Monday, February 16, 2009

Bracket Buster Preview Part I

(This post was actually from Tuesday morning, disregard the date above)

Last night, I was watching the first half of Pitt- UConn (yes I watch major college basketball, I just don't cover it until NCAA bubble time) and DeJuan Blair is a load with low post skills. He was just dominating Hasheem Thabeet, as he basically just pushed himself into Thabeet as he worked the ball inside. As Jay Bilas so aptly put it, Blair takes away the space Thabeet needs to block the shot.

So while at halftime of that game, I am started my Bracketbuster Preview with Part I - the Friday night games and the two 11am games. The amazing thing is that three of the first four games involve CAA teams. In fact, the CAA has the most teams in the televised Bracketbuster game with five (Northeastern, VCU, George Mason, ODU and Hofstra). MVC has four (Northern Iowa, Creighton, Illinois State and Evansville). The MAAC has three (Siena, Niagara and Fairfield). The Horizon has three (Butler, Green Bay and Wright State). The WAC has three (Utah State, Nevada, and Boise State). The Mid American has two (Buffalo, Miami Ohio). The Big South (Liberty), Southern (Davidson), West Coast (St Mary's), Big Sky (Portland State), Big West (Long Beach State) and America East (Vermont) each have one team.

1) Illinois State (21-5, 10-5 MVC) vs. Niagara (21-6, 12-3 MAAC) - In the Battle of the Birds, the Redbirds travel to upstate New York to face a very talented Purple Eagles team. Illinois State started out 11-0, then only won six of their next ten in conference. They have won four of their last five, the only loss an inexplicable home OT loss to bottom feeding Indiana State. They are currently third in the MVC. The Redbirds, RPI #58 have struggled on the road with a 7-4 record, all the losses in conference. Illinois State has four players who average in double figures led by guard Champ Oguchi and all Missouri Valley guard Osiris Eldridge who combine average 28 points and 12 rebounds a game.

The Redbirds are a very balanced team. They are second in the MVC in scoring offense, tied for second in FG percentage at 45 percent. They lead the MVC in FG percentage defense and three point FG percentage defense. So why are they currently third in the Missouri Valley and struggled on the road?

Based on their losses, I think I may know why. The Redbirds are first in the Bizarro Valley in average three point FG made with 8.6 per game and third in the Valley in three point FG percentage at 38 percent. Only Drake has averaged more three-point attempts than Illinois State. In their four road losses, this is what Illinois State has shot from three; at Bradley 6 of 26, at Indiana State 6 of 22, at Northern Iowa 5 of 18, and at Wichita State 9 of 25. That's 26 of 91. That's 28.5 percent. You live by the three, you die by the three.

Meanwhile, Niagara has won seven in a row, is in second place in the MAAC and is a high scoring machine. The Purple Eagles score 75 points per game, which is second in the MAAC to Siena, are second in free throw percentage, second in assists and second in three point field goals made (though next to last in three point FG percentage at 31.1 percent). What most people don't know about Niagara is that they are a very good defensive team. First in the MAAC in steals, blocked shots, assists to turnover ratio, and turnover margin. They are also second in FG percentage defense and three point FG percentage defense.

Like the Redbirds, the Purple Eagles have four double-digit scorers led by Tyrone Lewis who averages 16 points per game. Up front, Bilal Benn and Benson Egemonye combine for 26 points and 14 rebounds a game. Niagara is 62 in the RPI and has a signature win at Buffalo, a fellow Bracketbuster member. The Purple Eagles in fact have one of the better road records around at 10-4.

Prediction - Illinois State leads the MVC in three point FGs made per game at 8.6. However, whenever they have had difficulty on the road shooting the three, the Redbirds end up losing. This falls perfectly into the hands of the Purple Eagles, who as mentioned are second in the MAAC in three point FG percentage defense. This should be the difference in what should be a very entertaining game. Niagara wins 72-65.

VCU (18-8, 11-4 CAA) vs. Nevada (15-10, 8-4 WAC) - In the last few years, when someone thinks of mid major basketball teams, VCU and Nevada are two of the first teams in the discussion. So it's not surprising that these teams are facing each other Friday night. What is surprising - their records this year. Despite being second in the WAC at 8-4, the Wolfpack are 15-10 overall with an unseemly (for Nevada) RPI of 105. Meanwhile, VCU is tied for first in the CAA at 11-4.

As for particulars, VCU has a RPI of 67 and a non-conference SOS of 46, which is pretty solid. The Rams even have a signature win over New Mexico at the Cancun Challenge (the Lobos have been a part of bubble consideration). However, seven of VCU’s eight losses are on the road, so that may not bode well for the Rams against the Wolfpack.

Unless you are completely oblivious to college basketball, when you think of VCU, you think of Eric Maynor. Maynor, the defending CAA player of the year has been amazing this year. He has upped almost every category from last season. He averages 22.6 points, 6 assists, nearly 2 steals a game, plus shoots 83 percent from the line. The only category he has dropped in is three point FG percentage (from 39 percent last season to 35 percent this season). And stats alone can’t show how often Maynor has been clutch at the end of several games for the Rams. Just ask Hofstra about what Maynor did in the second half of their most recent game.

The key though for the Rams is giving Maynor support. Larry Sanders averages 10.8 ppg, 7.7 rebounds per game and 2.6 blocks per game. The problem with Sanders is that he averages 4 fouls a game and is often in foul trouble. Joey Rodriguez has tailed off so much in the second half of the season that he has fallen under 10 points per game (9.9).

Nevada has disappointed this season, especially at home where they are a surprisingly mediocre 8-6. Their non-conference SOS is not that strong at 90. They have no signature non-conference wins and have losses to UNLV and North Carolina.

