Wednesday, March 2, 2011

NCAA Conference Tournament Preview Part 1

As the calendar flips into March, we enter one of the most exciting two-week periods of the season. That is, if you're a college basketball fan. If you listened to our comprehensive hour-plus podcast that we made last week, you might have gotten the idea that we dabble a little in college basketball.

Over the next few days, we'll be previewing the 31 conference tournaments, the winners of which will get automatic bids to the NCAA tournaments. Here's a look at some of the tournaments that are starting this week.

America East

March 3-6, 12

Top Seeds: Vermont, Boston U

Outlook: Vermont and Boston have clearly been the class of the conference this year, the only two teams to win more than 10 conference games. Boston swept Vermont in their two meetings this year and could make it a hat trick if the two meet again in the conference finals. With the tournament in Hartford, one might expect the #6 seed Hartford Hawks to get a bit of a home-crowd boost. The Hawks face Maine (a team they beat twice this year) in the first round and have a 4-2 record this year against the top 4 teams in the conference.

Atlantic Sun
March 2-5

Top Seeds: Belmont, East Tennessee St

Outlook: After a grueling 20-game conference schedule, Belmont has emerged as the cream of the crop, going 19-1 in conference play. The Bruins are a formidable team that could cause problems in the NCAA tournament, boasting a 52 RPI and ranking 11th nationally in Points Per Game (80.4) and 41st nationally in field goal percentage (46.6%). Belmont has 5 players that shoot over 40% from beyond the arc. Belmont doesn't have the resume to make the dance if they get upset in the Atlantic Sun tournament, so they will need to continue their winning ways in order to have a shot to play spoiler to one of the big boys. 

Big South
Higher Seeded team hosts game

March 1, 3, 5

Top Seeds: Coastal Carolina, Liberty

Outlook: Coastal Carolina ran through the Big South this year with an impressive 26-4 record. They don't have the resume to earn an at-large bid to the tournament, so this will be a one-bid league any way you slice it. An intriguing scenario could arise if the NCAA casts a ruling on Coastal Carolina (who they are currently investigating). If Coastal Carolina were to win the conference tournament then the NCAA were to rule they were ineligible for postseason play because of violations, a non-conference tournament winner could wind up getting the bid to the NCAA Tournament. That scenario is unlikely to happen though.

Colonial Athletic Association
March 4-7

Top Seeds: George Mason, Old Dominion

Outlook: The CAA is going to be a multiple-bid league this season. As things stand right now, both George Mason and Old Dominion have the resume to make the tournament as at-large teams. At 25-5, George Mason has bulldozed through conference play, having not lost since early January. George Mason boasts a top-25 RPI and has been very impressive this season. Old Dominion has impressive victories over Xavier and Cleveland St (on Bracketbusters weekend on ESPN). A few weeks ago, Virginia Commonwealth was in the running for a tournament bid, but they have lost 5 of their last 8 (including 4 of their last 5) and pretty much played themselves off the bubble. With an RPI of 63, VCU will need a strong showing in the CAA Tournament if they want the committee to consider them for an at large bid. 

Horizon League
Higher seeded team hosts game

March 1, 4-5, 8

Top Seeds: Milwaukee, Butler

Outlook: In one of the biggest shockers of this college basketball season, UW-Milwaukee won the Horizon League regular season title. Wait, what? On January 22, Milwaukee had a 9-11 record, was 4-5 in conference games and was seemingly out of the race in the Horizon league. The following night they went into Indianapolis and upset Butler in overtime. Since then, they haven't lost a game in Horizon League play. Now, Milwaukee (who has lost to 7 teams with 100+ RPIs this season) is the top seed in the Horizon League tournament. The Horizon League has a "double-bye" format, giving the top 2 teams byes until the semi-finals while seeds 3-10 have to win 2 games just to reach the Semis. Butler is the #2 seed and is barely hanging on the tournament bubble as an at-large team. The only way this is a 2-bid league is if Butler doesn't win the tournament.

March 4-7

Top Seeds: Fairfield, Iona

Outlook: Fairfield is looking to get back to the Dance for the first time since 1997. The Siena Saints have played in the MAAC championship game the last 4 years (winning the last 3 years), but they will have to come from the #7 seed and go through #2 seed Iona (who is riding a 7-game winning streak) to get there. Iona, Fairfield, and #3-seed Rider have all been on a torrid pace down the stretch and are all peaking at the right time. The potential semi-final game between Iona (79.1 PPG (15th Nationally), 47.4% FG% (22nd Nationally)) and Rider (74.1 PPG (53rd Nationally), 47.2% FG% (28th Nationally)) would match up two offensive powerhouses. 

