Sunday, January 24, 2016

Morning News: MIchigan State Outduels Maryland, California Stuns Arizona, Team Effort For Oklahoma, And More

The Court Storm Police Were A Bit Ruffled By Cal's Court Storm Last Night
New Bracket Projection There were two changes to the Field of 68 this week, with Saint Mary's and Saint Joseph's coming in, replacing UCLA and Oregon State. Also, Oklahoma slid up and grabbed a projected 1 seed. The full bracket and details are at the link.

Michigan State Outduels Maryland This game basically played out exactly how everybody expected. Denzel Valentine and Melo Trimble both came up big for their respective teams. Bryn Forbes and Robert Carter, the sidekicks to their team's stars, both hit big shots. Michigan State had the advantage on the glass. And the game basically played out according to the spread. The Spartans were 4 point favorites, and led by around 2-5 points for almost the entire second half. Some late free throws in garbage time got the final margin up to 9. If there was one difference in the game, it was Matt Costello (15 points, 12 rebounds, and 3 blocks). Costello has quietly been a really good player all season long, but this was his introduction to a national television audience. He was certainly fired up by his performance:
Drawing any new conclusions from a result that played out to expectations is always a bit silly. This result did hopefully put to bed the silly narrative that Michigan State was in a "slump" because of a three game losing streak. Two of those losses came by a single point, and only one of those losses was legitimately a bad loss (Nebraska). One bad performance does not a "slump" make. Michigan State has probably doomed their Big Ten title hopes, but they are still in line for a strong finish to the season and a strong seed in March.

California Stuns Arizona With the Tyrone Wallace injury, California's at-large hopes were suddenly looking dicey, and they needed this home victory over Arizona in a big way. Kaleb Tarczewksi physically dominated the Cal front line, and Arizona had a 40-to-22 advantage in paint points, but Cal hit enough jump shots to stay in the game. Jordan Mathews was the star, hitting 6-for-12 behind the arc and pouring in 28 points. Tarczewski fouled out in the final 20 seconds, and Arizona had no timeouts, so they went with Gabe York hero ball to win the game, and it didn't work out:
Cal fans storm the court when Arizona's shot doesn't fall - ESPN Video
Arizona has lost four games this season, by a combined ten points. All four losses have come to Tournament/bubble quality teams, and all four have come away from home. On top of that, one loss came without an injured Tarczewksi, and this one came without an injured Allonzo Trier. So while their resume right now is not that of a 1 or 2 seed, they remain a serious Final Four contender when they can get fully healthy.

California is 4-3 in Pac-12 play with wins over Arizona, Saint Mary's, Utah, and Colorado, with no losses against teams likely to finish outside the RPI Top 100. They will be nearly a Tournament lock at 10-8 in Pac-12 play, and will be in decent shape at 9-9. But without Tyrone Wallace for a few weeks, even getting to 9-9 is going to be difficult. A road trip at Utah and Colorado next week will be a severe test, and they will be happy with a split.

Team Effort For Oklahoma The narrative that Oklahoma is just Buddy Hield and a bunch of nobodies is annoying, and comes from people who don't watch much college hoops (but who unfortunately are the loudest voices in the sports media landscape). Hield's teammates came up big on the road here, however. Jordan Woodard had 20 points in the first half. Isaiah Cousins had 13 points and 9 assists. And as a team, Oklahoma poured in 1.22 PPP while rolling over Baylor, and keeping pace in a tight Big 12 title race.

Baylor had a chance to get themselves a little bit of Big 12 title hype with a win here. Realistically, though, that was always a long shot. They are a safe NCAA Tournament team, and are really just playing out the rest of the regular season to determine what seed they'll end up with.

Texas Tech Suffers A Brutal Loss With their brilliant manipulation of the RPI, all Texas Tech has to do is get to 8-10 in Big 12 play to be a near-lock for the NCAA Tournament. But getting to 8-10 is so difficult in the Big 12, and the missed opportunity here could be crucial. West Virginia closed the final 75 seconds of the game on a 10-2 run, and Texas Tech's final possession was sub-optimal:
Texas Tech can't convert in final seconds - ESPN Video

This loss drops Texas Tech to 2-5 in Big 12 play with a road game at Oklahoma up next. 8-10 in Big 12 play is still plausible, but it's certainly an uphill battle. West Virginia isn't worried about the bubble, of course, but this win breaks a two-game losing streak and keeps them in the mix for the Big 12 title. Their key remaining match-ups with Kansas and Oklahoma will come in mid-February.

