Thursday, March 01, 2012

2012 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.

Big Sky
For most of the season, Weber State has been the story in the Big Sky. Until two days ago, they were 23-4 overall with a solid win over Texas-Arlington and only one bad loss all season long. Their Sagarin ELO_CHESS had climbed as high as around 60th, and they actually received votes the past two weeks in the Coaches Poll. And they have been a very good team, but the reality is that (in my opinion) Montana is better. I picked Montana preseason, and stuck with them all season long. They backed me up by beating Weber State at home by 15 points two nights ago, wrapping up the Big Sky regular season title and assuring themselves home court advantage throughout the Big Sky tournament.

There's no question that Montana and Weber State are far and away the two best teams in the conference, and with byes into the semifinals it's just hard to see anybody but one of those two earning the auto bid. They split their regular season series, but Montana has just been slightly better in conference play (+0.21 PPP vs Weber State's +0.15 PPP), and with homecourt advantage they have to be considered the favorite.

Two Final Fours in the previous six seasons, but the Colonial doesn't have any teams currently in the NCAA Tournament. The problem has been that the top teams have all been beating each other. The Colonial has had arguably the best conference title race in the nation, with Drexel ending up a game clear of VCU, just ahead of George Mason and Old Dominion. Both VCU and Drexel still have hopes of a possible at-large bid, though I'd bet against it. In the end I think the Colonial will be a one-bid league.

The team with the most momentum coming in is Drexel. They have won 23 of their last 24 games including a home win over VCU. Drexel is also the 1 seed and will (potentially) play the 4 seed, Old Dominion, in the semis. VCU is the 2 seed, lined up against the 3 seed George Mason. In my opinion, I think that draw looks nicer for VCU. Old Dominion is a better team than George Mason (ODU outscored opponents by 0.12 PPP in conference play, while George Mason only outscored opponents by 0.06 PPP). And I think that VCU matches up well with George Mason's personnel. They are aggressive defensively, and lead the entire nation in defensive steal percentage and defensive turnover percentage. They ran George Mason off the court over the weekend, forcing 15 steals.

There is no home court advantage for the top seeds in this tournament, and I don't think any of the lesser teams in the conference will pose too much of a problem. So for those reasons, VCU is my pick to win the CAA tournament. If there's a dark horse team to steal their way into the semis or finals, it's Georgia State, the 6 seed. I could easily see them taking out George Mason in the quarterfinals.

Iona is one of those mid-majors that could be a very scary NCAA Tournament if they get there. In my opinion, they're in the same class as Murray State, Middle Tennessee and Long Beach State. But their at-large hopes are almost nonexistent, so they're going to need to win the MAAC tournament, where they will not have home court advantage. Iona is clearly the best team, but their path will not be a cakewalk. One bad break for Iona is that the 4 seed is Fairfield. Fairfield is rated the second best team in the conference by Sagarin and Pomeroy, and they were second best in the MAAC in PPP margin in conference play (+0.12, compared to Iona at +0.20 - Manhattan is third best at +0.10). If Iona has to go through Fairfield in the semis and then either Loyola-Maryland or Manhattan in the finals, that could be difficult.

But that said, if there's one thing you really want in a tournament situation it's an elite point guard, which Iona has. This is Scott Machado's last chance to make the NCAA Tournament, and he and Mike Glover now have the addition of MoMo Jones and the emergence of sharp-shooting Sean Armand (a filthy 66.5 eFG%), Iona just has too many offensive weapons for the rest of the conference.

It's been a nice inaugural season in the MEAC for Savannah State and North Carolina Central. Savannah State had been a Division I independent for a while, and this is the first season that they've been eligible for an NCAA Tournament automatic bid. North Carolina Central is brand new to Division I, having just completed the move up from Division II. This is also their first season eligible for an NCAA Tournament automatic bid. Savannah State went out and won the MEAC's regular season title. North Carolina Central earned the 5 seed.

I would argue that Savannah State and Norfolk State have been the two strongest MEAC teams this season. Savannah State was the best in conference play and won the regular season title. Norfolk State finished second, but they also did a lot of damage out of conference play. They beat Drexel and TCU, and nearly beat Marquette. They also won their only game against Savannah State, though the game was at home and it was also back in December, so I'm not sure how much that means by itself.

