Sunday, December 25, 2011

Missouri Survives Illinois, Butler Knocks Off Stanford

#8 Missouri 78, #24 Illinois 74
This game was between two teams that I think are ranked too high in the polls, but it was a fun game with a wild neutral court crowd. For most of the game, Missouri was playing the efficient offense we've seen from them all season. But with a ten point lead and a little under ten minutes to go, they seemed to regress for a few minutes. Over the next three minutes they committed four turnovers, allowing an 11-0 run for Illinois to take a one-point lead. The Tigers settled down, though, and escaped with a four point win.

The story for Illinois, without question, was Joseph Bertrand. The sophomore came into this game averaging 3.2 points in 11.2 minutes per game. But he exploded for 18 points on 9-for-9 shooting in this game. He helped make up for another slow game from Sam Maniscalco, who has cooled off after a hot start to the season. After averaging 13.3 points per game with a 67.0 eFG% in November, he's down to 7.5 ppg with a 34.6 eFG% in December.

Illinois is 11-2, but with only one really nice win (Gonzaga). I picked them preseason to make the NCAA Tournament, and still think they will, but they're looking more and more like a bubble team. I think they'll most likely earn an at-large bid if they can finish 9-9 or better in Big Ten play. They open against Minnesota on Tuesday, and then head to Purdue on Saturday.

Missouri continues to find ways to win. They move to 12-0 with a decent collection of scalps (California, Villanova, Illinois and Notre Dame). I think they're going to slow down as the season goes along and opponents find ways to disrupt their offense flow, but at the very least they have to be considered one of the Big 12 title contenders. They will play at Old Dominion on Friday, and then open Big 12 play on January 3rd against Oklahoma.

Butler 71, Stanford 66
This was a tight, well-played game. Both teams played sound defense, which kept things close the entire way. Butler's offense, which had been atrocious for the first month of the season, has come alive their past three games. The biggest reason for the improvement has been that Ronald Nored has taken a bigger role in their offense and has been more aggressive. The story in this game, though, was Jackson Aldridge. The true freshman was expected to be an immediate impact player, but had been off to a slow start before this game (15 points on 5-for-7 shooting).

Butler is still only 6-7 after this win, including losses to Evansville, Valparaiso and Ball State. They've basically blown any chance at an at-large Tournament bid, but they're playing better. As good as Cleveland State and UW-Milwaukee have been this season, I still believe the Horizon League is Butler's to lose.

Stanford was probably the lone unexpected bright spot in the Pac-12 in the early going this season. They hadn't had a bad loss all season. But for the time being, at least, this loss to Butler will be a "bad" loss. Stanford fans will need to root for Butler to improve their resume. Even if that comes to pass, Stanford is going to need to win a lot of games to prove themselves in a poor Pac-12. I think they will need to finish 11-7 or better to go Dancing. Even 11-7 will be iffy without a good performance in the Pac-12 tournament. They'll open on Thursday against UCLA.

#23 UNLV 85, California 68
California is a team that the computers like a lot, but they haven't translated that into any wins of note yet. They are 10-3 without any bad losses, but their best wins came over Georgia and Denver. Their problem against quality opponents has been offense, which has become bogged down in all three of their losses (a combined 0.88 PPP). And now, it's left California heading into Pac-12 play without any big scalps. And obviously they won't be picking up any in conference play.

California could potentially be an interesting call on Selection Sunday. If they go 12-6 in conference play and win a couple of games in the Pac-12 tournament they'll finish the season 24-10, but with a soft Sagarin ELO_CHESS and a possibility of only one or two RPI Top 50 wins. It will be reminiscent of many mid-major resumes. I think Cal will need to overwhelm the Selection Committee with their number of wins. I'd like to see them get 25 wins to feel comfortable putting them in the bracket.

UNLV, my preseason pick to win the Mountain West, is looking more and more like a solid Sweet 16 contender and Final Four dark horse. They are 13-2 with wins over North Carolina, California and Illinois - all by double-digits. They're up to 18th in the Pomeroy ratings and 12th in the Sagarin PREDICTOR. They have three weak opponents coming up before opening Mountain West play on January 14th at San Diego State. An 8-6 record in Mountain West play should be enough to put UNLV in the NCAA Tournament. Anything beyond that will just be about improving their seed.

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