (they're certainly down from last season due to conference realignment), but the league is making a case for somewhere between five and seven NCAA Tourney bids. Dayton is a team that has been coming on strong, having now won seven of eight. They were offensively dominant here, led by 23 points by Jordan Sibert (4-for-7 behind the arc), and a team-wide 58.0 eFG%. The 1.21 PPP that Dayton scored were the most that UMass has allowed in a game all season long.

Dayton was 1-5 in Atlantic Ten play at one point, but they're now 8-6, with quality victories over Gonzaga, California, George Washington and UMass, with an RPI that has slid inside the Top 50 (their Sagarin PURE_ELO is 52nd). It's not a Tourney resume yet, but they're definitely in the conversation now, and I think we can actually say that they're "on the bubble". They close with a road game at St. Louis and at home against Richmond. What will get them actually in? They probably need a minimum of three more wins between now and Selection Sunday. They might need four.

UMass drops to 9-5 in Atlantic Ten play and 12-4 against the RPI Top 100, with an RPI that is 13th. They lack any really big scalps (though that New Mexico win keeps looking better), but they'd be something like a 6-8 seed if the season ended now. If they can win their final two games (including that home game against St. Louis) and then win the A-10 tourney, they could realistically slide as high as a 4 seed.


Anonymous said...

Worst performance of the century by Kentucky? You must have forgotten about the Billy Gillespie years. Gardner-Webb and VMI say hello.

It may have been the worst of the Calipari era, but that's it.

Jeff said...

I compared it to the Gardner Webb game on twitter last night. With the late run, the final result was better than the Gardner Webb game, but considering the quality of the team the raw performance was probably worse.