Central Michigan improved their record to 6-4 on Thursday night with a 92-80 victor over the Texas State Bobcats. Senior point guard Kyle Randall, freshman power forward John Simons and sophomore wing Austin Keel combined for 52 of those points. Last season, it took the Chippewas 14 games to get their sixth win and it came on January 7, not December 20. CMU has four more games before they open conference play in Mount Pleasant on January 9 against Bowling Green. One of them is against the No. 2 team in the nation, the Michigan Wolverines, next Saturday and another is an exhibition against UM-Dearborn on January 3. The other two games will be this weekend at the WestStar Don Haskins Sun Bowl Invitational at UTEP in El Paso, Texas. CMU will open against Nebraska on Saturday night and will play either UTEP or Arkansas-Pine Bluff on Sunday. The Chippewas head into the tournament with a KenPom ranking of 265. They are No. 201 in adjusted offensive efficiency and No. 302 in adjusted defensive efficiency.
The Cornhuskers come into this game with a 7-3 record in head coach Tim Miles' first season at the helm in Lincoln. However, they are ranked No. 201 on KenPom because they have only played the nation's 234th toughest schedule. Nebraska plays at a really slow tempo (331st in the country) and is a solid defensive team, with the nation's 126th best adjusted defense. However, they have been a below-average team on offense, checking in at No. 251 in adjusted offense. The Cornhuskers have only beaten three teams ranked in the top 150 teams: Valparaiso, Tulane and USC. All three of those games were in Lincoln. They are 1-1 in their games away from campus this season, beating Wake Forest (No. 202) and losing handily to Oregon (No. 40).
Nebraska is a very good defensive rebounding team, due in large part to senior center Andre Almeida and senior power forward Brandon Ubel. Almeida is sixth in the Big Ten in defensive rebounding percentage and Ubel is 13th in the conference. The Cornhuskers play man-to-man defense for the most part, with Almeida, who is 6-foot-11 and 314 pounds, doing his best to block shots in the middle. He leads the Big Ten in block percentage by a large margin. Unfortunately for Nebraska, he is also last in the conference among eligible players in fouls committed per 40 minutes. They have been slightly below average at forcing turnovers and keeping opponents off the free throw line. Nebraska is very much an average team at defending shot attempts. They are above average at defending two-point shots, but have allowed opponents to make 35 percent of their three-point shots, which is well below the national average.
Senior small forward Dylan Talley is the first option for the Cornhuskers, leading the team in touches and in points. He can score in a variety of ways: finishing at the hoop, hitting outside jumpers or getting points at the free throw line. Almeida and Ubel are usually the next options, as Nebraska likes to start their offense in the post. Ubel is easily a more efficient scorer and they are both good offensive rebounders. Junior shooting guard Ray Gallegos is the definition of an outside spot-up shooter, having shot twice as many shots from three-point range this season as he from inside the arc. Talley and Gallegos are the only players on this team that will take more than one three-point shot in most games. Freshman Benny Parker is the starting point guard and does an extremely good job of taking care of the basketball. He is fifth in the country in turnover rate. However, he has not been much of a playmaker for the offense this season.
Nebraska has been awful at getting to the free throw and not much better at rebounding on the offensive end as a team. They do a decent job of not turning the ball over and at shooting the ball inside the arc, but have been bad at shooting threes, hitting only 30.9 percent of their deep shots. To their credit, they do not shoot a lot of threes: they are 270th in the nation in three pointers attempted per field goal attempt. Their offense is No. 299 in assists per field goal made, meaning they either run a ton of isolation or they just do not a good job of moving the basketball. Nebraska uses their bench very little. They are 290th in the nation in bench minutes and have a tight seven-man rotation. KenPom gives CMU a 34 percent chance at getting the upset and predicts a 62-58 win for the Cornhuskers.
The Miners are the highest rated team coming into the tournament, with a KenPom ranking of 149. Their record is just 4-5 in head coach Tim Floyd's third year, but they have played the No. 27 schedule in the country, taking on five top-100 teams and playing only one game against a team ranked below 130 (No. 180 Idaho). UTEP is 1-4 in games against the top-100, with their lone win coming on Wednesday in triple overtime at home against Oregon. They also have a win over New Mexico State, who is 103rd in the country. The Miners play at a slower pace than Nebraska, with the No. 338 tempo in the country, out of 347 teams. UTEP has been solid on both ends of the floor, ranking No. 171 in adjusted offense and No. 145 in adjusted defense.