Missouri Valley
St. Louis
March 3-6

Top Seeds: Missouri State, Wichita State

Outlook: In a down year for the Missouri Valley Conference, it seems that this will only be a 1-bid league as neither Wichita St (RPI 50, SOS 99) nor Missouri St (RPI 41, SOS 125). What really hurts these teams is that Wichita St is 1-5 against Top-100 RPI teams (plus 2 losses to teams with 100+ RPIs) and Missouri St is 0-4 against Top-100 teams not named "Wichita St" (plus 3 losses to teams with 100+ RPIs). The long and the short of it? Neither of these teams is making the tournament if they don't win their conference.

Higher seeded team hosts game
March 3, 6, 9

Top Seeds: Long Island, Quinnipiac

Outlook: Last year, Northeast Conference Champion Robert Morris came within a shot of upsetting Villanova in the first round of the tournament. This year, Long Island blitzed through conference play, going 16-2. However, they have no wins against Top-100 RPI teams and have played a statistically horrendous schedule (277 SOS). This is a one-bid league, and it's unlikely that the champion gets above a 15-seed in the NCAA tournament.

Ohio Valley
March 2-5

Top Seeds: Murray St, Morehead St

Outlook: The Murray St Racers pulled an upset of Vanderbilt in the first round of the NCAA Tournament last year, and they have a roster dominated by juniors and seniors that have tournament experience. This is a one-bid league, so if the Racers want to get back to the dance, they are going to have to capitalize on their double-bye in the Ohio Valley Tournament.

Patriot League
Higher seeded team hosts game
March 2, 6, 11

Top Seeds: Bucknell, American

Outlook: The Bison tore through the Patriot League this season and get the advantage of having homecourt advantage throughout the tournament. Their only loss in conference play was to last place Army, who they have to play in the opening round of the tournament. This is a one-bid league, and given the way they have played in the tournament in past years, you can't help but root for Bucknell here. Alright, I'm personally biased as well, I have some friends that went to Bucknell. Go Bison.

March 4-7

Top Seeds: College of Charleston, Western Carolina, Wofford, Chattanooga

Outlook: The SoCon will once again be a one-bid league, but that doesn't mean this won't be a competitive tournament. The top four seeds are all talented teams, with Charleston being the most explosive, averaging 76.8 points per game (26th in the nation). Wofford is capable of shooting the lights out, shooting 47.8% from the field on the season (17th in the nation). Charleston is on a 2-game losing streak entering the tournament and Chattanooga will get the boost of the home crowd. 

Summit League
Sioux Falls
March 5-8

Top Seeds: Oakland, Oral Roberts

Outlook: The Summit League is pretty much Oakland and the "also-rans." Oakland went 17-1 in conference play, outpacing 2nd place Oral Roberts by 4 games. After posting a similar 17-1 record in conference play last year, Oakland ran through the Summit League tournament then got trounced by 23 points by Pitt in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. Oakland is one of the best offensive teams in the nation, averaging 84.8 points per game (3rd in nation) and shooting 48.8% from the field (6th in nation). Oakland played a murderous non-conference schedule early in the season, facing West Virginia, Purdue, Illinois, Michigan St, Tennessee, Michigan, and Ohio State. Oakland has scored over 81 points in 16 of their 18 conference games. That's insane.

Sun Belt
Hot Springs
March 5-8

Top Seeds: Florida Atlantic, Arkansas St, UL-Lafayette, Middle Tennessee

Outlook: To be honest, the winner of this tournament will be lucky to get a 15-seed. This is a one-bid league with no team having been terribly impressive. After starting the season going 2-9 in non-conference play then 1-5 in conference play, the Louisiana-Lafayette Rajin' Cajuns exploded down the strech, winning 11 straight to close out the season in a tie for 1st place in the Sun Belt Western Division. If you're looking for a sleeper team, the Western Kentucky Hilltoppers have won 5 of the last 10 Sun Belt tournaments.

West Coast
Las Vegas
March 4-7

Top Seeds: St Mary's, Gonzaga

Outlook: Gonzaga and St. Mary's are the clear favorites in this tournament by virtue of getting a double-bye into the semi-finals. The two teams split with each other this season, which sets up a potential rubber match in Vegas for the West Coast Conference title. Gonzaga had a rough start to the season but has rebounded nicely to the point where they have a shot to get an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament after winning their last 7 games of the season. Gonzaga has some impressive wins this year over Xavier, Marquette, Oklahoma St, and Baylor. St. Mary's was almost a lock for the tournament on February 15, then they pulled a Plaxico and lost to San Diego (RPI 311). St. Mary's followed that loss with two more losses (to Utah St in "Bracketbusters" and to Gonzaga) and now will be squarely on the bubble if they don't win the conference tournament. 

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