Tuesday, February 28, 2012

UConn Falls To 7-10 And Into Big Bubble Trouble

Providence 72, Connecticut 70
UConn continues to struggle at just about every facet of the game right now. They're not shooting well, they're not defending well and they're not rebounding well. That's a bad combination. They've lost 9 of their last 12 games, with no sign of turning things around. In a Big East where an 11-5 USF team is still considered an NIT team at the moment, how can UConn explain a 7-10 Big East record? UConn did have a more difficult conference schedule than South Florida, of course. Big East teams play three conference opponents twice, and UConn got paired up with Syracuse, Notre Dame and Seton Hall, while USF was paired up with Providence, Villanova and Pittsburgh. But still, there's no question that USF has played better and has better results in conference play.

UConn is 8-10 against the RPI Top 100 and their Sagarin ELO_CHESS is going to fall to near 50th in the nation. If the season ended now, their overall resume would probably be strong enough to earn an at-large bid, but it would be iffy and they'd be one of the last teams in the field. To stay in the field, they will need to beat Pittsburgh on Saturday and then need to win a game or two in the Big East tournament. It's just going to be hard in a down year for the Big East for even an 8-10 UConn team to get in considering how bad their record has been down the stretch.

Providence moves to 4-13 in Big East play with this win, which assures that they'll avoid the 16 seed in the Big East tournament. They could still move up another spot or two in the Big East standings to give them a more reasonable chance of winning a Big East tournament game. Their final regular season game will be on Friday at Notre Dame.

Miami (Fl) 78, #16 Florida State 62
I know that complaining about court storming is getting a bit over-played, but rushing the court for beating a borderline Top 25 team with no hardware on the line? Not the behavior of fans that expect to make the NCAA Tournament. Meanwhile, the story of this game wasn't just that Miami played so well, but that they played this well without Reggie Johnson, who was ruled academically ineligible and is fighting to return to the court this season. Kenny Kadji did step up in a big way with Johnson gone (15 points, 5 blocks, 4 steals), and Miami's perimeter players also looked good (45% three-point shooting).

Florida State's interior players were really disappointing offensively. With Reggie Johnson gone and with a bunch of offensive rebounds, you'd think the Florida State front court could finished with better than 7-for-17 shooting. They are too passive against inferior opponents, which allows opponents to focus on stopping their guards.

Miami moves to 8-6 in ACC play with this win, with wins over Duke and Florida State to go with a bad loss to Maryland. If the season ended now they'd be right on the bubble, either one of the last teams in or one of the first teams out of the Field of 68. And that makes tomorrow's game at NC State so crucial. A win would give them a road victory over another bubble team, while a loss would probably drop them out of the Field of 68 (for now). Barring a disaster, they should avoid a loss on Senior Day against Boston College on Saturday, and then they'll need to avoid going one-and-done in the ACC tournament.

Florida State has now lost two straight games to blow their ACC regular season title chances. They should end up with the third seed in the ACC tournament, though. Their resume continues to be a goofy combination of huge wins and awful losses, and if the season ended now I could see them earning anything between a 7 and 10 seed in the NCAA Tournament. They will play at Virginia on Thursday and then at home against Clemson on Sunday.

#12 Georgetown 59, #19 Notre Dame 41
I don't think anybody really thought Notre Dame would win this game. Notre Dame isn't quite as good as the polls make them out to be. Georgetown is the better team, and they were playing at home. What was surprising, though, was just how badly Georgetown's defense suffocated the Irish. Notre Dame finished with only 7 assists the whole game, and they only had a 36.5 eFG%. Georgetown is now tied with Syracuse atop the Big East defensively, allowing 0.91 PPP in conference play.

If there's a goofy stat about Georgetown's defense, it's how hit-or-miss it can be. In eight of their Big East games they have held opponents to 0.84 PPP or worse, including three of their last four games. Yet in nine of their Big East games, they have allowed 1.00 or more PPP. So, in 17 games they have either held opponents to 0.84 PPP or fewer, or allowed 1.00 PPP or more. Nothing in the middle. It's a strange dichotomy, and I don't really understand why it exists.

This win puts Georgetown in the driver's seat for third place in the Big East, but with a difficult final regular season game. They will play at Marquette on Saturday. A win will wrap up at least third place, and could potentially earn them second place. With a loss, though, they could lose the Big East tournament double-bye. An easier path through the Big East tournament does matter for Georgetown. They are probably looking at a 4 seed at the moment, but they could potentially rise as high as a 2 seed if they win the Big East tournament.

Notre Dame has lost two straight games, but they are still 12-5 in the Big East and still have a chance to earn a Big East tournament double-bye. They are 9-6 against the RPI Top 100, and should largely get a pass for their non-conference struggles (the Selection Committee will tend to overlook bad play in November and December if a team plays well in conference play). The Irish would probably earn a seed in the 6-8 range if the season ended now, but they could move beyond that range in either direction depending on their play the rest of the way. They'll play Providence on Friday before heading to Madison Square Garden.

South Florida Nears An At-Large Bid... Really.

South Florida 46, Cincinnati 45
This was an ugly, sloppy game where neither team impressed much. South Florida made two field goals in the final 9:50 of the game, and somehow held onto the win. Cincinnati was a mess offensively, finishing with only a 36.8 eFG%, their worst shooting performance since January 7th. I know that both of these teams have looked better on other days, but neither of them looked like a Tournament team here. The thing is: both of them might be Tournament teams. The scariest thing about this game is that it somehow made USF 11-5 in Big East play, which by itself makes them a bubble team.

What is holding USF back, besides the fact that their Big East strength of schedule has been particularly soft this year (they got lucky in scheduling), is that their non-conference performance was horrid. They went 7-6 in non-conference play, with a win over Cleveland State their only decent win to go with iffy losses to Auburn, Penn State and Old Dominion. Even after this win, USF is 1-7 against the RPI Top 60 and their Sagarin ELO_CHESS is 55th. So we have two stats that are seemingly contradictory staring at us. For just about any team in any year, a 1-7 Top 50 record and a 55th Sagarin ELO_CHESS would mean NIT for sure. But in any other situation, an 11-5 Big East team is a lock for the Tournament. So where does USF fall? Somewhere in the middle.

USF's final two games will be fairly difficult. They will play at Louisville tomorrow, and then at home against West Virginia on Saturday. I think they need to split those games and then win a Big East tournament game. An 11-7 Big East record won't cut it, and even a 12-6 Big East record with a one-and-done Big East tournament performance will be iffy. Those computer numbers and that record vs the RPI Top 50 will be a major albatross.

Cincinnati falls to 10-6 in Big East play with this loss, but they're still in the NCAA Tournament for now. They have wins over Georgetown, Louisville, Notre Dame, UConn and Seton Hall, along with bad losses to Presbyterian, St. John's and Rutgers. Their Sagarin ELO_CHESS is 46th. Like USF, they can't afford to lose their final two regular season games (vs Marquette, at Villanova). And like USF, even with a split of their final two games I think they need to avoid a one-and-done in the Big East tournament. Remember, the Tournament bubble will tighten up over the next week and a half.

#15 Wisconsin 63, #9 Ohio State 60
I know I've fallen a little behind on these recaps. This game happened two days ago, and Wisconsin actually just played another game, beating Minnesota at home. But I wanted to talk about this game for a couple of reasons. First, in comparison to the USF/Cincy game, the execution here was just superb. These two teams are so good defensively that you need to play almost perfect offense to get an open shot. You could teach a clinic showing videotape of how Wisconsin defended Jared Sullinger (always forcing him to catch the ball facing the baseline) and how Ohio State tried to counter (running offensive players through the paint so Sullinger could pass behind the double-team). There's a misconception that lower scoring games are "ugly". They're ugly if the score is low because nobody is hitting shots. But if it's because each possession is a battle between two teams giving maximum effort and executing at the highest level, I find it beautiful.

This game has major implications for both teams. Ohio Sate is now 1-4 in games decided by five points or less. The irony of that bad luck is that if you were going to draw up a team that should be clutch in close games, Ohio State would be it. They have excellent scorers at all positions, a great point guard, lots of experience, and a coach who's won a ton of games. But that bad luck is why they're now considered a borderline 2/3 seed even though they are still rated the best team in the country by Sagarin (they are rated third best by Pomeroy). Assuming they can avoid the upset tomorrow at Northwestern, they will have a key game on Sunday at Michigan State. If they can knock off Michigan State and win the Big Ten tournament then they'll be a 1 seed. If they fall to Michigan State, though? Even winning the Big Ten tournament might not be enough for a 1 seed.

With this win plus the win tonight over Minnesota, Wisconsin assured themselves at least fourth place in the Big Ten, meaning a bye in the Big Ten tournament. They are now 6-6 against the RPI Top 50, and their Sagarin ELO_CHESS is 15th. I'm pretty sure that they'd be a 4 seed if the season ended now. If they beat Illinois on Sunday and avoid a one-and-done Big Ten tournament, it's very hard to see them dropping below that 4 seed. With a strong Big Ten tournament they could push up to a 3 seed, and even a 2 seed isn't impossible if they can win the Big Ten tournament.

