Monday, March 10, 2014

2014 Conference Tournament Previews: Major Conferences

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.

AAC:
The AAC is a great demonstration of how bad we are at intuitively rating conferences. The AAC has five ranked teams in the polls right now, which is the most of any conference, and a full half of the teams in the league. We have fawning articles like this one talking about what this says about the incredible depth of the league. Yet here's the thing: The AAC isn't that good. In fact, both Sagarin and Pomeroy rate it behind the SEC.

How can this be? Two reasons. First, the bottom half of the AAC is terrible, and there are a whole lot of easy wins to be had. Second, the Top 25 polls are awful. For example: whether your computer rating is measuring resumes or team quality, Memphis is right around 40th, yet they're in the Top 20 of both human polls. To give you some stats to think about: Memphis and Georgia had nearly identical in-conference strength of schedule, both teams went 12-6, and Memphis did it with a +0.07 PPP while Georgia was at +0.05. So both teams played with nearly identical levels of play over the last ten weeks. Yet Georgia is generally considered a joke while Memphis is generally considered a Top 20 team that is a Final Four sleeper. How does that make objective sense?

Anyway, the league is till going to very likely get those five NCAA Tournament teams in, and those teams deserve to get in. Just saying, the league isn't as good as the media is treating it. With no bubble implications, which team is the favorite? It has to be a Louisville team that statistically is far better than every other team. Their +0.24 PPP in conference play was dominant, with Cincinnati second best at only +0.12 PPP. The Sagarin PREDICTOR, for example, rates Louisville the second best team in the country and doesn't have another AAC team in the Top 25. Pomeroy has Cincinnati inside the Top 25, but still way back of Louisville. And ironically, "losing" the coin toss to determine the top seed was helpful, as the clear third best team in the league (UConn) is the 4 seed. This means Louisville has an easier path to the title game than Cincinnati.

Is it possible we can see a bid stealer out of the AAC? Anything is possible... but not really. The best of the rest is Houston. They were 6th in the league in efficiency margin and have won four of five, including an upset of Memphis. And they nearly won at SMU a few weeks ago also. They're playing decent basketball. But realistically, the champion is going to come from the five NCAA Tournament teams, and the fairly heavy favorite is Louisville.

ACC:
The ACC is the only league with three teams still seriously contending for a 1 seed, though none control their own destiny. If Florida, Arizona and Villanova win their conference tournaments, it's pretty clear that they'll all join Wichita State as 1 seeds. But if one of those teams slips up (particularly Villanova, since Florida and Arizona will still likely earn 1 seeds even if they fail to win their respective tournaments), Virginia, Syracuse and Duke will all be in the discussion... if they can win the ACC tournament.

The four favorites to win the ACC tournament are pretty clear: the four teams to earn a bye to the quarterfinals, which include the three teams discussed above and a North Carolina squad that just ended a 12 game winning streak. Who has the easiest schedule of the four? I think it has to be Syracuse. If all of the favorites win in the opening rounds, Syracuse will have easily the softest quarterfinal opponent. But if the top four seeds end up as the four semifinalists, I think I have to give the edge to Duke. In my opinion, Duke is the ever-so-slightly best team in the ACC (Virginia had a better PPP differential in conference play, but Duke had a tougher schedule). Also, I think I'd rather play Syracuse than North Carolina right now.

Outside of the Big Four, who has the best chance to make a run in the ACC tournament? It has to be a Pittsburgh team that is much better than their resume. They're still ranked as the 20th best team in the country by both Sagarin and Pomeroy, despite only going 11-7 in ACC play. Another sleeper will be the winner of the Maryland/Florida State game. Those two teams actually finished ACC play 6th and 7th in efficiency margin, despite being seeded 8th and 9th. Either of those teams will give Virginia difficulty in the quarterfinals.

Want a deep sleeper that won't win the title but could steal a couple of games? Boston College. They were too talented to be this bad, and they've been playing better basketball over the last few weeks. And despite appearing like a big underdog in a hypothetical second round game against 6 seed Clemson, the reality is that BC's -0.05 PPP in conference play nearly matches Clemson's -0.03 PPP. But in the end, the ACC title is very likely to go to one of the top four seeds, and I give the edge to Duke.

Big East:
The Big East has been weirdly underrated this season... though I guess the reasons they're underrated shouldn't be shocking. They're underrated for the same reason the AAC is overrated: too much focus on the top of the league and Top 25 polls. The Big East only has two certain NCAA Tournament teams, but every team other than DePaul is in the Pomeroy Top 100 (for comparison, every AAC team not currently in the Top 25 polls is out of the Pomeroy Top 100). That makes this a very balanced league with a very wide open tournament. A whole lot of teams can come into the Big East tournament seriously thinking that they can win.