Nevada features a dynamic scoring duo in freshman Luke Babbitt and sophomore Armon Johnson who combine for 31 points per game. Nevada is last in FG percentage in the WAC, next to last in three point FG percentage at an ugly 29 percent, but second in free throw percentage. The Wolfpack is second in FG percentage defense but strangely next to last in three point FG percentage defense.

Much of the disappointment on offense can be contributed to the decline of Brandon Fields, a once highly recruited guard. Fields’ stats across the board have dropped from last season. From 12.4 ppg to 8.4 ppg, from 44.3 % FG to 35.4 % FG, from 2.4 assists to 1.3, from 38 % three point FG to an absolutely ugly 18.8%, from 84% FT to 66.8 FT, and from 1.4 assists to turnover ratio to .74. Just a downright horrible year for Fields

Prediction – This will be a battle of two of the best shot blocking and steals teams in their conferences. Due to their woeful outside shooting, Nevada relies a lot on Babbitt to score inside. The problem is that VCU features the shot blocker extraordinaire, Larry Sanders (Nevada has their own in Dario Hunt). Considering VCU’s ability to score (second in scoring margin and first in FG percentage in the CAA at 46 percent), Nevada is going to have a difficult time keeping up. VCU 74, Nevada 66.

Northeastern (16-9, 11-4 CAA) vs. Wright State (16-10, 10-5 Horizon)– At the time this game was announced, I jumped all over what I thought was a slight by the powers at ESPN, choosing Northern Iowa over Northeastern. At the time, Northeastern had a better record and a much better RPI. Since that time, the Huskies have let me down, losing to bottom feeding William and Mary, then home to Drexel, followed by a beat down by Mason on the Patriots home court. Now having lost 3 of 4, the Huskies must rebound first at home against Georgia State before playing a team that’s truly rebounded in the Raiders.

Northeastern has dropped in RPI as a result of their slump to 77 and the non-conference SOS is one spot worse than Nevada at 91. The Huskies Mid American style of slogging thru playing tough D keeps them in most games, as noted by being first in the CAA in scoring defense. However, it keeps their opponents in most games as the Huskies are only fifth in the CAA in scoring margin at +2.9. Also their assist to turnover ratio is only tenth in the CAA, another factor for their games being so close.

Northeastern has only two double digit scorers in Matt Janning 15.2 points per game and Manny Adako 11 points per game. The Huskies who were right at the top of the CAA in FG percentage for most of the season have struggled in their three losses not getting above 39 percent FG shooting in any of those three losses.

Wright State started off the season losing their first six games. And in game number four of the losing streak, they lost their leading scorer Vaughan Duggins for the season due to injury. Since that 0-6 start, they have won 16 of their next 20 games. Their RPI has steadily improved to 94 and though their non-conference SOS is 104.

The Raiders’ resurgence is a direct result of Coach Brad Brownell’s defensive philosophy, a philosophy he first started at UNCW. The Raiders are first in the Horizon in scoring defense, second just behind Butler in FG percentage defense. They also stay in games due to being second in the Horizon in turnover margin. Todd Brown is the only healthy scorer averaging double digits for the Raiders.

Prediction – This is going to be a low scoring slugfest. When you have two teams with similar styles, you take the team with the better talent. That team is Northeastern. In a game that won’t break sixty, Northeastern downs Wright State 58-52.

Liberty (20-8, 11-5 Big South) vs. Old Dominion (16-9, 9-6 CAA) – Let’s be honest. This game is on the televised schedule for really one reason. Seth Curry, Stephen’s little brother is a freshman-scoring machine for Liberty. Curry averages 20.6 points per game for the Flames. Yes the Flames have a 20-win season and ODU has a recent history of being a successful mid major team. However, you are talking about the third place team in the Big South and the fifth place (actually tied for fifth place) team in the CAA. Mind you they are pretty decent teams but teams with RPIs of 172 and 135 respectively. Not exactly Butler vs. Davidson.

Still, this should be a very entertaining game. The Flames actually have two big wins on their resume; a four-point win at Virginia, and an overtime win at home vs. George Mason, another CAA Bracketbuster team. They even took Clemson to the limit before the Tigers overcame a double-digit deficit second half to beat the Flames 80-75.

The Flames average 76 points per game, are first in the Big South in FG percentage at 46 percent, first in three point FG percentage at nearly 37 percent and average 9.46 three point field goals per game. The Flames are not just Curry. Fellow guards Anthony Smith (17.7 ppg) and Kyle Ohman (14 ppg) join in on the fun.

Old Dominion is a very hard team to figure out. I was at the Mack Arena where Hofstra completely dominated them in the second half in a 60-51 win. Only a few days later, the Monarchs kept VCU from taking over sole possession of first place in the CAA winning 69-65. Such is the life with a team with very young guards. The Monarchs have had success against the Atlantic 10, winning all three games vs. their A10 opponents.

The Monarchs frontcourt is very good and is led by the very talented junior Gerald Lee who averages 15 points per game. In his last five games, Lee has averaged 21 points. He is joined in the frontcourt by sophomore Ben Finney (10.6 ppg , 6.2 rebounds a game). The Monarchs are first in the CAA in rebounding margin, first in assists, and first in assist to turnover ratio. Sophomore Darius James is not a good shooter (34% FG) but is very solid with the ball (4.6 assists and 2.1 assists to turnover ratio).

Prediction – This very well could be a very high scoring game. Liberty can shoot and Old Dominion has a distinct size advantage but the Monarchs are still athletic. The question will be how the Monarchs defend Curry, Smith and Ohman who love to shoot the three. Since ODU is at home and it’s on national TV, the Monarch faithful should be out in droves at the Constant Convocation Center. ODU wins 82-76.

Next, Part II, featuring Butler vs. Davidson.

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