Sunday, February 01, 2015

Morning News: New Bracket, Duke Steals A Win, Louisville Stuns UNC, Northern Iowa Routs Wichita St, And Much More

The Briante Weber injury is devastating to all hoops fans, not just at VCU

New Bracket Projection The bubble teams that I'm projected as at-large teams didn't change this week, though quite a few slid up or down the bracket. That said, five one-bid leagues have new favorites (America East, Big South, Big West, Colonial and NEC). In addition, Virginia replaced Duke as the ACC favorite (for the reasoning, read the game recap right below this paragraph), and Cincinnati replaced UConn as the AAC favorite. For all the details, click on the link.

Duke Steals A Win At Virginia Virginia came out looking very nervous in this game. This was a new experience for them, with College Gameday in town and everybody absolutely expecting them to beat the reeling Duke Blue Devils. But they played much better in the middle of the game, and were on the brink of putting this game away. They actually led by 11 points midway through the second half. But what changed late was Duke's outside shooting. Duke failed to hit a single shot outside the paint until there was 9:39 left on the clock. Yet after starting the game 0-for-9 behind the arc, they hit 6-for-8 down the stretch, led by a trio from Quinn Cook.

Whenever you have a game like this, the #narrative coming out of it is going to be ridiculous. Had Duke missed an extra three pointer or two in that final barrage, the narrative would have been Duke 4-4 in the ACC and falling apart, and Virginia perhaps being the best team in the nation. But a couple of Quinn Cook threes instead mean that Duke is now the team the beat in the ACC and the favorite for a 1 seed in March, while Virginia is a fraud that can't close games. As always, the reality is in the middle. Even if Duke had lost this game by 6 points, that's still an impressive performance on the road at Virginia, and though they'd have been out of the ACC regular season race they'd still be in good shape for a 2 or 3 seed and a long run in March. And even after this loss, Virginia is still probably the best team in the ACC, and there's no reason to think they won't win their next close game. By the way, after Saturday's games, here's how the ACC ranks in efficiency margin:

+0.19 PPP Virginia
+0.10 PPP Louisville
+0.09 PPP North Carolina
+0.08 PPP Notre Dame
+0.07 PPP Duke
+0.03 PPP NC State

In other words, Virginia is probably still the best team in the ACC. Virginia doesn't have long to lick their wounds, though. They play North Carolina and Louisville next week. Duke's big game next week will be on Saturday, when they get a chance for revenge against Notre Dame at Cameron Indoor.

Louisville Storms Back To Stun North Carolina North Carolina seemed to have this game in hand, building up an 18 point lead early in the second half. But Louisville's defense turned up the tempo, and North Carolina totally fell apart. The rest of the game (after that 18 point lead), North Carolina shot 8-for-22 with a 38.6 eFG% and 13 turnovers (0.61 PPP, by my calculation). Montrezl Harrell had maybe his best game of the season, pouring in 22 points and 15 rebounds (including 8 on the offensive glass), and also doing one of the most athletic plays you'll ever see:
With this win, Louisville stays in the ACC title race. They're still a game back of Virginia, but they still have a home-and-home to play, so they control their own destiny. Their road game at Virginia is coming up next Saturday, though they can't look past a tough road game at Miami on Tuesday.

North Carolina is just a game back from Virginia as well, and their only game against the Cavaliers will come on Monday in Chapel Hill. A win there will immediately wipe this frustrating loss from their memory.

Northern Iowa Routs Wichita State This game was never really that close. Northern Iowa had a 13 point lead at halftime and Wichita State never pulled within single digits again. Seth Tuttle was unstoppable, scoring 29 points on 9-for-13 shooting. It's worth noting that per-game individual stats are impacted by pace just as much as team stats are. To score 29 points in a 59 possession game is equivalent to 39 points in an 80 possession game. To do that against a good Wichita State defense is remarkable.

