Saturday, December 10, 2011

Harvard Struggles With UConn's Length

#9 Connecticut 67, #24 Harvard 53
Harvard certainly acquitted themselves well here. They fought hard and proved that they deserved to be on the same floor. But they struggled offensively to score against UConn's length and athleticism. Star Keith Wright looked downright intimidated in the paint when he had Andre Drummond draped all over him. Drummond finished with only one block, and UConn as a team only had four, but it didn't matter. They discouraged at least a dozen shots. Honestly, I think Kyle Casey and Keith Wright have the talent to score on UConn - they just need to believe that they can.

Remember that even in Harvard's two big wins in the Bahamas over Florida State and UCF, their offense wasn't what carried them (0.88 PPP). It was their defense. And their defense was undone here by some lucky UConn outside shooting (7-for-14 on threes, one of only two games this season they've shot 50% or better). I don't think there's any question that if this game was played ten times that Harvard would win a few of them, but they didn't win this one, and that puts the spotlight on their resume.

Really, Harvard's only quality win this season was over Florida State, and they don't have another quality team on their schedule the rest of the way. And remember that the only way Harvard can finish the season without the Ivy League auto bid will be if they lost at least two games against Ivy opponents. In other words, it's going to be difficult for Harvard, as good as they are, to earn an at-large bid. Last year's team deserved an at-large bid, but didn't get it because they lacked enough quality wins - this season looks like a repeat. So Harvard needs to win the conference. The good news for them is that the Ivy doesn't have a quality challenger to Harvard like it did last year in Princeton. Harvard should cruise to the title this year. And if they do then they'll be in line for a 10-12 seed in the NCAA Tournament, poised to scare whichever team gets that unlucky second round draw.

Harvard will play at Boston University later today. Their toughest game before beginning Ivy League play will be on the road at St. Joe's on December 31st. UConn moves to 8-1 with wins over Florida State, Harvard and Arkansas, and only that upset loss to Central Florida. They have more than a week off before their next game, on December 18th against Holy Cross. They'll also play Fairfield on December 22nd before beginning Big East play on December 28th at South Florida.

#8 Xavier 73, Butler 61
Butler gave a good effort here and gave Xavier a little scare late, but once again offense has just been a tremendous problem for them. They have to exert so much effort to score every basket. They finished with a 32.3 eFG% in this game, and while that's their worst shooting performance of the season, the overall offensive performance is right in line with what they've done. In eight games against Division I opponents this season they have scored greater than 1 PPP precisely once, against cupcake Gardner Webb. They've played three games against teams in the Pomeroy or Sagarin PREDICTOR Top 100 (Louisville, Xavier and Indiana), and in those games have a combined 0.83 PPP. Their best offensive flurry in those three games was 0.85 PPP against Indiana.

What's holding the Butler offense back? As I've said a few times, the biggest problem is that they don't have any guards that can create offense. Ronald Nored is no Shelvin Mack, and Chrishawn Hopkins has had an awful season. Andrew Smith and Khyle Marshall are good front court players, but they need guards to open things up and create opportunities for them. A big problem has been that the quality 2011 recruiting class just hasn't produced at all yet. Jackson Aldridge was supposed to be one of the primary playmakers right away, and he just hasn't been ready to perform that role. Aldridge has only 4.3 points and 1.3 assists per game.

Butler is now 4-5 overall with bad losses to Evansville and Valparaiso, and nothing remotely resembling a quality win. They'll play at Ball State today and then will play Purdue next weekend. They also have games against Stanford and Gonzaga before starting Horizon League play. Theoretically, a win against all four of those quality opponents could get Butler back in the at-large discussion, but realistically they'll have to improve drastically to even win half of those games. Their focus needs to be winning the Horizon League's automatic bid.

Xavier rolls now to 8-0 with wins over Purdue, Vanderbilt, Georgia and Butler. It's a tremendous start to their season. That said, they're over-ranked right now. Tu Holloway is a tremendous player in the clutch, but clutch play only goes so far. Their Sagarin ELO_CHESS is 6th and their Sagarin PREDICTOR is 42nd. Pomeroy has them in the middle of those two numbers - 25th. The larger sample sizes get the more these computer numbers always converge. Xavier is a Tournament team and probably a Top 25 team, but I certainly don't think right now that they're one of the ten best teams in the nation. Both Temple and Saint Louis will give them a good battle for the A-10 title. They still have a few quality opponents ahead before getting to A-10 play, however, beginning with a fun rivalry game today against a trash-talking Cincinnati team.

Iona 80, Denver 78, OT
I thought Iona was going to lose this game, and went so far as to bet on Denver+1.5. Iona's played great so far this season, crushing St. Joe's and Maryland and losing by only one point to Purdue. But Denver is a good team this year, and it was asking a lot for Iona's kids to focus on a team on the other side of the country, without a "big name", and at altitude. I expected a clunker... which is what Iona produced for the first 30 minutes. They trailed by 11 at halftime, and by 13 around halfway through the second half. But star transfer MoMo Jones had his best stretch of the season, single-handedly matching Denver's scoring 8-to-8 over the next seven minutes. Iona went back to their bread and butter in overtime - the inside-outside game of Michael Glover and Scott Machado, and tough pressure defense. And in the end this is a nice win for Iona's computer numbers, and a missed chance for Joe Scott's Denver team to grab some national attention for the first time.

Denver came into this game 6-1 with wins over St. Mary's and Southern Miss, and only a road loss at California. Joe Scott has his team as a true contender in the Sun Belt Conference. This was a missed opportunity, but they have a slew of chances for quality wins upcoming. They'll play at Northern Colorado on Wednesday, and then follow that with home games against Boise State and Wyoming. If they can go 2-1 over that stretch it will be successful. They will open Sun Belt play on December 29th against Troy.

Iona moves to 8-1 now, but they continue on with their brutal stretch of games, with five straight on the road. Among those five road opponents are Marshall and Richmond. They'll presumably lose at least one of those games (Pomeroy gives them only a 14% chance of winning all five), but Iona isn't likely playing for an at-large bid this season. Tim Cluess is toughening up his team to be ready to win the MAAC. They're already 2-0 in conference play, and will get back to conference games on January 3rd against Siena.

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