Sunday, March 03, 2013

2013 Conference Tournament Previews: Part I

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
If there's one thing to watch for in the America East tournament, it's the first real national audience for Stony Brook freshman Jameel Warney. Warney was one of the bigger recruits to come through the America East in a while, and he has more lived up to the billing. He is physically on another level from the type of players that usually play in the America East, and as a true freshman has arguably been the conference's Player of the Year. And he will lead a Stony Brook team that won the outright regular season title, leads the conference in efficiency margin (+0.23 PPP), and is the highest rated team in both Pomeroy and Sagarin. Since they would have homecourt advantage in the America East title game, should they get there, there's no question that Stony Brook is the clear favorite.

Who can challenge Stony Brook? The second best team in the computers and efficiency margin is the #2 seed, Vermont. And Vermont did split with them head-to-head, with both teams winning their respective home games. They won that game by attacking the basket and getting to the free throw line. But that's also why I wouldn't pick Vermont to win this tournament. I never want to count on a road team getting a steady stream of free throw attempts. There isn't a real "sleeper" team here. The closest thing to one is probably the 4 seed, Albany. But in my opinion, it'll be a pretty big surprise if the America East tournament ends up anything other than Stony Brook beating Vermont in the title game.

Atlantic Sun
The Atlantic Sun isn't quite as relevant in the post-Belmont world,  but it does have two teams that could potentially make a run at an NCAA Tournament upset in Mercer and Florida Gulf Coast. Mercer was the team expected to take control of the Atlantic Sun after Belmont left, but Florida Gulf Coast has been the surprise with the win over Miami and close, competitive losses to Iowa State and St. John's.

Mercer ended up a game clear in the standings, and earned the 1 seed and will have homecourt advantage throughout the tournament. Head-to-head, the two teams played two very close games this season. Mercer won their home game in overtime, while Florida Gulf Coast won their home game by three points. Florida Gulf Coast's best skill is forcing turnovers and generating transition offense, so the key for Mercer will be hanging onto the ball and playing tough defense (they have the best half court defense in the conference).

Neither Mercer nor Florida Gulf Coast has been particularly dominant in conference play, so this will be the most competitive Atlantic Sun tournament since before the rise of Belmont. South Carolina Upstate (0-4 in games decided by five points or less) is underrated as the 5 seed, so look for them as a realistic sleeper. Stetson could make a run as a 3 seed, too. But in my opinion, Mercer is the best team and they have homecourt advantage, so they are the favorite.

Big South:
On Tuesday, at noon eastern time, Coastal Carolina and Liberty will play the first conference tournament game of the season. The first of approximately 300 really great games that makes Championship Week about as good as it gets in the annual sports calendar. This season, High Point and Charleston Southern are the two 1 seeds, and they both finished 12-4. The teams are very evenly matched, and played a close game head-to-head that Charleston Southern won at home.

Keep in mind that High Point is probably overrated. They lead the Big South in FT% and 3P% defense, and went 5-2 in games decided by six points or less. So if those two top seeds play, Charleston Southern should be considered the favorite. Also, with Gardner Webb and Coastal Carolina in their half of the bracket, High Point has the tougher draw. I mentioned Gardner Webb because they are likely the third best team in the conference and already played High Point tough at their place. But why did I mention Coastal Carolina, a team that only finished in fourth place in the Big South's South Division (yes, the Big South has a North and South division, which for a time gave hope that the Big East could stay together and have a Big East West Division)?

The reason is because Coastal Carolina is my sleeper. They finished fourth in the conference in efficiency margin and in both Pomeroy and the Sagarin PREDICTOR. On top of that, they will be at home for the Big South tournament, and have the frustration of being a top team that fell in an upset in the past two Big South tournaments. Being stuck in the first round means that they have the toughest road of any of the top contenders, but if somebody upsets the apple cart in the Big South, I'd bet it ends up being Coastal Carolina. But considering the overall draw? The favorite is Charleston Southern.

