Sunday, December 21, 2014

Morning News: New Bracket, "Biggest Upset Of The Decade?", Syracuse Heartbreaker, UNC Over Ohio St, And Much More

If there's any player in college basketball who reminds me of Russell Westbrook, it's Demetrius Jackson

New Bracket Projection It's a winter tradition. For the first time this season the tail end of the at-large teams projected to get in feel weak. That said, Washington does move into the bracket, knocking out Dayton. In addition, the two St. Francis schools flipped as NEC favorites. More details are at the link.

A New Biggest Upset Of The Decade? When we found out Branden Dawson would only likely miss two games, I called it a big break for Michigan State since their next two games were against cupcakes. Instead, Michigan State might just have suffered the biggest loss of the last decade. Of course, I awarded that title to Michigan's loss to NJIT a few weeks ago, and this loss doesn't seem to resonate in the same way in the public consciousness. In February when announcers are analyzing Minnesota's bubble case, we're going to hear "The Big Ten is down this year, Michigan lost to NJIT!" It's just going to be the upset we never stop hearing about. Yet really, in every way, this loss to Texas Southern is worse, for a few reasons.

First of all, when one team pulls a crazy upset you expect them to have a crazy lucky shooting day. NJIT shot an insane 11-for-17 behind the arc to knock off Michigan. But here? Texas Southern hit just 4-for-12. Instead, they were getting into the paint, scoring 16 layups or dunks, and they actually outscored the Spartans 36-to-32 in the paint while also committing just 11 turnovers and forcing 7 steals. While Michigan outplayed NJIT and simply got out-shot, Michigan State really did honestly play more or less to a draw at home against Texas Southern.

Also, the SWAC's futility against major conference foes is well known. They were 1-35 against RPI Top 100 teams as a conference last season, and that was actually a good season. The year before, Southern University broke a 237 game losing streak for the SWAC against RPI Top 100 opponents which went back a full 7 years. If Michigan State ends up near the bubble, this loss should kill them as much as the NJIT loss will kill Michigan.

Syracuse Loses A Heartbreaker Villanova was tied 0-0 in the early moments of this game, and they did not have a lead or pull back into a tie again until the final few seconds of regulation. They had to claw back from a 15 point deficit, as well as a 5 point deficit with around 15 seconds to go. But they got to overtime on a Josh Hart three, followed by a trap and a steal, and then a JayVaughn Pinkston layup. You can watch the entire final sequence below:
In overtime, Villanova was able to grab an early lead and hit eight straight free throws down the stretch. Ryan Arcidiacono too often gets the "gritty white guy" tropes from announcers, but in this game he really did do the little things. He scored just 3 points but had 9 assists to 0 turnovers, including assists on both of those final baskets in regulation. Villanova is now 11-0 and will likely go 13-0 in non-conference play with some quality victories. If they can sweep the Big East titles they will almost certainly earn a 1 seed.

This is a crushing loss for a Syracuse team that has had an incredibly frustrating non-conference season. They are 6-4, and while none of their losses are bad they only really have a win over Iowa worth bragging about. The good news for the Orange is that they're in the ACC, where they'll have a ton of chances for quality scalps. I still think they're a Tournament quality team, and a 10-8 ACC record will probably be sufficient.

North Carolina Holds Off Ohio State The Buckeyes built themselves quite the deficit here, falling behind by 16 points in the first half and by as many as 18 points in the second half. They managed to fight hard and close it enough that they were actually fouling in the final 30 seconds, but it wasn't enough. All things considered, though, this wasn't a poor performance by Ohio State. North Carolina historically shoots more two-point jumpers than any other team in the nation, but the difference here was that they were actually hitting them, hitting 13-for-20 (65%) on two-point jumpers. For comparison, UNC was only hitting 43% of two-point jumpers for the season. And you can't blame Ohio State's defense, which held North Carolina to just 14-for-30 (47%) shooting around the rim.

Ohio State has had a bizarre schedule in that they played two elite teams (North Carolina and Louisville) and lost competitive games to both, while blowing out a whole bunch of weak opponents in their other games. The closest thing to a decent win was a home victory over Marquette. They seem like a pretty good team, but it's just so hard to tell. They'll still be a mystery when they start Big Ten play.

