Thursday, April 2, 2015

Twins Preview - Throwers

I really don't want to do this.  The Twins' pitching has been horrible for years, and even though it might be a little bit better it's still bad and it's also boring.  I guess just dive right in?  Yeah ok.

Opening day starter Phil Hughes should be the ace.  The Twins signed him prior to last season on the cheap, hoping he'd be a better pitcher getting out of Yankee Stadium and boy did that pay off.  He slashed his walks to an insane 0.69 per 9 innings which was the third lowest mark since 1920.  1920!  And he somehow managed to do that while increasing his strikeouts and giving up half as many homers per fly ball.  The homers number is maybe a little fluky, but moving from Yankee Stadium to Target Field can explain a lot of that too and it's balanced by a slightly higher than it should have been BABIP.

I mean Hughes was a really, really good pitcher last year.  Imagine if the Twins weren't one of the two worst fielding teams in the league last year (I can't remember the other one).  Hughes' FIP, which stands for Fielding Independent Pitching and attempts to measure a pitcher based solely on things he can control, was 2.65, almost a full run lower than his ERA (that means the Twins' fielding and Hughes' luck were both really, really bad).  That number was fifth among qualified starters in all of baseball.  He was fifth among starters in WAR.  He won 16 games on a terrible team.  He finished 7th in Cy Young voting.  I mean geez.  I didn't even realize just how good he was.

Honestly, and it scares me to say this a little, there's really no reason not to expect him to be the same pitcher this season. None of the improvements he made are unsustainable, even if a little regression should probably be expected because that's only natural after you set an all-time freaking record for K/Walk ratio, and there's actually some room for his luck to improve.  Most of the projection systems like his walk rate to about double (to a still really good number in the low 1s) and his ERA/WHIP/FIP to go up accordingly, but what if he can come closer to replicating that 0.69?  Man wow.  I know his extension is a bit of a risk since it's pretty much based on one season, but if he can come close to that pitcher again it'll be an absolute bargain.

After Hughes come a couple vets in new Ervin Santana and last year's new Ricky Nolasco.   The latter was an unmitigated disaster, as Nolasco cashed in $12 million to put up career worsts in nearly every category to the tune of a 5.38 ERA and 1.52 WHIP, all while failing to reach 200 innings pitched.  Looking into the advanced stats there's not much of a reason for optimism, though he probably won't be worse.  Even so, I took him with my first pick in a horrible players fantasy league, where you're rewarded for sucking.  Santana is a good signing for a contending team who needs someone in the middle of their rotation, but he doesn't make much sense for a a team like the Twins, especially if it helped push Alex Meyer and Trevor May back down to AAA.  I mean, he's been a pretty good pitcher in five of the last six seasons and he'll almost certainly help the team win more games this season, but he's pretty pointless unless he's still good when this team is contending.  Which will be soon, right?  Whatever.  The team probably thought they were signing Johan Santana anyway.

Starter four is Kyle Gibson who has pretty much lost his top prospect shine but had a pretty successful second season.  He improved from his (admittedly disastrous) rookie call-up two years ago by getting better in pretty much every metric you can find.  His WAR was 2.1 last season, which puts him in line with guys like Chris Tillman and Henderson Alvarez in the pretty darn good pitcher area.  I'd really like to see him up his K rate to somewhere closer to what he was putting up in the minors, but you can't really argue to much with a 2:1 ground ball to fly ball ratio.  He's a solid #4 or a so-so #3 with potential for more if he can whiff more dudes.  Keep an eye on that.

Winning the fifth starter competition over Meyer, May, and Mike Pelfrey (who is in the bullpen in a move I'm sure will work out) is your guy Tommy Milone, who came over in the Sam Fuld trade in what was a steal because Fuld is terrible.  Not that Milone is anything particularly special, but he's made himself into a serviceable major league pitcher despite a fastball that doesn't break 87 miles per hour unless there's a stiff breeze behind him.  But he mixes his pitches well and generally keeps the walks down, so he's not the worst option you could have as a fifth starter - though I promise you he'll have games where he's missing his spots where you'll believe he's pretty much the worst.

That's it for the starters, so now we're on to the bullpen which is going to be awful.  Glen Perkins will close of course and he's pretty awesome.  I have a tendency since he's a Minnesotan on a Minnesota team (and also I'm kind of a shithead sometimes) to assume he's being locally overrated but Perkins really is an elite closer.  Since he took over the closer role permanently in 2013 he ranks 9th in saves (on a terrible team), 13th in K/9, 58th in ERA, and 22nd in FIP, and 25th in WHIP among all pitchers with at least 120 innings pitched - that's pretty damn good!  And he has four more extremely affordable years on his contract (including this season).  I kind of love the guy, but they should probably be listening at every trade deadline.  Some team in win-now mode who is desperate for a closer might do something foolish, and he's a very valuable trade chip.  For now, I'm just going to love watching him, and he's young enough he could be the closer when the team is in contention again (they will!), but you know, think about it.

I'm not saying shop him, not at all.  I'm just saying if say, the Dodgers and their bottomless pit of money find themselves in a dogfight for the division they could come sniffing around.  What if Kenley Jansen's injury festers and he's out all year, and terrible Brandon League and unproven Chris Hatcher aren't getting the job done?  Between Perkins's skills, proven closer status, and super nice contract he'd be an attractive option.  Maybe you can pry Kyle Seager or Julio Urias away.  That would be pretty stupid on the Dodgers' end, but that doesn't mean it can't happen.  They have a super deep farm system and they clearly want to win and they want to win now.

Casey Fien will be the main setup guy after another pretty good year even if he did slip a bit.  It's a smidge disconcerting, however, that his K/9 dropped from 10.6 in 2013 to 7.3 in 2014.  His velocity was actually up so there's a decent chance this was just a weird blip, but there was also a huge jump in contact rate.  Keep an eye on this guy.

Brian Duensing was brought back for some reason and he'll be the sole non-Perkins lefty even though he's really quite terrible at pitching.  He has been decent at getting lefties out in his career, but his inability to strike anyone out drives me crazy and he should never, ever pitch to right-handed batters.  I really don't know why they tendered him other than continuity and familiarity which, as you know, the Twins value to an absurd degree.  I'd rather just roll the dice on Caleb Thielbar.  Granted in his two seasons he's shown reverse splits and if the Twins looked at that then bravo, but I guess I don't buy the front office is that sophisticated.  There aren't really any other in house options for a lefty bullpen guy which is sad in and of itself, but there's always plenty of crappy lefty arms out there you could probably snag for a minor league deal.  In the long run I suppose it doesn't matter, but giving $2.7 million to a terrible Duensing is kind of gross.

