Friday, December 21, 2012

For the Sake of Your Bracket 3.0 (12/21-12/27)

By: Kerrance James

If you haven't yet finalized when you're going where over the four day Christmas weekend, I would suggest leaving Saturday open for college hoops. It's nowhere near the best Saturday of the season, but you won't have much else to watch from Sunday-Wednesday, so make sure to soak it in while you can. If you're new to the program, my 3.5 month long mission is to have you as prepared as possible to fill out your brackets by making you aware of the upcoming games worth keeping an eye on - while frequently including predictions bound to occasionally go wrong. I'll be running this at least every Friday until Selection Sunday, along with my annual elimination style bubble tracker (targeting January 25 to start that up), so do yourself a favor and check back in every now and again. Now, on to the condensed week of games.

Friday – Stony Brook @ Maryland (8:00 – ESPN3), Stanford @ Northwestern (9:00 – Big Ten Network), BYU @ Baylor (9:00 – ESPN2)
If you can only watch one: Stony Brook will give Maryland more of a fight than you might expect. My skepticism of Illinois is and will continue to be well-documented, but this is the first time you’ve heard me cast doubts on the Terrapins. They’re 9-1, but have only played 3 games that we can reasonably try to judge them by: a season-opening 3 point loss to Kentucky, a too close for comfort win over George Mason, and a dominant road win over Northwestern. The loss to Kentucky was to be expected, even though they’re just now starting to resemble the Kentucky we expected them to be. UMD turned the ball over 19 times against George Mason, but managed to win simply because GMU isn’t any good this year. The 20 point win over Northwestern was impressive, but the Wildcats were ice cold from beyond the arc, and Maryland’s primary strength was out in full force as they finished the game with a +27 rebounding margin. Stony Brook is far and away the best rebounding team the Terrapins have faced all season, and I’ll be interested to see how well they do when they can’t rely on 14.7 offensive rebounds to put the game out of reach.

In other areas of interest, Stanford and Northwestern each get one final chance to come up short in one of the half dozen non-conference games the selection committee will look at, and Baylor’s schizophrenic season will continue to either the delight or dismay of a BYU team that desperately needs a non-conference win to hang its hat upon. I’m taking the home team in both games, with Stanford as the most likely to pull off a road win if Dwight Powell can stay out of foul trouble for a change (3.8 fouls per game over the past 9).

Saturday Afternoon – Syracuse vs. Temple (12:00 – ESPN2), Murray State @ Dayton (12:00), Texas @ Michigan State (2:00 – ESPN2), LSU @ Marquette (2:00 – ESPNU), Florida State vs. Charlotte (2:00), Fairfield @ Saint Joseph’s (2:00), Arizona State @ Texas Tech (2:00)

If you can only watch one: It’s a borderline must-win game for a Murray State team that hasn’t looked nearly as good as I thought they would be. A win is a win is a win, but they should have been able to beat Lipscomb, Arkansas State, and certainly Old Dominion by double digits. However, they seem to be content with letting teams hang around for too long. It’s almost as if that early season blowout win over Auburn has convinced them that they can just coast to victory whenever they want. They’ll need to up their game for this road affair with Dayton, as a loss would put them at 9-2 with no real marquee wins, and just a game against Belmont in February as their only remaining chance to get one. When you play in a conference like the Ohio Valley, you’re just asking for heartburn on Selection Sunday if you lose more than 3 games throughout the course of the season.

Rounding out your early afternoon, Coach Boeheim looks for win 901 in what should be Syracuse’s biggest test of the season until January 19th against Louisville; Texas gets a chance to build on Wednesday’s win over UNC; Marquette continues recovering from last month’s abuse in Florida by putting an end to anyone’s theory that LSU is a legitimate 1-loss team; and Florida State, Saint Joseph’s, and Arizona State each play an untelevised 2:00 game against an above-.500 opponent that a tournament caliber team would be able to win.

