Monday, February 27, 2012

Conference Tournament Preview Part 1

As we enter into the last week in February, some of the Mid-Major conferences have concluded their regular seasons and are beginning tournament play. The big boys are still playing out the rest of their regular seasons this week and will start tournament play next week. But don't sleep on these small conferences. There are a lot of competitive leagues that should yield exciting tournament games. It's win-or-go-home for these small schools and they're going to leave everything they have out on the court. The ESPN family of networks (ESPN, ESPN2, ESPNU) will carry pretty much all of the championship games, along with some of the semi-finals matchups. Here's a preview of what to watch for over the next week.

March 1-3, 9 

Top Seeds: Stony Brook, Vermont

Tournament Format: 9 teams, 8/9 Play-In

Upset Special: Albany

The Outlook: Stony Brook rode an undefeated home record and a league-leading defense (holding opponents to under 60 points per game) to the Regular Season Championship. Vermont's loss to Binghamton (the Bearcats only win of the season) kept them from sharing the regular season title with Stony Brook. If you're looking for a sleeper team, Albany has two of the top 5 scorers in the league (Gerardo Suero - 21.7 PPG and Logan Aronhalt - 14.2 PPG) and boasts the top scoring offense in the league. This is a top-heavy conference and the champion will likely be playing in one of the "First Four" games in the Big Dance. The America East champion has not been seeded higher than 15 in the NCAA tournament since 2007.

February 29 – March 3 
Macon, GA

Top Seeds: Belmont, Mercer

Tournament Format: Top 8 teams qualify, Normal 8-team bracket

Upset Special: USC Upstate

The Outlook: Belmont is the best team in the conference and has a fringe shot at an at-large bid if they fail to win the tournament. USC Upstate is the feel-good story that pretty much no one has heard of. They went from winning just 5 games last year and finishing in the basement of the league to winning 20 games and finishing 3rd in the Atlantic Sun this year. Belmont has the #2 offense in the nation, averaging 82.1 points per game. By contrast, Mercer is built on defense, boasting the most stingy unit in the conference, allowing just 63.1 points per game. Belmont swept Mercer this season, but won the first game by 4 and the second by 1. 

March 3, 6-7 
Higher seed hosts first round, regular season champion hosts Semi-Finals and Finals

Top Seeds: Weber State, Montana

Tournament Format: Top 6 teams qualify, 1 & 2 get byes to Semi-Finals

Upset Special: no clue

The Outlook: This is a top-heavy conference with Weber St and Montana, both 14-1 in conference play as of Monday, dominating the league all season. The two meet Tuesday night at Montana in a game that will decide the regular season title. No one else in the league is even in the same conversation as these two. Weber St and Montana are contrasts in styles. Weber St is led by Damian Lillard, the leading scorer in the conference, has the 11th best offense in the nation (79.1 PPG), and has 3 players shooting over 40% from behind the arc. On the other hand, Montana boasts the best defense in the conference, allowing only 61.8 PPG.

February 27, March 1-3 
Campus Sites

Top Seeds: UNC Asheville, Coastal Carolina

Tournament Format: 10 teams, 7/10 and 8/9 Play-in Games

Upset Special: Charleston Southern

The Outlook: UNC-Asheville was the first school to clinch a regular season title this year, winning the Big South by 4 games over Coastal Carolina. This is an offense-driven league with 6 teams averaging over 70 points per game. VMI has the 5th best offense in the nation and would be a sleeper pick if not for their paltry 1-13 road record this season. Asheville is close on their heels with the #6 offense in the nation (80.8 PPG) and has 5 players averaging over 10 points per game. While Asheville has distinguished themselves from the pack, "the pack" was tight with only 3 games separating 3rd place from 8th place. Even though Asheville has been solid all year, they are likely headed towards a 16-seed, as the Big South Tournament champion has been placed at the bottom of the bracket for 3 consecutive years.

March 2-5 
Richmond, VA

Top Seeds: Drexel, VCU, George Mason, Old Dominion

Tournament Format: 12 teams, Top 4 get byes to Quarterfinals

Upset Special: Delaware

The Outlook: Unlike some of the other leagues, the CAA was built on stingy defense this season. Only George Mason averaged over 70 points per game and three teams (Drexel, VCU, and Georgia St) held opponents to under 60 PPG. Aside from Kentucky, Drexel is the hottest team in the country, riding a 17-game winning streak into the conference tournament and haven't lost since January 2nd. Delaware is the #5 seed and riding an 8-game winning streak over mostly bottom-of-the-conference teams into the tournament but does boast an early-season win over Drexel. VCU, George Mason, and ODU are all solid squads and it wouldn't be surprising to see any of the top 4 teams take this tournament. The CAA isn't as strong as in years past but name recognition and a weak, weak bubble could help them get a 2nd team in the Big Dance. Reputation may help the CAA champion in tournament seeding - the CAA Champion hasn't been seeded below a 12-seed since 2004.

