Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Murray State Beats Memphis. Can They Go Undefeated?

Murray State 76, #20 Memphis 72
This game was going up against an NFL Sunday, so very few people outside the arena noticed, but it's a very nice win for a Murray State team that deserves some attention. But while this win was an upset, it wasn't that big of an upset. The reality is that Memphis was always overrated by the pollsters this season. They have talent, but they were also a team that finished last season rated outside the Top 80 by both Sagarin and Pomeroy. It was always ridiculous that they were rated in the Top Ten of the polls.

Memphis now has this loss as well as a close loss to Michigan and their overtime loss to Georgetown. This Murray State loss could turn into a bad loss, though it probably won't. Memphis does have a quality win over Belmont, as well as wins over Tennessee and the University of Miami. They have two quality opponents coming up: a road game at Louisville on Saturday, and a road game at Georgetown five days later. If Memphis can pull the upset in one of those games then they'll be on pace for an at-large bid in March. They'll probably need a 12-4 or better conference record.

With this win, Murray State remains one of nine teams in the nation still undefeated. But of those nine teams, Murray State now is by far the most likely to go undefeated. Pomeroy gives them a probability of more than 9% due to the fact that they're no less than a 71% favorite in any of their remaining games. Those numbers should, by the way, put in perspective how absurd it is when the media starts focusing on undefeated teams from major conferences this early in the season, or even in January. Murray State has passed all of its most difficult challenges of the regular season (other than Bracketbusters), is a heavy favorite in every conference game, and still only has a 9% chance of going undefeated. Marquette, to use another example, is undefeated with a couple of really nice wins, and is rated in the Top Ten by the human polls and the computer ratings, and Pomeroy gives them a 0.1% chance of finishing the regular season undefeated. Yes, 1-in-1000.

The top challenger to Murray State in the Ohio Valley Conference will be Austin Peay. Murray State will play at Austin Peay on January 7th, and they'll get the return visit on February 11th. Murray State's next game will be on Thursday against Lipscomb.

Marshall 82, Iona 63
Iona's only loss of the season prior to this one was a one point squeaker against Purdue. And while they did shoot poorly here (23% on threes), the reality is that shooting wasn't why they lost. Marshall had 12 more offensive rebounds (16 to 4) and also won the turnover battle while forcing six more steals (8 to 2). The Marshall backcourt got to the rim at will, exposing what is a real problem for Iona. Defense had been a strength for Iona, but it's not this season. They're very aggressive defensively, but if they don't turn teams over they tend to allow open shots. Right now they're 32nd in the nations with 17.4 turnovers forced per game, but they're 306th in the nation with a 54.3 eFG% against. It's why they're allowing 1.02 PPP (tied for 224th in the nation). Iona has more offensive weapons than they've had in a long time, but with such a hit-and-miss defense they have a potential for games like this where they just get run off the floor.

Of course, Iona wasn't playing for an at-large bid this season anyway. These non-conference games are about developing experience and getting better so that they'll be best positioned to try to win the MAAC auto bid. They have a tough road game coming up tomorrow at Richmond, and then will play at Vermont on Saturday.

For Marshall, this is a nice bounce-back win after a pair of losses (the loss to Syracuse was a quality loss - the Ohio loss, not so much). They also have a nice win over Cincinnati, so it's been a mixed bag for Marshall this season. They're a quality team, but so far haven't shown that they're at-large quality. If there's one thing they could really use, though, it's an outside shooter. That makes the 4-for-7 performance by Damier Pitts behind the arc in this game so encouraging. They'll play High Point on Saturday, and then have a very big game two days later against Belmont.

#15 Wisconsin 60, Wisconsin-Milwaukee 54
Wisconsin-Milwaukee played very well in the second half of this game, even going on a 16-1 run at one point to overcome a 17 point deficit to briefly tie the game before Wisconsin pulled away in the final couple of minutes. What was interesting was that UW-Milwaukee didn't go on their run by hitting threes, but by dominating the paint. Wisconsin's strength this year is their backcourt - their front court is thin in depth and has struggled against teams that have multiple physical bigs, like Milwaukee does. James Haarsma in particular (5-for-6 from the field) seemed unstoppable every time he got the ball in the paint.

Despite their struggles in this game, I don't think it's a sign of worry for Wisconsin. UW-Milwaukee is a very good team that was playing at home and which was highly motivated to take down their big brother in the state. The Badgers, now 8-2, just have a couple of cupcakes left before beginning Big Ten play on December 27th at Nebraska. They have a key stretch that begins about two weeks later (vs Michigan State, at Michigan, at Purdue) that will tell a lot about whether Wisconsin is really a contender to win the Big Ten.

Wisconsin-Milwaukee has played well this year, but just hasn't been able to collect that big scalp. They lost this game, as well as road games at Michigan State and Northern Iowa. None are bad losses, but Milwaukee's best win was over DePaul. Their final chance for a quality non-conference scalp will come at Marquette on December 22nd. After that they head back into Horizon League play, where they'll try to replicate their shocking Horizon League regular season title from last season (it was a three way tie at the top with Butler and Cleveland State, but Milwaukee had the tiebreaker and, as such, earned the automatic bid into the NIT). They're off to a quick 2-0 start in league play, but haven't played anybody of note yet. That will change at the end of this month when they'll play back-to-back road games at Valparaiso and Butler.

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