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February 27, 2008
Prospectus Preview
Wednesday's Games to Watch

by Caleb Peiffer

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Games of Wednesday, February 27

Matchup: American (17-10, 9-3 Patriot League) at Navy (15-12, 8-4), 7:00 p.m. EST
Rankings: American, #156 in Pomeroy Ratings (1st of 8 in Patriot); Navy, #201 (4th)
Pomeroy Prediction: Navy, 74-73 in 70 Possessions
Upset Possibility: 50%
Prospectus: The Patriot League is one of two conferences that haven't been highlighted yet in these previews, with the Southwestern being the other. This year's Patriot League is very balanced. Unlike last year, when Holy Cross and Bucknell dominated their peers to finish 13-1 in league play, there is no team that is clearly better than all the others. American has come the closest to that distinction, and it could lock up the regular-season league title with a win at second-place Army tonight. The Eagles are seeking their third regular-season Patriot League title in their seventh year in the league. American, however, has yet to win a Patriot League tournament and thus has never been to the NCAA Tournament. The Midshipmen knocked off the Eagles 77-66 in D.C. on January 30, a game in which Navy guard Greg Sprink went off for a career-high 36 points on 8-of-18 from the floor and 17-of-18 from the free-throw line. Navy managed to slow American's prodigious three-point attack in that game--the Eagles shot 8-of-24 from deep, but have a seasonal three-point percentage of 40.4, ninth-best in Division I. Navy's best defensive trait besides three-point defense is steal percentage, and the Midshipmen collected nine steals in the win and forced 16 American turnovers, while committing just eight. Eagles' guard Derrick Mercer played all 40 minutes of the game, which is nothing new for the 5'9" junior--he has averaged nearly 38 minutes a game for American, playing the second-highest percentage of minutes of any player in Division I, behind only Fairleigh Dickinson's Manny Ubilla.

Matchup: Charlotte (15-11, 6-6 Atlantic 10) at Temple (14-12, 7-5), 7:00
Rankings: Charlotte, #84 in Pomeroy Ratings (6th of 14 in A-10); Temple, #91 (8th)
Pomeroy Prediction: Temple, 72-68 in 67 Possessions
Upset Possibility: 36%
Prospectus: The Owls blew their chance to remain in second place last Saturday when they lost at home to Fordham by two points, and now are tied with La Salle and Richmond in third at 7-5, a trio of teams that have snuck their way to the top of the standings above superior A-10 teams like Massachusetts and Rhode Island. Temple, however, is the one A-10 team that beat conference leader Xavier, which it did in convincing fashion, 78-59 at home on January 16. The Owls also have three overtime victories among their seven A-10 wins. Charlotte has lost five of seven after beginning the conference slate 4-1, and the last three of those losses have all been close ones--by two points to both Xavier and Fordham and in overtime to Richmond. The only real shot either of these teams have of making the NCAA Tournament is to win the A-10 tourney in Atlantic City, so this is a big game for both in terms of conference tournament seeding. In the first game between these two, the 49ers beat Temple at home 60-58 on January 12. Charlotte's best player, senior Leemire Goldwire, led the way in that one with 21 points on 9-of-11 from the free-throw line. The 5'11" Goldwire also hit 4-of-7 from deep, and has made 97-of-279 threes on the season, making him one of the most prolific long-range shooters in the country. Temple allows a high percentage on its opponents' three-point shots and a high number of attempts from downtown, so Goldwire could be in for an even bigger game in this rematch. The Owls have their own assassin in junior guard Dionte Christmas, who hit 4-of-10 threes in the loss to Charlotte and has made 85-of-220 on the season.

