In what is surely the most challenging game (on paper at least) remaining on Gonzaga's schedule this season, the Bulldogs will travel to Moraga on Thursday night to attempt a season sweep of Saint Mary's. Much has been made of the Gael's chances for an at-large bid, and however remote that chance may be, a Valentine's Day victory for Randy Bennett's squad is essential to that formula. RPI aside, the Gaels have no quality wins this season (BYU doesn't count). The only two opportunities that remain are at home against the Zags and next weekend in the Bracketbuster against Creighton. Yes, the expansion of the at-large field has weakened the bubble to some degree and that would seem to benefit the Gaels, but they need more than one signature win to have a realisitic shot on Selection Sunday (see Virginia Tech, 2011). They need to take both games. Otherwise its WCC Auto-Bid or bust.
This is not to say the Gaels aren't talented. Their guards can flat out shoot the deep ball and their big men can bruise it down low when needed. But can they match up with Gonzaga's depth and balance? In order to determine what the chances of pulling the upset are, let's look at a key portion of the last game between the two on January 10th.
With 15:00 minutes left in the second half, the Zags held a comfortable 19 point lead. Olynyk was torturing the Gaels front line, with entry pass after top of key isolation after entry pass getting easy buckets for Gonzaga. Making matters worse, this made it easy to get the ball to Pangos outside for wide open shots and points. The game seemed to be out of hand after the Gaels star guard Matthew Dellevadova committed his fourth turnover and temporarily exited the game. Changes had to be made immediately, and Randy Bennett made them. Defensively, he switched to more of a match up zone and gave more space to Olynyk at the top of the key. His penetrations weren't as effective in the second half, and he began to turn the ball over and got two offensive fouls. In fact, this reminded me of the Olynyk of old, the player who just two years was making maddening mistakes on a regular basis. Consquently the Zags offense fell stagnant, while on the offensive end the focus for the Gaels switched to Stephen Holt.
Holt began to penetrate the Gonzaga defense with ease, and on each possession Holt had a high ball screen waiting for him. He scored 11 of the Gaels next 13 and was able to get the Zags front court in serious foul trouble. Mark Few adjusted by trying to trap Holt, but he was able to find the open man and St. Mary's was able to work the ball into the paint for easy baskets. By the 11 minute mark the lead was down to just 6, and they eventually got the game down to four. While the Zags were able to stunt the Gaels momentum and pull out the win, carving into the lead in that fashion was impressive (especially for a road game).
It's a near certainty Bennett will try to run the offense through Holt this time, probably for the majority of the game. Will it work the way it did in the second half in their first meeting? The jury is out on that. Despite Holt's excellent stint in the last game, his field goal percentage is way down this year (from 50% to 41% respectively). This is clearly a sign that St. Mary's has been very much impacted negatively by the departure of 2012 graduate and three man Rob Jones, as now more consistent attention is paid to Holt. That being said, it's a safe bet that one of the top shooting teams in the nation will shoot better than 7-27 (26%) from deep as they did in Spokane. This favors Holt in a major way, as this will leave holes in the defense for him to get free and create plays in space. If the Zags find a way to close out on Holt and/or Dellevadova and contest shots, that works in Gonzagas favor. The Zags can also win on this by knowing what to expect on those high ball screens and trying their best not to switch if they can avoid it. If Mark Few's group fails to do this, the St. Mary guards could very well pull off a shocker in NoCal.
What happened this weekend? Is there anyone out there who can claim that this wasn't the most upside down week in college basketball over the past decade? After all, every top five team lost during the week, the first time that has happened since 1992. There is no question that the top of college basketball is down compared to most years, but what's creating a lot of upsets is that there are very strong teams outside the top 30 that can beat the teams in the top tier. Here are some notes on how the past week affected Monday's new bracket.
At first glance it may appear that there are a dearth of games to get excited about on Saturday. There are no games between top ten teams and very few games between two top 25 teams at all. Don't be fooled. This is one of the biggest Saturdays of the college basketball season. Why? Well, for starters, the term "ranked" implies poll rankings, which have absolutely zero tangible value to the NCAA selection process. But I digress. There are a ton of games between top teams and teams who are either fighting for an at large bid or teams who can all but seal an at-large bid with a signature win. Let's briefly discuss today's top three games, who will play key roles, and what it will mean in the grand scheme of things.
