Sunday, March 26, 2006

2006-07 Preview: Mid Majors, Part I

This is the first installment of the Mid-Major previews. These will be more in-depth than the Small conference previews, specifically because these conferences will be vying for at-large spots. As such, the previews will go several spots deep. The number of spots that will be predicted will depend on how many at-large spots the conferences will be attempting to get (in other words, the Missouri Valley will have more spots listed than the West Coast Conference). The stats are all the same as in the Small Conference previews: Conference records are regular-season only. Overall records and RPI ratings are against D-I teams only, and include all tournaments except for the NCAA and post-season NIT. The Returning Starter category defines a "starter" as one of the five players with the most minutes played per game. This stat does not account for players who may start games but get less minutes than their replacement, or players who may go pro early. All of that is done for consistency, so all stats in the Excel tables are purely objective, without needless speculation. With that said, let's start again at the bottom of the alphabet with the MWC, WCC and WAC:

Mountain West Conference

From the looks of the above Excel table, San Diego State seems to be in excellent shape. The team had an excellent season, running through a very strong MWC, with their five top minute-per-game men all returning. But that, of course, ignores the NBA draft, which could decimate the Aztecs. Star forward Marcus Slaughter (17 ppg, 11 rpg) has signed with an agent and will not be back for his senior season. Meanwhile, leading scorer (and Mountain West player of the year) Brandon Heath has announced that he is "testing the waters" of the draft. For now, these predictions will assume that Heath will return for his senior season. If he decides to go, however, San Diego State's Mountain West ranking will drop in the next set of predictions. That said, San Diego State still has some pieces left to try to repeat as conference champ. A key player for them will be Mohamed Abukar (14 ppg, 5 rpg, 49% shooting), and how well he can fill in for Slaughter.

A key opponent for the Aztecs will be Air Force, which had an outstanding defense this past year under first-year coach Jeff Bzdelik. The Falcons lose their best player in Antoine Hood to graduation (15 ppg, 4 rpg, 3 apg), but return all of their other key players. They should feature four senior starters next year, and experience is always so important in winning a conference title. Along with a pretty solid recruiting class (no stars, but a lot of decent quality and size), the Falcons could be the team the beat come the winter. Unfortunately for the Falcons, there will be a bunch of other teams that will see improvement next year. BYU returns a lot of experience as well, although the key could be 6'11" rising-sophomore star Trent Plaisted (14 ppg, 7 rpg, 52% shooting). UNLV loses its best player in Louis Amundson (14 ppg, 9 rpg), but brings in an outstanding recruiting class of guards, featuring Marcus Lawrence (ranked the 14th best point guard in the nation by and Troy Cage of Louisiana. Another team on the rise is Utah, which has a very good young core in rising-junior Johnnie Bryant (13 ppg, 3 rpg, 83% FT shooting) and 7'1" rising-sophomore Luke Nevill (12 ppg, 7 rpg, 53% shooting), as well as star recruit Daniel Deane (ranked as one of the top 35 power forwards in the nation by both and Finally, a sleeper team might be Colorado State, which received a break when star 7'0" center Jason Smith (16 ppg, 7 rpg, 2 bpg) opted against heading into the NBA draft. That means that the Rams will return their top 7 scorers from this past year. That said, Air Force probably has the best coach in the Mountain West and probably has too much experience and talent to not win the conference next year:

1. Air Force
2. BYU
3. Utah
4. San Diego State
6. Colorado State

West Coast Conference

The big question for Gonzaga is how they will replace Adam Morrison who, presumably, will leave school early to go pro. They also need to replace J.P. Batista, who was an integral part of their NCAA run. So, a lot of pressure will fall on the top remaining inside players, Sean Mallon (7 ppg, 5 rpg, 51% shooting) and 6'11" Josh Heytvelt (9 mpg, 3 ppg, 2 rpg, 1 bpg). A key addition, therefore, will be 7'1" Will Foster, rated by as one of the top 10 seniors in the state of Washington. The strength of the Zags, however, will be at the guard position. Rising-senior Derek Raivio (11 ppg, 3 apg, 2 spg, 91% FT shooting) and rising-junior Pierre Marie Altidor-Cespedes (4 ppg, 3 apg, 48% shooting) lead a backcourt full of talent. In addition, the Zags have an outstanding recruit in guard Matt Bouldin, rated by as the 9th best shooting guard in the nation, and by as the 45th overall prospect in the country. As for the top competition for the Zags, it could be St. Mary's, which finished 2nd in the conference despite fielding a very young team. Brett Collins (12 ppg, 4 rpg, 46% shooting) and Diamon Simpson (8 ppg, 7 rpg, 2 bpg) will lead the young Gaels. A key could be if they can get improved play from their set of 7-footers, Reda Rhalimi and Blake Sholberg. With no big-time recruits, however, it's hard to imagine St. Mary's taking this title away from a Gonzaga team that will continue to be very talented.

Another team that could be improved next year will be Loyola Marymount, which came close to pulling the upset over Gonzaga in the WCC tournament finals this past year. They will be led by 6'8" Matthew Knight (16 ppg, 10 rpg, 52% shooting), who could give them enough size to hang with Gonzaga on the inside. Another good team will be San Francisco, which returns its two best players in Armondo Surratt (14 ppg, 3 rpg, 5 apg) and Alan Wiggins Jr. (14 ppg, 8 rpg, 2 bpg, 53% shooting). The Dons also managed to sign one of the top forwards from the state of Tennessee, Joe Watkins. Another team that could appear on the radar will be Pepperdine, energized by the signing of Blake Wallace, rated by as the 23rd best small forward in the nation. Add him to their outstanding freshman class that was led by Michael Gerrity (14 ppg, 3 rpg, 3 apg, 2 spg), and the Waves will be a team ready to contend by 2008. For now, however, the predicted top of the WCC should be:

1. Gonzaga
2. St. Mary's
3. San Francisco
4. Loyola Marymount

Western Athletic Conference

The WAC had a real bottleneck at the top in 2006. In the end, Nevada was the class of the field, and would be in excellent shape if Nick Fazekas sticks around for another year. Unfortunately for the Wolf Pack, that's probably wishful thinking. So, Nevada will need big improvement out of 6'9" forward Demarshay Johnson (5 ppg, 4 rpg, 55% shooting) if they are going to try to replace Fazekas. They might also receive help from an excellent recruit, 6'8" Matt LaGrone of California. Utah State also had a very good year, earning one of the last at-large bids to the tournament. Unfortunately, they lose a lot of size with the graduations of Nate Harris and Cass Matheus (combined 13.7 rpg). The Aggies, therefore, will depend on good guard play from Jaycee Carroll (16 ppg, 4 rpg, 3 apg, 45% 3-point shooting) and David Pak (8 ppg, 5 apg), as well as several good recruits. Those two teams could receive solid competition from a New Mexico team that had a top-100 RPI despite having a very young roster. The Aggies (I don't think someone thought this out before inviting Utah State to join the conference last year) will have a lot of size, featuring Tyrone Nelson (18 ppg, 9 rpg, 55% shooting). They will only get better on the inside, with the signing of Hatila DeSouza, the top-rated center from the state of Arkansas.

