An Annual Tradition: Complaining about Bracket Selection

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The time has come at last. The brackets have been selected by the buffoons in their basement bunker in Indianapolis and as is tradition they have made some truly egregious picks. I’m not talking about some of the minor screw ups with seed numbers for smaller teams (Valpo could have been a 12 seed, UCI could have been a 14 seed… little stuff like that) or even bigger teams (Baylor scares me as a 3 seed and I would have been more comfortable with them as a 4 or even 5 seed), but rather talking about errors that frustrate the integrity of the process. So without further ado, let’s take a look at some of the worst looking decisions of this season’s edition.

Who Got Snubbed?

Let’s get the depressing part of the article out of the way first before we move on to the anger inducing portion. But first let’s buzz through the teams that played the lead role in their own demise.

The “Didn’t do enough… It’s your own fault” Division

First up on this list are the schools from major conferences that had everyone opportunity to secure major wins, but just didn’t come through. All these teams are Tournament caliber teams, but at the end of the day there just wasn’t enough on their resume to let them in.

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Texas A&M had great positioning to make the field, but an early exit from the SEC Tournament to a far inferior Auburn team (not to mention back to back losses to Florida and Alabama to close out the regular season) sank their battleship so to speak. No problems with Texas A&M being left out.

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Rhode Island would have been a FANTASTIC feel good story, and I was rooting for it as hard as anyone, but without any real signature wins on their resume, and with some ugly losses to the likes of Georgia Tech, UMass, and St. Joes we all knew they were likely out of it if they didn’t win the A-10. Still though, its a major disappointment after they had such a solid performance in an underrated basketball conference. Next year, however, they’re simply going to need to play a few more Big Conference teams in their non-conference slate if they hope to have enough of an insurance policy to make the Tournament. That early season win against Nebraska looked great at the time, but once Nebraska imploded over the course of the season, Rhode Island no longer had anything they could hang their hat on, and it cost them.

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Central Michigan had a stellar regular season. They were clearly the best performing team in a VERY good and VERY competitive MAC this year. They got all the way to their conference title game and even then barely fell short. They were never the most talented team in the MAC (Buffalo takes that crown and even Kent State and Akron may have had more talent across the board) but they played better than any of those guys all season long. At the end of the day, however, whereas teams like Buffalo went out of conference to play Kentucky, Wisconsin, and heck even Robert Morris who turned out to be a Tournament team, Central Michigan has nothing to boast of in their non-conference slate, and therefore anything short of a conference tourney win likely wouldn’t be enough.. and it wasn’t.

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Green Bay has come tantalizingly close to the Big Dance each of the past seasons without coming out on top in the Horizon. As such its especially sad to see them miss out again with this particular group of guys, but it’s awfully hard for an 8 loss Mid Major to secure an at large bid. Still, they went 2-4 against Tournament teams this year (and knocked off fellow bubble team and then #15 in the country Miami) and scheduled well in the non-conference (a home and home with Georgia State and a road trip to Wisconsin). In the end, however, the Horizon League beat up on one another too hard for more than 1 team to come out apparently and this time around Valparaiso came out on top.

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Richmond is a team that a lot of national people have discussed as a major snub, but I’m not as convinced. The major argument (and it is a good one) for why they should have been in boils down to how well they were playing right before the Tournament. 7-3 in their last 10 with a win over VCU. However, they really did nothing in the non-conference, and got pretty badly beaten up in the A-10 all year long, so to be completely honest I think they’re correctly placed in the NIT.

True Snubs: The “We did everything you asked us to do except win our Conference Tournament” Division

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Old Dominion is yet another sad case. They were the darling of the nation in the first half of the season after opening the season 13-1 with wins over LSU (Tournament team) Richmond (NIT team) VCU (tournament team and then ranked #14) Georgia State (Tournament team) and William and Mary and Mary (NIT Team). That is an incredibly impressive slate, and it seemed all but over that ODU would win Conference USA and punch their ticket to the big dance. However, they ended up losing 5 games in a very weak Conference-USA which apparently damaged their resume to the point that they needed to win the conference’s automatic bid to qualify. They did not, and they’re out. Personally I’m more mad about this one than any of the previous examples we’ve discussed. The Committee says they want tough non-conference slates for Mid Majors. Check. They say they want you to WIN those games. Check. They want you to dominate your conference. 13-5 was still good enough for 2nd place in C-USA, so I can’t see why they should be punished this hard for that. As far as I see it ODU did almost everything right, and STILL the Committee sat back and said “nah, don’t care.” Very frustrating.

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Iona is another frustrating one for me because they legitimately could have made some noise and provided some excitement in the NCAA Tournament with their high octane offense. Instead they’re off the to NIT. Admittedly their non-conference wasn’t great as they lost to Arkansas and Wofford but they beat several good teams in Florida Gulf Coast, and Wake Forest. Morever, I feel like they should at least be given credit for scheduling teams like Arkansas out of a division in the MAAC where Power Conference teams are loath to schedule you. Moreover, Iona absolutely thrashed the MAAC going 17-3, and I have a hard time understanding what sets them apart from a Davidson or an Ole Miss.

Temple

Next on the list is every Power Conference team’s Tournament nightmare Temple. Year after year they somehow manage to beat superior teams with little to no offense but infuriatingly tight and gritty defense. This year was no different as Temple BLEW OUT 2 seeded Kansas by 23 (!!!!!!!!) points this season and finished a respectable 13-5 in the American. All in all Temple definitely deserved a Tournament, but we had to make way for some jank so no cigar… because reasons…

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And this one is really depressing. The Mountain West Conference has worked its way up to a point where it now sits just outside the Power Five in both major sports, football and basketball. And yet their teams still get no respect when it comes to selection time apparently. Just like ODU Colorado State was a Mid Major darling to open the season after they ripped off 14 straight wins including wins over in state rival from a Power Conference Colorado, NIT Teams in UTEP, Montana, and Charleston Southern and 3 wins over NCAA Tournament teams with New Mexico State, Boise State, and Georgia State. As far as I can tell that is exactly what the committee is asking programs to do. Moreover, they finished a respectable 13-5 in a good Mountain West (that had 5 Tourney caliber teams but only put 3 into the field). Not to mention the little nugget that with 27 wins Colorado State and our next snub were tied for the highest win total to EVER be snubbed from the NCAA Field in its entire history. The fact that some of the teams we’ll discuss in a second made the field when Colorado State didn’t is an absolute joke.

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Murray State, just like Colorado State finished with 27 wins. Again, 2nd most ever for a team snubbed from the NCAA Field. Sure they lost to a good Belmont team in their Tournament Finals, but what is perplexing to me is that the Committee never even CONSIDERED them as an at large. They gave lip service to Colorado State, Temple, and even RICHMOND, as among the “First Four Out” but Murray State has been completely left out of the conversation. I get it. Their non-conference slate was bad. But the OVC was solid this year with good teams in Tennessee Martin, Belmont, and Eastern Kentucky and Murray went SIXTEEN AND 0 in conference. I can’t help but feel that some sort of change needs to happen in this system. No matter what caliber your conference is, if you go undefeated in Conference that should count for an automatic bid just like winning your conference tournament does. It frustrates me that we don’t reward teams like Murray for FIVE MONTHS of EXCELLENT work where they did nothing but win (literally… they didn’t lose a game between November 30th and March 7th) but do reward teams like Hampton who, with all due respect, were bad all year long, got hot for 4 days, and now get to play in the NCAAs. Murray was great all year, and would have been incredibly exciting to watch with sophomore guard Cameron Payne if the Tournament Committee had been able to remove their heads from their posteriors long enough to realize it.

If a team like Murray with the season they’ve had doesn’t make the Tournament then something in the system needs to be changed. That fact will only be all the more painfully obvious once we take a look at the teams that made it INSTEAD of Murray, Colorado State, and Temple.

The “Who has Naked Pictures of the Tournament Committee?” Division

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Good Lord?!?!?! How is this even possible?!?!!? UCLA is in the Tournament?!?! The Pac-12 has been the worst basketball conference of the Big 5 for several years now. Arizona is good, but after that it becomes uniformly crap throughout (with rare exceptions). And UCLA is no exception to this rule. They have beaten ONE ranked team all year long, (#15 Utah) and even that was at home which makes it less impressive. Especially when you consider the fact that they lost to Utah by THIRTY TWO POINTS when they played them in their building… In fact… 8 times this season UCLA has lost by double digits, and many of those weren’t even that close. These were brutal beatdowns. AND anytime they played anyone outside of the atrocious Pac-12 or any good team they got murdered.

