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February 21, 2008
Prospectus Preview
Thursday's Games to Watch

by Caleb Peiffer

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Games of Thursday, February 21

Matchup: Pittsburgh (19-6, 7-5 Big East) at Notre Dame (19-5, 9-3), 7:00 p.m. EST, ESPN
Rankings: Pittsburgh, #26 in Pomeroy Ratings (7th of 16 in Big East); Notre Dame, #22 (6th)
Pomeroy Prediction: Notre Dame, 75-70 in 69 Possessions
Upset Possibility: 31%
Prospectus: While the Fighting Irish have the better overall season statistics, the Panthers have been a hair better in conference play, with an efficiency margin (points per possession minus opponent points per possession) of +0.06 to Notre Dame's +0.05. The Fighting Irish's three conference losses have come on the road to Marquette, Georgetown and Connecticut, while the team has been taking care of business at home, with a 14-0 record in South Bend. The Panthers, who are 2-4 in conference road games, will be trying to integrate point guard Levance Fields back into the team's rotation. Fields played 20 minutes in last Friday's 72-54 loss to Marquette, his first game back from the broken foot that sidelined him for 12 games, and shot just 1-of-7 from the floor. If Fields is able to make a full recovery and play as well as he did before he got hurt, Pittsburgh will be an extremely dangerous team in the postseason.

Despite the presence of probable Big East Player of the Year Luke Harangody, who has made just over 50 percent of his whopping 364 two-point attempts, the Fighting Irish are actually a much better three-point shooting team than they are on the interior. Notre Dame ranks first in the Big East with a 40.5 three-point percentage, but just 12th in the conference at 47.4 percent on its twos. Pittsburgh's perimeter defense has held teams to only 31.8 percent shooting from long range on the season, however.

Matchup: Massachusetts (18-7, 10-2 Atlantic 10) at Rhode Island (13-12, 8-5), 7:00, ESPN2
Rankings: Massachusetts, #83 in Pomeroy Ratings (6th of 14 in A-10); Rhode Island, #61 (3rd)
Pomeroy Prediction: Rhode Island, 93-85 in 84 Possessions
Upset Possibility: 26%
Prospectus: Two of the fastest teams in the nation hook up in a rematch of Massachusetts' 78-76 home win on February 7. Despite that quality victory, the Minutemen have to be disappointed with their showing in the Atlantic 10 season after a strong non-conference start that included road wins over Syracuse and Boston College. Massachusetts has dropped three of its last five to fall below .500, including a bad defeat at home to Fordham. The Rams have also struggled of late against A-10 foes, losing three of their last four, with all of those losses coming in close games. In addition to the setback in Amherst, Rhode Island dropped an overtime decision in Philadelphia to Temple and a four-point game at home to the conference's best team, Xavier. In the first meeting between the Rams and Minutemen, Rhode Island's normally strong offense (the third best in the A-10) went uncharacteristically cold against a so-so Massachusetts defense, putting up a 37.8 eFG%, its lowest figure of the season. Senior Gary Forbes led Massachusetts in scoring with 26 points, but he hoisted a whopping 30 shots, 39 percent of his team's total, to reach that total.

Matchup: IUPUI (21-5, 13-2 Summit League) at Oakland (13-12, 8-6), 7:30
Rankings: IUPUI, #69 in Pomeroy Ratings (1st of 10 in Summit); Oakland, #149 (4th)
Pomeroy Prediction: IUPUI, 76-71 in 65 Possessions
Upset Possibility: 33%
Prospectus: The IUPUI Jaguars came up with a big win on Saturday over first-place Oral Roberts, a victory that pulled them within a game of the Summit lead. IUPUI has to win its three remaining Summit League games and hope that Oral Roberts drops one in order to claim a share of first place, and this game against Oakland represents the hardest of the Jaguars' final three conference affairs. The Grizzlies lost to IUPUI 82-69 on the road January 24, and now will have the chance to exact some revenge on their home court. The Jaguars were on fire from the field in that first game, putting up a 73.5 eFG% on 9-of-20 from three and a remarkable 24-of-31 from two. That performance is not that surprising when you consider that the Jaguars have the second-best eFG% of any Division I team, and that Oakland has allowed opponents a 54.2 eFG% on the season, which ranks 313th of 341 D-I teams. Look for the Grizzlies to do a better job of getting on the offensive glass in this rematch than they did in the first game. Oakland has a concerted height advantage against IUPUI, and the main strength of the Grizzlies is their offensive rebounding ability, while the Jaguars are a weak defensive rebounding squad.

