Sunday, February 26, 2012

2012 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.

America East
Congratulations to Stony Brook, who wrapped up the outright America East regular season title earlier today with a win over Maine. They have been in a tight battle all season long with Boston University and Vermont, the two most recent winners of the America East tournament. During the regular season, Stony Brook split with those two contenders - winning the two home games and losing the two road games. Vermont actually did the best of the three head-to-head, sweeping BU.

BU has one clear skill: defense. They're the best defensive team in the conference. But they are very sloppy with the ball, which is a bad recipe for a tournament run. It's hard to separate out Vermont and Stony Brook, except for two key differences. Vermont will have to get past BU just to reach the finals while Stony Brook will have the easier path, and Stony Brook will have home court advantage.

Stony Brook has never made the NCAA Tournament. Two years ago they won the regular season title but fell in the semis to BU. Last season they made it to the NEC tournament finals, where they again fell to BU. I think they finally break through this season and make the Big Dance.

Atlantic Sun
Rumors of Belmont's demise are a bit overstated. And I think there's a big misconception about just how good they were last season, too. Belmont was a team that could have made a Sweet 16 or Elite 8 run if they had the right draw. The only way to beat them (other than having overwhelming talent) is to force the pace to be slow and to take care of the ball. There's no team in the country that describes better than Wisconsin... and it turned out that Belmont got stuck playing Wisconsin in the Round of 64. This year's team isn't quite as good as last year's team. Just like last year they have come up just short of big wins. They lost by a single point to Duke this season, a win that would look really nice right now. Last season they had one "bad" loss, and this year they have three. Last year they outscored opponents by 0.29 PPP in conference play, and this year it's by 0.23. And last year they were rated around 18th in the nation by Pomeroy heading into their conference tournament. This year they are 24th.

Last year's Belmont team would have been a bubble team had they lost in the Atlantic Sun tournament. That's not the case this year - they have to win the tournament or they'll be heading to the NIT (as the Atlantic Sun's regular season champion, they would have an automatic bid to the NIT if they lose in their conference tournament). I don't think they'll have too much trouble winning the tournament, but anything is possible. The team that has given them the most trouble the past two years (including knocking them off at home this season) has been Lipscomb, but they're only the 7 seed and are unlikely to make the finals. The second best team in the conference is Mercer, the 2 seed. Mercer finished 13-5 and have outscored opponents by 0.11 PPP in conference play.

Big South
Last season, UNC-Asheville finished far back of Coastal Carolina in the Big South regular season, but were actually pretty similar in overall ability. They had been unlucky with a 2-5 record in conference games decided by five points or less. They then rolled through the Big South tournament and earned the Big South's auto bid. This season their luck has been more reasonable, with a 3-2 record in conference games decided by five or less, leading to a 16-2 conference record. Coastal Carolina, the 2 seed, will again be their top contender.

One advantage that Coastal Carolina has this year is an easier draw, despite the 2 seed. Campbell and Charleston Southern both finished 11-7, and the tiebreak meant that Campbell is drawn against Coastal Carolina in the semifinals while Charleston Southern is drawn against UNC-Asheville. CSU, however, is a much better team than Campbell. They are 2-4 in games decided by five points or less, while Campbell is 3-1. It's definitely a toss-up tournament, but my narrow favorite is Coastal Carolina, because of that easier draw.

There are a lot of parallels between this season and last season. Like last season, Butler had a couple of nice non-conference performances but then went into conference play and picked up a few bad losses against the bottom of the Horizon. They were just finding it too difficult to focus coming off a trip to the NCAA title game. And both years I stuck with Butler as my pick to win the Horizon tournament throughout this slump. And just like last year, they've finished strong and gotten themselves into the mix atop the conference. But there's a difference. Last year's team headed into the Horizon tournament having won seven straight and having earned a share of the regular season title. This year's team actually lost their regular season finale to Valparaiso and is three games back of first place. They'll be the five seed in the Horizon tournament this year. This year's team also has a terrible shooting problem.

