Set Your Tivo: 02.24.11Posted by Brian Otskey on February 24th, 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.
This is one of the biggest Thursday nights we’ve had this year in terms of quality games with NCAA bids and conference titles on the line. All rankings from RTC and all times Eastern.
West Virginia @ #3 Pittsburgh – 9 pm on ESPN (****)
The Backyard Brawl (Part II) takes place in Pittsburgh tonight. The Panthers won the first meeting in Morgantown on February 7, a game they played without their star Ashton Gibbs. Gibbs returned to the lineup with a bang, scoring 26 points, including 6-9 from deep, in the team’s loss to St. John’s last Saturday. Gibbs will play a central role in a matchup between the Big East’s best three-point shooting team (Pitt) and the best three point defense (WVU). The Panthers are shooting 40% from deep in conference play and 38.4% overall while the Mountaineers allow 28.4% shooting overall and 29.1% in league games.
Both teams work methodically in a half court setting and emphasize defense and rebounding as top priorities. Each ranks in the top five in offensive rebounding percentage, but Pittsburgh holds a strong edge on the other end of the floor, grabbing 71.7% of available defensive rebounds compared to just 63.9% for the Mountaineers. To pull off a win at the Petersen Events Center, West Virginia has to make shots and rebound the basketball as well as they possibly can. Outside of Casey Mitchell, WVU lacks a perimeter threat. Opposing defenses can collapse inside on them without much fear of getting beat from deep. Mitchell has had only one really good game since returning from a suspension and played only nine minutes in Saturday’s win over Notre Dame. Defense and ball protection won that game for West Virginia, holding the Irish to 35% shooting while committing only four turnovers throughout the entire game. If Truck Bryant can hit shots like he did against ND, Pittsburgh will have to pay attention to both him and Mitchell outside, opening up lanes for others like Kevin Jones to slash and score inside.
Pittsburgh will look to establish the paint with putbacks off offensive rebounds and Nasir Robinson roaming the high post. The Panthers are fantastic at setting screens for Gibbs and making cuts so West Virginia must be on their toes defensively, ready to switch on screens or fight through them. It’s always difficult to win in the Pete and West Virginia hasn’t done so since 2005, but that at least puts them in the small group of teams that have managed to beat the Panthers in their home building, christened in 2002. These games are always wars but it’s hard to pick against the home team this time.
Gonzaga @ St. Mary’s – 11 pm on ESPN2 (****)
All of a sudden, St. Mary’s has lost two straight games and their at-large hopes are beginning to fade. The Gaels have only two quality wins to speak of, at home against St. John’s way back in November and a road win at Gonzaga last month. The Zags now visit Moraga and would tie the Gaels at the top of the West Coast Conference with a win tonight. Gonzaga has won six straight WCC games (sandwiched around a home loss to Memphis) to get back in the league title picture. Gonzaga isn’t out of the woods either, however, should they need an at-large bid to qualify for the NCAA Tournament. With wins over Xavier and fellow bubble teams Marquette and Baylor, Gonzaga is in decent shape but would have really been better off if they’d beaten Memphis. As a result, this game is huge. St. Mary’s earned their first win at Gonzaga in 16 years last month but needed a Mickey McConnell buzzer-beating jumper to do it. McConnell has been the star of the show this season for St. Mary’s, averaging 16.9 PPG and 6.1 APG while shooting a ridiculous 48% from three-point land. The Gaels’ strength is their offense, ranked #15 in efficiency, fourth in eFG%, and in the top 20 in both two and three point percentage. Their problem has been defense but their efficiency on that end is ranked second in the WCC when looking at conference games only.
