Monday, February 14, 2011

Huge Victory For St. John's

St. John's 59, Cincinnati 57
St. John's had been struggling away from Madison Square Garden this season, with their only quality win away from home coming against West Virginia back in December, and they nearly blew a 12 point lead late in this one. St. John's didn't hit a field goal in the final nine minutes of the game, but Cincinnati just couldn't hit a shot. The difference in the game was the ability of Malik Boothe and the Johnnies to get to the rim, and to keep Cincinnati away from it. Yancy Gates was a disaster, scoring a grand total of zero points for Cincy, and I now get depressed whenever I watch him. When he first showed up at Cincinnati I expected that by now he'd be a Big East Player of the Year candidate or he'd be plying his trade in the NBA. Instead he's actually been bumped from the starting lineup.

This win is huge for St. John's not just because it's a quality road victory, but also because it's a victory at all. The fact is that right now they just need wins - against anybody. They already have wins over Duke, Georgetown, Notre Dame, UConn and West Virginia. Their RPI is 17th and their Sagarin ELO_CHESS is 27th. Their biggest worry is their basic won/loss record. Normally the Selection Committee doesn't care about the difference between 20 wins or 21 or 22, but they can get squeamish if a team is too close to .500 overall. If they were to finish 9-9 in the Big East and lose in the first round of the Big East tournament they'll still have strong computer numbers but they'll be 17-14 overall. That's a record they want to avoid. So they've got to get to ten Big East wins or they'll have work left to do in the Big East tournament. With this win St. John's moves to 7-5 and will need a 3-3 finish or better. Their next game will be tomorrow night at Marquette - an opportunity to close in on their own bid, and also to do damage to another bubble team.

Cincinnati continues to fade and is in serious trouble of falling out of the Field of 68 altogether. After a 15-0 start against a cupcake schedule they've now lost six of ten since. They don't have any bad losses, but a 5-6 record against the RPI Top 100 is only so-so. Their only wins over the RPI Top 60 have come against Xavier and St. John's. In the Big East they should have more than that. They are 6-6 in Big East play, but other than the win over St. John's their other wins are against Rutgers, DePaul (twice), Seton Hall and USF. Their remaining schedule will be much tougher, but they should look at those games as opportunities. Louisville, Georgetown and UConn all will have to head to Cincinnati for games. The Louisville game is next, and will be played on Wednesday night.

#11 Georgetown 69, Marquette 60
Georgetown was on the ropes at the Verizon Center. They were down for most of the first half of the game and saw Austin Freeman hobble off the court. But Freeman got treatment at halftime and returned partway through the second half, inspiring his teammates to a strong finish, including a 9-1 spurt that really opened the game up. It's always hard to objectively measure mental toughness, but from watching a lot of Big East games this season I'd say that only Pittsburgh has impressed me more than Georgetown in their toughness and their refusal to be intimidated by their opponent, location or game situation. And Georgetown now has eight straight wins, moving to 9-4 in Big East play, and they should finish strong. They play at UConn on Wednesday night, but that will be their last really tough game the rest of the way. They will also play Syracuse at home and will head to Cincinnati. A share of the Big East regular season title is probably impossible (Georgetown would need to win out and would need Pitt to finish 3-3) but second place is very possible. A 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament is also still possible, if Georgetown can win the Big East tournament.

Marquette completed a brutal stretch of their schedule with this game. They lost four of their last six but did pick up a nice win over Syracuse. Marquette also has wins over Notre Dame and West Virginia, without any bad losses. They are currently 5-10 against the RPI Top 100 with a Sagarin ELO_CHESS of 34th. If Marquette can finish 3-3 to get to 9-9 in Big East play they'll be in pretty good shape. If they fall to 8-10 then they'll have a lot of work left to do in the Big East tournament. In their final six games they play four at home, and only one game will be against a ranked team (UConn), so they should finish strong. Their next game will be tomorrow night against St. John's.

#12 Purdue 81, Illinois 70
What was blatantly apparent to me watching this game was just how much more Matt Painter is getting out of his talent this season than Bruce Weber. I think Weber is a good coach, but there's something about this year's personnel that is causing them to under-perform. The most glaring weakness was defensive rotations, which were almost non-existent for Illinois. It was glaring because of how good Purdue is at their own defensive rotations - they've been among the best in the country at it ever since Painter took over the program. JaJuan Johnson and E'Twaun Moore are both elite athletes, but Illinois did nothing to help out against their respective defenders. Meanwhile, Illinois couldn't get the ball near the basket on their offensive possessions and had to settle for long jumpers all day long. Demetri McCamey got back in the starting lineup for this game after being benched against Minnesota, and he didn't live up to the promotion - he finished 1-for-10 with four assists and three turnovers.

Illinois falls to 6-6 in the Big Ten with this loss, and they still have three very difficult road games ahead (Ohio State, Purdue and Michigan State). Illinois will be in serious bubble jeopardy if they fall below 9-9 so they've absolutely got to take care of business at home. Their next game will be at home against Michigan on Wednesday night. Purdue moves to 9-3 in Big Ten play with the biggest week of their season coming up. They will host Wisconsin on Wednesday and Ohio State on Sunday. Beating Wisconsin will make them the heavy favorites to finish no worse than second place in the conference. If they can win both games then they'll have a legitimate shot at a share of the Big Ten title. They are currently two games back of Ohio State.

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