Saturday, January 02, 2010

Syracuse Finally Loses

Pittsburgh 82, #5 Syracuse 72
And then there were four (undefeated teams, that is), with Syracuse finally falling this afternoon against Pittsburgh. I was surprised to see Syracuse lose at home to a team like Pitt, but they were due for a loss as they were getting just a little bit over-hyped. Syracuse does have three excellent wins (North Carolina, California and Florida), and so it's easy to look at scores only and think they are a legitimate contender for the #1 overall national ranking, but watching them play they still have severe flaws that will work themselves out as the season goes along. They have put up a lot of points this season, but they struggle to score in half-court sets, so if you can avoid turnovers then you can hold them defensively (Pitt actually turned the ball over 18 times in this game, but did a good job of minimizing the damage). Also, Syracuse has been poor at forcing turnovers (this game excepted, of course), shoots free throws poorly, and despite their size actually gives up a lot of offensive rebounds. They are most vulnerable to athletic, long teams that have good guard play, which is the exact type of team that they'll be seeing often in the Big East. I still think that Syracuse is in the mix as a potential Big East contender, but at this point they are behind Villanova and West Virginia in my estimation. They have a huge match-up looming on January 16th at West Virginia. They end the season with a pretty easy Big East schedule, so if they can stay in the hunt at the top over the next few weeks then they should end well. As for Pitt, the question I asked back in September was how much damage would they do to their at-large resume without Gilbert Brown and Jermaine Dixon, and the answer is: not a whole lot. The loss to Indiana isn't great, but their only other loss was on a neutral court to Texas where they actually led at halftime. They now have their first signature win, and have played really well in general since both Gibbs and Dixon have returned. They are now 2-0 in the Big East and already have their RPI up to 17th. The real test to see how legitimate this team is will be their next two games, on the road at Cincinnati and Connecticut. They are due for a letdown after this big win, so if they can manage to split those two games then they really will start to be looking like a Tournament team.

#22 Gonzaga 85, Illinois 83, OT
It's hard to decide which team needed this game more. There are still many questions about this Gonzaga team, as their wins over teams like Colorado and Oklahoma are looking less and less impressive by the day, and they are still without a Top 25 scalp (although the win over Wisconsin will likely be a Top 25 scalp soon). Even if they run through the WCC undefeated, they still will not be able to answer whether they can beat a top team and deserve a 3-5 seed in the NCAA Tournament. A loss to Illinois really would have raised questions with the Selection Committee, especially because of the real possibility of Illinois ending up outside the RPI Top 100 (they're 83rd at the moment). Taking care of business here in a hostile crowd is impressive, even if it took overtime to get it done. As for Illinois, we can mark this down as yet another narrow miss. They have a star and can put up points offensively, and they show flashes of a Tournament quality team, but they just haven't been able together a complete game yet. They finish with a very underwhelming out-of-conference performance, with an 8-5 record against an out-of-conference schedule rated 189th by Pomeroy. Pomeroy and Sagarin both think that despite their poor results that they are close to the 50th best team in the nation, so they have the ability to make a run at an at-large bid, but it will need to come in Big Ten play. To make the Tournament as an at-large they will either have to go 11-7 in the Big Ten, or 10-8 with a nice run in the Big Ten tournament. The good news is that they have an easy start. They opened with a win over Northwestern at home, and now get Iowa, head to Indiana, and then get Penn State at home. If they are not 3-1 or 4-0 in Big Ten play by the time they head into the Breslin Center to play Michigan State on January 16th then it's really going to be an uphill battle for them.

Rhode Island 63, Oklahoma State 59
This is another one of those games that will get no national press because there are no ranked or big name teams involved, but will have big bubble implications down the road. Rhode Island put together an easy out-of-conference schedule, and so needed to run up a very good record. Despite no very big wins (this is possibly their best win, along with wins over Boston College and Providence) they are now 11-1, and only have one game left before starting Atlantic Ten play: a true road game at Akron that should help prepare them for road games in conference play. Their first conference game is at home, on January 10th against Temple, which will be a great opportunity to grab the attention of some Selection Committee members. The Atlantic Ten will be a multi-bid conference this season, so Rhode Island just has to separate themselves from some of the other contenders for those bids. As for Oklahoma State, it's remarkable to me how much trouble Travis Ford has had recruiting size, as this difference in this game was probably the way that Rhode Island slaughtered them on the offensive boards. That said, I can't blame it entirely on the short Oklahoma State roster, because they did a terrible job of boxing Rhode Island players out. You can get away with a lack of size on the boards if you can box out properly. Oklahoma State is 11-2, but it comes against an out-of-conference schedule that Pomeroy rates 279th. Their only good wins have been Stanford, Utah, Bradley and Pacific. It's a bad sign when Pacific makes a team's list of quality wins. They've lost to the two best teams they've played: Rhode Island and Tulsa. The Big 12 will end up being overrated this season because of Kansas and Texas at the top (since most commentators rate conferences by just looking at the top two or three teams), and that will do Oklahoma State favors, so they've just got to win enough games in conference play. They will probably be able to make the NCAA Tournament if they can get to 9-7 in the Big 12 and collect at least one Top 25 scalp.

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