Matchup: South Alabama (21-5, 13-2 Sun Belt) at Western Kentucky (21-5, 13-1), 8:00
Rankings: South Alabama, #70 in Pomeroy Ratings (2nd of 13 in Sun Belt); Western Kentucky, #62 (1st)
Pomeroy Prediction: Western Kentucky, 74-69 in 68 Possessions
Upset Possibility: 30%
Prospectus: These might be the two best teams in the country that no one has heard of. The Hilltoppers (Western Kentucky) and Jaguars are the twin titans of the Sun Belt conference, the 15th-best circuit in the land by the Pomeroy Ratings. South Alabama is a half game back of Western Kentucky in the Sun Belt's East division with three conference games to play, while the Hilltoppers have four left versus Sun Belt foes. The Jaguars handed Western Kentucky its only loss in the conference back on January 5 in a 65-61 decision, a game South Alabama took chiefly by getting to the line 10 more times than the Hilltoppers did.

The Jaguars have the Sun Belt's best offense, led by 6'4" senior Demetric Bennett, who has been deadly from three-point range (76-of-184, 41 percent) as well as two (98-of-177, 55 percent). South Alabama's attack is keyed by its excellent offensive rebounding. The Jaguars' offensive rebounding percentage has been more strongly correlated with their offensive efficiency than their eFG% has been, which means that when the squad hits the offensive glass hard it puts serious points on the board. Western Kentucky has the Sun Belt's best defense, and also employs the services of 6'5" senior Courtney Lee. Lee has put up a 122.5 offensive rating while using a robust 31 percent of his team's possessions, which is the third-best mark among players who have used at least 28 percent of possessions, behind IUPUI's George Hill and California's Ryan Anderson, and the best rating among players who have used at least 31 percent.

Matchup: Sam Houston St. (19-5, 7-4 Southland) at Stephen F. Austin (21-3, 9-2), 8:00
Rankings: Sam Houston St., #120 in Pomeroy Ratings (2nd of 12 in Southland); Stephen F. Austin, #99 (1st)
Pomeroy Prediction: Stephen F. Austin, 58-53 in 62 Possessions
Upset Possibility: 23%
Prospectus: The teams in second and third place in the Southland standings go at it in a rematch of the January 24th game in which Sam Houston St. beat Stephen F. Austin 58-56 at home. The Stephen F. Austin Jacks have won six straight since that setback, and now are just a half game behind Lamar for first place with five games left to play. Both of these teams are powered by excellent defenses, with the Bearkats ranking second in the nation in raw defensive efficiency and the Jacks ranking sixth. The difference between them is that Stephen F. Austin also has a decent offense (masked by the fact that it plays at a very slow 61 possession pace), while Sam Houston St. really struggles to put points on the scoreboard. One of the biggest problems for the Bearkats attack is their 30.5 three-point field goal percentage; they shot just 3-of-12 in their win over the Jacks, but got the big three when they needed it--senior guard Shamir McDaniel's triple with 20 seconds left that put Sam Houston St. ahead. McDaniel has been the one Bearkat effective from long range this year--he is 60-of-141 (43 percent), while the rest of his teammates are a collective 78-of-306 (25 percent).

