Friday, January 11, 2013

Minnesota Routs Illinois

#8 Minnesota 84, #12 Illinois 67
Illinois was due for a letdown after that big win over Ohio State, but this loss really was not as bad as it seems. Certainly, Minnesota had an easier time getting to the basket than Illinois. The Illini don't have a very good defense, so they rely on easy baskets to win. But the Gophers hit 9-for-15 behind the arc while the Illini hit 3-for-24. And that really was the difference in the game. And despite what conventional wisdom says, the advanced stats say that the impact of defense on opponent 3P% is very small. Illinois just happened to go ice cold while Minnesota just happened to be red hot.

A lot of credit has to go to a Minnesota front line that has been playing really well this season. The Minnesota interior defense is significantly better than it was last season. Brandon Paul had another big game for Illinois, scoring 21 points (despite 1-for-6 three-point shooting) and adding 4 rebounds and 3 steals. He also had a bizarre play where he had a monster dunk for which he got the two points but also was called for a charge... something that I think is physical impossible. Yet more proof that a lot of these refs at the highest level of college basketball don't really understand all of the rules that they're supposed to enforce.

Illinois has wins over Ohio State, Gonzaga and Butler, with only one iffy loss (Purdue). It's a resume that looks strong so far. But at the same time, they're only 1-2 in Big Ten play, and currently projected by Pomeroy to only finish 8-10 (Sagarin projects a 9-9 finish). The Big Ten is very deep, of course, but Illinois is also overrated by the human polls. So despite their big wins, they can't afford a total belly flop in conference play. They need to get to 9-9 in conference play or they're going to be on the bubble heading into the Big Ten tournament. Their next game will be on Saturday, at Wisconsin.

The Gophers are now 15-1 and 3-0 in the Big Ten with wins over Michigan State, Illinois, Memphis and Stanford, and only that one loss to Duke. It's a great resume, but I'm still not convinced that they're a real Big Ten contender. They have clear flaws - defensive rebounding and offensive turnovers being the most blatant - and they haven't really been tested by an elite team yet. We'll have a much better feel for them a week from now, after a Saturday game at Indiana and a Thursday game at home against Michigan.

Florida State 65, Maryland 62
As ugly as the Florida State offense has been this season, the one consistently good scorer has been Okaro White. White has a 57.1 eFG% for the season. The next best among the team's top six scorers is Michael Snaer, at 50.7%. White scored 15 consecutive points for the Seminoles in the second half here, and he finished with 20 points on 7-for-13 shooting, along with 9 rebounds and 6 blocks. Maryland star Alex Len, on the other hand, was pretty invisible late in this game. He finished the night with 15 points and 10 rebounds, but the offense seemed to go away from him late. He only scored two points in the final seven minutes.

Maryland is still 13-2 after this loss, but against pretty soft schedule. They don't have a single quality victory, and they have slipped to 55th in the Pomeroy ratings and 50th in the Sagarin PREDICTOR. If they can get to 10-8 in ACC play then they'll have 22 regular season wins, and that will probably be good enough for an at-large bid, but anything less than that and they'll be in a lot of trouble. It's also not inconceivable that Duke could finish the season as the only ranked ACC team. In other words, it will be very important for the Terps to win one of their two games against the Blue Devils just to have a marquee win on their resume on Selection Sunday. They have a tough road game coming up next, on Sunday at Miami.

Florida State is now 10-5 overall and 2-0 in ACC play. But their best wins (BYU, Maryland and St. Joe's) are more than swamped by their bad losses (Mercer, South Alabama and Auburn). In a down ACC, they'll probably need to get to 11-7 in conference play to have a good shot at an at-large bid. They will play UNC on Saturday, and then will have a week to get ready for a road game at Virginia.

Ole Miss 92, Tennessee 74
This game was at Tennessee, so the Vols can't blame the refs. Ole Miss ended up earning 44 trips to the free throw line, outscoring Tennessee there 38-17. Nobody gave Tennessee more trouble than Marshall Henderson, who was 13-for-14 at the free throw line and finished with 32 points. All that fouling also took away a lot of minutes from stars on an already thin Tennessee bench. Kenny Hall and Trae Golden fouled out with a combined 35 minutes played. Lightly used players like Yemi Makanjuola and Derek Reese (still recovering from shoulder surgery over the summer) had to play big minutes in the second half.

You have to wonder where this Tennessee team is mentally. They've been struggling so badly, with the only glimmer of hope being the return of Jeronne Maymon from injury. But Maymon has elected to take a redshirt this season, so there are no reinforcements coming. And as the losses begin to pile up (they're now only 5-5 against the RPI Top 200), the players have to be coming to the realization that they're probably not going to be in the postseason this year. The task before Cuonzo Martin is keeping his kids motivated and trying to get the best he can out of the rest of this season.

I keep reading in the media that the SEC, with the apparent demise of Tennessee, is going to be a three-bid league. And the SEC certainly is down this season. But the reality is that Ole Miss has been rated in the 20-25 range by Pomeroy and Sagarin for a few weeks now. They're a very good team. They don't have any big wins yet and they have a pair of potentially iffy losses to Indiana State and Middle Tennessee, but that's a result of a soft schedule and some bad luck. And a soft schedule is a problem in a down SEC, but a win or two over Kentucky/Florida/Missouri and a 10-8 SEC record should put them in a good position for an at-large bid. And consider that Sagarin is projecting a 14-4 SEC record and Pomeroy is projecting a 13-5 record. Even if they're overrated by the computers and they finish up a game or two short of those projections, they'll still be in good shape to earn a fourth NCAA Tournament bid for the SEC.

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