Thursday, March 03, 2011

2011 Conference Tournament Previews: Part II

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.

America East:
Over the season as a whole, Vermont was clearly the top team in the America East. They finished 22-7 overall with a win over Iona and a narrow loss at Fairfield, and a Sagarin ELO_CHESS inside the Top 100. But there's the catch. Of their three losses in conference play, two came to Boston University, a team that has won eight straight and finished only one game back in the overall standings. I didn't watch either of those games, and honestly, there doesn't seem to be a reason why BU should be particularly strong against Vermont. In the games against Vermont, BU didn't shoot or rebound particularly well, and their defense isn't great. The difference in those games was that BU drew a ton of fouls, and BU is a good free throw shooting team (72.3% on the season), but normally BU does not draw a lot of fouls (a 70.0 free throw rate against Vermont, compared to 38.9 on average in their other America East games). If somebody has insight on that match-up I'd love to hear it, but looking at the stats I just don't see why Boston should have a particular edge against Vermont. BU has been hot over the past few weeks, but that doesn't always carry over from regular season to postseason. Overall, Vermont has been better, and they will have the easier path to the conference tournament title, so I have to give the edge to Vermont.

Big Sky:
The Big Sky had a very muddled conference picture all season long. In some order, Montana, Northern Arizona, Northern Colorado and Weber State were the four best teams in the conference. Northern Colorado won the regular season title, but Montana had the best computer ratings across the board. But those computer ratings were very close. For example, Pomeroy rates Montana 121st, Northern Arizona 124th and Northern Colorado 125th. But overall, Montana and Northern Colorado were the two top teams, and as the two top seeds are the two favorites. And they are opposites in style. Northern Colorado likes to run and is second in the conference with 69.9 points per game in conference play. Montana grinds games out with a defense that led the conference with only 60.8 points allowed per game in conference play. The teams split in the regular season, and it's a very close call. Montana has the easier semifinal opponent (most likely Weber State, instead of Northern Arizona) but Northern Colorado will have home court advantage. I'm giving the narrow edge to Montana, but I might change my mind as the tournament progresses.

This was the best season the Colonial has had since the 2005-06 season, and we all remember how that ended (George Mason in the Final Four). I don't think the Colonial can plan on another Final Four team, but it does have two teams that are in good condition for an at-large bid. Neither Old Dominion or George Mason has completely locked up an at-large bid, but both should be in unless the bubble gets much, much stronger. A win for both in their quarterfinal games on Saturday should lock them into the Tournament. VCU has the best chance for a third at-large bid, but they have work left to do. They'd probably need to make the Colonial tournament finals, beating George Mason in the semis and losing narrowly to Old Dominion in the finals, to have a realistic shot. Drexel, James Madison and Hofstra are the other key contenders. I believe that George Mason is the best team in the Colonial, but Old Dominion has an easier route to the CAA tournament finals (I'd much rather play the winner of Hofstra/James Madison than the winner of VCU/Drexel), and Old Dominion also plays a more consistent style. George Mason is reliant on outside shooting to carry them, while ODU dominates everybody with their rebounding. Rebounders don't have off nights, shooters do. So all of that combined is why I believe ODU is the narrow favorite to win the Colonial tournament. But there should be a lot of great games, so tune in.

The MAC hasn't had a dominant team since the glory days in the early part of the last decade, when Kent State made the Elite Eight in '02, and then Chris Kaman led Central Michigan in '03 to a Tournament win. In fact, the MAC hasn't won an NCAA Tournament game since Kaman's team. And honestly, it's looking like an eighth straight season where the MAC is not going to win a Tournament game, but you can never know for sure. This season, the MAC East wasn't bad, but the MAC West was putrid. So expect a champion to come out of the East. Kent State is currently leading the East (there is one game remaining), and Miami-Ohio is second. Interestingly enough, both Sagarin and Pomeroy rate Buffalo as the best team in the MAC, and they are currently in fifth place out of six teams in the MAC East.

One thing the MAC does that is bizarre is it seeds teams by their overall conference record, regardless of division, even though the schedules are unbalanced. Because of that, even with only one game remaining, it's impossible right now to guess what the seeding will be. And because of that, it's really difficult to project a winner. Even though Buffalo is loved by Pomeroy and Sagarin, they will likely have to play in the first round of the MAC tournament, which adds a level of difficulty. Also, they play a streaky style of basketball - they are sloppy, and rely on hot shooting and offensive rebounding. Kent State is a much more steady team, and has proven it throughout the season. So Kent State is my pick, but if they get a tough draw I might change my mind.

