Saturday, January 12, 2013

Arizona Is Finally Struck Down

Oregon 70, #4 Arizona 66
With all of Arizona's crazy comebacks and narrow victories, it really felt like they were going to find a way to pull off yet another one here. Oregon led almost the entire the game, and by 12 with under 3 minutes left. But in those final three minutes, Arizona hit three three-pointers, forced two steals, and allowed no made field goals for Oregon. But with the ball back and down only three with close to 20 seconds left, Nick Johnson got too aggressive and forced the ball into danger unnecessarily, getting turned over and allowing Oregon to escape with the victory.

What makes this result particularly fascinating is that it could cost Arizona the 1 seed in the Pac-12 tournament. The expansion of the Pac-12 means that the league no longer has a full home-and-home round robin, and it works out that Oregon will not have to play at Arizona this season. And despite the Top 25 rankings, the computers believe that Arizona really isn't much better than Oregon. With Oregon now having a one game lead in the standings, and the guarantee of a tiebreak victory, they've put Arizona under a lot more pressure to win the Pac-12 than it seemed they'd be in a week ago. Both Sagarin and Pomeroy project a 14-4 finish for Arizona and a 13-5 finish for Oregon, but that 1 game gap is well within a reasonable margin of uncertainty.

Arizona will play at Oregon State later today, and then at Arizona State a week from today. Oregon will play Arizona State tomorrow, and then at USC on Thursday. The Pac-12 is interesting this season in that it's not strong at the top, but it's deep. There aren't any teams you'd be too afraid of playing, but there aren't many teams that are easy victories either, particularly on their home court. So this Pac-12 title will come down to navigating through and grinding out a series of narrow victories.

#9 Gonzaga 83, Saint Mary's 78
Some spotty refereeing couldn't ruin this game, just the latest in a terrific series between these two teams that has gone on for years. The star, as it's been so often for Gonzaga this season, was Kelly Olynyk. Olynyk scored 31 points on 11-for-19 shooting, the sixth time this season he has scored 20+ while shooting better than 55% from the field. For the season he has a 67.6 eFG%, taking 28.9% of his team's shot while on the floor, while also providing a strong defensive presence. Earlier this season I talked about Olynyk being the most improved player in the nation, but at this point he's an outside contender for the All-American team. He's almost certainly the WCC Player of the Year so far.

St. Mary's will get their chance for revenge at McKeon Pavilion, and it could be the game that decides their at-large fate. They did not collect a big scalp in non-conference play, and I don't think that a win over BYU will count for much on Selection Sunday either. But a win over Gonzaga and an 11-5 or 12-4 conference record will probably be sufficient to earn a spot in the Field of 68.

The Zags need to continue grinding out victories to improve their case for a 2 seed. Besides the St. Mary's game, they will get one more chance for a prominent win next Saturday, at Butler. Prior to that game, on Thursday, they'll play at Portland.

Xavier 57, Temple 52
Other than Butler, no team plays up and down to the quality of its opponent more than Temple. They beat Syracuse and nearly took out Kansas, but also lost to Canisius and fell here to a Xavier squad in total rebuilding mode. Jake O'Brien is the only good outside shooter Temple has, but he doesn't always play a lot, and he went cold here regardless (1-for-7 from the field). And so Temple, which has an awful 45.7 eFG% as a team this season, really just struggled to score. Temple is now 8-0 when scoring more than 1.00 PPP, and 2-4 when scoring under 1.00 PPP. They had a season-low 0.82 here.

With a completely new and young Xavier starting lineup, the one player who has really stood out has been Semaj Christon. The freshman is a streaky shooter, but he's already his team's premier playmaker. He was sharp here, scoring 16 points on 7-for-15 shooting.

Temple is now 10-4 overall and 0-1 in Atlantic Ten play. They need to get to 10-6 or they will enter A-10 play with work left to do to earn a Tournament bid. They have an important game later today against St. Louis, and then their schedule will ease up until they play Butler in two weeks.

Xavier will play George Washington Saturday, and then on the road at St. Bonaventure on Wednesday. Neither game is easy, but they could find themselves 3-0 in A-10 play a week from now. Don't overreact to that, though. Their schedule gets much tougher later in the season, and it's very unlikely that they'll be on the bubble in March.

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