November 27 vs. UNC – 22 point loss

December 13 vs. Gonzaga – 13 point loss

December 20 vs. Kentucky – 39 point loss (and they only scored 7 points in the first half!!!! SEVEN!!!!!!)

January 4 vs. Utah – 32 point loss

January 24 vs. Oregon – 18 point loss

This team is terrible. I have a hard time understanding why wins over Washington, Washington State, and USC (none of whom are in the NCAA Tournament or even the NIT mind you) and a 6 points loss to Arizona counts as “getting hot” and “playing better lately” to justify a tournament bid for the Bruins. This is clearly an example of favoritism on the part of the Committee, choosing to put a once great power program into the field to generate story-lines and ratings for TV (a theme we will unfortunately see again in this article).

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Ugh. The Indiana Hoosiers. While the Pac-12 is down and has been recognized as being down for some time, the Big 10 this season is still clinging to the remnants of its reputation from the last couple seasons as College Basketball’s premier league. Which it is not. Don’t get me wrong. Wisconsin may very well be the second best team in the country. However, the dropoff after them is staggering. There is no scenario where the Big 10 deserved to put 7 teams into the field, and the primary reason for that is the fact that IU should be in the NIT.

Unlike most Mid-Major teams which are lucky if they even get ONE crack at a power conference team on the road in a hostile environment, Indiana, like all Power Conference teams, gets multiple cracks at top tier teams to pad their resume throughout the year. And what did Indiana do with these opportunities? Well, in large part they squandered them. Indiana are 4-12 this season against Tournament Teams. So forgive me for asking, but why does a 25% win percentage against Tournament teams (which included a loss to 13 seed Eastern Washington IN BLOOMINGTON mind you) earn you a ‘secured’ place in the field (because lest we forget, Indiana weren’t even part of the “last 4 in” … the committee had them as a LOCK to make the field). Are you really trying to tell me that Murray State, Colorado State, or Temple couldn’t win 1 game out of 4 meetings with the likes of a rebuilding Michigan State, a one man band in Ohio State, Iowa (does anyone remember one impressive thing Iowa has done all year besides getting blown out by Texas and Syracuse in back to back games?) or Purdue (your typical “try hard team” they play well and work hard, and deserve to be in the field, but they’re not actually good). Give me a break. The fact that we threw out those bubble teams for the likes of UCLA and Indiana is a joke. Again… you have a blue blood program from the past making the field on a reputation which is 30 years from being fresh… cool… keep working those TV Ratings guys.

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Texas is a tough one for me to write about. If you look at their roster on paper, and even if you watch these guys on the court, they are, by all accounts, a Tournament team. The amount of length, athleticism, and general basketball ability on this team is absolutely staggering. This team should have been a top 2 seed in the NCAA Tournament. The only problem is their performance. They were absolutely abysmal this year once they got into Big 12 play. Now, the Big 12 was the best conference in college basketball this year so that might help explain some of this, but TEXAS WAS SUPPOSED TO BE THE REASON THE BIG 12 WAS SUPPOSED TO BE SO GOOD.

They were solid in the non-conference with an 11-2 record. Moreover, 1 of those losses was to #1 Kentucky (excusable) but the other was to Stanford… from the horrendous Pac-12… not good. And once they hit Big 12 play everything fell apart. Texas with 8-10(!!!!!!!) in the Big 12 to finish with a 19-12 regular season record… NOT a tournament team. Moreover, they didn’t help themselves in teh Big 12 Tournament, going 1-1 by beating Texas Tech in the opening round and then immediately losing to eventual Champion Iowa State. In fact, Texas went 4-12 against NCAA Tournament teams, and one of those wins was against #15 seed NDSU… They, just like Indiana, were given a myriad of opportunities to build an impressive resume and failed nearly every time. But hey… at least the Tournament Committee was consistent… just like an unequivocally positive regular season resume didn’t matter for Murray State… an unequivocally bad one didn’t matter for Texas… they just pick the teams they want regardless of what happened in the regular season.

Bonus Anger

My complaints aren’t restricted to teams that did or did not make the field, however, as I have a couple major complaints that I want to touch on really quickly in regards to seeding.

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Georgetown deserves to be in the field. That isn’t up for debate. However, the Committee, for some reason, gave them a FOUR seed… This would mean the Committee thinks they are somewhere between the 13th and 16th best team in the country in spite of the fact that they have never been ranked higher than 21 all season and have consistently LOST their ranking the week after they earned it all season long.

Georgetown’s situation becomes even MORE curious when you compare their 4 seed to Big East Conference-mate Butler’s 6 seed. Now, Butler, I feel, is properly seeded. However, I also feel that Butler and Georgetown at parity… ergo Georgetown should be a 6 seed. Butler and Georgetown both flirted with low rankings in the top 25 all season long, never handing on to their rankings for too long, but Butler actually topped off at a 15 ranking (too high) and more consistently was at 18 or 19 (probably accurate). Moreover, Butler actually finished 1 slot ahead of Georgetown in the Big East standings, so how, exactly, did Georgetown get a 4 seed and Butler a 6? Georgetown swept Butler in the regular season, and went a grand total of 1 game further in the Big East Tournament (where they both were upset by the same team, Xavier) so I could see Georgetown getting seeded ahead of Butler at perhaps a 5 seed, but the difference between a 4 seed and a 6 seed is far too great for whatever disparity may be present here.

Georgetown is definitely one of the 50 best teams in the country, but definitely not one of the best 20, let alone a pencil in for Sweet 16. This is yet another example of the committee unfairly rewarding programs for achievements from multiple decades ago. They think (probably correctly) that Georgetown drives ratings so let’s give them a 4 seed no matter how undeserved it is. Whatever. They’re probably going to lose in the first round to an Eastern Washington team that is playing like garbage anyway so who cares right? Well… here’s the problem… if Georgetown gets a 4 seed that they most assuredly DO NOT deserve… it means they took it from someone else…

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Georgetown probably should have been a 5 seed, but they got a 4. So who’s 4 seed did they steal? The Univeristy of Northern Iowa Panthers. UNI picked up only 2 losses in their non-conference schedule before obliterating the Missouri Valley Conference and ending the year at a staggering 30-3. There were a grand total of SIX total teams to win 30 games this year in NCAA College Basketball. Kentucky (34-0, #1 seed), Wisconsin (31-3, #1 seed), Arizona (31-3, #2 seed), Gonzaga (32-2, #2 seed), Villanova (32-2, #1 seed), and UNI (30-3, 5 seed). Notice anything funny lookin’ about that list? Like… ohhhh… I don’t know… maybe the fact that EVERYONE on that list is a top 2 seed except for UNI who is a FIVE?!?! seed?!?!?!

Now, I understand that going through the Missouri Valley isn’t as difficult as going through the Big 27, The SEC, or even the horrendous Pac-12 and Meh Big East, but the comparison to the West Coast Conference is where it all falls apart. There were 2 good teams and 1 great team in the WCC this year. Gonzaga was great, and BYU and St. Mary’s were both good. The MVC, on the other hand, had 2 great teams in UNI and Wichita State, and UNI came out on top. I’m not saying that UNI deserves a 2 seed, because they don’t. And I’m not saying Gonzaga DOESN’T deserve their 2 seed (they do… and had to work hard for over a decade to earn enough national respect to secure high seeds like this out of a mid major conference) but I have a very hard time believing the disparity is as large as 3 seed spots (aka 12 ranking spots).

Even more frustrating is the fact that historically 5 seeds are the most likely ‘high seeds’ to be upset by a double digit seed in the first round of the Tournament. So this isn’t just an issue of “ohhh its ok its not like the different between a 4 seed (which UNI deserved, but which the committee egregiously decided to give to an undeserving Georgetown instead) and a 5 seed (which UNI got) is that big” because it is. Now, UNI lucked out with Wyoming as their opening opponent, but I can’t help but look at these 2 seedings and be furious with the cavalier and irrational manner in which the Committee goes about organizing this thing.