One of the biggest misconceptions about Butler is that they're a good shooting team. Because they have a bunch of white guys and play in Hinkle Fieldhouse, the assumption is that everybody on the team grew up on a farm and they are all great three-point shooters. Yet even their best team two years ago was keyed by defense and rebounding. Last year's team had pretty good offense, but it was rebounding that drove their NCAA Tournament run. And this year? Their shooting is downright awful. They are hitting 27.1% of their threes this year, which makes them third worst in the nation (ahead of just Towson and Jacksonville State). They're still a good rebounding team, but that shooting has killed their offensive efficiency. They're scoring only 0.94 PPP in Horizon play, which makes them the fourth worst offense in the conference.

The best team in the Horizon over the course of the season has been Cleveland State, but they've been a tire fire of late, having lost five of their last seven. Valparaiso has probably been the best team down the stretch, winning 11 of their final 13 games and earning the regular season title and home court advantage. The one other team that I think needs to be considered a contender is Detroit, a team that is playing much better now than they were early in the season. No team in the Horizon has a better duo than Ray McCallum and Eli Holman. The fact that Detroit and Butler will have to win four games to win the conference tournament while Valpo and Cleveland State only need to win two mean that I have no doubt that any computer simulations will say that Valpo and Cleveland State are the two teams with the best odds to win the conference tournament. But I just can't bring myself to bet against Butler. They have proven too many times that they will play at their best when it counts most, so I will stick with them as my pick to win.

Missouri Valley
There has been a nice resurgence in the Missouri Valley after several down seasons. The conference isn't quite back to where they were at the middle of the last decade, but this should still be a very fun Arch Madness. Wichita State has already locked up an at-large bid, and Creighton looks to be pretty safe (though they'd be wise to avoid a one-and-done performance here). The Valley should be a multi-bid league for the first time in five years.

Early in the season, teams like Missouri State, Northern Iowa and Illinois State all looked like the top contenders to Wichita State and Creighton, and all seemed like potential bubble teams. But all three have struggled in the latter half of the season, and none of them have bubble hopes any longer. The third best team in the conference down the stretch has, shockingly, been Evansville. Over the last three weeks, Evansville has beaten Creighton, Missouri State and Northern Iowa, and they've earned the 3 seed in the Valley tournament. Do I like their chances to beat Missouri State and then (probably) Creighton and then (probably) Wichita State on three consecutive days? No. But if anybody spoils to party and earns the third MVC bid to the NCAA Tournament, Evansville is most likely.

The NEC is by no means one of the better conferences in the country, but compared to where this conference usually is (dueling with the SWAC in NCAA Tournament play-in games) it's been a very good year. The conference hasn't been this strong in almost a decade. There are at least four different teams that are good enough to put a scare into an opponent in the Round of 64, led by Wagner. Wagner has wins over Pittsburgh and Princeton and hung tough with UConn. They are rated 105th in the nation by Pomeroy and 97th by the Sagarin PREDICTOR, the highest rated NEC team in either of those ratings in more than a decade.

But as good as Wagner is, they will have a difficult run through the conference tournament. In fact, they're not even the top seed - LIU is. LIU only had to play Wagner once this season and got the game at home, which they won. LIU also was lucky, finishing 5-0 in conference games decided by five points or less or in overtime. But a quick ranking of the teams by PPP margin shows that a whole bunch of teams have a chance to win:

+0.17 Wagner
+0.10 LIU
+0.09 Robert Morris
+0.09 Quinnipiac
+0.05 St. Francis (NY)
+0.04 Central Connecticut St

One of the quirks of the NEC tournament is that they re-seed after each round, and each game will be played at the home arena of the higher seed. So it's difficult to project the match-ups. But in my view, the clear best team is Wagner, so they're my pick to win.

After the brackets come out on Selection Sunday I'll preview all of the games, so I'm going to end up repeating myself a little bit here. But one thing I'm going to say is that it's almost a certainty that multiple people in your personal bracket pool are going to talk about how the best "Cinderella" team to pick is Murray State. They'll just be repeating what they're going to hear on a lot of sports radio and on sports television. Unless Murray State loses another game, they're going to finish ranked around 10th in the nation, and have been as high as 7th this season. And they're probably going to end up with something like an 8 or 9 seed. Has to be a great bet, right!? Nope. Smart folks will bet against Murray State.