Colorado 70, California 57
It's like there's some sort of disease going through the Pac-12, and even California is getting caught up in it. They had surprising difficulty with Utah on Thursday (their lead was down to seven points halfway through the second half), and then were handled pretty firmly here by
Colorado. They were badly out-rebounded in this game (a 30.0 OR% for Colorado compared to a 13.8 OR% for California), and that created frustration for a California team that couldn't get easy baskets. Cal had only four offensive rebounds, forced only five turnovers, and hit only 31% of their threes. When you can't get easy baskets and you can't hit threes, offense becomes very difficult. Cal has scored under 0.95 PPP four times in Pac-12 play, and two of those four have been their last two games.

Cal is still rated as one of the 25 best teams in the country by both Sagarin and Pomeroy, and I haven't seen anybody in the mainstream media considering them a bubble team, but the reality is that their at-large resume is pretty soft. They are 0-3 against the RPI Top 50 and have a couple of bad losses (Oregon State and Washington State). Their RPI has fallen to 36th and their Sagarin ELO_CHESS is now 40th. Their final regular season game is no gimme either, on Sunday at Stanford. If they lose that game, expect the bubble talk to start to heat up.

While Cal is the only Pac-12 team that is definitely in the NCAA Tournament in the bracket, and Washington has the clear second best resume in the conference, there is a fight for a potential third Pac-12 spot. Colorado is one of the teams that could get into that conversation. They are now 11-5 in the Pac-12 and 4-5 against the RPI Top 100 with a Sagarin ELO_CHESS that is up to 80th. The computer numbers are poor, but if they can win their final two games to get to 13-5? It will be hard for the Selection Committee to ignore a 13-5 team, even from the Pac-12. They'll have to win at the two Oregon schools to get there, though.

Sunday, February 26, 2012

2012 Conference Tournament Previews: Part I

For the complete list of conference tournament previews, as well as a schedule of when all of these games will be played, please click here.

America East
Congratulations to Stony Brook, who wrapped up the outright America East regular season title earlier today with a win over Maine. They have been in a tight battle all season long with Boston University and Vermont, the two most recent winners of the America East tournament. During the regular season, Stony Brook split with those two contenders - winning the two home games and losing the two road games. Vermont actually did the best of the three head-to-head, sweeping BU.

BU has one clear skill: defense. They're the best defensive team in the conference. But they are very sloppy with the ball, which is a bad recipe for a tournament run. It's hard to separate out Vermont and Stony Brook, except for two key differences. Vermont will have to get past BU just to reach the finals while Stony Brook will have the easier path, and Stony Brook will have home court advantage.

Stony Brook has never made the NCAA Tournament. Two years ago they won the regular season title but fell in the semis to BU. Last season they made it to the NEC tournament finals, where they again fell to BU. I think they finally break through this season and make the Big Dance.

Atlantic Sun
Rumors of Belmont's demise are a bit overstated. And I think there's a big misconception about just how good they were last season, too. Belmont was a team that could have made a Sweet 16 or Elite 8 run if they had the right draw. The only way to beat them (other than having overwhelming talent) is to force the pace to be slow and to take care of the ball. There's no team in the country that describes better than Wisconsin... and it turned out that Belmont got stuck playing Wisconsin in the Round of 64. This year's team isn't quite as good as last year's team. Just like last year they have come up just short of big wins. They lost by a single point to Duke this season, a win that would look really nice right now. Last season they had one "bad" loss, and this year they have three. Last year they outscored opponents by 0.29 PPP in conference play, and this year it's by 0.23. And last year they were rated around 18th in the nation by Pomeroy heading into their conference tournament. This year they are 24th.

Last year's Belmont team would have been a bubble team had they lost in the Atlantic Sun tournament. That's not the case this year - they have to win the tournament or they'll be heading to the NIT (as the Atlantic Sun's regular season champion, they would have an automatic bid to the NIT if they lose in their conference tournament). I don't think they'll have too much trouble winning the tournament, but anything is possible. The team that has given them the most trouble the past two years (including knocking them off at home this season) has been Lipscomb, but they're only the 7 seed and are unlikely to make the finals. The second best team in the conference is Mercer, the 2 seed. Mercer finished 13-5 and have outscored opponents by 0.11 PPP in conference play.

Big South
Last season, UNC-Asheville finished far back of Coastal Carolina in the Big South regular season, but were actually pretty similar in overall ability. They had been unlucky with a 2-5 record in conference games decided by five points or less. They then rolled through the Big South tournament and earned the Big South's auto bid. This season their luck has been more reasonable, with a 3-2 record in conference games decided by five or less, leading to a 16-2 conference record. Coastal Carolina, the 2 seed, will again be their top contender.

One advantage that Coastal Carolina has this year is an easier draw, despite the 2 seed. Campbell and Charleston Southern both finished 11-7, and the tiebreak meant that Campbell is drawn against Coastal Carolina in the semifinals while Charleston Southern is drawn against UNC-Asheville. CSU, however, is a much better team than Campbell. They are 2-4 in games decided by five points or less, while Campbell is 3-1. It's definitely a toss-up tournament, but my narrow favorite is Coastal Carolina, because of that easier draw.

There are a lot of parallels between this season and last season. Like last season, Butler had a couple of nice non-conference performances but then went into conference play and picked up a few bad losses against the bottom of the Horizon. They were just finding it too difficult to focus coming off a trip to the NCAA title game. And both years I stuck with Butler as my pick to win the Horizon tournament throughout this slump. And just like last year, they've finished strong and gotten themselves into the mix atop the conference. But there's a difference. Last year's team headed into the Horizon tournament having won seven straight and having earned a share of the regular season title. This year's team actually lost their regular season finale to Valparaiso and is three games back of first place. They'll be the five seed in the Horizon tournament this year. This year's team also has a terrible shooting problem.

One of the biggest misconceptions about Butler is that they're a good shooting team. Because they have a bunch of white guys and play in Hinkle Fieldhouse, the assumption is that everybody on the team grew up on a farm and they are all great three-point shooters. Yet even their best team two years ago was keyed by defense and rebounding. Last year's team had pretty good offense, but it was rebounding that drove their NCAA Tournament run. And this year? Their shooting is downright awful. They are hitting 27.1% of their threes this year, which makes them third worst in the nation (ahead of just Towson and Jacksonville State). They're still a good rebounding team, but that shooting has killed their offensive efficiency. They're scoring only 0.94 PPP in Horizon play, which makes them the fourth worst offense in the conference.

The best team in the Horizon over the course of the season has been Cleveland State, but they've been a tire fire of late, having lost five of their last seven. Valparaiso has probably been the best team down the stretch, winning 11 of their final 13 games and earning the regular season title and home court advantage. The one other team that I think needs to be considered a contender is Detroit, a team that is playing much better now than they were early in the season. No team in the Horizon has a better duo than Ray McCallum and Eli Holman. The fact that Detroit and Butler will have to win four games to win the conference tournament while Valpo and Cleveland State only need to win two mean that I have no doubt that any computer simulations will say that Valpo and Cleveland State are the two teams with the best odds to win the conference tournament. But I just can't bring myself to bet against Butler. They have proven too many times that they will play at their best when it counts most, so I will stick with them as my pick to win.

Missouri Valley
There has been a nice resurgence in the Missouri Valley after several down seasons. The conference isn't quite back to where they were at the middle of the last decade, but this should still be a very fun Arch Madness. Wichita State has already locked up an at-large bid, and Creighton looks to be pretty safe (though they'd be wise to avoid a one-and-done performance here). The Valley should be a multi-bid league for the first time in five years.

Early in the season, teams like Missouri State, Northern Iowa and Illinois State all looked like the top contenders to Wichita State and Creighton, and all seemed like potential bubble teams. But all three have struggled in the latter half of the season, and none of them have bubble hopes any longer. The third best team in the conference down the stretch has, shockingly, been Evansville. Over the last three weeks, Evansville has beaten Creighton, Missouri State and Northern Iowa, and they've earned the 3 seed in the Valley tournament. Do I like their chances to beat Missouri State and then (probably) Creighton and then (probably) Wichita State on three consecutive days? No. But if anybody spoils to party and earns the third MVC bid to the NCAA Tournament, Evansville is most likely.

The NEC is by no means one of the better conferences in the country, but compared to where this conference usually is (dueling with the SWAC in NCAA Tournament play-in games) it's been a very good year. The conference hasn't been this strong in almost a decade. There are at least four different teams that are good enough to put a scare into an opponent in the Round of 64, led by Wagner. Wagner has wins over Pittsburgh and Princeton and hung tough with UConn. They are rated 105th in the nation by Pomeroy and 97th by the Sagarin PREDICTOR, the highest rated NEC team in either of those ratings in more than a decade.

But as good as Wagner is, they will have a difficult run through the conference tournament. In fact, they're not even the top seed - LIU is. LIU only had to play Wagner once this season and got the game at home, which they won. LIU also was lucky, finishing 5-0 in conference games decided by five points or less or in overtime. But a quick ranking of the teams by PPP margin shows that a whole bunch of teams have a chance to win:

+0.17 Wagner
+0.10 LIU
+0.09 Robert Morris
+0.09 Quinnipiac
+0.05 St. Francis (NY)
+0.04 Central Connecticut St

One of the quirks of the NEC tournament is that they re-seed after each round, and each game will be played at the home arena of the higher seed. So it's difficult to project the match-ups. But in my view, the clear best team is Wagner, so they're my pick to win.

