Sunday, March 04, 2012

2012 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
Temple is the only Atlantic Ten team that is coming in feeling safe about their at-large chances. St. Louis is definitely in the Field of 68 at the moment, but they will likely fall back onto the bubble if they flame out early in the Atlantic Ten tournament. Xavier is also on the bubble right now, but they'll need to reach the A-10 tournament finals to have a good chance on Selection Sunday. Those three teams are, in order, the top three seeds in the A-10 tournament.

St. Bonaventure is the 4 seed, and they are also the sleeper that can wreak havoc on the at-large hopes of other teams. They played poorly out-of-conference, including an embarrassing loss to Arkansas State, but the past few weeks they've played better basketball than Xavier has. They'll be a formidable test for Temple.

Outside the four teams that earned first round byes, the team with the most potential to make a run is Dayton. The 6 seed has won five of their last seven games, and they're also the second best offensive team in the conference (1.08 PPP in conference play). Throw in the fact that Dayton would get to play Xavier in the quarterfinals, arguably the weakest of the top four teams right now, and I wouldn't be at all surprised if Dayton made the A-10 semis. If you're looking for a real dark horse, look at UMass, the 8 seed. UMass has the second best defense in the Atlantic Ten (according to Pomeroy), and they just took Temple into overtime on the road on Wednesday.

Big West

I'm not sure that there's a whole lot to talk about here besides Long Beach State. It's more likely than not that Long Beach State will need to win the conference tournament or they'll be in the NIT, which is a shame. I'd much rather see a team like them in the field than a mediocre team from a major conference that has had their chances like South Florida or the University of Miami. But the odds are strongly in LBSU's favor in this tournament. They went 15-1 in conference play, outscoring opponents by a combined 0.20 PPP. Their one loss came to Cal State Fullerton, the 2 seed.

The second best team in the conference the length of the season has been UCSB, but Long Beach State has wiped the floor with them both times they played. There aren't any clear dark horses either. Long Beach State is just too much better than everybody else. It would be a shocker if they fell.

Conference USA

I've talked about this many times before, but I'll say it again. It's hard to think of any team that has been so overrated one year and then so underrated the next quite like Memphis the past two seasons. Last season, Memphis was incredibly lucky all season long, going 14-2 in games decided by five points or less. It got them a ton of hype late in the season and then heading into this season, with nearly every key player back. They spent the first couple weeks of this season ranked in the Top Ten in the human polls. But this season? They've actually been unlucky. They are 4-5 in games decided by five points or less, which by itself doesn't sound that unlucky, but they're 299th in the nation in Pomeroy Luck. The reason is that luck isn't just your performance in games decided by five points or less - it's a combination of a few things. Memphis is 6-6 this season in games decided by single digits, and 17-2 in blowouts.

Right now, Memphis is rated the 11th best team in the nation by Pomeroy and 16th by Sagarin. Pomeroy, the best rating system that exists (in my opinion), rates Memphis better than Duke, Baylor, Marquette and Michigan. They are a very good team, and with the right draw can easily make a Sweet 16 or Elite 8 draw.

The only Conference USA team other than Memphis that looks good for an at-large bid is Southern Miss. They are definitely in the Field of 68 at the moment, though they still need to win a game or two in the Conference USA tournament to lock up a bid. UCF is another potential at-large team, though they're more of a long shot.

Who is the biggest threat to Memphis in the Conference USA tournament? The near-consensus view is that it's Southern Miss, but in my opinion it's Tulsa. Tulsa has gone 10-4 since mid-January, beating Marshall and UCF, and taking Southern Miss to overtime on the road. They did get handled by Memphis at home yesterday, but that says more about how good Memphis is than anything else. Tulsa is the 3 seed, and at this point I'd make them the narrow favorite over Southern Miss in a potential C-USA semifinal game. If you want a real dark horse to win a game or two, I might have to give you 5-11 East Carolina team. They're better than their record, and if they can get past Rice then they can give a poor Southern Miss perimeter defense trouble with their good shooting. But like I said, Memphis is the heavy favorite to win the C-USA tournament.


It feels like 15 consecutive years that the MAC has been wide open at the top of the league, without any team seriously contending for any at-large bids. The MAC bracket is made a bit quirky by the fact that they are doing the same thing the SEC is doing. They have a conference schedule as if there are two divisions, but then are combining all 12 teams into one list for the conference tournament. The MAC East is much, much, much better than the MAC West, meaning that some of the MAC East teams have inferior conference records compared to inferior teams in the MAC West due to the schedule strength differential. Miami-Ohio is stuck as the 10 seed in the 12-team league because they were annihilated with a 2-8 record against the MAC East, even though they went 3-3 against the MAC West.

If you're looking for a team to win the MAC tournament, you can point to any of the five top teams in the MAC East. It's hard to differentiate between Ohio, Akron, Buffalo, Kent State and Bowling Green. Bowling Green is the one that didn't earn a bye, so they're at a disadvantage by having to play an extra game. The 1 seed is Akron, but Ohio has been my pick to win the conference tournament for a while. They have the best defense in the conference, and they're good at attacking the rim and getting to the line. I think they're built for a tournament situation. But like I said, there are no big favorites here. Anybody can win. If there's a dark horse it's the 8 seed, Western Michigan. They're the best rebounding team in the conference, which is always a good thing to be in a tournament.


