Saturday, January 05, 2013

Underrated UCLA Downs California

UCLA 79, California 65
It took a few weeks for UCLA to find itself as a team. They had eligibility issues, then player transfers, and then this new combination of players had to figure out how to play together. And that's why they woke up December 2nd at 5-3 with zero quality wins and a bad loss to Cal Poly. But the Bruins (and Shabazz Muhammad in particular) have looked so much better the past few weeks. And after beating Missouri they laid the wood on California here. They are now 11-3 (including a win over Texas as well) and looking like one of only two teams (along with Colorado) that can reasonably believe that they can steal the Pac-12 title from Arizona.

California hasn't lost to a bad team this season (other than, perhaps, Harvard). But they've stumbled during a brutal part of their schedule and have now lost five of seven games. With their season in free fall, they have a crucial game later today at USC. They're going to need to get to at least 11-7 in conference play to be on the Tournament bubble, so they'll need to escape what should be a tough game at the Galen Center.

UCLA's showdowns with Arizona will come toward the tail end of the season, so for the time being they just need to keep taking care of the games that they're supposed to win. They'll face Stanford later today and then will play on the road at Utah on Thursday. Their first really tough test will be a road game at Colorado next Saturday, where they should expect to be underdogs in Vegas.

USC 71, Stanford 69
Ken Pomeroy had a blog post this past week about USC head coach Kevin O'Neill. He makes a good point, though I disagree with his conclusion. His point is that USC is a lot better than their record due to a very difficult schedule, and that O'Neill would be getting plaudits if they were rolling through Cupcake City instead. And that's true, but if he was getting praise for an inflated record I'd still feel he deserved to be fired. USC is not a young team, and there's no evidence that they're on the way to competing for a Pac-12 title anytime soon. And go look up O'Neill's past coaching performances. Where is the evidence that he's ever been a really good head coach? USC should have higher standards for their basketball program.

Now that all said, as Ken correctly stated, USC is better than their record. They're not going to finish higher than seventh or eight in the Pac-12, but they're good enough that they'll be able to beat almost anybody at home this season. Stanford is the first of what will likely be a whole bunch of victims at the Galen Center. And this result a tough blow for a Stanford team that is good enough to be a bubble team, but which doesn't have the wins to back that up.

Stanford is now 9-5 with no big time wins, and now this bad loss to USC. They'll play at UCLA later today, and unless they can pull that big upset they'll need to go at least 11-5 the rest of the regular season to stay on the bubble. I don't think that they're good enough to achieve that.

USC will get a chance to take out another potential bubble team later today when they'll play California at home. Next week they'll head on the road to face Colorado and Utah.

Memphis 85, Tennessee 80
Honestly, Memphis probably deserved to lose this game. But they won because of a white hot stretch at the end of the first half. They hit 7 of 8 shots from the field during a 22-9 run that turned a 1 point lead into a 14 point lead. In all they hit 7-for-11 behind the arc, and finished with a 62.7 eFG%. It was their best shooting performance since a 65.9 eFG% against Marshall in last year's Conference USA tournament title game. That's even more impressive when you consider that this shooting performance came against a Tennessee defense that hadn't previously allowed an opponent to have an effective field goal percentage above 52% this season. This hot shooting allowed Memphis to win a game where their opponent attempted 11 more shots from the field and 2 more shots at the line.

The shooting barrage for Memphis was a teamwide effort, but nobody played better than Joe Jackson, who led the team with 20 points, 7 assists and 4 steals. Tennessee got some nice performances from unexpected places (26 points for Jordan McRae and 20 points for Josh Richardson). Honestly, this was probably the best performance by the Vols this season aside from the Wichita State game. But sometimes your opponent is going to get hot like this and there's not a whole lot that you can do about it.

Memphis opens Conference USA regular season play on Wendesday, against East Carolina. They're far from being a certain at-large team, but they're the heavy favorite to win the league. Tennessee will open SEC play on Wednesday also, against Ole Miss. At 8-4 with that Wichita State win and no bad losses, they're closer to an at-large bid than most are giving them credit for. If they can add a win or two over Florida and/or Kentucky while going at least 10-8 in SEC play, that should at least put them in the bubble discussion.

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