After the brackets come out on Selection Sunday I'll preview all of the games, so I'm going to end up repeating myself a little bit here. But one thing I'm going to say is that it's almost a certainty that multiple people in your personal bracket pool are going to talk about how the best "Cinderella" team to pick is Murray State. They'll just be repeating what they're going to hear on a lot of sports radio and on sports television. Unless Murray State loses another game, they're going to finish ranked around 10th in the nation, and have been as high as 7th this season. And they're probably going to end up with something like an 8 or 9 seed. Has to be a great bet, right!? Nope. Smart folks will bet against Murray State.

The reality is that Murray State isn't any better than they were two years ago. And this season, they're not any better than Long Beach State, Iona or Middle Tennessee State. But they've been 4-1 in games decided by five points or less or in overtime. They're a very good team, and if they'd had a couple of unlucky losses and falling to a 12 or 13 seed then they'd have been a great upset pick. But history says that teams from smaller conferences that are over-seeded and get drawn against lower-seeded teams from major conferences almost always lose.

That said, Murray State is the heavy, heavy favorite to win the OVC tournament. They shouldn't be too tested, particularly since they get a bye into the semifinals. Their toughest test will probably come in the finals, should they draw Tennessee State, the one team that has beaten them this season. Tennessee Tech, who they will potentially draw in the semifinals, is probably the only other team that might get them some trouble.

The Patriot League has been a two team battle all season long between Bucknell and Lehigh. And those two teams are the 1 and 2 seeds, respectively. Bucknell, the 1 seed, will have home court advantage throughout the tournament. This might not mean a whole lot, though. Both Bucknell and Lehigh have won on the other's floor this season. The bigger advantage that Bucknell has is that Lehigh will have the much more difficult semifinal opponent: American.

If we do get a Bucknell/Lehigh final, it'll be a battle between the best defense and best offense in the conference, respectively. Bucknell is the better rebounding team. And I think Mike Muscala is the one player physically that Lehigh can't match up against. Throw that in with Bucknell's home court advantage and an easier semifinal opponent, and the Bison have to be considered the tournament favorite.

This is quite possibly the most interesting WCC conference tournament ever. Not only have they added a third elite team (BYU), but they have nice depth, and there are all sorts of at-large implications. Gonzaga, BYU and St. Mary's are all in the NCAA Tournament bracket at the moment, but not one of them is a "lock". A rule of thumb for mid-major conferences playing their conference tournament a week before Selection Sunday is: if you're still a bubble team at the end of your conference tournament, you're probably going to end up in the NIT. There will always be four or five NCAA Tournament bids stolen in that final week. And psychologically, the conferences that play a week early just end up getting forgotten. So for all those reasons, neither Gonzaga, St. Mary's or BYU can go 1-and-done or they're going to have to sweat out the final week before Selection Sunday.

St. Mary's is the 1 seed, and also the best team in the conference. Gonzaga, as the 2 seed, is the other double bye. BYU and Loyola-Marymount are the two teams that earned single byes. Since Gonzaga will have to play BYU just for the right to get to play in the tournament finals, St. Mary's has to be considered the clear WCC tournament favorite. Outside of the Big Three, the team with the most scalps has been Loyola-Marymount. They have beaten St. Mary's, BYU and St. Louis already this season. A dark horse is a San Francisco team that just beat Gonzaga and is outscoring opponents in WCC play this season.

Complete 2012 Conference Tournament Previews

Below is my annual conference tournament preview post. As in the past, there are two things below. First, a calendar. You can come back and check this calendar each day to see which conferences are playing, and what games they'll be playing. Want to avoid opening round games and just watch whichever conferences have semis and finals that night? That info will be in the calendar.

Below the calendar are the tournament previews themselves. When this post initially goes live, not all of the previews will be completed. I want to wait until the brackets are all set so I can give a proper breakdown of key match-ups. So first up will be the conference tournaments that tip off this coming week.

To begin, here is the calendar:

Monday, February 27th:
First Round: Big South

Tuesday, February 28th:
First Round: Horizon

Wednesday, February 29th:
Quarterfinals: Atlantic Sun, Big South, Patriot
First Round: OVC, WCC

Thursday, March 1st:
Semifinals: Big South
Quarterfinals: Atlantic Sun, NEC, OVC
Second Round: WCC
First Round: America East, Missouri Valley

Friday, March 2nd:
Semifinals: Atlantic Sun, OVC
Quarterfinals: Horizon, Missouri Valley, WCC
First Round: Colonial, MAAC, SoCon

Saturday, March 3rd:
Championship: Atlantic Sun, Big South, OVC
Semifinals: Horizon, Missouri Valley, Patriot, WCC
Quarterfinals: America East, Big Sky, Colonial, MAAC, SoCon, Summit
First Round: Sun Belt

Sunday, March 4th:
Championship:, Missouri Valley
Semifinals: America East, Colonial, MAAC, NEC, SoCon
Quarterfinals: Summit, Sun Belt

Monday, March 5th:
Championship: Colonial, MAAC, SoCon, WCC
Semifinals: Summit, Sun Belt
First Round: MAC

Tuesday, March 6th:
Championship: Horizon, Summit, Sun Belt
Semifinals: Big Sky
First Round: Atlantic Ten, Big East, MEAC

Wednesday, March 7th:
Championship: Big Sky, NEC, Patriot
Quarterfinals: MEAC, Southland, SWAC
Second Round: Big East, MAC
First Round: Big 12, Conference USA, MEAC, Mountain West, Pac-12

Thursday, March 8th:
Semifinals: Southland
Quarterfinals: Big East, Big 12, Big West, Conference USA, MAC, MEAC, Mountain West, Pac-12, SWAC, WAC
First Round: ACC, Big Ten, SEC

Friday, March 9th:
Semifinals: Big East, Big 12, Big West, Conference USA, MAC, MEAC, Mountain West, Pac-12, SWAC, WAC
Quarterfinals: ACC, Atlantic Ten, Big Ten, SEC

Saturday, March 10th:
Championship: America East, Big East, Big 12, Big West, Conference USA, MAC, MEAC, Mountain West, Pac-12, Southland, SWAC, WAC
Semifinals: ACC, Atlantic Ten, Big Ten, SEC

Sunday, March 11th:
Championship: ACC, Atlantic Ten, Big Ten, SEC

Conference Tournament Previews:

America East
Atlantic Sun
Atlantic Ten
Big East
Big Sky
Big South
Big Ten
Big 12
Big West
Conference USA
Missouri Valley
Mountain West
Patriot League
Sun Belt

W-2 BP68

Two weeks from Selection Sunday. You might not realize it, but the first conference tournaments tip off on Monday. Less than 48 hours from now. I love the fact that almost every team in Division I gets to play in a conference tournament, meaning that well over 300 different teams still have a chance to be National Champions. I will have the first of my conference tournament previews out Sunday night.

There was only one change to the Field of 68 since the last bracket. VCU is now my pick to win the Colonial, replacing George Mason. Meanwhile, seven different teams were eliminated from at-large contention: Buffalo, Cleveland State, Duquesne, Kent State, La Salle, UCLA and Virginia Tech. That leaves 33 teams not in my bracket that still have a chance at an at-large bid.

My next bracket projection will be out after Wednesday night's games.

The following are my typical disclaimers:

If I projected your favorite team below where you think it deserves to be, it's because I hate your favorite team. If I projected a team above where you think it deserves to be, it's because I secretly love them and have an incredibly blind bias in their favor.

On a more serious note, this is a projection of the final bracket on Selection Sunday, and not a listing of how I think teams would be seeded if the season ended now. There's a difference.

Here we go:

1. KANSAS (BIG 12)

2. Michigan State
2. Missouri
2. Duke

3. Marquette
3. Georgetown
3. Baylor
3. Wisconsin

4. Michigan
4. Louisville

5. Florida
5. Indiana

6. Purdue
6. Saint Louis
6. Notre Dame

7. San Diego State
7. Virginia
7. Gonzaga

8. Kansas State
8. Iowa State
8. Vanderbilt

9. Creighton
9. Texas
9. Florida State

10. Cincinnati
10. BYU
10. Alabama
10. Washington

11. Seton Hall
11. UConn

12. West Virginia
12. Northwestern
12. Southern Miss
12. Arizona
12. Miami (Fl)

13. Xavier
13. Mississippi State

14. OHIO (MAC)



Teams seriously considered that just missed the cut:
St. Joseph's, Drexel, Colorado State, Oregon

Decent resumes, but not good enough:
South Florida, Illinois, Central Florida

Long shots, but still in the at-large discussion:
NC State, Dayton, Iowa, Minnesota, Marshall, Akron, Wyoming, Colorado, Arkansas, LSU, Tennessee, South Dakota State, Nevada

Still alive, but pretty much need a miracle:
Maryland, UMass, St. Bonaventure, Pittsburgh, Weber State, Oklahoma State, George Mason, Old Dominion, Northern Iowa, TCU, Stanford, Georgia, Mississippi

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Alabama Regains Their Form, Thumps Mississippi State

Alabama 67, Mississippi State 50
JaMychal Green returned from suspension here, and he played well, but it was Alabama's team defense that won this game by grinding Mississippi State inter utter frustration. They forced 8 steals and held Mississippi State to 0.86 PPP, their worst offensive performance in SEC play this season. This is what Alabama has done to teams most of the season - they're the second best defensive team in the conference (after Kentucky), and much of their offense comes off of their defense.