Congratulations are in order for Bethune Cookman, and their first ever MEAC conference title. Unfortunately, I don't think I can pick them to win the conference tournament. Results like a double overtime win over Hampton tell me more about their luck than their skill. And in reality, Bethune Cookman is not a good team at all. Their defense, in particular, is atrocious. The most impressive MEAC team throughout the season was Hampton. They beat Colorado State and Boston University, and won on the road at George Washington. They only lost by seven at Wake Forest. When Bethune Cookman went out-of-conference they lost by 44 to Baylor, and by 33 to Arizona. I think Hampton is the best team, and they are my pick. But honestly, I don't see any MEAC team earning better than a 16 seed - they're just playing for the honor of being first round cannon fodder for a team like Ohio State.

The SWAC was the worst conference in the nation. In other news, the sun rose in the east. In fact, the SWAC was even worse than the Great West, a conference formed from teams that just recently made the leap from Division II, and that isn't awarded an automatic bid. That's a joke. The regular season champion this season is Texas Southern. Jackson State is the only other team rated inside the Top 300 by Sagarin and Pomeroy. Texas Southern did sweep the regular season series, but Jackson State should be a tough match-up for them. Jackson State has the best offense in the conference, and also matches up well against Texas Southern's weaknesses (offensive turnovers, for example). So Jackson State has been my pick all season long and I'm sticking with them. But the winner of this conference will be lucky to even have a chance to be cannon fodder for a 1 seed - they'll likely lose to another 16 seed in the play-in round.

Oakland dominated the Summit, going 17-1 for the second consecutive season. Once again they took a shot by scheduling a brutal non-conference schedule (Pomeroy rates their non-conference SOS third toughest in the nation), although again they didn't have a lot of success. They did knock off Tennessee, and came within a point of beating Michigan State, but otherwise suffered a lot of heavy losses. But Oakland dominated the Summit and is clearly the best team, so I'm not sure how I can pick anybody else. The one worry is South Dakota State. Their offense has been clicking, and their ratings are up near 100th in the nation by both Sagarin and Pomeroy. In addition, the Summit tournament will be just down the road in Sioux City, and they've got a potential semifinal match-up with Oakland. So don't discount the chance that South Dakota State pulls that upset and wins the Summit's auto bid, but Oakland is the favorite.

Sun Belt:
I expected a strong season from the Sun Belt over the summer, and ended up disappointed. Florida Atlantic was the only team that lived up to my expectations, and they ran away with the Sun Belt regular season title. Western Kentucky was nowhere near what I expected, and I guess nobody should have been shocked that The Isiah Thomas Circus has been an off-the-court nightmare for FIU, and not much better on the court. FAU's toughest competition may come in the Sun Belt semifinals, when they are on pace to face Louisiana-Lafayette, one of only two Sun Belt teams to win a game at FIU this season. Of course, that game might not happen. Louisiana-Lafayette has the misfortune of likely facing Western Kentucky in the Sun Belt quarterfinals, and I think WKU is a darkhorse. Their front line is excellent, and they might be the most talented team in the conference. They have disappointed over the length of the season, but they've improved steadily over the past couple of months and could get hot in the Sun Belt tournament. But my pick remains FAU.

The WCC could be a one-bid league. Both Saint Mary's and Gonzaga are on the bubble right now, but in a sense are actually disadvantaged by the double-bye, since it means that it's impossible to lose in the WCC tournament without hurting one's resume (neither team will have a chance to roll off quality victories en route to the WCC title game). Plus, I expect the bubble to get tighter. I've talked a lot about Saint Mary's vs Gonzaga, so click on the tags of those two teams on the top left side of the page to read all of that. I don't want to repeat it. One huge change has been Gonzaga's defense, which has really stiffened up over the past couple of weeks after being embarrassingly bad at stretches earlier in the season. Another thing Gonzaga has going for them is that Portland (the third best team in the conference) slipped to the 5 seed, and so will be matched up with Saint Mary's in the semifinals, should they get that far. But I've been very impressed with the Saint Mary's backcourt of Mickey McConnell and Matthew Dellavedova, and in a tournament setting I trust the team with the two elite guards that can create offense in clutch moments. So right now I'm leaning toward Saint Mary's, and the Zags will have to hope for a very weak bubble so that they can keep their Tournament streak alive.

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