The rest of the bullpen is pretty much a mess.  Tim Stauffer is a failed starter who's dealt with a couple of really significant injuries and he's probably the best of the group.  Mike Pelfrey is absolutely terrible and should be released but instead the Twins are putting him in the pen which also pissed him off, so this is just a great situation all around.  J.R. Graham pretty much made the team because he was a Rule 5 pick and has to be on the big league roster or be sent back to his original team, and I literally have no idea who Blaine Boyer is.  This is not an impressive collection of arms, and to make it even worse the only guy in the entire bullpen who is under 30 is Graham.  It's a group of old, failed pitchers.  I prefer my bullpen made up of hard throwing young guys with at least one who isn't sure where the ball might be going all the time.  That's fun.  This is a garbage fire.

It's not like the team's going anywhere anyway.  You could roll with 25-year old Michael Tonkin, 25-year old Stephen Pryor, 26-year old Lester Oliveros, 22-year old Nick Burdi, and 22-year old Jake Reed and be just as well off, if not better, and it would be a lot more fun.  Or hell, throw Meyer and/or May into the pen to start like the way the Orioles have handled Kevin Gausman.  I don't know.  I'm not entirely certain this team has a coherent plan beyond "waiting for 2016 and hoping all the prospects are good" but whatever.

All in all, the starters could be decent this year, and will most likely be the best the Twins have had in a few years.  The bullpen, however, is going to blow a lot of games.

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Twins Roster Preview - Hitter guys

With the depressing but not terribly surprising news that the Twins sent all the interesting young people back down to the minors and kept a bunch of lame-o veterans on the big league roster, I suppose it's time to turn my thoughts to baseball.  Also, there's a 75% chance I hate the college basketball national champion (actually probably more like 98%) so I'm going to ignore that until it's on TV because of course I'll watch.  Anyway, here's what we're dealing with from the guys who will try to hit the ball this year.

CATCHER:  It'll be Kurt Suzuki and Josmil Pinto once again.  Although it's kind of boring, this is sadly probably the Twins strength given Suzuki's solid season in 2014 and Pinto's possible upside.  The handling of the catcher position last year was bizarre.  Signing Suzuki in case Pinto wasn't ready made sense, but then extending Suzuki and demoting Pinto was the kind of move a contending team would make, and in case you forgot the Twins were not a contending team.  Suzuki's value was likely at an all-time high given his career year and All-Star appearance and moving him at the trade deadline was probably the smart move, but here we are.

Suzuki will of course be the starter again.  Last year he put up a slash line of .288/.345/.383 which smashed his career numbers.  His peripherals suggest some regression but not as much as I had feared, so he should be solid behind the plate again.  He's not horrible defensively either, so the Twins have a legit, competent player.  Neat.  Hopefully he gets traded.  Pinto had a solid minor league track record of hitting and had a splashy debut in 2013, but last season his bat deserted him to the tune of .219/.315/.391 and given that he's a pretty terrible fielder most/all of his value comes from his bat.  He did start hitting once demoted down to AAA last year, and even in struggles he still showed good plate discipline and power when he did make contact so there's probably not too much to worry about.  Other than his path being completely blocked by the stupid 2-year deal given to Suzuki.  Trade him!

INFIELD:  Your guy Joe Mauer will be the first baseman again, which is pretty brutal.  Mauer's line of .277/.361/.371 would be slightly above average for a middle infielder, but that OPS ranked 15th among all first basemen who qualified last season, just a slight tick better than Garrett Jones.  I don't know what's up with Mauer, but an increase in strikeouts coupled with a complete loss of power is fairly terrifying given his salary.  He's stopped hitting fly balls, and the fly balls he does hit don't go anywhere.  I don't know why or what he's doing differently but whatever it is somebody please fix it!

I'm pretty stoked about the middle infield combo of Danny Santana and Brian Dozier, and these guys could be fixtures of the team when it gets good again which it will eventually so shut up.  A lot of Santana's detractors point to his BABIP of .405 and say it's unsustainable, and it is, but I found a neato expected BABIP calculator that takes a players line drive percent and all that other stuff and spits out what the BABIP should be and his came out at .369 last year, so that .405 represents a bit of luck but not this massive amount you'd usually expect from a number north of .400.  I expect him to bat close to .300 again and play a shaky shortstop.

Dozier just signed what could be a steal of a deal at 4/$20, assuring the Twins won't have to shell out big money any time soon if he continues to get better or even stays the same.  Of course they could be stuck with him if he goes back to sucking, but I choose to believe that isn't going to happen.  He doesn't hit for a high average which makes old people sad, but he has good power and great plate discipline, not to mention an above average glove and according to fangraphs base running metric (takes into account both stealing bases and taking an extra base on a hit) he was the 3rd best base runner in the game.  Add all that up, and his hair, and you get one of the best second basemen in all of baseball.  Too many tools for him to breakdown.  He's going to be a nice bargain for the next four years, and probably traded at the deadline in 2018.

Trevor Plouffe will be back at third again, probably for the last time.  With Miguel Sano breathing down his neck and still no indication Sano's going to be anything other than a third baseman this is Plouffe's last chance to prove his value.  Whether he ends up being a trade casualty (probably the best case scenario), is non-tendered in the offseason, or shows enough they want to keep him around and make him an outfielder or something he's probably done at third.  He's had a solid, if mostly unspectacular (other than that one time he was super hot hitting homers) 3-4 year run and has worked hard to go from a terrible fielder to an above average one, all while being a good, not great, hitter.  He's been an important part of a consistent 90-game loser and it's time to start winning.  Not this year, of course, be real, but next year maybe we can think about it.

Backing these nerds up we have the two headed crap factory of Eduardo Escobar and Eduardo Nunez who I still don't know why he was resigned.  Escobar showed a weird flash of power last year with 35 doubles and is a capable defender all over the place so I like having him around.  Nunez is terrible at everything.

Designated Hitter should be a fun spot with Kennys Vargas (who will also back-up at 1B) now here since he can hit the crap out of a baseball.  Vargs knocked out nine dingers and ten doubles in just 234 plate appearances, racking up an isolated power metric that would have put him in the Top 40 in the majors if he had qualified.  Considering he's like 16 years old or something that bodes well for the future.  Assuming more experience helps move his walk and strikeout rates closer to his minor league numbers (a dangerous assumption, to be sure), he could be in for a big year.  He crushed the ball in spring training with 1 HR every 14 ABs and everyone loves to watch fat guys launch baseballs out of the yard so expect him to be a fan favorite.

OUTFIELD:  What a mess.  Aaron Hicks ruined everything, and he's back in the minors again meaning Jordan Schafer, he of the career .621 OPS, will man center, flanked by the immobile Oswaldo Arcia and the ancient Torii Hunter in what is basically guaranteed to be the worst defensive outfield in the majors.  Backing up a bunch of pitchers who don't strike anyone out.  Great plan.

