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February 28, 2008
Prospectus Preview
Thursday's Games to Watch

by Caleb Peiffer

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Games of Thursday, February 28

Matchup: Notre Dame (21-5, 11-3 Big East) at Louisville (22-6, 12-3), 7:00 p.m. EST, ESPN
Rankings: Notre Dame, #21 in Pomeroy Ratings (5th of 16 in Big East); Louisville, #9 (2nd)
Pomeroy Prediction: Louisville, 76-68 in 72 Possessions
Upset Possibility: 23%
Prospectus: The Cardinals have not lost in the month of February, winning seven straight, the latest by two points on the road over Pittsburgh. Louisville will be looking to keep pace with Georgetown, which jumped a half game ahead of the Cardinals at the top of the Big East with last night's win over St. John's. The Fighting Irish have the chance to move past Louisville in the standings and pull to within a half game of the Hoyas if they can beat the Cardinals at Freedom Hall, where Louisville has not lost since January 1, when it fell by one point to Cincinnati in David Padgett's first game back from a broken kneecap. Padgett had a season-high 21 points on 9-of-13 shooting in Louisville's win over Pittsburgh, a game after he got into foul trouble against Syracuse, scoring only one point and taking only one shot in 17 minutes. The 6'11 Padgett is prone to foul trouble--in the Cardinals' loss in the second round of the NCAA Tournament last year to Texas A&M he was held scoreless in 18 minutes with four fouls--and he has collected four fouls in seven of 16 games since returning from injury. Louisville will need Padgett to stay on the court to help contain Notre Dame sophomore forward Luke Harangody.

If Notre Dame can hang onto the ball, it'll have a fighting chance to do damage against Louisville's lethal defense, as the two worst defensive performances for the Cardinals this season came in games where their opposition turned it over on less than 10 percent of possessions, against Seton Hall and Pittsburgh. Notre Dame enters having not turned it over on more than 17.4 percent of possessions in any of its past five games, and ranks as the fourth best in the 16 team Big East at protecting the basketball.

Matchup: Robert Morris (23-6, 14-2 Northeast) at Sacred Heart (16-11, 13-3), 7:00
Rankings: Robert Morris, #140 in Pomeroy Ratings (1st of 11 in NEC); Sacred Heart, #192 (3rd)
Pomeroy Prediction: Robert Morris, 74-73 in 73 Possessions
Upset Possibility: 44%
Prospectus: The first and second place teams in the Northeast Conference get together tonight in the second-to-last game of the season for both teams. The Colonials can clinch the regular season Northeast Conference title with a win and a Wagner loss at home vs. Fairleigh Dickinson (Wagner is tied with Sacred Heart at 13-3), while the Pioneers can move into a first place tie with a victory. Both of these teams have not been in this position for a long time. Robert Morris last won the NEC title in 1992, when it finished off a period of winning both the regular season title and conference tournament in three out of four years. The last NCAA Tournament appearance for the Colonials was also 1992. Sacred Heart has never won the NEC, nor its tournament, since joining in 1999, and has never been to the NCAA Tournament. The Pioneers came close last year, finishing second in the conference to earn a #2 seed in the tournament, where they fell in the final game at the #1 seed Central Connecticut, 74-70. Sacred Heart already beat Robert Morris this season on the road, an 82-69 decision on January 13, so if the Pioneers can beat the Colonials again at home, they will hold the tiebreaker. That would mean all Sacred Heart would have to do to garner the #1 seed in the NEC Tournament is beat Central Connecticut at home this Saturday in the last game of the season. In their win over Robert Morris this year, the Pioneers shot 62.3 eFG% from the floor, and commited turnovers on fewer of their possessions than the Colonials did, despite the fact that Robert Morris is the sixth best team in the country at forcing turnovers. Sacred Heart also shot 11-of-24 from long range, with Ryan Litke coming off the bench to score 23 points on 5-of-8 from deep. That team performance won't be repeated, given that Robert Morris has the best three-point field goal percentage defense in the NEC and the Pioneers just the sixth best percentage from deep in the conference.

