Friday, December 28, 2012

For the Sake of Your Bracket IV (12/28-1/3)

By: Kerrance James

Welcome to the fourth edition of your one-stop shop for the upcoming week in college hoops. With January just around the corner, non-conference showdowns are about to give way to in-conference slugfests. The Murray States and Bucknells of the world are going to slip into relative obscurity for a few months while we determine whether that one team in each major conference (Arizona State, Charlotte, Iowa, Maryland, Ole Miss, Oklahoma State, Seton Hall, and Wyoming) is anywhere near as good as its inflated record. My mission is to make sure you don't lose track of the games being played this week that'll really matter in March. We'll be running this column at least every Friday until March 15 while adding in my annual elimination style bubble tracker in a few weeks. Stick with us for the next 2+ months and you'll be as prepared as you can possibly be to fill out your bracket.

Friday: Detroit @ Temple (3:00), Stony Brook @ Seton Hall (7:00 – ESPN3), Iona @ Saint Joseph’s (7:00), Baylor @ Gonzaga (8:00 – ESPN2), Missouri @ UCLA (10:00 – ESPN2)

If you can only watch one: UCLA has improved vastly since an ugly loss to Cal Poly and subsequently ridding itself of a 305 pound cancer colloquially referred to as “Joshua Smith.” Shabazz Muhammad has progressed as promised as a scorer (18.8 ppg) and Larry Drew II continues to develop into a better-than-advertised-at-UNC point guard (5.4 AST/TO), but the real catalyst to their success has been rarely mentioned freshman Kyle Anderson. In UCLA’s 9 wins, Anderson has averaged 11.2 points, 9.3 rebounds, and 1.5 turnovers per game; in their 3 losses, those totals drop to 2.3 points, 6.7 rebounds, and 3.3 turnovers per game. Unfortunately for Bruin fans, the 6’9” freshman will have a long day dealing with the 6’9” Missouri seniors: Alex Oriakhi and Laurence Bowers. Unless the Wear twins decide to have the game of their lives AND Jordan Adams catches fire from behind the arc, I don’t foresee UCLA pulling off an upset; but it will be interesting to see whether they’ll show some promise for the Pac-12 conference slate, or whether their recent string of good games only applies against teams at the talent level of Fresno State and Prairie View.

Elsewhere, forgive me for trying to draw your attention to Stony Brook for a second consecutive Friday, but remember that this is for the sake of your bracket, and you might not get another chance to see them against an RPI top 200 team all season. The Seawolves rebound much better than your average one-and-done-conference school, and currently have the 8th best free throw shooter in the country – neither of which are things you want your favorite 2-seed to run into in the first round of the tournament. For the record, I’m calling out this game not only to get one last look at Stony Brook, but also to get one good look at Seton Hall before their conference gauntlet begins. The Pirates are sitting at 10-2, but the 2 best teams they’ve beaten are Wake Forest and the New Jersey Institute of Technology. You don’t even have to follow college basketball to know that a win over NJIT probably isn’t going to hold much water with the selection committee. This game might as well be part of their conference schedule, because they’ll need to go at least 11-8 from this point forward to sniff the tourney.

In the three other games of lesser intrigue on Friday, Temple will look to build on last week’s win over Syracuse before next week’s showdown with Kansas; Saint Joseph’s gets one last chance to prove they will eventually bounce back from the beating they took against Creighton four weeks ago; and some form of Baylor will show up in Spokane in its quest to become this year’s middling seed that spends the entire season convincing us that they could just as easily lose in the first round as win the entire tournament (assume Gonzaga wins by double digits, but do not put any jelly beans on that game).

Saturday Afternoon: UNLV @ UNC (2:00 – ESPN2), Virginia Tech @ BYU (2:00 – ESPNU), Valparaiso @ Murray State (3:00 – ESPN3), Kentucky @ Louisville (4:00 – CBS), Air Force vs. Florida (4:30 – FSN)

If you can only watch one: I would rank Kentucky vs. Louisville as my 2nd most favorite late December / early January annual tradition, just behind Christmas and light years ahead of New Years’ Eve. Hey, here’s a fun For the Sake of Your Bracket fact: the last time the loser of this game lasted longer in the NCAA tournament than the winner of this game was in 2004-05, when Kentucky won amid last second controversy and got bounced in the Elite Eight while Louisville lasted into the Final Four. You may think it’s dumb now, but when you’re sweating whether or not to advance Kentucky out of the Sweet Sixteen, you’ll think back to this game and know what to do.