It's not new for the top of the Mountain West to be strong, but I don't think the bottom of the league has ever been as good as it has been this season. There are no bad teams, and anybody can beat anybody else on the right day. This should be a great conference tournament, which makes it an awesome decision by the conference to bury every game but the title game on the MTN and CBS College Sports Network - two channels that most people don't get. Even the title game will be on the NBC Sports Network (formerly: Versus), which is a channel that many sports fans still don't know how to find on their dial.

San Diego State, New Mexico and UNLV all look safe for NCAA Tournament bids. The one true bubble team is Colorado State. They will need to win at least one game in the conference tournament to feel good about their chances on Selection Sunday. They are the 4 seed, and will open against TCU.

San Diego State won the regular season title at 10-4, winning the tie break with New Mexico, and finishing a game ahead of UNLV. But they were lucky (5-2 in conference games decided by five points or less or in overtime). New Mexico has, in my opinion, been the best team in the Mountain West this season. The problem for New Mexico is that (if the seeds hold) they'll have to play UNLV in the semis, a much more formidable opponent than whoever San Diego State will have to play (either Colorado State or TCU).

The dark horse team in this tournament is Wyoming. They are able to grind games out with an aggressive defense and a deliberate, technically sound offense. They will play UNLV in the quarterfinals. The conference tournament champion will, of course, most likely be one of the three teams atop the conference. San Diego State has the easiest draw to the title game, but I think New Mexico and UNLV are better teams. Either of those two will be favored against SDSU in the title game. I think it will be New Mexico getting through, and they are my pick to win the MWC tournament.


Texas-Arlington, like Long Beach State, won their first 15 conference games only to have the perfect season spoiled yesterday. UT-Arlington fell to UT-San Antonio, who earned the 5 seed. UT-Arlington had their success with a speedy team that plays with a frenetic pace (11th in the nation with 72.2 possessions per game), turns opponents over and gets to the rim. Opponents will try to slow them down, though it hasn't happened much this season.

The prime competition for UT-Arlington will be Lamar, the best offense in the conference and the 3 seed. The 2 seed, Stephen F Austin, is a pretty good team as well. The dark horse is that Texas-San Antonio team that comes in having won three of four, including that win over UT-Arlington. The favorite, though, has to be UT-Arlington. They're simply the best team, and without any single obviously exploitable flaw.


The annual tournament to determine which SWAC school will send a team to a 16 seed play-in game is made even weaker than usual by academic failures. Two SWAC teams are ineligible from postseason play because they failed to meet the NCAA's "Academic Progress Rate" requirements, including Southern, who would have been the 2 seed. That makes things easier for Mississippi Valley State, the best team in the conference. The new 2 seed is Texas Southern, the clear top contender to MVSU. Those are also the only two SWAC teams that are decent enough that they might be able to win that 16 seed play-in game. Obviously anything is possible since there aren't any particularly good teams here, but Mississippi Valley State is the best team and they are my pick.


It's been a down season for the WAC. Utah State turned over almost their entire starting rotation and is in a rebuilding year, and neither Nevada or New Mexico State has really taken advantage. It's very likely that this will be a 1-bid league, though there's still a long shot chance for Nevada to earn an at-large bid. Nevada went 13-1 in conference play, finishing three games ahead of second place New Mexico State. But Nevada has been 5-1 in conference games decided by five points or less, and both Sagarin and Pomeroy rate New Mexico State as the clear best team in the WAC.

Head-to-head, Nevada did sweep New Mexico State. That, combined with their big lead in the standings, means that basically everybody is picking them to win the WAC tournament. But those two wins were by a combined 12 points, and New Mexico State just happened to be ice cold (an eFG% below 40.0) in both games. Overall, New Mexico State's offense has actually been pretty good this season. And they're a better defensive and rebounding team than Nevada. What worries me about Nevada in a tournament setting is that they are so incredibly dependent on outside shooting. When they get hot they are very difficult to beat (as they were in the game at New Mexico State), but if they're not hitting shots then they can lose to anybody.

Despite the 2 seed, New Mexico State actually has the easier semifinal draw. I'd much rather play Idaho (the 3 seed) than Utah State (the 4 seed). That said, New Mexico State has a tough quarterfinal draw against the 7 seed, Fresno State. Fresno State only went 3-11 in the WAC, but they've been playing well the past few weeks and took both Nevada and New Mexico State to overtime in the past two weeks (they lost both, though). If there's a dark horse in the WAC tournament, you can argue that it's Utah State. They are better than their record, and Stew Morrill has had such tremendous success in WAC tournaments (they've made the title game in five of the last six seasons) that you can never count him out until he actually loses. But I think New Mexico State is the best team, and I don't think that their draw is any tougher than Nevada's draw. They're my pick to win.

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