Madness Previews: The Once and Future Kings Conferences

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March is a time of basketball related rejoicing. The NCAA Tournament starts midway through the month, but in the early weeks we get a flurry of fantastic college basketball with the various conference tournaments which will help decide the field for the Big Dance. I’m going to take a look at each conference, try (almost certainly unsuccessfully) to pick the winner, and determine whether anyone from that conference can make some noise, come Tourney Time. So with that, onward and upwards amigos! 

Conference Realignment was almost entirely motivated by college football programs. However, the trickle down effect was that basketball rivalries all across the country were broken up or relocated as teams switch conferences. The end result, then, was that several of the formerly great basketball conferences took on massively different looks. They didn’t necessarily become worse, but they defeinitely aren’t the same as the once were. So, most of these conferences are generally big, brand name type conferences that have several teams which could make some noise in the big dance, but they are no longer part of the absolute top of the mountain (your ACCs etc). So, without further ado let’s take a look at the tier of conferences just behind the top.

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Conference USA was absolutely raided and decimated by conference realignment, but somehow, through all the chaos they came out looking like a fairly impressive basketball conference.

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Currently leading the pack are the Louisiana Tech Bulldogs.

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Louisiana Tech really came on in Conference play after a less than impressive non-conference performance. They have some good length, size, and athleticism that makes them a very solid defensive team capable of generating blocks, steals, and turnovers to help fuel their slightly under-powered offense. However, they’re not completely inept offensively as they have two players (Raheem Appleby and Alex Hamilton) who average 15 points per game and a third player in double digits (Erik McCree with 11). Moreover, they have some impressive length in McCree which helps them crash the glass, and perhaps more importantly senior Michale Kyser and his 3 blocks per game can be an absolute menace for opponents. However, they’re relative newcomers to the top of C-USA and are more consistent than great.

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Old Dominion, on the other hand, has shown legitimate signs of greatness throughout this season. They started the season on an absolute tear, scoring upsets over LSU, #14 VCU, and Georgia State, ending their non-conference slate at a stellar 12-1 record, and even working their way into the top 25. The LSU win was particularly impressive to me personally because seeing a relatively undersized team like ODU go up against a team with one of the best athletic front-courts in the country, and come out on top is not an easy task. If they’re playing at their best, Old Dominion could easily be one of the 20 best teams in the country. Unfortunately, however, they haven’t been at their best since conference play started.

Don’t get me wrong, they’ve still been good, but after that 12-1 start, they’ve gone 12-5 in conference play and have picked up several losses to teams I would have thought were far inferior to them in conference. I’m chomping at the bit for a reason to hop back on the ODU bandwagon, and if they can run through the Conference USA Tournament and punch their ticket to the NCAAs I’ll be all over them. Until then, however, I’m cautiously optimistic.

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The final team of note in conference USA is UTEP. The miners started off the season very well with wins over Washington State, New Mexico State, Princeton, and Xavier, but hit a 3 game losing skid after that and have been consistently inconsistent every since. However, they’ve still managed to put together a 20-9 record, and played an excellent game against Arizona back in December (a 60-55 loss) which gives me a lot of faith that they could pull off some upsets and win Conference USA, and maybe even make some noise beyond that.

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The MAC remained relatively safe and untouched through conference realignment, but they’ve always been somewhat of an outpost in the wilderness as far as “bigish” conferences are concerned. However, they have several programs with some solid basketball history, and a handful of very solid teams this year.

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The traditional “basketball powers” out of the MAC are generally Akron, Kent State, and Toledo, and while all three have definitely been solid this year, and Kent State has even been on somewhat of a tear to close out the season, none of them are the class of the MAC this year. I have full faith that any one of them could get hot and pull off an upset or two to win the MAC Tournament. Same goes for Bowling Green, Western Michigan, and Eastern Michigan. Bowling Green in particular was leading the conference back in February, but a 2-3 stretch in their last 5 games cost them the lead, and has them looking more uncertain than ever coming into the MAC Tournament. So there are six teams that I think stand a reasonable chance of punching their ticket to the NCAA, but non of them are necessarily the class of the league.That would be Central Michigan.