We live in a crazy, over-reactionary world in which everyone bailed on freshman-heavy Kentucky after a rough November weekend against a pair of power six conference teams that currently have 4 losses between them. Since then, they’ve won 4 straight games by an average score of 83-51.5. The four freshmen have visibly improved since the beginning of the season (with the exception of Poythress, who is still very good, but it’s understandably hard to improve upon four straight 20 point games); but the difference maker has been Ryan Harrow. The transfer sophomore has shown improvement in every game since returning from an absence due to mono-like symptoms. No offense to walk-ons, but having a healthy Harrow on the court for 30 minutes per game makes Kentucky at least 30% better than they were with Jarrod Polson logging 20 minutes per game, and it’s about time the rest of the nation recognized that. Maybe they won’t score the upset (though I’m predicting that they do, by a score of 82-77), but I guarantee this won’t look like your typical “Fourth best team in the nation playing at home against an unranked opponent” affair.

If you logged enough family time over the long Christmas weekend and are afforded the luxury of two early afternoon games, the other one to watch is absolutely UNLV @ UNC – especially if you enjoy the occasional track meet. Despite the three losses that they looked positively awful during, UNC is 3rd in nation in scoring, 3rd in rebounding, and 1st in assists per game. UNLV isn’t too far behind at 21st, 13th, and 8th, respectively. Let’s just say I’m not exactly expecting any shot clock violations. I’ve got UNC winning with somewhat surprising ease (92-78), as they’ve played quite well at home this season, UNLV has not played well on the road, and I don’t like the fact that this game tips off at 11:00 AM Rebel Standard Time.

Rounding out the early afternoon are three games involving four teams who suffered resume-damaging losses just before Christmas dinner: Florida gets a second chance to beat an 8-2 team that is 0-2 in the only games on its schedule worth a damn; Murray State needs to beat Valparaiso if they expect the selection committee to overlook any upcoming regular season Ohio Valley Conference losses; and a desperate Virginia Tech visits an even more desperate BYU, which has yet to get within 10 points of a key win this season.

Saturday Night: Xavier @ Tennessee (6:00 – ESPNU), George Mason @ South Florida (7:00 – ESPN3), Butler @ Vanderbilt (8:00 – ESPNU), South Dakota State @ North Dakota State (8:00)

Normally, this is the part where I recommend one game from this grouping for you to watch, but I’m going to request that you don’t actually watch any of them. Xavier and Tennessee have each played in some of the least watchable nationally televised games to date, George Mason and South Florida haven’t been worth watching in about six years, NHL labor negotiations have been more successful than Vanderbilt’s attempts to play without its recently departed seniors, and you couldn’t find SDSU @ NDSU on a television unless you live in one of those Ds. However, you’ll want to check the box scores afterwards, as four of these eight teams will end up in the tournament, and Butler is the only one of the bunch currently with a better than 50% chance of getting there.

Sunday: Illinois State @ Indiana State (1:05), Canisius @ Detroit (3:00), Eastern Kentucky @ West Virginia (4:00 – ESPN3), Northern Iowa @ Wichita State (6:00 – ESPN3)

The Missouri Valley could send as many as five teams to the tournament this year – Creighton and Wichita State would really need to play their way out at this point, and there’s no reason that Illinois State, Indiana State, and Northern Iowa couldn’t play their way in. Odds are that 2 of the 5 will knock each other out, and another will knock itself out by losing a home game to Drake or Missouri State; but what if all five of them won at least 13 games in conference? By the looks of things, the CAA, the C-USA, and the WCC could all end up as single-bid conferences, and those at-large bids need to come from somewhere, right? Ultimately, I think they’ll send 3 teams, with a chance at a 4th if the Pac-12 ends up being terrible again. At any rate, by the end of the night on January 5th, we’ll have a better feel for UNI and the ISUs, as they play a round robin against each other and each have 1 game against Wichita State or Creighton between now and then. I like Illinois State to go 2-0 in the round robin, and to at least give Creighton a fight on Wednesday.