These mix ups aren’t the end of the world. At the end of the day we still get to see great basketball, and most of the time the snubbed / undeserving / mis-seeded teams aren’t going to be winning any titles anyway. However, its really frustrating that this Tournament which is constantly billed as a great equalizer in sports, where Cinderellas are championed and “everyone gets their fair shot to enter,” is such a fraud. The Committee repeatedly rewards undeserving teams from major conferences with basketball pedigree and history instead of rewarding the teams who rightfully deserve it in a given season. But o’well… at least we can revel in Georgetown losing, right?

If there weren’t mis-seedings, there wouldn’t be upsets I guess.

Madness Previews: The SEC – The Most Underrated Conference in College Basketball

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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! 

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The SEC get’s a horrible wrap in basketball season. Now, some of this is deserved, but this year in particular I think there’s a significant amount of close mindedness and inability to accurately asses events impacting the national college basketball media. See, people love to hate the SEC because of their football dominance. So over the past decade or so, while the SEC has had several down years I think they’ve been no worse than the Pac-12, for instance, but have constantly been painted as a distant 5th in the Big 5 Conferences during basketball season. Its a chance for the country to get revenge on schools they’ve learned to hate. However, no matter how you feel about how past SEC seasons have been judged, this year The SEC is a very good Conference, and probably the 3rd best in college basketball. That obviously starts with Kentucky at the top, but as we’ll see the conference has more teams deserving of an NCAA Bid than any conference but the Big 12.

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Now, they don’t compare at all to the Big 12’s depth in once sense. While practically every team in the Big 12 (Texas Tech being the lone exception) is competitive enough to warrant post-season conversation (the NIT and CBI at least if not all to the NCAA) the SEC has some reeeeeal stinkers at the bottom of the league. Frank Haith abandoned Missouri this year and left them in absolute shambles. They’re terrible. And Bruce Pearl will have Auburn in the top 4 in this league soon enough, but that time is not now. Mississippi State is terrible, and while South Carolina has looked very good at times this year, they were generally abysmal in conference. So admittedly the bottom of the SEC is very bad, but I would say no worse (and probably better) than the bottom of the ACC. And really, I so no reason in judging a conference on the worst teams in their league unless their worst team is actually good.

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BUT ANYWAY. The Middle of the SEC is every bit as good as those lower tier Big 12 teams (ie TCU). By all accounts Tennessee should have been horrible this year, but Donnie Tyndal, in spite of all the controversy surrounding him, has somehow built a .500 level club out of bubble gum and shoelaces. Florida has underachieved horribly, and are undeniably terrible BUT the talent on that roster, if they could ever get their heads out of their asses, should be a tournament team, and a top 8 caliber seed. Vanderbilt somehow came out of nowhere to throw together a competitive team, and Alabama is a Tournament quality team that simply underachieved to the point that they knocked themselves out of contention. I’m not trying to tell you that the Middle of the SEC are great, but they’re ALL competitive teams SO contrary to what many people believe, beating the Middle Tier of the SEC is not akin to beating the bottom tier of the WAC. National media writers like to beat up on the top teams in the SEC saying they haven’t beaten anyway, calling the rest of the conference some of the worst teams in college basketball which is flatly untrue. These aren’t Tournament caliber teams, but I could easily see a team like Florida or Alabama upsetting the Iowa States and Louisvilles of the world in their home gyms.

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So with that in mind, I think the good teams at the top of the league are not given nearly enough credit for the wins they have earned. Teams like Ole Miss, Georgia, and Texas A&M are fringe Tournament teams, but we’ve seen time and time again that when a fringe/bubble SEC team makes the Big Dance, they take advantage of their opportunity far better than Big 12 or ACC teams do. Last year, for instance, only 3 SEC teams made the Tournament; Kentucky, Florida, and Tennessee. All 3 of them made the Sweet 16. Tennessee came within inches of beating Michigan to make it to the Elite 8 (after needing a play-in game to even make the field), Florida made it to the Final 4, and Kentucky made it all the way to the championship game. This is why it makes no sense when the national media constantly say the SEC is bad. Yes they beat up on each other and it hurts their records, but when you throw the SEC up against the rest of the country, their superior athleticism really gets a chance to shine. So with that said I’d ask you to avoid any biased opinions of national media folk in considering the next 6 teams, all of whom could make the NCAA Tournament.

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A&M came absolutely out of nowhere this year to finish 5th in the SEC regular season standings. They have a top 5 recruiting class coming in next season so I fully expected them to be a program on the rise, but never expected it to be this year. However, they absolutely raided the transfer market and cobbled together a collection of talented transfers (specifically Danuel House) and upper classmen, paired them with the oldest looking little 20 year old you ever did see in Daniel Carusso, and they came out of nowhere to be surprisingly competitive in the SEC. Admittedly A&M probably don’t have much of a future in them if the make it to the NCAA Tournament (I’m thinking 1 game and done) and likely need to win a couple games in the SEC Tournament to even guarantee a spot in the big dance, but what they’ve done this season has been thoroughly impressive, and I for one hope they get rewarded.

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The Rebels are the next team on this list and I have to say, Andy Kennedy has put together a spectacular coaching effort this season. Ole Miss was supposed to absolutely collapse after the Marshall Henderson Era (hell… it almost collapsed DURING the Marshall Henderson Era) and Kennedy was going to be back on the hot seat. Instead, he finds this little firecracker Stefan Moody, (5’10” Jr. Transfer out of Florida Atlantic) who is absolutely lighting the league on fire to pair with Jarvis Summers, and Ole Miss suddenly has a competitive team! They are by no means perfect but for Kennedy to have pulled off 20 wins with this group is spectacular. They probably need to win a game or two in the SEC Tournament to lock down a spot in the NCAA Tournament, but they certainly could compete in the NCAA Tournament, and definitely deserve to be rewarded with a spot after this season.

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Next comes the Georgia Bulldogs whose roster, by all accounts, is crap. However, as it turns out Mark Fox is apparently an absolutely spectacular coach. This has managed to squeeze more out of this roster than I ever imagined possible and somehow has them in 4th place in the SEC and likely locked to make the NCAA Tournament. The guy is just smart. He’s gotten his team to play perhaps more competitively against the juggernaut Kentucky Wildcats than anyone in the country when he had less tools to work with than many others who attempted the same feat (UNC, Texas, Louisville, LSU, Arkansas and even Florida). The guy is a great coach and I hope his excellent coaching season is rewarded with a trip to the NCAAs.

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The Bayou Bengals have one of the best frontcourts in the country. Jordan Mickey and Jarell Martin are stone cold killers and absolute beasts. Both these guys will play in the NBA sooner rather than later. However, their backcourt leaves quite a bit to be desired since the departure of Anthony Hickey. Transfer Josh Gray has been solid and sophomore Tim Quarterman has definitely outperformed expectations, but too often this year it hasn’t been enough. The larger problem, however, is that Johnny Jones is a horrendous coach. This man is an idiot. He botched that Kentucky game horribly and cost his team the win. The man is a spectacular recruiter (and he’s bringing in a top 5 class next year which includes the #1 player in the country) but his work on the court could use some major improvements. Even with these issues, however, they’re still 22-9, came closer than anyone to beating UK and will all the pros and the insane amounts of athleticism littered across this roster, LSU is going to be an absolute nightmare matchup for someone in the tournament. Ultimately the guard play and coaching will sink them, but they have at least a chance at a Sweet 16.

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Arkansas is slowly clawing their way back to being one of the best programs in the country. In the 90s they were an absolute menace and even won the title in 1994, but things got pretty rough there for a while. This year, however, Arkansas should be a guaranteed Sweet 16 team. Coach Mike Anderson is an undeniable dick according to preeeeeetty much every coach who plays him, but unlike Mr. Jones the man is undeniably great at his job. Moreover, he has two absolute studs on this years team in Bobby Portis (who is guaranteed to make an NBA roster some day) and Michael Qualls (who has a chance to make it in the NBA). Moreover, senior Rashad Madden is a spectacular distributor for this up tempo offense, and his length and athleticism (a theme among Arkansas players) can be an absolute nightmare for opponents. This team loves to push the pace, and against most teams can absolutely run them into the ground. Arkansas could easily wear down a superior team with this style and make a run at an Elite 8, but it all depends on the draw. With the right draw, however, this team could be really dangerous in the Tournament.