Those are not the only teams that will compete for the conference title, however. A lot of teams will be improved next year, and we could have another bottleneck. Louisiana Tech returns star Paul Millsap (19.6 ppg, 13.3 rpg - the national leader), who will be paired with an excellent Juco transfer, 6'10" center Shawn Taylor. This is, of course, assuming that Millsap returns for his Senior year - if he goes pro then Louisiana Tech will have a precipitous drop in the next WAC rankings. A final team to look for will be Fresno State, which returns its entire roster, including star forward Quinton Hosley (19 ppg, 9 rpg). In the end, look for the senior-heavy Louisiana Tech Bulldogs to be the early favorites to steal the conference title from Nevada, but also look for several teams to contend for at-large spots:

1. Louisiana Tech
2. Nevada
3. Fresno State
4. New Mexcio State
5. Utah State

2006-07 Preview: Small Conferences, Part IV

America East Conference

For about an hour on March 17th, just about everyone in the nation was rooting for Albany. They couldn't pull off the upset, but certainly earned a lot of fans. That said, this team does loose quite a bit to graduation. Three starters graduate, including 7'1" center Kirsten Zoellner (8 ppg, 5 rpg, 1 bpg, 56% shooting). With no other returning players taller than 6'8", the key freshman next year will be Brett Gifford, a 6'11" big man ranked by as the top-rated center from the state of Missouri. The Great Danes also return their two top scorers, including star Jamar Wilson (18ppg, 5 rpg, 4 apg, 85% FT shooting). In other words, the conference title won't fall into some waiting team's lap (like the Big West) - some team will have to show solid improvement to take the crown from Albany. Binghamton and Hartford are both hard hit by graduations, so there could be room for teams like New Hampshire and Vermont. New Hampshire keeps its entire starting five, but they also show no indication of having the talent to go all the way to the tournament. They will be improved in the standings, but probably not enough to beat Albany. Vermont, on the other hand, has had outstanding teams in recent years. This past year was clearly a rebuilding year, although they still managed to beat Albany and sweep Hartford despite having zero seniors on the roster. Led by rising-sophomore Mike Trimboli (14 ppg, 6 apg, 2 spg, 84% FT shooting), the Catamounts will definitely be in the mix next year. It might be another year, however, before Vermont is able to reclaim the America East title. For now, Gifford should make enough noise in the paint to allow Wilson to lead Albany to a repeat America East title.

Atlantic Sun Conference

Lipscomb took the Atlantic Sun title in 2006, only to lose a heartbreaker to Belmont in the conference tournament finals. All is not lost for the Bisons, who return several key players including Brian Fisk (16 ppg, 3 apg, 2 spg). They will receive stiff competition again from Belmont, however. The Bruins return their top three scorers, including 6'11" center Boomer Henderson (15 ppg, 7 rpg, 2 bpg, 58% shooting). Along with 6'10" backup center Andrew Preston (13 minutes per game, 6 ppg, 3 rpg), Belmont will have a ton of size to throw around. However, neither of those two teams might have as much talent as Florida Atlantic, which returns an outstanding backcourt made of rising-seniors DeAndre Rice (16 ppg, 3 apg, 40% 3-point shooting) and Brent Crews (5 ppg, 5 apg, 2 spg). They will also add the top recruit in the conference, Sanchez Hughley, rated one of the top 10 senior guards in the state of Florida. Unfortunately for the Owls, they don't have nearly enough size to hang with Belmont, a team which should be able to ride its size to the Atlantic Sun title.

Big Sky Conference

Northern Arizona won the regular season crown in 2006, but Montana was widely considered the best team. The Grizzlies will be back next year, as well. They lose their starting backcourt, but hang onto all of their size, including 6'8" forward/center Andrew Strait (17 ppg, 6 rpg, 61% shooting). The immediate solutions to their backcourt problems will be Matt Martin (7 ppg, 2 apg, 1 spg) and Bryan Ellis (4 ppg, 4 apg, 1 spg). They also signed two good point guards in Cameron Rundles and Zach Graves. If some of those young guys take it to the next level, the Grizz could actually be better next year than they were this year. Northern Arizona also has a lot of good size remaining, led by Ruben Boykin Jr. (13 ppg, 7 rpg, 59% shooting) and 6'10" Ryan McCurdy (7 ppg, 4 rpg, 1 bpg). Their success, however, could depend on their excellent young point guard, Josh Wilson (6 ppg, 6 apg, 1 spg as a freshman). If any other team is going to crash the party at the top of the conference, it will be Eastern Washington. Their freshman, Rodney Stuckey, scored 24.2 points per game this past year (9th best in the nation, easily the best of any freshman in the country). Stuckey should carry the Owls into competition for the title next year, but they probably don't have enough size on the inside to hang with the Grizz. Montana should win the Big Sky and prove a very tough out in the first round of the NCAA tournament yet again.

Big South Conference

This past year, Winthrop was probably the best #15 seed ever to play in the NCAA tournament. Accordingly, they proved a very tough out for Tennessee in the first round. That performance should assure them that they won't get robbed in the seeding process yet again. The biggest question, however, is if anyone can challenge the Eagles in 2007. They return their top scorer (Torrell Martin - 13.8 ppg), their top rebounder (Craig Bradshaw - 6.0 rpg), and their top passer (Chris Gaynor - 4.5 apg). In addition, the rich are just getting richer, as the Eagles signed the top-rated guard in the state of South Carolina - Byron Faison. Their biggest competition next year should come from the team that gave them the most trouble this past year - Coastal Carolina. The Chanticleers swept the Eagles during the regular season before losing by 1 in the tournament finals. They feature a good crop of guard-play, led by Jack Leasure (18 ppg, 4 apg, 2 spg, 42% 3-point shooting). The other top teams in the conference, especially Birmingham Southern, lose a lot of talent at the top of their rosters. So expect this to be a two-horse race between Winthrop and Coastal Carolina. This time, however, it seems as if Winthrop may finally have the guard play to neutralize Coastal Carolina. And they will continue to dominate on the inside, such as in the Big South tournament championship when they registered a 9-rebound advantage. For those reasons, Winthrop should be the favorite to repeat as Big South champion.