North Carolina, on the other hand, has faced a really tough schedule. Other than Kansas, they've likely faced the toughest strength of schedule of any Power 5 team in non-conference play. They're just 8-3, but it's an awfully impressive resume. Even though I still think they're a step below Duke/Louisville/Virginia at the top of the ACC, they're still in a very strong position for a 2-4 seed on Selection Sunday.

Is Washington Due to Regress? Washington was already up to 16th in both human polls before pulling this big neutral court upset of Oklahoma to move to 10-0. With Lorenzo Romar entering this season on the hot seat, this Washington team suddenly looks like they might move into the Top 10 in the human polls in the next week or two. And certainly Washington is playing much better than we all expected preseason, particularly defensively. But is Washington due to regress?

If the question is whether Washington will regress from being a top ten team then, yes, of course. They're not even a top ten team now. Even after this win over Oklahoma they're just 34th in Pomeroy and 37th in the Sagarin PREDICTOR. Also, they're been lucky in opponent shooting (opponents are hitting a brutal 26.6% behind the arc this season, 6th worst in the nation). And this has all come against a soft schedule, ranked 306th so far by Pomeroy and featuring just one true road game (at a bad Seattle team). So while some Washington fans are getting ready to buy their NCAA Tournament tickets already, they're the poster child for a team due to regress, and I still expect them to finish the season around the bubble. That said, this win did move them into my projected bracket for the first time this season.

Oklahoma will finish non-conference play with just wins over UCLA and Butler, but that shouldn't be too much of a problem. They're a very good team that will have plenty of opportunities against quality opponents in Big 12 play. They're still on pace for a good seed in March.

Montrezl Harrell Throws A Punch, Is Ejected Louisville had more trouble than expected with Western Kentucky, but the real story from this game was Montrezl Harrell throwing a punch and getting himself ejected, and actually hurting a referee in the chaos. You can judge it for yourself, as I've embedded the video below. I'd expected Harrell to be suspended for a game, but the guess at this point is that he's likely to be back for the game after that, which is the Kentucky game. Certainly I think that with as weak as the SEC is, we'd like to see Kentucky have to beat a full-strength Louisville team.

Indiana Upsets Butler Primarily this result was simply about Indiana shooting the ball far better (47% on threes compared to 19% for Butler), but the fact that Butler got out-rebounded was pretty surprising. Hanner Mosquera-Perea has really impressed this season, and he controlled the paint with 8 points, 9 rebounds and 4 blocks. Kam Woods was, for the most part, neutralized.

Indiana is starting to make a real at-large case. They have wins over Butler, SMU and Pittsburgh, with only one bad loss (Eastern Washington). If they can upset Georgetown in Madison Square Garden on December 27th then they'll really be in good shape.

Butler has now lost two straight and hasn't quite looked like the same team since returning from the Bahamas. They've got a nasty start to Big East play as well, going on the road to Villanova and St. John's. Don't be at all surprised if they're on the Tourney bubble in early March.

Michigan Falters Late Against SMU Michigan's run of misery continued here. Once again their shooting was poor, particularly down the stretch, when they were outscored 17-3. During that stretch, they were an ugly 1-for-11 from the field, including 1-for-8 behind the arc. For the game, Michigan shot 8-for-36 (22%) behind the arc. Overall, Michigan had a 38.9 eFG% compared to a 50.0 eFG% for SMU, marking the fifth straight game that Michigan has gotten out-shot.

Eventually Michigan is going to shoot the ball better. Unlike the Arizona game, it's pretty clear that Michigan wasn't "out-played" here, they just got out-shot. But their offense continues to be too tentative, and you have to wonder if the poor shooting is part of the reason for the loss of confidence.

This is a crucial win for SMU, marking likely what will end up their best non-conference win. Markus Kennedy didn't do much in his first game eligible (5 points and 3 rebounds) but that will change as he gets back in the groove of things. SMU probably needs to get to 12-6 in the AAC to feel good about their at-large chances, but they should be able to get there.

Iowa Goes Cold Against Northern Iowa This was an ugly offensive performance from Iowa. They had a 30.4 eFG%, 44 points and 0.76 PPP. All three of those are lows for Iowa not just for this season but for last season as well. The last time they outdid any of those three numbers was April 4th, 2013, when their eFG% was just 29.7 eFG% against Baylor. Iowa's shooting stats have plummeted across the board this season. It has to be partially a combination of reduced talent but also some poor luck. It's hard to see some of these guys continue to shoot so poorly.

