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February 22, 2008
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Friday's Games to Watch

by Caleb Peiffer

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Games of Friday, February 22

Matchup: Davidson (20-6, 18-0 Southern) at Winthrop (18-9, 9-3 Big South), 7:00 p.m. EST, ESPN2
Rankings: Davidson, #53 in Pomeroy Ratings (1st of 11 in Southern); Winthrop, #110 (1st of 8 in Big South)
Pomeroy Prediction: Davidson, 64-62 in 65 Possessions
Upset Possibility: 41%
Prospectus: The best team in the Southern takes on the top squad in the Big South as the BracketBusters ESPN showcase gets going. Both of these squads stand well above their conference peers--the second best team in the Southern, Georgia Southern, is 75 spots behind the Wildcats in the Pomeroy Ratings, while Liberty is 81 places behind the Eagles in the Big South. Davidson has far and away the better offense, with a 1.11 points per possesion adjusted efficiency as compared to the 0.99 of the Eagles. The Wildcats are powered by the eighth-best two-point field goal percentage in Division I, as well as a very low turnover percentage, and can thank star sophomore guard Stephen Curry for both of those strengths. Winthrop has a slightly better defense than the Wildcats, due primarily to a greater ability to make opponents miss, and its star senior Chris Gaynor ranks ninth in the country in steal percentage. Davidson has won 16 straight games, all against Southern Conference foes, so it will be good for the Wildcats to get a stiffer test before heading to the NCAA Tournament. This will be the best defense the Wildcats have faced since playing UCLA on December 8, and the Eagles will be going up against their best offensive foe since beating Miami FL on December 29.

Matchup: Brown (14-8, 6-2 Ivy League) at Columbia (12-11, 5-3), 7:00
Rankings: Brown, #158 in Pomeroy Ratings (2nd of 8 in Ivy); Columbia, #227 (3rd)
Pomeroy Prediction: Brown, 61-60 in 59 Possessions
Upset Possibility: 43%
Prospectus: Brown looks to be the only Ivy League team with a realistic shot of catching Cornell for the Ivy League crown and NCAA Tournament berth that comes with it (remember, there is no conference tournament). The Bears are two behind the Big Red with six games to play, and still have a game left with Cornell, tomorrow night on the road. That makes this game between the second and third place teams essential, and it projects to be a slow-paced, down-to-the-final-possession nail-biter. Brown has built its offense around getting to the free throw line--the Bears rank fourth in free throw rate, or free throws shot per 100 field goals attempted, and are 10th in percentage of points scored at the line. This is not a single-season trend for the Bears. In 2004 Brown ranked 250th in free throw rate, then improved to 85th in 2005, 33rd in 2006, and first last season. The team also runs the Princeton offense, and therefore shoots (and makes) a large number of threes. So if you want to see an attack that has all but eliminated the two-pointer, the Bears are your team to watch. Brown has won five straight games since losing to Cornell, including a 68-63 win over Columbia at home, while the Lions have taken four in a row since falling to Brown. The Lions have the curious defensive profile of being very good at three-point field goal defense (30.7 percent) yet also having given up a ton of three-point attempts (39.7 percent of opposing shots). The Bears shot 8-of-23 from deep against Columbia in the first game.

Matchup: Princeton (5-17, 2-5 Ivy League) at Harvard (6-18, 1-7), 7:00
Rankings: Princeton, #288 in Pomeroy Ratings (6th of 8 in Ivy); Harvard, #272 (5th)
Pomeroy Prediction: Harvard, 65-59 in 61 Possessions
Upset Possibility: 28%
Prospectus: This rivalry has produced a long series of heartbreaks for the Crimson. Princeton beat Harvard earlier this year by 14 at home, and last season won in double-overtime in New Jersey, where they also won in double-overtime in 2004. The Crimson managed to beat the Tigers in Cambridge last season, but two years ago had a win pulled right out from under them at home, as Harvard blew a six point lead in the last minute to lose by one. That loss found its parallel defeat last Friday night, when the Crimson, winning 71-66 against first-place Cornell with 42 seconds left, ended up losing by a point after the Big Red's Alex Tyler made three consecutive layups. Harvard lost again on Saturday to Columbia, its seventh consecutive defeat after winning its Ivy opener. The Tigers committed almost half as many turnovers as Harvard and hit 12-of-29 threes to win the first game between these two, but since that victory Princeton has lost five in a row.

