Monday, March 03, 2014

2014 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:
Stony Brook looked like the team to beat in the America East early on in the regular season, beating Vermont at home and opening up 7-0 in conference play. But Vermont improved dramatically over the course of the season, winning their final ten games, including a 16 point win over Stony Brook. Over the last two months they've climbed from 169th to 60th in the Pomeroy ratings, and finished conference play with an awfully impressive +0.23 PPP efficiency margin. Their poor play early in the season will cost them a decent seed in the NCAA Tournament should they get there, but they'll enter the America East tourney as the favorite.

The draws shouldn't matter too much. Vermont and Stony Brook were far and away the two best teams in the America East this past season, and the expectation is that they'll end up playing for the auto bid. Vermont will be at home if that game comes to pass, though.

The best dark horse candidate is probably an Albany team that is considered by the computers (and by efficiency margin) the third best team in the conference. They'll head into the America East tourney off an encouraging five point road loss at Stony Brook. They'll have to get by a Vermont team that swept them pretty convincingly, however. So in the end we're back to Vermont being the clear America East favorite.

The Colonial had another down season. Realignment certainly hasn't treated them well. But don't think that the winner of the Colonial can't win a game in the NCAA Tournament, particularly since the winner will likely end up as a 13 seed. Delaware jumped out to an 11-0 start to the season, but Towson made a late run and ended up only a game back in the final standings. The two teams split their regular season series, and look to be fairly evenly matched. Towson is definitely the team that has been playing better over the last few weeks, however, and they also had the best efficiency margin in conference play (+0.11 PPP vs +0.08 PPP for Delaware).

If you look at the Sagarin and Pomeroy ratings, they'll tell you that Drexel (the 4 seed) is basically equivalent to Delaware and Towson... but I'm not sure I totally buy that. Drexel was playing much better basketball early in the season. The Damion Lee and Kazembe Abif season-ending injuries are certainly a factor, but Drexel's computer numbers have been on the decline for a couple of months now, and if you want to go by efficiency margin the third best team in the CAA is not Drexel but the 3 seed William & Mary.

There are no real dark horses in the Colonial, so I think we have to focus most on the draw. Neither Delaware or Towson has a huge advantage over each other there, but I think I'd rather match up with Drexel than William & Mary in the semis. The Tribe can shoot the ball really well (top ten in the nation in 3P% and eFG%), and are a serious contender to win this tournament. So while you can make an argument for several teams to win the Colonial, I personally give a slight edge to Delaware.

The MAAC has been a fun four team race all season long. Manhattan was the preseason favorite and probably has the most talented roster from top to bottom; Canisius jumped out to a 10-2 record and led the conference standings for a couple of weeks and has the league's best player (Billy Baron); Iona was the team that ended up winning the overall regular season title; And you can't discount a Quinnipiac team that won seven straight games in February to steal third place.

Any metric you look at has Iona and Manhattan as the two best teams in the league, so it makes sense that they're the top two seeds. Nobody would consider Canisius a significant underdog, however. Billy Baron is an incredibly prolific scorer, and he can win a game by himself. Iona has the misfortune of the tiebreaker that sent Canisius to the 4 seed, and will make them the most likely semifinal opponent for the Gaels.

If there's a sleeper team outside the top four, it's got to be fifth seed Siena. The Saints are playing their best basketball of the season right now, and enter the MAAC tournament with a four game winning streak that includes victories over Manhattan and Quinnipiac. And their +0.02 PPP efficiency margin in conference play is not significantly different from Quinnipiac's +0.03 PPP. So they might be able to do Iona a favorite by taking out Canisius in the quarterfinals.

In the end, I think the favorite has to be either Iona or Manhattan. If those two teams play in the title game, Iona has the vastly more explosive offense, and it's hard to trust a team in a tournament situation that can't hit free throws (Manhattan's 62.3% free throw shooting in MAAC play is a league worst). So I think the narrow edge has to go to Iona, but the MAAC should have one of the more fun and wide open conference tournaments.

Missouri Valley:
If you want to know my opinion on Wichita State, you can read this long piece. In short, Wichita State is probably a bit overrated (I wouldn't rate them as one of the ten best teams in the country), but they're a very good team and their undefeated season is incredibly impressive. If they win Arch Madness and are undefeated on Selection Sunday, they will earn a 1 seed and they'll deserve it. Their schedule hasn't been great, but it's tough enough that they have what is probably the best resume in the nation.

Of course, let's not hand Wichita State the Valley's auto bid quite yet. The top contender in the standings all season long was Indiana State, and the Sycamores played Wichita State tough just a few weeks ago, taking the game down to the final minute. Interestingly, the team second in the league in efficiency margin and in the computers is not Indiana State, but Northern Iowa. The Panthers come in to Arch Madness on a roll, too, having won five of six, including a road game at Indiana State. Those two teams might play in a semifinal, and the winner will be able to give Wichita State trouble in the title game.