If Wichita State was going to lose a conference game this season, this was going to be it. They still control their own destiny for the conference title, and a loss on the road against a ranked team is not going to harm their resume. But failing to get this could cost them a seed line or two in March. They'll get a chance for revenge at home in their regular season finale, on February 28th.

This was a crucial win for a Northern Iowa team that came in without a single RPI Top 50 win. They're 20-2 and their RPI is up into the Top 20 now, but their resume was soft, and they don't want to risk losing a few games and ending up on the bubble without a quality victory.

Baylor Rolls Texas The Baylor offense isn't pretty. They don't get a lot of easy looks or easy baskets. They're shooting just 39.9% on two-pointers in Big 12 play. But they're fourth in the Big 12 in offensive efficiency, and it's because they eat up the offensive glass. They actually lead the nation in offensive rebounding rate, at 43.3%. They kept pace with that here, recovering 44.7% of their misses. On top of that, they got hot from outside, hitting 12-for-23 behind the arc. Put those two things together and you've got 1.32 PPP and a 23 point rout.

The Big 12 is the best conference in the nation, and so as well as Baylor has played they're only 4-4 in conference play. But they have a real chance for something like a 4 or 5 seed in March, which is incredible considering preseason expectations.

Texas's defense has struggled mightily lately. They allowed just two teams to crack 1 PPP in non-conference play (that included shutting Kentucky down to just 0.94 PPP), but have now allowed three straight opponents to crack 1.20 PPP. They're now just 3-5 in Big 12 play, and tumbling down the NCAA Tournament bracket. Their next game will be on Wednesday, at home against Oklahoma State.

Notre Dame Goes Down To Pitt The Irish had a classic letdown game here coming off the big victory over Duke. Their defense hasn't been good all season, but they allowed Pitt to cruise to 1.23 PPP, the best offensive performance by Pitt in ACC play this season. Pitt hit 60% of their two-pointers and assisted on 77% of made baskets, led by 20 points on 8-for-14 shooting by Jamel Artis. Jerian Grant, who had been invisible for the first 37 minutes, finally made some big plays down the stretch. The Irish managed to pull this game down to one final shot - a Grant drive-and-kick to Steve Vasturia. Against Duke they ran that same play and the three-pointer went in. Here? It missed. That's the nature of the beast in close games.

This isn't a killer loss for Notre Dame. That road game at Duke next Saturday looks more manageable with Rasheed Sulaimon gone, and they're still on pace for something like a 4 or 5 seed in March.

Pitt needed some kind of big win to get back in the bubble discussion, and this will qualify. It's their first RPI Top 50 win all season long. To earn an at-large bid they'll need to go 9-9 or better in ACC play, and have to get to 10-8 to be in good shape. Right now they're 4-5 with a fairly difficult next two weeks.

VCU Loses Game, Briante Weber This was a terrible game for VCU in just about every way possible. Why did VCU lose this game? A nightmare shooting performance, including 3-for-20 behind the arc. And the real story isn't the loss, but the fact that Briante Weber's right knee buckled on a drive late in the game and it's been declared a torn ACL and the end of his college career.

Weber will finish his career having led the nation in steal percentage all four of his seasons, which is an unbelievable accomplishment that we'll probably never see again. He didn't see a ton of minutes early in his career, but he'll end up leading the nation in steals per game his junior and senior seasons as well. Nobody epitomized #HAVOC under Shaka Smart like Weber, and his loss is going to make things much harder for VCU going forward.

VCU is still a game clear in the loss column in the Atlantic Ten, and they're still 17-4 overall, so they're still in good shape for a solid March seed. But without Weber, their NCAA Tournament ceiling will be a whole lot lower.

Richmond is now 5-3 in Atlantic Ten play, but just 8-9 against the RPI Top 200, so they're not a realistic bubble team. They head on the road next to face La Salle, on Thursday.