Matchup: Maryland (17-11, 7-6 Atlantic Coast) at Wake Forest (16-9, 6-6), 8:00
Rankings: Maryland, #48 in Pomeroy Ratings (5th of 12 in ACC); Wake Forest, #56 (6th)
Pomeroy Prediction: Wake Forest, 75-72 in 74 Possessions
Upset Possibility: 39%
Prospectus: The Terrapins and Demon Deacons are very close in both the standings, the Pomeroy Ratings, and the conference stats--each has averaged 72 possessions/40 in conference play and given up 1.04 points per possession, with the difference being Maryland has been a bit better on offense, with a 1.05 PPP attack to Wake Forest's 1.02. Right now it is Maryland that has the inside track on an NCAA Tournament at-large berth. The big two-point win at North Carolina is what the Terrapins are hanging their hat on, and Wake Forest picked up one of those mega-victories with a 13-point defeat of Duke at home February 17. If the Demon Deacons can take this game and then pick up one of their next two on the road, versus Georgia Tech and Virginia Tech, before beating North Carolina St. back at home to close the season, they would finish 9-7 in the ACC. Assuming the Terrapins split their last two games against Clemson and Virginia, Wake Forest would pass Maryland in the standings and possibly in the eyes of the NCAA Tournament Selection Committee as well. The Terrapins have already beaten the Demon Deacons this year, however, 71-64 at home on January 15. Maryland held Wake Forest to 38 eFG% shooting in that game, the lowest the Demon Deacons offense and Terrapins defense has posted in ACC play this year. Sophomore point guard Greivis Vasquez scored 22 points in the game against the Demon Deacons on 8-of-16 shooting, to go along with eight assists and six rebounds, but he also committed eight turnovers, which he has done on four different occasions this year. Wake Forest's defense ranks second in the ACC at forcing turnovers, while the Terrapins have given the ball away at the second highest rate in the conference.

Matchup: Michigan St. (22-5, 10-4 Big 10) at Wisconsin (23-4, 13-2), 9:00, ESPN2
Rankings: Michigan St., #17 in Pomeroy Ratings (3rd of 11 in Big 10); Wisconsin, #5 (1st)
Pomeroy Prediction: Wisconsin, 65-58 in 62 Possessions
Upset Possibility: 20%
Prospectus: As Basketball Prospectus' Joe Sheehan mentioned in The List this week, the Spartans will have to pay up for an easy conference schedule over the final two weeks, and could very well lose three, or perhaps all four, of their remaining games. Michigan St. plays back-to-back against the two teams that share the Big 10 lead, at Madison and home versus Indiana, and then finishes with road games against an underrated Illinois team and Ohio St. The Badgers just swept that Illinois/Ohio St. road trip, and before that beat Minnesota and Indiana, so they've fully recovered from the February 9 home loss to Purdue. Wisconsin has surrendered just 0.92 points per possession in its conference games, tied with the Buckeyes for the best mark in the Big 10, and the Badgers on the season have the third best defense in Division I by both raw and adjusted efficiency. The Spartans have the second-best offense in the conference, which is powered by offensive boards and the two-point shot--Michigan St. is ninth in the country in offensive rebounding percentage and shoots 52.6 percent from two, thanks mostly to its frontcourt of Raymar Morgan and Goran Suton. The Spartans rely almost not at all on threes, shooting fewer three-pointers as a percentage of total field goal attempts than all but four other D-I teams and getting less than 20 percent of their points from deep. Wisconsin has the best interior defense in the Big 10 and is a strong defensive rebounding team as well, so Michigan St. will likely struggle to score.

Matchup: Wright St. (20-7, 12-4 Horizon League) at Butler (25-3, 14-2), 9:00, ESPNU
Rankings: Wright St., #125 in Pomeroy Ratings (5th of 10 in Horizon); Butler, #46 (1st)
Pomeroy Prediction: Butler, 61-51 in 56 Possessions
Upset Possibility: 10%
Prospectus: The Bulldogs return to action for the first time since losing at home to Missouri Valley leader Drake on Saturday, and they can clinch the Horizon League regular season title with a victory over the Raiders. Wright St. is one of the two Horizon teams to knock off Butler, which it did 43-42 at home on December 8. That defensive struggle was played out in a remarkably low 49 possessions, the slowest game of the year for both teams. Both squads play at a slower pace than any other Horizon team, with Wright St. averaging 60.5 possessions/40 minutes and Butler 60.4. In their December victory, the Raiders held the Bulldogs to 39 eFG% shooting, Butler's lowest percentage of the season. The Bulldogs have put up a 54 eFG% as a team this year, led by freshman forward Matt Howard's 60.8 mark. Howard has been the sixth best offensive player in the country amongst those using 24 percent of possessions or more. He scored just five points against Wright St., however, which sports the best two-point percentage defense in the Horizon League.

