Thursday, January 08, 2015

Morning News: Kansas Steals A Win, Illinois Runs Away From Maryland, Shorthanded Florida Wins, And More

Will Larry Nance and the Cowboys be on the bubble in March?
Kansas Steals A Win At Baylor Baylor led this game almost the entire way, though never by too much. Both teams struggled to hit shots in the first half, combining to shoot 15-for-54 from the field. But in the second half, Kansas was able to get a balanced offensive effort, and they finished with a big 34-to-16 advantage in points in the paint despite Baylor's big 17-to-9 advantage in offensive rebounding. Baylor was simply settling for long jumpers while Kansas was getting to the rim. Down by 1 with under 15 seconds to go, Baylor had two point-blank looks at the rim, with the final one rolling around the rim and out.

Shots will roll in or out in the final seconds of games, which is why the results of close games like this should never be used to drive narratives, but it's a really nice win for Kansas to open Big 12 play. Texas enters as the near-consensus favorite, but Bill Self's squad will not give up their Big 12 title streak easily. Keep an eye on January 24, which is when Kansas heads to Austin to take on the Longhorns.

Baylor is off to an 0-2 start in Big 12 play, but against two of the Big 12 title contenders. Losses are going to happen for every team in a Big 12 conference that is the deepest in the nation. They have an interesting road game at TCU on Saturday. That TCU team was shoved on America as a Top 25 team for running through soft competition, and they were obviously a fraud, but they're not a "bad" team either. Baylor can't afford to go down there and leave 0-3.

Illinois Runs Away From Maryland Just as we expected, Illinois played well in their first game without star Rayvonte Rice and cruised past Maryland. Wait, what? Well, Illinois blew this game open with 7-for-8 shooting to open the second half, but what really won this game was Illini defense. Maryland hit just 32% of their two-pointers and scored just 0.89 PPP, Illinois is never going to have one of the best offenses in the Big Ten even with Rice in the lineup, so the only way they're going to earn an at-large bid is by winning games like this, by shutting down their opponent.

Now 1-2 in Big Ten play, Illinois heads into a fascinating stretch of four straight games that are all going to be very close to toss-ups in Vegas. A 2-2 split in those four games probably will not be sufficient. They can start by winning at Nebraska on Sunday.

The media apparently got together and appointed Maryland the second best team in the Big Ten for some reason. They did do good work in non-conference play (wins over Iowa State and Oklahoma State), but there are reasons to be skeptical of them being good enough to go the 12-6 or 13-5 in Big Ten play it's going to take to finish second to Wisconsin. They have a tough road game up next at Purdue.

Shorthanded Florida Wins At South Carolina Florida has got to be #1 on everybody's list for a team that will come "out of nowhere" to be elite in the second half of the season. They're still trying to get their full roster together, and Jon Horford and a walk-on were actually suspended  for this game for bad behavior, but Eli Carter looked better and healthier, and some clutch free throw shooting down the stretch (8-for-8 in the final 45 seconds) was enough to deliver a nice road win over South Carolina.

Florida was an ugly 7-6 in non-conference play with a bad loss (Florida State) and zero quality wins, so they're going to need to go at least 12-6 in SEC play just to earn an at-large bid, but with this road win that's looking increasingly likely. They have two fairly easy home games up next (Mississippi State and Auburn) before heading on the road to play Georgia. If they could collect road wins at South Carolina and Georgia by mid-January, they could establish themselves early on as the clear favorites to finish in second place behind Kentucky.

South Carolina entered SEC play with good computer numbers, but with inconsistent results in non-conference play. They beat Iowa State and Oklahoma State but also lost to Charlotte and Akron. A home loss is a tough start to conference play, but it would be a mistake to draw too many conclusions from a game that came down to the final 30 seconds. They have a chance to bounce right back on Saturday when they head to Ole Miss.

Wyoming Upsets Colorado State In Fort Collins It's always difficult to win as a road team in Fort Collins, but Colorado State shot themselves out of this one. The Rams shot an ugly 3-for-26 (11.5%) on jump shots. Colorado State had a 30-to-22 scoring advantage in the paint, but they had to hit something outside the paint and just couldn't. Also, after a 7-0 start in games decided by six points or less, Colorado State finally suffered some bad luck in a close game here.

Now 1-2 in Mountain West play, Colorado State heads off to play the bottom half of the conference for the next two weeks. They went 13-0 in non-conference play, but without a win over a likely RPI Top 50 opponent, so they're going to need to likely go at least 11-7 in Mountain West play to go Dancing. There aren't a lot of quality wins to be had in the Mountain West, so they absolutely can't afford a bad loss over the next two weeks.

Wyoming deserves at least some attention as a potential at-large contender. This is their best win of the season, but they are 14-2 and don't really have a bad loss (unless you count California as a bad loss). The lack of quality wins is going to hold them back, but if they can go 12-6 or better in Mountain West play then they'll at least have to be in the bubble conversation in March. They play Boise State next, but their home game after that against San Diego State will provide a great opportunity to draw some national attention. Larry Nance, Jr is a player who deserves some national hype, and a big game in a win over San Diego State could provide that.

Xavier Takes Out Seton Hall I've talked a few times already about why I think the Isaiah Whitehead absence is overrated, so I won't retrace those steps here, but Seton Hall struggled defensively in a big way here. Xavier had a 12 point advantage in fast break points and hit 62% of their two-pointers, and finished with 1.17 PPP. Seton Hall fell behind early and tried to get back in the game by launching threes, and it just didn't work out. They shot an ugly 7-for-26 behind the arc, including a combined 3-for-14 from Sterling Gibbs and Jaren Sina.

This was a virtual must-win for Xavier after some really tough luck in close games in non-conference play. They probably need to get to 11-7 in Big East play to earn an at-large bid and were 0-1 with road games at Butler and Villanova up next. They're now 1-1, and will have to try to split these upcoming road games.

Coming off wins over St. John's and Villanova, there's no shame in a road loss for Seton Hall at a quality Xavier squad. But their upcoming schedule is fairly soft, so they do need to run up these wins early before their schedule gets really tough in mid-February. They should be in good shape for an at-large bid if they can get to 10-8 in conference play.

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