Saturday, March 25, 2006

2006-07 Preview: Small Conferences, Part III

Big West Conference

Pacific has been the Big Dog in the Big West for a long time, but they might struggle at points next year. Their three leading scorers from this past year (as well as the only three players to average over 30 minutes per game) will all graduate, so next year's team should be expected to be weaker than the team that took Boston College to double overtime. The next team in line, however, will not be the reigning runner-up, UC Irvine. That team also loses its top two scorers. Cal Poly, on the other hand, is poised to make a serious run at a conference title. A school not necessarily known for its basketball team will return 11 of its 12 top scorers, including Derek Stockalper (13 points, 7 rebounds, 41% from 3-point last year). Without a doubt, the Mustangs will be improved in '06-'07. The only problem is that even a substantial improvement might not be enough. Their RPI of 278 is too far away from a conference title, even in a weak conference like the Big West. They had zero victories over teams in the RPI top 150 all year. So, while Cal Poly will be better, they probably will not pose a threat to Pacific. So, if none of those teams are going to win the conference - who will it be? The best answer is Long Beach State. Led by rising-senior Aaron Nixon (15 points, 5 rebounds, 3 assists per game), the team is going to be extremely senior heavy. The team's top nine scorers and rebounders will all be seniors next year. That's not a typo - the top nine. In other words, this team is going to have a ton of experience, and a pretty good core of talent for a Big West squad. The Long Beach State 49ers ended 2006 on a roll, and should carry that momentum all the way through next year to the Big West title.

Horizon League

The Wisconsin-Milwaukee program, built by Bruce Pearl, has had a great run in the past few years. But as with most runs, this one is probably coming to an end. They lose all five starters to graduation, and will be in a re-building mode next year as they attempt to prove that they can win without Pearl's kids. The logical heir to the Horizon crown is Butler, a top 100 RPI team this past year which received an at-large bid to the NIT where the Bulldogs knocked off Kent State. They lose three starters but will still have excellent talent at the guard position. Rising-junior A.J. Graves (13 ppg, 2 apg, 82% FT shooting) could be a star, Bruce Horen and Avery Sheets both return 10+ points per game, and the Bulldogs also signed three excellent high school guards. If they can get some production out of rising-senior center Brian Ligon (6'7", 245 pounds, 2 ppg, 3 rpg), they could be tough to beat. Three other teams that could threaten for the title are Loyola Chicago, UW-Green Bay and Wright State. Both Loyola and Wright State return their best player - Blake Schlib (19 ppg, 5 rpg, 4 apg, 47% shooting) and Dashaun Wood (18 ppg, 5 rpg, 5 apg, 2 spg), respectively. UW-Green Bay returns even more, having zero seniors on the roster this past year. A perennial contender in the Horizon league, Green Bay was clearly in a rebuilding mode this past year. Rising-senior point guard Ryan Evanochko (16 ppg, 4 rpg, 5 apg) will lead the team's young core back towards the top of the conference, but they probably don't have enough talent to pull off the win in 2007. Their outstanding freshman class this past year should be confident about winning a conference title before they graduate. Until then, however, Butler gets the nod as the preseason favorite.

Ivy League

UPenn dominated the Ivy League yet again in 2005-'06, so the question is whether anyone can challenge them in 2006-'07. Eric Osmundson (10 ppg, 3 apg) will be missed, but Penn hangs on to the best player in the Ivy League, Ibrahim Jaabar (18 ppg, 3 spg, 53% shooting, 38% 3-point shooting), for one more year. In addition, the Quakers add the two highest-rated recruits in the Ivy League, power forwards Justin Reilly and Andreas Schreiber, who should allow Penn to dominate in the low post. Their chief competition, as per usual, will be Princeton. Though the Tigers lose their top scorer (Scott Greenman - 10.8 ppg), that's not so important in a Princeton-style offense. The Tigers have so many interchangeable parts that they actually return eleven guys who averaged 2.0 points per game or more this past year. If Noah Savage (10 ppg, 37% 3-point shooting) can get loose on the outside, Princeton could possibly get around Penn's superior size. Battling to get towards the top will be the other usual suspects, such as Harvard and Yale. Brown could be a darkhorse team with an outstanding rising-junior class led by Keenen Jeppesen and Damon Huffman (both averaged 11 ppg). But none of that should affect the winner of the conference, which is more than likely going to be Pennsylvania, with its superior talent and size. This past year was a down year for the Ivy League, but with so many top players returning the league should be better in 2007. Expect Penn to be a real tough out in the first round of the '07 tournament.

Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference

Any discussion about the MAAC conference begins with Iona and Manhattan. Manhattan won the regular season crown in 2006, but Iona was probably the better team, while giving a good name to the MAAC with some good out-of-conference games (including wins at Iowa State and Fresno State). Unfortunately for the Gaels, they were a very senior-heavy team in 2006. They lose four key starters and need backups like Gary Springer (6 ppg, 5 rpg, 49% shooting) and Jon Kelly (7'0", 270 pounds, 2 ppg, 1 rpg, 61% shooting) to rise up with their new playing time if Iona is going to get back to the tournament. Manhattan, on the other hand, is not hit nearly as hard by graduations. Jason Wingate will be a tough loss, but the team should be in good hands with the outstanding rising-junior class of C.J. Anderson, Jeff Xavier and Arturo Dubois (all averaged 15.0+ ppg). The only issue for Manhattan should be ball-handling, with their two top point guards (Wingate and Kenny Minor) leaving for graduation. If anyone is going to crash the two-horse race, the most likely candidate will be the third-best team in 2006, Marist. Returning all four players averaging double-digits in points per game means that they'll be able to score. A key could be whether 7-footer James Smith (12 ppg, 6 rpg, 1 bpg, 50% shooting) can become a real force inside. Another team to watch for will be Siena, which loses top scorer Antoine Jordan (17.1 per game), but returns every other player on the roster. Meanwhile, they sport what is probably the top recruiting class in the MAAC, highlighted by 6'7" forward Edwin Ubiles. That said, there's nothing to suggest that this conference is going to leave the hands of Manhattan Coach Bobby Gonzalez and Iona Coach Jeff Rulen. With the most returning talent, expect Manhattan to be the preseason favorites to win the MAAC conference in 2007.

2006-07 Preview: Small Conferences, Part II

Mid Continent Conference

Oral Roberts was a sexy upset pick in the NCAA first round. Even though the miracle didn't happen over Memphis, the team still had an excellent season. And there's no reason that the fun needs to stop for the Golden Eagles as they return their two top scorers, including the team's best player, Caleb Green (21 points, 9 boards per game). Their biggest graduation loss is probably Jonathan Bluitt, who has averaged over 4 assists per game for the past three years. Coach Scott Sutten will do his best to replace Green with two good recruits, Dominique Gaines and Jeremy Hazell. ORU can expect competition from the reigning regular season champions, IUPUI, led by star guard George Hill (19 points, 6 rebounds & 4 assists per game, 52% shooting from the field). The Jaguars also return a slew of rising-seniors who will be ready to make another push at the tournament. This conference will not be a two-horse race, however, with UMKC and Chicago State returning all 5 starters each. UMKC finished higher in the standings this year, but Chicago State should be considered the most dangerous for next year. After a slow start to the season, the Cougars finished on a roll with wins over UMKC and IUPUI (twice) in their final five games. Led by the tiny guard combo of Royce Parran (5'9", 18 ppg) and David Holston (5'6", 13 ppg), the Cougars should be primed to challenge for the conference title. But that said, the alphabet soup of ORU and IUPUI were clearly the dominant teams this past year, and ORU seems to lose more parts to graduation than IUPUI. So, IUPUI should be the preseason favorites to repeat as regular season champion.

Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference

Delaware State dominated this conference all year until Hampton got hot in the MEAC tournament. On top of that, the seven players with the most minutes played on the season were six juniors and a sophomore. This means that the Hornets will have a senior-dominated team chock full of talent (atleast as far as the MEAC is concerned). The team has everything, from a potent scorer to ball-handling to size on the inside. The only question is whether another team can challenge for the conference title. A logical choice would be Coppin State, a young team with zero seniors on the roster. They featured an outstanding sophomore class that includes their top 3 scorers, top 4 rebounders and top 3 assist men. Hampton probably graduates too many players to make another run. South Carolina State and Norfolk State both return most of their weapons from last year, but those teams went a combined 2-6 against Coppin State and Delaware State in the regular season, and neither has any huge recruit that will be enough to put them over the top next year. So, this leaves us with the Hornets and the Eagles in a two-horse race. And at that point, the favorite must be Delaware State. It's just logical to put faith in a senior-dominated team, when all else is even. That said, Coppin State is a pretty good pick to win the MEAC in 2007-'08.

Northeast Conference

There was a bottleneck atop the NEC this past year, with FDU coming ahead in the regular season and Monmouth coming through in the tournament. To make matters worse, all 4 top teams return 3 of their 5 starters. This means that a tersery analysis is pretty useless. Going deeper, it's clear that FDU is hardest hit (atleast of teams at the top of the conference) by graduations. Both them and Mt. St. Mary's lose their top scorer. Central Connecticut is one team that preserves most of its core, featuring Obie Nwadike's 12.3 ppg and 10.3 rbg (tied for 15th in the nation), and guard Tristan Blackwood's 14 points and 4 assists per game. Monmouth also returns a lot, having been a junior-heavy team. They had expected to have Tyler Azzarelli as their senior leader, but an injury kept him from being a major part of the team for a good chunk of the year, meaning that this year's success was done for the most part without an overwhelming senior presence. That bodes real well for next year. The team best prepared for next year, however, might be Robert Morris. The Colonials hung tough in the conference all year, splitting against Mt. St. Mary's, defeating Central Connecticut, and sweeping Monmouth. A.J. Jackson is a force on the inside, and is a double-double waiting to happen. One only needs to look at his performance in a win over Quinnipiac in Feburary: 39 points on 14/21 shooting, and grabbing 11 rebounds (including 6 on the offensive boards) while ducking outside for 3/6 from behind the arc. At this point, the most prudent prediction is A.J. Jackson leading Robert Morris to the NEC title.

Ohio Valley Conference

Murray State cruised through the OVC this past year, on their way to a near-upset of North Carolina in the tournament. The Racers ground out a lot of close wins this year, and despite returning most of their guards, they lose a lot of their inside force. That puts a lot of pressure on 6'7" Juco transfer Curtis Parker. They will face pressure from what will be a very deep Samford team. While most of the rest of the conference is seeing a lot of stars go for graduation, Tennesee Tech returns most of its best talent. Add all of that to a deep recruiting class, and the Golden Eagles could be a scary team to play. Still, Samford will be the team starting the year with the most talent. Expect Randall Gulina and 6'10" center Travis Peterson to lead Samford to the OVC title.

2006-07 Preview: Small Conferences, Part I

The first installment of the 2006-07 Previews are here! They will start will the "Small" conferences, which are defined as conferences that are very likely one-bid leagues. The next category, "Mid-Major" conferences, are defined as non-BCS conferences that have received more than one bid in recent years and can be expected to challenge for at-large bids in the coming season. The final category, of course, will be BCS schools.

Each conference preview will be accompanied by an Excel breakdown of the conference from the past year. Conference records are regular season only. Overall records and the RPI are D-I only and do not include NCAA/NIT tournament games (though they do include in-season tournament and the conference tournaments). Finally, the "Returning starters" defines the starting five as the five players with the most minutes played per game throughout the season. BasketballPredictions does not want to have to put in asterixes for teams that switched lineups, or started seniors and then quickly replaced them with better underclassmen, or had injuries - so the starters will simply be the five players who averaged the most minutes throughout the season (assuming they played more than a couple of games total). With all that said, let's get to the previews:

Patriot League

Bucknell has dominated this league for the past couple of years, but this is going to be a different team without Kevin Bettencourt. Their other graduating senior starter, Charles Lee, was the team's leading scorer at 13.2 per game, but Bettencourt was always the leader in the stretch. The past two years they have made the 2nd round of the NCAA tournament purely because of Bettencourt. Unlike some other mid-majors (like Winthrop and George Washington), Bucknell is not a team that has been successful because of a great coach or system. They've been great because of the crop of players that they had - and Bettencourt was the most important player. That said, the crop is not completely depleted. The Bison return Abe Badmus (who really stepped up this year) and Chris McNaughton (their key presence in the paint). That should be enough to allow Bucknell to hang onto the Patriot League for atleast one more year. The most likely challenger will be Lehigh, on the back of rising-Senior guard Jose OIlivero (17 points, 4 rebounds, 3 assists per game this year). Holy Cross also can't be discounted, simply because they have more experience of winning conferences than Lehigh does. It's just hard to pick a team to play better the year that they lose their star - in their case, Kevin Hamilton's 18 points, 6 rebounds, 4 assists and 3 steals per game.

Southern Conference

Davidson made an outstanding run this year to get to the tournament and give Ohio State all that they could handle. That run, however, has come to an end. They lose four starters, and it would be surprising to see them repeat in the Southern Conference Tournament again. Georgie Southern, the reigning regular season champ, isn't hit quite so hard, but they do lose their star, 5'9" Elton Nesbitt (21.7 ppg this year). Taking those two teams out of the mix leaves us with the College of Charleston, Furman, Appalachian State and Elon as the four most likely teams to move up next year. Appalachian State returns the biggest star, 5'8" D.J. Thompson and his 19 points, 4 rebounds, 4 assists and 3 steals per game. Elon also returns its best player, 6'8" forward Chris Chalko (13 points, 5 boards per game). College of Charleston has had a lot of tournament experience in recent memory and also receives one more year out of star Dontaye Draper, who plays just about every minute of every game and was good for 19 points per game this past year. No one, however, can boost the returning core that Furman has. Eric Webb, Robby Bostain and Moussa Diagne give them a guard, forward and center who scored 12.8, 14.1 and 11.8 points per game this past year. Those three rising-seniors will lead a team that was a bunch of close losses away from contending this past year, and that will be primed to make a serious run in 2007.

Southland Conference

Northwestern State ended up as one of the darlings of the 2006 NCAA Tournament, with their miracle victory over Iowa. Unfortunately, most of that team will be graduating (along with Clifton Lee's hair). So look for some new teams to challenge for the Southland Conference title. The logical successor is Sam Houston State, which graduates its top scorer but still retains its two best players - Jejuan Plair at the point and Ryan Bright on the inside. Throw in two more rising-seniors on the front line (6'8" John Gardiner and 6'7" Aaron Wade) and this Sam Houston State is going to dominate things on the inside. Stephen F. Austin will also be a threat, featuring star Josh Alexander who averaged over 14 points and 6 rebounds per game this year as a freshman. A darkhorse team will be McNeese State, which will potentially start a team with 4 experienced seniors. Teams like that are always difficult to beat. But based on the rosters, as currently constituted, Sam Houston State has got to be the early favorite.

Southwestern Athletic Conference

Southern cruised through the SWAC in '05/'06, but with 2/3 of their scoring composed of seniors, they probably shouldn't be expected to repeat in '06/'07. The thing is, however, there doesn't seem to be another team ready to take the mantle. Grambling and Alabama A&M are both going to lose their best players. Grambling senior Brion Rush was good for 25.8 points per game this year, 6th best in the nation. Meanwhile, Alabama A&M loses leading scorer Obie Trotter (19.3 per game) as well as daily double-double threat Joe Martin (13.9 points and a SWAC-leading 9.7 rebounds per game). The door is clearly open for another team to fill the void, and right now the most likely team is Jackson State. They return the nation's 11th leading scorer in Trey Johnson (23.8 per game), their two best rebounders (Johnson and Jeremy Caldwell, both with nearly 5 per game), and their three best assist men. Jackson State will be an experienced team walking into a year where it won't take that much to win the conference - they must be considered the favorites.

Sun Belt Conference

Western Kentucky and South Alabama were the two big dogs in the Sun Belt all year. Of the two, the Hilltoppers probably return the most talent, including 6'5" guard Courtney Lee, who has the potential to drop 20 points per game next year. The team most likely to crash the party at the top is Middle Tennesee State, featuring what will be a senior-heavy team looking for one last run. Denver, returning 4 of its 5 leading scorers, should be considered a darkhorse candidate. South Alabama is a short team that beats opponents on the outside, but Western Kentucky proved this year that they have the guard-play to match, with a regular season victory at Southern Alabama before losing in the Sun Belt Conference tournament. The key for the Hilltoppers will be replacing 6'8" center Elgrace Wilborn on the inside, as they return no other players (other Lee) with more than 4 rebounds per game. Since Lee will be occupied with scoring the bulk of the points, a key might will probably be 6'9" recruit D'Adarius Pegues. Pegues is a huge raw talent who was a star on the same AAU team as OJ Mayo, and who was considered by many to be the top big-man recruit in the entire state of Kentucky. If he continues to improve, expect Western Kentucky to finish the job next year and return to the NCAA tournament.

Saturday, March 18, 2006

Day 2 + 2007 Previews already?

First, some quick thoughts on Day 2 and the first game of Day 3:

I have UConn going to the finals in my bracket, but I was sure rooting for Albany last night. Anyone who was rooting for UConn during that game better have a family member on the Huskies. You knew Albany probably wasn't going to be able to hang on, but it sure was fun when they hit that three with the shot clock running down to go up 10, and then the jumper to go up 12. Since I didn't watch the Georgetown/Princeton game in '89 live, this is the closest I've ever been to feeling like I was watching a #1 seed go down (with a close second going to the Western Carolina/Purdue game in 1996).

Bradley, Texas A&M and Air Force should reinforce a lesson: Always bet on the teams that just barely made the tournament. The teams that get killed all week long ("How can you pick that team over Cincinnati!?"). Those are the teams that always come out with a chip on their shoulder and that you really don't want to play in the first round. I thought Kansas was going to have enough firepower to hold of Bradley, but youth got served last night. Two straight first round defeats do not, however, preclude Bill Self from consideration for Coach of the Year awards. They also do not knock him out of the list of Top 5 head coaches in college basketbal.

Murray State and George Washington are going to be teams to watch out for in the tournament for years to come because of the coaches. Little teams can pull off upsets with one really good player (like Bryce Drew from Valpo in '98 or the duo from Vermont last year), but those teams settle back into irrelevancy as soon as those players graduate. The teams that are upset threats year in and year out are those with coaches who know how to set the right game plan. So far in this tournament, the coaches that most personify that characterization are Mick Cronin of Murray State and Karl Hobbs of GW. Both coaches are bundles of energy, jumping all over the court so much that you get excited everytime the camera pans to them. And lower seeded teams need to have a ton of energy to put on the kind of pressure, force the amount of turnovers, and grab the amount of loose balls that they need to beat teams with superior talent in the half court. Cronin specifically changed his team's attitude from a half-court team to a running team as they headed into the conference tournament specifically to prepare for that first round game. His team was big enough to pound the Ohio Valley in the half court, but they were not going to pound UNC. Meanwhile, Karl Hobbs has created a team of seemingly interchangeable parts that all exude his type of energy. I expect both of these teams to be upset threats in the near future, and as long as they can hang onto their coaches.

And on that note, expect to soon see the first previews for the 2007 season. As promised, this site will begin to have tons of in-depth analysis for the '06-'07 season, and it's going to start in the next few days. First up will be the smaller conferences, with the power conferences not covered until after the tournament. I don't want to judge any conference until all of its teams are done playing. Anyway, stay tuned, and remember that comments and suggestions are strongly encouraged - leave comments on the blog or e-mail me through the link in the upper-right part of the page.

Friday, March 17, 2006

The Night Cap

A few thoughts after all of the games from Day 1:

The Big Least strikes again:
What a bad day for the Big East Conference. This was supposed to be the best conference ever, but they responded with an 0-3 dud of a day. UConn and Villanova should have walkovers on Friday, but a sub-.500 first round is very possible. Certainly not what anyone expected.

Vindication for the Mid-Majors:
The big conference teams, despite the past few years, still continues to take the mid-majors lightly. You could see that in teams like Seton Hall, Oklahoma and even Nevada (the WAC is a Big Conference compared to the Big Sky), which seemed to show no panic at falling behind early. They just assumed that it would be easy to come back, so there was no need for urgency. Yet neither team put regained the lead all game. They just assumed that a comeback would appear.