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But the real reason to like the SEC is that far and away the best team in the country plays in their league. Its not even close. I won’t dwell on this point because everyone else already has but Kentucky is spectacular. This team basically consists of 9 NBA guys… would be 10 if Alex Poythress hadn’t been lost for the season. They are the best defense in the country, and its not even close. They struggle offensively at times, but it never seems to matter cuz they can get 5 straight defensive stops seemingly whenever they want. Which they often do, giving their best offensive threats (Devin Booker, the Harrison twins, and Trey Lyles) time to find a rhythm and dig them out of whatever hole they may have found themselves in. And I do mean WHATEVER hole. There hasn’t been a single moment this season where I felt Kentucky was in a position that they were completely out in a game. They’re just too good. They can do whatever they want as long as their heads are in the game. The only team that can beat Kentucky is Kentucky. They’re a monster. A Leviathan. They are Ragnarok. What John Calipari has done getting 10 NBA players to sacrifice minutes and play together on 1 college roster is unheard of. Hell… its unheard of just to HAVE 10 NBA players on one roster! He is easily the National Coach of the Year, and this is the best team in college basketball. Not even close.

Madness Previews: The Big 12 – Best Conference in College Basketball

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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! 

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The Big 12. Known primarily as the home to a veritable cornucopia of Texas Schools and football powerhouses. This is the conference that popularized the spread offense in College Football and is, year in and year out, one of the countries best football conference. This year, however, they also just happen to be the nations best College Basketball Conference bar none. They’ve been very good for a long time now with Kansas being a constant contender in the Bill Self Era, and with Texas’s Rick Barnes and Baylor’s Scott Drew being dominant forces on the college basketball recruiting scene, but this year the conference on a whole has taken things to another level. They’re certainly not as deep as a conference like the ACC, but the nearly every team in the Big 12 this year is a tournament caliber team, so let’s take a look.

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The bottom of the league isn’t great, but its a heck of a lot better than a lot of the Power 5, including the ACC. Texas Tech has been rebuilding for an eternity, and sooner rather than later Tubby Smith is going to have them back in gear, and winning, but they’re still a few years away. TCU had a horrendously soft non-conference schedule in all truth, but hey… this still managed to open the season 13-0 with wins over 3 teams from Power Conferences, one of whom (Ole Miss) has a very good chance at making the NCAA Tournament this year, so they’re not nearly as awful as say a Wake Forest in the ACC, USC in the Pac 12, or Penn State in the Big 10. They’re solid, if not NCAA Tournament quality, and if you threw them in the SWAC or the Sun Belt, we’d probably talking about them as potential Tournament team. Kansas State has had a ton of success in the past, and are definitely rebuilding now under new head coach Bruce Weber, but that didn’t stop them from grabbing 5 wins against Tournament teams this year (2 against Oklaoma, 1 against each of Kansas, Baylor, and Iowa State). So even the bad teams in the Big 12 look pretty impressive at times. But now let’s take a look at the teams that will probably be playing in March. By my estimation (and bracketing wizard Joe Lunardi’s as well) the Big 12 should fairly comfortably put 7 teams into the NCAA Tournament… either the most or tied for the most of any conference in college basketball. So without further ado let’s meet them.

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Okie State has taken quite a bit of a step back since losing All American Point Guard Marcus Smart to the NBA over the summer. However, while I for once thought they’d be out of NCAA Tournament contention all year, they’ve shocked me by putting up solid numbers all season long and forcing their way into the NCAA conversation. A big reason for this is the addition of troubled transfer PG Anthony Hickey from LSU. Kentucky native Hickey was a great player for LSU but troubles off the court made him too much to handled and the school finally decided to part ways with him after last season in hopes that he could get his life together elsewhere. Elsewhere turned out to be Oklahoma State where Travis Ford has experience rehabilitating troubled Point Guards, specifically with Smart last season so its no surprise to see him land on his feet there.

(Photo Credit: KT King, The Oklahoman)

(Photo Credit: KT King, The Oklahoman)

 

Also, its not like the cupboard was left bare after Smart left. Phil Forte III was already good last season and finally took the final step up to full stud status this season. But Le’Bryan Nash is the real star of this team. He’s a borderline NBA lottery pick, and guaranteed first rounder this off-season, and is one of the best players in a stacked Big 12. The Cowboys might not have as much depth as some other Big 12 teams, but with those 3 at the helm there’s no way they should miss the NCAA Tournament this year. I doubt they’ll make it very far once they get there, but I know nobody would be happy to see Okie State as their first round opponent.

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Next come the preseason top 10 Texas Longhorns. The Longhorns are a complicated story this year as they’ve been absolutely eaten up in conference play. I’m not certain what’s wrong with this team, but they are FAR better than a 19-12 overall, 8-10 Big 12 record indicates. The length and athleticism on this roster with Myles Turner, Jonathan Holmes, Cameron Ridley, and even Connor Lammert should be absolutely overwhelming teams, and WAS at times in the non-conference, but something just went wrong in conference play. Admittedly, part of that was probably just the fact that the Big 12 is so good, but either way if they miss the Tournament it may very well cost Rick Barnes his job, which would be a shame, but heck… maybe coaching is the problem. I’m skeptical that’s really it, because even though Rick Barnes isn’t a Coach of the Year caliber guy, he’s certainly near the top of the game, and an elite recruiter.

Just look at that wingspan! Myles Turner is a freak, and I desperately want to see him play in the NCAA Tournament (Photo Credit: Getty Images)

Just look at that wingspan! Myles Turner is a freak, and I desperately want to see him play in the NCAA Tournament (Photo Credit: Getty Images)

 

Either way its baffling that this team could miss the Tournament. I hope they make it, and if they get there they could easily make a deep run when they get to match up with some less athletic and less talented non-Big 12 teams for once, but they might need a deep run in the Big 12 Tourney to punch their ticket. This further complicates matters in that of all the teams in the Big 12 there is probably only 1 that they have a naturally bad matchup against… Iowa State. Texas just can’t really stop Georges Niang, and its been a real problem for them this season. So… who does Texas get matched up with in the second round of the Big 12 Tournament? … Iowa State… I hope they can make the NCAA Tournament, and have high hopes for them if they get there, but they’re skating on thin ice right now.

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West Virginia is a team that I have to admit I don’t really understand. I get the fact that Bob Huggins has been a great coach for the entirety of his basketball coaching career, regardless of whatever struggles he may have off the basketball court. And I get that Juwan Staten and Devin Williams are a great 1-2 punch that countless teams across the country would be incredibly jealous of. But I have no idea how Huggins has this team performing at such a high level this season. They completely took me by surprise this season, but at 23-8 they’re definitely a competitive team. I haven’t been able to convince myself to buy into them yet, but they definitely deserve to be in the Tournament, and can probably even make some noise once they get there.I don’t know that I expect them to win the Big 12 Tourney or anything, but clearly Huggins has put together yet another solid winning team for the Mountaineers.

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Baylor, however, is a team that baffles me even more than West Virginia. With WVU I simply don’t know enough about the team outside of Coach Huggins to understand what makes them tick, but with Baylor for some reason I haven’t bought into them all year even though I know full well that they are constantly stacked with talent thanks to the spectacular recruiting they do. I know full well that Rico Gathers and Kenny Chery are the real deal, and superb leaders to build a team around. I know full well that Baylor has been a top notch program for several years now, but perhaps because they have underachieved so often with far superior teams I’m just waiting for them to slip up. They’ve done just that multiple times this season following up big wins with equally big losses, but in the end I think I need to get over my prejudices and buy into this team. I reeeeally like Chery has a gritty, tough, hard nosed gaurd, and Rico Gathers is an athletic freak who rebounds better than practically anyone in the country. This team isn’t as deep as Baylor teams of the past, but they have leaders with Tournament experience, and talent to run with anyone. I’m not sure how far they’ll get but I certainly expect them to be an exciting team once the NCAA Tournament starts.

