Set Your Tivo: 03.01.11Posted by Brian Otskey on March 1st, 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.
Welcome to March, the best month of the year for all hoops fans. It’s a huge night for bubble teams across the country, with a few having a chance for that elusive marquee win that may put them over the top. All rankings from RTC and all times Eastern.
#19 Vanderbilt @ #22 Kentucky – 9 pm on ESPN (****)
This is the only game in tonight’s preview that doesn’t feature a bubble team as both of these clubs are solidly in the field. They’re both projected to get 5-seeds and are actually right next to each other on the S-curve. The Commodores won the first meeting in Nashville by means of a strong shooting night on which they hit 55% from three. Kentucky held Vanderbilt to 41.2% shooting inside the arc in that game, however, and that’s something the Wildcats do very well on the whole. They rank fifth nationally in two point defense and block percentage, plus they rebound well with Terrence Jones and Josh Harrellson up front. Both teams have the ability to get silly from beyond the arc, so this game could very well come down to interior play.
Jones and Harrellson will face Lance Goulbourne and Festus Ezeli inside, and Goulbourne’s coming off a 16-point 17-rebound performance in Vanderbilt’s win at LSU this past Saturday. Ezeli is a force defensively, blocking an average of 5.5 shots per game over his last four games. He is #12 individually in block percentage in the nation and can lock up the middle when he’s on the floor. Vanderbilt doesn’t look inside all that often, but they can’t become a one-dimensional team on the road. The Commodores get 56.4% of their points from the three point line and the free throw stripe, ranking #23 in free throw rate and shooting 74.5% from the line. Kentucky can’t afford to put Vandy on the line all night; the Wildcats can’t handle the foul trouble and Vandy feasts from the stripe.
One player to watch is versatile forward Jeffery Taylor. He’s had a great season overall but he’s struggled against teams with a physical presence inside or on the wings (witness single digit scoring against Florida, Georgia, Tennessee and the first Kentucky game). Taylor can play an important role against Jones and Kentucky’s wings but he’s going to have to work very hard to overcome those earlier difficulties against similar players.
As we mentioned, both teams shoot it well from deep. John Jenkins and Brandon Knight do most of the damage for their respective teams but UK’s Darius Miller is on a hot streak of late. He’s coming off a 24-point effort against Florida and has averaged 18 PPG over his last four outings on 50% three point shooting. Vanderbilt’s three point defense ranks seventh in the nation (28.9%), and it’ll be interesting to see if Kentucky can overcome that on their home floor. The Wildcats are very tough to beat when they’re hitting deep shots but Vandy can control this game with solid perimeter defense. As everyone knows now, Kentucky is not deep, but that hasn’t affected them much this season. If this game is close, keep an eye on Vanderbilt’s ball handling towards the end of the game. They’ve turned it over a lot in some really big spots this year — most notably last week against Tennessee — and that will fuel Kentucky’s transition game and result in easy baskets (and a louder Rupp Arena crowd) down the stretch. Vanderbilt has won six of their past seven games, but Kentucky hasn’t lost at Rupp Arena in almost two years, their last home loss coming to Georgia on March 4, 2009. This is a game Vanderbilt can win, but we’ll take the Wildcats at home.
#1 Ohio State @ Penn State – 9 pm on Big Ten Network (****)
Penn State is another team sitting right on the fence, or rather hanging on it, but dangling off the wrong side. At a very mediocre 15-12, the Nittany Lions may have to win both games this week and achieve at least a finals appearance in the Big Ten Tournament to make it into the Big Dance. Two wins will get them to 10-8 in Big Ten play but even just one loss would make them .500 in the league and 16-13 overall. Therefore, we’re calling tonight’s game a must win for Penn State. Aside from wins over Wisconsin and middle-of-the-pack teams Michigan State and Illinois (all at home), nothing really jumps out at you on Penn State’s resume. A win over the #1-ranked Buckeyes certainly would do that.
Penn State has to defend well for 40 minutes if they want to have a shot. Ohio State runs a highly efficient offense with seven talented players in their rotation. Thad Matta doesn’t go any deeper than that, but he doesn’t have to. Anyone can step up and beat you, from Jared Sullinger to Jon Diebler (#1 individual offensive rating but only used on 12.8% of their possessions) and Deshaun Thomas was the latest to do so, scoring 22 points against Indiana in their last game. The Buckeyes are shooting 41.7% from three in Big Ten games, tops in the conference. Penn State’s three point defense has simply been awful, ranked #323 at 38.1%. The Nittany Lions actually allowed Ohio State to shoot 50% in the first meeting in Columbus and only lost by three, but Penn State shot the lights out, themselves, at 55.6% for the game, and held a +10 edge on the boards. Rebounding and defense have to be points 1 and 1A on the board in their locker room tonight.