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The Chippewas are 22-6 this year with a 12-5 MAC record, but have been far and away the most consistent team in the league all season long. They have an elite offense that is 14th in the nation in scoring and 28th in offensive efficiency (again referencing Ken Pomeroy). They’re definitely the safest bet to come out of the MAC and probably the most deserving team as well, but my fear with them is that they appear to be yet another good but not great team. Its easy for me to imagine another team getting hot and upsetting Central Michigan, even on a good night for the Chippewas, simply because they don’t have anyone on their roster that I feel can truly take over a game and put down an upset bid before it happens. They’re still a very good team, and deserving of an NCAA Tournament bid, I’m just worried that it might not happen for them.

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And the main reason I feel that was is because of the University of Buffalo. They had a somewhat rocky start in the non-conference going 9-3, but that is easily explained away when you realize 1 of those games was on the road to St. Bonaventure and the other two were against #1 Kentucky and #6 Wisconsin. Moreover, the Bulls actually LED Kentucky 38-33 at the half IN RUPP ARENA in their November 16th meeting (before being dominated in the second half). My point, however, is that Buffalo is probably the most talented and athletic team in the MAC this season, and that half against Kentucky proved it. They didn’t have even close to the depth necessary to stay fresh for an entire 40 minutes and compete with the Wildcats, but Head Coach Bobby Hurley had them doing so for a half when the adrenaline was flowing and his athletes were still fresh.

(Photo Credit: Mark Zerof, USA TODAY Sports)

(Photo Credit: Mark Zerof, USA TODAY Sports)

Freshman Lamonte Bearden is young, inexperienced, and somewhat prone to mistakes, but the guy is a stellar athlete and a great X-factor for the Bulls. Forward Justin Moss is an absolute stud and an excellent anchor for the team when paired with Sophomore guard Shannon Evans. Moreover, with Rodell Wigginton and Jarryn Skeete off the bench the Bulls have plenty of scoring options, and Will Regan and Xavier Ford give them the size and length the need to establish a presence inside. The Bulls can run, they can score, and they can absolutely wear their opponents down, especially in the MAC where they have been on fire lately winning 5 straight. If they can win their season finale against a struggling Bowling Green team, and carry that momentum into the MAC Tournament, they will easily be my pick to win the league and head to the NCAA Tournament, and once there I’m convinced they could compete with anyone.

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The Mountain West is undeniably a football conference, and in fact are the best “non-automatic qualifier” conference in football, but over the last decade or so they’ve built themselves into quite a niche little basketball conference as well.

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Generally this has meant Utah State, San Diego State, Nevada, and UNLV, but this year Utah State has been only slightly above average, Nevada and UNLV have been outright bad, and San Diego State (while still good) has taken their whole “Elite Defense with Limited Offense” strategy to disastrous levels of poor offense. This, then, has created a small power gap that has allowed several new schools to float to the top, which I personally love to see. So let’s take a look at a few of them.

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San Diego State we’ve already touched on a little so we might as well finish them off here. Coach Steve Fisher has built the Aztecs into an NCAA Tournament mainstay over the last few years, and he’s done so on the backs of elite defense. Even in a down year like this season the Aztecs somehow still find themselves drifting into the top 25 on the back of top tier defense. The Aztecs are currently 3rd in the nation in points allowed and #4 in defensive efficiency according to Ken Pomeroy. Those are some pretty jaw dropping stats, and honestly any team capable of playing that level of defense should be a title contender. So why are the Aztecs just 23-7? Because their offense is abysmal. To be fair it was pretty bad last year when they made it to the Sweet 16, but the 2014 Aztecs had Xavier Thames dropping 30 point games from time to time. This year’s crop has no such luxury, and with out it they’re the kind of team that I could see losing any night to a half decent team. They play championship caliber defense, but if their offense doesn’t start pulling its weight they won’t even win the Mountain West title let alone make a deep NCAA run.

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So while San Diego State is generally the class of the league, this season the leaders in the Mountain West are, shockingly, the Boise State Broncos. I say shockingly because last year’s Boise State team was the team everyone was picking to make the NCAA Tournament as it was a senior laden team which had just come off a Tournament appearance in 2013. That team ultimately fell short, but this one, even with the bulk of its veteran roster gone, seems to be making a spirited run at things. They have been positively destructive since entering conference play. They opened up 0-3, but since then are 13-1 in the Mountain West. Absolutely noone in the MWC is playing better than them right now. Seniors Derrick Marks and Anthony Drmic have been on fire and I could easily see those two keeping up this pace through the MWC Tournament and into the NCAAs. I’m not sure that they’re the caliber of team I would pick to make a deep run in the Tournament, but a Round of 64 upset certainly isn’t out of the question.