Oregon: Pac-12 Title Contender? Oregon's success this season has gone under the radar, and they had no trouble rolling over UCLA at home here. Their +0.09 PPP in Pac-12 play is now second best (behind just Arizona). A big part of their success has come from dominating the paint with an athletic front line. They scored 42 paint points here, overcoming 50% three-point shooting by UCLA. Chris Boucher is quietly putting up an All-Pac 12 caliber season, and he had 18 points, 10 rebounds, and 4 blocks here.

UCLA has scuffled pretty badly in Pac-12 play aside from that big win over Arizona. They have dropped to 3-4 in conference play against a relatively soft part of their schedule. The Washington homestand is up next, and they have to sweep there, because their remaining schedule after that is nasty, including the road trips to Arizona, the Bay Area, and USC. Even with their big wins, it's hard to see them earning an at-large bid unless they get to 9-9.

Creighton Picks Up A Big Win This was not an "upset", as Creighton was favored in Vegas. Why were they favored? This Creighton team  did nothing in non-conference play, but have been playing significantly better in conference play. They are a steady team - they don't turn the ball over or allow offensive rebounds, and they just grind out games with an efficient offense. Butler was also shorthanded here, with Tyler Lewis missing the game. In addition, Roosevelt Jones picked up his fourth foul with 15:08 to go. With three other Butler starters fouling out, Jones was forced to play a long time with four fouls, and simply wasn't his usual self.

Creighton didn't do themselves any favors with their non-conference schedule and performance, and that's why their RPI is 87th despite being 33rd in Pomeroy. Because of that, it's going to be tough for them to make the NCAA Tournament unless they get to 11-7 in Big East play. Now 5-2, they have a key stretch up next at Georgetown and then at home against Seton Hall.

There's some panic around Butler being 2-5 in Big East play, but it seems overblown to me. Their Big East schedule was front loaded, and gets significantly softer. They have six losses this season, and all six have come to Pomeroy Top 50 opponents, and all but two came away from home. They should be in decent shape for an at-large bid if they get to 9-9 in Big East play, and at this point that is still likely.

Kentucky Smokes Vanderbilt This was arguably the strongest performance by Kentucky all season, particularly on the defensive end. When John Calipari defenses are strong they are able to aggressively disrupt on the perimeter, able to run opponents off the three-point line and forcing them into low-probability two-point attempts. Vanderbilt, a 41% three-point shooting team, was able to attempt just 15 of them here. Kentucky still didn't get much offense from their front court players, but Tyler Ulis and Jamal Murray combined for 39 points.

Kentucky still has plenty of time to win the SEC regular season title and to earn a 2 or 3 seed in the NCAA Tournament. The question will be whether this improved play the past two games is real, or just an anomaly. As for Vanderbilt, they are better than their resume. Despite a lack of RPI Top 50 wins and an RPI sitting 60th, they are 32nd in Pomeroy. Bad luck in close games is the primary problem. They will have a great chance to improve their resume down the stretch, however, with home games against Kentucky, Texas A&M, and Florida still to come. The Florida game is up first, on Tuesday.

Georgetown Falters Down The Stretch Georgetown fans will feel like the homecourt advantage free throw attempt gap was the difference in this game. It was inflated in the final minute, but even with five minutes left in this game UConn had a 27-to-8 advantage in attempted free throws. And part of that was undoubtedly due to homecourt advantage, but UConn also did a far better job of getting to the hoop. 49 of Georgetown's 59 shots were jumpers, including a staggering 31 attempted threes. In contrast, only five of the shots UConn made all game were outside the paint.  And down the stretch, Georgetown just chucked up jumper after jumper, failing to score on their final eight possessions. Down by two points with 4:30 to go, UConn hit just one shot from the field the rest of the way and still won by six points.

