Monday, January 12, 2015

Morning News: Wisconsin, Duke And Arizona All Go Down On A Wild Sunday

This was a common sight yesterday.
On what is normally a slow day of the week for college basketball we had not one, not two, but three court stormings. Let's talk about what made all three similar and what made all three different (and I also discuss Illinois/Nebraska for the real diehards at the end):

Shorthanded Wisconsin Loses This was a nightmare game for Wisconsin in every possible way. They didn't have perhaps the best player in the nation (Frank Kaminsky) due to concussion symptoms and then lost their primary playmaker (Traevon Jackson) to what looked like a bad ankle injury midway through the second half. On top of that, Rutgers shot out of their minds in the second half (5-for-7 on threes with a 77.1 eFG%) while Wisconsin couldn't hit anything (3-for-12 on threes and 6-for-12 at the line). Myles Mack was the star for Rutgers, hitting four three-pointers in the second half, including a fadeaway contested 24 footer at one point that pretty much summed up his performance.

Everything in that previous paragraph is why the actual result of this game doesn't matter for Wisconsin. Every team is going to have one or two games like this every season. It's why Duke lost to NC State, why Kansas lost to Temple and why Kentucky will eventually lose to some team like LSU or Georgia. The Badgers are still the heavy Big Ten favorites and control their own destiny for a 1 seed. The real concern for Wisconsin is the health of Traevon Jackson and Frank Kaminsky. There are no details out yet about either of those two guys, and if they have to miss significant time then this becomes a significant problem. Lightly used bench player Zak Showalter had played a total of four minutes combined in the previous four Wisconsin games, yet he had to play down the stretch for the Badgers here. That's quite the downgrade if this becomes a long term problem. The one good piece of news for Wisconsin is that their Big Ten schedule is very backloaded, so their next month or so really isn't that bad.

For Rutgers, this is their first ever win against a Top 5 ranked team, which is kind of amazing. While this is a fantastic win for them, this seems like a fluke more than a sign of progression. It's not like Rutgers had shown any sign in their past few games that they were leading to a performance like this.

Duke Falls To NC State Duke didn't have the injuries that Wisconsin had, so they don't have the excuse of a short-handed roster, but they still experienced the same exact fluky shooting that doomed the Badgers. Here it was NC State hitting 10-for-16 behind the arc while Duke was an ugly 7-for-27. Overall, these two teams have been similar outside shooting teams over the season and Duke's perimeter defense is better, but over a 40 minute sample size crazy things can happen.

Now what makes this loss a bigger problem for Duke than Wisconsin's loss to Rutgers is that Duke is in a conference with Louisville, Virginia, North Carolina and Notre Dame. In other words, the margin of error is much smaller. Also, one thing that I feel like I'm the only person in the NCAA basketball world mentioning is the fact that the ACC scheduling gods gave Duke no favors. Their only games against Louisville and Virginia will come on the road, and they have a home-and-home with North Carolina. Duke might be the best team in the ACC, but after this loss it's pretty tough to argue that they're the favorite to earn the regular season title.

The other difference between this game and Wisconsin/Rutgers is that NC State is a team with a chance to go somewhere in March. They're 3-1 in ACC play and have a big scalp to balance out their iffy losses to Wofford and Purdue. The weak non-conference performance for NC State means that 9-9 in ACC play (which would make them 18-13 pending ACC tourney results) probably sends them to the NIT. But if they can get to 10-8 and have a big scalp or two, that's a realistic at-large resume. They headed into this stretch of home games against Duke and North Carolina knowing that they really had to steal at least one win. Now they got that one win. If they can somehow knock off the Tar Heels on Wednesday then this will go down as a hell of a week for them.

Oregon State Knocks Off Arizona Unlike Duke and Wisconsin, Arizona actually wasn't really a victim of fluky shooting here. Oregon State played about as well as they could in the second half here (3-for-5 on threes with a 73.5 eFG%), but Arizona shot the ball well also (3-for-7 on threes with a 56.8 eFG%). This game was just really tight the entire way, and when you play enough close games you're eventually going to lose one.

Arizona started this season 4-0 in games decided by five points or less, but they've lost two straight since, which is their luck evening out. And obviously we don't want to overreact to a single game, but Utah is really breathing down their neck, and the Pac-12 title race is going to be significantly more competitive than most expected. They have their home game against Utah coming up this week, on Saturday. If Utah can pull that upset then they will become the favorite to take the Pac-12 regular season title, and the Utes might also vault themselves into the 1 seed debate.

Wayne Tinkle has done a really good job with this Oregon State team, which has had its roster totally changed over in his first season. This team still has a long way to go (they lost to Quinnipiac two weeks ago), and it would be a mistake to pretend that they're in a bubble hunt, but this is definitely the most talented and most relevant Oregon State team in years. With no seniors in the regular rotation and so many juniors in key roles, next season might be the year for the Beavers to make some noise and get back to the NCAA Tournament.

Illinois Loses Ugly This was the Illinois offense that we expected to see with Rayvonte Rice out, particularly against an elite defense like Nebraska (as horrible as Nebraska's offense is, and it's generally horrible, they are a damn good defensive team). Illinois had a 32.7 eFG% and scored 0.72 PPP, with both marking season lows. The last time they shot that poorly was when they had a 31.2 eFG% on January 12th, 2014, when they lost 49-43 to Northwestern.

Illinois is not going to get a free pass for playing without the injured Rice, and now at 1-3 in Big Ten play they desperately have to pile up wins against the softer part of their schedule. A road game at Northwestern is up next, followed by home games against Indiana and Purdue.

Only 4 of the 17 teams Nebraska has played this season have cracked 1.00 PPP. The problem is, as I said above, they're atrocious offensively. They have cracked 1.00 PPP offensively in just two of ten games against KenPom Top 200 opponents, and those were Rutgers and Incarnate Word. They're 2-2 in Big Ten play, but it's come against a soft schedule. That ends Thursday when they head on the road to face a Wisconsin team looking to bounce back from a bad loss.

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