The post-Butler Horizon League is a whole lot more wide open, naturally. My pick preseason was Valparaiso, though they got off to a bit of a rocky start to the season. They were down a couple of key rotation players, and as the team got fully healthy they also found their stride. They won 14 of their final 16 games to end the regular season, and ended up winning the regular season title with a 13-3 record. That 1 seed means that the quarterfinals and semifinals will be played at Valparaiso, and the finals will be played at the home gym of whichever team is the highest seed, which would obviously be Valpo should they get there.

The other top contender, without question, is Detroit. Detroit finished only a game back in the standings and will (like Valparaiso) earn a bye all the way through to the semifinals. Only having to win two games to earn the auto bid is a huge advantage. Detroit also led the Horizon League in efficiency margin in conference play (+0.17 PPP, vs +0.14 PPP for Valparaiso). It's not a significant difference, but it means that Detroit would be a tough challenge head-to-head. A title game between those two teams would also be a really fun battle between two of the best players at any mid-major school anywhere: Detroit's Ray McCallum and Valparaiso's Ryan Broekhoff.

The most likely team to steal the auto bid from Valpo and Detroit is clearly Wright State, the only other team to get a bye. Wright State split their regular season series with Detroit, and will be a real challenge. Their ability to get out and score in transition is always a good formula for the mental pressure of Championship Week. If there's a sleeper team out of the first round, it's got to be Wisconsin-Green Bay. They swept Valparaiso this season, and also beat Detroit and Wright State. And they lead the Horizon in eFG% against, so you know that they'll keep games close. But the favorite to win has to be the home team, Valparaiso.

Missouri Valley:
Last season, the Missouri Valley earned two NCAA Tournament bids (Creighton and Wichita State), the first time the league had earned multiple bids in five seasons. It was a remarkable drought considering how strong the league was early in the last decade. As recently as 2006, the Missouri Valley earned four NCAA Tournament bids, with two making the Sweet 16. This season looks to be a repeat of last season, with Creighton and Wichita State in good shape for an at-large bid if they need it. Neither is a complete lock, though, so both need to avoid flaming out in the quarterfinals or they might end up sweating out Selection Sunday.

So who are the favorites? Obviously Creighton and Wichita State are the two top teams. They dominated the league and played two really fun games against each other. Creighton won the regular season title, had the better efficiency margin and is preferred by the computers, but they are a far thing from a solid favorite. I've talked all season long about how Creighton is pretty mediocre at everything but shooting, where they are arguably the best in the nation. Wichita State learned yesterday what Creighton can do when they shoot the lights out. But if Creighton goes cold, they could lose to any team in this conference.

One other thing to keep in mind is that Wichita State has a tougher draw than Creighton. I'd rather play Evansville or Indiana State (Creighton's potential semifinal opponents) than either Northern Iowa or Illinois State (Wichita State's potential semifinal opponents). And in my opinion, the winner of the UNI/ISU game is also the sleeper to make a run at the title. Northern Iowa has already beaten Wichita State head-to-head, and has a suffocating defense. So if somebody knocks off Creighton and Wichita State to steal an auto-bid, Northern Iowa is my pick. But the favorite has to be Creighton.

The NEC struggled this year. Without a single team standing out, the odds are that whichever team comes out with the auto bid will end up as a 16 seed. The best team over the course of the season was Robert Morris. They earned the 1 seed, and that guarantees them homecourt through (in the NEC, the games are spread out so that each game is held on the home court of the higher seed of that game). There was a three-way tie for second place, and the 2 seed went to Wagner, with LIU as the 3 and Bryant as the 4.

Bryant is an interesting team to consider. They got a lot of hype (okay, "a lot of hype" by NEC standards) as a surprise auto bid winner earlier this season, and actually finished second in the league in efficiency margin (+0.08). Bryant has also already won this season at Robert Morris, and did it by marching to the free throw line. Bryant finished first in the NEC in 2P% (despite having only two regulars over 6'4" and none over 6'8") and led the conference in FTRate, while Robert Morris finished dead last in defensive FTRate. The result was that even at Robert Morris, Bryant marched to the free throw line for 36 attempts. That will be the formula for victory if they meet in the semifinals. But while they're far from a heavy favorite, the favorite has to be the best team with every remaining game at their home gym: Robert Morris.