Ok I guess there's some upside.  Arcia is still really young at 24 and he was one of just three players under 24 last year to hit more than 20 home runs.  He still strikes out a ton but at least his power and walk rates got better last year, which is a good sign for future development.  His fielding also improved from "oh my god" to "jeez this guy is terrible", which might be his ceiling.  Hunter has been pretty much the same player the last five years, at least offensively, and if he can do it again and provide "leadership" or whatever he's probably worth having around.  That being said, if you think he's any kind of defensive wizard anymore you're sorely mistaken as he's now well below average even at a corner spot (stupid Father Time!).  That said he can't be any worse than the Willingham/Kubel/Parmelee trio of death that spent time out there last year, so he's got that going for him.

Schafer is the wild card, sort of, mainly because the Twins opted against giving Hicks a third year out of camp (or something radical like bringing Eddie Rosario up ahead of schedule) despite Schafer never really doing much of anything batted ball-wise.  He's fast, bad at hitting, and white so you know he's gritty and full of hustle and heart, but in his 147 plate appearance sample with the Twins last year he managed to hit exactly league average and it was, by far, the most successful stint of his major league career.  Somehow between the Twins and Braves last year he stole 30 bases (in 37 attempts) despite just 240 plate appearances which seems completely insane to me since "getting on base" isn't really in his wheelhouse but clearly he can run, which feels exciting.  He can play a passable CF as well, so I guess it's better than throwing an inanimate carbon rod out there.

Outfield back-ups will include a handful of starts from Escobar, that god damn Nunez, and teeny tiny Shane Robinson who goes by Suga Shane on Twitter.  He'll fit in with the Twins since he's proven he can't hit over 452 career plate appearances.  He's a 30 year old non-prospect who didn't hit in the minors either until he was much older than his competition, but a mediocre Spring Training won him a job over Hicks, though perhaps giving Hicks a regular role at AAA is for the best and I really don't know who else would be better than Robinson since they didn't sign anybody else and let's be honest it probably would have been a former Twin who was well beyond his prime anyway.  Robinson is a good fielder so he'll probably have some value plugging in as a defensive replacement in the late innings when the Twins stumble into a lead.


Overall, looking like a so-so offense.  They'll most likely have above average hitters in 7 of the 9 spots and the other two either have serious bounce back potential (Mauer) or tremendous speed as an asset (Schafer).  The bench is pretty bad unless Pinto bounces back but it's the American League so there probably won't be too much pinch hitting anyway.  Switch hitting Escobar is the only possible lefty swinger off the bench but he's been brutal against righties in his career so yeah, I'd expect a lot of sticking with the main nine guys.  It's a decent offense.  The real problem is the pitching, which I don't have the heart, energy, or ambition to tackle right now.  Later.



Friday, March 27, 2015

Previewing the Sweet 16 - Friday

Small loss yesterday pretty much because of the 5 unit loss on the Wis/UNC under.  I still feel like I read that game right as it was just a 60 possession game so I nailed the pace. Carolina hitting 8 of 13 three point attempts really sunk me.  I figured Wisconsin would are UNC to shoot and they'd miss a bunch, but they nailed them so what are you gonna do?  Even given that I still had a chance until that stupid UNC foul on the perimeter with less than a minute left took out the possibility of Bucky running the clock down.  Whatevs.  We move on.  Had most of the other stuff nailed.  Here's what I'm thinking for Friday.



UCLA vs. Gonzaga.  I really, really, really didn't expect UCLA to get here, so I'm at a bit of a loss. Bryce Alford, who was becoming more and more of a chucker as the year went on, has been white hot in the tournament, and after a lucky, grind it out win against SMU (with a questionable call to boot) they looked like an absolute offensive juggernaut against UAB.  That might not sound like much, but don't forget the Blazers pretty much completely shut down Iowa State.  Is UCLA a lucky team who snuck into the tournament undeservedly, lucked into a first round win, and then decimated a shoddy opponent in round 2?  Or are they a team worthy of inclusion who has won two games playing vastly different styles and is now peaking at the right time?

Nothing in these teams' profiles suggests the Bruins have a prayer of stopping Gonzaga.  The Bulldogs are a smoothly run offensive operation with plenty of firepower both inside and outside and other than some suspect free throw shooting from their big guys no real weaknesses.  UCLA is going to have to score to keep up with them, and the Zags defense is far superior to the Bruins so it won't be easy.  They're going to want to try to get down the court as soon as possible with their athletes and try to get moving towards the basket before Gonzaga can get their half court defense set up, but an uptempo game also suits the Bulldogs just fine.

These teams played earlier this year, with Gonzaga coming out ahead 87-74.  The Zags absolutely shredded the UCLA defense with the Bruins hanging as close as they did thanks to good 3-point shooting and a bunch of offensive rebounds.  I don't really see much of any reason to expect anything wildly different, though without question this is the game I feel I have the shakiest read on.

Bet:  Gonzaga -8.5 (1 UNIT), Over 146 (1 UNIT)



Louisville vs. North Carolina State: I’m such a horrible traitor. For years I've been a huge Rick Pitino fan, which helps to explain some of my enthusiasm at the Gophers’ hiring of his son, and have always backed them to overachieve in the NCAA Tournament. I won a 20-1 future bet three years ago when they won the title and won my NCAA pool the year he won with that awesome Tony Delk Kentucky team and that should have been enough to make me a believer for life, and I thought I was. So why did I pick Louisville to lose to UC-Irvine? Was I enthralled with that giant 7-6 guy? Did I think losing Chris Jones would make a chaotic, and sometimes limited, offensive team even more chaotic? Did I think a poor close to the season made the Cardinals a prime candidate to flame out early?  Yes to all of it.  I'm horrible.  It's Rick Pitino, you dummy.

Of course, we can't discount NC State seeing as they completely dismantled what I thought was a very good Villanova team, not to mention beating a very athletic LSU squad in round 1.  Both teams have played tremendous defense in the tournament thus far holding all opponents far under their points per possession average with both putting up an extremely impressive performance versus an elite offensive team (Northern Iowa and Villanova). Both teams do it with a hellacious half court defense, though Louisville holds an edge here because they also excel at causing turnovers whereas NC State never does.  Neither team shoots the ball particularly well, so if this turns into a half court game it could end up quite a slogfest.

It will most likely end up that way, at least on the NC State end since the Wolfpack like to take their time and the Louisville defense, despite the press, generally forces teams to take up quite a bit of the shot clock on each possession.  Louisville will probably get a few easy baskets in transition thanks to turnovers, though NC State is pretty good at taking care of the ball, and they'll need them since their tendency is take a lot of terrible long twos.  I have a feeling this is going to be a very ugly game, or a beautiful game if you like defense.  In that case I'd be crazy to pick against Rick Pitino again.

