Sunday, January 25, 2009

UConn Makes Its Case

#3 UConn 69, #19 Notre Dame 61
Notre Dame has certainly played poorly lately, but you have to give UConn a lot of credit for taking it to a great Irish crowd and escaping with a real legitimizing win. Their perimeter defense was outstanding. Their offense played pretty well, although that's partly because they are the ideal opponent for Notre Dame. The Irish are weak on the inside defensively. Their only real big body is Luke Harangody, and he has to work hard to carry their offense. The way to play Notre Dame is to attack them in the paint, and force Harangody to make a decision to waste his energy on defense or to give up a lot of free points. UConn and Pitt are clearly in a knock-down drag-out battle for the Big East title and a 1 seed. It's possible that two Big East teams will get a 1 seed, but it's unlikely. The ACC also has a shot at a second 1 seed, and UCLA, Michigan State and the winner of the Big 12 (most likely Oklahoma) will also be in the thick of things. The more interesting thing to discuss is whether this slump is something Notre Dame will snap out of, or whether this is indicative of a team that just isn't that good. And in my opinion, this team just isn't that good. They just rely too much on two players (Harangody and Kyle McAlarney), and it's too easy to gameplan against them. Give Harangody his 25 points, assign your best perimeter defender to be McAlarney's shadow, and push the ball into the post when you're on offense. Mike Brey is running his stars into the ground (once again, both Harangody and McAlarney played over 38 minutes each), and they're just going to continue to wear out. Winning the Big East is no longer possible, and the real question is whether Notre Dame is still even a Tournament team. The RPI is 77th, although Sagarin and Pomeroy are in the 40s. They are 2-5 against the RPI Top 100 and 3-4 against the Big East and 11-6 overall with a tough schedule upcoming (Marquette, at Pitt, at Cincinnati, at UCLA). Their schedule gets easier as the season ends, but even so it will be an uphill battle just to get to 9-9 for the season. Will 9-9 get them into the Tournament? Probably, but it's not a lock.

USC 46, Washington State 44
This has to be a really demoralizing loss for Washington State. They win games with defense, and their defense was outstanding here, even if they did foul a lot. But in the end they were taken down by what has taken them down all season long: offensive firepower, and a lack of it. What little offense they have usually comes from the great creativity of Taylor Rochestie, but USC has good perimeter defenders themselves and they kept him completely covered all game. Both the Sagarin PREDICTOR and Pomeroy believe that Wazzu is one of the Top 60 teams in the nation, but in the end it's about wins and losses, and all of these close losses are really adding up. The RPI has slipped out of the Top 100 altogether, and they're down to 3-4 in the Pac-10 despite having a relatively easy schedule. The schedule gets tougher starting now, as they head on a four-game road trip to Arizona State, Arizona, Stanford and Cal. Wazzu needs to win at least two of those four to stay in the bubble discussion. With an 0-5 record against the RPI Top 50, Wazzu needs some big scalps, and they need to get that conference record back above .500. USC, on the other hand, has to feel pretty good about how they've played lately. They're back over .500 in the Pac-10 at 4-3, and the RPI is back up close to 50th. They've got a key stretch coming up with home games against Stanford and Cal, two teams with high rankings but that have played poorly lately. USC could easily win both games, and it's a great way to bump up those computer numbers.

#12 Louisville 67, #8 Syracuse 57
I was really killing Louisville earlier this season, but boy have they gotten real good real fast. It feels like the Big East should be a battle solely between Pitt and UConn, but how can you ignore Louisville right now? As good as Marquette is, they should slip back once their conference schedule gets tougher. But Louisville could legitimately go 15-3, there's no reason that they can't. They are now 6-0 in the conference, and will most likely move to 7-0 after a home game with South Florida on Wednesday. Their schedule is very favorable (they play UConn, Pitt and Marquette only once and at home), so passing this test was very important. For Syracuse, I think they're starting to show a few of their flaws. They are very talented, but they've also got some personality issues. Every time I watch this team I feel like they're trying too hard to look good. I hate watching Jonny Flynn make a mistake on offense and then dog it going back on defense while he tries to make it clear to the whole crowd how what he just did isn't indicative of his normal play. They also try way too hard to block shots on defense. The block is the most overrated stat in basketball, because trying to block shots is usually a bad decision. The difference between an elite blocking team and a bad blocking team is maybe two or three blocks per game, and most don't even end up being turnovers as they are just blocked out-of-bounds. But trying to block shots leaves you vulnerable to pump fakes, fouls and offensive rebounds. Syracuse needs to play much more disciplined on defense. That all said, they're sitting sixth in the Big East at 5-3, and will surely jump ahead of Providence (5-2) once the Friars start playing some real teams. Syracuse has been through a pretty tough stretch of games with their good resume in tact. They are on pace for a pretty good seed in the Tournament.

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