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After last season’s first round loss to North Dakota State, I’ve scrutinized Oklahoma pretty hard all season long. In fact I’ve been borderline unfair to them I think. They starting 5 a rock solid, and led by Buddy Hield who will be the best player on the floor in most matchups the Sooners find themselves in. Moreover, whereas last year’s Sooners were an offensive powerhouse that had a propensity to play soft on defense (which cost them in the Tournament) this team is, by all accounts, one of the ten best defenses in the country. Moreover, because they have that offensive legacy from last year and a starting five where absolutely everyone can score and have the offense run through them if need be there’s not much danger of a San Diego State scenario here where an elite defensive team is bounced because they simply can’t score. Oklahoma is good. They have all the pieces you need to make a deep run in the Tournament (I’m thinking maybe Elite 8?), but they still seem ripe for upsets. They were swept this season by Kansas State, lost to Washington and Creighton (a baaaaad Creighton team) in the non-conference and have just punted away so many opportunities all season long that I’m incredibly scared to pick them in the Tournament. The talent is there. The play is there. But we’ll have to wait until the NCAA Tournament to see if the whole picture is there for Lon Kruger’s bunch.

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I LOVE Iowa State. Everything about them. Fred Hoiberg is an elite coach. One of the best in college basketball. He plays a progressive, professional style of game that is incredibly fun to watch. He stocks his roster with exciting stud guys, frontlined this year by the absolute beast that is Georges Niang. His teams play hard and play together. They’re balanced offensively and defensively, and do all the gritty things you expect from a top tier team. However, there seems to be something off with this team. Last year’s team was better than this year’s edition in nearly every way, and yet the were upset by eventual champions UConn in the Sweet 16, so if that team couldn’t make a Final Four, I’m not sure I can believe this one will. Moreover, they lost a lot of talent off last year’s roster, and have dropped several games that should have been wins this year (Maryland? South Carolina? How did you lose to these guys?). In the end, then, there is a TON to love about the Cyclones. In fact, I’m even picking them to win the Big 12 Tournament. However, they seem to have an Achilles Heel in them somewhere that makes me terrified that they will once again underachieve come Tournament time. Hopefully I’m wrong and they make it to the Elite 8 or beyond this year, but only time will tell.

Kansas

Hands down the class of this league is KU. Year after year… for the last 11 seasons in fact, Kansas has either won outright or won a share of the Big 12 title. They’re a basketball power going back to college basketballs earliest days, and the Bill Self Era has been no different. Well… its a little different in that Bill Self has brought Kansas into the era of Freshman phenoms with resounding authority. This year that means Kelly Oubre who, even though his numbers don’t show it (Bill Self can get top freshmen recruits but he is absolutely terrible for their careers once he has them… but for some reason they keep picking Kansas… but thats another story) is a real stud. Add in Perry Ellis, Frank Mason and Wayne Seldon and you have the core of yet another good Kansas team. I’m not certain that they’re great, and injuries to Perry Ellis / suspensions for Cliff Alexander and Brannen Greene could very well derail their Final Four aspirations this year, I still think this is easily an Elite 8 team. It might not be a great Kansas team, but these guys are still really really good.

The Big 12 may not have the same kind of elite contenders at the top of their league like the ACC has with Duke and Virginia (both of whom should make the Final Four and could win a title), but the Big 12’s depth and overall ability blow absolutely everyone else out of the water this year. If a team like Texas had performed to the best of their abilities I think a lot more people would be floored by what the Big 12 has done, but even so… this is easily the best conference in college basketball this season. I’m not sure how deep their teams will go. In fact I halfway expect them to get 7 teams into the Tournament, but possibly end up with only 1 team in the Elite 8. However I hope people don’t try to judge the Big 12 exclusively by how they perform in the postseason, because they have absolutely owned college basketball this year, and I hope people realize that.

March Madness Primer: The ACC, College Basketball Blue-Bloods and Blue Hairs

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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! 

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It’s no surprise but the ACC is easily the second best conference in college basketball this season. The ACC is littered with college basketball royalty with the North Carolina schools and the old Tobacco Road schools (now excluding Maryland), but while the top of the conference are among the best college basketball has to offer, its not all glitz and glory. Let’s take a look into why.

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Virginia Tech, Georgia Tech, Boston College, and Wake Forest need no commentary. They suck. They suck in the ACC and they would suck in any other conference in America. Clemson has put together a solid-ish season, but they’re no good either, and Florida State certainly has some good players (Xavier Rathan-Mayes) but they definitely haven’t put things together yet. Syracuse doesn’t count because sanctions will keep them out of the NCAA Tournament and while Pittsburgh have pulled off some excellent upsets with wins over #8 Notre Dame and then #12 UNC they haven’t been consistent in the least, and likely have no shot at the NCAA Tournament short of an ACC Tournament Championship that likely isn’t coming. So… who does that leave us with?

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Well, first are the bubble teams, and the bubbliest of these is Miami. They seemed to start off their season very well with a win over then #8 Florida (when we thought they were good) and a win over #24 Illinois (when we thought they were good). They opened up the season 8-0 and pushed themselves all the way up to the #15 ranking. Since that stellar start, however, they’ve gone 12-11 to close out the season. Part of that can get chalked up to the ACC strength of schedule difficulties, but losses to Wake Forest and Georgia Tech prove to me that this Miami team is far more pretender than contender. They did score a shocking 16 point upset over #4 Duke at Cameron, but they never followed that win up with anything. Miami might be able to get hot and win the ACC Tournament, but short of that I can’t see them in the NCAA Tournament.

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NC State has a more reasonable argument for an NCAA Tournament berth with wins over Duke, UNC, and Louisville this season. A lot of their losses were tough, gritty affairs and with Alabama transfer Trevor Lacey front-lining affairs for the Wolfpack, they definitely have the talent to compete with the best. However, things get really sketchy after their starting 5 so if they ever lose a starter to injury, fouls, or fatigue things will get real rough for them real fast. They’re really on the fence for me. I wouldn’t mind at all if they got a Tournament nod, but I’m not going to fight for them if they miss out either. They probably don’t have much of a shelf life even if they make it to the Tournament and I wouldn’t be surprised to see them go one and out, but they probably still deserve to be there.

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Surprisingly enough the University of North Carolina is next on the list. Not surprising that they’ll make the Tournament, but surprising to see them ranked this low among their compatriots. They are definitely not a bubble team and very much deserve to make the NCAAs, but this year has been up and down all year long for the Tar Heals. This is not the UNC team Tyler Hansbrough left behind, but is a very much changed program.

(Photo Credit: Rich Barnes, USA TODAY Sports)

(Photo Credit: Rich Barnes, USA TODAY Sports)

Marcus Paige is elite, and one of the best Point Guards in the country. Brice Johnson and Kennedy Meeks are both very good big men (and Kennedy Meeks isn’t fat anymore!) and JP Tokoto provides athleticism which is always helpful in the Tournament. So the talent is there on the roster. But somehow it hasn’t all gone as planned this year. UNC has 10 losses to go with the never clearing miasma of their recent academic scandal following them everywhere. That being said, however, the really don’t have a single bad loss on their record. They lost to Pittsburgh who probably won’t make the Tournament, but they’re not bad per se. And they lost to NC State, but I think NC State will probably make it in. Other than that they only lost to some of the best teams in the country (Kentucky, Duke, Virginia) or some guaranteed Tournament teams (Butler, Louisville, Notre Dame). This isn’t the dominant UNC from 10 years ago, and Roy Williams may very well have overstayed his welcome, but this UNC team is still very good, and I wouldn’t be surprised at all to see them in the Sweet 16 or even the Elite 8.

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Another team I wouldn’t be surprised to see in the Sweet 16 are Rick Pitino’s Louisville Cardinals. Montrez Harrell is one of the best players in the country, Terry Rozier and Wayne Blackshear are really good when they want to be or aren’t busy being violently accosted by their head coach, and while Louisville’s cavalcade of 7 footers all suck, they certainly have a lot of them to throw fouls around. However, there’s been turmoil around this team since the dismissal of PG Chris Jones last month. Louisville is still very good without him, and have been very good all season with their only two borderline bad losses coming against Syracuse and NC State in back to back games, but they rallied back with an upset win over #2 Virginia this weekend, so it appears as if they’ve recovered from the Chris Jones hangover. If Louisville doesn’t make the Sweet 16 it will be an enormous shock. I’m not sure I’m willing to say how far they’ll go beyond that, however, because when this team decides to look bad they can look really bad.