The moment I found out that Belmont would be joining the Ohio Valley, I was immediately excited for their first conference match-up, and the likely OVC title game that would be coming. If Belmont was still in the Atlantic Sun then both of those teams would be favored to win their respective conference tournaments, but only one will escape the OVC. And yes, as good as Belmont is, they just do not have a resume that can get them an at-large bid. So they will need to win the OVC tournament in order to haunt the dreams of whichever unfortunate 4 or 5 seed draws them in the Round of 64.

Murray State did win the one head-to-head game between these two teams, but it was very close and competitive, and on Murray State's home court, so I don't think we can draw too many conclusions from that. This tournament will be held in Nashville, which makes it a virtual home game for Belmont. Considering how much better Belmont was over the course of the season, in the computers and in OVC efficiency margin, Belmont has to be considered the heavy favorite.

Which team is most likely to break up a Belmont/Murray State title game? It has to be Eastern Kentucky. They finished second in the conference in efficiency margin, and already won at Murray State this season. If they get to the title game, keep in mind that Eastern Kentucky has the ability to take out Belmont's strength. They got swept head-to-head this season, but both games were competitive. And where Belmont thrives on turnovers and transition buckets, Eastern Kentucky led the OVC in offensive turnover rate. But the fact that Belmont might not even have to face Murray State in this tournament just emphasizes how surprising it would be if they fell in the OVC tournament.

It's a shame that CJ McCollum isn't going to play (I haven't heard it for certain, but he just got off crutches a few days ago, so I can't imagine he's going to play). Even without McCollum, playing, Bucknell and Lehigh played two awfully close games this season. Both teams won on the other's home court. In the end, though, Bucknell won the league and homecourt advantage throughout the Patriot League tournament, and they have a healthy Mike Muscala ready for one final trip to the NCAA Tournament. Bucknell is, without question, the Patriot League tournament favorite.

So who is the top team outside of Lehigh and Bucknell? Well, Lehigh isn't even the 2 seed - they actually finished in a tie for second and lost the tiebreak to Lafayette. Lafayette swept Lehigh head-to-head this season, and also beat Bucknell. They are the best offensive team in the conference. That said, they struggle to rebound the ball, and Muscala had 13 combined offensive rebounds in Bucknell's two games against Lafayette. So in a rubber match on Bucknell's home court, Bucknell would have to be the favorite.

The WCC tournament will, as usual, have at-large implications. St. Mary's is definitely playing for their at-large lives. A one-and-done performance probably sends them to the NIT, while a strong showing in the WCC title game (even in a loss) probably gets them to the Big Dance. BYU is, in theory, a bubble team... but not really. They needed to beat Gonzaga on Thursday and came up short. So realistically they need to win the WCC tournament. As for Gonzaga, they're playing for a 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament. If they win the WCC tournament title then they'll have an awfully good case. But a loss, even a closely fought WCC title game to St. Mary's, probably drops them to a 2 seed.

St. Mary's earned the 2 seed and BYU earned the 3 seed. That means two things. First, Gonzaga will not have to play either team until the title game (making them an even larger favorite). It also means that St. Mary's gets the double bye to the semifinals, giving them a leg up on BYU.

If there's any team that has a chance to win a game over the WCC's Big Three, it's got to be Santa Clara. They were far-and-away the fourth best team in the WCC in the computers and in efficiency margin in conference play. Although, let's be honest, Santa Clara went 0-6 against the Big Three this season, with only one loss coming by single digits. Gonzaga went undefeated in the conference this season, and the only losses St. Mary's had in conference play came to Gonzaga. So realistically, BYU might take out St. Mary's, but it will be shocking if either of the teams in the title game is not one of the Big Three. And Gonzaga will very likely be the champion.


Jim Squire said...

"If there's a sleeper team out of the first round, it's got to be Wisconsin-Green Bay. They swept Valparaiso this season, and also beat Detroit and Wright State."

I believe you meant to write that Green Bay *was* swept *by* Valparaiso.

Jeff said...

You are right. Sorry for the goof - I threw a strikeout through the incorrect text.

Anonymous said...

Great work Jeff! I loved reading all of the above. Thanks!

Jeff said...

Thanks. I'm glad you enjoyed it.