Alabama had those two tough losses after all of the suspensions, but they've bounced back with three straight wins to get to 8-6 in SEC play with a 9-8 record against the RPI Top 100 and a Sagarin ELO_CHESS that should move up to around 35th. They will play Auburn on Wednesday, and then at Ole Miss next Saturday. If they can win both games then they'll lock up their at-large bid. An upset loss in either game and then they'll need to win an SEC tournament game or they might have to sweat out Selection Sunday.

Mississippi State has now lost five straight games, and their at-large chances are starting to look a little bleak. They are now 6-8 in SEC play and 7-8 against the RPI Top 100, and their Sagarin ELO_CHESS will tumble out of the Top 50. If the season ended now they'd be right on the bubble, but that's not a good place to be since the bubble always tightens up over the final two weeks. The Bulldogs will play at South Carolina on Wednesday, and then at home against Arkansas next Saturday. I think they need to win both and then need at least one win in the SEC tournament. If they lose one of their final two regular season games, things will get bleak. They'll have to really make a run in the SEC tournament.

TCU 83, #21 New Mexico 64

This game was on the MTN, so it might as well have happened on Mars, but it was perhaps the craziest result of the day. It would be one thing for TCU to pull the upset of New Mexico... but to do it by 19? Everything was working for them, particularly in the second half. They hit 42% of their threes, forced 8 steals, and assisted on 65% of their made shots. Six different Horned Frogs players scored in double-digits, including Amric Fields, who scored 8 straight points to lift TCU's lead from two points to ten to blow the game open.

New Mexico has now lost two straight games since that seven game winning streak. They're now 8-4 in Mountain West play. They have wins over St. Louis, San Diego State and UNLV, but also have bad losses to Santa Clara and TCU. Their Sagarin ELO_CHESS is likely going to drop into the 30-35 range. Besides harming their resume, it also drags them into a tie with San Diego State and UNLV atop the Mountain West standings. Their remaining schedule should be pretty soft, with home games against Air Force and Boise State. And if we end up with a huge tie atop the Mountain West, somebody else is going to have to figure out the tiebreakers.

This win moves TCU to 7-5, which actually puts them in fourth place in the Mountain West. They're not a great team, but it will be a great accomplishment if they can finish in the top half of the conference. Their remaining schedule is pretty tough, though. They'll play at Wyoming on Tuesday, and at home against San Diego State next Saturday.

Pennsylvania 55, Harvard 54
With a controversial final call, the Ivy League has been turned upside down. With one final chance, down by a point, Harvard star Kyle Casey attacked the rim and slammed into Tyler Bernardini. It looked like a blocking foul to me, and you'd figure that any close call in that situation would go to the home team. But the refs called the charge, and that effectively ended the game.

Now, Harvard gets dragged into a virtual tie atop the Ivy League with Penn. Remember that if the Ivy standings end up in a tie at the end of the season, a playoff will happen to determine the auto bid winner. Last year, Harvard lost that playoff game to Princeton and ended up in the NIT. Will they earn the at-large bid this time around, should they fall? Maybe. I want Harvard to be in the NCAA Tournament, but I'm not as sanguine about their hopes as most people in the media are. They did beat Florida State, but that's their only really big win, and they have bad losses to Fordham and Penn. Their RPI is 38th, and their Sagarin ELO_CHESS will drop into the 35-40 range. If the season ended now they'd most likely be a Tournament team, but if they lose another game to UPenn? It depends on the bubble. Harvard needs to take care of business to avoid this issue. Their next game will be Friday night at Columbia.

Penn is now 9-2 in Ivy League play and 17-11 overall. They're not a Top 100 team, but at this point they control their own destiny. Win every game remaining and they'll earn the Ivy League's automatic bid. They'll try to start with a win on Friday night against Brown.

Kansas Beats Missouri In A Classic

#5 Kansas 87, #3 Missouri 86, OT
When Missouri beat Kansas in Mizzou Arena three weeks ago, I talked about how Missouri got every close call from the refs. This got some Missouri fans angry, who insisted that Kansas gets every call in Phog Allen. Well, no kidding. That's what home court advantage is. What you saw in this game were a disproportionate number of close calls going the way of Kansas, including that Phil Pressey foul of Tyshawn Taylor that put him to the line for the winning free throws with 8.3 seconds to go. Home court advantage isn't about refs making blatantly horrible calls - it's about refs giving the 50-50 calls to the home team. So the home team fans will think the game was reffed fairly, while the visiting team fans will tend to think that the ref was paid off and the game was stolen. Kansas fans were angry three weeks ago, and Missouri fans are mad today.

Thomas Robinson was the star of this game. With Jeff Withey made obsolete against the tiny, quick Missouri lineup, Robinson controlled the paint with 28 points, 12 rebounds, and the huge block at the end of regulation that sent this game to overtime. Marcus Denmon was the man for Missouri, scoring 28 points with 6-for-10 shooting behind the arc. For some incomprehensible reason, Missouri didn't get him the ball on that final possession in overtime.

This win means that Kansas clinches at least a share of the Big 12 regular season title. They'll clinch the outright title with a win in one of their two final games, or a loss by Missouri in one of their two final games. If Kansas wins the Big 12 tournament, they'll definitely be a 1 seed. Anything other than a Big 12 tournament title and they'll be a 1 seed or a 2 seed, depending on what happens in other conference tournaments.

I'm sure that Missouri fans are dismayed by this loss, but the reality is that it doesn't change much. They proved today that while Kansas is the better team, Missouri poses a match-up problem for them with their quickness. Jeff Withey has been the second best Kansas player this season, and he basically can't get on the floor against Missouri. That's a huge advantage that could pay off if these teams meet again in the Big 12 tournament title game. Missouri can still earn a 1 seed if they win out and earn the Big 12 tournament title.

Missouri's next game will be Wednesday against Iowa State. Kansas will play Monday at Oklahoma State.

Purdue 75, #13 Michigan 61
Michigan has taken more than 44% of their shots in Big Ten play behind the arc, and that style of play can be inconsistent if your shots aren't falling. Michigan was just launching threes and bricking them all day here, finishing 9-for-32 behind the arc (they finished 16-for-28 on twos). With players like Trey Burke and Tim Hardaway, Jr., there's no reason for them to often go minutes without getting the ball inside the paint.

DJ Byrd is back from suspension for Purdue (Kelsey Barlow is kicked off the team, though, so he won't be back), but the star here was Terone Johnson. Johnson finished 9-for-12 from the field and also had a pair of assists and a pair of steals. Robbie Hummel finished 3-for-4 behind the arc, including a pair of clutch threes late.

With many other bubble teams struggling today, this win firms up Purdue's place in the NCAA Tournament. They are now 9-7 in the Big Ten with wins over Michigan, Temple, Northwestern (twice), Miami (Fl) and Minnesota, along with bad losses to Butler and Penn State. Their Sagarin ELO_CHESS will move up close to 30th with this win. If the season ended now they'd likely be a 6-8 seed, and they can move up even further with some more wins. They shouldn't have too much trouble at home against Penn State on Wednesday, but then will have a chance for a big win at Indiana on March 4th.

This loss drops Michigan to 11-5 and effectively ends their hopes of a share of the Big Ten regular season title, but they're still close to locking up a bye through the first round of the Big Ten tournament. They are 9-6 against the RPI Top 50, with a Sagarin ELO_CHESS that will still be in the vicinity of 15th. So even with this loss, they'd probably be a 4 seed if the season ended now. They will finish the regular season with a pair of road games, at Illinois and Penn State. Neither will be a gimme.

VCU 89, George Mason 77
This game didn't have quite the thrilling finish of the match-up between these two teams a couple of weeks ago. VCU grabbed a double-digit lead midway through the first half, and the game was never really close after that. George Mason players seemed to get frustrated, picking up a couple of technicals in the second half. I don't blame them for being upset about the 47 free throw attempts that VCU got, but VCU was the better team. They assisted on 17 of 22 made baskets, and forced 15 steals. Bradford Burgess led the way with 31 points, including 5-for-11 behind the arc.

George Mason has turned the ball over on 22% of offensive possessions this season, which makes VCU a difficult opponents. VCU is leading the Colonial in steals per game (10.5) and forced turnovers per game (17.3). Because of that, and with this win, I now think that VCU is the team to beat in the CAA tournament.

But should VCU come up short in the CAA tournament, can they earn an at-large bid? They can, but it's iffy. They have no big wins and they have a bad loss to Georgia Tech. Their RPI is 59th and their Sagarin ELO_CHESS is right around 50th. Having those computer ratings puts them on the bubble, but the lack of big wins would very likely have VCU bound for the NIT if the season ended now. If they get to the CAA tournament final and lose a close game to a team like Drexel, though? They can spend Championship Week rooting for teams like Murray State and Wichita State, and they can hope for some good fortune. Or they can make their own good fortune by winning the CAA's auto bid. They'll play in the CAA quarterfinals next Saturday against either Northeastern or William & Mary.