Gonzaga is highly vulnerable to the triple and that’s where St. Mary’s will look to beat them. Gonzaga’s strength is their interior scoring (51.6% from two point range) and defense (ranked #10 defending the two). They’ve got a lot of height inside, and used it well in the first meeting, getting 49 points from three interior players. Robert Sacre and Elias Harris are their biggest threats, but Sam Dower contributed 15 points on 6-7 FG against St. Mary’s the last time. The Bulldogs were hurt in that game by Steven Gray fouling out and Demetri Goodson going 0-6 from the floor. Even so, the game was played fairly even and we expect a similar contest tonight. Winning on the road is all about toughness, especially in crazy environments like McKeon Pavilion. Gonzaga has to be mentally tough and not let the raucous crowd rattle them. Gonzaga has won here before, but this may end up being the most intense game ever in this rivalry, given what’s at stake. With NCAA aspirations and a conference title up for grabs, we’d be surprised if both teams don’t bring their best stuff tonight. This will be an absolute battle and the tougher team will prevail. St. Mary’s needs to counter Gonzaga’s interior depth with players like Rob Jones to be successful, assuming the Gaels are making shots from outside against the porous Bulldog three point defense. If they’re not, Gonzaga can get better looks inside and win this game on the road. We’ll call this a tossup with the slightest of edges going to the Gaels because they’re playing at home.
On the bubble and on the road:
Georgia @ #16 Florida – 7 pm on ESPN (***)
The big question mark will be whether or not Florida senior forward Chandler Parsons plays tonight. He suffered a deep thigh bruise 12 days ago against Tennessee and did not play against LSU this past Sunday. Billy Donovan said his status would depend on yesterday’s practice, but no conclusive word has emerged from Gainesville at the time of this writing. If Parsons can’t go, Georgia has a chance to pick up a much-needed road win at the O’Connell Center, a place where the Gators have already lost three times this season. Florida has won five in a row and 13 of 15, but three overtime games and a number of close wins have been mixed in. This team has learned how to win, for the most part, but the close games indicate that Florida is there for the taking if their opponents can get a few breaks. Georgia has to be strong defensively, especially inside where Florida gets 56.5% of their points. On paper that is good news for the Bulldogs, ranked #14 in two point defense. Georgia has to do a good job on the boards with Trey Thompkins and Travis Leslie, both rebounding the ball extremely well in recent weeks. If Parsons, Florida’s leading rebounder, is out or not 100%, the job will become a bit easier for Georgia. The Bulldogs earned a huge win at Tennessee on Saturday and we think they have a good chance to follow that up with another tonight. Florida is the favorite but don’t sleep on this group of Bulldogs.
Marquette @ #13 Connecticut – 7 pm on ESPN2 (***)
With Cincinnati’s win at Georgetown last night likely locking up a bid for the Bearcats, it’s up to Marquette to try and be the 11th team out of the Big East to earn a bid. If they can finally break through and get a quality road win tonight, 11 teams from this conference becomes a likely scenario. A loss tonight would drop the Golden Eagles to 7-8 in conference play, making the final three games at home against Providence and Cincinnati followed by a trip to Seton Hall must-wins to get to 10 league wins. For the most part, Marquette’s problems have come on the defensive end. Connecticut won the first meeting in Milwaukee a month ago but that was before their recent slide in which they’ve lost four of seven games, largely because of their difficulties against a zone defense. Look for Buzz Williams to put this tactic to use in an effort to take away UConn’s post game and turn them into jump shooters. Kemba Walker looked like the player we saw in Maui in two games earlier this month but he was held in check most recently against Louisville. Marquette’s defense isn’t all that tight, so we think Walker will have a solid game. Stopping his supporting cast will be of critical importance for Marquette and that begins with Chris Otule in the middle. The Golden Eagles’ center had 10/8 on 5-5 FG against Seton Hall last Saturday and has rebounded the ball with renewed purpose going back a few games. However, he needs to stay out of foul trouble because Marquette is razor thin up front after their sophomore center. UConn’s offense is fueled by production inside because it opens up passing lanes and pulls the defense into the middle, leaving guys like Walker and Jeremy Lamb open on the wings. This will be a tough game for Marquette to win but they played Connecticut fairly close last time and have a lot to play for tonight. This should be a good one tonight in Hartford.
