|Best wishes for the new year to all of you.|
Conference play is now underway in every conference, and we're heading into the best part of the annual sports calendar. We're fewer than 11 weeks from Selection Sunday. So now, let's talk about the final important games of 2014:
Shorthanded Seton Hall Beats St. John's Seton Hall was playing without star freshman Isaiah Whitehead here, though that loss was probably overstated. He was a McDonald's All-American last season, and he's second on the team in points per game (11.9), but he's done it with volume more than efficiently. He only has a 46.2 eFG%, and he has nearly as many turnovers per game (3.2) as assists per game (3.4). He's going to be a very good player eventually, but only a small handful of high schoolers are good enough to show up as true freshman in major conferences and immediately be high volume players efficiently.
Anyway, what has stood out for Seton Hall this season is that they're passing the ball better. Jaren Sina only had 3 assists here, but he always seems to be the offensive catalyst who is making the pass before the pass that gets the assist. Sterling Gibbs is Seton Hall's best player, and he poured in 25 points and 8 assists, including 5-for-7 three-point shooting. Angel Delgado also really impressed, outplaying Chris Obekpa head-to-head with 13 points (on 5-for-8 shooting) and 12 rebounds. Seton Hall came into this game with only a win over Georgia, which isn't much, but they are playing well and look like they'll be in the bubble discussion all season long. If they can get to 10-8 in Big East play they'll be in great shape. A Saturday home game against Villanova is a massive opportunity to raise their profile.
This was a bit of a reality check game for St. John's, whose #15 ranking in the AP Poll was ridiculous. That road win over Syracuse was nice, but other than that the Johnnies hadn't played a game outside the Five Boroughs, and only played a single team likely to finish in the RPI Top 50 (Gonzaga, who beat them). It is a very, very soft resume. The Johnnies have individual talent and still have a reasonable shot to earn an at-large bid, but they're a long way from being comfortably in the Field of 68.
Temple Upsets UConn On its face, a loss at home against a team that was outside the Top 100 in basically every computer rating ten days ago seems like a really bad performance for UConn. But first of all, they lost star playmaker Ryan Boatright to a bad thigh bruise late in the first half. Second of all, this Temple team looks totally different since adding Jesse Morgan and Devin Coleman. Morgan, in particular, looks like Temple's best all-around player. He led all players here with 17 points, and also had 6 rebounds and 2 steals. UConn had a chance at the end of the game when Daniel Hamilton was fouled on a three-pointer with the Huskies down just 2, but in a bit of a "ball don't lie" moment (it really didn't look like there was any contact) Hamilton missed the first two free throws and then failed to touch the rim when trying to miss the third.
UConn hasn't had much luck in close games, and they're about to play another hard luck team in Florida, in Gainesville on Saturday. The Huskies need that win or a win over Stanford to salvage something from non-conference play. It's going to be difficult for them to earn respect just by winning games in the AAC.
The question with Temple is just how real these wins over UConn and Kansas are. They're obviously significantly better with Jesse Morgan in the lineup, but are they really this good, or is the reality somewhere in the middle? They're realistically going to have to go at least 12-6 in AAC play to earn an at-large bid, so there isn't a huge margin for error.
Xavier Defeats Georgetown Sometimes a game simply comes down to outside shooting. Georgetown was 2-for-13 while Xavier was 8-for-16. It's not the fault of Georgetown's defense, which actually locked down the paint, blocking 10 shots and holding Xavier to just 18 paint points. But Georgetown's real problem here has been a continuing problem for them: foul trouble. They commit too many fouls and are not deep enough. Josh Smith is in foul trouble when he gets off the bus pregame, but even D'Vauntes Smith-Rivera was held to just 26 minutes here (scoring 18 points on 5-for-9 shooting, though). Four of Georgetown's five starters picked up at least four fouls.
The Hoyas shouldn't have as much trouble with foul trouble when they're at home, which is where they'll be for Creighton and Marquette next. But if they're going to have any chance of contending with Villanova, they need to be able to beat decent opponents on the road.
