Sunday, March 09, 2014

2014 Conference Tournament Previews: Part IV

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:
The Atlantic Ten was not a winner in the latest round of conference realignment, but it was still a strong league this year. And with a top-heavy league, they're in line for five or possibly even six NCAA Tournament teams. At this point, St. Louis, VCU and UMass all look to be safely in the Field of 68. George Washington is also in good shape, though they'll want to avoid a one-and-done performance to be sure. Then there are two bubble teams: Dayton and St. Joseph's. St. Joe's had been solidly in the Field of 68 for a couple of weeks now, but with the bad loss to La Salle they are right back on the bubble with a likely quarterfinal game against Dayton. If that game comes to pass, it will likely be a play-out game. The winner will be in solid shape while the loser will likely be heading to the NIT.

So who are the favorites to win the Atlantic Ten? You have to like either Saint Louis or VCU, of course. Those have been the two best teams all season long, and they've played a couple of great games against each other. Last season, Saint Louis was VCU's kryptonite because of their ability to hang onto the ball and prevent VCU's transition offense, but this season VCU is more well-rounded and has proven that they can beat a team like St. Louis.

Obviously the other two teams with byes to the quarterfinals (St. Joe's and George Washington) are serious contenders as well, though both will have difficult quarterfinal match-ups. St. Joe's could have that aforementioned game against Dayton, while George Washington is drawn to potentially play UMass, a team that might be better than them (UMass certainly has the stronger resume right now).

Who's the sleeper outside of the six teams in the NCAA Tournament or on the bubble? The obvious answer would seem to be Richmond, since they were also making a run at the bubble until the last two weeks, and they're the only other team to reach .500 in league play. But I'm going with St. Bonaventure, a team that was better than their record all season long and actually had a better efficiency margin in conference play than either Dayton or Richmond. They'll be playing La Salle in their opening game, and if they win they'll get Saint Louis in the quarterfinals. The odds of them winning four straight games are pretty low, but they could gives the Billikens a scare.

In the end, I think the favorite has to be either Saint Louis or VCU. They were the two best teams, and they'll have the two easiest draws. VCU has proven much more able to beat a team like Saint Louis this season than last season, but they'd still much prefer to play another type of team. Even if you think VCU is the slightly better team on paper, I think the match-ups make Saint Louis the favorite.

Big Sky:
Weber State wasn't dominant by any stretch of the imagination, but they were the clear best team and they finished two full games clear of the pack in the final Big Sky standings. They lead the conference in eFG% offense and defense, and are both deadly behind the arc and good at preventing threes. They'll be difficult for any team to take down, and also have the only bye to the Big Sky semifinals. Throw in the fact that this tournament will be held on their home court and the fact that the bracket gets re-seeded after the quarterfinals (making it more likely that they'll have the softest semifinal opponent) means that Weber State is the clear favorite to take the Big Sky tournament title.

If Weber State falls, which team is most likely to take the Big Sky? Well, North Dakota is the 2 seed, but they were actually 7th in conference play in efficiency margin. The second best team in the computers is Montana, while Northern Colorado was actually the team with the second best efficiency margin. Both Montana and Northern Colorado have beaten Weber State once this season, but the two teams are going in opposite directions. Northern Colorado has lost 8 of 12, and have been sliding hard in the computer ratings. Montana, on the other hand, is playing their best basketball of the season right now, having won 5 of 6 and 9 of 12.

If there's a sleeper team in the Big Sky, it's Portland State. They are second in the conference in defensive turnover rate and third in defensive 3PA/FGA ratio, which makes them ideally suited to stop a Weber State offense that turns the ball over a lot and relies on hitting threes. In fact, Portland State just beat Weber State a few days ago, albeit on their home court. Portland State is playing their best basketball of the season right now, having won five of six, and they can definitely make a run. But the favorite to win the Big Sky tournament has to be Weber State.

Big West:
The Big West Conference was a tough one to figure out early in the regular season, but as things wore on a hierarchy began to make itself clear. UC Irvine and UC Santa Barbara fairly clearly established themselves as the two best teams. Both are ranked among the 100 best teams in the country by both Sagarin and Pomeroy, while no other team is particularly close. The two teams finished well clear in the conference standings and efficiency margin, with Long Beach State a distant third in both.

