Monday, March 07, 2011

2011 Conference Tournament Previews: Part III

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 Ten:
There actually isn't much at stake when it comes to bubble teams in the A-10 tournament. Both Xavier and Temple appear safe for the NCAA Tournament. Only Richmond is truly near the bubble, and I think they're going to be in the Tournament. With a single win in the A-10 tournament they'll be Dancing unless the bubble gets very, very strong over the next week. So this tournament will really all be about whether some team outside the top three can steal the auto bid, and what impact the play of Xavier, Temple & Richmond will have on their respective NCAA Tournament seeding.

Xavier won the regular season title with an incredibly impressive 15-1 record, including 9 straight wins coming into this tournament. They beat both Temple and Richmond, although both games were at home. Temple finished a game back in the regular season standings, although Temple fans will be quick to note that if their sole meeting of the year with Xavier had been at their place we might have seen a different A-10 regular season champ. And other than a four point loss against Rhode Island two months ago, Richmond only lost two games all year, and they came against Temple and Xavier. In my opinion, Temple is the favorite. They play such consistent, methodical basketball, and also have the far better three-point shooting offense and defense, so Xavier's only chance will be dominating the boards. Xavier did beat Temple by 11 points this season, but the game was at home and they shot extremely well (a 59.3 eFG%, compared to a season average of 51.4%, and Temple's season average of a 45.0 defensive eFG%).

If there's a darkhorse it's definitely Duquesne. They finished a ridiculous 0-6 in games decided by five points or less or in overtime, so they're far better than their record would indicate. Their Sagarin ELO_CHESS is 90th and their Sagarin PREDICTOR is 50th, and their Pomeroy LUCK rating is 342nd in the nation.

Big West:
It was obvious to me 11 months ago that Long Beach State was going to be the best team in the Big West in 2010-11, and they absolutely dominated. They finished 14-2, a full four games ahead of second placed Cal Poly. And those two losses were both upsets against the lower division when Long Beach State didn't show up. They swept their top two contenders (Cal Poly and Cal State Northridge) with a net of more than +20 points against both. They're obviously the heavy favorites to win the automatic bid, and I do hope they get there. I'd love to see how Casper Ware performs against top level Division I talent. If there's a sleeper in the conference it's Pacific, a team that finished 1-6 in games decided by five points or less or in overtime in Big West play, so they're a lot better than their 8-8 conference record. If the seeds hold to form, LBSU and Pacific will play in the Big West semifinals. I'd bet on whichever team wins that game to win the finals.

Conference USA:
This was a crazy topsy-turvy season in Conference USA. No fewer than seven teams were in the bubble mix at some point during the season. No team had a crazier season than UCF - they started the season 14-0 and were in the Top 25 before losing 8 straight games in conference play. In the end, the odds are actually that this will be a one bid league. UAB and Memphis are the conference's best shots at an at-large bid, but both have plenty of work left to do. Southern Miss, Marshall and UTEP are also still alive, but probably need a run to the CUSA tournament finals to have any shot at all.

The favorite to win has to be UAB. They won the regular season title with a 12-4 record, have the best Sagarin & Pomeroy ratings, and were the hottest team in the conference down the stretch (7 wins in their final 8 games). Memphis is the 4 seed and will offer a serious fight in the semifinals if they get there. The best team on the other side of the bracket is probably UTEP, the 3 seed. If there's a sleeper team it might be UCF, simply because they still have it in them to go on a run like they did earlier in the season. I felt like the young team with a new coach simply let losses snowball during the 8 game losing streak, and they turned things around by winning 3 of their final 4 games. As the 9 seed, if they can get past East Carolina they'll be a dangerous test for UAB in the CUSA quarterfinals.

Mountain West:
BYU won the regular season title, but now that they're without Brandon Davies they can't win, right? I mean, they lost by 18 points to New Mexico! As I said after that game, however, the impact of Davies on that loss was overrated. The team had a horrible shooting night. They might have been affected mentally by losing Davies earlier in the week, but that kind of mental problem will be dissipated by the time the MWC tournament gets underway. San Diego State is seen by most as the favorite, but they will likely have to get through UNLV (playing on their own home floor) in the semifinals. A UNLV/SDSU semifinal would be a toss-up, so BYU might not even have to deal with SDSU's front line again. New Mexico will be playing Colorado State in the quarterfinals with the winner likely getting BYU, and BYU will obviously be rooting for CSU there.

There will be at-large implications from this tournament. BYU and SDSU are the only cold hard locks. UNLV looks safe, but probably needs one more win to remove any doubt in case the bubble gets a lot tighter. Both New Mexico and Colorado State have a bunch of work left to do, and their quarterfinal game on Thursday will be an elimination game.

The Southland was one of the most evenly matched conferences in the country, but that's not a compliment. There simply was not a single good team. McNeese State won the outright regular season title with an 11-5 record and isn't even rated as among the Top 200 teams in the nation by Sagarin or Pomeroy. Interestingly enough, both Sagarin and Pomeroy rate Sam Houston State and Stephen F Austin as the two best teams in the conference, and they'll be stuck playing each other in the Southland tournament quarterfinals. That's tough luck for those two teams. Stephen F Austin has been my pick to win the conference all season long, so they will remain my pick. They play a grinding slow tempo (the slowest pace and best defense in the conference) that tends to work well in a tournament setting.

In a development that surprised exactly nobody, Utah State dominated a weak WAC this season. They finished 15-1 in conference play and 28-3 overall. The problem is that they only played three teams in the RPI Top 80 all season long and lost to two of them (the one win came over Saint Mary's). So if they were to lose their first WAC tournament game, even with a 28-4 record, there would be some that would argue they shouldn't make the NCAA Tournament as an at-large. So as good as Utah State has been, they are a mystery and they will want to make sure they don't give the Selection Committee a chance to send them to the NIT. They need to focus on winning this tournament. Utah State's only loss in conference play came at Idaho, and they could have a re-match in the semifinals of the WAC tournament. The top contender for Utah State is probably in the other half the draw - Boise State. But Utah State is the heavy favorite.

No comments: