Sunday, March 09, 2014

2014 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.

Conference USA:
Conference USA has certainly not been a beneficiary of conference realignment, and it's very likely going to be a one-bid league again, but that doesn't mean that there aren't good teams that can win a game in the NCAA Tournament if they get there. In fact, there are five Conference USA teams currently in the Pomeroy Top 85. Louisiana Tech is rated the best of the bunch, but there isn't a whole lot of gap between them. The one team with a realistic at-large chance is Southern Miss, with an RPI of 36th and a Sagarin PURE_ELO of 47th. But the lack of any quality wins (North Dakota State, Louisiana Tech and Georgia State are their only Top 100 victories) will probably relegate them to the NIT if they don't win the auto bid.

Befitting a league with such evenly matched teams at the top, there was in fact a four-way tie for first place. Don't ask me to explain the tiebreaker, but Louisiana Tech got the 1 seed, with Southern Miss somehow only getting the 4 seed, meaning that the two most prominent teams this season will potentially have to play in the semis instead of the finals. In fact, with UTEP (the team leading the standings for much the season, and the team playing on their home court) earning the 5 seed, Southern Miss really got screwed more than any team by the draw. Even if you think they're the best team in Conference USA, you probably can't make them the favorite to win.

The team with the easiest draw to the title game is, without question, Tulsa. Their most likely quarterfinal opponent is a Tulane team that somehow went 8-8 in the league despite being outscored by 0.09 PPP And so because of this, Tulsa has to be among the two or three favorites to win the auto bid. In the end, I'm still picking Louisiana Tech, because I think they're the best team and would be fairly significantly favored over Tulsa in a theoretical title game (5-6 points). But don't be at all surprised to see a whole bunch of media attention on Danny Manning if Tulsa can pull this off.

The MAC was actually improved this season. They're not back to the glory days of a decade ago, but they were rated better than Conference USA, for example. The problem is that the league didn't have a dominant team. Six teams are currently between 100th and 140th in the Pomeroy ratings, but none better than that. The result of all this means the MAC won't earn an at-large bid and won't likely have an NCAA Tournament Cinderella, but should have a wild, wide open conference tournament.

The top two seeds earned byes into the semifinals, which gives an edge to Western Michigan and Toledo, but they're just the start of the contenders here. Buffalo and Akron have byes to the quarterfinals and are both serious contenders. The strongest Tournament resume in the league probably belongs to Ohio, and they're the 5 seed. Eastern Michigan actually finished third in the league in efficiency margin, and they're the 6 seed. And we certainly have to consider the 7 seed Northern Illinois, who have won 7 of 12 down the stretch, including wins over Toledo and Eastern Michigan.

Who has the easiest draw of any of these teams? Toledo probably has a slightly easier draw than Western Michigan. Buffalo probably has it easier than Akron, of the two teams that have the byes to the quarterfinals. But this tournament is totally wide open. Any of seven teams is a very serious contender.  I don't even see how one can pick a real favorite.

The MEAC has been a putrid league this season. They are just barely worse than the SWAC in the computer ratings, and they are dead last of all 32 conferences in turnover rate, eFG% and defensive rebounding percentage, probably my three favorite categories of basketball fundamentals (i.e. coaching). It just wasn't a fun league to watch. At all. But the good news for the MEAC is that for one-bid leagues, it really doesn't matter how bad the bottom of the league is. In the end, you'll be judged on one team only, and the MEAC has one pretty good team: North Carolina Central.

NC Central thoroughly dominated the league, finishing with the best offensive and defensive efficiencies in conference play, and with a huge +0.25 PPP differential in conference play (Hampton was second best, at only +.10 PPP). Their Pomeroy rating is 99th and they're actually all the way up to 58th in the Sagarin PURE_ELO, With only 1 RPI Top 100 win, it's hard to see a 13 seed in their future, but they could easily earn a 14 seed, which means they could get a winnable Round of 64 game.

How big of a favorite in NC Central in the MEAC tournament? A pretty big one. They get the only bye into the quarterfinals, and shouldn't be seriously tested until at least the semifinals. If they do somehow go down, who is the next best team? It's got to be Hampton, who finished second in the standings, in efficiency margin, and in Pomeroy and the Sagarin PREDICTOR. Savannah State is probably the toughest challenge otherwise, finishing third in the league in efficiency margin, and taking NC Central to overtime in their own gym less than a week ago. They're a potential semifinal opponent for NC Central. But while it's not a formality, NC Central is the heavy favorite.

