Set Your Tivo: 02.10.11Posted by Brian Otskey on February 10th, 2011
***** – quit your job and divorce your wife if that’s what it takes to watch this game live
**** – best watched live, but if you must, tivo and watch it tonight as soon as you get home
*** – set your tivo but make sure you watch it later
** – set your tivo but we’ll forgive you if it stays in the queue until 2013
* – don’t waste bandwidth (yours or the tivo’s) of any kind on this game
Brian Otskey is an RTC contributor.
It’s another big night with post-season implications, as Connecticut and Vanderbilt look to improve their seeding while the other six teams need wins to make their cases or avoid falling farther towards the bubble. All rankings from RTC and all times Eastern.
#10 Connecticut @ St. John’s – 7 pm on ESPN (***)
St. John’s is an interesting case when it comes to the possibility of inclusion in the NCAA Tournament. They’ve beaten a bunch of quality teams, but the record isn’t anything special, just 13-9 (5-5) coming into tonight’s game. A loss would give the Johnnies double-digit losses, not something you want to brag about before the Selection Committee. More importantly, they’d dip under .500 in conference play and would obviously need to win plenty of games down the stretch — and they’ve got a few tough ones left.
St. John’s works almost exclusively inside the arc, getting 83% of their total points from either two point range or the free throw line. Dwight Hardy is a solid NYC point guard who embodies the St. John’s offensive strategy. He gets to the line by using dribble penetration and absorbing contact, and shoots well over 80% from there, plus he can score off the bounce. He had 32 points in the loss at UCLA last week and will be going up against fellow Bronx native Kemba Walker in this game. Walker has been slumping but remains a big threat within the UConn offense. Getting to the line may not be so easy this time around for Hardy and his teammates — Connecticut ranks ninth in defensive free throw rate and has been known to play great defense without fouling over the years. This season is no exception, as the Huskies rank #7 in two point percentage defense and block seven shots per contest. Walker and Shabazz Napier will D-up Hardy and make it difficult for him to penetrate. They average about four steals per game between them and defend on-the-ball very well. Jim Calhoun’s team has a lot of height up front and averages nine more rebounds per game than St. John’s, 41 vs 32 RPG. UConn ranks tenth in offensive rebounding percentage and St. John’s must contain them there in order to have a chance to win.
Defensively, look for Steve Lavin to mix up his defense from time to time but spend most of the night in a 2-3 matchup zone. In Connecticut’s last game against Seton Hall, the Pirates used a 2-3 zone to build a 14-point lead, forcing UConn to become jump shooters. When the Hall abandoned the zone, UConn took over and won the game by two points. St. John’s has to try to do the same thing, shutting down the Huskies’ interior game and making them shoot jumpers. Connecticut shoots only 42.8% from the floor as a team, their biggest weakness. More jump shots will mean longer rebounds and a smaller chance that UConn dominates the offensive glass. Getting Justin Brownlee back on track would do wonders for St. John’s tonight. Brownlee is averaging only 8.6 PPG over his last five outings, even including his 20-point performance against Duke. If St. John’s can’t get points inside, they’ll have a very tough time winning this game. We do expect this to be a good one, but Connecticut has a slight edge. St. John’s is more experienced, believe it or not, and will be playing in front of an energized crowd looking for another big win. This is anyone’s game tonight at the Garden.
Penn State @ Michigan State – 7 pm on Big Ten Network (***)
Who would have known this game would be a critical mid-February bubble game back when the schedule was released? It is, and the loser will fall to 5-7 in Big Ten play with six games to go. Penn State enters this game as a razor thin team after Jeff Brooks’ shoulder injury. Brooks is listed as day-to-day but we’d be somewhat surprised if he plays tonight. He’s an important player for Penn State, their second leading scorer behind Talor Battle. With or without Brooks, the keys for the Nittany Lions will be three point shooting and rebounding. During their streak of a few wins and some close losses to the likes of Ohio State, Penn State rebounded the ball very well. They’ll have to do it again on the road against a Michigan State team that, while not a great rebounding side, does a decent job on the glass, usually enough to keep them in the game. The Lions attempt plenty of threes but don’t connect all that often. Michigan State, however, is awful when it comes to defending the triple (as is Penn State, by the way) and that may be able to cure their shooting ills, at least for one night. Battle had 31 points against Michigan and will have to be “the man” again tonight on the road.
As for Michigan State, their three point shooting has fallen off a cliff over the last six games. The Spartans were one of the better three point shooting teams early in this season (remember when they gave Duke all they could handle at Cameron?) but that seems so long ago, now. Michigan State is 37-120 (30.8%) from deep during this six game stretch and needs to find a spark and a leader in a hurry if they’re to salvage their season. Kalin Lucas has been great lately, averaging 22.5 PPG over his last four games. Delvon Roe has been bothered again by a nagging knee injury (although he denies it, his coach doesn’t), though, and hasn’t been the same player of late, especially on the defensive end. Roe has locked up a number of players this year but his knee is affecting his agility and quickness. If Brooks plays, Roe will most likely draw the defensive assignment. Michigan State has not been the same team at home this year, or anywhere for that matter. Although a loss tonight wouldn’t be the final nail in the coffin, they’re definitely down a few runs in the bottom of the ninth. They need to get it in gear quickly and tonight would give the fans a glimmer of hope that this team hasn’t packed it in. We think they’ll get a win tonight but the Nittany Lions are a feisty bunch. A win won’t come easy for either team.
