|Chase Fischer hit 9 three-pointers last night... in the first half.|
Villanova entered the season as the favorite in the Big East, and in Brooklyn the past two days they proved on the court that the hype was justified. They look like the clear best team, and a potential contender for a 1 or 2 seed in March if they can sweep the Big East conference titles. One potentially tricky game coming up will be on the road at La Salle on December 3rd.
Michigan didn't look like a great team after a close win over Oregon and a close loss to Villanova, but they do look like a Top 25 team with a lot of balance, and a lot of different ways they can beat you. It's basically a typical John Beilein team aside from not quite as many strong outside shooters as Beilein has had in the past. But the Big Ten this year is wide open after Wisconsin at the top, and there isn't any good reason why Michigan can't finish as high as second. They still have games against Syracuse, Arizona and SMU before conference play also.
Maryland Upsets Iowa State Maryland's defense deserves a lot of credit here, but Iowa State also just had a horrific shooting day. The Cyclones shot 6-for-26 on threes and 1-for-12 on two-point jumpers. Iowa State finished with a 34.4 eFG%. To put that in perspective, it's their second worst shooting day in the last four seasons, surpassed only slightly by a 34.3 eFG% in their 77-70 loss to Kansas last season.
Maryland again had a balanced scoring attack, led by Dez Wells (14 points, 9 rebounds, 4 assists). Melo Trimble (11 points, 3 assists, 3 steals) occasionally makes freshman mistakes, but you can see the talent and potential that he has. The Terps are now 5-0 and looking fairly clearly like a Tournament team. The next step is trying to contend near the top of the Big Ten, which is wide open after Wisconsin at the top. They get a huge opportunity at home against Virginia in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge to really emerge as a top contender to the Badgers.
Iowa State has two non-conference games remaining against likely NCAA Tournament teams, taking on Arkansas at home on December 4th, and playing at Iowa on December 12th. Iowa State is a pretty good team, but I believe they were overrated preseason due to their luck in close games last season, and their split in Kansas City doesn't move the needle there. If they're going to be a contender for first or second place in the Big 12, you'd like to see that level of basketball against Arkansas and Iowa.
San Diego St Suffocates Pittsburgh Jamie Dixon teams are always good offensively, but San Diego State's defense choked the life out of them late last night in Maui. Pitt shot an ugly 9-for-24 on layups and dunks, with San Diego State's 10 blocked shots the primary reason why. San Diego State had a huge 38-to-20 advantage on points in the paint. Pitt's 42.5 eFG% and 0.93 PPP were both season lows. In fact, only twice all of last season did Pitt both shoot and score worse than that in the same game.
San Diego State has a massive opportunity against Arizona in the Maui Invitational title game. The Mountain West is not particularly strong this season, so if the Aztecs are going to earn a 1 or 2 seed in March they need to collect several big wins in non-conference play. They won't face a better team in the regular season than Arizona. This will be their best chance to build their resume.
Pittsburgh will finish out their Maui experience against Kansas State. They have yet to collect a quality win and have a bad loss to Hawaii, so they need a bounce back win. And that's particularly true since they don't play another likely Tournament team until ACC play (a road game at Indiana is the closest).
VCU Bounces Back Coming off a disappointing thumping at the hands of Villanova, VCU took care of business against Oregon. The two teams actually each had the identical number of turnovers here (20), but VCU had a 26-to-10 advantage in points off turnovers, which led to a 36-to-16 advantage in scoring in the paint. That was the difference here. Briante Weber, by the way, really deserves to start getting some All-America buzz. He had 11 points, 10 assists and 4 steals here, to raise his season averages to 11.0 ppg, 6.0 apg, 4.8 rpg and 4.3 spg.
VCU has a tricky couple of games coming up, on the road at Old Dominion and Illinois State. Those are problematic games, because they are very easy to lose, but you don't get any real credit for winning. But if they do survive, they'll have the chance to add to their resume in a big way on December 6th, when they take on Virginia.
Oregon went 0-2 in the Legends Classic, but they arguably come out looking better than they did going in. With all of the off court turmoil, this Oregon team had the potential to really be a disaster. But even though they don't look like a Tournament team, they at least were competitive in both of these games, and should hang around at least somewhere in the vicinity of the bubble for most of the season.
