Sunday, December 25, 2011

Wagner Knocks Off Pitt

Wagner 59, #13 Pittsburgh 54
Weird things happen during final exams, and a number of quality teams ended up struggling with inferior opponents. While this game was going on it was Louisville struggling with a Western Kentucky team that was 24 point underdogs. Louisville pulled that game out, but Pitt fell here. Pitt was sloppy (18 turnovers) and couldn't hit a shot (41.7 eFG%). To put this in perspective for a Pitt team that is always efficient under Jamie Dixon, not only was this 0.89 PPP performance their first game under 1 PPP of the season, but it was their their first sub-1 PPP performance since a 62-59 loss at Louisville back in February. Wagner is a solid defensive team, but there's no question that this result was more of a fluke than anything else.

But fluke or not, it's going to be on Pitt's resume all season long. And while they've played fairly well this season, they've played a very soft schedule and it's led to a soft resume. They have wins over Oklahoma State, La Salle and Tennessee, along with losses to Wagner and Long Beach State. To put in perspective how soft that resume is, their Sagarin ELO_CHESS has fallen all the way to 76th. I still think they're going to be one of the best teams in the Big East, but that's a precarious belief. If they head into Big East play and lose a couple of games early, I'll jump off the bandwagon. They will open on Tuesday at Notre Dame, and then will play Cincinnati on January 1st. Both are games that they should win if they're as good as I think they are.

This is the defining win for Dan Hurley in his second season at Wagner. It's a fluke win, but Wagner did play well and will have this win to buoy their confidence all season long. I picked Robert Morris preseason to win the Northeast Conference, but I picked Wagner as a sleeper. Robert Morris is still my pick to win the conference, but Wagner may have passed LIU as the top conference contender (LIU did beat Wagner by five points at home a few weeks ago, but I'm not sure a five point win at home proves too much). Wagner will get back to conference play on January 5th at Fairleigh Dickinson.

#7 Baylor 83, West Virginia 81, OT
The key for Baylor in big games this season has been hot outside shooting, particularly by Brady Heslip, providing just enough offense to earn the win that their quality defense sets up. And indeed, Brady Heslip hit 5-fo-7 behind the arc here, and was joined by Juco transfer Pierre Jackson's 4-for-7. Baylor has had five quality wins this season: BYU, San Diego State, St. Mary's, West Virginia and Northwestern. In those five games, Heslip hit 20-for-37 (54%) of his threes. In their six other Division I games he hit 13-for-33 (39%). As a team, their four best three-point shooting performances against Division I opponents came against those quality opponents.

In my view, those statistics have to even out. Either Baylor is going to stop shooting so well against elite opponents, or they're going to start shooting better against bad opponents. It's probably going to be a little bit of both, but I do think that if they're not hitting outside shots against top opponents they're going to struggle to score enough points. They will play Mississippi State on Wednesday, and then will open Big 12 play January 2nd against Texas A&M. Before the month of January is out they'll play road games at Kansas, Oklahoma and Kansas State, as well as home games against Texas and Missouri. Surely they'll be cold shooting behind the arc in several of those games. We'll find out soon enough if they can pull any of those games out.

This is a tough loss for West Virginia because they did play well. Kevin Jones led them with 28 points and 17 rebounds (he's got to be a contender for the first team All-American squad, right?), and true freshman Jabarie Hinds had the best game of his short college career (18 points on 7-for-11 shooting, along with 7 assists and only 2 turnovers). Baylor just shot well enough to barely escape with the win in overtime. WVU's resume is still solid. They have wins over Kansas State, Missouri State and Miami (Fl), with just one questionable loss (Kent State). They're rated 33rd by both the Pomeroy and Sagarin PREDICTOR ratings. The Big East is a little bit down this year, but a 10-8 conference record should be enough for an at-large bid for West Virginia. They'll open up conference play on Wednesday against Villanova.

Long Beach State 65, Auburn 43
Long Beach State is off to a good start to their trip to Hawaii. After handling an under-manned Xavier team, they destroyed a solid Auburn team here. And they won despite a nothing game from star Casper Ware (2-for-10 shooting from the field, 3 assists, 3 turnovers). Larry Anderson and Eugene Phelps picked up the slack with a combined 29 points on 10-for-14 shooting. More than anything, Auburn's defenders just couldn't stay in front of the slashing LBSU attacks. Long Beach State earned 25 free throw attempts, to only six for Auburn.

The bright spot for Auburn, as badly as they got beaten, was Frankie Sullivan. He missed nearly all of last season with a knee injury, but this was his best game since coming back - 22 points (including 6-for-9 on threes) and six rebounds. Sullivan is probably the best player Auburn has, and him returning to his best can only be a good thing. The fact is that despite this loss, Auburn is still 8-2 without any real bad losses (though zero good wins either). They'll play UTEP later today, and with a win there might actually start believing that they get up close enough to the bubble to have some relevant basketball games in February and March for the first time in three seasons. They also will play a road game at Florida State on January 4th before opening SEC play on January 7th at Vanderbilt.

Long Beach State has a chance to win the Diamond Head Classic tonight against Kansas State. They already beat Xavier and Auburn at this tournament, to go with that win over Pittsburgh back in November. They only have one bad loss (Montana) and have pushed their Sagarin ELO_CHESS up to 39th. They'd need to get that ELO_CHESS up closer to 30th, which would mean beating Kansas State and then finishing 13-3 or better in Big West play, to have any shot at an at-large bid. It's still an extremely long shot. But LBSU, with the Big West auto bid, could have a shot at an 11 or 12 seed and a real chance to win at least one game in the NCAA Tournament. Their first key conference game will be January 5th against a surging Cal Poly team.

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