Tracking The Four: Regular Season Recap, Postseason ProspectsPosted by EJacoby on March 7th, 2012
Evan Jacoby is a regular contributor for RTC. You can find him @evanjacoby on Twitter. TT4 will cover four selected teams of interest — Syracuse, Indiana, Murray State, and UNLV — by tracking their ups, downs, and exciting developments throughout the course of the season.
It was a wild ride for our four teams this year, yet the most important games are just beginning. All four teams are locks for the NCAA Tournament and will have high hopes to do some damage in the postseason. But before Selection Sunday comes, let’s take a look at how each team finished its regular season and what its prospects are for postseason play. Murray State, of course, finished its regular season early and already completed its postseason tournament as part of one of the mid-major leagues that began Championship Week last weekend. The Racers are OVC champions and we will preview their NCAA Tournament outlook while looking at the other three teams’ conference tourney prospects.
Murray State Racers
- Finished STRONG Because… – The Racers are on fire since losing their only game of the season and continue to look better and better. They finished off the season with impressive wins at Tennessee State and Tennessee Tech. That earned them a double-bye in the OVC Tournament where they only had to win one game before the finals, and oddly enough the two teams that Murray matched up with in the conference bracket were the two teams with which it had ended the season. Victories over Tennessee Tech (a blowout) and Tennessee State (a nailbiter) proved that this team can win in a variety of ways and that it is peaking heading into postseason play.
- Resume Review – Murray State finishes tied with the nation’s best overall record at 30-1, which could be the outright best record if neither Syracuse nor Kentucky wins its conference tournaments. The Racers finished 17-1 against OVC competition with an RPI of #24. They went 3-0 against the RPI top-50, with good wins at Memphis and against Southern Miss on a neutral floor. Their only loss was a ‘bad’ one, at home against Tennessee State’s #117 RPI. Murray State’s Pomeroy/Sagarin/BPI/LRMC rankings are as follows: #45/#40/#33/#29. Very solid all-around.
- Seed Projection – Since all of its games are now completed, we can start projecting Murray State’s NCAA Tournament seed accurately. This team is looking like a #5 or #6 seed according to the consensus bracketologists around the country, though I believe it is closer to a #4 than it is a #6. A #5-seed seems about right, which could possibly mean they’d play in Nashville or Louisville for their first two rounds next week.
- Player Developments – Isaiah Canaan is the runaway OVC Player of the Year and will receive consideration for national All-America teams as the stellar guard continues to play at an elite level. He averaged 19.4 points, 3.2 rebounds, and 3.6 assists per gamein his final five contests and continues to shoot lights out from three. Ivan Aska has struggled down the stretch, failing to record double-digit scoring or rebounding games in any of his last five. Murray State will desperately need his contributions against the bigger opponent it is likely to draw in the first round.
- Notable Numbers – Murray State’s +10.5 adjusted scoring margin is very similar to other potential #5- or #6-seeds like Louisville, Vanderbilt, and St. Mary’s. The Racers finished the season with the sixth-best three-point shooting percentage in the country (40.6%) and allowed opponents to shoot just 29.5% from three, ranked 16th best. That’s a tremendous margin. This team also finished with a top-15 free throw rate, true shooting percentage, and steal percentage. The Racers want to send high pressure defensively to look for steals, get out in transition, and hit open threes. This helps hide the fact that they are such a small team inside.
- Preview & Predictions! – All that’s left for this team is the Big Dance. Therefore, it’s really impossible to predict success without seeing the bracket. However, I don’t think this team is going to be upset in its first game unless it gets a really rough matchup. Assuming a #5 seed, Murray should draw one of the middling bubble teams from a power conference, and it just has to hope it gets someone like Tennessee or Northwestern rather than someone like UConn (sporting great size). From there, we need to see the matchups before declaring whether this team could make the Sweet Sixteen.
- Finished STRONG Because… – The Orange finished on a 10-game winning streak and have locked up an NCAA Tournament #1 seed regardless of what happens in the Big East Tournament. The Orange will receive a double-bye and don’t need to play until Thursday, where they will already be in the quarterfinals. Their final five wins were all by 10 points or less, so the scoring margins have not been dominant but the experience of closing out close games should be just as important for Syracuse going forward.