February 28-29, March 5-6 
Higher seed hosts game

Top Seeds: Valparaiso, Cleveland State

Tournament Format: 10 teams, Top 2 "Double Bye" to Semi-Finals

Upset Special: Butler

The Outlook: Valpo, coached by Tournament Buzzer Beater legend Bryce Drew, won the league by two games. However, the rest of the league was tight, with only 2 games separating 2nd and 7th place. The "Double Bye" format gives a huge advantage to the top 2 teams that only have to win once to get to the championship as opposed to the rest of the field that has to win 3 times to get to the title game. It's been a down year for Brad Stevens and the Butler Bulldogs, but you can never sleep on them this time of year. In addition to having the best defense in the league, Cleveland St was the only team with a winning record on the road, which may come in handy if they have to play the championship game at Valparaiso. Valpo has home court advantage in the tournament and was 8-1 at home in conference play this year, their only loss to Milwaukee back in December.

No Tournament

While there isn't a conference tournament, this is a huge week for the Ivy League. Harvard enters the week with a 1/2 game lead on Penn in the conference standings. If both teams win out, the Ivy League may have to play a Tiebreaker game for the second consecutive year. Harvard has games at Columbia and at Cornell this week while Penn plays Brown, Yale, and at Princeton. If they don't get the automatic bid, Harvard should be right in the middle of the bubble picture, thanks to wins over Florida State and fellow bubble teams UCF and St Joe's.

March 2-5 
Springfield, MA

Top Seeds: Iona, Loyola (MD)

Tournament Format: 10 teams, 7/10 and 8/9 Play-in Games

Upset Special: Fairfield

The Outlook: Iona blitzed through the conference, boasting the top scoring offense in the nation (83.4 PPG) and almost 20 assists per game. The Gaels are led by PG Scott Machado who leads the nation with 10.1 assists per game. Big man Mike Glover is second in the conference with 18.1 PPG and 9.1 RPG. The Gaels can shoot the lights out, with 3 players averaging over 40% from behind the arc. Iona has a Top 40 RPI so if they were to lose in their conference tournament, they might have an outside (though slim) shot at an At-Large bid. This is a team that could make some noise in the Big Dance out of a 12 or 13-seed. The MAAC has produced good teams over the last few years, with the champion getting a 14-seed or higher each of the last 4 tournaments.

March 1-4 
St. Louis

Top Seeds: Wichita St, Creighton

Tournament Format: 10 teams, 7/10 and 8/9 Play-in Games

Upset Special: Northern Iowa

The Outlook: The Valley traditionally has one of the most exciting tournaments and that shouldn't change much this year. Wichita St and Creighton are in good shape for At-Large bids, assuming both win at least a game in the Conference Tournament. Both teams have explosive offenses (Wichita St averages 78.3 PPG, Creighton 79.7 PPG). Creighton has one of the best scorers in the nation, Doug McDermott who averages 23.1 PPG (3rd in NCAA). Northern Iowa started the season strong, posting a 10-2 record before Christmas. Since Santa visited, the Panthers have been a mediocre 9-10, including a Bracketbusters loss to VCU. Though the top two teams certainly distinguished themselves from the rest of the league, only 1 game separated 3rd and 8th place, which should lead to another wide open "Arch Madness" tournament in St Louis. 

March 1, 4, 7 
Higher seed hosts game

Top Seeds: LIU-Brooklyn, Wagner

Tournament Format: Top 8 teams qualify

Upset Special: Robert Morris

The Outlook: After one of the most grueling regular seasons in the nation, where teams play a staggering 18 conference games, the Top 8 have to navigate a full tournament with no byes. LIU-Brooklyn is clearly the best team in the league, boasting the 4th best offense in the nation (81.8 PPG) and has home court advantage throughout the tournament, where they have not lost this season. Point Guard Jason Brickman is 5th in the nation with 7.1 Assists Per Game Their only blemishes in conference play were a loss at Robert Morris and to Monmouth after they already had the league title wrapped up. LIU will be tested off the bat in their conference tournament, having to face Sacred Heart and the nation's 4th leading scorer Shane Gibson (22 PPG). While I picked Robert Morris as my upset special because I'm from Pittsburgh and I'm biased, they boast one of the best road records in the conference (11-6, 6-3) and have a victory over LIU. The conference champion is likely destined to find themselves at the bottom of the NCAA bracket - the champion hasn't received a seed higher than 15 since 2002.