Matchup: Southern California (17-9, 8-6 Pacific 10) at Arizona (17-10, 7-7), 9:00, ESPN
Rankings: Southern California, #23 in Pomeroy Ratings (5th of 10 in Pac 10); Arizona, #22 (4th)
Pomeroy Prediction: Arizona, 68-64 in 65 Possessions
Upset Possibility: 32%
Prospectus: The matchup to watch in this one will be the Wildcats' offense, seventh best in the country by adjusted efficiency at 1.19 points per possession, taking on the Trojans' defense, ninth best at 0.87 allowed. Arizona's attack got the best of that matchup on January 31, scoring 1.27 points per possession and shooting 56.7 eFG% from the floor in an 80-69 win in Los Angeles. Sophomore forward Chase Budinger scored 29 points on 65 eFG% shooting, grabbed eight rebounds, and recorded three steals to pace the Wildcats. Budinger has been something of a disappointment in his second campaign, as his offensive efficiency has decreased significantly from last season with a steep increase in his offensive involvement. This is to be expected, at least to a certain extent, as it is much harder to be highly efficient while handling a large proportion of the offense. Budinger had an excellent 120.1 offensive rating and 55.4 eFG% last year while using 20.8 percent of possessions and taking 25 percent of the shots while on the floor. This season, he has used 27 percent of possessions and his shot percentage has bumped to a team-leading 30.4, while his eFG% has dropped to 51.8 and offensive rating to 103.7--still above average, but not even amongst the best 500 players in the nation. Budinger could stand to get to the free throw line more often, for his 32.4 free throw rate (free throws shot per 100 field goal attempts) is the lowest among the six Wildcats who have played the highest percentage of minutes on the team.

The Arizona loss was when Trojans sophomore guard Daniel Hackett hurt his back, leaving after two minutes of play. He returned to play the team's next three games, but took just five shots total in those contests, and was later diagnosed with a stress fracture in his lower back and partially torn oblique muscle. Hackett missed USC's last three contests, but appears to be ready to return to play limited minutes versus the Wildcats tonight. Hackett has the team's best offensive rating and free throw rate in limited possessions used, and is also first in assist rate and second in steal percentage.

Matchup: Washington (15-13, 6-9 Pacific 10) at Stanford (22-4, 11-3), 10:00
Rankings: Washington, #58 in Pomeroy Ratings (9th of 10 in Pac 10); Stanford, #13 (3rd)
Pomeroy Prediction: Stanford, 72-60 in 67 Possessions
Upset Possibility: 11%
Prospectus: Washington is holding down the spot just above Oregon St. in the Pacific 10, but the Huskies actually have a slightly better efficiency margin than both Arizona St. and California, and they are also the fastest-paced team in the conference--so that's something. This game will be an interesting one to watch because of the ferocious battles on the boards that are sure to ensue. The Huskies are the top offensive rebounding team in the Pac 10, and third in the nation, while Stanford is second and fifth, respectively. The Cardinal is also second in the conference in defensive rebounding, and Washington ranks fourth. Stanford uses a group effort to clean the glass, as 7'0 sophomores Brook and Robin Lopez, as well as 6'8 forwards Lawrence Hill and Taj Finger all pitch in. The Huskies prowess, however, is essentially the result of a single player--6'7 junior forward Jon Brockman. Brockman leads the Pacific 10 in rebounds per game, at 11.8, and ranks 18th in offensive rebounding percentage (15.3) and ninth in defensive (28.2). In the first game between these teams this year, Brockman collected 13 rebounds, but the Huskies shot just 31.7 eFG% from the floor, their lowest rate of the season, and lost 65-51 at home. Washington, which has no one taller than Brockman among its top seven in minutes played, was not surprisingly unable to stop Brook Lopez, who went off for a career high 31 points on 11-of-17 from the floor, and also had 13 rebounds.

Matchup: Cal St. Northridge (18-7, 10-2 Big West) at Cal St. Fullerton (18-7, 10-3), 10:05
Rankings: Cal St. Northridge, #138 in Pomeroy Ratings (3rd of 9 in Big West); Cal St. Fullerton, #113 (1st)
Pomeroy Prediction: Cal St. Fullerton, 88-80 in 82 Possessions
Upset Possibility: 25%
Prospectus: The Titans of Fullerton are just a half game behind the Matadors in the Big West standings, and can pull into first place with a victory. Fullerton has won the Big West regular season title once, in 1976, and the Big West tourney once, in 1978, when the Titans made their only NCAA Tournament appearance. Northridge joined the Big West in 2002, a year after it made its only NCAA Tournament appearance upon winning the Big Sky Conference. The Titans won in Northridge in the first meeting of the year between these two teams, on February 2, an 80-72 decision that played out in 81 possessions. The Matadors average 75 possessions per 40, the ninth-quickest pace in the nation, while Fullerton is in the top 20, at 73/40. The Titans run the best offense in the conference, with a raw efficiency that ranks 11th in the country (1.13 points per possession). The top five in percentage of minutes played for Fullerton all have offensive ratings of 105 or better and eFG% of 52.7 or higher. The team is especially dangerous from downtown, thanks to sub-6'0 sharpshooters Josh Akognon (88-of-229 on threes, 38 percent) and Marcus Crenshaw (60-of-137, 44 percent). Northridge has the best defense in the conference, which has an excellent ability to force turnovers (the Matadors turned over the Titans on 27 percent of possessions in the first game) and stop the three-pointer (Fullerton shot just 4-of-24 from deep in its win). The Northridge defense does have one significant weakness, however, which is allowing opponents to reach the foul line--they are seventh from the bottom in that category. This hurt the Matadors badly in their game against the Titans, as Northridge allowed Fullerton to make 30 trips to the line (against 65 field goal attempts). Akognon converted all 10 of his free throws to led the Titans to the victory.