Wisconsin Cruises Past Iowa The injured Aaron White and Gabriel Olaseni both suited up for Iowa, though White in particular didn't look to be at his best. And Iowa was going to need everybody's best to slow down the offensive juggernaut that is Wisconsin. The Badgers cruised to 1.30 PPP despite only 51.0 eFG% due to dominating the glass (a 46.9 OR%) and committing only 6 turnovers.

Wisconsin's lead in the Big Ten is looking increasingly insurmountable. Their only games this season against both Maryland and Ohio State will come on the road, so if they lose both of those games then they might be in trouble, but realistically the only concern for Wisconsin will be whether they end up with a 1 or 2 seed on Selection Sunday.

Iowa needed this win. They drop to 4-4 in the Big Ten and 4-8 against the RPI Top 100. They need to get to 10-8 to have a good at-large chance, which makes Thursday's road game at Michigan crucial to stay on the good side of the bubble.

Trevor Lacey's Buzzer Beater On the list of soul crushing, heartbreaking losses, this has to be pretty high up there for Georgia Tech. At the end of regulation, playing for the game winner, Marcus Georges-Hunt was called for a bizarre charging foul. Particularly at home, you'd assume Georges-Hunt would have gotten the blocking call there. In overtime, Quinton Stephens went to the line with a two point lead and 4.9 seconds to go. Stephen proceeded to miss the pair, and Trevor Lacey rushed to the other end of the floor to do this:
NC State needed this one, having lost three straight and at risk of falling to 4-6 in ACC play. They need to finish at least 9-9 in ACC play to earn an at-large bid, and still have Virginia, Louisville and North Carolina ahead. Georgia Tech, meanwhile, is far better than their 1-8 ACC record. Seven of those eight losses have come by seven points or less. If you know any Georgia Tech fans, please give them a hug.

Oklahoma Beats Cold Oklahoma State This was a game Oklahoma State absolutely had to win. They're at risk of missing the NCAA Tournament and they had been whipped by Oklahoma a couple of weeks ago. But after controlling the first half, there was a lid on the rim for them in the second half. They shot 1-for-12 behind the arc in the second half, scoring a total of 0.77 PPP in that half. Anthony Hickey was 2-for-9 behind the arc for the game, while Phil Forte had more turnovers (5) than made baskets (4).

Oklahoma State drops to 14-7 overall and 4-5 in Big 12 play, and they're 6-7 against the RPI Top 100. They're still 28th in both Pomeroy and the Sagarin PREDICTOR, so they should be a Tournament team, but they need to reach 9-9 in Big 12 play to be safe. They can get in at 8-10, but they'll have work to do in the Big 12 tournament.

This win pushes Oklahoma back above .500 in Big 12 play, where they're in the purgatory between contending for a conference title and having to worry about the bubble. The rest of the season is pretty much playing out to determine where in the 3-7 NCAA Tourney seed spectrum they'll end up.

St. John's Beats Providence  St. John's came into this game having lost 6 of 8, and seeing their at-large chances start to slip away. They were able to shut down LaDontae Henton here, as he shot just 2-for-14 from the field. Even another good game from Kris Dunn (23 points on 10-for-16 shooting with only 4 turnovers) wasn't enough.

The Johnnies have yet to collect a big scalp this season. If they knock off Butler on Tuesday that'll be their best win of the season so far. Still, they'll be in decent at-large shape if they can get to 9-9 in Big East play.

Providence came into this game 6-2 in Big East play, but heading into a nasty stretch of schedule. After this game they go on the road to face Georgetown and Xavier next, followed soon after by a home-and-home against Villanova.

