Wednesday, February 16, 2011

St. John's Moves Closer, Marquette Falls Further

St. John's 80, Marquette 68
St. John's is beginning to fire on all cylinders and this represents their second consecutive quality road victory, after only one quality road victory the entire season before this week (over West Virginia, back in December). The Johnnies played well, taking care of the ball and getting to the basket. But the biggest difference in this game was Marquette's offense, which fell apart in the second half after briefly grabbing a seven point lead. They scored 13 points in the next 13 minutes, a stretch during which Marquette had 8 turnovers. St. John's only had 8 turnovers in the entire game. Marquette has now lost five of seven to fall to 6-7 in Big East play. They do have wins over Notre Dame and Syracuse and have zero bad losses, but the 15-11 overall record and the sub-.500 conference record are a lot to overcome. Marquette's Sagarin ELO_CHESS is 38th, but I'd put them right on the bubble. Every year we see a team or two from the ELO_CHESS Top 40 get left out, and it's always a team that did nothing in the non-conference. Marquette's best non-conference win was against Bucknell. Still, they will get a lot of respect from the Selection Committee if they can get to 9-9 in Big East play, and that 9-9 record and a win in the Big East tournament will likely get them in. But if they fall to 8-10 they'll be 17-14 overall heading into the Big East tournament, with plenty of work left to do. Marquette's next game is Saturday against Seton Hall.

As for St. John's, they have won five of six and have not only built up very good computer numbers, they've also rescued their won-loss record. Back in late January the Johnnies had already picked up huge wins over Duke, Georgetown, Notre Dame and West Virginia, but had a 12-8 overall record that was making bracketologists queasy. The Selection Committee doesn't respond well to records that close to .500, no matter how tough a schedule a team has faced. But with this win streak the Johnnies are up to a very respectable 16-9 record. Even if they only go 2-3 down the stretch they'll head into the Big East tournament with an 18-12 record overall, including 10-8 in the Big East with all of the aforementioned big wins plus their recent wins over UConn, Cincinnati and Marquette. Even a loss in the Big East tournament at that point probably wouldn't cost them an at-large bid. They play Pitt at home next, on Saturday. With home game left against DePaul and South Florida, St. John's could nearly wrap up that Tournament spot if they can pull the shocker over Pitt.

#3 Ohio State 71, Michigan State 61
Michigan State played well in this game. I doubt anybody is going to win in Columbus this season, but Michigan State actually had a lead with about 15 minutes remaining before fading down the stretch and losing by ten. Any team would consider a ten point loss at Ohio State a respectable effort. The problem is, Michigan State is past the point that moral victories do anything for them. Because of that atrocious three week stretch from mid-January to early-February they are teetering on the bubble with a 14-11 overall record, including 6-7 in Big Ten play. Sparty does have wins over Washington, Wisconsin and Minnesota and no particularly bad losses, but that 14-11 record is awful, and their Sagarin ELO_CHESS is 44th. If the season ended now I think they'd still make the NCAA Tournament, but most likely in one of those "Last Four" play-in games. Their remaining schedule is manageable, though, and if they continue playing as well as they've played in their past two games they should be able to get to 9-9. If Michigan State finishes the season 9-9 in Big Ten play they'll likely be in the Field of 68 heading into the Big Ten tournament, and will likely be able to stay there if they can win one game.

As for Ohio State, I wonder if William Buford feels like the forgotten man on that roster. With all of the attention that the other starters on that team get, and even now Aaron Craft off the bench (Craft hit one shot the entire game last night yet somehow got two highlights on Sportscenter this morning), most casual fans have no idea who Buford is. But the reality is that Buford is an explosive scorer and an outstanding shooter from all over the court. He led all players with 23 points in this game on 9-for-15 shooting, including 3-for-4 behind the arc. This win pushes the Buckeyes to 12-1 in the Big Ten, with a huge game on Sunday at Purdue. With a win there they'll effectively clinch the Big Ten regular season title.

#11 Purdue 70, #10 Wisconsin 62
Speaking of Purdue, they played very well here but still barely survived a Wisconsin team that clearly wasn't going to roll over on the road, even off of that huge upset of Ohio State. Purdue only turned the ball over four times, but Wisconsin only had six, and if the Badgers had shot halfway decent behind the arc (instead of 3-for-19) they probably would have won. But they didn't, and Purdue gains a firm grasp on second place in the Big Ten. Purdue is one game ahead of Wisconsin and their one remaining game against Ohio State will be at home (Wisconsin has to head to Ohio State). Purdue also keeps their Big Ten regular season title hopes alive heading into that home game against Ohio State on Sunday. Even with a loss there they still can work their way into a discussion for a 2 seed in the NCAA Tournament if they can win the Big Ten title.

With the loss Wisconsin loses any chance they still had at a Big Ten title, and unless they can win at Ohio State they're probably heading for a third place finish. But their Sagarin ELO_CHESS will likely still be inside the Top 15 when the new numbers come out tomorrow, and I think they'd be a 4 seed if the season ended now. Even if they can't win at Ohio State they will still likely work their way onto the 3 seed line if they can win their other remaining regular season games, which will be against a relatively soft schedule. Wisconsin also could get a chance to win a rubber game against Purdue, as it looks very likely that the two teams will be seeded second and third in the Big Ten tournament - on pace to meet in the semifinals.

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