The reality is that Murray State isn't any better than they were two years ago. And this season, they're not any better than Long Beach State, Iona or Middle Tennessee State. But they've been 4-1 in games decided by five points or less or in overtime. They're a very good team, and if they'd had a couple of unlucky losses and falling to a 12 or 13 seed then they'd have been a great upset pick. But history says that teams from smaller conferences that are over-seeded and get drawn against lower-seeded teams from major conferences almost always lose.

That said, Murray State is the heavy, heavy favorite to win the OVC tournament. They shouldn't be too tested, particularly since they get a bye into the semifinals. Their toughest test will probably come in the finals, should they draw Tennessee State, the one team that has beaten them this season. Tennessee Tech, who they will potentially draw in the semifinals, is probably the only other team that might get them some trouble.

The Patriot League has been a two team battle all season long between Bucknell and Lehigh. And those two teams are the 1 and 2 seeds, respectively. Bucknell, the 1 seed, will have home court advantage throughout the tournament. This might not mean a whole lot, though. Both Bucknell and Lehigh have won on the other's floor this season. The bigger advantage that Bucknell has is that Lehigh will have the much more difficult semifinal opponent: American.

If we do get a Bucknell/Lehigh final, it'll be a battle between the best defense and best offense in the conference, respectively. Bucknell is the better rebounding team. And I think Mike Muscala is the one player physically that Lehigh can't match up against. Throw that in with Bucknell's home court advantage and an easier semifinal opponent, and the Bison have to be considered the tournament favorite.

This is quite possibly the most interesting WCC conference tournament ever. Not only have they added a third elite team (BYU), but they have nice depth, and there are all sorts of at-large implications. Gonzaga, BYU and St. Mary's are all in the NCAA Tournament bracket at the moment, but not one of them is a "lock". A rule of thumb for mid-major conferences playing their conference tournament a week before Selection Sunday is: if you're still a bubble team at the end of your conference tournament, you're probably going to end up in the NIT. There will always be four or five NCAA Tournament bids stolen in that final week. And psychologically, the conferences that play a week early just end up getting forgotten. So for all those reasons, neither Gonzaga, St. Mary's or BYU can go 1-and-done or they're going to have to sweat out the final week before Selection Sunday.

St. Mary's is the 1 seed, and also the best team in the conference. Gonzaga, as the 2 seed, is the other double bye. BYU and Loyola-Marymount are the two teams that earned single byes. Since Gonzaga will have to play BYU just for the right to get to play in the tournament finals, St. Mary's has to be considered the clear WCC tournament favorite. Outside of the Big Three, the team with the most scalps has been Loyola-Marymount. They have beaten St. Mary's, BYU and St. Louis already this season. A dark horse is a San Francisco team that just beat Gonzaga and is outscoring opponents in WCC play this season.


Anonymous said...

You really think Belmont should have little trouble winning the A-Sun tournament? The tournament is being played on Mercer's home court, a place where Belmont trailed in the final minute last night before escaping with a 62-61 win.

I want to see Belmont in the NCAA tournament and think they are capable of pulling a first-round upset with the right matchup, but if they have to play Mercer in the final I would definitely not call a true road game against the #2 seed they just played a 1-point game against "easy".

Jeff said...

Well, I'd expect Belmont to be a 6-7 point favorite against Mercer. But Mercer has a much more difficult path to the title game than Belmont, so there's a pretty reasonable possibility that Belmont will get an even easier opponent.

I'm not saying they'll win every game by 30 points. I would just say that Belmont is one of the biggest favorites in any of the conference tournaments.

Anonymous said...

Gotta admit, I liked seeing Florida-Gulf Coast take down Mercer. Now Belmont has a much better chance at making the tournament, and even if they lose, it will give the media a great story for the next week.