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February 17, 2011
Madness Comes Early
BracketBusters Preview

by John Gasaway

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Last April a team from the Horizon League came within a scientifically-measured three inches of winning the national championship. But if you had asked anyone in college basketball about Butler a month before that game, you would have heard a familiar refrain: Butler? Who've they played? In this case, at least, the familiar refrain didn't turn out to be all that helpful in evaluating the Bulldogs' tournament potential.

So if we're smart about the way we look at a team, we'll ask not only "Who've they played?" but also "How well have they played?" Which brings me to BracketBusters 2011, an outstanding opportunity to evaluate how well the nation's top mid-majors are playing in late February. Of course, BracketBusters is way too big to be previewed in just a couple thousand words. Instead I've selected the five games that I think should be required viewing for any serious hoops fan.

(All times Eastern)

Virginia Commonwealth (20-8, 12-4) vs. Wichita State (22-5, 13-3)
Friday, 7:00

VCU in-conference (Colonial)
Offense: 1.10 points per possession (3rd)
Defense: 1.03 points allowed per possession (6th)

WSU in-conference (Missouri Valley)
Offense: 1.12 points per possession (1st)
Defense: 0.93 points allowed per possession (1st)

On paper Wichita State is one tough outfit, and the task facing VCU is a tall one. In style if not in quality, the Shockers bear at least a passing resemblance to some of the great Michigan State teams of years past. Meaning Gregg Marshall's group is relentless on the glass at both ends of the floor. In fact if I'm the Rams right now I'm pretty much forgetting about getting any offensive boards -- this year WSU's hauled down an incredible 78 percent of their Missouri Valley opponents' misses. Give a lot of the credit here to 6-4 junior Toure' Murry, 6-8 senior J.T. Durley, and, when he's in the game, the somewhat foul-prone Gabe Blair, still another 6-8 senior. Wichita State doesn't pose much of a threat from the perimeter offensively, but they take care of the ball and make their twos. There's a reason they're 22-5.

Then again the most recent of those five losses was a real stunner. Just last week a struggling Southern Illinois team came to Wichita and won 56-53, and the good news for VCU is that the Rams are a much stronger team than the Salukis. The duo formed by 6-9 senior Jamie Skeen and 6-6 junior Bradford Burgess is making a combined 57 percent of its twos, meaning the Shockers' interior defense is about to receive a severe test. That being said, the concern for VCU head coach Shaka Smart in this game may be his own D. The Rams have forced their Colonial foes into a turnover on 23 percent of their possessions, but when those opponents hold on to the rock their shots tend to go in. Meaning if WSU continues their relatively low-turnover ways, the VCU defense could be in for a long night.

Missouri State (21-6, 13-3) vs. Valparaiso (19-8, 11-4)
Saturday, 4:00

Missouri State in-conference (Missouri Valley)
Offense: 1.10 points per possession (2nd)
Defense: 1.01 points allowed per possession (3rd)

Valparaiso in-conference (Horizon)
Offense: 1.04 points per possession (6th)
Defense: 0.97 points allowed per possession (1st)

Kyle Weems is having a great year for Missouri State. From the field the 6-6 junior is one of the most accurate shooters in the nation, having made 43 percent of his threes and 59 percent of his twos this season. Those figures are all the more impressive when you consider that Weems is no role player -- he's clearly the featured scorer for the Bears, taking 30 percent of the team's shots when he's on the floor. With Weems and 6-9 senior Will Creekmore leading the way, Missouri State has kept pace with rival Wichita State in the Missouri Valley race. A win on the road against a tough opponent like Valparaiso would give Cuonzo Martin's team even more confidence as they look ahead toward their season-ending showdown with the Shockers in Springfield on February 26.

Getting that road win won't be easy, however. Homer Drew's team, perhaps somewhat surprisingly, has played tremendous defense against their Horizon League opponents. I say "surprisingly" because it was just last year that the Crusaders allowed their conference opponents to score 1.09 points per possession. What a difference a year makes. This season the Crusaders have held the other team to less than a point per trip in 10 of their 15 conference games. As a result Valpo enters this game tied in the loss column with Cleveland State atop the Horizon. On offense 6-7 senior Cory Johnson excels at getting to the line and sinking his twos, while 6-2 junior Brandon Wood is a threat to score from either side of the arc. Expect this game to go down to the wire.

George Mason (22-5, 14-2) vs. Northern Iowa (19-9, 10-6)
Saturday, 9:00

George Mason in-conference (Colonial)
Offense: 1.17 points per possession (1st)
Defense: 0.94 points allowed per possession (1st)

Northern Iowa in-conference (Missouri Valley)
Offense: 1.07 points per possession (4th)
Defense: 1.05 points allowed per possession (7th)

Northern Iowa's seen a lot of highs and lows since they stunned top-seed Kansas in the second round of last year's NCAA tournament. After starting 1-3 in Missouri Valley play, the Panthers reeled off eight straight wins, including highly impressive road wins against both Wichita State and Missouri State. What this team does well it does very well: take care of the ball. Leading scorers Kwadzo Ahelegbe and Anthony James get their points without committing turnovers, and in conference play UNI has given the ball away on fewer than 15 percent of their possessions. Since their eight-game winning streak ended, however, Ben Jacobson's team has gone just 1-3. In the past couple weeks the Panthers have struggled mightily to stop opposing offenses. Over the past four games opponents are averaging a very robust 1.17 points per possession against the Northern Iowa D.