12 Seeds continue their fun:
As I pointed out earlier, 12 seeds are incredibly dangerous. You have teams with chips on their shoulders, that have been disrespected, yet also have enough talent to be at-large teams or (at the very least) bubble teams. And you have 5 seeds that are looking ahead to the next round despite having talent that is not much better than their opponents (as opposed to, say, 2 seeds, who can take an opponent lightly and pull the game out with superior talent). So far, 12 seeds have 2 wins, which is pretty much an average first round. A very possible Kent State victory over Pitt on Friday would mean 3 wins for 12 seeds, which has happened as recently as 2002. Seeing as how poorly the Big East has played this tournament, I wouldn't miss this game.

Good 2nd Rounds games already set:
Duke v GW will be a good one, but I'm looking at Indiana/Gonzaga as the best game to be played on Saturday. Indiana has a ton of talent at every position, and definitely more overall talent than Gonzaga. They have a coach in Mike Davis who is a great recruiter, but an awful in-game coach, which means that Indiana has been losing to inferior talent all year. Anyone watching their game vs. San Diego State saw how Indiana played best when plays broke down and players were able to improvise. Meanwhile, this Gonzaga team is different than past Gonzaga teams in the fact that they have a superstar who can take over games. I believe that Adam Morrison will be the reason that Gonzaga finally makes the Sweet 16 for the first time since their emergence on the national scene in 2001. He will disappear from games for a while when his intensity isn't there, but he always seems to come up big when his team needs him. I can't wait to watch Morrison start nailing threes with his team losing in the second half. Can he pull his team to victory? We'll find out Saturday.

More to come after some of the Friday games end.

Thursday, March 16, 2006

Second set of games

Looks like I should have taken my own advice. I mentioned earlier this week that the most dangerous 12 seeds are the ones from small conferences that get ignored in the media, and specifically mentioned Montana as the most glaring example. But I was too intent on finding the better opponent to knock of an over-rated Boston College in the second round, so I took Nevada. Serves me right. I hope I did help some of guide your brackets towards Montana, though.

As for the Tennessee game, that game was not an indictment of Tennessee's seed as much as it was of the disrespect the selection committee shown towards Winthrop. That team should have been a 13 seed, a 14 at the worst. As a 15 seed they probably constituted the best 15 seed in tournament history. This is a team that won at Marquette, and lost at Alabama and at Memphis by a grand total of 13 points. The team was also constituted of players with tournament experience, which is something that the committee claims to care about. Last week I even mentioned them with Iona and UW-Milwaukee as one of the mid-major tournament champions that would be very difficult to beat by anyone in the first round. This was a glaring mis-seeding that was ignored in the media simply because so few people follow this minor conferences. It was much easier to complain about Cincy's bid, or about George Washington's seed. As for Tennessee, I'm still confident that they are a very solid team. I think they should handle Wichita State on Saturday before proving a tough opponent for whoever makes it out of Dayton.

Finally, Marquette v Alabama. I started writing this post when it looked like Marquette was done for (down 8 points with under 6 minutes to go). But this game is not over yet. Marquette needs to pull this out to save face for a Big East conference that called itself the best conference ever but has so far not looked like it. As of this posting, Marquette is down 1 with under 30 seconds to go. Stay tuned!

Good Start to the Day

Interesting three games to start the day. Let's go through them:

Pacific missed their chance to win in the second half and the first overtime. When trying to pull an upset, you have got to put it away as early as possible. The longer the game goes, the greater the chance of victory for the team with superior talent. For BC, however, this game only strengthens the critics of Al Skinner's tournament prowess. I'm one of those critics, and picked Nevada to take them out in my own bracket.

Seton Hall was the higher seed, yes, but few viewed the Big East team as a serious underdog against the Missouri Valley regular season champion Wichita State. According to's National Bracket, Wichita State was chosen by a mere 52.7% of bracket-fillers, the second lowest of any team seeded 7th or better. All week, the Missouri Valley had been panned by those who thought it ridiculous for teams like Bradley to get bids over the likes of Cincinnati, Florida State and Hofstra, and Wichita State was clearly trying to make a statement. And they did - although I'm still not buying their chances in the second round.

UWMilwaukee proved, yet again, that respect is so important in these early round games. I thought they might get a little bit more respect after their run last year, but I guess not - Oklahoma let them get ahead early and never showed any real sense of urgency. Personally, I'm thrilled to have Oklahoma out of this tournament, because no one in Division I plays uglier basketball. Their games are like football games, and they never show any sense of being able to win without physically beating down their opponents. If I never have to see another game with Bookout and Gray on the same frontcourt, it will be too soon.

Monday, March 13, 2006

5 vs 12 games for the last decade

My favorite thing about first round NCAA games are the 5 vs. 12 games. They're almost always exciting, and have the best of all worlds. You almost always have a team with Final 4 aspirations (#4/#5 teams have made the Final Four 7 times in the past decade) - as opposed to 6/11, 7/10 or 8/9 games. You also tend to have some of the most dangerous Mid-Major teams (you get the teams that were bubble teams and got in with a tourney win - since few mid majors will ever do better than a 12). You also have tons of potential for upsets. Here are the number of 12 seeds that knocked off 5 seeds in the past decade:

2005: 1
2004: 2
2003: 1
2002: 3
2001: 2
2000: 0
1999: 2
1998: 1
1997: 1
1996: 2

So, in the last decade, 15 times there has been an upset - a mean of 1.5. Only once has the set of 5 seeds passed to the next round unscathed, and that year included 3 very close games (including Florida's 69-68 survival against Butler that propelled them to the National Finals). In other words, expect atleast one upset to go down. So the next question is, who will that team(s) be. For this analysis, I've divided the NCAA into three types of conferences - Major, Mid-Major, and Small. Major conferences are ACC, Big East, Big 10, Big 12, Conference USA, SEC and Pac-10. Mid-Major conferences are A-10, Missouri Valley, Mountain West, WAC and WCC. Small conferences are everybody else.

The first part of the analysis is boring - the #5 seeds. The reason it's boring is that #5 seeds are rarely anything but Major conference teams. The only exceptions are Princeton in 1998 and Tulsa in 1997. Both of those teams won their games, but that sample is too small to mean anything. Major conference teams made up all other #5 seeds in the past decade, with a record of 23-15 (.605). Clearly, the data doesn't yet support any type of #5 seed that's ripe for an upset. And interestingly enough, that would be relevant this year, as yet again there is a Mid-Major with a 5 seed (Nevada).