3) Michigan at Wisconsin (12:00 EST, ESPN)
This game is huge for the Badgers, but they don't need this win. However, a victory would all but lock up an NCAA bid, as it would give them their third signature win and put them at eight wins in Big Ten play. Why is that important? The threshold for teams in top ranked conferences to get an NCAA bid is typically to get within two games of .500 in conference play. If Wisconsin wins today, the worst they could do is finish 8-10 in the Big Ten and 17-16 overall. In that worst case scenario, they'd still have wins against Michigan, Indiana, Minnesota, and two against Illinois. That would still be worthy of an at-large selection. How do they come out with a W? A slow pace must be established early on. The Badgers have serious depth issues and the Wolverines love to make the game a track meet. In order to prevent this from happening, Wisconsin has to methodically work for good shots that either drop or don't cause long rebounds. Jared Berggren has been an enigma this season, but he has the potential to have a breakout game in the front court. If they find ways to get him isolated and get open shots, they can pull this out. If they don't, they'll play right into Michigan's hands, who is great at forcing a lot of low percentage shots. This in turn gets them great opportunities to get down the floor with numbers.
Afternoon update: Berggren and Evans will get recognition for their scoring (24 points between them), but defensively they were great today. While the Badgers needed a prayer at the end of regulation, those two deserve a lot of credit for keeping the game close. Three pointers aren't easy to knock down against Michigan, but Brust and Jackson can thank the big fellas for giving them room to get off decent shots. Congrats to the Badgers, they are now an absolute lock for the NCAA tournament, which will make 2013 their 15th (!) consecutive appearance.
2) North Carolina at Miami (2:00PM EST, ESPN)
The Tarheels have been playing better of late and have steadily improved their at-large profile, but they have yet to get a signature win. A win at Miami today would give North Carolina a solid grip on an at-large and increase their seeding greatly. There's no need to beat around the bush, this team was terrible defensively in the first two months, giving up 80+ points with regularity (including East Carolina!). Since mid-January they've played with a lot more discipline, allowing 72 points or more just once. It's no coincidence that they've won five of six. They'll need to keep that up today, as the Canes have multiple guys who can shoot it quite efficiently. Miami loves to set screens for Durand Scott, who in turn will either slash and score or (if the defense collapses) kick it out to shooters like Shane Larkin. They key will be to not have to switch and help a lot on screens and drives. While a tall task, it can be done. Roy Williams would be wise to give extra minutes to Dexter Strickland, as he can match up from a size and experience perspective with Scott.
Post-game Update: The Tarheels didn't accomplish any of what was discussed in the game preview. Their defense was totally dictated by what Miami wanted to do. Larkin and Scott were able to get open and find the open man on nearly every possession. Teams don't shoot 57% from three because they are simply "hot." They shoot like that because they've found serious holes in the opposing defense. North Carolina has to be very careful. They are a bubble team because their resume is very shaky, they have not done much away from Chapel Hill, and have not passed the eye test. Miami, on the other hand, is cruising. Even if they lose a couple more games the remainder of the season, I can't see them going any lower than a two seed.
1) New Mexico at UNLV (9:00PM EST, NBC Sports)
I'm pretty sure the "Worldwide Leader" doesn't want you to know that the Mountain West is the third best league in the country this season. After all, they don't have a contract with the conference and can't show any of their games in which half of the teams are likely to make the tournament this season. Forget College Gameday and Notre Dame-Louisville, the Lobos and Running Rebels are playing the game of the day. This rivalry is quickly becoming one of the best in college basketball and will have huge ripple effects for both teams, win or lose. One bad loss to South Dakota State aside, New Mexico is quietly building one of the best resumes in college basketball this season. They already have neutral court/away wins against Connecticut, Indiana State, Boise State, Wyoming, and Cincinnati and home wins against UNLV and Colorado State. The Lobos are a ridiculous 5-1 against the RPI top 50 through today. UNLV, on the other hand desperately needs a win to stop the bleeding. The Rebels appeared to be destined for a high seed in mid-January, but have lost three of their last five since, clearly struggling on the road.