SMU Loses Again This was a game SMU really had to have, and they almost managed to pull it off. Arkansas had a 19 point lead midway through the second half, but a 29-18 run closed it down to eight, and SMU even got within five points a few times down the stretch. And they came that close despite getting almost nothing from star Nic Moore (10 points on 1-for-6 shooting, with 6 assists and 5 turnovers).
SMU will get Markus Kennedy back in time for their next remaining quality opponent (at Michigan, on December 20th), but that will also mark their last chance to earn a quality non-conference win. With a loss there, even if they avoid upsets by the likes of Wyoming and UC-Santa Barbara, it's going to be an uphill battle to earn an at-large bid out of the AAC.
Arkansas came into this game 3-0, but without having proven much. Two wins came over cupcakes, while the third came at home against Wake Forest. After playing another cupcake, they have a pretty tough four game stretch upcoming (vs Iona, at Iowa State, at Clemson, vs Dayton). A 3-1 record over that stretch would be sufficient to keep them on pace for an at-large bid.
Missouri #Autobenches Themselves One of the biggest mistakes that college basketball coaches make is the #Autobench - automatically keeping anybody important with two fouls on the bench until halftime. It's completely arbitrary, and based on the false idea that possessions near the ends of games are vastly more important than possessions in the middle. Kim Anderson did it to Missouri here, putting several starters on the bench for big chunks of the first half, including star Montaque Gill-Caesar sitting the final 8:58 of the half. And by halftime Purdue had a 25 point lead and the game was over. Thankfully, Gill-Caesar didn't pick up a single foul in the second half, so he was rested and good to go in the final few minutes with Purdue winning by 20+. Of course, the fact that the second half was very even between these two teams means even more frustration for Missouri fans, who have to wonder what could have happened if Kim Anderson had pushed all of his poker chips to the center of the table instead of surrendering the game in the first half.
Purdue fans, of course, witnessed the other side of the #Autobench the day before, when AJ Hammons picked up two fouls in the first 1:04 of the first half, and sat the final 18:56 while Kansas State was able to open up a 15 point halftime lead. Purdue was able to pull back within five points with three minutes left in that one, which made the benching of AJ Hammons even more frustrating.
Purdue will get a chance to make Maui a success today by beating BYU. The Boilermakers are a team that, for now at least, has to be considered a serious at-large bid contender. Missouri, on the other hand, is not. They're now 2-3 overall, with a loss to UMKC and no wins over likely RPI Top 100 opponents. And they're going to get nothing out of Maui, where they only get to play Chaminade today. With a tough remaining non-conference schedule, I'll be surprised if Missouri finishes above .500 this season.
Arizona Escapes Kansas State This game must have been extraordinarily frustrating for Kansas State fans. Their team was basically one or two possessions down for the entire second half, and just could not get over the hump. When they pulled within two points on a Marcus Foster jumper with around 2:30 to go, the Wildcats had three consecutive possessions with a chance to tie or take the lead and failed to score each time. Finally, after neither team had scored for more than two minutes, Stanley Johnson got to the line and hit a pair of free throws to put the game out of reach.
Marcus Foster was spectacular in this game. Despite having Rondae Hollis-Jefferson tracking him for most of the night, he led all scorers with 23 points, including 6-for-9 behind the arc. The concern for the Wildcats, and what is going to keep them from competing near the top of the Big 12 with teams like Kansas, Texas and Oklahoma, is the lack of a second scoring option. They are a sound and strong defensive team, like Bruce Weber teams always are, but when Foster isn't scoring they just don't really have a way to put points on the board efficiently.
Kansas State finishes Maui against Pittsburgh, which might actually be their best chance for a win over a Tournament team before conference play starts. They did beat a Purdue team that should end up on the bubble, and they will also take on potential bubble teams Tennessee and Texas A&M, but none of those teams really is a sure thing. As strong as the Big 12 this season, Kansas State doesn't want to enter conference play on the outside of the Field of 68 looking in.
Arizona, meanwhile, will play in the Maui title game that we all wanted, against San Diego State. It should be a great game to watch.