So, let's move on to the #12 seeds to see something more exciting. Surprisingly enough, 12 seeds have been pretty evenly split between Mid-Majors and Small conference teams. Only 5 times has a Major Conference team received a 12 seed. Let's break down the records:

Major: 3-2
Mid-Major: 6-11
Small: 6-12

What information can we garner here? First of all, bet on the Major tournament teams when they end up with 12 seeds. The fact that they have better than .500 records against teams that are supposedly superior is remarkable. Why could this be (other than margin of error due to the small sample)? Big market teams are probably embarassed with 12 seeds. It's the lowest seed they can realistically earn, and they know that there are a lot of people out there doubting their appearance in the tournament at all. Secondly, they are dealing with an overconfident first round opponent. The biggest cause of upsets are overconfident teams looking ahead, and it's very plausible to argue that players are more likely to overlook a supposedly mediocre big market team than a red-hot Mid-Major that got picked for an upset by Joe Lunardi and Dick Vitale. Meanwhile, Major teams (as opposed to other #12 seeds) have Major conference talent. They have the players that can hang with any 5 seed, regardless of the situation. They've been playing teams that good all year, and beaten some (or else they wouldn't have gotten into the tournament at all).

As for the other teams, is there really no difference between Small market teams and Mid-Major teams? I would argue that to not be the case. For that, I refer you just to the three most recent tournaments (2003 through 2005). In those years, Small conference teams are 4-4 while Mid-Majors are 0-4. I would argue that this is the cause of the Internet and mass media. Suddenly, teams like George Washington ('05), New Mexico ('05) and BYU ('03, '04) aren't sneaking up on everyone. The top teams know that they have to come out and play, and can't allow inferior teams to build early leads (the #1 cause of upsets). Meanwhile, teams like UW-Milwaukee ('05) are still able to sneak under the radar and catch a napping team. My favorite example of this actually occured in the 2nd round of last year's tournament, when #12 seed UW-Milwaukee played #4 seed Boston College. After UWM got off to an early lead, BC sophomore Sean Marshall responded by yelling at UWM star Ed McCants "I don't give a f--k if you beat Alabama. This is the Big East." Of course, UWM won the game and went to the Sweet Sixteen. But even the first round win hadn't garnered respect for a Horizon League team. Meanwhile, Mid-Major teams like Gonzaga (a victory over Virginia as a 12 seed in 2001) are no longer mysteries to the Major conferences. I can assure you that no one takes Gonzaga lightly anymore.

So, what have we learned here? Look for 12 seeds from Major conferences or who might be overlooked. This year, we have a Major team in Texas A&M, that has to be considered a very tough opponent for a Syracuse team that is probably overrated as a 5 seed. I'd almost call this an easy pick if it wasn't for the fact that Syracuse is a tough hard-nosed team, and the fact that Jim Boeheim has always been an excellent tournament coach. To me, that might make a difference - more than the momentum from the Big East Tournament. Top teams can cruise through 16, 15, 14 and even some 13 seeds. But 5 seeds had better come out to play or they're gone.

As for the other set of teams - a team that might be overlooked - I'd suggest Montana as the most likely. Utah State is still relatively ignored, but was still a widely considered Bubble team. Meanwhile, Kent State is from a MAC conference that has been tough in the tournament (barely missing the "Mid-Major" cut), and shouldn't be taken too lightly by Pitt. On the other hand, Montana is a relative unknown. I haven't even seen one of their games this year. They seem to have less talent than Utah St or Kent St, but they will probably be the most overlooked. Meanwhile, they are probably playing the weakest 5 seed not from Syracuse. So, mark Montana down as a possible upset.

As always - comments on this analysis are very strongly encouraged. We can all use advice, corrections and suggestions.

Wednesday, March 08, 2006

Thoughts on the Week

Sorry for the off-and-on commentary, but this website isn't going to be fully up and running until next season. But for the time being, just a few thoughts on the goings on in the past week:

1. The Missouri Valley and Colonial conferences are a mess. People are giving different reasons, but here's the main one: The Missouri Valley has 6 teams (and the Colonial has 3) that are pretty much equal in resume. Some teams have better RPIs, some have better conference records, some have better strenghts of schedules or records, and other did better in the conference tournaments - so it's impossible to really separate these teams. Unfortunately, you can't really justify giving the Valley 6 bids or the Colonial 3 - the conferences simply aren't good enough. The Missouri Valley should get 3 or 4 teams, and the Colonial perhaps 2. So how do you pick who goes and who stays? That's a tough one. Makes me happy that I'm not putting up bracket predictions until the '06-'07 season.

2. There are already a few conference champions that will make some 3 & 4 seeds sweat in the First Round. Iona, Winthrop & UW-Milwaukee will all be tough beats. And there will be a few more good mid-majors coming in during the next few days (like whoever comes out of the MAC). Of the teams mentioned, the most dangerous has got to be Iona. They have a bunch of bad losses this year, but they also play their best when it matters the most. They fall asleep in the easy games, but have come up big against teams like Kentucky, Iowa State, Buffalo and Fresno State, while demolishing the competition in the MAAC tournament. They have the highest scoring backcourt in the nation, and can run with anyone. They're probably looking at a 13-seed, and will be the most likely team to knock off a 4-seed.

3. Texas and UNC are going to be tough teams to deal with when filling out brackets. On any given night, both of those teams can beat anyone. But they can also lose to anyone. I could see picking Texas to the Finals, or out in the Sweet 16. And I could see Carolina getting upset in the 2nd round, or making a run for the Final 4. If I had to pick one, though, I'd pick Texas. They have the experience to make a serious run. Carolina, on the other hand, is just proving that it can win big games. It's ready to make a title run next year.

Analysis will continue to be spotty, and I apologize. When this season ends, however, get ready. The first bracket prediction will come out within a week of the Championship game. Some teams I'll thinking about as title contenders for '07: UConn, Villanova, UNC, Ohio State and Kansas.

Thursday, March 02, 2006

Top Games of Monday, Tuesday & Wednesday

Only games affecting bubble teams are listed here. This is why I'm ignoring games like Pitt/WVU:

Florida State 79, #1 Duke 74
Another great game in the ACC. And a huge win for Florida State. However, I don't think this is the automatic invite that everyone at ESPN is making it out to be. Florida State's RPI is still 61, and are still only 11-8 against the RPI Top 200 (including 2-5 against the Top 50). They need a win against Miami and then atleast one ACC Tourney win to feel comfortable.

#15 UNC 99, Virgina 54
Could be game, set and match for UVA. I said earlier this week that Virginia probably needed a win over UNC to move ahead of Florida State as the 5th potential team out of the ACC. Obviously, Florida State's win over Duke combined with Virginia's second drubbing in a row makes Virginia's bid a real long shot.

Maryland 65, Miami 61
I think this solidifies Maryland as the 6th team in the ACC. But will the ACC get 6 teams? Probably not. In other words, Maryland has to win a few more games in a row before they get too confident about a bid. Maryland, on the other hand, is in trouble. They need to hope that FSU comes out lackadaisical in their regular season finale, after their triumph against Duke. Because a loss there means the end of Miami's at-large bid.

Big 12:
Texas A&M 46, #7 Texas 43
Congratulations, Acie Law, your 3-pointer at the buzzer just locked up an NCAA bid for the Aggies. They now have 9 wins in the Big 12 and 19 wins overall. Can't see them missing the tourney at this point. Meanwhile, Texas... what else is there to say? They have a ton of talent, but how can they be considered a threat to win the tourney when they can't put together two good games in a row?