Illinois @ #25 Minnesota – 9 pm on ESPN (***)
This is another big game in the Big Ten between two slumping teams. Illinois is 5-5 in conference play and has lost five of its past seven games, while Minnesota is 5-6 after losing three straight. This game features two teams with opposite strengths — Illinois’ perimeter skill and Minnesota’s grit on the inside. The toughness of the interior Illinois players has come into question over the years and it will be strongly tested in this game. Minnesota features a big and talented front line led by Trevor Mbakwe and Ralph Sampson III, the latter playing very well recently. Mbakwe is always a force but Sampson has had six straight games of double figure scoring and solid rebounding. The Golden Gophers also feature Rodney Williams, a great athlete who could cause serious matchup problems for the Illini. Illinois’ twin towers will cover Sampson and Mbakwe, leaving a guard assigned to the 6’7 Williams. Bruce Weber may have to turn to freshman Jereme Richmond in order to counter this situation and matchup better with Minnesota’s height. Minnesota will pound the ball inside a lot, trying to take advantage of their physicality and attempting to get the Illinois bigs into early foul trouble.
By contrast, Illinois will look to beat the Gophers from outside. Despite their recent struggles, the Illini are a great three point shooting team and have the ability to shoot over the Minnesota zone, should Tubby Smith choose to use it. Star shooter Demetri McCamey has struggled mightily, averaging 11.3 PPG on 29% shooting from the floor overall over the last seven games. Weber has long said that Illinois goes as McCamey goes and he’s been proven right in both good times and bad, as we see now. Even if McCamey is off, Illinois should still have enough production from beyond the arc to compete. Whether that will be enough for a win is not known but we’re pretty sure this will be a close game. When you have two desperate teams getting together, whoever wants it more usually wins, and that’ll be the case tonight in this toss-up.
Alabama @ #23 Vanderbilt – 9 pm on ESPN2 (***)
Everybody wrote off the SEC West, but the Alabama Crimson Tide have burst onto the scene and taken control in that division and the entire conference. Suddenly, Alabama is a possible NCAA candidate after a 7-1 start to conference play, a record that’s no fluke. Alabama has managed to beat SEC East teams South Carolina, Kentucky and Tennessee along the way, their only loss coming at fellow West foe Arkansas. After a very mediocre 8-6 record in non-conference play which included losses to the likes of St. Peter’s and Iowa, the Tide have turned the corner thanks to their #4 rated defensive efficiency. In fact, Alabama is #2 in eFG% defense and only one of their last five opponents has managed to shoot better than 40% from the floor. A win tonight at Vanderbilt would put the conference and even the nation on notice that Alabama is for real. The Crimson Tide work almost exclusively inside while on offense, getting 63% of their points inside the three point line. Turnovers have been a problem for Anthony Grant’s team, though. They average 15 giveaways per game and that’s something Vanderbilt should look to exploit. The Commodores would like to push the pace and score in transition, not allowing the Crimson Tide to get set in their half court defense. Alabama would like a slower pace to the game and they’ll have to do that with disciplined offense and great rebounding. The Tide is #27 in offensive rebounding percentage but will have to contend with good post defenders and rebounders on the other side. Vanderbilt’s Festus Ezeli holds a three inch height advantage on Alabama’s JaMychal Green, the tallest player of those who play major minutes, while Lance Goulbourne is a terrific rebounder at 6’8. Ezeli draws a lot of fouls and could easily get Green into foul trouble early. Green must avoid this if Alabama is to play well tonight. They simply can’t afford to lose their best player and biggest inside presence.
As a team, Vanderbilt gets to the free throw line extremely well, and they make their shots when they get there (74.4%). Alabama averages 10 steals per game and, while that’s usually good, lots of steals means lots of hands are flying around and the possibility exists for fouls to mount. If Vanderbilt lives at the stripe, Alabama will not win. The Crimson Tide must also defend John Jenkins and Jeffery Taylor, the two players who hold the keys to Vanderbilt’s success. Jenkins has averaged 21.1 PPG since missing the game with Davidson on January 2 and he presents a major three point threat. Taylor is a versatile forward who can score from inside and out in addition to being a solid defender. Vanderbilt shoots a lot of threes and that has to be a key part of Grant’s defensive strategy. Alabama will usually be in most games because of their defense, but they’re going to need some offense tonight to defeat Vanderbilt on the road. Big games from Green and Tony Mitchell (15.3/7.5) are necessary up front, and Alabama must keep the game in the half court by rebounding and avoiding turnovers. We think Vanderbilt will win at home, but the Crimson Tide have already proven they belong at these heights by winning at Tennessee. This should be a competitive game with the outcome undecided up to the very last.