Sunday, December 13, 2015

Morning News: Texas Stuns UNC At The Buzzer, UCLA Upsets Gonzaga, Wichita St Is Back, And More

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New Bracket Projection Despite not winning a game this week, Florida impressed in their loss to Michigan State and move into the projected Field of 68, replacing Ohio State. Wagner also enters as the new NEC favorite, replacing Robert Morris.

Texas Stuns North Carolina At The Buzzer There's no question that this Texas team has Top 25 talent. The problem is that it doesn't fit with Shake Smart's style, and so they continue to try to full court press even though it doesn't really work. Certainly Texas is forcing more turnovers this year (up to 61st in the nation in turnover rate), but they're still not forcing a lot of steals, getting easy fastbreak points, or picking up the tempo. They just don't have the personnel for it. And so they forced just 6 turnovers here, but they dominated the glass (as they often did last season), finishing with a massive 16-to-4 advantage in offensive rebounds. What carried them, however, was jump shooting. They were a white hot 12-for-24 on threes, and won on a controversial (but probably correct) call on a buzzer beater. Check it out:
Texas's awkward mix of styles is what is going to keep them from contending in the Big 12, but that talent is going to allow them to knock off quite a few more Top 25 teams before this season is out, I'd bet. The question is going to be whether they have the consistency to win enough games in what is going to be a really strong and deep Big 12.

For the Tar Heels, this game is a reminder that the return of Marcus Paige does not solve all ills. That said, they really played pretty well here. The Vegas spread was 6.5 points and Texas shot the lights out on threes - you'd expect this game to come down to the wire if the Longhorns shoot like that. If it had been the Tar Heels shooting 50% on threes, they'd have won easily. So there's no need to reevaluate our expectations of the Tar Heels downwards after this loss. They are still in the mix (along with Duke and Virginia and potentially others) for the ACC title.

UCLA Upsets Gonzaga There are some basketball games where you're just kind of confused by the result, and this was one of those. It felt kind of like Gonzaga was down by a point or two for the entire second half, and that they were inevitably going to hit the big shot to deliver the win, but it just never happened. Defensively, Gonzaga really missed their big man Przemek Karnowski, who continues to be out indefinitely with an injury. Offensively, Gonzaga just could not hit a big jump shot. They were 2-for-14 on threes in the second half (6-for-26 for the game). How do you lose a game you feel like you should have won? Go 2-for-14 on threes.

There is quite a bit of overreaction about both of these teams, so let's address them one at a time. For Gonzaga, there are questions of whether they'll miss the NCAA Tournament. Let's chill out there. Karnowski should be back before too long, and Gonzaga's three losses have all come against NCAA Tournament teams, and have all been decided in the final 30 seconds. Their resume will be soft for a team competing for a high seed, but they should still roll the WCC and end up somewhere in the 4 or 5 seed range in March.

As for UCLA, they had two bad losses early (Monmouth and Wake Forest) and have had two big wins lately (Kentucky and Gonzaga), leading to various dumb media narratives about how they decided to "get tougher" or "figure out how to win", or some other such magical nonsense. The fact that they had a 7 point win at home against a mediocre Long Beach State team just before this game gets swept away because it's inconvenient for the narrative. A team is what it is, and UCLA has been an NCAA Tournament quality team so far, but at this point I'd be skeptical that they're a Top 25 team or a Pac-12 contender. Arizona is still the heavy favorite there.

Wichita State Is Back In a turn of event that are a surprise to nobody, Wichita State looks much better with Fred VanVleet back. While their offense looks better, their defense has also improved significantly with his return. Neither Saint Louis, UNLV, or Utah have cracked 0.9 PPP, and Wichita State has forced turnovers on more than 30% of possessions over those three games. And of course, the Shockers aren't even at full strength yet. Anton Grady, expected to be a key starter this season, is still working his way back from that scary injury against Alabama.

This was a game Wichita State absolutely had to had. It was potentially their last chance for an RPI Top 50 victory befere Selection Sunday, though they'll hope that some other teams on their schedule (Northern Iowa, for example) can get into the Top 50 as well. The games that they lost without Fred VanVleet will still count, but the Shockers now have plenty of time to dominate Missouri Valley plan and firm up that at-large bid.

Utah has no bad losses, but they have no wins yet against the Pomeroy Top 50 either. Interestingly, it has been defense that has let them down so far, despite Jakob Poeltl still locking the paint down. The loss of Delon Wright is obviously a huge factor, but this Utes defense really should be better than it has been. Last season, just 4 of 15 non-conference opponents cracked 1 PPP, and this season it's 7 of 9.

Xavier Eases Past Cincinnati This game was not a rout, but Xavier was never in too much trouble either.  They led by 16 points at halftime and then maintained a double-digit lead for nearly the entire second half. Cincinnati's offense has been inconsistent (at best) in recent years while Xavier's defense has been dominant this season, holding opponents to 0.89 PPP overall. Cincy also scored 0.89 PPP here.

