Tuesday, February 07, 2012

UConn Is Playing Their Way Into The NIT

#23 Louisville 80, UConn 59
Things are going from bad to worse for UConn. Jim Calhoun has yet another health issue and may not return to the bench this season, and not only is this UConn's fifth loss in their last six games, but it was an absolute annihilation. Louisville actually led by as many as 30 points. The Cardinals dominated the boards, committed fewer turnovers, and hit 44% of their threes. As has often been the case when Louisville has succeeded this season, Peyton Siva (7 points, 9 assists) was more of a distributor than a primary scorer, and it was Chris Smith that picked up the scoring load (4-for-6 behind the arc).

Louisville went through their own struggles in late December and into January. They lost five of seven, and went more than a month between victories over teams in the Pomeroy Top 100. Offense has been the difference. They scored under 1 PPP in six of nine games during their slump. In their five game winning streak? They've scored 1.09 PPP or more in four of them. Rick Pitino teams are always excellent defensively, so all they need is a decent offense and they're going to win games.

For a while there it was looking like Louisville was threatening to fall onto the bubble, but this five game winning streak has ended that concern. They're now 7-4 in Big East play, 9-4 against the RPI Top 100, and their Sagarin ELO_CHESS is up to 21st. UConn, on the other hand, is in big trouble. This loss drops them to 5-6 in Big East play. Their RPI is 26th, but they are only 12-8 against the RPI Top 200 with bad losses to UCF, Rutgers and Tennessee to go with their quality wins (Florida State, Harvard, West Virginia and Notre Dame). Their Sagarin ELO_CHESS has fallen all the way to 49th.

If the season ended now, UConn would still be an NCAA Tournament team, but only barely. With a pair of games left against Syracuse, even getting to 9-9 in conference play will be difficult. If UConn does fall to 8-10 then they're going to enter the Big East tournament with a whole lot of work left to do just to avoid the NIT. Their first encounter with Syracuse will be at the Carrier Dome this coming Saturday. Louisville's next game will be also be on Saturday, on the road at West Virginia.

Texas 70, Texas A&M 68
Texas was due to win one of these close games eventually. They outplayed Texas A&M here, forcing four more turnovers and earning three more offensive rebounds, but the Aggies hit 50% of their threes and got a little bit of homecourt advantage (10 more free throw attempts) and hung tight all game. This has been the type of game that Texas has been losing all season, but they managed to keep their nose just barely ahead all night and in the end had a nice win. J'Covan Brown was again the star for Texas, scoring 20 points, including the final go-ahead basket with under a minute to go, followed by a pair of free throws to put the Longhorns up by three.

This has been a brutal stretch for Texas A&M. They have played their last three games against elite opponents (Baylor, Texas and Kansas State) and lost all three, despite hanging tight in all of them. The Baylor and Texas losses were by a combined five points. It's just been a tough season all around for the Aggies, and they're now only 3-8 in conference play and 12-11 overall. They'll try to stay over .500 on the road at Iowa State on Saturday.

This was an important win for Texas to push them to 5-6 in conference play, and they're also now 13-2 in games against teams outside the RPI Top 50 (and one of those two losses was to NC State, a team ranked 53rd). They've had some bad luck against elite opponents, but the fact that they're taking care of a business when they're supposed to take care of business is a good sign for a young team. Considering the road woes of Kansas State, I'd say that the Longhorns' home game against them on Saturday will be something of a "taking care of business" game as well. Next week they'll be on the road to play the two Oklahoma teams.

#1 Kentucky 78, #7 Florida 58
Kentucky has been rolling the past few weeks, and they were white hot from the field in this game. They hit 60% of their threes, and all 11 of their free throws. Now, Florida's defense isn't particularly good (their 50.7 eFG% against is only 9th best in the SEC), but that's still a pretty fluky shooting night for Kentucky. And so for that reason, I don't want to draw too many conclusions from this win. The Wildcats will have to play in Gainesville on Senior Night, March 4th. I'm no less curious to see what will happen there than I was before this game.

Kentucky has won 15 straight games and is #1 in the polls, and they just destroyed the #7 ranked team by 20 points on national television, but I still think they have some flaws. I still believe Ohio State is the clear best team (though I'd rate Kentucky #2, well ahead of a vastly overrated Syracuse team). One thing that stands out to me is how easy Kentucky's schedule has been so far. Not only is the SEC not that strong at the top this season, but Kentucky hasn't even seen the toughest the conference has to offer yet. They still have their road games at Florida and Vanderbilt to come. They haven't won a true road game at a team inside the Pomeroy Top 75 all season long.

That said, I'm not as down on Kentucky as that last paragraph makes it seem. Winning road games is a little bit overrated for future Tournament success (there are no true road games in the NCAA Tournament, after all). I spent much of last season defending Kentucky's road woes. As I said, I still think they're the #2 team in the country. The Wildcats have a huge game coming up on Saturday at Vanderbilt.

This was a missed opportunity for Florida, of course. And their resume is softer than most people think. Despite being ranked #7 in the nation, they have nearly as many RPI 100+ loss (2) as RPI Top 50 wins (3). They are 19-5 and 7-2 on SEC play, but their Sagarin ELO_CHESS is sitting around 25th. They have to wait until March 4th to get their second crack at Kentucky, so they'll have to try to firm up their resume next week with tough road games at Alabama and Arkansas. Prior to that they have a home game against Tennessee, on Saturday.

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