- Resume Review – At 30-1 overall and 17-1 in the Big East, Syracuse is a #1-seed lock. The Orange have the #1 RPI and are 9-1 against the RPI top-50 and 15-1 against the RPI top-100. The question is whether this team will receive the top overall seed in the NCAAs, which will be based on how it finishes in the Big East Tourney compared to Kentucky in the SEC Tourney. Syracuse’s Pomeroy/Sagarin/BPI/LRMC rankings are as follows: #6/#5/#2/#8. This is pretty interesting as the three predictive ratings all suggest that the Orange are not a top-four team.
- Seed Projection – Like we’ve said, this is a #1 seed. A Big East Championship could propel it to the #1 overall seed, if that matters.
- Player Developments – Dion Waiters was a bit quiet down the stretch, averaging just 9.2 points per game in his final five. C.J. Fair has improved by far the most on this team throughout the season and has become one of Boeheim’s crunch-time five on the floor. Kris Joseph has been in double-figures in each of the final four regular season games. This team is so deep and there’s not a whole lot to worry about in terms of individual trends.
- Notable Numbers – Syracuse’s +17.8 adjusted scoring margin is the fourth-best in the nation. The Orange finished in the top 10 in the country in points per possession (1.14), assist-to-turnover ratio (1.51), blocks per game (7.3), and steals per game (9.7). This is a dominant and efficient team on both ends of the floor. The one red flag: Syracuse allowed 14.5 offensive rebounds per game this season, which is the third-most in the entire country. Their overall rebound percentage of 48.8% was in the bottom 100 nationally. I don’t remember a top seed ever being this bad on the boards, which will be interesting to track.
- Preview & Predictions! – The Orange will play on Thursday in the Big East Tournament quarterfinals against the winner of UConn vs. West Virginia. It will be interesting to see the approach of this team, given that it has already locked up a #1 seed. I wouldn’t be shocked if Jim Boeheim gives some extra breathers to his best players in that game. With that said, I assume that SU definitely wants to win to continue momentum and to give itself more tests against the best of the Big East in the semifinals and finals. I think this is going to happen and we’ll see Syracuse in the finals of the Big East Tournament.
- Finished STRONG Because… – The Hoosiers won their last four regular season games in very impressive fashion to finish fifth in the Big Ten. Their final three wins were at Minnesota, at home versus Michigan State, and at home against Purdue, all good wins. There’s no question that this team has improved throughout conference play, starting out as a weak defensive team that was vulnerable away from home and now looks like a solid all-around team that has the offensive balance to beat nearly anyone when it is clicking. That said, a lot of the success still has come in Bloomington and the Big Ten Tourney will be a good place to gauge whether Indiana can implement its style on a neutral floor.
- Resume Review – Few teams in the country can boast as many great wins as Indiana has. IU is 8-4 against the RPI top-50 with wins over No.1 Kentucky, then-No. 2 Ohio State, and then-No. 4 Michigan State, as well as the third Big Ten co-champ No. 10 Michigan. All of these wins came at home. The Hoosiers finished at 24-7 overall, 11-7 in the Big Ten, 18-1 at home, and 3-6 on the road in conference play. The peripherals are very strong, though, as IU has the #11 RPI and #28 SOS. Indiana’s Pomeroy/Sagarin/BPI/LRMC rankings are as follows: #10/#9/#14/#10. Those are some really strong numbers that suggest this is a potentially elite team.
- Seed Projection – Indiana is right in line for a #4 seed, but given the #11 RPI and those very strong other computer projections, a strong argument remains for why IU deserves a #3-seed. A lot is riding on how the Hoosiers perform in the conference tournament on a quasi-neutral floor in Indianapolis to gauge the true natural strength of the team. They could certainly steal a #3 and should not fall lower than a #4.
- Player Developments – Cody Zeller was tasked with turning this program around and the freshman has exceeded expectations in nearly every way. He finished the regular season pretty strong, as well, averaging 14.0 points, 6.6 rebounds, and 1.5 blocks in his final five games. He does not look to be hitting any kind of rookie wall. Christian Watford, on the other hand, has been very inconsistent throughout conference play and his final five games include scoring nights of 19/12/2/1 points in different games. Will he be the 19-point Watford, or the one-point Watford in the postseason? Victor Oladipo is stepping up and playing his best ball of the season, averaging 13.3 points and 5.0 rebounds per game in his last five.