If Iowa gets past North Florida they'll finish non-conference play with a win over North Carolina and no bad losses, but without a particularly impressive won-loss record. They'll likely need to get to 10-8 in Big Ten play to be confident that they're earning an at-large bid.

This is Northern Iowa's first win against a likely RPI Top 50 opponents, but they're 10-1 with gaudy looking computer numbers. The Missouri Valley is a tough league to build a resume in this season, but don't be stunned if Northern Iowa ends up topping Wichita State. The gap between the two teams isn't particularly large.

Kentucky Annihilates UCLA Normally a Kentucky home win over UCLA wouldn't crack a Morning News post on a Sunday morning since, I mean, what did anybody expect? But this was a staggering level of domination. Kentucky led 24-0 at one point, and led 41-7 at halftime. This was as good as Kentucky can look, shooting a white hot 12-for-26 behind the arc while holding UCLA to 5-for-21 shooting on dunks and layups. Kentucky's defense is always going to be elite, but it's when their jump shots are going in that they look like the clear best team in the nation.

The good news for UCLA is that nobody expected them to win this game, and nobody is going to care what the score of this game was on Selection Sunday. But at 0-4 against likely RPI Top 100 foes (and 8-0 against like RPI 100+ foes), UCLA has work left to do to impress. They'll have a tough road game on December 28th against Alabama, but regardless of that result will need some big scalps in Pac-12 play. They don't get a home game against Arizona, which is an unfortunate break.

VCU Handles Cronin-less Cincinnati Mick Cronin had a health scare, suffering an unruptured aneuryism. For now, he's out indefinitely, and will have to be cleared by doctors to return. It's hard to know whether his absence affected his team here, because their offense has been fairly awful against everybody lately, but the Bearcats were very ineffective here. They had a 36.1 eFG% and scored just 0.78 PPP.

Cincinnati had to get at least one win out of their back-to-back San Diego State/VCU home games, and they did get that one win, but they still are going to have a ton of work to do to earn an at-large bid out of an AAC that will not get much respect. A road upset of NC State on December 30th would go a long way toward easing their burdens.

VCU is done playing quality non-conference opponents, and they finish with wins over Northern Iowa, Cincinnati, Oregon and Tennessee, along with an iffy loss to Old Dominion. It's fine, but not super impressive. With the way the Atlantic Ten is perceived, they have the same problem Cincinnati does. They'll need a good conference record (12-6 or better) just to be sure they make the Tournament.

Deonte Burton Transfers To Iowa State Fred Hoiberg continues to pick up every key transfer in the nation, or so it seems. This time it's Deonte Burton, who had been scoring 6.1 points per game off the bench for Marquette as a sophomore this season. He will expect to become eligible at the end of the fall semester next season, and should expect to immediately slot into Iowa State's rotation as a wing.

Auburn Upsets Xavier This was a game well below the radar of casual fans, but it could be a crucial loss for Xavier.  It's always a mistake to try to draw conclusions from games that go two overtimes, as both teams always have multiple chances to win, but Xavier has now played three close games and lost all of them. That bad luck is why, despite being in the Top 30 of both Pomeroy and the Sagarin PREDICTOR, Xavier's resume is actually pretty poor. Their best win came over Alabama and they have iffy/bad losses to Auburn, Long Beach State and UTEP. They're going to likely have to get to at least 10-8 in Big East play to make the tourney.

BYU Beats Stanford BYU nearly gave this game away. They led by 13 points with under 3:30 to go, but their defense absolutely disappeared down the stretch (even by BYU standards), and they also committed a few turnovers, giving Stanford the ball back down by 2 points with plenty of time to set up a shot. But as often happens in these end-of-game situations, Stanford stopped doing what was working well (moving the ball quickly with the pass) and went with hero-ball, sending Chasson Randle around a high screen to set up a contested 23 foot shot that he missed with around 8 seconds still left.

The fact that this was an ugly win doesn't matter for BYU, because it was a win that they had to have. It was their final real chance for an RPI Top 50 win in non-conference play. They also get a likely RPI Top 100 opponent in their final non-conference game when UMass comes to town on Tuesday.

Stanford has come up just short against quality opponents this season, and their resume is actually looking pretty ugly. They don't have a single quality win and they have a bad loss to DePaul. Unless they pull a stunning road upset at Texas on Tuesday, they're going to have a ton of work to do in Pac-12 play.

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