Saturday Evening – South Dakota State @ New Mexico (2:30), Richmond vs. George Mason (3:00), Saint Mary’s @ Northern Iowa (3:00), Kansas @ Ohio State (4:00 – CBS), Marshall @ Kentucky (4:00 – ESPN2), Illinois @ Missouri (6:00 – ESPN2)

If you only watch one game in the month of December: Kansas travels to Ohio State for a rematch of last season’s Final Four thriller, with both teams looking like they could maybe get back there this year. With super frosh Ben McLemore leading the team in scoring, and Jeff “The Great White Hope” Withey leading the nation in blocks per game, the Jayhawks come into the game with wins in the past two weeks over Colorado, Belmont, and Richmond by an average of 31 points per game. It’s a shame the rest of the Big 12 seems to be headed towards a down year, because Kansas has become one of the most fun teams in the nation to watch. Beyond this game, it might be difficult to get a feel for just how good they are, as they’ll most likely cruise through their conference slate and tourney for a 58th consecutive season.

Will they be good enough on this particular day to take care of the Buckeyes? It’s tough to say. Ohio State narrowly lost to Duke in what was quite literally their only game worth mentioning thus far this year. Coming into the season, the bulk of the concern around taking the Buckeyes seriously as a title contender was whether anyone other than Deshaun Thomas would develop a scorer’s mentality, and thus far the jury is still out on that subject. LaQuinton Ross has shown occasional flashes of promise, but also leads the team in turnovers by a considerable margin despite playing just 20 minutes per game. Lenzelle Smith is the second leading scorer, but he tends to take (and typically make) his threes as they come rather than looking to create his own shot. If forced to make a prediction, I would say Kansas wins a 72-60 type of game, preying on the passivity of the entire Buckeye team, aside from Deshaun Thomas, who will end up shooting 13 three pointers, if only because avoiding Jeff Withey is the best way of dealing with Jeff Withey.

Elsewhere, Nate Wolters will try to put an end to New Mexico’s perfect season (and fail miserably); George Mason gets one last chance to beat a better than average mid-major (which they will) before presumably obliterating a Colonial Athletic Association that currently only has one other team with a record of .500 or better; Saint Mary’s travels to Northern Iowa for a battle between teams that used to be bracket busters but may struggle to even make the tournament this year (slightly bold prediction: loser of this game misses the tournament); Kentucky wins their 4th straight (home) game by 20+ points when Marshall comes to town; and a bunch of college basketball fans will be disappointed when they tune in at 6:00 to watch Missouri beat Illinois by however many points fewer than 44 that Brandon Paul scores. (For more in-depth analysis on the Illini, click here and read my pre-game thoughts on this past Sunday’s game between Eastern Kentucky and Illinois.)

Saturday Night – Florida vs. Kansas State (8:00 – ESPN2), Davidson @ Drexel (8:00), Southern Miss @ Wichita State (8:00), Western Kentucky vs. Louisville (8:30 – ESPNU), Canisius @ UNLV (10:00), Southern Illinois vs. Utah State (10:05)

If you can only watch one: For the first 18 minutes of each half, Florida outscored Arizona 64-50. Unfortunately for Gator fans, Arizona outscored Florida in the final 2 minutes of each half by a margin of 15-0. It was painful to watch – partially because I was less than 36 hours removed from having all 4 of my wisdom teeth extracted – but mostly because Florida did everything in their power to give the game away. I will interject that the officials sure did seem to look the other way at the end of the game. Yes, Florida was a little careless with the ball, but those types of steals in typical fouling situations are whistled as reach-ins about 99.9% of the time. Regardless of the loss or how it happened, I still think Florida is one of the 3 or 4 best teams in the nation, and shouldn’t have any trouble against a Kansas State team that is 0-2 in games against teams currently .500 or better – and frankly weren’t that close to winning either game.

Also taking place around the country, Davidson can’t afford to lose to Drexel in what looked like a much better game in the pre-season; we’ll decide once and for all whether Southern Miss can be taken seriously as an at-large candidate; Western Kentucky can kiss their at-large dreams goodbye if they don’t pull off a shocker against Louisville; UNLV and Canisius both look to build on impressive wins from Wednesday; and Southern Illinois and Utah State square off to see who has the most stamina left for their 3rd game in as many days.