Matchup: Miami (19-7, 6-6 Atlantic Coast) at Clemson (19-7, 7-5), 7:30
Rankings: Miami, #42 in Pomeroy Ratings (4th of 12 in ACC); Clemson, #17 (3rd)
Pomeroy Prediction: Clemson, 76-67 in 69 Possessions
Upset Possibility: 18%
Prospectus: If the season ended today, the Hurricanes would likely receive an at-large berth to the NCAA Tournament thanks mainly to their win over Duke last Wednesday, but the conference stats show that they have been less than impressive in ACC play. As Basketball Prospectus' John Gasaway notes, a win at Clemson would eliminate much of the skepticism surrounding Miami's legitimacy. The Hurricanes will be looking for the season sweep, having beat Clemson 75-72 at home on January 27. Miami grabbed more than half of its own misses in that game, its second-highest offensive rebounding percentage of the season and highest in conference play. That Clemson wasn't able to get a better offensive rebounding percentage than the 32.2 it put up in that game was surprising, because the Tigers are the sixth-best offensive rebounding team in the country. Clemson ranks 23rd nationally in both offensive and defensive efficiency, with the latter unit powered by an outstanding ability to prevent the three-pointer--a very low 22.2 percent of the points scored against the Tigers have come via the long ball, which is approaching Duke territory. Clemson's chief weakness, however, is at the free throw line. An inability to get to the stripe combined with a bad team free throw percentage has led to the Tigers getting a meager 15 percent of their points via charity, the ninth lowest rate in Division I. Miami is at the other end of that spectrum, with a strong free throw rate and foul shooting percentage, and converted 25-of-29 from the line in its three-point win over Clemson.

Matchup: Mississippi (18-8, 4-8 Southeastern) at Kentucky (15-10, 9-3), 8:00
Rankings: Mississippi, #65 in Pomeroy Ratings (7th of 12 in SEC); Kentucky, #63 (6th)
Pomeroy Prediction: Kentucky, 72-68 in 68 Possessions
Upset Possibility: 34%
Prospectus: With Vanderbilt's win over first-place Tennessee last night, Kentucky now has to win this game to remain ahead of the Commodores for the second spot in the SEC East, important because the top two in each division earn first-round byes in the conference tournament. That bye would be big for the Wildcats, who will likely need to play deep into the tournament to get an invite to the Big Dance. Kentucky continues to creep towards that potential NCAA at-large bid, having won eight of its last nine. Meanwhile, save for a win over the rival Bulldogs of Mississippi St. last Wednesday, the Rebels have been awful in the month of February. They have five losses this month in the conference, the latest a 20-point road loss to LSU, which is in last place in the SEC West. These two teams are somewhat unusual in that each has a freshman who leads the squad in minutes played. For the Wildcats, that player is 6'9" forward Patrick Patterson, who has proven to be one of the best low-post players in the conference. He leads Kentucky in offensive rating and eFG%, as well as rebounding and lowest turnover rate. The Rebels' frosh is a backcourt player, 5'11" point guard Chris Warren, who is tops on Mississippi in possessions used, shots taken, and assists. The core of the Rebels is a senior, however--6'8" Dwayne Curtis, who has very strong numbers across the board and will provide for an excellent matchup in going against Patterson.

Matchup: Oklahoma (18-9, 6-6 Big 12) at Nebraska (16-9, 5-7), 8:00
Rankings: Oklahoma, #37 in Pomeroy Ratings (8th of 12 in Big 12); Nebraska, #36 (7th)
Pomeroy Prediction: Nebraska, 62-59 in 61 Possessions
Upset Possibility: 34%
Prospectus: This is a meeting between a team that looks to be in good shape in terms of an NCAA Tournament berth and one that will likely need to make a deep run in the Big 12 Tourney to have a chance. But is there that much difference between these two squads? While Oklahoma can point to strong wins over West Virginia and Gonzaga (at neutral sites) and Baylor on the road, Nebraska can trot out victories over Arizona St., Oregon, Kansas St., and on the road over Texas A&M. The gap between these two squads is mostly seen in schedule strength--Oklahoma has played the 11th-toughest, and Nebraska the 83rd, which mitigates the conference statistics, which show that the Huskers have a hair better efficiency margin in Big 12 play. Clearly the best matchup in this one will be down low, where the crafty veteran, Nebraska 6'11" senior Aleks Maric, will go up against explosive 6'10" Sooners frosh Blake Griffin. Maric leads Nebraska in every offensive category except assists, and also has the lowest turnover rate and highest block percentage on the team, while Griffin has almost the exact same profile in leading Oklahoma. The Sooners can also throw the 6'11" Longar Longar into the mix, which could be problematic for the Huskers, who have no one besides Maric amongst their top eight in minutes played who is taller than 6'5". Despite that lack of height, however, Nebraska has allowed opponents to shoot just 41.8 percent on two-pointers and is the fourth-best defense in the Big 12 by adjusted efficiency.

