Wednesday, March 12, 2008

More Burst Bubbles

The Championship Week appetizers are over, and now we get to the meat of the schedule. The Big East, Atlantic Ten and Conference USA Tournaments are already under way. The Pac-10 Tournament starts up in only a couple of hours. And every Tournament that hasn't already begun will start by tomorrow afternoon at the latest. As usual, the early days of Championship Week succeeded in shrinking the bubble, putting even more pressure on teams playing these early round conference tournament games. Without further ado, let's get right into the most important games completed since my last post:

San Diego 69, #22 Gonzaga 62
For the second time in recent memory, Gonzaga has lost the WCC Tournament. And once again, San Diego dealt the fatal blow. I'm not sure why San Diego was given homefield advantage for this tournament, but they certainly took advantage of the situation. The fact that these were effectively true road losses for Gonzaga and St. Mary's certainly helps their resume. Upon reflection, I was probably too hasty in declaring that St. Mary's "will earn an at-large bid", because it's not a complete lock. Gonzaga is safe, but St. Mary's might have to sweat a bit on Selection Sunday if there is a lot of chaos in these last few days of Championship Week. The RPI and Sagarin numbers are both solidly in the mid-to-high-30s, and they have a nice 8-6 record against the RPI Top 100. What might scare some people off is the fact that St. Mary's will probably earn an at-large bid on the basis of scheduling. They managed to get good teams to come to town, where they are very strong at home. And all of their scalps came in their home gym (Drake, Oregon, Seton Hall, Ohio... and Gonzaga, of course). The fact that they have struggled against good teams on the road (1-5 in road/neutral games against the RPI Top 100) will probably not keep them out of the Tournament altogether, but it should be a big warning sign when you're filling out your brackets. Barring some generous seeding, I'm pretty ready to pencil them in as a first round exit. A side issue for this particular game is that we now have to find a seed for San Diego. They're probably staring at something in the #13 seed range. They could sneak up around a #11 or 12, or slide to a #14, but right now they feel like a #13. I'll look more into this when I get ready to finalize tonight's new BP65.

Middle Tennessee State 82, South Alabama 73
Oops. The Blue Raiders took the early lead and it felt like South Alabama's self-confidence worked against them here. They never panicked, and never really managed to chop into that lead. They forgot that the longer you let an underdog hang onto the lead, the more confident they start to feel. With Davidson earning an automatic bid, South Alabama probably becomes the most interesting mid-major case (although I'll listen to VCU as a similarly interesting resume). The overall resume is pretty solid - the RPI is 40th, the Sagarin is 47th, they're 26-6 including 4-3 against the RPI Top 100. Nice wins include San Diego, Mississippi State and the sweep of Western Kentucky. The only bad loss was at North Texas, unless you include the two losses to Middle Tennessee State (RPI of 105th). The fact that they did basically take care of business in a tricky conference has to be respected, and they're probably in the Tournament if things ended today. But you never know when your conference tournament ends so early in the week. Depending on what happens the rest of the week, USA could end up very disappointed and on their way to the NIT.

Villanova 82, Syracuse 63
Syracuse hung in this one for a while, but eventually Villanova's overall ability and depth took over. In all, they shot 50% from behind the arc as well as a solid 77% from the line to finish the game off. Syracuse has a bunch of good players, the problem is just that too many of them are on the injured reserve. It feels like every season since Carmelo left they'd found themselves on the bubble, sweating it out on Selection Sunday. This year they won't have to sweat too much, because barring a miracle they're going to earn another NIT trip. The RPI has collapsed to 51st and the Sagarin is in the 40s as well. Their non-conference RPI (31st) isn't good enough to balance out a mediocre Big East season (9-9). And they closed with six losses in their final nine games. I think they're pretty much done now. As for Villanova, this was a must-win game for them and they came through. The computer numbers are still on par with those of Syracuse, and they also went 9-9 in the Big East, but they now have three straight wins and seven of their last ten since a five-game losing streak nearly buried them. The nice ending and the overall decent resume (including wins over Pitt and UConn) will keep Villanova in the conversation on Selection Sunday, but I think they need one more defining moment if they're really going to earn that at-large bid. They play Georgetown on ESPN at noon tomorrow eastern time, and I think that game will define things for the Wildcats. A win there and they're almost definitely in the Big Dance. A loss in that game and they're most likely heading to the NIT. It's not good to have a must-win game against a Top Ten team with something to play for, but Villanova has the talent and coach to do it. And this is the situation they've put themselves in, losing to the likes of Rutgers and Depaul.

West Virginia 58, Providence 53

This is the clincher for West Virginia. The resume was already good heading into the Big East Tournament, with an 11-7 conference record and an RPI in the low-30s (not to mention a Sagarin Rating of 20th). The only way they were going to miss the Tournament was if they fell flat on their face and a chaotic Championship Week caused the bubble size to plummet. This win over a dangerous Providence should put that issue to rest, regardless of their result tomorrow against UConn. As a side note, I'm ready to put West Virginia on a short list of Tournament sleepers right now. I'll get to this issue on a deeper level later, but teams that look primed to over-perform are those whose results indicate a lot of close losses as well as big wins. It means that their win-loss record isn't as good as it deserves to be based on their level of play. The easiest way to see that is to look for a team with a Sagarin PREDICTOR far better than its ELO_CHESS. And few BCS conference teams can match West Virginia's rankings of 7th and 31st, respectively. In other words, this is potentially a Top Ten talent team. The Mountaineers are definitely a threat to make it to the second week of the Tournament if the Bracket Gods set them up with a decent route.

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