Sunday, February 27, 2011

2011 Conference Tournament Previews: Part I

For the complete list of conference tournament previews, as well as a schedule of when all of these games will be played, please click here.

Atlantic Sun:
This was the Belmont show all season long. They went 19-1 in conference play, and won those games by an average of over 20 points per. And this is a team with computer numbers that are out of this world for an Atlantic Sun team. Their Sagarin ELO_CHESS is 42nd, their PREDICTOR is 27th and their Pomeroy rating is 21st. The caveat is: as good as their computer numbers have been, they went 0-3 against the RPI Top 100. They lost three close games against SEC opponents: Vanderbilt and Tennessee (twice). But the reality is, this doesn't matter. I've talked many times about how statistically, the popular idea that if you haven't beaten good teams yet it means you can't beat good team is, in fact, nonsense. And we only have to go back to the 2007-08 Davidson team that went 0-4 against the RPI Top 100 during the regular season, and proceeded to beat Gonzaga, Wisconsin and Georgetown in the NCAA Tournament. Belmont wins with a suffocating defense that forces a zillion turnovers, but they don't have a true elite scorer that can get them big baskets against elite defenses (Ian Clark is good, but he's no Stephen Curry). So while they might have a Sweet 16 run in them, let's not confuse them with the 2007-08 Davidson team.

As for the conference tournament, is it a given that Belmont wins? They're definitely the heavy favorites, but if I'm going to be play devil's advocate I'll argue that the league has caught up to Belmont a little over the past few weeks. In their first 8 conference games they won every single time by 15+, averaging a 27.8 point victory. Since then, in addition to losing a game, 3 of their final 11 wins came by single-digits. East Tennessee State, their top competitor, only lost by ten on Belmont's home floor. ETSU has also beaten Dayton and Mississippi State this season, and are rated the 108th best team in the nation by Pomeroy and 116th by Sagarin. Lipscomb is also rated near 150th, and is the team that has already beaten Belmont. So, Belmont could lose. But don't bet on it.

Big South:
Coastal Carolina ran through this conference again and is the heavy favorite. But even when they were 15-0 in conference play and 24-2 overall I felt that they were overrated. This was no Belmont - destroying everything in its path. Instead, six of those first 15 conference wins were by six points or less. It wasn't that shocking when they finally lost a couple of narrow games, to UNC-Asheville and Gardner Webb, down the stretch. On the season they are still 9-2 in games decided by six points or less. Liberty will be the 2 seed in the Big South tournament, but UNC-Asheville is probably the top contender to Coastal Carolina. UNC-Asheville had some bad luck with a 2-5 record in conference games decided by five points or less, and they did beat Auburn this season (I know, not that impressive... but for a Big South team that's still a nice win). So if Coastal Carolina does go down, UNC-Asheville would be my pick. But my pick is still Coastal Carolina.

Horizon League:
With Butler taking a step back and the rest of the league stepping up, this became one of the most muddled conferences in the nation. The league ended up with a three-way tie atop the standings, between Butler, Cleveland State and UW-Milwaukee. Butler and Cleveland State are both on the bubble and were expected to be good, but UW-Milwaukee has been on an unbelievable run. After losing a slew of bad games earlier this season they have responded by winning nine straight in conference play, including wins over each of the five best teams in the conference (Butler, Cleveland State, Valparaiso, Detroit and Wright State). With one of the two double-byes (Butler has the other), and homecourt advantage, how can UW-Milwaukee not be considered a top contender for the Horizon tournament title right now?

Cleveland State has arguably the best overall resume of any Horizon League team, and they probably have the best player (Norris Cole), but they've been dealt a tough draw. They must beat Illinois-Chicago (not a gimme) and then probably Wright State in the quarterfinals, and then Butler in the semifinals, just so they can possibly play a finals game at UW-Milwaukee. That's brutal. In my opinion, Butler is the favorite to win the conference tournament. They are (in my opinion) the best team. And they have a bye into the semifinals where they'll have a game where the best possible opponent (Cleveland State) is a team they've already swept this season. They might have to win a true road championship game at UW-Milwaukee (a team that swept them this season), but I've been saying all season that Butler has been playing to their opponent. They've been playing biggest in their biggest games. It's just very difficult mentally for a team to go from a National Championship game to bringing a high level of intensity to a game against Youngstown State. And that's why even after all of those bad losses in the middle of the season I correctly picked Butler to win a road game at Cleveland State, and why I think they'll rise to the occasion in the Horizon title game, even if it's on the road.

