Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Is Pittsburgh A Bubble Team?

Notre Dame 72, #22 Pittsburgh 59
After Wagner knocked off Pitt over the weekend, I talked about how crucial the first two Big East games would be for the Panthers. The reason I said that was because of Pitt's shockingly weak non-conference performance. They have only one quality win (Oklahoma State) and have that bad loss to Wagner. The fact is that they're probably going to need to get to 9-9 in Big East play just to make the NCAA Tournament. And that's why these first two games, at Notre Dame and at home against Cincinnati, matter so much. Pitt just can't afford to lose games they're supposed to win if they're going to ease their way to a .500 or better record. With this loss they're looking more and more like a bubble team.

Statistically, Pitt's biggest problem this season is defense. Pomeroy currently rates their offense 10th in the nation and their defense 159th. And yes, they did give up a horrible 1.24 PPP against Notre Dame here. But what stood out to me watching this game was how bad the Pitt offense looked. Efficient offense has been a staple of Pitt basketball in the Jamie Dixon era, but they looked lost on offense here. They finished with a 40.8 eFG%, their worst shooting performance of the season. Of course, Pitt only had a 41.7 eFG% in that loss to Wagner, and scored a combined 0.97 PPP in the two games. So Pitt's problems aren't just on defense. Their offense hasn't been good.

This was a nice, tough performance from a Notre Dame team that clearly hasn't folded up the tent on the season yet, despite the season-ending injury to Tim Abromaitis. This is their first quality win of the season, but they don't have any awful losses (Georgia and Maryland are their two worst losses), and they're up to 64th in the Pomeroy ratings. They'll probably have to get to 10-8 in Big East play to have a real shot at an at-large bid, but they're off to a good start. They'll be back in action January 4th at Cincinnati, and then will play at Louisville on January 7th.

Pittsburgh, as I said, will try to avoid an 0-2 start on New Year's Day against Cincinnati. After that their schedule eases up with games at DePaul and at home against Rutgers.

Illinois 81, Minnesota 72, 2OT
This was a game between two struggling teams that really needed a 1-0 start to Big Ten play. I think Illinois is the better of the two teams, but they struggled mightily here at home. They committed a brutal 21 turnovers, and were only saved by cold Minnesota shooting (a 40.6 eFG%). The key for Illinois was Meyers Leonard, who is clearly going to be a contender for First Team All-Big Ten. He destroyed the Minnesota bigs with a variety of nice moves in the paint, and ended up with 20 points (on 6-for-10 shooting), 11 rebounds and 5 blocks. The Illini also got a second straight nice performance from Joseph Bertrand off the bench (32 points combined in the past two games, after only two points total in his previous six games).

This is a missed opportunity for Minnesota. They're going to struggle to win road games in the Big Ten, and this would have been a nice one to start Big Ten play. Their problem on the road is going to be the lack of a go-to scorer. When their opponent gets going on a run and the crowd gets involved, Minnesota just doesn't have a player they can rely on to get a basket.

The Gophers have a quality win over Virginia Tech and only one dicey loss (Dayton), so even with an 8-10 Big Ten record they'll be in the bubble discussion on Selection Sunday (assuming they get a big scalp or two along the way). But even 8-10 is going to be difficult. Their next game will be Sunday at Michigan. If they fall to 0-2 then a January 4th game at home against Iowa becomes something of a must-win.

Illinois has this win along with a win over Gonzaga, and zero bad losses. They also will need to get to 8-10 to be in the bubble discussion on Selection Sunday, and will be in good shape if they get to 9-9. They'll play at Purdue on Saturday, and then at Northwestern on January 4th.

#11 Wisconsin 64, Nebraska 40
Nebraska's first ever Big Ten game was always going to be difficult against Wisconsin and with both Jorge Brian Diaz and Dylan Talley out with injuries, but this was just such a classic Bo Ryan game. Watching the game the teams seemed very even the entire way, but then you'd look at the scoreboard and see Wisconsin up 20. The Badgers defense is just so suffocating (they're leading the nation in both 2P% and eFG% against, and are third in the nation in 3P% against) and they play at such a slow pace that each point scored against them feels epic. Then they'll go on a run on offense where they'll hit a couple threes in a row, and complete a 10-0 run that feels like it might as well be a 30-0 run. It's incredibly demoralizing for their opponents.

The big concern for Wisconsin, and it was on display here, is scoring consistency. Even against a Nebraska team missing a key big and that isn't great on the boards when healthy, the Badgers still only got six offensive rebounds, and they almost never get out in transition. Since they launch so many threes (their 3PA/FGA ratio is 66th in the nation) it means that their offense is often just a launched three followed by all five players rushing back on defense. There's no question that on average Wisconsin has a very efficient offense, but if they get in a rut where they go cold behind the arc, they have the potential to go very, very long stretches without scoring. And it makes you wonder if they'll be consistent enough on offense to win more than 12 or so games in Big Ten play.

Wisconsin shouldn't have too much trouble on Saturday against Iowa. They'll play Michigan State on Tuesday before two tough road games at Michigan and at Purdue. Nebraska will continue on with what is a brutal schedule to start Big Ten regular season play. Four of their first eight games in Big Ten regular season play will be against Wisconsin and Ohio State (yikes). They'll play Michigan State on New Year's Eve before a road game at Ohio State on Tuesday.

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