Sunday, March 02, 2008

Two Weeks, 300+ Teams

We are now exactly two weeks from Selection Sunday, which means that we're entering my absolute favorite part of the year. I know that we all love the 65 team Tournament, but to me the Tournament begins now. As of this moment there are still more than 300 teams alive for the national title - and I can't think of any sport where 300 teams have a shot at a national title with only two weeks before the final Tournament is selected. Who isn't alive? Well, the D-I independents are out. So are the seven Ivy League teams other than Cornell, who clinched the first automatic bid last night. Plus, a few conferences don't allow all of their teams into their conference Tournament (for example, Rutgers has been eliminated from contention for the Big East Tournament, and St. Bonaventure has been eliminated from contention for the Atlantic Ten Tournament). I'm a big supporter of conferences letting every team in, which the Big East is implementing next season. Even in the current system, however, well over 300 of the 341 Division I teams are still alive. Any of those teams can win the National Championship if they just win their next 10 games or so. And that's an exciting thing.

Remember, conference tournaments start this week. The first of them begins on Tuesday, March 4th. Obviously the better conferences tend to schedule their Tournaments later (the BCS conferences all will still have regular season games next weekend), but there will be some interesting things to look towards in the early parts of Championship Week. A quick summary of what I'll be looking for is below:

Horizon League (Begins Tuesday, March 4th. Championship on Tuesday, March 11th): Last year this conference stole an at-large bid, as Wright State took the automatic bid by upsetting Butler in the title game. Can this happen again? Of course. Butler is a lock for an at-large bid if they need it, but nobody else in the conference has a chance. So the only way this conference makes news is if Butler goes down.

Patriot League (Begins Wednesday, March 5th. Championship on Friday, March 14th): No at-large implications in this conference, of course. But I think an interesting story has been the way this conference has absolutely beat up on itself all year. When it comes to a bad conference like the SWAC, you can often just look at the standings and say "Hey, Alabama State is running away with it", but there is absolutely no way to tell with the Patriot League. I've watched a few of their games, most recently the Lehigh-Holy Cross game Friday night, and I still think it's a crap-shoot. The real tragedy by not having a true conference leader is that this solid conference (currently 16th in the RPI, 21st in the Sagarin) might be heading towards the play-in game. Note that the higher seeded team gets the home game in every round of the Tournament (at least that's my understanding, and Patriot League fans can correct me if I'm wrong about that).

Missouri Valley (Begins Thursday, March 6th. Championship on Sunday, March 9th): I've said it before, but the Valley needs to push this back later. It just is devastating to the at-large hopes of their teams when they sit idle while the big conference teams get to rack up resume-building wins for the final week of the season. Obviously Drake is a lock for the Tournament, but the Valley has a couple other teams still in the mix. Illinois State is in the best position (I'll get to that a little later in this blog post), although Creighton and Southern Illinois are still close enough to the bubble to make a little run themselves. And you never know in an even conference like the Valley - there's nothing that says that a team like Bradley or Missouri State can't get hot and win this thing.

Now, a quick look back at some of the games from late last night:

Illinois State 57, Southern Illinois 49
A game with big bubble implications for both teams. Illinois State entered this game in better position for an at-large bid, and that obviously did not change here. With all of the attention on the BCS conferences, Conference USA and the Atlantic Ten, everybody is sleeping on the Valley. I keep seeing analysts do these silly "mock selections" on television where they put up four or eight teams and pick which ones are getting in or out. Anybody else notice that the Valley isn't represented in any of these? Let me give you a resume: 17-13, 11-7 in conference, RPI of 48, Sagarin of 59th, 8-7 against the RPI Top 100, 5-1 in their last six games. It's a resume of a team that probably wouldn't get in right now, but still has a chance to earn their way in. Definitely a team that should be in the discussion. Well that's SIU, a team that is arguably only the fourth best resume in the Valley. Illinois State's resume is actually incredibly impressive for a team being utterly ignored by the media: 21-8, 13-5 in conference, RPI of 34, Sagarin of 44, 7-5 against the RPI Top 100, 7-5 in true road games, and 6-1 in their last seven games. At this point, shouldn't that get in the Tournament? Obviously the Redbirds need a solid performance in the Valley Tournament. But if they get to the Valley final and lose a close one to Drake, I think they've got to get in.

Creighton 111, Bradley 110, 2OT
A pretty amazing game - does anybody know if 221 points is a record for a Valley game? Sub-100 point games are a lot more than over-200 point games in this defensive-minded conference. Most concretely, this game really only decided fourth place in the Valley, as both teams entered this one 9-8. Regardless of the result here, these teams knew that they'd get to meet-up again later this week in their first Arch Madness game. Creighton is still worth some bubble discussion, but they're probably going to end up ruing that sweep to Illinois State. The RPI and Sagarin ratings are both in the high-40s, which means that their resume is decent. But a 1-6 record against the RPI Top 50 is just not going to cut it. The Bluejays probably need to take the Valley Tournament Championship to get into the Tournament.

#7 Kansas 88, Kansas State 74
Kansas State continues to be all about Michael Beasley, but the fact that they aren't winning these games has got to be something that you hold against him in Player of the Year discussion. It just seems like the amount that he scores isn't really affecting the likelihood of the Wildcats winning. He's obviously a great talent, but I'll admit that I'm a little bit down on him. If I had the #1 pick in the draft, he wouldn't be my selection. I'd rather Derrick Rose or Brook Lopez at this point, and maybe one or two more. Just too many questions about whether Beasley is a winner, and whether he will give it his full effort all the time. Of course, I'm not making NBA Draft predictions here, I'm looking at Tournament resumes, and it's got to be a bit disturbing for Kansas State fans that their team has now dropped four straight. They have slipped from Big 12 title contenders to 8-6 overall. The RPI is in 44th and the Sagarin is 33rd, which would probably get them in if the season ended now. But the season isn't over, and Kansas State still has work left to do. They end with two very easy games, against Colorado and at Iowa State. They should win both of those games, and they really need to. Their resume just has too many holes (including a 5-8 record against the RPI Top 100, and 2-6 in true road games) for them to leave things to chance heading into the Big 12 Tournament.

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