Bet:  Louisville -3 (2 UNITS), Under 130 (4 UNITS)


Utah vs. Duke.  The Blue Devil start and end with Jahlil Okafor, who is the key to everything they do on offense.  He has an incredibly polished game in the post, is an adept and smart enough passer to find open shooters when double-teamed, and is a terror on the offensive boards.  He struggles against defenders who can match his size, however, and I found a little factoid that he's averaged just 11.6 points per game against teams with a 7-footer they can throw at him.  Well guess what?  Utah has two in Jakob Poeltl and Dallin Bachynski, and neither are just a big body, both have skill.  This bodes well for the Utes.  Not that Okafor is all Duke has, especially with Justise Winslow really coming on in the tournament, but having the ability to potentially limit Okafor is a really good start.

Offensively Utah also matches up well against Duke.  The Blue Devils excel at perimeter defense giving up very few three pointers and they rarely foul, but over 60% of their points allowed this year came from 2-point shots, not a problem for Utah since they shot 53% from there this year.  They were a little more reliant on three pointers than you'd like to see in this spot, but shooting 41% from behind the line on the year can do that to a team.  At least you know that even if they get limited looks they should be able to knock them down.  Delon Wright is an underrated super star at guard for Utah and he should be able to get into the lane against Duke, which could create some of those open looks.

If this becomes a half court game, I really like the Utes' chances.  I think their size on defense and ability to pound the ball in the paint are huge issues for Duke.  Even if Duke tries to get up and run, and they will, Utah's offense should be good enough to keep pace.

Bet:  Utah +6 (3 UNITS), Over 134 (1 UNIT)



Michigan State vs. Oklahoma. Two inconsistent teams (MSU lost to Texas Southern and Nebraska this year, Oklahoma lost to Washington and was swept by Kansas State) who seem to be peaking at the right time, this should be a pretty entertaining game. Though both teams play great defense, both also enjoy running with much quicker average possession times on offense than on defense. The Spartans defense generally ends up with them playing games that look to be slower tempo but their opponents average time of possession was 20.1 seconds, the second slowest mark in the country. That’s against plodding big ten teams, not a team like Oklahoma who averages under 17 seconds per possession, one of the quickest in the nation. This reads like a potential track meet to me, so the question is: who wins a track meet?

The Sooners were 6-4 this year in games against the kenpom 100 that hit 70 possessions or more; the Spartans 1-2. Sparty is definitely a deeper squad, but with almost a week of rest at this point in the season that’s pretty meaningless outside of foul trouble and neither team draws many fouls, so that advantage is pretty much irrelevant. Michigan State is a better rebounding team by a little bit, but if this game goes as I’m picturing it that won’t matter all that much either. Same goes for Oklahoma’s advantage in the turnover department, which could come into play but it’s small enough and this game should be wide open enough I don’t think it matters all that much.

I guess, in my opinion, it’s all going to come down to making shots. Michigan State is a better shot making team, but Oklahoma is a better shot defending team. Oklahoma has the best offensive weapon in Buddy Hield, but Michigan State probably has the next three in Travis Trice, Denzel Valentine, and Branden Dawson. Oklahoma is a great free throw shooting team, while Michigan State is terrible. How much is that going to matter in a game where neither team draws many fouls? I really don’t know. I don’t have a great read on the side here, but I think we’ll see points.

Bet: Oklahoma +2.5 (1 UNIT), OVER 134 (3 UNITS)


Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Previewing the Sweet 16 - Thursday

Calm down I'm here. Sorry. Unfortunately, the day after Selection Sunday we found out Mrs' W's grandpa died out in Utah, so it was a whirlwind of activity figuring out how to get out there, how to get the kids taken care of, and actually being there and seeing family and going from function to function and what not so I haven't been able to post anything about the Tournament. Luckily, however, the games were always on in the background and I'm really good at tuning out mindless conversation, so I know everything that happened. And, as a compulsive gambler, I probably know even more than you. Here's what's going on Thursday:


Wichita State vs. Notre Dame: Here we have that age old classic matchup of offense vs. offense, with Notre Dame averaging 1.21 points per possession (3rd in NCAA) and Wichita averaging 1.14 (16th). At first glance, Wichita seems more likely to be able to hold the Irish down than vice versa since their defense ranks much better, but playing in a weaker conference like the Missouri Valley can sometimes prop that up.  In the Shockers first two tournament games they allowed 76 points (1.1ppp) and 65 points (0.94), higher numbers than the 0.92 on the season - though the Kansas game was mighty impressive.

Notre Dame was pointed out by many as an upset prone type of team because of their reliance on the three pointer and suspect defense, and though they've shown a little better profile in the games so far (only 6 threes attempted against Northeastern, a good defensive effort vs. Butler) two three point wins, one in OT, don't have me convinced they're any less vulnerable.  Wichita is vulnerable to the three, but you have to work hard to get open shots against that defense, and they do an excellent job defending inside.  The Irish don't get offensive rebounds and don't create turnovers so they're going to have to hit open shots to score - which they are certainly capable of.

One of the most impressive things about the Shockers is they are super balanced in their inside/outside scoring.  They aren't dependent on the 3, but they can hit a ton of them if you leave it open - they beat Indiana hitting just two threes, they beat Kansas hitting ten.  The Shockers are an incredibly balanced team with no major weaknesses and a lot of strengths.  I mentioned before how a team's stats can be inflated going against inferior competition, and that's certainly a possibility here, but I think Wichita's results in the tournament the last two seasons show they aren't some overrated mid-major.  

Bet:  Wichita State -1.5 (2 UNITS), Over 137 (2 UNITS)



Wisconsin vs. North Carolina: This is a horrible matchup for the Heels. This is a team that can’t shoot, but thrives in transition and creates second chances for itself by absolutely owning the offensive boards (5th in the country). They don’t create rurnovers either, so they absolutey need those boards to score if they can’t get out and run. Now Kennedy Meeks, one of their two big time rebounders could be hurt or at least limited, and they’re about to go up against Frank Kaminsky. Yikes.

Seems pretty straight forward on the Badger end of things. Offensively they’re pretty much content to go one shot and be done, but always get that one shot. They won’t turn it over and the UNC defense doesn’t force turnovers, so most likely the Badgers will finish in single digits. They shoot the ball well enough that they won’t have to worry about creating second shot opportunities, and I expect to see four, if not five, Badgers sprinting to get back on defense as soon as a shot goes up. With everyone back and no or limited turnovers, the transition chances for the Tar Heels are going to be close to nil.

Generally the Badgers try to limit their opponents three point chances, but unfortunately Bo Ryan is smart enough to know that’s the exact opposite tact to take against North Carolina. The Badgers will likely pack the defense in and go under all screens (possible exception against Marcus Paige), forcing Carolina to make outside shots, something they’ve been horrible at this year. With Meeks status up in the air they’ll be even more limited in the paint anyway, so for them to have a chance someone like Justin Jackson or Nate Britt is going to have to suddenly learn how to shoot the lights out, or Brice Johnson will have to have the game of his life - seems unlikely. The Badgers, who hate to fast break like a fat kids hates asparagus, will send all five defensive players to the boards as well to take away as many second chance points from UNC as possible.