There has been talk of the Big East only getting two NCAA Tournament teams, and I just disagree there. Neither St. John's, Providence, Georgetown, Xavier or Marquette is safely in the NCAA Tournament yet, but those teams can't all flame out in the Big East tournament. Somebody is going to win a game or two, and that team will go Dancing. A really great Bubble Battle is already set up for the quarterfinals between St. John's and Providence. The loser of that game is in big trouble, but the winner should be in really good shape for an at-large. That Xavier/Marquette game also has significant bubble implications, though I don't think that single win will be enough to get Marquette an at-large. They'll probably need to make the Big East title game.

Villanova controls their own destiny for a 1 seed if they can win the Big East tournament, and as the regular season champion and the leader in conference efficiency ratings you'd think they'd be the favorite here. But it's hard to look past how badly Creighton stomped them the two times they played. Obviously Creighton's shooting was fluky in those two games, but there are personnel reasons why Villanova matches up badly with Creighton.

Outside of the two obvious favorites, who is the most likely team to steal the Big East tournament title? It has to be St. John's. The Johnnies have been playing better basketball as the season has gone on and finished third in the league in the computers and in efficiency margin. And, of course, they'll be playing on their home court. Any sleepers beyond that? I suppose Xavier, just because they have a relatively soft path to the semifinals. But any of the bubble teams are good enough at their best to take this tournament.

In the end, I think the favorite has to be Creighton. They have an easier path to the title game, and so far have utterly dominated Villanova head-to-head.

Big Ten:
There are all sorts of important issues to get resolved in the Big Ten tournament. First of all, Michigan and Wisconsin will be able to get on the periphery of the 1 seed debate if they win the Big Ten tournament. Second of all, Iowa needs a win to avoid having to sweat out Selection Sunday, while Nebraska and Minnesota are right on the bubble and desperately need at least one more win (Minnesota might need two).

Michigan State has been my favorite to win the Big Ten title all season long. They are the most talented team, and they managed to lead the Big Ten in efficiency margin despite basically never being healthy all season long. Right now they're the healthiest they've been in months. But as the 3 seed, they've got a significantly tougher draw than Michigan or Wisconsin. Unless Iowa falls to Northwestern, the Hawkeyes are going to be a very scary quarterfinal opponent. Iowa has had horrible luck in close games, but they're ranked one of the 20 best teams in the country by both Sagarin and Pomeroy, and their +0.07 PPP in conference play is nearly identical to Big Ten regular season champ Michigan (+0.10 PPP).

The easiest draw in the Big Ten tournament has to belong to Michigan, who will likely have the softest quarterfinal opponent and have the benefit of Michigan State, Wisconsin and Iowa all being stuck on the other side of the draw. That said, their most likely semifinal opponent is Ohio State, so don't pencil them into the title game quite yet.

Who's the sleeper? I don't know if Iowa counts, but if they do then they're my pick. The Hawkeyes are way overdue for some good luck in a close game. Want a deeper sleeper? How about Penn State? The Nittany Lions have slid up around 30 spots in the Pomeroy ratings during their 6-6 finish to Big Ten play. They're a feisty team to play, have a great shot to ruin Minnesota's bubble hopes on Thursday, and they always seem to play Wisconsin close. In the end, though, I think you have to choose Michigan, Michigan State or Wisconsin as your favorite. You can't go wrong with any of those three.

Big 12:
We just found out earlier this evening that Joel Embiid would miss the Big 12 tournament, which really puts the tourney into flux. But first, the at-large possibilities for the league: Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas and Iowa State are safe for the NCAA Tournament, while Baylor, Kansas State and Oklahoma State still have work to do. All three of those latter teams will still have a decent chance even if they go one-and-done, but with a strengthening bubble I don't think any of those teams want to leave their fate in the hands of the Selection Committee. West Virginia can't be counted out either, though they probably need to get to the Big 12 title game to earn an at-large bid.

Kansas was easily the best team in the Big 12 this season (what else is new?), but they are far from a sure thing. Even before we knew Embiid would be out, Kansas had to be scared about Oklahoma State sitting there as an 8 seed. A team like Texas has a significantly softer path to the Big 12 title game than Kansas.

It's almost difficult to pick a sleeper in the Big 12 because Oklahoma State and Baylor are so obvious. Both teams are stuck playing in the first round, but both are playing really good basketball right now. Texas Tech is the strongest second-to-worst-team in any conference in the nation, but it's hard to project much of a run for them with Oklahoma State in the first round and then Kansas waiting in the quarterfinals.