This has been something of a frustrating season for George Mason. I thought preseason that they'd be a Top 25 team, but Jim Larranaga's departure meant that the team downgraded at head coach to Paul Hewitt, who promptly lost star Luke Hancock via transfer to Louisville. And now they head into the CAA tournament needing to win the auto bid to make the NCAA Tournament. They'll play Saturday against the winner of Georgia State vs Hofstra. A win there will likely set up a huge semifinal match-up with VCU.

Seton Hall Suffers A Bad Loss To Rutgers

Rutgers 77, Seton Hall 72, OT
This was a very frustrating loss for Seton Hall. Rutgers had not shot 50% or better on threes in any Big East game this year, but hit 10-for-15 here. A balanced attack got Seton Hall to overtime. But once you're in a close game like this, any single bad break can cost you the game, and that's what happened here. Seton Hall had the ball in a tie game with 45 seconds to go when Herb Pope was called for a really dicey illegal screen, which fouled him out of the game and gave Rutgers the ball. Jerome Seagers hit a three for Rutgers, and then Jordan Theodore's three bounced out. Win for Rutgers.

Seton Hall had won four of five, but this loss drops them to 8-9 in Big East play. They have wins over Georgetown, West Virginia and UConn, along with a dicey loss to Villanova. They are 8-8 against the RPI Top 100, and their Sagarin ELO_CHESS will fall into the 45-50 range. If the season ended now their quality wins would probably put them very narrowly into the NCAA Tournament, but they can't afford another bad loss. They have a week before their regular season finale at DePaul, a game that they definitely can't afford to lose. With a win there and a win in the Big East tournament, they should be in pretty good shape on Selection Sunday.

Rutgers is only 13-16 on the season, but they have a nice set of scalps. They've beaten Florida, Notre Dame, UConn, Cincinnati and now Seton Hall. If they can win their first round game in the Big East tournament, they could be a scary second round opponent against a team like South Florida or Cincinnati playing to try to earn a spot in the NCAA Tournament. Their next game will be Thursday against Villanova.

#7 North Carolina 54, Virginia 51
Virginia still hasn't beaten an elite team since the Big Ten/ACC Challenge. They have lost games by three points or less to North Carolina, Duke and Florida State. And they hung in this game (and actually led for much of it) despite Mike Scott struggling badly with North Carolina's defense length. He finished with only 6 points on 3-for-13 shooting, the first time he's been held below double-digit scoring in ACC play. Virginia had their chances down the stretch, including a wide open Sammy Zeglinski three to tie the game up with a few seconds to go that he just missed.

Virginia's resume is looking dangerously bubblicious. They are 8-6 in the ACC and 1-4 against the RPI Top 50, and their Sagarin ELO_CHESS will likely fall into the 25-30 range. They will play Florida State at home on Thursday, which will be a very important opportunity to grab another big win. It's never good to go into Selection Sunday with zero RPI Top 50 wins in the calendar year. If they can win that game and then win at Maryland on March 4th, then they should be safe for an at-large bid.

North Carolina moves to 12-2. They'll play Maryland on Wednesday, but that's not the game that matters. North Carolina will play at Duke next Saturday, and the winner will almost certainly be the ACC regular season champion. A win over Duke followed by the ACC tournament title would make the Tar Heels a very compelling 1 seed candidate.

Georgia 76, #11 Florida 62
This game was never really that close. Georgia scored the first points of the game, and there were zero ties or lead changes the rest of the way. The Bulldogs led by double-digits for most of the second half. Florida did make a little run late, but 9-for-10 free throw shooting by Georgia down the stretch allowed them to expand the lead in the final couple of minutes. Florida tends to struggle when they're not hitting threes, which is what happened here. They finished 5-for-23 on threes for the game. Georgia had five players in double-digits, led by Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, who had 18 points on 8-for-13 shooting, along with 4 steals.

Kentucky locked up the SEC regular season title just as this game was tipping off, and Florida is still in second place in the conference, but this loss does do damage to their resume. They have wins over Alabama, Florida State and Arizona, along with bad losses to Rutgers and Georgia. Their RPI is still 19th, but their Sagarin ELO_CHESS will likely fall to around 25th. If the season ended now, you could make an argument that Florida would fall as low as a 7 or 8 seed. They will get two chances for big wins down the stretch, though. They'll play at Vanderbilt on Tuesday, and then at home against Kentucky on March 4th.

Georgia moves to 4-10 in SEC play, but with a road game at Kentucky up next (on Thursday). They could need a win over South Carolina next Saturday to avoid last place in the final SEC standings.

St. Louis Falls to Rhode Island, Are They In Trouble?

Rhode Island 64, St. Louis 62
St. Louis is 2-4 in games decided by five points or less or in overtime. They are 23-2 in all other games. That wouldn't be a huge problem against a better schedule, and if those losses were all against teams like Temple. But neither of those is true. St. Louis has only played two teams in the RPI Top 50 all season (Temple and New Mexico) and lost both of them. They already had dicey losses to Loyola-Marymount and UMass, and now they have a horrible loss to Rhode Island.

St. Louis was undone here by an over-reliance on the three. They took 29 of them, nearly half of their shots. In the final 10:30 of the game, St. Louis scored only 9 points, hitting 2-for-9 behind the arc. Rhode Island went on a 21-9 run over that stretch, capped off by the Billy Baron game winner.

But it's the soft St. Louis resume that is the concern now. They're one of the 25 best teams in the country, but the Selection Committee doesn't pick the 37 best teams, they pick the 37 best resumes. The St. Louis Sagarin ELO_CHESS will fall close to 40th with this loss, and the lack of big wins is a huge problems (compared to bubble teams like Northwestern, Seton Hall and Iowa State that do have big wins). The Billikens will play Xavier on Tuesday, and then at Duquesne next Saturday. I think they need to win both or they're going to have work left to do in the A-10 tournament.

This season, Rhode Island is 3-0 against Dayton, St. Louis and UMass. They are 0-11 against the rest of the conference. Doesn't make sense to me either. They're still two games back of the final spot in the A-10 tournament with three games to go, though, so the odds of making the A-10 tournament are slim. This win will be the highlight of their season.

St. John's 61, #18 Notre Dame 58
You know what every other sports writer is saying about this game? How great St. John's played to pull this big upset. You know what I'm going to say? St. John's didn't play very well. Notre Dame shot 4-for-31 on threes, and somehow St. John's only won by three points (playing at home, no less). The Irish forced 9 more turnovers than they allowed, grabbed three extra offensive rebounds, and slowed the game down to their type of pace (only 64 possessions). But when you shoot 4-for-31 on threes? It's pretty hard to beat anybody.

This would be more of a problem for Notre Dame had they not just won 9 straight games. They're still fine for an at-large bid with a 12-4 Big East record and an 8-4 record against the RPI Top 50. But this loss does two things. First, it will drop them a line or two in the NCAA Tournament bracket. Second, it puts at risk their chances of a double-bye in the Big East tournament. They'll play at Georgetown on Monday. A win will essentially lock up that double bye. A loss will potentially drop them into 5th place behind Cincinnati.

St. John's moves to 6-10 in Big East play with this win. They will have to play in the first round of the Big East tournament, but it's looking increasingly likely that they'll get a very winnable game there. They will finish the regular season on the road, at Pittsburgh and Rutgers.

Iowa State 65, Kansas State 61
Kansas State's inconsistency strikes again! In the final 2:30 of this game, they shot 0-for-3 from the field, hit 1-for-4 at the free throw line and turned it over. They hit only 56% of their free throws here, although they have hit 67% or worse in each of the past four seasons, so poor free throw shooting is par for the course under Frank Martin. Scott Christopherson was the star for Iowa State, hitting 5-for-5 behind the arc and finishing with 29 points.

Kansas State came into this game off of road victories against Baylor and Missouri, so they can be forgiven a mediocre home loss. But it drops them to 8-8 in conference play, emphasizing that they still have work to do to assure their spot in the NCAA Tournament. They have wins over Baylor, Missouri (twice), Texas and Alabama, along with a pair of iffy losses to Oklahoma. I think that they need two more wins to lock up an at-large bid for sure. They'll play at Texas A&M on Tuesday, and then at home against Oklahoma State next Saturday.

This win moves Iowa State to 11-5 in Big 12 play with wins over Kansas, Kansas State (twice) and Texas, along with iffy losses to Drake, Northern Iowa and Oklahoma State. The Cyclones are 3-4 against the RPI Top 50, and their Sagarin ELO_CHESS will move up close to 30th. They will finish the season at Missouri on Wednesday, and at home against Baylor next Saturday. I think that a win in either game will basically lock Iowa State into the NCAA Tournament. Either opponent would be a big scalp, and there's just no way that a conference as strong as the Big 12 will have a 12-6 team denied.

Cincinnati Beats Louisville, Nears The Bubble

Cincinnati 60, #17 Louisville 56
There are few teams as dependent on three-point shooting as Louisville, though you wouldn't think it from the stats. They are only taking 33.3% of their shots behind the arc, and only scoring 26.0% of their offense behind the arc. Both are close to the national averages (32.9% and 27.6%, respectively). But the three-pointer opens up their dribble-drive offense, and when it's not falling they tend to lose. In Big East play, Louisville has hit fewer than 1/3 of their threes six times: they are 1-5 in those games. They have hit more than 1/3 of their threes six times, and are 6-0 in those games. Their 1-for-14 shooting behind the arc in this game was their single worst performance of the season. Naturally, they lost the game.