UTEP's offense begins and ends in the post. The Miners have three post players that all get a bunch of touches: sophomore small forward Julian Washburn and his younger brother, freshman Chris Washburn, along with junior center John Bohannon. Bohannon and Chris Washburn have been rotating in the starting lineup all season long, with the other starting spot in the post going to sophomore Cedrick Lang. Julian Washburn and Bohannon each average over 10 ppg. Chris Washburn averages 7.0 ppg, but doesn't get the same minutes as his older brother or Bohannon. All three players are good at scoring around the basket and inside the three-point line, but none of them are much of a threat from outside. Sophomore Jacques Streeter is the starting point guard. He is a good three-point shooter and is third in Conference USA in assist rate. Sophomore shooting guard Jalen Ragland is the only other three-point threat on the roster. He has taken 31 three-point shots compared to just 22 two-point shots. The Miners rotation has taken a big hit with the loss of senior Konnor Tucker and they have not really replaced those minutes yet, sticking with a tight seven-man rotation.
Their biggest offensive strength is their ability to get to the free throw line: they are 40th in the country in free throw rate. Their biggest deficiency on offense is rebounding. UTEP is ranked No. 322 in offensive rebounding percentage. They have been slightly below average at taking care of the basketball and okay at shooting the ball. The Miners make 48 percent of their two-point shots, 139th in the country, but hit just 30.4 percent from three-point range, which is No. 254 in the nation.
Defensively, they force turnovers. UTEP is 83rd in the country at defensive turnover percentage. They do an okay job defending two-point shots, but have been awful at defending three-point shots, which bodes well for CMU if they should meet on Sunday. The Miners have allowed opponents to hit 42.3 percent from three-point range, which is fourth-last in the nation. UTEP also struggles to rebound the ball on defense, which is odd because they have really good size (No. 55 in effective height). The Chippewas would have another advantage because of their own ability to get to the free throw line. CMU is 76th in free throw rate, but UTEP is No. 188 in opponent's free throw rate.
UTEP is a heavy favorite against Arkansas-Pine Bluff. KenPom gives the Miners a 96 percent chance of winning the game and predicts a 66-49 win for UTEP.
The Golden Lions are the lowest ranked team in the field for this tournament. They head into Saturday ranked No. 338 on KenPom (out of 347 teams). Head coach George Ivory is in his fifth year at UAPB and it has been rough. They are 1-9 going into this weekend have played a brutal schedule, taking on five top-100 teams in their first 10 games. Their only win came against No. 344 Maryland Eastern Shore. The Golden Lions are No. 156 in tempo and play mostly zone defense. They have been below average on defense, with the No. 256 adjusted defense. However, they have been abysmal on offense, ranking third-to-last in the country in adjusted offense at No. 345.
Offensively, UAPB has been bad in every area. They are 265th in turnover percentage, 296th in offensive rebounding percentage and 274th in free throw rate. However, where they are truly awful is shooting the ball. The Golden Lions only make 38.2 percent of their two-point shots, sixth last in the country at No. 342. They only hit 23.7 percent of their shots beyond the arc, 336th in the country, and they are shooting 61.3 percent from the free throw line, 322nd in the nation. Their only serious scoring threat is junior center DaVon Haynes, who can score around the basket, hitting 48 percent of his two-point shots, and can make free throws, hitting 78.8 percent of his shots from the charity stripe. His free throw shooting percentage leads the team. The fact that a center shooting 78.8 percent is their best free throw shooter basically sums up where the Golden Lions are at right now.
They actually do good job of forcing turnovers on defense, ranking No. 71 in the country in defensive turnover percentage. However, they make up for that by ranking No. 335 in defensive rebounding percentage, effectively cancelling out the good that they do by forcing turnovers. UAPB also does an okay job keeping opponents from hitting three-point shots, ranking 70th in opponent three-point shooting percentage, but they get eaten up inside, allowing teams to hit 52.5 percent from inside the arc, 297th in the country.
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