Xavier was a team whose resume was nowhere near what the computers thought of them. They finished non-conference play 9-3 with no wins over likely RPI Top 50 opponents but with bad losses to Auburn, Long Beach St and UTEP. But despite that poor resume they were Top 30 in Pomeroy and actually Top 20 in the Sagarin PREDICTOR. Why? All three losses were by 4 points or less and all of their wins were by double digits. This single Big East win doesn't prove anything, but it suggests that the computers might have been on to something. The race to be the top Big East contender to Villanova remains wide open, and Xavier has to be in that conversation.
Villanova Takes Care Of Business This result wasn't a surprise, as it would have been a stunner if Butler went into Villanova and escaped with a win, and that's particularly true when they don't shoot well (a 40.3 eFG% here). But this is an excuse to talk about Butler's bubble chances and Villanova's 1 seed chances. Butler's wins over North Carolina and Georgetown feel like a long time ago and unless they can knock off Villanova at home in February they're really not going to have any truly big scalps in conference play either. So they probably need to get to 10-8 in Big East play to have a good chance to earn an at-large bid. Four of their first six Big East games this season are on the road against Tournament-quality foes, so they might have to finish the season strong to sneak in.
Villanova is the serious 1 seed contender nobody is really talking about. It's likely that Kentucky, Wisconsin, Arizona and an ACC team (Duke, Virginia or Louisville) would have the edge on Villanova if they sweep their conference titles, but the odds are that those teams won't all achieve that. So if Villanova can sweep the Big East titles, you have to figure that their odds are really good of earning a 1 seed. And it does seem at this point like they have the easiest path to sweeping their conference titles of any of those teams besides Kentucky.
Nebraska Falls To Indiana Nebraska's offense against Indiana's defense really is the resistible force against the moveable object. They scored 0.96 PPP here, which seems pretty average, but it requires context. For Nebraska, that's their best offensive output this season in any of their four games against Pomeroy Top 100 opponents. For Indiana, that's their best defensive performance out of seven games against Pomeroy Top 100 opponents. So, in case you're trying to keep track here, the net result of a resistible force against a moveable object is pretty damn close to 1 PPP.
For Nebraska, every game is the same thing. Terran Petteway and Shavon Shields play hero ball all game. They took a combined 37 shots out of Nebraska's 59 (an absurd 63%). They scored a combined 43 points, but 15-for-37 shooting just isn't very good against a defense this bad. But there isn't an obvious solution. It's not like they have a strong scorer who just isn't getting the ball. Moses Abraham will play a lot of minutes when he gets back, but he's not a scorer either. Nebraska already has plenty of defense, but I just see no signs that their offense is going to start getting better.
This is the type of win that a bubblish team like Indiana really had to have. They went 10-3 in non-conference play with wins over SMU, Butler and Pittsburgh to go with a bad loss to Eastern Washington. A 10-8 Big Ten record will probably get them in. They have a tough road game up next at Michigan State, but after that they have a great chance to pick up a big win at home against Ohio State.
Purdue Knocks Off Minnesota The Gophers led by 13 points early in the second half here, but Purdue really got going offensively in the second half, shooting 15-for-28 from the field and 14-for-16 at the line, pouring in 1.42 PPP. The crowd was going at Mackey, and for a half at least it felt like the good old days for Matt Painter. The catalyst was Kendall Stephens, who poured in 16 of his 19 points in the second half. Raphael Davis also scored in double-digits in the second half, including 8 of the team's final 12 points.
When Minnesota has struggled this season, it has typically been defensively. They shoot the ball well, but struggle to get stops when they need them. They hit 8-for-16 behind the arc here, pushing their season three-point percentage up to 40.5%, but they just could not stop Purdue at all late in this one. And considering the fact that they look like a bubble quality team, a loss here could potentially be what leaves them out on Selection Sunday. They went 11-2 in non-conference play, but Georgia was the only team they beat with any realistic shot at the RPI Top 100. So with the Big Ten not perceived well this season they really have to get to 10-8 or better to go Dancing. If they can't win at Maryland on Saturday, they're going to have a very important home game at Ohio State to avoid dropping to 0-3.
Purdue went an ugly 8-5 in non-conference play, with wins over BYU and NC State along with bad losses to Gardner Webb and North Florida, along with potentially bad losses to Kansas State and Vanderbilt. Even if they get to 10-8 in Big Ten play, they're still going to need to play really well in the Big Ten tournament to have a chance to get in. That means they can't afford to lose any winnable games the rest of the way. That includes a home game against Michigan on Saturday.