Louisville's cold shooting was Cincinnati's gain. The Bearcats have won five of six to move to 10-5 in Big East play. They are 6-5 against the RPI Top 100 with wins over Georgetown, Notre Dame, Louisville, UConn and Seton Hall, along with bad losses to St. John's, Presbyterian and Rutgers. Their Sagarin ELO_CHESS is up to 43rd. There's no question that they'd be a Tournament team if the season ended now, but unless they go 2-1 or better down the stretch they're going to enter the Big East tournament with work left to do.

Louisville drops to 9-6 in Big East play with this loss, making it unlikely that they'll earn one of the four double-byes in the Big East tournament. They're 8-6 against the RPI Top 100 and their Sagarin ELO_CHESS is 21st, so they're in no real risk of falling near the bubble, but a finish worse than 11-7 in Big East play will harm their Tournament seed. With a road game at Syracuse looming as their regular season finale, it's important that Louisville take care of business at home against Pittsburgh (tomorrow) and USF (Wednesday).

UTEP 76, Southern Miss 68, 2OT
I'm sure that some people are tired of me talking about "luck", but Southern Miss was another one of those teams that had results that didn't match up with how good their team actually is. Despite being rated near 50th in the nation by Pomeroy and the Sagarin PREDICTOR they've been ranked as high as 28th in the AP Poll, and their RPI has been in the Top 15 for much of the season. The reason? A 9-2 record in games decided by five points or less or in overtime. Well, it was 9-2... it's now 9-4 thanks to a loss to Houston and now this double-overtime loss to UTEP.

Southern Miss has a bunch of excellent scorers. The fact that a talent like Darnell Dodson is coming off the bench is a testament to that. But what I've noticed every time I watch them play is that their perimeter defense is way too aggressive, and they're poor as a team at help defense. The result is that they make it way too easy to beat them and get to the hoop. This is a characteristic that I think will give them particular problems with Memphis in the Conference USA tournament, and it's why they are only 10th in Conference USA in eFG%, and it's why they've allowed 1.00 PPP in conference play (tied for the 9th best defense in the conference). The only teams in Conference USA allowing more points per possession in conference play are East Carolina and Houston, teams that are a combined 7-19 in conference play right now.

The Golden Eagles still have a 9-3 record against the RPI Top 100, which seems super impressive until you break it down. They've only beaten one team that I currently have in the NCAA Tournament - Memphis. Meanwhile, they have bad losses against Denver, Houston, UTEP and UAB. Their Sagarin ELO_CHESS has fallen to 36th. Having an ELO_CHESS that high is almost always a guarantee of a Tournament bid, but with their lack of big wins it's a bit iffy. I'm pretty confident that Southern Miss would be a Tournament team if the season ended now, but unless they win their final three regular season games they're going to enter the C-USA tournament with work left to do. Their next game will be against Rice. Their toughest game remaining (by far) will be a road game at Marshall on March 3rd.

This win moves UTEP to 7-6, which puts them in a tie for 6th, and only a game out of 4th. It would be huge if they could somehow steal 4th place as the top four teams in Conference USA earn a bye to the quarterfinals. Their next game is their toughest remaining, on the road at UCF.

Iowa 67, #15 Wisconsin 66
I'm not sure I've seen a player all season who's been as hot as Matt Gatens has been the past two games. After scoring 30 points with 7-for-10 shooting behind the arc against Indiana, he repeated that performance here with another 7-for-10 game behind the arc and 34 total points. Considering the fact that Wisconsin is probably the best team defending threes in the nation (even after this game they still lead the nation with only 3.5 made threes allowed per game), and how much effort Wisconsin put into stopping him (switching defenders, doubling, getting physical), it was just remarkable. He was hitting fadeaway threes with hands in his face. At that point, if you're Wisconsin, you just have to applaud that performance and move on.

As for Wisconsin, they managed to lose by only a point despite not only the Gatens performance, but also arguably the worst performance Jordan Taylor has given them all season (9 points, 4 assists, 4 turnovers). I've noticed a whole bunch of people talking about how "disappointing" Taylor has been this season, and how much he has regressed. It seems to me that the people saying this are the same ones that didn't realize Taylor was an elite player last season until the advanced statistical community beat them over the head for a couple of months. Taylor is currently rated the 7th best player in the nation by Pomeroy's KPOY ratings. If being the 7th best player in the nation is a huge disappointment, I don't think any of his opponents would like to see him when he's exceeding expectations.

To be fair, Taylor's 3P% is down this season (34%, compared to 43% last season), but I think that has more to do with not having Jon Leuer around this season. He's had to take a lot of desperation threes at the end of the shot clock this season. His 2P% is basically the same as it was last season (43.2% vs 43.6%), and his A/TO ratio is still an excellent 2.6.

In my view, the criticism of Taylor comes from the same place as the continued effort of the national media to ignore Virginia's Mike Scott. National media types aren't paying attention to efficiency. They're looking for spectacular plays - dunks, blocks, steals. They want to see great athletes running the floor and scoring lots of points. Guys that play on teams with slower tempos get ignored, even though teams get the same number of points if they hit their basket at 10 on the shot clock or 30. Ken Pomeroy likes to jokingly calls the media "pacists" for this. How much more attention has Austin Rivers gotten than Mike Scott? And all this despite the fact that Scott is the star of a Top 25 team, and is unquestionably the best player in the ACC, and a guy who should be a candidate for National POY. But Scott is held back in national perception by the same thing Taylor is held back by - pace.

With a win here, Wisconsin would have just about locked up a top four seed in the Big Ten tournament (and the first round bye in the Big Ten tournament that goes with it). They're now only a game clear of Indiana and Purdue with a road game at Ohio State up next (tomorrow). The good news for Wisconsin is that their final two match-ups will be winnable home games (against Minnesota and Illinois, two teams they've already beaten on the road), and they have the head-to-head tiebreaker against both teams that are a game behind them in the standings (Indiana and Purdue). So even if Wisconsin loses to Ohio State, they'll still clinch that bye if they take care of business at home.

Iowa moves to 7-8 in Big Ten play, starting up the bubble talk, but I'm skeptical. They are 9-13 against the RPI Top 200 and their Sagarin ELO_CHESS is 77th. If the season ended now, not only would Iowa not be in the Tournament, but they wouldn't even be in the Selection Committee discussion. I doubt they'd even get into the NIT. The only way I can see them having a shot will be if they win their final three regular season games, not one of which will be "easy". If they somehow win these next three games, only then will they merit serious bubble consideration. Their next game will be tomorrow at Illinois.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

W-2.5 BP68

It's that time of the year. You can smell it in the air. Less than a week from the start of conference tournaments, I promise to have the first of my conference tournament previews up within a few days.

Within the bracket itself, there weren't too many changes. All of the projected conference champions stayed the same. The one change to the Field of 68 was Xavier moving in and Illinois dropping out. That said, I don't feel good about Xavier (or Miami or Northwestern, for that matter). All of them have a <50% chance of getting into the Tournament. As I've said many times, we will see several bids stolen during the conference tournaments, and those last few at-large teams are the going to be the victims.

If there's a story with the bubble, it's the number of mid-major teams on it. All five of the teams "seriously considered" that were left out are from mid-major conferences. Okay, I was just joking about Oregon... only four of the five are mid-majors.

There were only three teams eliminated from at-large contention since Saturday: Denver, Illinois State and Rutgers. That leaves 40 teams not in my bracket that still have a chance at an at-large bid.

My next bracket projection will be out after Saturday night's games.

The following are my typical disclaimers:

If I projected your favorite team below where you think it deserves to be, it's because I hate your favorite team. If I projected a team above where you think it deserves to be, it's because I secretly love them and have an incredibly blind bias in their favor.

On a more serious note, this is a projection of the final bracket on Selection Sunday, and not a listing of how I think teams would be seeded if the season ended now. There's a difference.

Here we go:

1. KANSAS (BIG 12)

2. Missouri
2. Michigan State
2. Duke

3. Marquette
3. Georgetown
3. Baylor
3. Louisville

4. Wisconsin
4. Michigan
4. Florida

5. Saint Louis
5. Indiana

6. Purdue
6. Virginia

7. Notre Dame
7. San Diego State
7. Kansas State

8. Vanderbilt
8. Iowa State
8. Gonzaga

9. Creighton
9. Texas
9. Florida State

10. Seton Hall
10. BYU
10. Cincinnati

11. UConn
11. Alabama
11. West Virginia
11. Washington

12. Southern Miss
12. Mississippi State
12. Northwestern
12. Miami (Fl)

13. Arizona
13. Xavier

14. OHIO (MAC)



Teams seriously considered that just missed the cut:
St. Joseph's, Drexel, VCU, Colorado State, Oregon

Decent resumes, but not good enough:
NC State, South Florida, Illinois, Central Florida, Colorado, LSU

Long shots, but still in the at-large discussion:
Maryland, Dayton, UMass, Iowa, Minnesota, Marshall, Akron, Wyoming, Stanford, Arkansas, Tennessee, South Dakota State, Nevada

Still alive, but pretty much need a miracle:
Virginia Tech, Duquesne, La Salle, St. Bonaventure, Pittsburgh, Weber State, Oklahoma State, Old Dominion, Cleveland State, Buffalo, Kent State, Northern Iowa, TCU, UCLA, Georgia, Mississippi

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Temple With Another Impressive Road Win

#22 Temple 80, La Salle 79, OT
La Salle is a quality team, and they gave Temple a good fight. Khalif Wyatt had 25 points for Temple, but he almost cost his team a victory by losing track of the clock at the end of regulation and letting time run out while he had his back to the basket. If there was something more fundamental that was worrying for Temple it was ball handling. They are third best in the Atlantic Ten with only 11.4 turnovers per game, but La Salle forced 11 steals. A big part of that goes on Juan Fernandez, who had a terrible game (7 assists, 5 turnovers and 2 points in 36 minutes).