Matchup: Yale (10-12, 4-4 Ivy League) at Cornell (16-5, 8-0), 7:00
Rankings: Yale, #228 in Pomeroy Ratings (4th of 8 in Ivy); Cornell, #143 (1st)
Pomeroy Prediction: Cornell, 79-67 in 70 Possessions
Upset Possibility: 14%
Prospectus: Cornell, which was profiled on the front page of the New York Times sports section on Monday, now has a 36.6 percent chance of winning its final six games to finish a perfect 14-0 in the Ivy League. The last Ivy team to run the table at 14-0 was Pennsylvania in 2003. That was a much stronger team than this year's Cornell squad--the Quakers finished 56th in the Pomeroy Ratings that year and beat Temple, Villanova and Southern California in non-conference play, garnering an 11 seed in the tournament. The Big Red, whose best non-conference win was against Siena at home, are looking at a 13-15 seed. After losing last Saturday night at Pennsylvania to fall four back in the standings, Yale was all but eliminated from the running for the league title, but the Bulldogs could do a huge favor to Brown by pulling off an upset in Ithaca. There doesn't seem to be much chance of that happening, however, especially given Cornell's 66-45 win over Yale in New Haven February 2. The Bulldogs were held to 0.71 points per possession in that loss and an eFG% of 28.4, their lowest of the season. Ryan Wittman, the son of Randy Wittman, head coach of the NBA's Timberwolves, scored 18 points on 3-of-3 from three-point range in the win. Wittman has hit 65 of his 132 attempts from deep (49 percent) on the season.

Matchup: Lipscomb (13-14, 7-6 Atlantic Sun) at Belmont (19-8, 11-2), 7:30
Rankings: Lipscomb, #203 in Pomeroy Ratings (3rd of 12 in A-Sun); Belmont, #169 (1st)
Pomeroy Prediction: Belmont, 82-74 in 72 Possessions
Upset Possibility: 24%
Prospectus: This is a matchup between Nashville city rivals, and the two teams that tied for the Atlantic Sun regular-season title two years ago with a 15-5 record. The Belmont Bruins have won their last seven games to climb into the driver's seat in the A-Sun. Belmont has also won the past two Atlantic Sun tournaments, garnering a 15 seed in the NCAA Tournament both times. The Bruins lost by 25 to Georgetown in the first round last year, and by 34 to their big brother Bruins from UCLA in 2006. The first game this season between Belmont and the Bisons went into double overtime, with the Bruins pulling out a 99-91 road win over their urban neighbors. Belmont shot 11-of-29 from three point range in that game, which is actually a lower number of attempts than would be expected give their 77 field goal attempts: 47 percent of Belmont's seasonal field goal attempts have come from long range, a higher ratio than all but seven other Division I teams. The Bruins, however, are most efficient on two-point shots (54 percent). In the double-overtime loss, Lipscomb got a big game from senior guard-forward Eddie Ard, who scored 27 points on 11-of-22 shooting and grabbed 10 rebounds. Belmont was led by junior Shane Dansby, who scored 23 on 10-of-16 from the floor and had 12 rebounds.

Matchup: UC Santa Barbara (20-6, 9-4 Big West) at Utah St. (18-9, 8-4 Western Athletic), 9:00, ESPNU
Rankings: UC Santa Barbara, #127 in Pomeroy Ratings (2nd of 9 in Big West); Utah St., #137 (4th of 9 in WAC)
Pomeroy Prediction: Utah St., 70-67 in 64 Possessions
Upset Possibility: 37%
Prospectus: A couple of weeks ago Utah St. was in first place in the WAC, but the Aggies lost three straight games, all on the road, by a combined total of just 13 points, to fall a game behind Boise St. and New Mexico St. in the loss column with four conference games left. This is a non-conference BracketBuster pairing with the Gauchos of UC Santa Barbara, who sit two back in the loss column of first-place Cal St. Northridge in the Big West with three conference games left. The matchup to watch in this one will be between Utah St.'s offense and UC Santa Barbara's defense--the Aggies rank third in the nation in eFG%, while the Gauchos have the second-best defense in the Big West.

While UC Santa Barbara likely won't be able to stop Utah St.'s two-point attack--the Aggies have shot 55 percent on their twos, while the Gauchos have allowed a high 51% two-point percentage--the team might well be able to disrupt the Utah St. attack by forcing turnovers. The Gauchos have forced turnovers on 27 percent of opponent possessions, the third-best mark in the country, while the Aggies' major weakness on offense is turnovers, as they have lost the ball on 21.6 percent of their possessions. Furthermore, the Game Plan correlations data shows that Utah St.'s offense has been particularly disrupted by coughing it up, as its turnover percentage has a -0.61 correlation to offensive efficiency. For UC Santa Barbara, rising opponent turnover percentage is even more strongly correlated than that to the betterment of the Gauchos' defense, with a -0.69 relationship (1 would mean all of the difference in the team's defensive efficiency was explained by its opponents' turnover percentage). UC Santa Barbara will have a tough time getting the ball from senior Aggies shooting guard Jaycee Carroll, however, as Carroll turns it over on only 13 percent of the possessions he uses. He also ranks first in offensive rating (131) among players who have used at least 20 percent of possessions (and he's used 23.8 percent).

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

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