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If Boise State have been the class of the MWC for the second half of the season, however, Colorado State was undeniably the Conferences best looking team to open up the season. The Rams kicked off the season with an undefeated non-conference record (13-0) and won the opening game of their MWC season with a win over Boise. They were ranked in the top 25, and everything looked peachy. However, the month of January was not kind to them. They lost their next 2 conference games, and had a 5-3 record in January. Not exactly the same as ripping off 14 straight wins to open the season. They recovered fairly well, finishing the season 6-2 with this Saturday’s Utah State game (a very probable loss admittedly) left on the schedule. They’re currently a very respectable 25-5, but have yet to recover that early season form. However, Colorado state may be the most balanced team in the MWC offensively and defensively, and I wouldn’t be shocked (or disappointed) at all to see them win the MWC Tournament and come out of the league.

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My personal favorite MWC team this season, however, are the Wyoming Cowboys. Gotta love these guys. They’re a D2 school playing in a big time D1 conference. They’re in the middle of nowhere in Laramie, Wyoming, and every once in a while they put together a stellar sports team that makes some noise on a national scale. This year really looked like their year when they started out the season with a very impressive non-conference performance of 11-2 with wins over Colorado and New Mexico State and their only two losses coming in loooong distance road games against Cal and SMU. However, conference play was about as unkind to them as it was to Colorado State as they’re currently sitting at 11-6 in conference with one road game left to play tomorrow. They have the talent to make some noise both in the MWC and even in the NCAA Tournament with Josh Adams, and especially Larry Nance Jr. (son of 3x NBA all star and dunk contest winner Larry Nance), but unfortunately they’ve completely lost their form here closing out the season. If they can quickly recover their early season form they still have a chance, but any hope of an at large bid is now gone, and they probably need to win the MWC to make the NCAA Tournament. I’ll be rooting for them and would love to see them make the Tourney for the first time since 2002, but sadly this might not be their year.

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The American Athletic Conference is essentially what Conference USA used to be. The Big East, a traditional basketball power with mountains of fantastic basketball history, continuously tried to whore itself out and become a football conference in a desperate grab for cash. Eventually, however, the basketball schools in the conference either decided to leave for greener pastures or split off entirely, leaving the rag tag pile of expansion schools pilfered from Conference USA to fend for themselves. The reformed into the American, and in spite of their woeful starting position have recovered and built themselves into a solid basketball conference once again.

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Memphis and UConn have both started to make a run here late in the season, and Tulane started off the season great, but all three of them just don’t look like they’re in their best form right now. If I was going to pick any of them to win the American Tournament and make it to the NCAAs it would be UConn but all three of them are long shots.

Temple

Temple, on the other hand, seems to be back to the old grind of winning basketball games. Temple is one of the most consistent mid major programs out there. The Owls play tough, hard nosed defense, smother people at home, and grind their way to 20 win seasons year after year. This year is no different. They’re playing excellent defense, and the rebound very well, but somehow they leave me unimpressed. This is a vintage Temple team to be sure, but much like San Diego State in the MWC I worry that they don’t have enough offensive weapons to win a game in the NCAAs (or even win the American).

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Cincinnati under Mick Cronin has won just as consistently if not more so than Temple with more or less the exact same recipe. They play tough defense which keeps them in any game, even if they’re playing a superior opponent. Moreover, every once in a while they find a handful of offensive talents who can push them over the edge and make a deep run. This years team, however, doesn’t appear to be one of these vintage teams. For one thing, Cronin has been ill for most of the season, and while he still coaches the team in practice, has not been allowed to coach from the sidelines for medical problems. This is a real shame, because they guy is a great coach, but if its for his health things are definitely better this way. For the team, however, it just adds one more shaky leg to a team which might not have all the pieces in place to make the NCAA Tournament.