#22 Kansas 75, Colorado 54
No one expected the Buffs to win this one, but they missed a shot to knock themselves in the tournament. They're going to have to win a couple more games to get themselves on the good side of the bubble.

Big East:
Seton Hall 72, Cincinnati 62
Big win for the Hall. They're still on the outside looking in, but this game asserts that Seton Hall will definitely get into the tourney before Cincy does. Seton Hall is probably the 8th team out at this point, with Cincy 9th. I can't see the Big East getting 9 bids into the tournament, but 8 is certainly possible. So Seton Hall just needs to keep on winning.

Big Ten:
Indiana 70, Purdue 59
The Hoosiers will not go away. Now 8-7 in conference, they're back in the mix after seemingly playing themselves off the bubble. They still have work to do, but now that the weight of the Mike Davis situation is off their backs, they might actually be able to get themselves in the tournament for the first time in a few years.

Kentucky 80, #11 Tennessee 78
Huge win for Kentucky. Have to be considered a very likely tournament team at this point. I'm not going to call them a lock, though. They still need to win atleast one more game.

Alabama 71, Auburn 61
Alabama was already sitting pretty. At this point, they just need to tread water and win the games that they're supposed to win. They were supposed to win this game, and they did. Even with Kentucky's win, Auburn is still probably the 4th team in the SEC pecking order. And if things stay that way 'Bama will get in, because the SEC will get atleast 4 teams to the Big Dance.

Wednesday, March 01, 2006

NBA - 25 games to go

This site will remain predominantly an NCAA site, but there's no reason not to mention some NBA every once in a while. Just a little prediction for the final seeding for the playoffs. Please leave feedback and correct me on teams where you think I'm completely wrong on. A half-week summary of this week's NCAA games will be up tonight or tomorrow morning:

1. Detroit - This is the easiest pick there is. Obviously the heavy favorite to win the East.

2. Miami - They've already wrapped up the division, so the only question is whether they can hang on to homefield advantage for the second round. They have the easiest post-All Star Break schedule of any team in the NBA, and that should be enough to hang on to the two seed over New Jersey.

3. New Jersey - They seem pretty safe in their division. They only have a 3 game lead, but are clearly the best team. I can't see them blowing it. If they can run off another double-digit win streak they'll have a decent shot at grabbing the two seed as well. That will be very important for the anticipated second round matchup against the Heat.

4. Indiana - How Rick Carlisle hasn't won a coach of the year award yet is baffling. He can win in just about any situation. They're already on a roll since they ditched Artest, and have won 7 of 10. Plus, I expect Cleveland to tank, and someone needs to fill this spot.

5. Cleveland - For the past two years, Cleveland has tanked after the break, and they've already started again, having lost four in a row. I don't see them dropping too much, though, because there really aren't any other East teams that I can see finishing strong.

6. Washington - If anyone else can catch the Cavs, it will be the Wizards. They have a good nucleus of players that has gotten this far before. Of course, it has to be a worry that 15 of their final 27 games are on the road, where they're an atrocious 9-17.

7. Philadelphia - All you can say about this team is "bleh." Iverson can carry them to the playoffs, but beyond that I don't think anyone can see them actually beating anyone. They have proven all year that they squeak out wins over the bad teams, but really can't hang with any of the elite teams. I see this team finishing right around .500, like they have the past few years.

8. Milwaukee - As Marc Stein noted, this team's record was artificially inflated due to a ton of very close victories. They remind me of the Washington Nationals, who inflated their record in the first half of 2005 with a ton of 1-run victories. Statistically, this should all even out at the end. And the Bucks still have a long way to go - they are still 11-5 in games decided by three points or less or in overtime. Their expected W-L record due to points scored is 25-32, instead of their real record of 29-28. Expect them to drop under .500 before long.

First team out: Orlando - This team has a great young core, especially with Dwight Howard. That kid is going to be something special - I see him as a future Hall-of-Famer. In the meanwhile, the Francis trade and the impending cap space means that this team has hope. The difference between playing for a lottery pick and playing to build momentum is huge for a team's psyche. Unfortunately, they've got a huge hole, and are still 8 games out of the playoffs with only 26 left to play. I can see them finishing up as well as 15-11 or so, putting them at 35-47, which will probably be good enough for 9th place in the conference. I can't see Milwaukee falling that far, though. On the other hand, I can see this team as a darkhorse to take out the Heat in that division next year if they're smart in the offseason.

1. Dallas - This team clearly is running on all cylinders to try to grab that 1-seed. That's why I put them ahead of San Antonio, a team which clearly is more focused on just getting healthy for the playoffs than Dallas. Despite this ranking, however, I still think San Antonio is the favorite to actually win the Western Conference playoffs.

2. Phoenix - If Amare Stoudemire comes back... watch out. Can you image a lineup with Nash, Bell, Diaw, Marion and Stoudemire. With Kurt Thomas coming off the bench? Scary thought.

3. Denver - Because someone has to win that lousy division. It's really a travesty that this team will get a 3-seed and San Antonio and Dallas will have to play in the second round. They need to change the rules so division winners are only guaranteed a spot in the top-4 in the seedings, not in the Top-3. I am against, however, a rule that reseeds after every round. That will just cause confusion and hurt viewership of the playoffs.

4. San Antonio - See my comments on Dallas. I pick San Antonio to beat Phoenix, if Stoudemire can't come back at full strength. If he's at near-full strength, we'll have to see just how good that team is before making a decision.

5. Hornets - This is a team on the rise, with good young talent and a solid coach. But, again, it's sad that it would be in their best interest to tank the last few games to avoid San Antonio in the first round. Any rule that encourages a team to lose is a bad rule.

6. Memphis - A solid team, but one where I can't find a reason for it to jump to another level in the second half of the year (unlike the Hornets). Working in their favor, however, is their 5-7 record in games won by 3 points or less or in overtime, and their expected W-L record of 34-23 (as opposed to their real record of 31-26).

7. Lakers - See below.

8. Clippers - I think the Clippers overperformed early this year. They are also a mere 18-16 after a stellar 14-7 start. They also still have some more to drop, with an expected W-L record of 32-23, compared to a 32-25 for the Lakers. So, the Lakers have already played as well, and are only getting better while the Clips fall. Plus, the Lakers-Clippers rivalry is possibly the most one-sided rivalry in sports. Can anyone really see the Clips beating the Lakers in two straight years? I can't.

First team out: Houston - This is a team that would have a far better record than they have. Injuries have just been brutal. They finally have the team healthy, and are 10-3 in their last 13 games. I could see this team possibly getting up to .500, but even that would require a stellar 16-9 finish. And even that probably won't be enough to grab the 8th spot in the west.