What does this all add up to? A slow it down, one shot each time down the court for each team kind of game. Does that sound more like a North Carolina kind of game, or a Wisconsin kind of game? I’ll give you a hint: Meeks leads the Heels in eFG% at 56.6% - four of the Badger starters are better than that, and Bronson Koenig would be if his 2-point % wasn’t so awful.

Bet: Wisconsin -5 (2 UNITS), Under 144 (5 UNITS).



West Virginia vs. Kentucky:  In order to beat Kentucky, several things have to happen and yes, all of them need to happen.  First, you have to be able to limit the monsters on the blocks.  Karl-Anthony Towns and Trey Lyles are huge, natural scoring machines, Willie Cauley-Stein is an athletic freak who's learning how to score, and Dakari Johnson is seven-feet tall and can jump over everyone's head.  Keeping them contained is no easy task, but it can be done with big, physical defenders and strategic double teams.  West Virginia doesn't defend the two well, has limited big men and only one shot blocker.  Not off to a great start.

Second, you have to hope the guards miss their outside shots and then rebound when they do.  Kentucky's one weakness is they don't have great perimeter shooting, and though they're usually smart enough to pound the ball inside the Harrison twins and Devin Booker can occasionally fall in love with the jumper shot. You'd much rather take your chances there than letting the big guys go to work in the paint, you just have to get the rebounds - easier said than done with UK rebounding 40% of their misses this season.  Kentucky's guards will have a significant size advantage over the Mountaineer guards so when they double and then close out the Wildcat shooters will be able to shoot over them, they'll just have to hope they miss and then rebound.  They're an average defensive rebounding team, so this could go either way.

Third, you have to be able to score.  Kentucky is a great, yes great, defensive team and they can shut teams down.  The good news for WVU is that they can score in some unconventional ways by excelling at getting themselves extra possessions.  The Mountaineers are #1 in the country at forcing turnovers and #4 in the country in offensive rebounding - that's a whole lot of extra shots.  They're a terrible shooting team, but they've gotten this far by creating extra scoring chances for themselves, something that will be the key to the game.  Kentucky doesn't turn the ball over much and they handled Arkansas pretty well, but they're surprisingly vulnerable to opponents' offensive rebounding. 

This will be an interesting game, because it's a team with an unconventional profile taking on Kentucky, a team they'll have to play against in a completely different way than they're used to.  Another wrinkle is Bob Huggins being involved, because no matter what you think of the guy as a person he's one hell of a coach.  Don't forget, the last time these teams matched up in the NCAA Tournament was when that John Wall/Demarcus Cousins Kentucky team looked unstoppable, and WVU won.  

Bet:  West Virginia +13.5 (2 UNITS), Under 136 (1 UNIT)



Xavier vs. Arizona:  Arizona is clearly the more talented team here.  The Wildcats have three or four future NBA draft picks on their team, one guaranteed in the lottery, and another guy who made the All Pac-12 First Team.  The Musketeers' best player is the guy everyone is making jokes about how he looks like a guy playing at the Y and is an Uber driver in his spare time.  In many ways this is your classic glitz and glamor vs. grit and hustle match-up, until you realize Arizona works its collective ass off and is one of the best defensive teams in the country so they're pretty damn gritty hustley too, just more talented.  So can Xavier keep this one close?

I think it's going to depend on if Arizona can hit threes.  Xavier tends to play a more packed in defense, giving up more three point attempts than average, and then hit the boards hard to limit second chances.  Arizona is not a great three point shooting team, although they do hit a good percentage.  The Wildcats prefer to get the ball inside, and then take threes when they're open.  Only Stanley Johnson and Gabe York took over 100 shots from behind the arc on the team this year, though they did hit each hit better than 37% so daring them to shoot is playing with fire.  There's no real easy way to stop Arizona, but keeping them out of the lane as much as possible is a good start.

Xavier is very well coached team, and as such I expect they'll realize they can't win an uptempo game against an Arizona team that thrives in transition.  This game will likely turn into a half court kind of affair, and with the Musketeers ability to keep Arizona off the offensive glass and their likely emphasis on getting back on defense rather than getting their own misses means the game will come down to Xavier not turning it over, and Xavier making enough shots to keep up with Arizona (X will likely not turn over Zona much).  The Musketeers played great offensively against both Ole Miss and Georgia State, and though Arizona is on a completely different level, Xavier so far has that look of a team that both knows it is not supposed to have gotten this far, and also knows it has nothing to lose.  Sounds kind of stupid, but it's also kind of a thing.

Bet:  Xavier +11 (1 UNIT), Under 136 (2 UNITS)


Back tomorrow for Friday's games.  


Thursday, March 12, 2015

Thursday's Tournaments - The Stragglers get Going

The Gophers won, yay!  Lafayette to the Big Dance, yay?  I don't have to write any more of these previews after today, yay!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!



AMERICAN CONFERENCE:
The American plays some ugly basketball.  Well no, not really, but they play a real distinct grind it out, ultra defensive style that's reminiscent of those horrendous Knicks/Magic games from however many years ago.  Cincinnati, Memphis, UCONN, SMU, Temple, and Tulsa are all in the top 72 in defensive efficiency, with three of those teams in the top 24.  Add in a lot of sub 250 tempo rankings and some worse than 150 offensive ratings and you get some offensively challenged games.  I mean, it works, seeing as how UCONN won the title last year and they'll probably get three teams in the NCAA Tournament this year, but it's not exactly aesthetically pleasing.

FAVORITE:  Southern Methodist.  SMU was my sleeper pick to win the National Championship last spring when the early odds came out.  At 33-1 I thought they had the right combination of returning players, new players including a possible super star, and a good coach and system (and there was still the possibility they'd get Myles Turner).  Well they didn't get Turner and that potential superstar signed in China.  Then one newcomer, Justin Martin a double digit scorer from Xavier, left, returning guard and double digit scorer Keith Frazier was bounced for academics, and returning double digit scorer Markus Kennedy was suspended for the first semester (not necessarily in that order).  Despite that mess, the Mustangs finished the year 24-6 and 15-3 in a pretty good American Conference.  This is a really good overall team, ranking 26th in kenpom's ratings.

SLEEPER:  UCONN.  You have to pick UCONN, right?  This just seems like the thing they do, with Shabazz Napier morphing into Kemba Walker and now hopefully (for them) Ryan Boatright morphing into Napier (did I forget a Jeremy Lamb in there?  Maybe).  Doesn't seem likely this year since this version of the Huskies is probably the worst since 2007 team, but you never know witha  guy like Boatright.