The story coming out of this game is not a Cincinnati team that has played really well and will be in a tight battle with UConn for the AAC title. The story is how good this Xavier team has been. They are now 10-0 with four wins over the Pomeroy Top 50. They're still probably not the Big East favorite (that would be Villanova), but I don't know how it's possible to not consider them a serious Final Four threat. They are good across the board: offensively, defensively, and on the glass. Sleep on them at your own peril.

Chattanooga Knocks Off Dayton Dayton was coming off a very impressive comeback win at Vanderbilt, but this Chattanooga team is no cupcake. They've already beaten Georgia and Illinois, and this win pushes them up to 93rd in Pomeroy and 70th in the Sagarin PREDICTOR. Realistically, an at-large bid is not possible out of the SoCon, but Chattanooga looks like the type of 13 seed or so that could be a scary Round of 64 opponent in March.

This was a frustrating game for Dayton fans. They gave it away with 23% three-point shooting and 54% free throw shooting. But despite being a "bad" loss, Dayton is still ahead of the curve in non-conference play with those wins over Vanderbilt and Iowa. Even if Dyshawn Pierre does not return (his suspension remains in legal limbo), Dayton looks like an at-large team and a potential Atlantic Ten favorite.

Marquette Upsets Wisconsin The shooting woes for Wisconsin continued here. They had a brutal 40.9 eFG%, and hit the same number of shots from the field (24) as Marquette despite attempting 20 more shots. There are multiple reasons for that. For one, it was just an ugly shooting day - they're not going to win many games when Nigel Hayes and Bronson Koenig are a combined 7-for-29 from the field. At the same time, their shot selection has been poor all season. Last season, just 25% of their shot attempts were mid-range jumpers, and they hit them at a 43% clip. This season, 36% of their shot attempts have been mid-range jumpers, and they've hit them at only a 32% clip. They've basically become Iowa but without the good shooters.

The panic over Wisconsin is a little overblown. They have three "bad" losses, but the three have been by a combined 5 points. Also, college basketball (unlike college football) weighs big wins more than bad losses. Wisconsin has already beaten Syracuse and VCU, so if they go 11-7 in Big Ten play then these non-conference losses won't matter. That said, the reason my bracket projection still features Wisconsin is because I think they're going to improve. Right now they are only playing like a bubble team.

For Marquette, the story was star freshman (and potential one-and-done guy) Henry Ellenson, who poured in 15 points, 11 rebounds, and 4 assists. Marquette is on a 7 game winning streak after an ugly start to their season primarily because their defense has locked down. They haven't allowed a single opponent to crack 1 PPP or have an eFG% over 43% during this 7 game winning streak. How real is this defensive improvement? Wisconsin is the only likely RPI Top 50 opponent in the streak, so there are reasons to be skeptical, but it's something to keep an eye on if Marquette is going to make a run at an at-large bid this season.

Boise State Tops Oregon Boise State actually led much of this game by double-digits, and Oregon finished this game on a 22-7 run, yet still came up short. Boise State committed turnovers on their final three possessions, but with a chance to tie up the game on the final possession Oregon just took way too long to get into their offense, and ended up only with a heavily contested layup by Dillon Brooks. Oregon fans will want the foul there, and the announcers whined about it, but to me that looked like a good no-call. Next time, Oregon should try starting their offense before there are five seconds left in the game. Judge the final play yourself below:

Oregon was without Tyler Dorsey again, though that's not going to be a factor on Selection Sunday. They do have their wins over Baylor and Valparaiso, so this is still a successful non-conference performance thus far. Boise State is still trying to make up for that season-opening loss to Montana. They don't have another bad loss, but this win only gets them to 7-4. Considering the fact that the Mountain West is down this season, it's going to be tough for Boise State to earn an at-large bid without a gaudy won-loss record.

UConn Routs Ohio State UConn took the lead up to 21 points in the first half here, and the game never really had any intensity after that. This game was all about jump shooting, as the Buckeyes shot an ugly 27% on jump shots compared to 50% for UConn. The 40.2 eFG% was Ohio State's worst shooting day since last season (March 8th, 2015). UConn put six players in double-figures, though the star was Omar Calhoun, who was 4-for-4 behind the arc.

Ohio State is in a lot of ways in the same situation as Wisconsin, though they're digging out of a deeper hole. The Buckeyes also have three "bad" losses, but they have no wins over teams that will finish in the RPI Top 100. That said, it's too early to give up on this Ohio State team. Not only do they have some very talented young players who are raw and likely to improve (JaQuan Lyle the most obvious of the bunch), but they've also had some bad luck on the court, such as their 76.6 FT% defense and their 0-3 record in games decided by six points or fewer. They've played better than their (admittedly bad) resume.

UConn needed a nice result after losing three of four games, and this will certainly qualify. That said, there should never have been much concern about losing three close games to quality opponents. The Huskies still look like they will be in a tight battle for the AAC title, with the chance for a 3 or 4 seed in the NCAA Tournament if they can win it.

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