February 29, March 1-3 

Top Seeds: Murray St, Tennessee St

Tournament Format: Top 8 qualify, 3 & 4 byes to Quarterfinals, 1 & 2 "Double Bye" to Semi-Finals

Upset Special: Honestly anyone other than Murray St would be an upset

The Outlook: While Murray St ran away with the league this year, finishing 28-1 overall, their only blemish coming against Tennessee St on February 9. However, they exacted their revenge in the form of an 18-point thumping on Senior Night at Tennessee St last week. Point Guard Isaiah Canaan is in the race for National Player of the Year, averaging 19.4 PPG and 3.8 APG all while shooting an astounding 48.4% from beyond the arc. The "Double Bye" format helps Murray State, but with a 3-0 record against the Top 50, including wins over Southern Miss, Memphis, and St Mary's, the Racers are easily in the Big Dance, even with a loss in the conference tournament.

February 29, March 3, 7 
Higher seed hosts game

Top Seeds: Bucknell, Lehigh

Tournament Format: 8 team normal bracket

Upset Special: 

The Outlook: The road to the tournament goes through Lewisburg, where the Bison have lost only twice all year. Bucknell was well on the way to an undefeated conference record in the middle of February before they made the race interesting and dropped back-to-back games to Lehigh and Holy Cross. The Bison got back on track and enter the tournament on the strength of big man Mike Muscala who averages 16.7 PPG and 9.1 RPG. If anyone has a shot at the Bison, it's probably Lehigh who boasts the best offense in the league (75.9 PPG) and the 6th leading scorer in the nation, CJ McCollum (21.7 PPG) and has won in Lewisburg already this year.

March 2-5 
Asheville, NC

Top Seeds: Davidson, UNC Greensboro, Elon, Wofford

Tournament Format: Top 2 from each division get byes, teams seeded by finish within division play cross-division games

Upset Special: College of Charleston

The Outlook: Davidson is a decent team but hasn't put together the resume to qualify for an At-Large Bid, so the SoCon will be a one-bid league. UNC Greensboro might be one of the stories of the year in the NCAA. Their coach resigned after 10 games and Wes Miller (a guard on UNC's 2005 National Championship team) was named interim coach, making him the youngest coach in Division 1 basketball. The Spartans struggled with the transition, going 0-6 in Miller's first month as coach. But since January 12th, when UNC Greensboro was a lowly 2-14, they went 10-4 including a 7-game winning streak that propelled them to the top of the SoCon North Division. 

March 3-6 
Sioux Falls, SD

Top Seeds: Oral Roberts, South Dakota State

Tournament Format: Top 8 qualify

Upset Special: Oakland

The Outlook: Offense, offense, offense. That's the name of the game in the Summit League. Seven of the 10 teams average over 70 points per game and 5 of the top 15 scorers in the nation are from the Summit League. Oakland's Reggie Hamilton (25.5 PPG) is the nation's leading scorer while South Dakota State's Nate Wolters (21.2 PPG) and IPFW's Frank Gaines (21.0 PPG) are also in the Top 10. Oral Roberts has an RPI hovering in the 40s with 2 bad losses, which likely won't be good enough to land them an At-Large spot if they fail to win the tournament. The Golden Eagles were 17-1 in conference play with their only loss a 15-point defeat at South Dakota St. With the tournament in Sioux Falls, you have to think South Dakota St who posted a 14-0 home record this year, will get a home crowd boost. But honestly, with all the scoring talent in this league, anyone could take home the tournament crown. The Summit League champion has received a 13 or 14 seed in the Big Dance each of the last 5 years.

March 3-6 
Hot Springs, AR

Top Seeds: Middle Tennessee, Arkansas-Little Rock

Tournament Format: 11 teams qualify due to Louisiana-Monroe failing to meet NCAA Academic standards. Play-in Games: 8/9, 7/10, 6/11

Upset Special: Denver

The Outlook: Middle Tennessee won the regular season title by 2 games and has the resume of a bubble team should they fail to win the conference tournament. The Blue Raiders have 3 Top 100 wins but 2 bad losses, including one that might be a bubble burster to Western Kentucky (RPI 224). Denver started the season strong and could make some noise in the tournament on the back of their league-leading defense (60.7 PAPG). Arkansas-Little Rock is the defending tournament champion and have rebounded from a 3-10 start to the season to go 12-4 in conference play and finish second in the league.

February 29 – March 5 
Las Vegas

Top Seeds: St. Mary's, Gonzaga

Tournament Format: 8/9 Play-in, 3 & 4 byes to Quarterfinals, 1 & 2 "Double Bye" to Semi-Finals

Upset Special: San Francisco

The Outlook: This is one of the most bizarre tournament formats you're going to see. The WCC structured things to try to give an advantage to the top schools which should make for an interesting tournament. St. Mary's and Gonzaga should be fairly safe for at-large bids to the NCAA Tournament, and BYU is hovering around the bubble with an RPI in the 40s. Loyola Marymount has caused problems for the top teams this year but doesn't have the resume for At-Large consideration. Don't sleep on the #5 seed San Francisco who has played close games against the top teams and upset Gonzaga a few weeks ago. The Dons have the second best offense in the conference (75.2 PPG). BYU is the team most in need of a big run there to solidify their tournament hopes.

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