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In that same mold is Notre Dame. They started the season on an absolute tear going 13-1 in the non-conference and won their first two ACC games including a win over UNC. They did pick up 4 more losses in conference play but these were to Duke and UVA (easily forgivable) and Pitt and Syracuse (less excusable, but hey… the ACC is tough…). There’s honestly not much I can say after a 26-5 season. These guys are really really good. If they played in almost any other conference in the country they’d almost undoubtedly be a 1 seed, but because they play the same high level competition week in and week out that you have to face in the ACC they’ll likely slide all the way down to a 3 seed.

What they do best is score, and score efficiently. Seniors Jerian Grant and Pt Connaughton lead the way for the nation’s 13th highest scoring offense and Ken Pomeroy’s #3 team in terms of offensive efficiency. However, this Notre Dame team isn’t in the same as our next two teams, and whiel they are certainly good, they probably have no shot at a national title.

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Coach K and the Duke Blue Devils. Not much else needs to be said. Everyone knows about this team. Tyus Jones and Jahlil Okafor lead the way for what is perhaps the nation’s best offensive team. Add in Quinn Cook, Justise Winslow, Amile Jefferson, and Matt Jones and this team is a complete nightmare matchup for anyone, even without Rasheed Sulaimon. However, while Duke are certainly prolific offensively (81.3 points per game… #3 in the nation, and that’s against the superior competition in the ACC). They’ve only lost 3 games all year. 2 of those were to bubble teams (NC State and Miami) and 1 was to Notre Dame so all 3 are more or less excusable. However, they do help reveal Duke’s one major flaw this year. Namely… they can’t play defense. When it comes down to crunch time and they really need to come up with a big defensive play, they don’t really have the guy on their roster or the system in place to generate that stop. Okafor can score on anyone… ANYONE. No matter what he’s gonna get his. But he can get really turned around on defense and give up some absolutely backbreaking points. Duke is still a 1 seed. They still deserve a 1 seed. And they should make the Final Four. However, they’re going to need to avoid that 1 disaster game where they give up a mountain of threes to an inferior opponent if they want this team to reach its ceiling and make it as far as they should.

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But if offense isn’t your thing and you’d rather have a team that can lock down anyway don’t worry. The ACC has you covered there too. UVA has been SPECTACULAR all season long defensively. In fact if it weren’t for Kentucky we’d be talking a lot more and the historical position of the Virginia defense. They allow only 50.3 points per game (1st in the country and again against the superior competition in the ACC) and their only losses all year were to Duke, and Louisville yesterday. There’s been a lot of talk from sports pundits about how Virginia is bad for college basketball, that they make the game boring and uninteresting and are killing the sport, and that is all absolutely absurd. Any real college basketball fan should want to see guys working together, playing hard, playing unselfishly, and committing to defense the way these guys do. As a unit Tony Bennett has built this Cavaliers roster into an absolute juggernaut defensively, and while they do struggle offensively it hasn’t mattered all season long, and I doubt it will matter in the Tournament. This is not always the case. Time and time again we see elite defensive teams fall in the opening round of the NCAA Tournament to some Mid Major Cinderella and a flurry of 3s, but none of those defenses were even close to this Virginia squad. They are spectacular and if they don’t make the Elite 8 I’ll be floored. Once they get there I worry that the level of competition will be so high that someone might prevent them from reaching the Final Four (although they undoubtedly deserve to get that far) but we won’t know that until Tournament time. All that matters for now is that Virginia is spectacular and should be making a deep run this year.

The bottom of the ACC is bad. That much is true. But this isn’t even close to the same issue that is plaguing the Big 10 this season. When your conference grows to be this large, and when the teams at the top are so dominant you’re just going to have some bad teams at the bottom. Thats the way this new conference system is going to work. So while the Big 10 teams benefitted from having an entire league of mediocre teams, save for 1, the ACC has a small handful of bad teams, but the depth at the top is so extreme and so far and away superior to anyone but Wisconsin in the Big 10 that no comparison is valid. The real difference between the ACC and Big 10 this year is that the ACC has 5 undeniable Tournament caliber teams atop their conference while the Big 10 has two. Moreover 2 teams in the ACC are easily capable of winning it a title this season compared to the Big 10’s 1. This is what a truly elite conference looks like, and the scariest part is that we haven’t even gotten to the best conference in college basketball yet.

Madness Previews: The Big 26… or 10… or 14… Whatever They Call Themselves Now…

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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! 

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Formerly the nations elite upper Midwestern conference, the Big 10 has since devolved into some mutant chimera that has consumed Big 12, Big East, and ACC schools to stretch from Nebraska to New Jersey. In my eyes they’re a joke and a bastardization of what was once a really cool conference with a lot of fantastic tradition BUT that’s neither here nor there. We’re here to discuss their abilities as a basketball conference for the 2014-15 season. Last season they were the nation’s best college basketball conference, and probably the year before that too. Michigan’s resurgence as a big time power, and Wisconsin and Michigan State’s continued success had a lot to do with that. This year, however, things ahve changed.

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Michigan is in near full collapse and has been all season long since they were humiliated by N.J.I.T, a school that only recently went D1 and hasn’t even found an athletic conference to let them in at the D1 level yet. Minnesota is paying the price for their moronic decision to fire Tubby Smith (a National Championship winning coach who stocked Minnesota with more talent than they had seen in decades) and bring in Richard freaking Pitino of all people… a scumbag who tried to ruin Eric Bledsoe’s basketball career before it started all cuz the kid didn’t choose to commit to his school AND a guy who couldn’t even win games in the Sun Belt Conference, so how exactly can you justify throwing him into the Big 10? Nebraska is in a disappointing rebuilding year after Tim Miles built an impressive squad last year. Penn State continues to be awful, new addition Rutgers continues to be awful (just in a new venue). Northwestern has still never once competed in the NCAA Tournament (and this year certainly won’t be their year). So there’s your bottom of the barrel in the Big 10. If anyone among them was going to do something in the Big Ten Tournament it could be Nebraska (Terran Petteway is really good… only problem is he’s a one man band for Big Red this year), Minnesota (Andre Hollins, one of the last remaining Tubby Smith guys on the roster, is really good), or Michigan who have looked slightly better closing out the season than they did opening it, but all in all noone from that crop should be much of a threat.

After that, however, you have a large crop of teams that has somehow tricked the national media into thinking the Big 10 is still the best conference in college basketball. Which it certainly is not. Joe Lunardi has been predicting around 7 Big 10 teams to make the NCAA Tournament all year long which is an outrage. The fact that Maryland, a middle tier team in the ACC, came in and dominated the Big 10 in its first ever season in the league should be proof enough that this isn’t the same Big 10 from the last 2 seasons. Putting 7 Big 10 teams into the Tournament is an absolute joke, and I really hope it doesn’t happen. Let’s take a quick look into why.

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Indiana has been an absolute dumpster fire to close out the season, and if Tom Crean miraculously avoids getting fired this season its only because IU wants to wait a hire until Billy Donovan and Brad Stevens potentially become available to hire his replacement. James Blackmon Jr. is REEEEEEEALLY good and producing much more, much quicker than I ever expected he could. Yogi Ferrell has been the backbone of this team for a couple years and is a legitimate NBA prospect (if the NBA hasn’t already soured on Tom Crean guys after the Noah Vonleh disaster). Troy Williams is also a very solid big man who practically every team on the country could use in their starting lineup. So how did this team lose 12 games this year??? Tom Crean is a terrible coach. Indiana is a terrible team. And so help me if they make it in on the bubble over a Mid Major bubble team such as Murray State I’ll be livid.

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Next on the list comes Illinois. Admittedly they probably aren’t that close to the bubble (although they have been all year long) and probably need to win the Big 10 Tournament to secure a bid, so this one I’m not so angry about. A couple wins over a Baylor team that is over-performing right now and a Maryland team that is reeeeeeeally overperforming this season are the only impressive marks on their resume. Moreover, both those wins came in the first half of the season. Illinois has been racking up losses the second half of the season, and really should be NIT bound.