This is a killer loss for Georgetown's at-large hopes because they just have too many losses. If they go 10-8 in Big East play they'll only be 17-14 overall with an RPI near 60th. Even with a Big East tourney run an at-large bid would be unlikely. So realistically they need to get to 11-7 or better. They are 5-2 now with important home games against Creighton and Providence up next.

The AAC doesn't get much respect, so UConn needs quality wins outside conference play. They now have wins over Georgetown, Michigan, Texas, and Ohio State. If they get to 12-6 in AAC play (a reasonable current projection) they should be safe on Selection Sunday.

Ball State/Eastern Michigan Ends In Chaos We joke and groan about referees who swallow their whistles at the end of games, but this was ridiculous. Travels, fouls, and all sorts of chaos went completely uncalled as Ball State/Eastern Michigan finished up the second overtime period. In the end, it was Francis Klapaway, who shot 7-for-15 behind the arc, who finished the game off:
Controversial three gives Ball State the 2OT win - ESPN Video

Arkansas-Little Rock Takes Control Of The Sun Belt Arkansas-Little Rock and Texas-Arlington are both good enough to earn at-large bids, but the reality is that it's nearly impossible to earn an at-large bid out of the Sun Belt. That means that these two teams will most likely be playing for an auto-bid during the Sun Belt tournament. But the regular season conference title will mean an easier path to that title game, as well as a stronger seed in the NCAA Tournament, and Arkansas-Little Rock now has control there with the road win at Texas-Arlington. They almost had an epic collapse, though, going into the Prevent Offense too early after opening up a 28 point lead at halftime. Texas-Arlington actually pulled within 5 points with a minute to go, but UALR hit enough free throws while UT-Arlington missed a slew of three-pointers down the stretch.

South Carolina Loses Again The good news for South Carolina is that their remaining schedule is really soft, but it's still hard to not feel the 2008-09 Clemson parallels here. We knew that South Carolina was not a great team with that 15-0 start, and the lack of a single projected RPI Top 50 win combined with the soft SEC schedule (only a single game each against Kentucky, Florida, Texas A&M, LSU, and Vanderbilt) means that their resume is going to end up really soft. Right now, using Pomeroy's numbers, South Carolina projects to end up 11-7 in SEC play, and 24-7 overall, which would put their RPI at a projected 50th. To go 24-7 with an RPI of 50 is a mid-major resume, and it's basically unheard of in a power conference. To put that in perspective, with a team that had a much tougher schedule, Texas Tech could go 17-13 overall and still end up in the RPI Top 50. Considering how much the Selection Committee wants to see quality wins, the Gamecocks are in a perilous situation right now.

As for Tennessee, they have certainly been playing better basketball the past few weeks. Kevin Punter is one of the most improved players in the nation, and he exploded for a career-high 36 points here. They're not a realistic NCAA Tournament team, but the NIT is perhaps within range if they can continue to improve down the stretch.

Ethan Telfair's Game Winner The Big Sky is once again a battle between Montana and Weber State. After Montana picked up a loss this week, Weber State had a chance to move into first place. Instead, it was Idaho State knocking them off on one of the best crossover moves to set up a game winner that you've ever seen:

Pitt Comes Back To Beat Florida State At home, Florida State looked to have this game in hand with a ten point halftime lead. Their offense went into a shell late in the game, however, including a seven minute stretch where they hit just two shots. On a key possession with under 30 seconds to go they even committed a five second violation on an inbounds pass with a timeout still in their pocket. Florida State held Pitt to just 22 points in the paint, including just 37% shooting on two-pointers, but a rebounding and turnovers advantage allowed Pitt a large advantage in shots taken (7 more from the field and 12 more from the line), and the Panthers shot well behind the arc.

Pitt bounced back nicely from a bad loss at home against NC State. They are also 5-2 in ACC play, though they only have one more week of a relatively soft ACC schedule before things get tough down the stretch. For Florida State, a team that looks very likely to end up on the bubble in March, this could be a crucial loss. They have wins over Virginia, Florida, and VCU, with only a bad loss to Hofstra, but they are just 2-5 in ACC play. If they can get to 9-9 in ACC play their computer numbers will be strong enough to have them in the at-large discussion, but they need to get to 10-8 to be safe.

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