Matchup: New Mexico St. (16-12, 9-3 Western Athletic) at Nevada (17-10, 9-4), 10:05
Rankings: New Mexico St., #97 in Pomeroy Ratings (1st of 9 in WAC); Nevada, #119 (2nd)
Pomeroy Prediction: Nevada, 76-75 in 73 Possessions
Upset Possibility: 47%
Prospectus: New Mexico St. has won five straight, including a 19-point home victory over first place Boise St., to rise to within a half-game of the Broncos for first place in the WAC, while Nevada stands a full game back of first. These two teams have won the last two WAC tournaments, with the Aggies winning last year over Utah St., and the Wolf Pack in 2006, also over Utah St. Nevada took the first meeting this season, beating New Mexico St. 87-78 on the road, with guards Armon Johnson and Brandon Fields combining to score 41 points on 67 eFG% shooting. The Aggies did manage to grab more offensive boards in that game--New Mexico St. ranks seventh in the nation in offensive rebounding percentage, led by 6'5 freshman Wendell McKines, who collects 16.5 percent of the available offensive rebounds when he is on the floor. McKines ranks seventh overall in that category, and you have to go down to the 51st spot to find another player who is 6'5 or shorter.

Matchup: UCLA (24-3, 12-2 Pacific 10) at Arizona St. (17-9, 7-7), 10:30
Rankings: UCLA, #2 in Pomeroy Ratings (1st of 10 in Pac 10); Arizona St., #38 (6th)
Pomeroy Prediction: UCLA, 66-59 in 62 Possessions
Upset Possibility: 21%
Prospectus: The Sun Devils are hanging on precariously to a potential at-large berth to the NCAA Tournament as the sixth best Pac 10 team, and would secure their spot with a big upset win over the Bruins, who beat Arizona St. by 33 points in Westwood on January 31. UCLA's Josh Shipp tied a season high in that one with 21 points on 6-of-11 shooting, including 5-of-8 from three-point range, and Kevin Love had 20 points on 9-of-11 shooting and 10 rebounds. The Bruins shot 66 eFG% from the floor as a team, their highest percentage in conference play and second highest of the season. The Sun Devils are the shortest team in the conference in Expected Height (the stature of their four and five men), which doesn't bode well for their ability to slow down the 6'10 Love in this rematch. While it looks like Kansas St. freshman Michael Beasley will run away with the national Player of the Year award, with North Carolina's Tyler Hansbrough second in the running, a case could be made for Love, who has a higher offensive rating and eFG% than Beasley (albeit in significantly fewer possessions used and shots taken). Love has also been a better rebounder than Beasley on both ends of the court, and has a better free throw rate. Beasley has stronger block and steal figures, and the sheer percentage of Kansas St.'s offense that he has generated shifts the balance in his favor, but the fact that there are two freshmen who have been able to dominate the two best conferences in the nation to such a degree is remarkable.

Matchup: Washington St. (21-6, 9-6 Pacific 10) at California (15-10, 6-8), 11:00
Rankings: Washington St., #12 in Pomeroy Ratings (2nd of 10 in Pac 10); California, #52 (8th)
Pomeroy Prediction: Washington St., 70-65 in 62 Possessions
Upset Possibility: 33%
Prospectus: The Cougars, whose NCAA Tournament stock has slipped significantly from where it was back in mid-January, travel to take on the Golden Bears, who beat Washington St. on the road, 69-64, on January 31. That loss was the first of three straight at home for the Cougars, who recovered to win four in a row before losing again at home to Arizona last Saturday. California's standout sophomore forward Ryan Anderson scored 27 points in the win over Washington St., hitting 5-of-7 from three-point range and 4-of-6 from two to go along with nine rebounds, and his classmate Patrick Christopher scored 16 on 8-of-12 shooting. The Golden Bears also hit all six of their free throws--California ranks fourth in the nation with a 77.8 percentage from the line. While the Cougars lost the game, they did manage to slow it down to a 58 possession pace, their preferred tempo. Washington St., which has averaged 58.9 possessions/40 minutes, is the sixth slowest team in the country, and the slowest of any team in the six power conferences.

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

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