Saturday, January 19, 2013

WAC Race In Flux As Utah State Falls To New Mexico State

New Mexico State 64, Utah State 51
New Mexico State is a team with a lot of flaws, but one thing that they have in spades is size. Pomeroy rates them as the tallest team in the nation, and 7'5" Sim Bhullar is a massive physical presence. Bhullar had five blocks and led the way in holding Utah State to 38.1 2P%. Bandja Sy led the way offensively for New Mexico State, scoring 16 points on 7-for-9 shooting and adding 4 offensive rebounds.

The WAC is a very confusing league to figure out. Utah State has long been the dominant force in the league, and I'll always give the edge of any tiebreak to Stew Morrill, but they are young and not as good as their record. They are 5-1 in league play, but they've been lucky to win those five games. Three of the wins were by six points or less or in overtime. Overall, they are only third in the WAC in PPP differential. In a small sample, the most impressive team has been Denver, which is outscoring opponents by 0.29 PPP in conference play. They fell to Louisiana Tech, who are currently second in PPP differential. So right now Louisiana Tech leads the league, though the computers prefer Denver and history prefers Utah State. Like I said, it's a very confusing league to figure out.

We should have a better view of where this league is later today. Utah State will play at Denver while Louisiana Tech will try to avoid a letdown against an underrated Seattle team. New Mexico State, despite being 5-2 in conference play right now, has been a bit fortunate. One of their victories came in overtime and another was a one point win. So they need more than a single win over Utah State to prove that they should be in the title discussion. They will play San Jose State today - a game that they should win in a romp. They'll have a more important test on Wednesday when Denver comes to town.

Northwestern 68, #23 Illinois 54
Well, we know Illinois was way overrated when they were ranked 10th in the both the AP and Coaches polls, but they've been flat out brutal to open Big Ten play. Northwestern came into this game having lost 7 of their last 11 games, with only one of those wins coming against the Pomeroy Top 200 (Baylor), but they deserved to win this game. They shot the ball better, but they also held Illinois to 8 assists and 18 turnovers. Considering Northwestern's putrid defense, the Illinois offense was inexcusable. The only team Northwestern has held to fewer PPP since the Baylor game was Brown, back on December 23rd.

Illinois is now 1-4 in Big Ten play and are third worst in PPP margin in conference play (-0.11 PPP), ahead of only Penn State and Nebraska. So is Illinois really that bad? Probably not. The biggest thing that stands out to me is that Illinois is dead last in conference play in both 3P% offense (23.4%) and defense (42.0%). Considering that Illinois is not that bad at shooting the ball, and that 3P% defense is mostly luck, I think we can say pretty fairly that the Illini have had some bad shooting luck on both ends of the floor. So they're not the third worst team in the Big Ten. They'll play better.

Can Illinois play well enough to stay in the NCAA Tournament? They have wins over Ohio State, Gonzaga and Butler, along with bad losses to Northwestern and Purdue. If they go 8-10 in conference play then they'll be 21-11 overall, presumably with at least a couple more quality wins. That would probably earn them an at-large bid. But even as good as the Big Ten is this year, it's almost impossible to see the Selection Committee taking a 7-11 team. So Illinois has to go 7-6 or better the rest of the way to hit that 8-10 mark. Their game on Tuesday at Nebraska is almost a must-win considering their schedule after that, which is basically murderer's row (vs Michigan, at Michigan State, vs Wisconsin, vs Indiana, at Minnesota).

This is a great win for Northwestern, but it might be the highlight of their season. They are too young and too beset by injuries to overcome the hole that they've dug themselves. This win does greatly improve their chances of finishing the season above .500 and avoiding the ignominy of a 20 loss season, though. They are 2-3 in Big Ten play now, and will come home this week to face Indiana on Sunday and Minnesota on Wednesday.

North Carolina 62, Maryland 52
I talked on twitter during this game about the enigma that is Alex Len. At times he can dominate any game on both sides of the floor, but more often than not he seems to just drift around the court. He was invisible for large portions of this game. In the end he took only seven shots from the field here (scoring 10 points), finishing with 5 rebounds and 1 block. That's just not enough. More and more, Dez Wells is becoming the leader of this Maryland team.

On the other side of the floor, North Carolina finally got a good game from James Michael McAdoo. McAdoo hadn't scored more than 14 points in a game since December 15th, but he poured in 19 here, along with 5 offensive rebounds. Reggie Bullock, North Carolina's best player, had another big game, scoring 24 on 7-for-15 shooting. Marcus Paige showed some flashes of brilliance (6 assists, 0 turnovers), though I still  think he gets too cute at times. You can tell that he has a lot of potential, but he's a long way from putting it together.

North Carolina needed this win to push them back to .500 in a down ACC. At 2-2 now they have a very soft schedule coming up (vs Georgia Tech, at NC State, at Boston College, vs Virginia Tech, vs Wake Forest). So with only one quality opponent in their next five, they shouldn't have too much trouble getting to 10-8 in ACC play. Though they probably need to get to 11-7 to really lock up an at-large bid. The Georgia Tech game will be up first, on Wednesday.

Maryland is now 14-4 overall and 2-3 in ACC play, with a win over NC State and a bad loss to Florida State. Their Sagarin ELO_SCORE is hanging around 50th. So they're on the bubble right now, and probably need to get to 10-8 in ACC play to stay there. They'll play Boston College on Tuesday before a big road game at Duke next Saturday.

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