THE PICK:  Temple.  I like Temple here because things seem to be coming together.  The Owls have won ten of twelve, including wins over Cincinnati, Memphis, and UCONN and although most of those wins did come against bottom tier teams they won nearly all of them by double digits, and their two losses were to SMU and Tulsa on the road and that Tulsa team was desperate for that win.  Their offense is pretty crappy and they're one of the worst shooting teams in the country, but they make up for that with an extremely stingy defense (8th in DeFF in the country).  They also don't turn it over and hit the offensive boards well so their kind of a garbage team, but in this kind of conference that can work.


BIG SKY:
The Big Sky seems pretty fun.  A nice mix of hippies (Sacramento State, Eastern Washington, Portland State), militia men (Montana, Montana State, North Dakota), and Mormons (Weber State, Southern Utah, Idaho, Idaho State).  They should throw a big mixer for fans of all these teams and just kind of see what happens.  What could go wrong?

FAVORITE:  Montana.  The Grizzlies grabbed the #1 seed thanks to a 14-4 conference record highlighted by 7-1 closing stretch that included a win over their closest competition, Eastern Washington.  The Grizz are highlighted by two First Team All-Big Skyers in Jordan Gregory and Martin Breuning, both of whom scored north of 16 points per game, an offense that's very dependent on the three, and a bad defense that did manage to tighten up during conference play to rank #1 in DeFF in Big Sky play despite bad numbers overall.  Sounds like a fun team (and they lost in double OT against both Cal and Boise State, so they might be ok.  They also gave up 110 points to Davidson).

SLEEPER:  Weber State.  For whatever reason, the Wildcats rise in March.  They have won four Big Sky tournaments since 2007, twice when they weren't the #1 seed, and they have a career record of 6-16 in the big dance which may not sound like much but for a team on this level nationally those six wins feel pretty impressive.  They finished runner-up in the CBI two years ago and followed that up with an NCAA berth and an impressive showing against Arizona last year so they're trending up - provided you ignore their 13-16 record this year, which I am.  Weber State is great great great! (my wife went here one semester, FYI, so I am not rational about them.)  Also they'll need to upset Montana in round 1, so this is probably not my best pick.

THE PICK:  Eastern Washington.  If I decide not to believe that Montana suddenly fixed its defense, and I don't, I need a different pick so why not the Eagles?  They also won 14 conference games, won 23 total games, have a nice shiny win over Indiana, won at Montana earlier, and sport the nation's leading scorer in Tyler Harvey (22.9ppg).  Harvey is one of the rare big-time scorers at a small school who also does it efficiently, ranking #168 in the country in O-rating thanks to dead-eye shooting from three (43%) at a high volume (over 9 attempts per game).  He dropped 25 against the Hoosiers, and had one stretch this season where he hit 26 of 36 threes over four games.  Sound like the kind of guy who could carry a good team to a conference tournament title?


BIG WEST:
The Big West has generally been a solid, underrated conference, and losing their premiere program, Pacific, in 2013 hasn't changed that as the schools (Big West really just means small California schools + Hawaii) have all generally stepped up their game.  UC-Santa Barbara and Long Beach have been good for a while now, but this year they found themselves behind UC-Davis and UC-Irvine, and not because they slipped.  Davis is the #1 three point shooting team in the country and Irvine almost (yes, almost) beat several middle tier big conference foes.  Whoever comes out of here will be a major test for somebody in round 1.

FAVORITE:  UC-Davis.  Davis, who I don't think even because a full D-I school until maybe 10 years ago, coasted to the Big West regular season title with a 14-2 record behind Big West player of the year Corey Hawkins (sweet basketball name here).  Hawkins led the conference in scoring at just north of 20 points per game, and his 49.7% three point shooting was a big reason why the Aggies finished third in the country in effective field goal percentage, but three other bombers hitting better than 40% from three are a big part of that as well.  UC-Davis struggles in a lot of basketball areas, but man can they shoot the hell out of the ball.

SLEEPER:  UC-Santa Barbara.  The Gauchos won this thing in 2010 and 2011 behind Orlando Johnson, who has had some NBA time here and there, but they've been shut out since then and I'm guessing former Saints tight end and current UCSB coach Boo Williams is ready to get back to the Big Dance.  They might not have an Orlando Johnson this year, but they do have two All First Team Big West performers in Michael Bryson (14.1 pts, 4.1 rebs) and Alan Williams (16.8 pts, 11.9 rebs) as well as an honorable mention for John Green (11.0 pts, 4.1 rebs), so there is a lot of talent here (it's also Williams's's's third time making an Big West team).  I remember watching Williams last year, guy is an absolute beast.

THE PICK:  UC-Santa Barbara.  UC-Davis's shooting is super impressive, but I can't trust that to hold up over an entire tournament.  The Gauchos, on the other hand, are loaded with talent and not only do they have Williams on both ends (also led the Big West at 2.0 bpg) but they have a decent defense overall and a more balanced offense.  They also have the Big West Best Hustle Player Award Winner (yes that's a real thing) for the second straight season in guard Zalmico Harmon (6.2 pts, 3.7 assists).  I know what you're wondering and no, he is black.  White guys won the award the previous six seasons, as far back as I could find.


WAC:
Quick, name three teams in the WAC.......Actually I'm not even sure if I could have done it, and as you can see I have a serious college basketball obsession problem.  All the conference realignment that's gone down lately helped some conference's relative strength and weakened others, but it most cases it's either minor or could be temporary or both.  In the WAC's case, however, it was completely nuked.  Back in the day it used to be probably an upper tier mid-major.  Now it's become the home of the dregs with nowhere else to go:  Missouri-Kansas City, Grand Canyon, Texas Pan American, and Chicago State to name a few.  Pretty gross, but at least there's as super clear favorite.

FAVORITE:  New Mexico State.  While everyone else fled the WAC, New Mexico State stuck around and by default is now the power program of the conference.  Not that it's strictly by default - the Aggies have won the last 3 WAC Tournaments and 4 of the last 5.  They haven't won an NCAA Tournament game during that run, but it's still impressive.  Kenpom names 3 of it's Top 5 WAC players as Aggies, and their 13-1 record was a full five games better than second place Grand Canyon and UMKC so yeah, they're  pretty prohibitive favorite.

SLEEPER:  Grand Canyon.  Remember how I mentioned this conference was NMSU and then nobody else?  The Aggies are ranked in the top 140 in offensive efficiency and top 80 in defensive efficiency this year, the only other WAC team to rank in the top 196 in anything is Grand Canyon with a 109th ranked offense.  Of course, they couple that with a defense than ranks #342, which is ridiculous, but that's how little I have to go on when trying to come up with a sleeper.  Could have gone Seattle too since they're the only WAC team to beat New Mexico State.  Whatever.