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Iowa is a little different. They had a very impressive team last year that under-performed. They have a great coach (in my opinion) in Fran McCaffery, and brought back a fair amount of talent (albeit in the form of big goofy white guys for the most part) left on this roster. However, what they are is a solid team in a down year for the Big 10, not a good team in the normally excellent Big 10. You see, the Big 10 has been so good the last 2 or 3 seasons that people on the NCAA Tournament selection committee have (rightly) gotten into the habit of picking teams that were middle of the pack in the Big 10 over teams that had excellent seasons in inferior conferences. Often this was the correct choice because those middle of the pack Big 10 teams had to deal with the likes of Wisconsin, Michigan, Ohio State, and Michigan State beating on them in conference, when other teams had no such Herculean tasks to overcome.

This year, however, that elite top tier of the Big 10 has thinned out significantly… in fact its just Wisconsin, meaning the Big 10 looks a lot like most other conferences in college basketball… 1 team having a great season surrounded by several solid teams and a pile of crap. The problem here, then, is that those wins against crap teams fluff up the records of the middle of the pack teams like Iowa. Its a lot less impressive to stockpile wins against the Rutgers and Penn States of the world, and makes your record at the end of the day look a lot better than it really is. That’s whats happening to Iowa this season, and because of it I simply don’t think we should give these middle of the pack Big 10 teams the nod this time around. They could prove me wrong and win a couple games in the NCAA Tournament, but I just can’t get behind rewarding the Big 10 as a conference for past success during a down year.

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Next on our list of mid level Big 10 teams are the Purdue Boilermakers. I’ll be honest, it was nice to see Purdue bounce back this season, as its been a bit of a rough stretch since the Robbie Hummel, E’Twaun Moore, JaJuan Johnson years. However, as much as I may have enjoyed it, this success isn’t a sign that Purdue has finally bounced back, but rather a product of a down Big 10. They beat the two aforementioned overrated Big 10 bubble teams Iowa and Indiana in January, and that’s what put them back on the map, but their real statement win was a February home win over Ohio State (who we’ll get to shortly). That win was impressive and all but this isn’t even a vintage OSU team, and they didn’t close their season out well with losses to both Ohio State and Michigan State on the road. I needed to see them win at least one of those tough road games to close out the season if I was going to deem them worthy of an NCAA Tournament bid, and unfortunately they let me down. They’re just another paper tiger built up by a weak Big 10. They’re just a very good bad team.

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Next comes the traditional cream of the Big 10, Tom Izzo’s Michigan State Spartans. Michigan state had an excellent team last season, but lost the entire core of that roster to graduation and the NBA. Denzel Valentine, Travis Trice, and Branden Dawson are all very good, but there simply isn’t enough talent on this year’s Spartans to even hold a candle to last year’s crew. Tom Izzo is still one of the best coaches in college basketball, and his abilities have forced this team into contention and molded this roster into an NCAA Tournament bid worthy team. However, I see no Sweet 16, let alone a Final Four, in this particular group’s future.

Again, they lost to every ranked team they played in the non-conference, and even lost at home to Texas Southern of all schools. Their only win against a ranked opponent came in that Valentine’s day thriller where Denzel Valentine had to hit a late game winner to push the Spartans (playing at home mind you) past Ohio State. There really isn’t anything impressive about the season they’ve had at all. They’ve beaten up on middle tier Mid Majors and the lesser teams in the Big 10 to throw together a 21-10 record. I still think they deserve to make the tournament, but this is honestly probably me giving too much credit for Izzo’s past accomplishments. Again… it has been a REALLY down year for the Big 10.

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The last fringe Tournament team (in my opinion) from the Big 10 is Ohio State. Here we have the first Big 10 team that I actually like this year. Freshman D’Angelo Russell is an absolute stud who can score on anyone and any team. The talent around him isn’t nearly what Ohio State and Thad Matta have grown used to, but I cannot wait to see this guy lighting people up in the NCAA Tournament. They didn’t do much in the non-conference and in fact lost to every ranked opponent they played (seriously… how is the Big 10 predicted to put 7 teams in the Tournament this year?!?!?!) but they did knock off Maryland  and take care of business (most of the time) in conference. However, they’re undeniably flawed. If Russell is going off they could beat most teams, but they got lucky in that they only had to play Maryland and Wisconsin once this year (they beat Maryland but as I’m writing this they’re currently losing to Wisconsin 33-19). SO in a down year for the Big 10 they barely even had to play the good teams in conference (whereas Michigan State had to play Maryland twice). They were also incredibly disappointing away from home in Big 10 play going only 4-5 outside of Ohio. This is a team that could get hot and make a Sweet 16 run or could lose in the opening round of the Tournament. No matter how they perform once they get there, however, they are one of the few Big 10 teams that does still deserve to be there.

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And here we come to one of only 2 teams in the Big 10 that could actually be considered ‘good’ this season, the Maryland Terps. In their first ever season in the Big 10 (after moving over from the ACC) the Terps have run train on their new league. They’ve been ranked practically all season long, and are currently ranked #10 in the country. Freshman Melo Trimble has been a revelation for Maryland, and Senior Dez Wells provides whatever leadership Mark Turgeon may need on the court. They started the season out strong with an upset win over then #13 Iowa State and came out of non-conference play with a 12-1 record. Things got a little rougher for them once they entered Big 10 play as they went 13-4 including a pair of losses to Illinois, Iowa, Indiana, and Ohio State, all fairly disappointing losses. However, they did put together a fairly impressive victory over Wisconsin just a couple years ago (only Wisconsin’s 3rd loss on the year, and 2nd in Big 10 play [they other, hilariously enough, being to Rutgers]). So even though Maryland’s resume isn’t exceptional, it is at least impressive. They are CERTAINLY flawed and its been widely discussed how their losses have always been big (10-15 point affairs) and their wins have been close fights (1-4 points), but hey sometimes in sports its better to be lucky than good, and if their luck holds out they could make some noise in the NCAA Tournament. It almost certainly won’t and I expect them to make a disappointingly early exit from the Big Dance, but lucky or not they at least took advantage of their new, down conference and have put together a deserving Tournament resume.

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The last team on our list of Big 10 disappointments, however, is the first one that actually matters in the national picture. The Wisconsin Badgers followed up last years 2 seed and Final Four run with a spectacular regular season that will hopefully net them a 1 seed in the coming Tournament. Like I said for the most part they have blasted this bad Big 10, and had a reasonable non-conference result (they took care of everyone they played except Duke whom they almost beat anyway, even if they didn’t play many marquee matches). Frank Kaminsky is a National Player of the Year candidate, Sam Dekker is a guaranteed first round draft pick in the NBA, and Nigel Hayes is a third option and X-Factor who would be a star on most other rosters in the country. Wisconsin is good, they’re athletic, they’re well coached, and they deserve every accolade they receive this year, no matter how bad the Big 10 has been. They’re the real deal and, if everything broke the right way, could definitely win a national championship this season.

In the end, then, the Big 10 hasn’t been nearly as atrocious as the PAC-12 was this year. However, they’re clearly #4 out of the Big 5, and aren’t even close to the Big 10 of last season. Wisconsin has as good a chance to make the Final Four as any of the top teams in the country this year, but the rest of their league is falling apart all around them (except the team they stole from the ACC…). I certainly hope they don’t get 7 teams into the tournament because they don’t deserve that at all. There is too much bias and slow thinking on the part of the Tournament Committee most of the time, so it’ll probably happen, and I’ll have to settle for feeling vindicated when 6 of the Big 10’s 7 teams get bounced in the first round. That should not, however, detract from Wisconsin’s greatness, because in all liklihood this team will be torn apart after this season when Kaminsky and Dekker leave, so enjoy it while you can, because they really are something.

March Madness Previews – The First of the Big Boys: Pac 12

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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! 

Pac-12

The PAC 12 is undeniably the weakest of the Power Five conferences this year, and honestly I’d take the Mountain West over them every day of the week as my west coast conference of choice. Arizona has every bit of a chance to make the Final Four as any of the other powerful contenders. And I guess Utah is everyone’s sleeper pick to make a Final Four… but on whole the conference has been trash. Let’s take a look.

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So let’s start with the obvious. Arizona is good. Really really good.