In the end, Kansas still has to be the favorite to take the Big 12 tournament, but they're not a heavy favorite. The Big 12 tournament is awfully balanced, and should have some really fun, competitive games.

Pac-12:
Arizona has played better than expected since losing Brandon Ashley. The level of play has dropped off a little bit, but not much. They're still very much in control of their own destiny for a 1 seed, which they'll lock up by winning the Pac-12 tournament. Even if they lose in the Pac-12 title game they'll still have a strong 1 seed case. After them, the only certain NCAA Tournament team is UCLA, with Oregon looking safe as well. Then we basically have the rest of the conference on the bubble: Stanford, Colorado, Arizona State, California and Utah. At least one or two of those teams will get in the NCAA Tournament, but none will feel safe without a win. Utah is going to need at least two wins (the second would have to be Arizona).

Who is the favorite? It has to be Arizona, though the potential draw of Utah in the quarterfinals will make that tougher. Utah has been horribly unlucky in close games this season (1-8 in games decided by four points or less) and actually finished fourth in the league in efficiency margin (ahead of the likes of Arizona State, Stanford, California and Colorado). Both Sagarin and Pomeroy rate them one of the 35 best teams in the nation. Throw in the fact that Utah will be playing to force their way into the NCAA Tournament and that's a heck of an 8 seed for Arizona to get stuck with.

Do we have any sleepers? I guess it depends how you define a sleeper. Oregon, Utah, Stanford and Colorado all play in the first round and are all dangerous, with Oregon probably being the most dangerous of the bunch. I also like how Washington has played late in the season, though their difficult draw probably will prevent them from going far. The most interesting first round game is probably between Oregon and Oregon State. Oregon State is underrated (their -0.03 PPP in conference play is not significantly different from Colorado's -0.02 PPP, for example), and in-state rivalry games are always fun.

In the end, Arizona has to be considered the favorite, but the fact that almost every team in the entire conference has a real shot to win a couple of games should make this a really fun tournament to watch.

SEC:
Welp. It hasn't exactly been a year of glory for the SEC. Florida absolutely dominated the SEC, going 18-0 and finishing a full six games clear of the rest of the league. Unless they go one-and-done in the SEC tourney, they should lock up a 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament. That said, let's not hand them the SEC tourney trophy just yet. First of all, Tennessee and Kentucky are both teams that are better than their record. It's weird to call a Kentucky team underrated with all the media hype they usually get, and they brought all this ridicule on themselves with the dumb "40-0" stuff preseason, but they only went 2-7 this season in games decided by six points or less. Tennessee was even more unlucky, going 0-5. Those are clearly the top two contenders to Florida in the SEC tournament.

Florida and Kentucky are the only two safe NCAA Tournament teams in the SEC, and there is a real chance of this being a two-bid league. That said, if Arkansas and Tennessee play in the SEC quarterfinals, the winner of the game is very likely going to earn the third SEC bid.

Outside of the teams already mentioned, which sleeper team has the best chance to go on a run? I guess the answer has to be Ole Miss, simply because their draw is easy (Vanderbilt or Mississippi State in their first game, followed by Georgia in the quarterfinals) and because Marshall Henderson always has a chance of going nuts in a game. Aside from draw, I like the way Alabama has been playing down the stretch, winning three of five. That potential quarterfinal match-up against Kentucky will be a tough one, but they nearly won at Rupp just a week ago.

Florida is obviously the SEC tournament favorite, but both Tennessee and Kentucky have real shots to take them out. An SEC title game between Florida and Kentucky could be really high level basketball.

2 comments:

Daniel Tappa said...

Jeff,

I know I have been on your case regarding a few of your projections, but your conference tournament previews are really well done. Bracketmatrix.com brought me to your blog for the first time a few weeks ago, and I have been coming back ever since. The content/analysis of this blog is impressive, you put in a lot of work and it shows.

ervinsm said...

Here is the only conceivable way BE gets 2 bids.

Xu lose to marq. 49%

StJ > Prov. 72%

StJ<Nova,butler or shall in semis. 50% which is pretty generous in St johns favor.

GT < Depaul or Creighton.
80%

.8×.5×.49×.72 = ~14%

But even with that, it wouldn't guarantee that XU still wouldn't get an at large nor would it guarantee marq didn't steal an auto bid.

So yes obv its a long shot, but I think it's more likely than you may think given XU could be punished for the Stainbrook injury.