THE PICK:  New Mexico State.  I said whatever.



SUN BELT:
Conference realignment may have screwed up the WAC, but that wasn't the only conference to see some major changes.  The Sun Belt lost what was most likely it's most premiere program, Western Kentucky, to Conference USA, but this year's regular season winner and top seed, Georgia State, came over in the same realignment carousel from the Colonial.  They've now won two consecutive regular season crowns, so they've slid in for the Hilltoppers without any problem.

FAVORITE:  Georgia State.  Georgia State has been a little bit of a darling among those who pay too much attention to small conference teams (and gamblers) because of their guards.  Each of the last two years they've been able to team up coach's son and offensive dynamo R.J. Hunter (19.7ppg, 3.8apg) and former super recruit and Kentucky and NC State guard Ryan Harrow (20.2ppg, 4.0apg) and they've done some good things.  Last year they steamrolled the Sun Belt to a 17-1 one mark and one of the top offensive in the country, but it all fell apart with an overtime loss in the Sun Belt tournament to Elfrid Payton's Louisiana-Lafayette team.  This year they took a bit of a step back at 15-5 but this is still a really good team who could do some damage, and another team I really hope makes it.

SLEEPER:  Louisiana-Monroe.  The Warhawks finished 14-6 in Sun Belt play, and they really stand out because in a conference full of helter skelter, pressing type teams (the conference has three teams in the Top 25 in adjusted tempo) they play extremely slow (#326 in tempo).  They also cannot be sped up.  They never once surpassed 68 possessions in a non-OT conference game no matter who they played, completely dictating tempo no matter what.  They also play a nice, tough defense.  They cannot score, and more specifically cannot shoot at all, but hey, the can control tempo.  Sometimes that's enough.  They also beat Georgia State just one week ago.

THE PICK:  Georgia State.  We cannot lose another team who could make a mini-run.  Murray State is out and Iona is out, and the majority of the already qualified teams are really not very good.  The Panthers are one of our few low major candidates left who you can say "yeah I could see them in the Sweet 16" and that stuff is really fun.  Go Panthers.




And that's it.  Next thing you know, it's Selection Sunday.  Away we go.

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Wednesday Tournament Preview - Here Come the Big Dogs

Four more conference tournaments wrapped up last night with North Dakota State taking the Summit (called it!), Robert Morris the NEC (called it!), Valpo the Horizon, and Gonzaga the West Coast (called it!).  Gonzaga is obviously good and will be a 1 or 2 seed depending on how some other tournaments shake out, but I don't really see any way any of the other three win a first round game.  Maybe Valpo if they get a team that doesn't shoot well.  North Carolina would be fun.

Anyway, there are one million tournaments kicking off today so no need for preamble.  God knows there'll be enough words for you to read.

ATLANTIC 10:
When did the A-10 become all competitive and deep and fun?  This conference has five 20+ game winners already, three more teams with at 17 wins, and eight of fourteen teams finished with a winning record in conference play.  They also have four Top 50 teams in kenpom's rankings, and two more in the top 75 with a few more just outside the Top 100.  This tournament is going to be wild.

FAVORITE:  Davidson.  The Wildcats stormed to the #1 seed by winning their final 9 games with four of those wins coming over fellow contenders.  Davidson has one of the most fun offenses in the country, playing fast but taking care of the ball, whipping it around the perimeter and draining threes.  The register a ton of assists (61% of baskets, ranks 28th), get forty percent of their points from three (ranks 5th), and score 1.9 points per possession (6th in country).  All this while playing fast.  Super, super fun team.

SLEEPER:  VCU.  There's no mistaking it - when Briante Weber went down with a knee injury VCU's season derailed.  They lost that game and then went 5-5 the rest of the way without any kind of good win.  However this is a really talented team with an extremely good coach.  Weber was a huge key on both sides of the ball for the Rams, obviously, but would it really surprise you to see Shaka Smart figure something out and go on a run?

THE PICK:  Dayton.  I can't shake the memory of that run Dayton went on in the NCAAs last year.  Yes, each year is different so this isn't the exact same team, but Jordan Sibert and Dyshawn Pierre are both back and looking at their season long results (23-7) they only have one bad loss.  Dayton also pretty much shuts down the 3-point line so if it comes down to a Davidson vs. Dayton match-up the Flyers should be able to hang.  Though Davidson did beat them by 17 earlier while hitting 12-23 threes.  Well, too late to change the pick now.


BIG EAST:
Everyone loves to complain about how the old Big East is no more, and with good reason because those old tournaments were awesome (stupid football).  But the new Big East is pretty good.  Creighton was a great story last year, and this year Villanova would be getting all kind of attention if it wasn't for Kentucky.  The Wildcats (Nova version) have won 12 in row, are 29-2 overall, have played one bad game all year, and have six guys who average between nine and fourteen points per game.  Georgetown, Butler, Xavier, Providence, and St. John's are all really good too.  You can take away the football schools, but the Big East is still a hell of a basketball conference.

FAVORITE:  Villanova.  I guess I kind of wrote them up above, but this is a really good team.  In that 12 game winning streak to close the season they beat Georgetown, Butler, and St. John's while sweeping Creighton and Providence.  That's not beating up on the dregs of the conference, that's just whooping up everybody.

SLEEPER:  Providence.  This team should be better than it has been, and it's been pretty good (21-10, 11-7).  LaDontae Henton is a 20 point per game scorer, and Kris Dunn has triple double potential every time out (15.5 points, 5.6 rebs, 7.4 assists per game).  For whatever reason they just lose to every really good team they play.  Maybe that's who they are and they're actually just a slightly above average team.  Maybe they just need something to spark.

THE PICK:  Villanova.  Not really sure what else to write here.  These guys are really good.  They shoot the ball well from everywhere, they take care of the basketball, they get to the free throw line a lot, and they're one of the top assist teams in the country.  They also play very good defense, create turnovers, don't foul, and have size and experience.  The only real weakness is they aren't a great rebounding team and maybe that bites them in the NCAA Tournament at some point, and Butler could be a bit of a problem but they won't face them until the championship, if they get there.  This team's really good.


BIG TEN:
Hey, you've probably heard of these guys.  It's kind of a weird year in the Big Ten, because I only really see one Final Four contender.  Plenty of Sweet 16 type teams, but other than the stupid Badgers I don't see anyone else advancing past early in the second week at best.  Maryland doesn't seem good enough to be a 3 seed from what I've seen, Michigan State certainly has the talent and the Izzo to possibly do that thing Tom Izzo always does, and De'Angelo Russell is good enough to carry the team John Wallace style, but in general I think the Sweet 16 is the ceiling for most of these teams.