Florida Wins A Tight One Florida has jokingly gotten the moniker of #TeamBadLuck, and they were living up to it again this season with a 2-6 record in games decided by six points or fewer this season until this past week, when they've won consecutive games by two points or fewer. Of course, the reason this is a joke is because results in close games are dominated by luck. This game was no different. After Arkansas was able to grab a 1 point and the final seconds were ticking away, Michael Frazier II drew a foul on this dubious call and hit the two free throws to win the game:
Florida heads into a crucial week. They're 5-3 in SEC play knowing that 12-6 will probably get them into the NCAA Tournament. They have a tricky road game at Vanderbilt followed by their chance at home to knock off Kentucky.

With wins over SMU and Dayton, Arkansas has a larger margin for error than Florida. They'll be in good shape at 11-7 or better in SEC play. If they can survive a home game against South Carolina on Tuesday then they'll have a fairly soft schedule for the following couple of weeks and can start to close in on an at-large bid.

Xavier Goes Cold At Seton Hall Xavier is not a great shooting team, but their 1-for-19 three-point shooting was a bit ridiculous. Particularly since they shot 74% on two-pointers and outscored Seton Hall 44-to-30 in the paint. But at some point you've got to hit a jump shot, and one of the guys who did make jump shots was Isaiah Whitehead (3-for-5 behind the arc), the star Seton Hall freshman who was playing in his first game since before Christmas.

The trick for Seton Hall is reintegrating Whitehead into the lineup. As a high-volume, low-efficiency scorer, he's a great talent for the future but the team didn't drop off at all with him out injured. Seton Hall is sitting right on the bubble at 5-4, and they need to take care of business against DePaul and Marquette next week before their schedule gets difficult down the stretch.

I've talked for weeks about how Xavier is playing like they want to be the best team left out of the NCAA Tournament. They're better than some teams that will earn at-large bids, but they've had bad luck in close games (1-5 in games decided by four points or fewer) as well as games like this with goofy shooting. A key game for them will be next Saturday at home against Providence, another likely bubble team.

Davidson Goes Down To St. Joe's Davidson had been playing awfully well in Atlantic Ten play. Throw out that goofy loss to Richmond and they were +0.19 PPP in Atlantic Ten play. And they looked to be cruising here, leading by 13 points at halftime. But that's when things got really weird, because a 40-16 run by St. Joe's put them up by 11 points with 90 seconds to go. A furious Davidson rally pulled them back within 2 points with 20 seconds to go, but that was as close as they'd get.

Davidson is 14-5 overall and 5-3 in Atlantic Ten play, with an RPI up to 45th, but they lack a big win and are only 3-4 against the RPI Top 100. If they can get to 13-5 in A-10 play they should be in reasonably good shape, but they don't want to end up on the bubble on Selection Sunday unless they can grab a win over VCU.

Washington State Upsets Stanford This was an ugly loss for Stanford in an ugly game. The two teams combined for 50 fouls and 76 free throw attempts. Washington State made more free throws (30) than field goals (26). Chasson Randle scored 33 points for Stanford, and the Cardinal scored a season high 1.33 PPP, but they couldn't stop Wazzu from scoring 1.35 PPP.

Stanford is 15-6 overall and 6-3 in Pac-12 play. They're 5-4 against the RPI Top 100 with two RPI 100+ losses. Their RPI is 32nd and their Sagarin ELO_SCORE is 28th. That's still a Tournament resume, and they do have a quality scalp over Texas, but this loss pushes them a lot closer to the bubble. If they can get to 11-7 in Pac-12 play then they should be pretty safe for an at-large bid.

Cleveland State Knocks Off Green Bay Cleveland State struggled badly against a really difficult non-conference schedule, going just 6-8 overall. But they've played really well in Horizon League play so far. Not only are they now tied for first place in the Horizon League standings at 7-2, but they're now leading the league in efficiency margin in conference play (+0.14 PPP, compared to +0.13 PPP for Green Bay and +0.12 PPP for Valparaiso). This was an emphatic win that was never really in doubt, and it firmly turns the Horizon League from a two-team race to a three-team race. It will be hard to bet against Keifer Sykes in the Horizon League tourney, but Green Bay won't run away with the regular season title.

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