Are there any other teams to worry about besides those three? Missouri State, the 4 seed, has probably been the fourth best team in the Valley over the course of the season, but the sleeper team (in my opinion) is Southern Illinois. The Salukis started out 2-6 in conference play, but won seven of ten down the stretch and pushed all the way to fourth in the league in efficiency margin. That said, they're the 6 seed, which means that they'll go against Northern Iowa in the quarterfinals.

Basically, Wichita State got a generous draw here, and should not be seriously tested before the title game. But whichever team escapes from the bottom half of the draw will be capable of knocking them off and will be on a roll. So we could still end up with a stolen auto bid out of the Valley.

This year's Davidson team isn't a vintage Bob McKillop squad, and they were a disappointing 3-10 against Division I teams in non-conference play. But they dominated the SoCon with a 15-1 record and a +0.15 PPP efficiency margin in league play. They're a strong offensive team and they were clearly the best team in the league.

Who is the second best team in the SoCon? It's kind of a log-jam. Chattanooga has the second best record, but the computers view Elon and Wofford as slightly better teams. Wofford finished second in efficiency margin in league play, but not by a large enough margin to be significant. You can argue for any of those three teams as Davidson's top contender. Elon was the team that knocked off Davidson during the regular season, though the win came in overtime and way back on January 16th, so I'm not sure entirely how much that matters.

So while you can make a case for several teams as Davidson's top contender (Western Carolina probably deserves to be in the conversation as well), Davidson has to be the prohibitive favorite. The question is whether they can manage to get a winnable game in the Round of 64 if they get there.

If they make the NCAA Tournament, North Dakota State is a team that is going to get some buzz as a potential Cinderella. They have the league's best player in Taylor Braun, and dominated the Summit all season long. Their 12-2 record and their +0.17 PPP differential in conference play are both awfully impressive. They're also the only team that gets a bye into the semifinals, so no matter how you look at it, they're the heavy favorite.

Who can challenge North Dakota State? The 2 seed is an IPFW team that actually beat North Dakota State back on January 9th, but the top challenger has to be the 3 seed, South Dakota State. The Jackrabbits finished the season strong, winning eight of their last nine and finishing second in the league in efficiency margin and in the computers. Throw in the fact that they'll be playing less than an hour away from their home arena in Brookings and they might have the closest thing to a homecourt advantage that any team has here.

One other team that you absolutely can't sleep on is Denver. The Pioneers beat North Dakota State and had a better efficiency differential (and are better rated in the computers) than IPFW. The concern for Denver is that they're not the same team away from their at-altitude home arena. They were 5-2 at home but only 3-4 on the road in conference play this season. Still, they'll be a solid challenger to North Dakota State if they end up playing in the semifinals. But North Dakota State is the league's best team, has the league's best player, and has the league's only bye to the semifinals. They're the unquestioned favorite.

The WCC is deeper than it's ever been in recent memory, but that's actually probably a problem for the league. The WCC has had at least three teams outside the Pomeroy Top 200 for each of the past seven seasons. This season? They had none. Portland was rated 108th in the Pomeroy ratings yet only finished 7-11. The league was really, really solid from top to bottom. The problem is, what the media and casual fans see are more losses for the top teams. Nobody cares if you beat the 120th best team in the 190th best team, even though there really is a significant difference. So this is why Gonzaga has still not quite totally locked up their at-large bid, why BYU is only on the bubble, and why St. Mary's is basically out of at-large contention. Each of these teams simply have more losses than they'd have in last year's league.

Throw in the fact that the WCC has changed to a more balanced bracket (the top two seeds used to get a free pass to the semifinals but no longer do), and this might be the most interesting WCC tournament ever. Gonzaga is the best team and they're the favorite, but the odds of them winning the tournament have to be under 50%. This will be a wide open tournament, and it should be fun to watch.

Obviously BYU is playing to work their way into an at-large bid, and they and St. Mary's will be serious contenders to win the tournament... but who else should we have our eyes on? It's got to be San Francisco. The Dons got the 3 seed (St. Mary's is fourth), and they earned it. Their +0.06 PPP differential in league play is better than St. Mary's had (and awfully close to BYU's +0.07), and they're rated around the 80-85th best team in the country by both Pomeroy and Sagarin. It won't be a stunning upset if they take out BYU, a result that would potentially send the Cougars to the NIT.

If there's a sleeper team it's got to be that Portland squad I talked about in the first paragraph. They're better than their record (1-5 in games decided by six points or less in conference play), which is why their computer numbers are so solid. They will potentially be a rough quarterfinal opponent for BYU. In the end, Gonzaga is the favorite, but don't be stunned if BYU, St. Mary's San Francisco or even Portland manages to steal a bid. If you're a bubble team in another league? You're definitely rooting for the Zags.

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