Monday, December 22, 2014

Morning News: Virginia Destroys Harvard, Maryland Beats Oklahoma St, Georgia/Seton Hall, North Texas/Creighton, And Montrezl Harrell

Virginia Destroys Harvard When Kentucky did this a day earlier to UCLA, the media fell over itself to declare Kentucky the best team ever. And Kentucky is probably the best team in the country, but this performance by Virginia was equally as strong. Harvard is (in my opinion) a better team than UCLA, and the one field goal that Virginia held them to in the first half tied the all-time NCAA record, done most recently by Northern Illinois on January 26th, 2013.

Interestingly, Virginia's defensive profile is really similar to Kentucky. The one significant difference is that Kentucky forces significantly more turnovers, but Virginia is actually slightly better at protecting the rim (40% opponent FG% at the rim) than Kentucky (42%) and both are excellent at defending mid-range jumpers as well. Both Virginia and Kentucky are putting up staggeringly good defensive stats as teams this season. Kentucky is the better team overall primarily because they're stronger offensively, but the question is why nobody knows about this Virginia team. Ask a casual college basketball fan if they can even name a player on the roster. Who on Virginia is getting any hype for any major awards?

Virginia fans have gotten used to this sort of disrespect during the Tony Bennett era. The slow tempo means that they don't put up a lot of counting stats, and that's particularly true on defense where they excel at rotations and positioning more than a team like Kentucky that relies more heavily on steals and blocks. There are no easily accessible statistics that rank teams by defensive positioning. Players who get the steals and blocks tend to be the ones that win defensive awards, even if those stats are wildly misleading.

Who is the ACC favorite? It's too close to call. Virginia, Louisville and Duke are all in a tight battle. But Duke has the misfortune of not getting either Virginia or Louisville at home. The ACC scheduling gods did them no favors.

The silver lining for Harvard is the same thing I said for UCLA yesterday. Realistically they knew they weren't going to win this game anyway, and in March nobody will care if they lost by 20 or 49. Next Sunday's game at Arizona State will be crucial, because it's going to be really tough for them to earn an at-large bid with a loss there.

Maryland Defeats Oklahoma State Maryland has endured really well without Dez Wells, who is still out injured, though he's hoping to return to practice by the end of the week. This is a very impressive road victory over an Oklahoma State team that entered 9-1 and was just around a week from a road thrashing of Memphis. Maryland got off to a fast shooting start (6-for-15 behind the arc in the first half) and hung on after a late Cowboys rally (a 13-5 run in the final three minutes).

Maryland has been quietly impressive so far. Assuming that they take care of Oakland on Saturday, they'll finish non-conference play 12-1 with wins over Iowa State and Oklahoma State and no bad losses. They seem like a safe Tournament team, and they could make a run for second place in a Big Ten that is wide open after Wisconsin.

Oklahoma State is loved by the computers (even after this loss they're 23rd in Pomeroy and 34th in the Sagarin PREDICTOR), but it's come against a cupcake schedule and they have yet to beat a likely RPI Top 50 opponent. As always, take computer ratings generated primarily from games against cupcakes with a big grain of salt. Of course, Oklahoma State will get a quality opponent almost every night in the Big 12, so this problem will resolve itself. Either they'll win games or they'll drop in the computers.

Georgia Smokes Seton Hall Seton Hall came into this game a mystery at 9-1 and with only a close road loss at Wichita State. They were a mystery because they still hadn't beaten a likely RPI Top 50 opponent. A road game at Georgia was going to be easily their toughest test so far other than the Wichita State game. And, well, it didn't go according to plan. Seton Hall hit just 25% of their jump shots for the day. Their 32.4 eFG% was their worst shooting day since February 4th, 2012. Sterling Gibbs shot 1-for-11 alone, and nobody on the team hit double digits in points.

It's not fair to give up on Seton Hall because of one bad game, but they enter Big East play with something to prove. A home game against St. John's in their Big East opener will be a really interesting test for both teams.

Georgia's defense has been feisty this season. They've held six of nine opponents to under 0.95 PPP. With wins over Seton Hall and Colorado to go with an iffy loss to Georgia Tech, they're a sleeper bubble team. A road game at a struggling Kansas State squad on New Year's Eve will be an interesting opportunity for them.

North Texas Upsets Creighton Just a few weeks ago, Creighton was ranked in the AP Poll. But as always, you shouldn't overreact to a single 40 minute sample size (in their case a home upset of Oklahoma). That game has turned out to be a fluke, or at least it seems to be so far. Creighton now has bad losses to Tulsa, Ole Miss, North Texas and (potentially) St. Mary's to go with the wins over Oklahoma and Nebraska. They'll realistically have to get to at least 10-8 in Big East play to earn an at-large bid, and that seems unlikely right now.

North Texas got lucky shooting the ball here (6-for-11 on threes, compared to 26% for Creighton), but this is a huge program victory. They struggled badly in their first season in Conference USA (0-8 vs the RPI Top 100), but this win might propel them to a stronger effort in Year #2.

Montrezl Harrell Earns A One Game Suspension As most people expected, Montrezl Harrell will face a one game suspension for his punch of a Western Kentucky player. I think even Kentucky fans want Louisville to be at full strength for their upcoming game. The Wildcats won't get much competition in SEC play, so it will be nice to see them have to play one true road game against a legitimate, full strength Top Ten foe.

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