That would have to fall under the heading of really bad timing, because Jacobson's team is about to face perhaps the best offense it's seen all year. Meet George Mason. The Patriots haven't been held to less than a point per trip in any of their 16 CAA games. Jim Larranaga's team scores often and scores consistently. Between 6-4 senior Cam Long and 6-6 junior Ryan Pearson, GMU fans have seen an awful lot of shots go in this season from both sides of the arc. Add to that the fact that Mason plays excellent defense (Colonial opponents have made just 31 percent of their threes) and you can see the challenge facing Northern Iowa. There may be talk of UNI trying to slow the pace down (the Panthers play at a slower tempo than any Valley team) but that will be of doubtful utility against Mason, which has seen three of its last four (easy) wins feature just 62 or 63 possessions. The Patriots figure to win this game. Then again that's what I said about Kansas when they played Northern Iowa.

Utah State (24-3, 12-1) vs. Saint Mary's (22-5, 10-2)
Saturday, 9:00

Utah State in-conference (WAC)
Offense: 1.11 points per possession (1st)
Defense: 0.92 points allowed per possession (1st)

Saint Mary's in-conference (West Coast)
Offense: 1.16 points per possession (1st)
Defense: 1.01 points allowed per possession (3rd)

On paper this is a very evenly matched game. Utah State has a slight edge statistically, but of course they'll be the road team. For their part Saint Mary's has to be reeling after their surprising road loss to 6-21 San Diego on Thursday night, but the best cure for that is the cozy confines of McKeon Pavilion in Moraga, CA. In conference play the Gaels have outscored their opponents by 0.21 points per possession when playing at home. Randy Bennett's team scores its points the old-fashioned way: they take care of the ball and try to score with their first shot from the field. (If free throws or offensive boards are your thing, Moraga's not for you.) SMC loves to shoot threes, and those shots often go in. Taken together 6-0 senior Mickey McConnell and 6-4 sophomore Matthew Dellavedova are making 43 percent of their threes.

Bennett's team will likely need all the points they can get, even at home, because Utah State is no slouch in the scoring department themselves. The Aggies' balanced attack prevents anyone from putting up big Jimmer-style numbers, but 6-7 senior Tai Wesley's making 60 percent of his twos and specializes in getting the other team into foul trouble. Most of all Stew Morrill's team pounds the offensive glass. This is a good shooting team, but on the rare occasions USU misses the fun's just beginning. Against WAC opponents the Aggies have pulled in 37 percent of their own misses. That may not sound all that impressive, but in a league with an average offensive rebounding rate of 31 percent, Utah State stands out. This should be a really fun game between two excellent offensive teams.

Cleveland State (23-5, 12-4) vs. Old Dominion (21-6, 12-4)
Sunday, 1:00

Cleveland State in-conference (Horizon)
Offense: 1.09 points per possession (2nd)
Defense: 0.98 points allowed per possession (2nd)

Old Dominion in-conference (Colonial)
Offense: 1.04 points per possession (6th)
Defense: 0.94 points allowed per possession (3rd)

That Butler team that I mentioned at the top is a great example for all mid-majors, but this year's edition of the Bulldogs hasn't been able to keep up with Cleveland State in the Horizon race. (Even though, interestingly, Brad Stevens' team is 2-0 head-to-head against the Vikings.) Norris Cole has had a lot to do with CSU's success this season. The 6-2 senior had a game for the ages last weekend against Youngstown State, recording a 41-20 double-double in his team's 86-76 win. Cole was held to "just" nine assists, or else he would have had a triple-double. That kind of a game doesn't happen every day, but the Vikings are going to need another big effort from their leading scorer against Old Dominion.

You may remember the Monarchs as the team that ended Luke Harangody's college career, beating Notre Dame 51-50 in the first round of last year's NCAA tournament. ODU then gave eventual Elite Eight entrant Baylor everything it wanted before losing by eight points. Coming into this season Blaine Taylor's team was expected to battle with Virginia Commonwealth for supremacy in the Colonial. We now know George Mason had other plans, however the Monarchs' defense has been every bit as good as expected. In particular ODU's interior defense has been phenomenal, as CAA opponents have made just 41 percent of their twos this season. Speaking of twos, 6-8 senior Frank Hassell makes 54 percent of his, while also cleaning the glass at both ends of the floor. Expect Hassell and the Monarchs to defend their home floor successfully.

Enjoy the 'Busters! I know I will.

A version of this article originally appeared at ESPN Insider Insider.

John Gasaway is an author of Basketball Prospectus. You can contact John by clicking here or click here to see John's other articles.

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