There are several other teams that have been solid in conference play and could make a run in the MEAC tournament: Delaware State, Bethune Cookman and NC Central. The tournament is on a neutral floor, so there is no home court advantage to worry about, and I don't think any team really has a significantly easier draw than any other team. But I've liked Norfolk State all season long. They play good defense, they take care of the ball, they rebound well and they aren't too dependent on outside shooting. They also have shown the highest ceiling of any MEAC team because of their non-conference wins. Norfolk State has three wins against the RPI Top 100 (if you're wondering, the third Top 100 win was over LIU). The rest of the conference? Zero. So Norfolk State is my pick.

This hasn't been a great season for the SoCon, which is why Davidson isn't getting any media attention. But the reality is that Davidson is a pretty darn good team. They beat Kansas in December, and then destroyed the conference by an average margin of +0.22 PPP. The closest team in overall quality is probably Wofford, but Davidson swept them and finished a full four games ahead of them in the conference standings. Also, one thing I really like about Davidson for a SoCon tournament situation is that they're very steady. They lead the SoCon in both OR% and DR% in conference play. If you depend on your shooting sometimes you'll just go cold, but rebounding tends to never go "cold". Davidson will be a formidable opponent for whoever they face.

In addition, the nature of the SoCon divisions (all of the best teams are in the SoCon South) means that Davidson has an awfully easy path to the SoCon title game. It's not inconceivable that a team like Wofford could give them trouble in that title game, but I'd bet against it. Davidson is the heavy favorite. And if Davidson can sneak up to a 14 seed or (if they get a bunch of help in other conferences) a 13 seed, they could put a scare into some top team in the NCAA Tournament.

This is the fifth year of existence of the Summit League (it was previously known as the Mid-Continent Conference), and I don't think it's ever been stronger. South Dakota State finished 24-7 and 57th in the RPI... and finished two games behind Oral Roberts (26-5, 40th in the RPI) in the standings. It might actually be possible to make a legitimate at-large argument for either of those two teams on Selection Sunday, although the odds are against this being a two bid league. Those teams can only feel comfortable if they can win the auto bid.

Oral Roberts and South Dakota State split the season series, with each team winning at home. The conference tournament is in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, which is pretty close to Brookings (where South Dakota State is), but I doubt that quasi-home court advantage will mean much. It typically doesn't in any conference tournament where it's not a "true" home court advantage. Oral Roberts is a solid team in all aspects, though their one flaw is perimeter defense, which is something that South Dakota State (39.6 3P% this season) can take advantage. But the big problem for South Dakota State is their draw. Oakland has been as good as either of the two top teams over the past month, and they're the 3 seed. Beating Oakland and Oral Roberts on consecutive days is a tough ask for South Dakota State. South Dakota State also has a tricky IUPUI team in the quarterfinals. So even if you think South Dakota State is better than Oral Roberts and that the quasi-home court will matter. I think the tournament draw still makes Oral Roberts the clear favorite.

Sun Belt
It's been kind of an upside-down season in the Sun Belt. The teams that have dominated the league for much of the past decade (Western Kentucky, North Texas, South Alabama, etc) were all down, and the preseason favorite (Florida Atlantic) had a disappointing year as well. But at the same time, Denver had a really good season, and Middle Tennessee was just spectacular. Middle Tennessee finished the regular season 25-5 with wins over Belmont, Akron and UCLA, and only two bad losses (Western Kentucky and UAB). They are a very respectable 3-3 against the RPI Top 100, and their Sagarin ELO_CHESS is 43rd. If they were to lose a tight game in the Sun Belt title game against a team like Denver, you will be able to make a really good at-large case for Middle Tennessee. And honestly, I'd much prefer them in the Tournament than a team like UConn that you know isn't going anywhere. I'd rather see Middle Tennessee get that chance.

Of course, Middle Tennessee is obviously the clear favorite to win the Sun Belt's auto bid anyway. Besides Denver, the other top contenders are North Texas and Arkansas-Little Rock. Middle Tennessee actually could end up with a pretty tough draw if they have to play Florida Atlantic, North Texas and Denver in the Sun Belt tournament, which is possible. Florida Atlantic is certainly a sleeper team, if they can beat Arkansas State and then pull that quarterfinal upset of Middle Tennessee. But I really do believe Middle Tennessee will meet those challenges and keep winning. They are legitimately one of the better defenses in the nation, and they're decent offensively (second in the Sun Belt in eFG% and PPP in conference play). And Denver won't get to play the games at altitude, which takes away one of their huge advantages (Denver finished 7-1 at home but only 4-4 on the road in conference play).

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