Matchup: Texas Tech (15-11, 6-6 Big 12) at Texas A&M (20-7, 6-6), 8:00
Rankings: Texas Tech, #45 in Pomeroy Ratings (9th of 12 in Big 12); Texas A&M, #20 (4th)
Pomeroy Prediction: Texas A&M, 70-62 in 66 Possessions
Upset Possibility: 19%
Prospectus: The Aggies are approaching crisis mode, having lost three straight games, including two in a row at home over teams at the bottom of the Big 12. That other loss, of course, was a 27-point smoking by Texas in Austin. After starting the Big 12 season 3-3 under Bob Knight, the Red Raiders have gone 3-3 with Knight's son Pat at the helm. Texas Tech beat Texas A&M 68-53 at home back on January 16, which gave the elder Knight his 900th win. The Red Raiders got to the line 25 times against 50 field goal attempts, damage that was mostly done by senior guard Martin Zeno, who hit 11-of-13 free throws. A free throw rate that ranks third in the nation has been Texas Tech's best asset this season. The Aggies, meanwhile, are a strong defensive unit that uses size--12th in the country in Average Minutes-Weighted Height--to limit two-point field goal percentage and rebound well. Size is something that 7'0" Aggies center DeAndre Jordan has in abundance, but the freshman's lack of experience has shown in the conference season. After shooting 67-of-87 (77 percent) and averaging 10.3 points and seven rebounds in 21 minutes per game over 15 non-conference games, Jordan has been held to 7.5 points on 47 percent shooting and 5.7 rebounds in the same amount of minutes over 12 games against the bullies of the Big 12, the nation's toughest collection of teams. Jordan played just 13 minutes and took two shots in Texas A&M's January loss to the Red Raiders.

Matchup: Creighton (19-8, 9-7 Missouri Valley) at Illinois St. (20-8, 11-5), 8:05
Rankings: Creighton, #60 in Pomeroy Ratings (3rd of 10 in Missouri Valley); Illinois St., #62 (3rd)
Pomeroy Prediction: Illinois St., 66-63 in 65 Possessions
Upset Possibility: 35%
Prospectus: Where's the Valley love? Despite being the best non-BCS conference by the Pomeroy Ratings, the Missouri Valley currently projects to get only one team, conference leader Drake, into the NCAA Tournament. That will change, of course, should another team besides the Bulldogs win Arch Madness, as Drake is a lock for a bid regardless of whether it wins the Valley's tournament in St. Louis. With the Bulldogs struggling badly in recent conference play, losing three of their past four Valley games, one of Illinois St., Creighton, Southern Illinois or Bradley going through the No. 1 seed to take the tourney crown seems a probability. The Missouri Valley could even have a team other than Drake make the tournament as an at-large. Southern Illinois did a great job advancing its chance last night by beating Bradley on the road, and now Illinois St., currently in second place, is under the gun against a strong Creighton team. If the Redbirds can beat the Creighton Bluejays, they will set up a huge bubble battle at Southern Illinois this Saturday, with the winner setting itself up well for an at-large NCAA berth and the loser needing a long run in St. Louis to garner consideration. Illinois St. beat Creighton on the road 80-67 on December 29, shooting 58.3 eFG% from the floor and attempting a robust 57 percent as many free throws as field goal attempts.