The Diamond Head Classic:

Saturday - Ole Miss vs. Indiana State (4:00 – ESPNU), San Diego State vs. San Francisco (6:00 – ESPNU), Arizona vs. East Tennessee State (10:30 – ESPNU), Miami @ Hawaii (12:30 – ESPNU)

Sunday (presumably the winner’s bracket) - San Diego State vs. Ole Miss (9:00 – ESPN2) and Arizona vs. Miami (11:30PM – ESPN2)

Tuesday (presumably the Championship) – Arizona vs. San Diego State (9:30 PM – ESPN2)

Among other reasons for waiting until early December to start this periodical, forecasting tournaments is a bitch. Take the Maui Invitational, for example – the national consensus was that UNC and Texas would play in the final, and that couldn’t have been much further from the truth. The only first round result in this field that would actually surprise me would be if Arizona lost to East Tennessee State, followed not so closely by San Francisco upsetting San Diego State. As you can surmise from my Sunday projections, I’ve got Ole Miss (better than you probably realize) knocking off Indiana State in the opener, SDSU taking care of San Fran, Arizona easily beating ETSU, and Miami getting past Hawaii; although Chaminade certainly showed us that you don’t take home court advantage in Hawaii for granted. Assuming those 4 things transpire, I’ve got Arizona over Miami in what would be a much closer game under different circumstances, and San Diego State over an Ole Miss team playing against their first tourney-caliber team this season. And in the championship game, I’ll take Jamaal Franklin and Chase Tapley to send the #4 team in the country home for the holidays with a loss. Don’t sleep on Miami in this bracket. The Hurricanes will win at least 2 of their 3 games as they continue establishing themselves as one of the teams to beat in the ACC.

Continental Tire Las Vegas:
Saturday – Bradley vs. Virginia Tech (8:00) and Portland vs. Colorado State (10:30)
Sunday – Tourney final (8:30 – CBS Sports Network)

The other, less conditional tournament taking place this weekend pits three 2-loss bubble teams against one 6-loss Portland. The most likely end result would have to be Virginia Tech over Colorado State, but Bradley might have something to say about that. Aside from Pitt, Bradley has come closest to ending Michigan’s perfect season, and unlike Virginia Tech, the Braves comfortably beat Georgia Southern in the past 7 days. If the winner of Bradley/Virginia Tech goes on to beat Colorado State in the final, it would provide a major shot in the arm on Selection Sunday; and if any team other than Portland goes 0-2, that team can just about kiss their tourney dreams goodbye.

Thursday – New Mexico @ Cincinnati (9:00 – ESPN2)

Nobody goes undefeated these days – of the remaining 8 unbeatens, these are arguably 2 of the 3 least likely to pull off the miracle run – but it’s a rare treat when undefeated teams play each other this late in the season. So rare, in fact, that I spent at least an hour doing the research for this tidbit of info. I don’t claim to be the Elias Sports Bureau, so I may have missed a game or two, but I found a grand total of five instances in the past decade of undefeated teams (with at least 10 wins each) playing each other:

Duke (10-0) vs. Wake Forest (10-0) in 2002-03
Illinois (13-0) vs. Cincinnati (11-0) in 2004-05
Duke (10-0) vs. Pitt (10-0) in 2007-08 (Hey, I was at that game!)
Wake Forest (15-0) vs. Clemson (16-0) in 2008-09
Purdue (12-0) vs. West Virginia (11-0) in 2009-10

Assuming they both take care of business on Saturday, their 25 combined wins would be the second most for an undefeated showdown in the past decade – and it might be worth noting that despite the hot start to that 2008-09 season, neither Clemson nor Wake Forest escaped the first round of the NCAA Tournament. It also bears mentioning that only 1 of those 5 games ended up being decided by less than 10 points, and I still hate Levance Fields for draining that three in OT at MSG.

So, who survives this game and keeps their dream alive for at least another 4 days? Playing at The Pit has been a great home court advantage for the Lobos for quite a few years, but thus far this season they haven't exactly excelled away from home. They barely got by Illinois-Chicago, George Mason, and Connecticut in the Paradise Jam; needed OT to win at Indiana State; and really struggled to pull away at NMSU this past Wednesday. Granted, those struggles didn't come against teams from the SWAC or the MEAC, but none of those teams are anywhere near a lock to make the tournament (if they're even eligible). Also, the home games that they've won weren't against teams worth naming, aside from the season opener against Davidson, which it looked for sure like they were going to lose for the first 35 minutes. This is unquestionably and significantly the biggest test of their young season, and I don't think they're ready to contend with the best rebounding team in the nation. I've got Cincinnati winning comfortably by a score of 78-61.

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