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Tulsa, however, looked every bit the Conference Champion and NCAA Tournament caliber team all season long for most of the year. They opened up conference play 10-0 and looked like they would easily skate to victory in conference. However, they are 4-3 since then, have fallen to 14-3, and allowed SMU to tie them for the conference lead. They’re still talented enough to win the league under new coach Frank Haith (fresh off of his disastrous abandonment of Mizzou) and could easily get hot in the conference tournament to punch their ticket to the NCAAs, but I don’t really think this is the team to beat in the American.

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Because that would be Larry Brown’s SMU. When Larry Brown came out of retirement for the 78th time to coach SMU everyone knew it was only a matter of time until he had them in contention. That year was honestly supposed to be last season when they were so rudely snubbed from the Tourney field, but Brown has come back with an even better performance this year to make sure they make the big dance. Moreover, they made it all the way to the NIT Finals, proving that this team has postseason chops, and comes to play every night. They don’t let themselves get upset and quit when things don’t go their way which is exactly the kind of team you want to have in the NCAA Tournament.

They don’t necessarily have any one star leading their team (outside of that decrepit old coach I guess) but they’re Ken Pomeroy’s #22 offense and play incredibly well as a unit. They’re not flashy or exciting, but neither is anyone in the American. Its a conference full of gritty hard nosed basketball teams, and this year SMU just so happens to be the best of them. I fully expect SMU to win the American Tournament, and even if they don’t they probably deserve an at large bid into the tournament. Whether they do anything after that is anyone’s guess, but I think not. But its not like Brown hasn’t won big games with inferior teams before so who knows.

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The better half of the American, however, is the Big East. Like I mentioned the old Big East was one of the best basketball conferences around rich in basketball tradition and absolutely littered with elite basketball programs. Now, a lot of these schools were basketball only programs that did not play BCS football, so when they say the bigger schools in their conference bastardizing their tradition and history, they decided to split from the jerks (aka football schools) and rebuild the old basketball Big East to the best of their ability. Obviously this is not the same Big East that used to dominate March, but by all accounts they are still an excellent basketball conference.

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Seton Hall got my hopes up that they were finally back to their spectacular form of the late 80s through early 2000s when they opened up the year 12-2 with wins over #15 St. Johns and #6 Villanova. They were back in the top 25 and looking good but they have since completely melted down (including a widely publicized punch) and are no longer anywhere near making the NCAA Tournament without winning the Big East (which I assure you is astronomically unlikely at this point). Xavier started out the year alright with wins over Low-Major darlings Stephen F. Austin and Murray State, but it never really materialized into much as they found themselves brutalized in conference play. Neither of them probably have any chance of making the NCAAs anymore but there are still a handful of teams from the Big East that could.

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First and foremost is Villanova. Clearly the best team in the Big East so I’ll keep this short. They might not win the conference Tourney in Madison Square Garden, but thats because they’re playing against teams fighting for their Tournament lives while Nova has all but locked up a #2 seed in the Tournament. I am extremely skeptical about them as a Final Four or even Elite 8 team, but regardless of all that they clearly deserve to be in the Tournament and are the best team in the Big East this year.

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Next comes my personal favorite team from the Big East this year Providence. They’ve struggled a lot at times this year, but as a unit the Friars play solid offense, serviceable defense, and if they can just keep things close enough for star swingman LaDontae Henton to do his thing and explode on people, then all will be right with them. They have the athleticism necessary to play an up tempo game, and are capable of slowing the game down and playing an efficient half court offense/defense if need be. I like the fact that they’re adaptable and would be furious if they didn’t secure an at large bid into the Tourney, and shocked if they didn’t win at least one game once they got there.

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Butler Georgetown St. Johns are the last of the Big East contenders as far as I see it. And honestly they’re all kindof the same team. They’ve all had great wins and crushing losses (mostly to each other) all season long as they beat on one another in an attempt to make the Tournament. I think all three of them are good. And any one of them deserves to make the tournament. However, they definitely can’t all three make it. If anything I figure the last man standing out of this group will make the NCAA Tournament, and the other two can feel grievously wronged since they are clearly no worse than the team in question. In the end, however, there just aren’t enough tournament spots to go around, and while all three of these teams are definitely better than many of the teams that will make the tournament in the 13-16 seed range this just won’t be their year.