- Notable Numbers – Indiana’s +15.1 adjusted scoring margin ranks ninth in the country and is another stat that bodes well for this team. IU finishes the season ranked in the top 10 in the nation in offensive efficiency (115.4), field goal percentage (49.1%), three-point percentage (43.2%), free throw rate, and true shooting percentage. This is perhaps the best shooting team in the country with a balanced attack to score efficiently on twos, threes, and free throws. Defensively, Indiana is very average but Tom Crean always emphasizes rebounding improvements, and it’s showed with the Hoosiers’ 51.8% overall rebounding percentage, fourth in the Big Ten. Their season-long defensive efficiency of 97.3 ranks 101st in the country.
- Preview & Predictions! – The Hoosiers did not receive a bye and therefore must play in the first round of the Big Ten Tournament against Penn State. A loss in that game would be very alarming, but we will safely pen them in for a win. Next up would be a game against Wisconsin, one of the Big Ten teams they played just once this season. That would be a fantastic matchup between incredibly conflicting styles on a neutral floor. Both teams have similar standings on the S-curve and will be jockeying for NCAA Tournament position. Really looking forward to that matchup, in which the winner will go on to (likely) face Michigan State in the semis.
UNLV Runnin’ Rebels
- Finished WEAK Because… – The Runnin’ Rebels confirmed everyone’s worst fears as they continued to lose their games outside of Vegas. UNLV went 0-4 in its final four road games to finish 2-5 in Mountain West road games, with its only two wins coming to the two bottom feeders (Air Force and Boise State), in overtime! It’s a major concern for UNLV, which finished in third place in the Mountain West despite being perhaps the most talented team in the conference. Of course, the MW Tournament is being played on UNLV’s home court in the Thomas & Mack Center, so the tourney will tell us nothing about this team’s potential to win games on a neutral in the NCAAs.
- Resume Review – UNLV finishes 25-7 overall and 9-5 in the Mountain West with a solid #14 RPI. But dig deeper for the telling details, such as a 5-7 overall record in road games and a 6-5 record against the RPI top-50, which are not numbers indicative of an elite team. The Rebels’ Pomeroy/Sagarin/BPI/LRMC rankings are as follows: #32/#21/#29/#23. Those numbers seem to tell the full picture a lot better. UNLV dropped non-conference games to Wichita State and Wisconsin by double-digits, though they were both on the road. UNLV also beat then-No. 1 North Carolina by 10 points in Vegas, and also beat California at home. It beat Illinois in Chicago. This is a really interesting resume for the committee to access.
- Seed Projection – At one time projected as a #3-seed, UNLV is now much closer to a #6 than it is a #3. Being at home in the Mountain West Tournament will help this team win games and therefore should push it safely onto the #5 seed line, but the goal will be to advance to the finals or win the tourney to lock up a #4. The safest projection is a #5-seed, for now.
- Player Developments – There is no shortage of offensive talent here. Mike Moser just missed out on MW Player of the Year, mainly because he has really struggled down the stretch. He averaged 8.6 points and 7.6 rebounds per game in the final five regular season games, way down from his season numbers of 14 and 11. He needs to get back to the dominant Moser from earlier in the year. Anthony Marshall, though, has really stepped up down the stretch and emerged as the team’s leader and go-to scorer. He’s been in double-figures in the past five. Oscar Bellfield is at 6.5 assists per game in his last five and remains a heady point guard. Chace Stanback has been more up-and-down.
- Notable Numbers – UNLV’s +12.7 adjusted scoring margin is strong and in line with a #4 or #5 seed when compared to others on the S-curve. The Runnin’ Rebs finished the season playing at a top-30 pace (70.6 possessions per game). They finish second in the country in assists per game (18.1) and 20th in points per game (77.6). They have solid efficiency numbers on both offense (109.9) and defense (93.8), both ranking in the top 40. They even rebounded fairly well with a 52.1 rebound percentage. But they were last in the conference in free throw rate, electing to take a lot of rushed shots, which does not bode well in slowed-down games in the NCAA’s. They allowed teams to take and make a lot of three-pointers, as well, which could lead to an upset.
- Preview & Predictions! – The Mountain West Tournament is played on UNLV’s home floor, but the Rebels received the #3 seed and have to play a solid Wyoming team in round one on Thursday. A win in that game will send them to (likely) play New Mexico on Friday, which will be crucial in building confidence and improving seeding. If UNLV can win those two and advance to the finals, it should feel good about its seed position. At 16-0 at home this season, I expect to see this happen. A loss to New Mexico wouldn’t be terrible, but it would be a bad sign for the NCAAs.