Matchup: Arizona St. (16-8, 6-6 Pacific 10) at Washington St. (20-5, 8-5), 9:00
Rankings: Arizona St., #40 in Pomeroy Ratings (7th of 10 in Pac 10); Washington St., #9 (2nd)
Pomeroy Prediction: Washington St., 62-53 in 55 Possessions
Upset Possibility: 13%
Prospectus: The Sun Devils collected two excellent wins in a row, beating the rival Wildcats on the road and Stanford at home, but then lost a lot of that good feeling by losing to California at home last Saturday. The Cougars, meanwhile, are back on the prowl--after losing three straight, Washington St. has now taken three in a row. This contest should be an interesting one to track if only because it promises to be remarkably slow-paced. The Cougars rank 334th in the country with an average pace of 59 possessions per 40 minutes, while Arizona St. is 329th at 60.5. These two teams hooked up on January 26, and Washington St. won 56-55. You would think that kind of game had to be a defensive struggle, but in fact, both squads scored more than a point per possession and shot reasonably well from the field--it's just that there were a mere 54 possessions in which to pile up points. The Cougars hit 10-of-22 three-pointers in that game, while the Sun Devils nailed just 2-of-14 triple attempts. Arizona St. was also limited to rebounding only one in five of its own misses by a Washington St. team that is very tall and very strong on the defensive glass.

Matchup: Arizona (16-9, 6-6 Pacific 10) at Washington (14-12, 5-8), 11:00
Rankings: Arizona, #20 in Pomeroy Ratings (4th of 10 in Pac 10); Washington, #55 (9th)
Pomeroy Prediction: Arizona, 72-70 in 67 Possessions
Upset Possibility: 41%
Prospectus: The Wildcats lost a heartbreaker on Saturday at home against Stanford, as Chase Budinger's potential game-winner was swatted away in the final seconds by Brook Lopez. Arizona is now one of five teams in the Pacific 10 with six wins, the strong conference's middle tier behind the UCLA/Stanford/Washington St. power trio and the poor winless Beavers at the bottom. The Huskies, with just five Pac-10 wins, are the odd team out. They're clearly the worst of the non-Oregon St. teams, despite their shocking win over UCLA. Excluding the chance offered by the conference tournament, Washington would have to do something drastic in the remainder of the regular season--like take four of its final five games, and beat Arizona at home and either Stanford or Washington St. on the road--to even be considered for an at-large bid. The Huskies lost to the Wildcats 84-69 on January 26, as Arizona put up a scalding 76.7 eFG%, its best figure of the season. Freshman Jerryd Bayless killed Washington, hitting five of his six threes, four of his five twos, and all three of his free throws for 26 points. The 6'3" guard has been scorching of late, having averaged 34 points on 52 percent shooting (52 percent from three) in the Wildcats' last three games.

Matchup: Oregon (15-10, 6-7 Pacific 10) at Southern California (15-9, 6-6), 11:00
Rankings: Oregon, #39 in Pomeroy Ratings (6th of 10 in Pac 10); Southern California, #27 (5th)
Pomeroy Prediction: Southern California, 73-67 in 68 Possessions
Upset Possibility: 25%
Prospectus: As few as six Pac-10 teams could make the NCAA Tournament (and possibly as many as eight), which leaves Oregon very much on the bubble. The Ducks will have to win three of their last five games (not including Pac-10 tournament play) to put themselves in good position on Selection Sunday, and that won't be an easy task with games remaining at USC and UCLA as well as home versus Arizona. The Trojans have lost two in a row, to conference elites Washington St. and UCLA, to fall back to .500. In the first game of the year between these two squads, USC beat the Ducks 95-86 in overtime January 26. Despite being out-rebounded by Oregon, the Trojans eventually won the war thanks to their 68 eFG% and huge advantage at the free throw line: USC shot 36 free throws to its 50 field goal attempts, the team's greatest free throw percentage of the season. The Trojans have been very good at keeping their opponents off the line this year, but the stats don't suggest they can come close to duplicating their success at getting so many trips to the line against Oregon. Sophomore guard Daniel Hackett did most of the damage at the stripe versus the Ducks, as he shot 15 free throws, seven more than he's taken in any other game this season.

Caleb Peiffer is a contributor to Basketball Prospectus. He can be reached here.

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