Mountain West:
It's been a down season for the Mountain West. UNLV, Boise State, Utah State and Wyoming will all be disappointed with their seasons, I think. San Diego State and New Mexico will make the NCAA Tournament, but unless there's a bid thief the league will likely only get two teams into the NCAA Tournament. Those two teams are also obviously the two heavy favorites heading into the Mountain West tournament, but who else can contend?

UNLV, Nevada and Wyoming earned the three other byes to the quarterfinals, and so the top contender probably has to come from that bunch. Of those, UNLV has been the team playing best, finishing third in the conference in efficiency margin. A concern for them, however, is the status of Roscoe Smith and Bryce Dejean-Jones. Smith missed the last two games with a concussion, though it seems likely that he'll be back for the Mountain West tournament. Dejean-Jones was suspended for bad behavior, and it remains unclear how long he'll be out.

The dark horse in the Mountain West tournament has to be Fresno State. They started the season a brutal 8-13 overall and 1-7 in conference play, but have won 8 of 10 to finish the regular season and are playing really good basketball right now. They led the Mountain West in offensive turnover rate and free throw percentage, so they won't beat themselves and will be tough to overcome if they can get an early lead. If they beat Air Force on Wednesday, they could provide a scare to New Mexico on Thursday.

In the end, the most likely title game match-up is San Diego State-New Mexico. The two teams have similar quality draws to the title game, and San Diego State has been slightly better in the computers, though New Mexico finished with the slightly better efficiency margin in conference play. I'm sticking with San Diego State as the favorite, but you can make a solid case for either team.

The SWAC probably should have their automatic bid revoked for this season. It's getting embarrassing on so many levels. First of all, the SWAC was once against the worst conference in college basketball, as it's been for many years in a row at this point. Second of all, four of the SWAC's ten teams are ineligible for the NCAA Tournament. Third, the SWAC decided that having a six team tournament was stupid, so they're letting the ineligible teams into the conference tournament, creating a whole slew of problems.

For one thing, handing out the auto bid to the team "that makes it furthest" in the tournament is wildly unfair since one of the ineligible teams is also by far the best team in the league (Southern). Thus the probability is really high that the team that earns the auto bid will simply have had the fortune of being on the other half of the draw. Of the five highest teams in the standings (and in efficiency margin) that are eligible for the auto bid, four got to end up on the other half of the draw. Alabama A&M drew the short straw, and they're likely going to miss the NCAA Tournament simply due to the draw. And if somehow we end up with two ineligible teams in the title game, the auto bid will go to the team that lost in the semifinals that was seeded higher. I kid you not.

So who's the favorite to win this debacle? Southern. Who's the most likely to earn the auto bid by losing to Southern in the title game? It's got to be either Texas Southern or Alabama State. Whoever wins is basically a certain to end up in a 16/16 play-in game. But really, remind me again why we can't revoke the SWAC's auto bid until they get their act together?

No conference has suffered from conference realignment than the WAC. The league has lost basically everybody. There are as many teams in this year's WAC that were also in last year's WAC (three) as were in last year's Great West Conference. We entered this season thinking New Mexico State would be far and away the best team in the league, and it was so. In fact, Utah Valley ended up coming significantly closer to New Mexico State than most thought preseason, but the WAC still had the largest gap of any league in the country in the Pomeroy ratings between the best and second best team.

Now that all said, New Mexico State actually isn't the top seed in the WAC tourney. Utah Valley won the tiebreak, and they're the top seed. Of course, New Mexico State outscored opponents by 0.21 PPP in conference play while Utah Valley was at +0.06 PPP.  But Utah Valley went 7-0 in conference games decided by 7 points or less while New Mexico State was 1-4. Does that 1 seed matter for Utah Valley? A bit. They do have a slightly easier draw. Interestingly, the next best efficiency margin in WAC play by a team in this tournament is Cal State Bakersfield, and they're the 6 seed, potentially getting New Mexico State in the semifinals (Grand Canyon actually finished third in the league in efficiency margin, but they're ineligible for the postseason).

The difference in draw difficulty is not significant, though, and New Mexico State will be a big favorite in a hypothetical title game rematch with Utah Valley (close to ten points), so they have to be viewed as the heavy favorite. They're also the only team in the league with a chance to avoid a 15/16 seed and to have a real chance to win a game in the NCAA Tournament.

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