UC Irvine and UC Santa Barbara appear to be fairly even teams, and they split their season series, but they play very different styles. UC Santa Barbara is the best shooting team in the conference (lead in eFG% and 3P%) and are powered by Ken Pomeroy's favorite player, Alan Williams. UC Irvine has the best defense in the conference, leading the league in defensive 2P%, 3P% and eFG% defensive, as well as block rate, due primarily to 7'6" monster Mamadou Ndiaye.

The third and fourth best teams in the league, by any metric you prefer, are some combination of Long Beach State and Hawaii. If you want a sleeper, you have to look at a Cal State Northridge squad that was the only team in the conference to beat both UC Irvine and UC Santa Barbara this season, and which also beat Long Beach State and Hawaii for good measure. But Cal State Northridge is a team very dependent on getting to the line (they led the Big West in FTRate and FT% and are 5th in the nation in percentage of scoring from free throws), and so they have been far better at home than on the road, where they won't get the same calls. They've been just 2-14 in road games this season.

So in the end, we're likely looking at a UC Irvine vs UC Santa Barbara showdown. Offense vs Defense. My pick for a while now has been UC Santa Barbara, so I'll stick with that, but you can't go too wrong either way.

The story of the Southland this season, of course, is Stephen F. Austin. The Lumberjacks went 18-0 in conference play and 29-2 overall, with one of those two losses coming on the road at Texas. Obviously they're the favorite to win the auto bid, but let's say that they don't for a second: Can Stephen F Austin earn an at-large bid? The obvious answer seems to be "no" since they are already 67th in RPI with only one RPI Top 100 win (Towson), and the Selection Committee tends to be hostile to mid-major teams like Stephen F Austin that have soft non-conference schedules.

That said, the record for wins by a team to miss the NCAA Tournament is 28 (done twice, both by Coastal Carolina, in 2009-10 and 2010-11), and Stephen F Austin has 29 before even tipping the tourney off. If they fall in the title game they'll be 30-3. With a Sagarin PURE_ELO currently 23rd (it will fall if they lose, but still will be bubbly) and with two more wins than any other team that's missed the NCAA Tournament, they'll at least warrant serious consideration, even if they end up losing out.

With a bye to the semifinals, Stephen F Austin is a heavy favorite to earn the auto bid anyway. Texas A&M Corpus Christi earned the other bye into the semifinals and finished second in the league in efficiency margin, so if Stephen F Austin goes down, Texas A&M-CC is the most likely team to steal the bid. The other contenders are the two teams with byes to the quarterfinals - Sam Houston State and Northwestern State - who according to Sagarin and Pomeroy are both better than Texas A&M-CC.

If there's a sleeper, I'll go with an Oral Roberts team that finished third in the league in efficiency margin and won six of nine down the stretch. But realistically, Stephen F Austin is the heavy favorite, and I think I speak for all bracketologists when I say that we're going to be rooting for Stephen F Austin just to make our jobs easier on Selection Sunday.

Sun Belt:
The standings suggest that Georgia State ran away with the Sun Belt a bit more than they really did. They went 17-1 and finished a full five games clear of second place (Western Kentucky), but they were 7-1 in games decided by single digits, and their efficiency margin (+0.19 PPP) was easily best in the league, but not as high as you'd expect for a 17-1 team. So if this were an even bracket where everybody had similar schedules, one could easily see Georgia State go down. But that isn't what the Sun Belt tournament is. The Sun Belt is one of the leagues with a bracket very weighted toward the top teams, and Georgia State (along with Western Kentucky) starts in the semifinals.

Who is Georgia State most scared to play in the semifinals? Not Troy, despite the fact that they were the one team to knock them off this season. Georgia State's scariest opponent has to be Arkansas State, who took Georgia State down to the final possession in both games this season (one went to overtime). They were also second in the league in efficiency margin, so they're a particularly strong 4 seed. The other serious threat is the 3 seed on the other side of the bracket: Louisiana-Lafayette, who are rated by the computers the second best team in the conference.

A sleeper team in the Sun Belt is probably Texas-Arlington, who took Georgia State to overtime in Atlanta, and have won 5 of 8 down the stretch. But in the end, Georgia State is the fairly heavy favorite.

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