Friday, December 30, 2011

Vanderbilt's Quick Start Blows Away Marquette

Vanderbilt 74, #13 Marquette 57
The start of this game was a nightmare for Marquette. They hit only 2 of their first 20 shots from the field, and Vanderbilt actually led 35-8 at one point. Not only did Marquette finish with only a 34.7 eFG%, but they only hit 53% from the line as well. Nothing was working. Vanderbilt got a tremendous defensive performance from Lance Goulbourne (16 rebounds, 3 steals, 3 blocks), though the straw that stirred the drink for Vanderbilt was clearly Jeffery Taylor (19 points on 7-for-14 shooting).

It's always a mistake to draw too many conclusions from small sample sizes. I argued on twitter against those in the media that panicked about the polls and insisted Marquette needed to be rated higher because they beat Wisconsin. And now I'm going to argue against those that overreact because of a fluke ten minute stretch to open this game. It's a bad result, but Marquette still enters Big East play with a legitimate chance to make a run at the conference title. They'll open up on Sunday against Villanova, and then will play at Georgetown on Wednesday.

I'm not ready to declare Vanderbilt "back" because of one crazy stretch to open this game, but with Festus Ezeli gradually getting close to 100% health there's no question that confidence is rising in Nashville. Their resume is still dicey for now, though. They have this win along with wins over NC State, Oregon and Oregon State. They also have bad losses to Indiana State and Cleveland State. Assuming that they beat Miami (OH) on Monday, they'll head into SEC play needing at least a 9-7 record to earn an at-large bid. And honestly, they probably need to get to ten conference wins to feel confident on Selection Sunday.

Illinois State 65, Northern Iowa 61
This is a tough loss for Northern Iowa. For one thing, they'll feel like they should have won this game. UNI had nine fewer turnovers, three more offensive rebounds and five more steals. But they finished with only a 44.0 eFG%, while Illinois State hit 50% of their threes and finished with a 58.5 eFG%. Illinois State just hit big shots while Northern Iowa didn't.

The Missouri Valley Conference is playing its best ball in several years, and there's been a lot of talk about the conference earning three or four NCAA Tournament bids. The problem is that at-large bids are given to teams, not conferences, and right now I only see two clear at-large teams: Creighton and Wichita State. Northern Iowa is probably the third best team in the conference, but right now they just don't look like an NCAA Tournament team. They have wins over Iowa and Iowa State, along with losses to Ohio and now Illinois State. They're probably going to need to get to 13-5 in conference play to make the NCAA Tournament, and now they're off to an 0-1 start. They should be able to bounce back with a few wins, though, with home games against Evansville (Sunday) and Indiana State (Wednesday) up next.

If Northern Iowa isn't the third best team in the MVC, it could be Missouri State, but it could also be Illinois State. The Redbirds hadn't really achieved much of anything this season prior to this game, but the computers liked them quite a bit (their Sagarin PREDICTOR was 80th even before this game). This is their first quality win of the season (though that Rutgers win might turn into an RPI Top 100 win by the end of the season), and they've got losses to Fresno State and UNC-Wilmington. They're nowhere close to the Tournament bubble right now, but it's not impossible for them to get in the at-large discussion if they can get on a roll and win a few games in a row. They'll play at Southern Illinois on Sunday, and then have a huge opportunity on Wednesday at Missouri State.

Washington 95, Oregon State 80
Washington didn't shoot the ball well in this game (4-for-18 on threes), but overall they did play some really efficient basketball here, despite the frenetic pace (77 possessions, by my calculation). They committed only nine turnovers, and finished with 1.23 PPP. Considering the opponent, it's the best offensive performance Washington has had all season long. Tony Wroten scored 26 points and had 9 rebounds, and the Huskies also got a really nice game from Abdul Gaddy (13 points on 6-for-10 shooting, along with six assists).

This was the best Washington has played this season, and it led to their best win of the season. The latter half of that sentence, however, is not a good sign for a team hoping to make the NCAA Tournament. Washington has losses to South Dakota State and Nevada, and will need to go 12-6 or better in Pac-12 play to even have a chance on Selection Sunday. They'll try to move to 2-0 on Saturday against Oregon. With Colorado and Utah up after that, Washington should get off to a quick 4-0 start before moving to the more difficult part of their Pac-12 schedule.

Oregon State got some at-large buzz after that early season overtime victory against Texas, but they've faded since. They don't have any other quality wins, and now have losses to Idaho and Washington. They'll need to get to at least 11-7 in conference play to have a chance on Selection Sunday, and they could get really buried in a brutal schedule to start Pac-12 play (well... "brutal" by Pac-12 standards). They'll play at Washington State on Saturday and then head home to play the two northern California schools before heading on the road to play the two Arizona schools. They probably won't lose all of those games, but they could be underdogs in all of them.

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