What has gone wrong for UNLV? While Anthony Bennett is getting well deserved consideration for freshman of the year, he's come back down to Earth slightly after starting the season white hot. In the first 17 games, Bennett shot 56% from the field and 40% from three point range while leading the Rebels to a 14-3 record. In their last five games, he's still been good, shooting at a 45% clip, but he's been a putrid 2-14 from three and gotten into foul trouble in two of those losses. Freshman deep threat Katin Reinhardt has gone cold as well, shooting just 23% in the three most recent defeats. What's the answer? Veteran Anthony Marshall hasn't cooled off at all and is an extremely reliable scorer. The Runnin Rebs should run the offense through him during every possession. If the Lobos try to deny him the ball, set double screens and get him free. If New Mexico over commits, Bennett will get open under the basket and easily score. Remember, Bennett is too good for New Mexico (or anyone) to double team Marshall.
On the other side of the ball, New Mexico's guards will decide this game, unlike their first tilt in Albuquerque when Alex Kirk dominated down low. Because of Kirk's inside presence, it seems like a safe bet that there will be minimal defensive help with the guards. The problem with that is that there isn't anyone who can defend Tony Snell playing man to man without help. He's less effective against the zone, but then Kendall Williams will find open spaces on the floor and either make shots or find someone who is open (and against a zone, Hugh Greenwood and Chad Adams will get open and make shots).
I think this comes down to turnovers. If UNLV turns over the ball more, Williams and the Lobo guards will find open spaces and make shots, thereby controlling the pace. If it's New Mexico with the high amount of turnovers, Bennett and Marshall will dictate the game. At the end of the day, I don't trust Anthony Bennett offensively to make consistently solid decisions. New Mexico will take advantage and will get a huge road win. Lobo fans take note: A win will put them in strong contention for a 2 seed in March.
Post-game Update: I had it all wrong yesterday. UNLV committed itself to stopping the New Mexico guards and were willing to live with Kirk and Bairstow getting theirs. That team is hard to beat at home, especially when Bennett sticks to what he does best. Credit the Runnin Rebels defense for defending the three the way they did last night. Dave Rice is finally starting to figure out that Moser has hurt the team more than helped since he came back from injury. They are a different team away from Thomas and Mack, though. It has to be frustrating as a Lobo fan that the MWC tournament is on UNLV's home court. The selection committee will hold them accountable for that, though.
The loss does not hurt the Lobos from a seeding perspective. They had more to gain on Saturday than they had to lose. Other than the game at CSU, the away schedule is favorable. As long as they get back on track at Fresno, this game will be a distant memory.
For those who missed the epic ending in Champaign last night, hit the play button above. You're welcome.
You're killing, me Illini fans. Really. I wrote extensiviely about how well the Illlini were playing through December, only to collapse early in Big Ten play just like last year. This made things easy for me, because despite their resume there was no way they could be considered for at-large selection at 2-7 in Big Ten play. Now things have become much more complicated. Illinois now boasts epic wins over what was 1 seed Indiana (more on them later), 2 seed Gonzaga, 3 seed Butler, and 5 seed Ohio State. But they're an awful 3-7 in conference play. There is one example in the history of the NCAA at-large berths where a team got selected being four games below .500 in conference. That being said, there are plenty of examples of teams that finished 8-10 in conference and received an at-large. I'm not comfortable quite (yet) including them back in my bracket, but as soon as they get within three games of .500 in Big Ten play, they'll immediately move back in.
*Note: to get to eight wins, the Illini need to win the following games and lock up an NCAA bid: Purdue, @Northwestern, Penn State, Nebraska, and one of ANY of their games @Minnesota, @Iowa, Ohio State, @Michigan.
It was only fitting that the end of Wednesday was capped off by one of the biggest upsets in college basketball history. TCU, who hadn't even come close to winning a conference game in their first eight tries with the Big 12, beat consensus 1 seed Kansas around 11:20PM eastern, ending a couple of days of huge upsets. Florida was beaten badly Tuesday by an Arkansas team who had an RPI of 100+. Wichita State continued their slide by losing to an awful Southern Illinois squad. Earlier Wednesday, 4 seed Cincinnati lost to a bad Providence team. 20-3 Creighton was obliterated by an Indiana State fighting for an at-large. UNLV lost (again) to a team they shouldn't be losing to. To try to make sense of all of this insanity, here are some notes and analysis from this week.