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They’re obviously the class of this lead and have at least a chance at winning a national title this year. Stanley Johnson is an absolute stud freshmen and gives Arizona somewhat of an added scoring threat that they may have lacked last season. Add to that the fact that big men Brandon Ashley, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, and Kaleb Tarczewski are all back, and it seems almost obvious to me that this year’s Arizona squad is even better than the team that went to the Elite 8 last year. This is a Final Four caliber team if ever there was one, and only a horrendous draw coupled with a miserable shooting effort or something could derail the Wildcats this year. With that said, they should absolutely also win the Pac-12 Tournament this week, but let’s take a look at some of the possible contenders to upset them.

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First and foremost among these challengers is Utah. They’ve been lots of peoples sleeper pick to make a Final Four, but I for one have been extremely skeptical all season long. Early season in the non-conference their main claim to fame was a win over then #8 Wichita State, and while Wichita is still certainly a good team this year, they aren’t nearly as good as last year’s team and that #8 ranking was certainly too high. They’re definitely a top 20 team, but not top 10. Moreover, Utah’s other big games in the non-conference were a loss to then #16 San Diego State who has since proven that they too weren’t as good as their early ranking, and a loss to #10 Kansas. So they played 3 ranked teams and went 1-2… not that impressive. Moreover, once they got into conference play they didn’t manage to grab a single impressive win, losing in both their games against Arizona (Utah and Arizona are the only 2 ranked Pac 12 teams this year as the Pac 12 is hideously down this season. In short, then, I don’t really feel like Utah proved anything to us about how good they might be in the non-conference or in conference play. They just look to me like a good team that beats up on bad teams (ESPECIALLY the bad teams in their own conference) so I have no idea why they’re supposed to be a lock for the Elite 8.

Don’t get me wrong… the talent is obviously there with this roster… Delon Wright is really good, and as a team the Utes have been playing spectacular defense. However, I simply haven’t seen enough from them to trust them and pencil them into my Elite 8. That being said, I do believe in them a lot more now than I did 2 weeks ago, primarily because of their February 26th dismantlement of Arizona State. The Utes beat ASU 83-41… yes… the margin of victory (43) was greater than the total number of points ASU scored (41)… Good lord …

Shocked Al Bundy

Not only that, it was 41-9!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! IN THE FIRST HALF!!!! ARIZONA STATE COULDN’T EVEN SCORE 10 POINTS AGAINST THIS UTAH DEFENSE!!!!! That win was undeniably jaw dropping, and if that is the real Utah team, then I totally buy them as a Final 4 team. So I’m fully aware that the ability is there. THAT team is probably the best team in the Pac-12. The only problem is I only saw that team once (I guess twice if you count their beatdown of UCLA as well) all year, so I’m awfully scared about trusting them.

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The next Pseudo contender on the west coast is Oregon. Oregon under Dana Altman the last couple seasons has put together some really impressive teams by scavenging transfers from other programs, and mashing together enough depth to make a Tournament run, even if their roster was somewhat disjointed. This year, however, it seemed like it was all over and they were going to have to sit down and rebuild like normal people. They opened the season as they opened the season 14-7. However, in their last ten games they’ve ripped off a 9-1 mark to force themselves all the way up to #3 in conference with a 23-8 record. They’re as hot as anyone coming into the Pac-12 tournament and could definitely make a run into the Tourney finals. However, I’m not convinced they deserve and at large bid, so it might be win the Pac-12 tourney or bust for them, and they’re not even close to good enough to knock off Arizona. Joseph Young is really good, and maybe they do it, but I’m beyond skeptical.

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Next comes the hilarious case of Steve Alford’s UCLA Bruins. Ohhhh how the mighty have fallen. UCLA sucks. They’re a crap basketball program still living off whatever fumes remain from the Wooden Era. Steve Alford is a good coach, but he’s punching above his pay grade here at UCLA and this season is the first time we’ve seen that. They have not once but THREE times this season been BLASTED by more than 30 points. UNC smashed them 78-56 (and UNC isn’t even that good this year…) Kentucky annihilated them 83-44 and Utah destroyed them 71-39… and I’m supposed to believe this team deserves to be in the NCAA Tournament? No thanks… They’re 19-12 and their only impressive win is over a Utah team that, as mentioned, I’m not even sold on yet… get them out of here. If they make the NCAA Tournament over Murray State (now looking for an at large bid after Belmont upset them last night) I’ll be absolutely livid.

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Next on the palate of crap contenders is Stanford. Honestly I don’t even want to talk about them. They are so boring. At least UCLA is hilariously bad. Stanford just makes me want to take a couch nap. I didn’t want to see them make the Tournament last year either, and was incredibly mad to see them make the Elite 8 last year over Kansas. Hopefuly we won’t have a repeat of that this year. They were solidly blah all year long until the last few weeks when they have completely (and thankfully) collapsed. They’re 3-7 in their last 10 games and have a round 1 Pac-12 tourney matchup with Washington who I’ll get to in a second, and who will hopefully put this wounded gazelle out of their misery…

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And hopefully the Huskies are the team to do it. Washington has infuriated me this year. This is a good team. Lorenzo Romar has build an EXCELLENT roster, and they started off the season proving just that. They ripped off 11 straight wins to open the season including wins over Tournament caliber teams in the form of UTEP, Eastern Washington, #13 San Diego State,and  #15 Oklahoma. An EXCELLENT non-conference resume. But then, in the last game of the non-conference they lost to Stony Brook AND IT ALL WENT TO SHIT!!! 4 straight losses as they added 3 conference losses (in the terrible Pac-12 no less) to their non-conference loss putting them at a pedestrian 11-4. They seemingly stabilized by winning their next three AND THEN LOST TEN OF THEIR FINAL TWELVE GAMES!!!!! good Lord….

Ugh. Makes no sense. They have a true stud at PG in McDonalds all American Nigel Williams-Goss, and his back court mate Andrew Andrews (creative parents, I know) is very good as well. Add to that swing man Mike Anderson, Shawn Kemp Jr. at PF (son of Seattle SuperSonics legend Shawn Kemp… again… more creative parents) and STUD transfer center Robert Upshaw and I am COMPLETELY baffled as to how this team melted down like this. That is the second best starting five in the Pac-12 behind only Arizona and its not even close! I have no clue what went wrong here.

(Photo Credit: Bettina Hansen, The Seattle Times)

(Photo Credit: Bettina Hansen, The Seattle Times)

It’s possible that Romar is a good recruiter and horrendous coach, as he also managed to miss the tournament with a team that included both Terrance Ross, Tony Wroten, and CJ Wilcox. If that’s the case the Huskies are in a really rough spot. Romar has brought in the best talent U-dub has seen in their entire basketball history, and losing him would undeniably be a major blow to their recruiting efforts. Moreover, he’s a Washington man, playing for the Huskies in the late 70s so the urge to stay loyal will be strong, but this is just absurd. Washington should consistently be the 2nd best team in the Pac 12 year after year, and instead they’re 2nd WORST and underacheiving something terrible.

(Photo Credit: Stephen Brashear, Associated Press)

(Photo Credit: Stephen Brashear, Associated Press)

The other issue could be with star transfer center Robert Upshaw who was dismissed from the team in January. There were all sorts of issues with Upshaw at Fresno State which caused him to transfer to UW in the first place. Moreover, all sorts of questions swirled around why such a talented player would go to the smaller Fresno in the first place (whom he picked over UW in his initial recruitment). Fresno couldn’t handle him and decided his talent wasn’t worth it so they cut bait. Upshaw, however, because of his talent managed to fall upwards to a bigger, high profile program in the form of Washington who coveted him all along. However, as he sat out his redshirt year yet more rumors swirled that he was going to be dismissed from the team, had left the team, had stopped going to practices, and was an all around headache. Clearly that proved to be the case after his dismissal this year. However, I’m not certain it was worth it in ‘on the court’ terms as immediately after his dismissal UW had its spectacular plunge to the bottom of the Pac-12 standings. By all accounts there’s just too much chaos surrounding this team for them to do anything, but I’m holding out hope that they can do something exciting in this Pac 12 Tourney. But we all know they’re going to lose to Stanford in the opening round………..

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.

conference usa

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.

Big-East-Logo

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.

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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.