Monday: Cincinnati @ Pittsburgh (12:00 – ESPN2), Michigan State @ Minnesota (2:00 – ESPN2), Indiana @ Iowa (4:00 – ESPN2), Gonzaga @ Oklahoma State (6:00 – ESPN2), New Mexico @ Saint Louis (7:30), Harvard @ Saint Mary’s (8:00 – ESPN2)

My “expert” opinion is that you should wake up on New Years’ Eve, turn on ESPN2, and subsequently take the batteries out of your remote control; but if you can only watch one game, it would have to be Gonzaga @ Oklahoma State. Don’t get me wrong, the first game of the Big East season and the first game of the Big Ten season are each quite worthy of watching, but you’ll have at least a dozen other opportunities to see each of those teams in games of equal intrigue. For Gonzaga, this is one of your two chances to see them play a true road game against an opponent of possibly equal skill. For Oklahoma State, this might be the first real test of their season; I would argue that they caught NC State napping, and that Virginia Tech did the same to them. Smart vs. Pangos and Nash vs. Harris are the individual battles to watch, but the key to the game will be OSU’s freshman shooting guard Phil Forte. Forte has hit 44% of his long range shots in Cowboy victories, but was just 1-for-10 in the loss to the Hokies. Only 1 of those 9 misses occurred in the final 8 minutes, so it’s not as if they were just feeding him for contested threes in an attempted comeback; Forte was simply the weak link in Smart’s best statistical game to date (18 points, 11 rebounds, 6 assists, 2 steals, 0 turnovers).

Finishing up 2012, I like Pittsburgh to finally put a blemish on Cincinnati’s perfect season; Minnesota to silence their doubters by comfortably handing Michigan State its third loss of the year; Indiana to open its Big Ten schedule with a 20 point road win over Iowa; Saint Louis to score a minor upset over New Mexico behind the return of Kwamain Mitchell; and Saint Mary’s to keep extremely slim tourney hopes alive by beating Harvard by an extremely slim margin.

Tuesday: Connecticut @ Marquette (8:00 – ESPNU)

Wednesday: Duke @ Davidson (7:00 – ESPN2), Xavier @ Wake Forest (7:00 – ESPN3), Creighton @ Illinois State (8:00), Indiana State @ Northern Iowa (8:00 – ESPN3), Illinois @ Purdue (8:30 – Big Ten)

Thursday: Colorado @ Arizona (8:00 – ESPNU), Cal @ UCLA (11:00 – FSN)

If you can only watch one: sub-.500 Purdue should provide more of a challenge to 1 loss Illinois than their records seem to indicate. Since their win over Gonzaga, Illinois has struggled at home against Norfolk State and Eastern Kentucky and also lost to Missouri, so until I find reason to do otherwise, I will continue beating the “Don’t Buy the Illini” drum. Their weakness has been and will continue to be teams who can rebound the ball, which just so happens to be one of Purdue’s only strengths. Illinois should be able to win the game, but it’ll be close enough to make them underdogs in their upcoming games against Ohio State and Minnesota.

In the other mid-week games, I like all of the road teams on Tuesday and Wednesday – Napier and Boatright will prove to be too much for Marquette’s sub-par perimeter defense; Davidson isn’t currently playing well enough to beat Duquesne, let alone Duke; Xavier will win an unwatchably sloppy game against the Demon Deacons; Creighton will beat Illinois State, but quickly realize that 14-4 in the Valley won’t be anywhere near as easy as it was last year; and after losing to Illinois State on Sunday, Wednesday’s game will mean more for Indiana State than Northern Iowa. Home court advantage returns with a vengeance on Thursday when Arizona and UCLA open their Pac-12 seasons with double digit point wins.

No comments:

Post a Comment