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The Atlantic 10 also had its fair share of shuffling during conference realignment, but might have come out of realignment even stronger than before. The A10 has always been a basketball only conference, and has gone out of its way to ensure that it puts up spectacular performances in the sport. The conference is absolutely replete with programs rich in basketball history and tradition, and constantly put up solid performances year after year. They started as a collection of East Coast / Atlantic Seaboard basketball schools but have since expanded into the Midwest. This expansion, however, hasn’t hurt their reputation as basketball first programs at all however as they have been able to cherry pick some of the best Midwestern Mid-Majors around such as Dayton (Sweet 16 last year) and St. Louis (a 5 seed in last year’s tournament in the loaded Midwest Bracket). So needless to say these guys are pretty good at basketball.

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George Washington and UMass have put together impressive resumes to end the season, but they’ve both struggled all year long, and I don’t really see them being anywhere near title contention for the A10 let alone NCAA. Richmond has had a few spectacular wins, and by all means could get hot and win the A10, but I highly doubt it. The real meat of this conference, then, starts with VCU.

VCU

Everyone remembers Shaka Smart and the Rams’ spectacular run from First Four to Final Four in 2011. Since then Smart has built the Rams into an absolute college basketball stalwart. They have made the NCAA Tournament every year since that 2011 run, and seem to look more and more impressive season after season. This year, however, there is a problem. This rams team could have made a deep tournament run, but in the end of January Senior guard Briante Weber went down, and VCU hasn’t looked the same since. They are an abysmal 4-6 since he went down, dropping their overall record from 17-3 with a top 25 ranking to 21-9 with only the slimmest of hopes for making the NCAA Tournament. They honestly might deserve to make the Tournament based on their first half results, but as the NCAA taught us in 2010 with Kentucky, they have no problem keeping a deserving team out of the Tournament if they’re missing a key player. I think this will be the end of VCU’s consecutive Tournament appearances streak unfortunately, but I’m certain Coach Smart will have them back better than ever next season.

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The next A10 team which probably won’t have its excellent season rewarded with an NCAA Tournament bid is another set of Rams, this time in Rhode Island. Rhode Island has put together their best season in years with a 20-8 record at present, but unfortunately that still leaves them in 3rd place in the A10. Luckily their star player E.C. Matthews is only a sophomore so they’ll have some time to rebuild and try again, but it seems that the only way they make the NCAA tournament this season is by winning the A10 Tournament. That is by no means out of the question but it will definitely be difficult. I have hope that they can do it, and certainly want them to succeed, but we’ll have to see how they look once the A10 Tournament starts.

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The now Curry-less Davidson Wildcats are back in the national picture this year as they’re sitting at 22-6 and 2nd place in the A10. They once again have a spectacular offense (8th in the country in scoring in fact) led by Tyler Kalinoski and Jack Gibbs. Four of their 5 starts score in double digits and their fifth man Peyton Aldridge nearly does with 9.7 points per game. By all accounts this looks like vintage Davidson, even if they lack the star power of having a Curry on the roster. I’m not certain that their resume is strong enough to secure an at large bid if they don’t win the A10 Tournament however so these next 10 days will be crucial for their season.

Dayton-FlyersBut the real team to beat in the A10 this year appears to be last year’s Elite 8 Cinderella darling Dayton. The best thing that came out of that run for Dayton was that they were able to hang on to their head coach Archie Miller (brother of Arizona’s Sean Miller). With Miller at the helm the Flyers have a chance to start a nice little tournament run here a la VCU in 2011. To be honest I’m not sure that they’re the best team in the A10 (I’ve thought that was VCU all season long, but again injuries derailed them) but they’ve somehow ground their way to a 13-4 conference record and currently sit tied with Davidson atop the A10. This team really doesn’t look that impressive on paper, but neither did last year’s team that almost made its way to the Final Four, and with Archie Miller at the helm you can be certain that they’ll be well prepared and well coached going into the tournament. My gut tells me that they’re ripe for an upset in the A10 Tournament, but my heart says 2014’s Cinderella can run it back. We’ll have to see what the truth is March 11th when the A10 Tournament starts, but no matter what I’m confident the Atlantic 10 will provide us with some great basketball throughout the duration of that Tournament.

 

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