But Temple escaped with the win, their 11th straight. That stretch features solid road victories over St. Bonaventure, Charlotte and La Salle. They will have another tough road game on Saturday at St. Joseph's. They should be pretty solid favorites for their final two regular season games, so if they can get past St. Joe's then I'll expect them to be the 1 seed in the Atlantic Ten tournament.

La Salle is not quite eliminated from at-large consideration, but they really needed to grab this win. They are now 18-10 overall and 7-6 in A-10 play with a win over Xavier along with bad losses to Delaware, Robert Morris and Richmond. They are only 10-10 against the RPI Top 200 and their Sagarin ELO_CHESS is around 95th. They'll have to win their final three regular season games to stay alive for an at-large bid, beginning with a game at Fordham on Saturday.

#18 Notre Dame 71, West Virginia 44
Notre Dame had a 71.6 eFG% in this game. West Virginia had a 32.4 eFG%. That's about all you need to know. Kevin Jones got 15 points on 6-for-12 shooting, but for the most part Notre Dame bottled him up and forced his teammates to beat them. And outside of Jones, the rest of the West Virginia roster has just been disappointing, and they continued to disappoint here. It's pretty surprising to me how much Truck Bryant has regressed. He does much less facilitating and creating than he did in the past, and instead seems more than happy to launch jumpers. Last year he assisted on 23.4% of baskets made when he was on the floor and took 3.9 three-pointers per game. This year he has assisted on only 15.7 baskets made when he was on the floor, and has taken 7.1 three-pointers per game.

The Irish have suddenly won 9 straight games to move to 12-3 in Big East play. It's very likely that they'll end up finishing in either second place or third place in the final standings. They're now 9-6 against the RPI Top 100 and their Sagarin ELO_CHESS is up to around 25th. If the season ended now, they'd be somewhere between a 5 and a 7 seed. They will play at St. John's on Saturday, and will try not to look ahead to a huge road game at Georgetown on Monday night.

This loss drops West Virginia to 7-8, putting their at-large hopes in peril. They will play Marquette on Friday, which will be a great chance for a big win. But a loss there will make their final two games (vs DePaul, at USF) nearly must-wins. It will be hard to justify an 8-10 Big East team this year considering that a team like USF is 10-5. West Virginia's Sagarin ELO_CHESS is 50th, so they're still right on the bubble, but they need to get to 9-9 or they're going to have a whole bunch of work to do in the Big East tournament. I'll also note that this loss means that West Virginia has an uphill battle avoid being stuck playing in the first round of the Big East tournament.

#6 Michigan State 66, Minnesota 61
It's rare that you see a team's season deflate as quickly and obviously as it did for Minnesota here. Minnesota led for almost the entire second half, but Michigan State closed the game on a 19-7 run where Minnesota just seemed frantic and scared. You could see the same feelings in the faces of the fans in the crowd - once the lead started evaporating, the sense of dread just grew. Michigan State didn't play their best ball of the season here, but they were calm and efficient. They committed only 5 turnovers all game, and assisted on 15 of 22 made baskets.

Even with a win here, Minnesota would have had an uphill battle to the bubble. But with this loss, they have effectively punched their ticket to the NIT. They are 5-10 in Big Ten play with a couple of tough games to go (including a road game at Wisconsin next week). If they somehow win their final three games to get to 8-10 then they'd enter the Big Ten tournament with an at-large scenario, but I don't see that happening. And no 7-11 Big Ten team has ever earned an at-large bid.

Michigan State moves to 12-3 with this win, still a game clear of Ohio State in the loss column. The Big Ten tournament will be the key for them, because they can lose another regular season game and will still be a 1 seed if they win the Big Ten tournament. Although with the depth of the Big Ten, it's going to be difficult for any team to navigate to three straight wins in Indianapolis.

Colorado State Closes In On The Bubble

Colorado State 71, #21 New Mexico 63
New Mexico was a little overdue for a letdown game, and Colorado State took full advantage. New Mexico is leading the Mountain West in both 2P% and 3P% against in conference play, but Colorado State seemed to match up with them very well. New Mexico has a lot of size (their best player is 6'9", 245 pounds), but Colorado State is small and quick and they seemed to run New Mexico off the floor. The Rams don't play anybody over 6'6", and for most of the game played Pierce Hornung (6'5", 200 pounds) as their center. Hornung did his job on the boards (15, including 5 on the offensive end), opening everything else up for the Colorado State guards. 10-for-11 free throw shooting down the stretch helped, too.

The bubble is tightening up, and it was crucial that Colorado State get another big win. They also have a win over San Diego State to go with bad losses to TCU and Boise State. They are 7-8 against the RPI Top 100. Their RPI is 25th, though that's a bit ridiculous. Their 60th in the Sagarin ELO_CHESS ratings is a more realistic measurement of where their resume stands. If the season ended now, Colorado State would almost surely be an NIT team, but they'd be a team that the Selection Committee would have to at least consider. Their final three regular season games will be at San Diego State, at home against UNLV, and on the road at Air Force. I think that wins in two of those games and then a win in the Mountain West tournament will give them an excellent chance at an at-large bid. I'll also note that wins in two of their final three games will probably assure that they'll get to avoid playing either UNLV, New Mexico or San Diego State in the Mountain West tournament quarterfinals. Anyway, anything less than three more wins and they'll end up needing help from other teams to get into the Tournament. The San Diego State game is up next, on Saturday.

New Mexico came into this game having won six straight, including victories over all of their top conference rivals (UNLV, San Diego State, Colorado State and Wyoming) during that stretch. They were a bubble team a month ago, but even after this loss they still appear to be safely clear of the bubble. They're 8-4 against the RPI Top 100 with a Sagarin ELO_CHESS that is 24th. They should have their at-large bid clinched before the Mountain West tournament tips off. Their next game will be Saturday at TCU.

#13 Michigan 67, Northwestern 55, OT
A heartbreaking loss for Northwestern. Yet again they come up just short in a crucial game. They survived an ice cold 3-for-16 shooting night behind the arc to have a chance in the final minute of regulation, but couldn't come through. One moment that stood out to me was when John Shurna had a wide open look at a three with around 50 seconds to go. Even if he had missed, it would have been a 2-for-1 opportunity, so Northwestern probably would have gotten the ball back. But perhaps spooked by the team's bad shooting, Shurna held the ball, and by the time Northwestern eventually took a shot the clock had run under 35 seconds, allowing Michigan to hold for one. Northwestern played excellent defense, anticipating the Trey Burke isolation and trapping him, but they would have had another chance to win (or would have already been winning) had Shurna shot the ball.

This wasn't a "must-win" game. Northwestern can still earn an at-large bid. But they're going to have to win at least two of their final three regular season games, and unless they sweep those three games they're going to enter the Big Ten tournament needing a win or two. They will play at Penn State on Saturday before coming home to play a huge home game against Ohio State. An upset win there would really turn things around.

Michigan is now 11-4 in Big Ten play, meaning that they've locked up a spot in the NCAA Tournament. They have wins over Ohio State, Wisconsin, Michigan State, Indiana, Purdue, Minnesota, Iowa State, Memphis and Northwestern (twice). Their Sagarin ELO_CHESS is all the way up to 10th. With a strong finish they can easily get themselves into the discussion for a 2 seed.

#1 Kentucky 73, Mississippi State 64
A horrible night for Mississippi State. On a night where so many bubble teams got big victories, Mississippi State had a chance for the biggest of the bunch. The Bulldogs jumped out to a quick 12-2 lead, and led by 13 at halftime. Kentucky didn't take their first lead until 4:10 to go, but Mississippi State was already in full collapse mode. They scored four points in the final six minutes.

There's nothing wrong with losing to Kentucky, of course. But it's a huge missed opportunity. Mississippi State is now only 6-7 in SEC play, and I don't think they can afford to fall below 8-8 or they're going to be in big trouble when the SEC tournament tips off. Their Sagarin ELO_CHESS is now 50th, and their RPI is actually 61st. They have a key game coming up on Saturday at a potentially-still-shorthanded Alabama team. A win there will, at least temporarily, put Mississippi State back into the Field of 68.

Kentucky has just about locked up a 1 seed. They'd need a couple of bad losses to blow it now. They've also clinched at least a share of the SEC regular season title, and will have a chance to clinch the outright title against Vanderbilt on Saturday.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Ending The Road Woes: Kansas St Beats Missouri

Kansas State 78, #3 Missouri 68
Kansas State has been known for some time as a squad that is far better at home than on the road. Last season they finished 7-1 at home in Big 12 play and only 3-5 on the road. And at one point this season they were 2-4 in road games, with the only two wins coming against conference bottom-feeders Texas Tech and Oklahoma State. But now? They've won consecutive road games at Baylor and Missouri. A tremendous week that not only puts to bed the worries about Kansas State away from home, but that also pulls them off the NCAA Tournament bubble and safely into the Field of 68.