Two games with conference championship implications:
Milwaukee @ Cleveland State – 7 pm on TWC Sports 32 Milwaukee (***)
The Horizon League has been fun to follow all season and especially down the stretch, and it culminates with this game tonight. While Cleveland State holds a one game lead over Milwaukee, Butler, and Valparaiso in the loss column, this game is essentially for the conference title. That’s highly important in this league as it gives the winning team a double bye to the semifinals and home court advantage in the Horizon League Tournament. First off, let’s assume Butler and Valparaiso win out and get to 13-5. That shouldn’t be a problem, given their upcoming opponents (Butler has a game at home with Loyola (IL) while Valpo plays both Illinois-Chicago and Loyola at home). Should the Vikings win, they’ll move to 13-4 and would clinch the #1 seed with a win over Green Bay on Saturday. If the Panthers win, they’ll move to 12-5, and can win the league with a victory at Youngstown State on Saturday by virtue of what would be a 4-2 record against the teams involved in the four-way tie at 13-5. Cleveland State would drop all the way to the #4 seed in that situation, 2-4 against the other 13-5 teams. Milwaukee will be eliminated from title contention should they lose tonight.
Now that you’ve digested all of that (hopefully), on to the game. Cleveland State blasted the Panthers in Milwaukee way back on December 4, winning 82-59 on the strength of 63.8% shooting. The Vikings held the home club to 29.6% shooting of their own and walked out of U.S. Cellular Arena with a convincing win. CSU star Norris Cole scored 14 points on 6-6 FG and dished out nine assists in the win. Of course, Cole has done even bigger things of late going for 41/20/9 against Youngstown State and scoring 35 points in his most recent game, a loss at Old Dominion on Sunday. Milwaukee stood at 4-5 in league play on January 23, but they went out that afternoon and took Butler down in overtime at Hinkle Fieldhouse. The Panthers haven’t looked back since, winning seven straight league games starting with that one. Their last game was a loss at Buffalo but that was a non-conference game as part of the ESPN BracketBusters. To win tonight on the road, Milwaukee has to stop Cole and Cleveland State’s guards. They shoot 39.8% from deep in conference games, #1 in the Horizon. The Panthers are the worst team in the league at defending the triple, allowing 38.9% shooting in conference games while ranking #313 nationally in three point defense. Quite simply, they have to turn in a strong defensive effort to have a chance to win this game. It would be quite the turnaround to win this game after losing by 23 last time. The Panthers will have to do it on CSU’s home floor but this is a resilient bunch of players coached by Rob Jeter. While the Vikings should win this game, don’t be surprised if Milwaukee keeps it close and has a chance to win in the final minutes. They’ve got something to play for and they should lay it all out on the floor tonight.
Morehead State @ Murray State – 9 pm on ESPNU (****)
Things are much simpler in the Ohio Valley Conference, as the winner of this game will clinch the league title. The Eagles of Morehead State won the first meeting on December 4 (ironically the same day as the first game between the two teams above fighting for the Horizon League title) and shot 59.5% in the process. Each team enters this game on a hot streak with the Eagles winning nine in a row and 16 of 21 since the first matchup and the Racers emerging victorious in 17 of their 20 games since then. Murray State managed to stay even on the boards against rebounder extraordinaire Kenneth Faried in that game, but 19 turnovers and the failure to get a stop doomed them. They’re somehow going to have to contain Faried this evening and that obviously won’t be easy. The Newark, NJ native averages 17.5 PPG and 14.2 RPG, leading the nation in gross rebounds and RPG. Faried is the best rebounder in the nation by far and you should tune in to this game just to watch him, let alone that there happens to be a conference title hanging in the balance. He’s not the only show in town, however, as Demonte Harper poses a major threat on the perimeter. Harper does average nearly four turnovers per game and the Eagles are #309 as a team in turnover percentage. Murray State ranks #17 in forcing turnovers and that could be an area where they make up for Faried’s dominance on the glass. The Racers do need to take better care of the ball themselves, not faring much better at #274 in turnover percentage.
This game will be won or lost in the half court as both teams play at a slower pace. Accuracy is highly important for the Racers, their three leading scorers being guards and prolific three point shooters led by leading scorer and top three point shooter Isaiah Canaan. Inside, it’ll be up to Ivan Aska to do the best he can on Faried. The 6’7/230 junior wasn’t a big factor in the first meeting, saddled with foul trouble. Getting Faried in some foul trouble of his own and making threes will be the formula for Murray State to win. Faried has fouled out three times this season and picked up four fouls in nine other games. The Racers will have the home crowd edge with everything on the line this evening in a game that should come down to the very end.