Saturday, December 24, 2011

Texas A&M Falls To Rice; Are They Any Good?

Rice 65, Texas A&M 58
It's been hard to know what to make of this Texas A&M team. They entered the season with their brand new head coach, Billy Kennedy, diagnosed with early-stage Parkinson's before playing their first game. Coming into this game, the Aggies had zero bad losses, but zero quality wins either. They had walked their way into the Top 25 last week just through inertia, even though most of their computer ratings were outside the Top 100. But now they have a bad loss, and their Sagarin ELO_CHESS is 194th and their RPI is 247th. Are they really that bad of a team?

I don't think they're that bad. First of all, they were just ice cold from the field in this game, with a 41.5 eFG% (Rice was 54.5% for comparison). And the computer ratings designed to measure team quality aren't quite as harsh. Pomeroy rates them 84th and their Sagarin PREDICTOR is 127th. When you consider the fact that Texas A&M has only played a handful of competitive games (and only a couple of them with star Khris Middleton, who missed close to a month with a knee injury) and that the computer ratings are still relatively inaccurate this early in the season, it would be a mistake to count the Aggies out. But they definitely need to prove themselves by beating a quality opponent.

Despite the fact that Texas A&M will finish their non-conference slate without a single good win, the strength of the Big 12 will allow the Aggies to work their way onto the Tournament bubble very easily. A 10-8 Big 12 record, with a couple of big scalps along the way, will definitely put them in the discussion on Selection Sunday. They'll start their journey on January 2nd at Baylor. If they fall there, a home game January 7th against Iowa State becomes a key game. A loss there would really put A&M behind the eight ball.

This is Rice's first quality victory of the season, though they've only got one bad loss (Lamar). They're very unlikely to be one of the top few teams in Conference USA, but they'll get a chance to prove themselves in the next few weeks. After playing Texas A&M-Corpus Christi on Wednesday, they'll play at Texas on December 31st and at TCU on January 4th before opening Conference USA play on January 7th against a quality Marshall side.

#16 Georgetown 70, Memphis 59
It's become overwhelmingly clear how Memphis scores points. In transition they're lethal, and if you start turning the ball over against them it's going to turn into a rout. But if you take care of the ball and force them to score out of a slow-paced half court offense? They're awful. All the Tigers ever seem to do in that situation is take turns attacking their man one-on-one. This is generally a futile plan, particularly against zone defenses.

This was never on display better than here against Georgetown. Early in the game the Hoyas were turning the ball over, allowing Memphis to get out on the run. They had five turnovers during a 6:30 stretch in the first half during which they were out-scored 17-8 by Georgetown. The Hoyas then started off the second half with a 15-3 run during which they committed zero turnovers. They eventually got the margin up to 21 points, and seemed to have the game in hand. Three quick successive turnovers for Georgetown led to a quick 8-0 spurt by Memphis to make the game competitive, though the Tigers never got closer than eight and ended up losing by 11.

This is the second time Georgetown has beaten Memphis this season, and they've also got a victory over Alabama, and their only loss was by four points in Maui to Kansas. It's the resume of a team that is clearly a contender in the Big East. Syracuse is the favorite in that conference, but Georgetown (along with Louisville and Marquette) can give them a run for their money. Speaking of Louisville, they'll host Georgetown on Wednesday for the Big East opener for both squads.

Memphis falls to 6-5, though that's not as bad as a lot of analysts are making it out to be. They have wins over Belmont, Tennessee and the University of Miami, and not only do they not have any bad losses, but several of their losses have been close. Last season Memphis went 14-2 in games decided by five points or less or in overtime, causing the media to wildly overrate them heading into this season. This year their luck has returned to normal, and they're looking like a bubble team if they fall in the Conference USA tournament.

I do think this year's Memphis team is better than last year's team, and they are still the favorites in Conference USA. They have three different decent home opponents left (Robert Morris, Charlotte and Tennessee) before they open C-USA regular season play on January 7th at UAB.

#21 Creighton 87, Northwestern 79
More often than not, a hot shooting performance is just a fluke. Every team will have a game once in a while where they hit 50% or more of their threes and over-perform. It's always a mistake to draw too many conclusions from a game like that. But at some point hot shooting stops being a fluke and starts becoming a trend. Creighton has hit 50% or more of their threes in five of their 11 games this season, and their 44.7% overall rate is third best in the nation. Their effective field goal percentage has been 60.0 or higher in five games as well, and their overall 59.4% rate is leading the nation.

The stats for Doug McDermott, in particular, are mind-blowing. He's hit at least 50% of his three-point attempts in eight of 11 games this season, and is at 57.8% for the season. That three-point percentage is third in the nation among players that have attempted 40 or more. McDermott's 70.6 eFG% is fourth best in the nation. And McDermott is no spot-up shooter - he's taken 37.1% of Creighton's shots when he's on the floor, which is tied for the 7th highest shot rate among all Division I players. Among players that have participated in at least 40% of their team's minutes this season, McDermott is second in Pomeroy offensive efficiency rating behind only Weber State's Damian Lillard. McDermott and Lillard are tied for the national lead with 25.4 points per game.

With all those stats aside, the fact is that Northwestern acquitted themselves well here. They forced seven steals, committed only ten turnovers, and had 22 assists on 29 made baskets (true freshman Dave Sobolewski had a career-high eight assists), and did this all despite just an okay game from star John Shurna (18 points, 9 rebounds, 6 assists). Some better play from Shurna and some slightly better shooting and they could have pulled off a huge road upset.

Northwestern again has partially crippled themselves with a soft non-conference resume. They have no bad losses, but only a couple of decent wins (Seton Hall and LSU). They'll need to go at least 9-9 in Big Ten play to have a plausible shot at an at-large bid. They'll open Big Ten play on the road at Ohio State on Wednesday. Creighton is now 10-1 with wins over San Diego State, Northwestern and Nebraska, along with a road loss at St. Joe's. They'd be an NCAA Tournament team is the season ended now, but the margin of error isn't great in the Missouri Valley. To earn an at-large bid they'll have to get to at least 12-6 in conference play, and probably will need to achieve a 13-5 finish. They'll open against Missouri State on Wednesday, and then have a huge road game at chief MVC contender Wichita State on New Year's Eve.

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