With Siena's reign atop the conference over, this ended up being a very tight conference race all season. In the end, Fairfield pulled away with the regular season title (15-3, two games clear of the pack), but they achieved that by pulling out a series of narrow victories over the bottom of the conference. Against the top of the conference they were mediocre. They split their season series with Rider, Iona and Loyola (Md) and needed a one point overtime win to survive a road game at St. Peter's. I've believed all season long that the best team was Iona, rather than Fairfield. And honestly, the difference in the team's records has mostly to do with the fact that Fairfield was 4-1 in games decided by five points or less, while Iona was 3-7. It's also worth pointing out that Fairfield was 7th in the nation in free throw defense, so either they have the most distracting fans behind the opposing basket or they got lucky there too.

I think Iona is the team with the most talent, and they've simply taken some time getting used to playing under a new coach. Fairfield relies most on a perimeter pressure defense that forces a lot of turnovers, but Iona has the best point guard in the conference (Scott Machado). So for those reasons, I've stuck with Iona all season long, and they remain my pick to win the MAAC tournament. Fairfield will likely be the media's favorite. The most likely team to upset both to steal the automatic bid is, obviously, Rider.

Missouri Valley:
The Missouri Valley, honestly, hit a new low this season. I love watching Missouri Valley games because the crowds are great and the games are fun, but the level of play in the conference is at the lowest it's been in years. I already detailed what a debacle their Bracketbusters performance was. It's very unlikely that either Missouri State or Wichita State can earn an at-large bid, so Arch Madness will be entirely about who will win the automatic bid. Missouri State and Wichita State are the clear two best teams, and Missouri State swept the season series and will be the #1 seed. Yet I've already talked in detail about why I think Wichita State is the favorite. Rather than regurgitate the same arguments, let me just link to it here. Staring at the bracket, I've actually got another advantage for WSU. Despite having the 2 seed, I actually think they'll have the easier semifinal match-up. In my opinion, the third and fourth best teams are (in arbitrary order) Northern Iowa and Creighton. Those two teams will play in the 4/5 game, and the winner will play MSU. Indiana State managed to wrest the 3 seed from those two, and if form holds they will play WSU in the semifinals. So that's just another reason, in my opinion, to pick Wichita State as the favorite..

The NEC has been seemingly an automatic 16 seed for the past few years, but LIU is actually making a pretty good case for a 15 (or maybe even a 14?) seed. They blew through the conference and finished 24-5 overall. They didn't beat anybody good out-of-conference, but they didn't lose to anybody particularly bad either (Iona, at Northwestern, at St. Peter's). Their only really bad loss on the season was against St. Francis (PA). LIU has been even better than last year's Robert Morris team, which if you recall ended up taking Villanova to overtime in the NCAA Tournament. LIU should have little trouble making the NEC finals, but they could get trouble there, where they will likely face Quinnipiac or Robert Morris. Even though Robert Morris is rated the second best team in the conference by both Sagarin and Pomeroy, and beat LIU this season, I think Quinnipiac is the scarier match-up.

LIU's strength is offensive rebounding and their weakness is turnovers. And in that loss to Robert Morris, they actually were not challenged in either of those categories. They had an OR% of 48.7 and only had a turnover rate of 16.1% (lower than their season average of 20.4%). LIU lost the game because Robert Morris shot the lights out (10-for-23 behind the arc, compared to 5-for-23 for LIU) and hit all of their free throws (10-for-10) to overcome a fierce LIU rally late. LIU also did them a favor by hitting only 18-for-30 on their own free throws. Quinnipiac didn't get a chance to play LIU at home this year, and they actually are a better rebounding team, and won the rebounding battle when these teams played this season. When they played at LIU, Quinnipiac had an ice cold 41.0 eFG% compared to 55.6% for LIU. And even with that, and homecourt advantage, LIU only won by ten. To wrap all of those numbers up, I think Quinnipiac is the team best positioned to take out LIU. LIU is still the favorite, though.