Offensively, Penn State should work inside. They’re making 53.5% of their two pointers in Big Ten play, #1 in the conference, while Ohio State is ranked eighth out of 11 teams in defending the interior in conference games. Jeff Brooks is has gone 30-48 (62.5%) since missing the Michigan game with a shoulder injury and gives Penn State their best post threat, along with David Jackson inside. Some have criticized Sullinger for his defense and Brooks may get some room to operate as a result. Brooks and Jackson combined for 30 points in the first meeting on 11-15 FG. Of course, when you talk about Penn State, Talor Battle is never out of the conversation. The senior guard is averaging 20.5 PPG but must do better than his 1-10 three point shooting performance against Ohio State in the last meeting. Battle is a great talent and highly experienced, and we usually see players like that take over and will their teams to wins in critical situations. He’s got a good point guard playing alongside him, now, with sophomore Tim Frazier coming off a 10-point and 10-dime performance at Northwestern last week. Ohio State is the better team but we think this sets up well for Penn State. They’ve already taken down Wisconsin, Michigan State, Illinois and Minnesota in Happy Valley and have a team laden with experience. Ohio State hasn’t won on the road since a victory on February 6 at Minnesota, and they could be in for another battle in this one. The Buckeyes should win this game, but never underestimate the motivation of a desperate team playing at home. Penn State needs this game, and they’ll give it all they have.
Bubble teams trying to hang on:
Illinois @ #6 Purdue – 7 pm on ESPN (***)
It appears as if Illinois is a safe bet to make the tournament, but a win here would leave no doubt. The Illini have some nice wins on their resume but they remain just 2-6 in Big Ten road games. Assuming Illinois beats Indiana in the regular season finale, they will get to 9-9 in league play. Purdue has been playing as well as any team in the country, their last loss coming a month ago at Wisconsin. They’ve won six straight games, and all have been in convincing fashion. JaJuan Johnson has been as steady as anyone and constitutes a significant threat to Illinois inside. Purdue still has a slight chance to win the Big Ten and that should serve as some extra motivation on senior night for Johnson and E’Twaun Moore. Purdue won the first meeting in Champaign and the Illini are going to need a great defensive game to win this one on the road. They’re #1 in stopping the trey in Big Ten games, and tenth overall in the nation. A hot shooting game from Demetri McCamey would be huge for Illinois because Purdue can shoot the three just about as well as the Illini.
Alabama @ #16 Florida – 7 pm on ESPNU (***)
The only thing Alabama has going for them are their 11 SEC wins and even those aren’t all that great. The Crimson Tide has two quality wins (vs. Kentucky and at Tennessee) and must win this game tonight to pick up another. Alabama likely has to win out and get to 13-3 to have a good chance, although a few bracket projections (including ours) have them in, but just barely. A loss here drops them to 11-4 in SEC play, and while that’s a nice record, it simply isn’t good enough given their conference schedule and lack of anything good outside of league play. Anthony Grant and his team have thrived off their defense, ranked sixth in efficiency. Alabama must hold Florida in check and establish JaMychal Green early and often in the post. The Gators have lost a few games at the O-Dome this year but it’s hard for us to see Florida losing at home on a senior night that celebrates three starters.
Baylor @ Oklahoma State – 7 pm on ESPN2 (***)
This could very well be Baylor’s last stand. If they lose this game, the best they can do is 8-8 in Big 12 play. Should they win, they’ll be 8-7 with a gigantic opportunity to win at home against now struggling Texas on Saturday. Baylor is another team that hasn’t done much of anything on the road (aside from a win at Texas A&M), and a win here would help a bit in that regard. The Bears pounded Oklahoma State in Waco earlier this year and this is a game they should win, even on the road, against a team that has lost four of five and barely squeaked by Texas Tech at home on Saturday. Baylor held Texas A&M to 35.2% shooting in Saturday’s win. A similar defensive performance should be enough against the Cowboys as long as Perry Jones keeps rolling.
Boston College @ Virginia Tech – 9 pm on ESPNU (****)
This is your bubble game of the day. Despite what Dick Vitale says, Virginia Tech has not locked up a spot in the NCAA Tournament. Far from it, in fact. With a decent collection of top 100 wins plus the signature win over Duke, the Hokies are probably in the tournament if it started today. Two immense bubble battles remain, however, as they play BC tonight and have to go to Clemson on Saturday. Virginia Tech has more work to do. We recommend they get to at least 10-6 in the ACC to feel somewhat safe. That means winning one more game and not flaming out in the conference tournament. As for Boston College, they’re on even thinner ice. The Eagles have just one top 50 win, a neutral court victory over Texas A&M way back in November. Their second-best win is over this very Virginia Tech team, ranked #51 in the RPI. In an odd twist of fate, a BC win tonight likely keeps them at one top 50 win while a loss would give them two if Virginia Tech moves into the top 50 by winning. While that’s a strange quirk, BC needs wins and fast. With their finale coming against Wake Forest, a win tonight just about guarantees a 9-7 ACC record. 8-8 probably won’t cut it this year in the ACC so you can call this a must-win for the Eagles. They’ve played much better defense of late, holding two of their past three opponents under 50 points (both on the road). BC’s offense revolves around Reggie Jackson and their three point shooting ability. However, they’ll face a Virginia Tech team ranked second in ACC games in defending the triple. The Eagles are going to have to make shots on the road to win, and this year has shown more than most that nobody is immune to the effects of the road.