Thursday, January 9, 2014

Arizona Escapes, Keeps #1 Overall Seed; Louisville Falls Again

So, another Thursday night, another magical night of college hoops. Arizona/UCLA provided all the magic we expect out of this rivalry, with UCLA nearly pulling out a win at the end of the game, succumbing to Arizona's toughness. In other places, Louisville, Gonzaga, and Butler all suffered fairly noteworthy upsets. The Bracket Briefer takes a look at all of these games and more.

Memphis 73, @Louisville 67: OK, so you tell me: how good is Louisville? The three best games on the schedule thus far, UNC at Mohegan Sun, at Kentucky, and home against Memphis, were all losses. Their best win is over Southern Miss, who is not good enough to be projected as an at-large at this point. After that is probably Louisiana Lafayette, who is the best team in the Sun Belt. Louisville has no bad losses on its schedule (though who knows whether losing to UNC at this point is good or bad), but it has no great wins. The Pomeroy numbers are good thanks to blowing out bad teams.

Frankly, I don't see a very good team yet. Louisville is nice, and it has a number of very good players, but what will be Louisville's marquee win on Selection Sunday? The best team left on the schedule is Cincinnati.

Memphis, on the other hand, now has a win at Louisville and over Oklahoma State (and LSU) in Florida. The Tigers have proven they can beat good teams. And their seed will reflect that. This was an excellent bounce-back win for Josh Pastner's squad after Saturday's blow-out home loss to Cincinnati (an improving team in its own right, and what looks like the AAC's favorite).

DePaul 99, @Butler 94 (2OT): Make that three straight losses for Butler, which included two overtime games at home. Ouch. One, however, could justify the losses to Villanova and Xavier. You cannot justify losing to DePaul and hope for an at-large bid. Butler is far worse off than Louisville, having lost games to the 4 best teams on its schedule (Oklahoma State, LSU, Villanova, Xavier) and now DePaul. Butler's best wins? Either Princeton, Vanderbilt, or Purdue. Butler is now well out of the tournament, and it will take a major winning streak to get back in.

Arizona 79, @UCLA 75: Arizona survived a very tough test from UCLA. Arizona actually had been leading by 13 late in the second half before UCLA went on a huge run and took the lead. But like all elite teams, Arizona kept calm, took back the lead, and wouldn't let go. The Wildcats now have road wins over San Diego State, Michigan, and UCLA. And it has a neutral court win over Duke. Arizona is in the driver's seat for the overall #1 seed. Most importantly, Arizona is a near lock to play tournament games in San Diego and Anaheim, barring some kind of unexpected collapse.

(On a side note, I love how Bill Walton set off a number of Twitter conversations tonight about whether this was Arizona's best team ever. It is climbing the charts, but it still has a lot to prove. It's hard to say without knowing how the season ends, but this team has put itself in a class with Arizona's 1988 (Sean Elliott/Steve Kerr/Tom Tolbert/Anthony Cook/Jud Buechler/Kenny Lofton), 1989 (Elliott/Cook/Buechler/Sean Rooks/Lofton), 1998 (Mike Bibby/Miles Simon/Michael Dickerson/Jason Terry), 2001 (Gilbert Arenas/Michael Wright/Loren Woods/Richard Jefferson/Jason Gardner/Luke Walton), and 2003 (Gardner/Walton/Luke Anderson). It's probably passed 1997 (except to Wildcats fans who hold their national championship above all else), 1993, 1994, and 2005. But to get in a class with 1988 and 2001, this team probably needs to go at worst 16-2 in conference with a conference tournament championship and a Final Four.)

UCLA is in much the same boat that Louisville is in. It has played good in games it should win, and it has played close in all of its losses, but the three best teams on the Bruins' schedule so far, Arizona, Duke, and Missouri, were all losses. UCLA does not get another crack at Arizona this year, so it will need to find wins over Oregon or Colorado if it wants to have a nice tournament seed in the Big Dance.