Ohio Valley:
The OVC had a three-headed monster that dominated the league: Murray State, Morehead State and Austin Peay. All three went 1-1 against each other, and all are rated as somewhere between the 110th and 135th best teams in the nation by both Sagarin and Pomeroy. All three teams are similar in that they are solid defensively and force a lot of turnovers, but are poor offensively. Murray State does have a couple of strong outside shooters that can get hot, and Morehead State draws its strength from their super-rebounder Kenneth Faried. Faried's stats are inflated by the conference he's in, and he wouldn't have broken Tim Duncan's NCAA record of 1570 rebounds if he were playing in a BCS conference, but he is a legitimately elite rebounder. Watching him play, he's a beast, and looks like a man amongst boys in the OVC. He can bang with anybody.

That said, Austin Peay seems the weakest of the three teams to me. They rely on an uptempo pressing defense, but have no way to put up points if they're not getting steals. They've actually had more success out-of-conference (a win against St Louis and an overtime loss to Memphis, for example), where teams are not used to their playing style. In conference they've had less success, and have been outscored on net by both Murray State and Morehead State. I think Morehead State beats them in the OVC semifinals and gets Murray State in the finals. And there I give the edge to Murray State. I'm giving the edge to the team that has been there before and has had so much success dominating the Ohio Valley Conference for years. They've won four of the last nine OVC tournaments, and I think they're the narrow favorites to win again.

Patriot League:
Bucknell ran away with the Patriot League this season, with only American University remotely in the same universe. They had one inexplicable 20 point loss at Army, but won every other conference game by an average of more than 10 points. Bucknell also beat Richmond this season, and only lost to Boston College by four points, so they're not at all a bad team. If they can earn a 14 seed (very realistic) then they might give a 3 seed problems. Don't forget that we're only six years removed from that Bucknell team that, as a 14 seed, knocked off Kansas in the first round of the 2005 NCAA Tournament. This will be the fifth straight year that the Patriot League has played all games at the campus location of the higher seed, and in the previous four the title was won by the 1 seed. Yes, there's a chance that American might pull a shocking upset, but don't bet on it. Bucknell should win.

Southern Conference:
The Southern Conference always has a hard tournament to project because of the two divisions and the fact that there are so many teams. This year, the clear best team was Charleston, which was no surprise to anybody. What was surprising (at least to me) was that the rest of the conference was relatively weak. Wofford was the only other quality team in the conference over the course of the season. Those two teams finished 1-2 in the SoCon South, so they'll be on pace to face each other in the SoCon tournament finals. Charleston did sweep the season series, and they'll be favored to win. And, like I said, they're the better team. But you can't count out Wofford because they have a trio of outstanding three point shooters that can really got hot. They hit 40.5% as a team from behind the arc on the season, which was 9th best in the nation. They shot poorly in both of their match-ups with Charleston this season, but there's no reason why that should happen again. Charleston's defense isn't particularly stout. So, Charleston is the favorite, but don't be shocked if Wofford wins instead. The darkhorse is Davidson, a team that has won nine of ten, and beaten both Charleston and Wofford during that stretch (the Wofford win came on the road). So throw Davidson in the hat as a legitimate contender as well.


Ken Miller said...

Butler has an easy path to the final game of the conference tournament, to be sure. Cleveland State has seriously slipped in the past few weeks. The main reason is a lack of depth, even for a mid-major. The bench has gone entire games without putting up a single point. Furthermore, CSU's style of play feasts on sloppy ball handling, which is not a problem for Butler and is one major explanation for Butler's success against Cleveland State. Wright State and Green Bay both have a lot of trouble away from their home floors (and the next two rounds are in Milwaukee). On the other side of the tournament bracket is a Milwaukee team that has come on very strong of late. In addition, Milwaukee has beaten Butler twice this year, so if this is the matchup for the conference crown, I'm looking forward to a great game for probably the only bid out of the Horizon League.

Jeff said...

I agree. As good as the Horizon is this year, you can't win with just one player.

Ray McCallum is expected to be a lottery pick someday, and Detroit is an afterthought this season.

BillyHoyle said...

What are Belmont's chances to get an at large bid if they don't win their tourney?

Jeff said...

Not good, unfortunately. Their biggest win of the season came over East Tennessee State, and if they don't win the Atlantic Sun tournament it will mean another bad loss.

I won't say it's impossible for them to get in, but it's unlikely. That 1 point loss against Tennessee could have made a ton of difference...

Hopefully Belmont just takes care of business. I'd love to see them in the Tournament - they're the perfect Cinderella team.