More than anything, the Missouri defense just broke down here. Kansas State's perimeter players were able to attack the rim at will. They took 43 of their 52 shots inside the arc, hitting 51% of them. Missouri's defense isn't great (it's their spectacularly efficient offense that has carried them this season), but this might be the worst defense I've seen them play all year.

This loss means that Missouri's only real chance of a Big 12 regular season title is to leave Phog Allen with a win on Saturday. It's a tall task, but a 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament is still possible without that win. If they lose to Kansas but win every other game, including the Big 12 tournament title, I think that will still be enough for a 1 seed.

Kansas State is now 8-7 in Big 12 play with wins over Missouri (twice), Baylor, Texas and Alabama, with only a couple of bad losses to Oklahoma. Their Sagarin ELO_CHESS will move up close to 25th after this win. They will play Iowa State on Saturday, and then at Texas A&M next Tuesday. Wins in both of those games should be enough to lock Kansas State into the NCAA Tournament.

Seton Hall 73, #8 Georgetown 55
It's been a big night for bubble teams, and perhaps none had a bigger night than Seton Hall. This has been a bad offensive team, entering this game 13th in the Big East in eFG% and 15th with 0.94 PPP. But this was just one of those days where they couldn't miss a shot. Seton Hall finished with a 70.7 eFG% and 1.35 PPP. It's even more amazing when you consider that Georgetown came into this game leading the Big East in eFG% and PPP against in conference play. It's a statistical fluke, but that won't matter on Selection Sunday.

Seton Hall was reeling a couple of weeks ago with six straight losses, but I never dropped them out of my bracket because not a single one of those losses was a "bad" loss. They took advantage when their schedule eased up, and now they have have a big road victory over Georgetown. They are 8-8 in Big East play with a 4-7 record against the RPI Top 50 and a Sagarin ELO_CHESS that will move into the Top 40. If the season ended now they'd be an at-large team for sure. Their final two conference games are at home against Rutgers and on the road at DePaul. Wins in both games should earn them an NCAA Tournament bid.

This loss puts Georgetown at risk of not getting the double-bye in the Big East tournament (the top four teams will earn double byes). For the time being they are in 5th place, one loss behind South Florida. I expect USF to struggle down the stretch with their schedule, but now Georgetown has Louisville and Cincinnati breathing down their throat as well. Their Sagarin ELO_CHESS will also drop outside the Top 15, so there is a risk of them falling into the 5-7 seed range if they stumble down the stretch.

Maryland 75, Miami (Fl) 70
Miami entered this game in a precarious spot. They were, in my opinion, one of the last few teams in the NCAA Tournament. It's a bad spot to be because there will always be several teams that reach up and grab Tournament spots in the final week of the season. There will be auto bids stolen, and there will be teams that win a few games in a row to earn at-large bids. And on a day where several bubble teams had huge wins, Miami doubled the pain for themselves with this bad loss. The difference in this game, honestly, was free throw shooting. Maryland hit 86% as a team, including 9 straight in the final 45 seconds of the game.

This loss drops Miami to 7-6 in ACC play. They have that big win over Duke, but it's their only against the RPI Top 75. They are only 3-10 against the RPI Top 100, and their Sagarin ELO_CHESS will fall into the 55-60 range. One win alone won't put a team in the NCAA Tournament, even a win Duke. If the season ended now they'd be NIT-bound. They will need to win at least two of their final three games to still be on the bubble heading into the ACC tournament. Their next game will be Sunday against Florida State.

Maryland is, surprisingly, in 7th place in the ACC at 6-7. It's been a solid first season under Mark Turgeon, and they should be fine once he gets a couple of full recruiting classes under his belt. Their next game will be Saturday at Georgia Tech.

Is South Florida The Worst 10-4 Team In Big East History?

South Florida 56, Pittsburgh 47
South Florida has had an excellent season - by far their best since joining the Big East. They're a borderline Top 50 team and getting close to the NCAA Tournament bubble. But that said, the fact that they are now 10-4 in Big East play is mind-boggling when you look at some of the stats. South Florida is 1-6 against the RPI Top 50 and 4-7 against the RPI Top 100. They are rated 69th in the Pomeroy ratings. To put that in comparison, Illinois is 4-7 against the RPI Top 50, 6-10 against the RPI Top 100, 63rd in the Pomeroy ratings.... and 5-10 in the Big Ten. It shows you the vast difference in quality between those two conferences this year.

That said, South Florida's won-loss record is only partially due to the overall strength/weakness of the Big East. A big part of it is their schedule within the conference. According to Pomeroy. USF has played the easiest conference schedule so far of any Big East team. They haven't had to play Syracuse, Louisville, West Virginia or Cincinnati yet. And I have bad news: those are their four remaining opponents. I think that South Florida needs to get a split in those two games. If they lose three of four then they'll be 11-7 in Big East play heading into the Big East tournament with work left to do. They'll end up playing in the second round of the Big East tournament against a team like UConn or Seton Hall, and I won't like their chances. Their next game will be tomorrow night at Syracuse.

This loss should finally put to bed the Pitt at-large talk. They had responded to their 8 game losing streak by winning 4 straight. But they've now replied to that winning streak by losing 4 straight. Too many things have gone wrong this year. You can see the frustration on the face of every Pitt player. I never thought I would see a team with a coach as good as Jamie Dixon have a season like this, but I guess anything is possible. They are now 4-11 in Big East play and will play next on Sunday at Louisville.

#14 Baylor 77, Texas 72
The brutal luck for Texas in close games continues. Texas is now 1-8 in games decided by six points or less. I understand that casual fans tend to buy into the mainstream media's post hoc rationalization on clutch play, that somehow elite teams will "find ways to win" close games, but it's all nonsense. The stats say that when games are very tight, the best and worst teams will all win around 50% of the time. Plot Pomeroy Luck factor vs Pomeroy rating - there is no correlation. Last night I recommended this post on luck, which I wrote back in December.

Speaking of Pomeroy Luck factor, it's no surprise that Texas is by far the unluckiest team in the Pomeroy Top 50. The next unluckiest teams, though? Ohio State and Memphis, two other teams that are very much underrated by the media and the human polls. The luckiest team in the Pomeroy Top 50? Baylor, interestingly enough.

What is the future for Texas? I looked for other teams that were borderline Top 25 squads that ended up on the bubble because of horrific luck and came up with two decent comparisons from the past decade. One was the 2006-07 Mississippi State team that went 1-7 in games decided by five or less. Despite being a Top 25 team in Pomeroy, they ended up in the NIT. Another comparison is the 2004-05 NC State team that was rated 20th in Pomeroy but 1-6 in games decided by five points or less. They made the NCAA Tournament as a 10 seed and went to the Sweet 16 (winning a game by 3 points along the way). Obviously Texas will be a serious Sweet 16 threat should they make the NCAA Tournament (and there's a good chance that as a 10 or 11 seed they'll be favored in Vegas against whichever 7 or 6 seed they are matched up against), but they're going to need two more wins to avoid the NIT. They'll need to take care of business at Texas Tech (on Saturday) and at home against Oklahoma (next Wednesday).

This is a huge upset win for Baylor to turn around the momentum of their season. After getting swept by Missouri and Kansas, they were starting to get the reputation as a team that couldn't beat elite opponents. A home loss to Kansas State coming into this was particularly worrying. Now they're back to a comfortable 10-5 in Big 12 play with a couple of easy home games (Oklahoma and Texas Tech) coming up next. They'd need to have a terrible collapse in the final few games to end up with anything worse than a 4 seed in the NCAA Tournament.

Oregon 68, Stanford 64
This game just typified everything Pac-12 for me. Particularly down the stretch, the play was just so sloppy that both teams looked like they were trying to blow the game. Here are the stats for both teams combined in the final 2:45 of regulation: 0-for-6 shooting, 3 turnovers, 3 fouls, 2 points made on free throws. Yuck. Stanford was actually the better team for most of the game, but they couldn't do anything right late in the game. In the final eight minutes they had four turnovers and two made field goals.

And this is more than a demoralizing loss for Stanford. It's also a near-fatal blow for their at-large hopes, which had looked pretty good a month ago. They've lost six of nine and are only 8-7 in Pac-12 play and 7-9 against the RPI Top 200. Their RPI is 102nd and their Sagarin ELO_CHESS is 89th. Hard to see any way that they can get an at-large bid now. They currently sit 7th in the Pac-12 standings. They'll want to finish there or in 6th so that they can stay in the bottom half of the Pac-12 tournament bracket and avoid California, the one legitimately good team in the conference. Their next game will be Thursday at Colorado.

Oregon moves to 10-5 in Pac-12 play with this win. Their Sagarin ELO_CHESS is up to 62nd, but they're only 2-7 against the RPI Top 100. I think that if they can win their final three regular season games, it should be enough to get them on or very close to the bubble. But anything less than that and they're probably playing for the automatic bid or bust in the Pac-12 tournament. Their next game will be Sunday at Oregon State. That will be their toughest remaining regular season game.