The Redbirds will face a tougher Bluejays team now than they did in December due to the rise of Creighton guard Booker Woodfox, a junior college transfer whose play has gotten better and better as the season has progressed. Woodfox has not played quite enough minutes to qualify, but his 122.4 offensive rating would rank first in the Missouri Valley amongst players using at least 24 percent of possessions. Woodfox has shot 67 eFG% from the floor and averaged 10.8 points in the team's 16 conference games, thanks mainly to lusty 29-of-55 shooting from downtown. Woodfox and P'Allen Stinnett, the favorite for Missouri Valley Freshman of the Year, form one of the conference's most dangerous backcourts--and definitely its best named one.

Matchup: Minnesota (17-9, 7-7 Big 10) at Purdue (21-6, 12-2), 9:00
Rankings: Minnesota, #49 in Pomeroy Ratings (7th of 11 in Big 10); Purdue, #24 (4th)
Pomeroy Prediction: Purdue, 73-65 in 69 Possessions
Upset Possibility: 22%
Prospectus: The Boilermakers received their wake-up call last week at Indiana, losing their 11-game losing streak to the Hoosiers in Kelvin Sampson's last hurrah. Purdue still has destiny in its own hands in terms of the Big 10 regular season title, which would be the school's first since 1996. Purdue is tied with Wisconsin and Indiana atop the conference with two losses, with its toughest remaining game amongst the final four on the road against an Ohio St. team next Tuesday that hasn't proven it can beat any of the Big 10's best. The Boilermakers have had the second-best defense in conference play besides that of Wisconsin, a defense that has thrived by forcing turnovers, blocking shots, and rebounding, rather than forcing a large number of misses. In fact, Purdue has won four conference games this year in which its opponent has shot 53 eFG% from the floor or greater. Freshmen Robbie Hummel and Scott Martin and sophomore Chris Kramer have been at the forefront of the Boilermakers' defensive effort, as all three rank in the top 500 nationally in both steal and block percentage. The Golden Gophers know a little something about thievery, as Minnesota ranks first in the nation in steal percentage, led by freshman point guard Al Nolen. Not surprisingly, the Golden Gophers' opponent turnover percentage is strongly correlated to their defensive efficiency, essentially to the same extent that their opponent eFG% is, but Purdue is the second best team in the Big 10 at holding onto the ball.

Matchup: UAB (19-8, 9-3 Conference USA) at Texas El Paso (16-9, 7-5), 9:05
Rankings: UAB, #61 in Pomeroy Ratings (2nd of 12 in CUSA); Texas El Paso, #96 (5th)
Pomeroy Prediction: Texas El Paso, 76-75 in 74 Possessions
Upset Possibility: 50%
Prospectus: The Blazers recovered nicely from their bitter one-point home loss to then-undefeated Memphis on February 16, beating Houston, with which UAB is now tied for second-place in Conference USA, and also SMU. The win over the Cougars, in Birmingham's Bartow Arena, was one of the more wild affairs this year in college basketball, a 101-99 decision that played out in 69 possessions, with both teams scoring more than 1.4 points per trip. The Blazers are fighting for their NCAA Tournament lives in this coin-flip game in El Paso, as UAB will need to win its three remaining games before the season-ending rematch with Memphis to have a chance of fending off Houston for second-place in the conference and the No. 2 seed in the C-USA Tournament. ESPN's Joe Lunardi currently has UAB as the 64th team in the field and Houston as the first team out. The Blazers beat the Miners 81-73 at home February 9, a contest that displayed UAB's shooting and rebounding ability as superior to UTEP's. UAB's Robert Vaden continues to launch it from three-point range, and he outdid himself in the Blazers last game against SMU, firing 17 three-pointers (of which he hit eight). Vaden has now shot 272 threes on the year, or 10.5 per game, and converted at a healthy 41.5 percent clip. The Miners are best at getting to the free throw line, which they did 34 times in the loss to UAB, led by junior Stefon Jackson's 10-of-14 performance.

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

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