@Xavier 86, Marquette 79: About Xavier, I'll just note that they continue to win, stockpiling a number of good wins over the last couple of weeks. Xavier has not lost on United States soil yet this year, its three losses coming in the tournament in the Bahamas. Good team, can get a good win at Creighton on Sunday (no one on Selection Sunday will remember that Creighton was hobbled).

Marquette is another team who I don't really know what to do with, but they are dropping fast. Marquette has only good losses, but it now has 7 of them. It also only has one decent win (over George Washington in California). I feel like Marquette could be a good team, I really do, but it needs to prove that it can beat someone if it expects to get to the tournament with such a pedestrian record. My guess is that by Sunday, Marquette will find itself out of my bracket, begrudgingly.

Cal 96, @Oregon 83: What a timely, excellent win for the Cal Bears. Prior to tonight, Cal's best wins were against Arkansas in Maui and at Stanford, with no bad losses. But Cal has been struggling to come off the bubble and enter the tournament. I felt they did that last week with its win over Stanford, but it solidified a spot in the bracket, for now, with this road win at Oregon. Cal can't afford lose to bad teams if it wants to keep its bracket slot. Cal's next four are Oregon State, the Washington schools, and USC, so Cal should head to UCLA on Jan 26 at 15-4 and 6-0 in the Pac-12.

Oregon, after winning 13 games to start the season, has now lost 2 straight, including last weekend's loss at Colorado. Both games were very close but exposed the Ducks as having a very average defense alongside its stellar offense (one wonders what would happen if they played Ohio State on a neutral court). Oregon still has some very nice wins on its resume, but it doesn't have a lot of games left that would impress anyone.

@Portland 82, Gonzaga 73: Major upset. Portland has zero chance of making the tournament as an at large. They lost to Oregon State, North Texas, Montana State, USF, and Santa Clara. Yet here the Pilots are with a win over Gonzaga. What happened to the WCC? What a month ago looked like a three-bid conference has its best team, the only threat right now for an at-large bid, losing to a team like Portland. Gonzaga cannot allow losses like this to happen again, or else it may find itself needing WCC tournament wins. Portland was in control all night, and Gonzaga must be scratching their heads.

Thursday was busy, with a lot of West Coast action in the Pac-12 and WCC, and a number of mid-majors played in tough games. Some of these teams are only noted below because I feel that they are the front runners for their conferences automatic bids, and you might find your favorite team matched up with them on the first day of the tournament.

The big one out of this group? Quinnipiac's win over Manhattan. Manhattan only came on recently, as very early in the season, Quinnipiac looked like the favorite to get the MAAC bid. Its win tonight, granted, a home win, may have shifted the balance.

Bryant 77, St. Francis (PA) 67
@IPFW 82, North Dakota State 71
Florida State 56, @Clemson 41 - good road win for FSU, Clemson falls further off
@VCU 71, George Mason 57
@Ole Miss 65, Auburn 62
@Louisiana Tech 84, Florida Atlantic 64
@Quinnipiac 81, Manhattan 76
Southern Miss 74, @North Texas 64
Belmont 107, Southeast Missouri State 94
@La Salle 76, George Washington 72 - GW gives back progress made in earlier wins
Stephen F. Austin 77, @Houston Baptist 50
@Iowa 93, Northwestern 67
@New Mexico State 96, Seattle U 87
@BYU 84, Pepperdine 72
Michigan 71, @Nebraska 70 - Neb. not good, but important road win for UM
@Northern Colorado 70, Weber State 51
Arizona State 79, @USC 60
@Oregon State 81, Stanford 72 - bad loss for Cardinal, below first eight out now
Santa Clara 57, @Saint Mary's 55 - terrible home loss for SMC, who is now far off the bubble

Being a Friday night, college basketball is shutting down tomorrow. Of the 7 games tomorrow, only one has any bearing at all on the bracket: #14 (in last week's bracket) Mercer's home game against Kennesaw State. So enjoy your night off, college basketball!

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