Rock Chalk Brick Hawks
If you were expecting consistency from anyone this season, Kansas should have been the team to look to. The loss to Oklahoma State is understandable. The Cowboys are playing better as the season progresses and may end up contending for a Big 12 title. But TCU? Wow. What is happening to the Jayhawks? For starters, Elijah Johnson has hurt this team this week. His shooting has dropped off from last season, which is fine. It happens to a lot of good players. You can make up for it in other ways. But instead of deferring to a surging Ben McLemore, he's putting up even more shots. And missing more, going 6-26 for the field in their last two games. And turning the ball over more (he's averaged four turnovers over the past five games). And getting into foul trouble (he fouled out last night). I would say Bill Self should shave his minutes slightly, but reserve Nadiir Tharpe is playing just as poorly and beyond that there just isn't much (any) depth at guard. If these kinds of performances keep happening in the back court, the Jayhawks will be ripe for a 2nd round upset against a mid-major team with elite guard play (Belmont, anyone?).
Yes, Indiana State has a few blemishes on their resume this season, but who on the bubble doesn't? The four losses to RPI 100+ teams aside, the quality wins are really starting to stack up for the Sycamores. They've beaten Ole Miss, Miami, Wichita State, and Creighton, all of whom would be at-large teams if the season ended today. As Miami continues to surge to the 2-3 seed range, this makes Indiana State's resume all the more impressive. When comparing other bubble teams with big wins and bad losses, one thing should stick out that separates ISU from the likes of Virginia, Villanova, and Air Force: three of their four key wins have come away from Terre Haute. If they can simply beat the teams they should beat for the remaining six games of the MVC schedule, I don't see any way they can be left out come selection Sunday.
Thursday Bracket Updates
- Kansas falls to the 2 line. Indiana replaces them as the 1 seed in the South Region.
- After beating Creighton, Indiana State moves out of the "last four in" category.
- Cincinnati, Creighton and UNLV all dropped a seed line after Wednesdays losses.
- After reevaluating Minnesota's resume, they were moved to a 5 seed despite Wednesday's loss to Michigan State. Due to bracket procedures, they had to be bumped up one seed line to a 4.
- Belmont was bumped down one seed line to an 11 due to bracket procedures, but they are still a 10 seed on my S-Curve.
- Ole Miss moves from an 11 to a 10 after last nights road win at Georgia
Key games to watch on Thursday
- Indiana at Illinois
- Clemson at Virginia
- Belmont at Murray State
- NC State at Duke
- Missouri at Texas A&M
- Washington at UCLA
- Maryland at Virginia Tech
- Cal at Arizona State
- Colorado at Oregon
- Pepperdine at Gonzaga
* Teams with at-large/seeding implications in bold
I seem to be the lone person on the bracket matrix that doesn't have Ohio State on the 3-4 seed line. In my next update they'll be a 5 or 6, but I don't think they deserve to be any higher right now. It seems they are benefiting from some BCS bias. Their accomplishments this season don't warrant being placed in the top 10-15 teams in the country. Let's compare the resumes of the team currently above and below OSU on the matrix, Louisville and Michigan State (I'll use the RPI as my metric in this case).
2-5 vs RPI top 50
6-5 vs top 100
3-4 away games
5-4 in away/neutral combined
Wins vs teams under consideration: Washington-N, Michigan, Wisconsin
Losses: @Duke, Kansas, @Illinois, @Michigan State, @Michigan
6-3 vs RPI top 50
8-4 vs top 100
Wins vs teams under consideration: Mizzou-N, @Memphis, Kentucky, @UConn, Pitt, Marquette
Losses: @Georgetown, Syracuse, @Nova, Duke-N
4-4 vs RPI top 50
7-4 vs top 100
Wins vs team under consideration: Kansas-N, Boise St, Illinios, @Wisconsin
Losses: UConn-N, @Miami, @Minnesota, @Indiana
The bottom line: The Buckeyes don't compare to others on the 3 or 4 line in terms of record against top teams, road/neutral wins, or out of conference wins. They have one great win against Michigan at home and a decent win at home against Wisconsin, but that's it. While they impressed me last night for 35+ minutes in Ann Arbor, the end result is they couldn't get it done. The selection committee has consistently stressed that teams need to accomplish something away from home and/or out of conference. Those just aren't there for the Buckeyes. What's even more problematic is that they have just two opportunities for key road wins the rest of the season: at Wisconsin on February 17th and at Indiana on March 5th. They'll need to grab at least one of those two or make a deep run in the Big Ten Tournament to move up higher than they're currently seeded.
Growing up outside of Richmond, Virginia in the heart of ACC Country, college hoops was set into the fabric of Rusty Tutton at an early age. A 2008 graduate of VCU, he lives in the Fan District of Richmond and works full-time in higher education.