FAVORITE:  Wisconsin.  Like I said, the Badgers are pretty prohibitive favorite here.  The won the conference by two games, and by 4+ over everyone except Maryland.  This year's version of the Badgers is basically the same as always - play slow, take care of the ball, shoot well and immediately get back on defense to limit transition opportunities, play good defense without taking any chances, allow few offensive rebounds and don't foul (comes with no chances, also no turnovers).  This year's version is the most perfect version Bo Ryan has put together, that offensive is the #1 in the country in points per possession, and they have a legitimate star in Frank Kaminsky.  As an added wrinkle they actually have some athletic ability with both Sam Dekker and Nigel Hayes, and Bronson Koenig has stepped in for Traveon Jackson with no issue - and Jackson might be back.  Yuck.

SLEEPER:  Minnesota.  Homer alert, yes I know, but hear me out.  The Gophers possess a couple of the main characteristics I've outlined in all these previews for a potential sleeper:  they have a trait different from most of the rest of the conference (they're the fastest team in the B10), and they have a skill that, if everything breaks right, can win a game all on it's own in their ability to force turnovers (they rank 8th).  They've also been right there in almost every game they've lost - the only games that were basically over prior to the endgame were @Maryland, @Indiana, and the two Wisconsin games.  I know watching this team all year has you rolling your eyes and shaking your head and I'm with you, but they profile as a sleeper and they wouldn't have to face Wisconsin until a potential final.  Stranger things have happened.  Probably.

THE PICK:  Michigan State.  Though Wisconsin is the best team, they also seem to usually take the Big Ten Tournament off having one just once since 2008, and the Spartans seem the best bet to step in and win.  The Spartans have that incredible trio of Dawson, Trice, and Valentine and Izzo seems to have the team peaking at the end of the year, as per usual.  Sparty closed out 8-3, and even though one of those losses was against the Gophers, I'll give them a pass.


BIG 12:
Everyone says this is the best conference this year, kenpom has them well clear of everyone else, and maybe they're right.  Kansas, Oklahoma, Baylor, and Iowa State all have a chance at the Final Four, and I guess you can't forget about West Virginia.  You can, however, forget about Oklahoma State if you want.  They've completely faded, losing five of their last six.  ESPN still has them in as an 11 seed, but unless something changes they have no chance at upsetting anyone.

FAVORITE:  Kansas.  The Jayhawks are the most confusing team to me this year.  At times, I've thought I'd probably pick them to make the Final Four.  At other times, they look like a first round upset candidate.  At their best they're a hyper athletic bunch with an inside presence, good perimeter shooting, and a bunch of guys who can defend all over the court.  At others, they look lost, struggle in the half court offense, and get crushed on the boards.  This is why you have a team who can go 13-5 in the best conference in basketball who also got absolutely crushed by Temple.  I'm clueless.

SLEEPER:  West Virginia.  When I think of teams jumping up and doing unexpected things I usually figure they're a team with a star who can carry the team (Juwan Staten?), a team who does one thing so exceptionally well they can swing a game just on that alone (WVU #1 in forcing turnovers in the country), and a team who plays a pace, either slow or fast, that can make other teams uncomfortable (26th fastest team).  WVU checks those boxes.  Their actual shooting and defense are pretty suspect so It'd probably have to be pretty fluky, but they could do it.

THE PICK:  Oklahoma.  Some teams just seem built for a tournament type run, call it the eye test or what have you, but for me both Oklahoma and Iowa State seem like those kind of teams to me.  They're both very athletic, fast teams who play a hectic pace, while Iowa State excels on offense and Oklahoma on defense.  I'm giving the nod to the Sooners because they're a better offensive team than Iowa State is defensive, and Oklahoma's star, Buddy Hield, seems to be trending up while Iowa State's, Georges Niang, is trending down.


CONFERENCE USA:
This is another conference that got rocked by realignment, losing Louisville, Memphis, Cincinnati, and Marquette (among others) over the last ten years - basically every one of their flagship programs.  Louisiana Tech has been on the fringe of an at large bid the last couple of years and Old Dominion is near the bubble this year, but I don't think C-USA has been a multi-bid conference in a while.  They're still a young conference, so maybe they'll grow into the MVC someday, but they're closer to a low major than a mid major right now.

FAVORITE:  Louisiana Tech.  This is the third straight year the Bulldogs have won a regular season title - the last two in C-USA and the prior season in the WAC.  Yet they haven't been to the NCAA Tournament since 1991 because they've bombed out in the conference tournament every year.  Coach Michael White (sounds made up) has established his system in Louisiana, and every year the Bulldogs play fast, play good defense, and create a ton of turnovers while limiting their own.  It's worked in the regular season, but like Billy Beane so far his shit doesn't work in the playoffs.  Hopefully this is finally the year.

SLEEPER:  Western Kentucky.  They've won the conference tournament two of the last three years, and won five times in the 2000s in the Sun Belt so they know what they're doing at the end of the year.  WKU seems to jump up and become an NCAA Tournament sleeper every few years, led by a star like Courtney Lee, Orlando Mendez-Valdez, or A.J. Slaughter.  They certainly have another candidate this year in senior guard T.J. Price, who led the conference in scoring at 17.6 points per game while hitting 42% of his threes.  He could certainly carry this team, and he's got three other double digit scorers to help out.  Of course, it's hard to believe a team that lost to the Gophers could go on to have any success.

THE PICK:  UTEP.  I liked UTEP to start the year, and although they haven't done anything to make me say hey wow look at UTEP, they haven't bombed out either.  13-5 in conference play with the #2 offense and #3 defense in CUSA, they're a definite contender, and an early nonconference win over Xavier is better than anything else anyone in the conference can point to.  The Miners did get swept by La Tech, but they won't have to face them unless they both make the final, and Tech is flawed enough they might not make it.  UTEP can handle anyone else.


MOUNTAIN WEST:
Well it was a run Mountain West Conference.  After ranking as a Top 10 Conference by kenpom from 2002-2014, the Mountain West dropped to 12th this year.  That might not seem like a big deal, but another way to look at it is after easily putting multiple teams in the tournament year after year, the MWC might be a one bid league this year.

FAVORITE:  San Diego State.  The only MWC team guaranteed of a bid this year, the Aztecs have a little bit of a dynasty going on here under Steve Fisher with four regular season titles in the last five seasons, though they've only won one conference tournament in that time.  This year will also mark their sixth straight NCAA Tournament appearance, with the Aztecs advancing past the first round three times, including a Sweet 16 appearance last season.  It's the same team as every other year, although this year might be Fisher's most extreme - it's his best offense and his worst defense in this run of success.  Eventually you gotta score.  Unlike you in high school.

SLEEPER:  Wyoming.  Everything started out great for the Cowboys.  They came out of the gate at 15-2, including a 4-0 conference start which included wins over Colorado, Colorado State, and Boise State.  Then an understandable loss to San Diego State, and two overtime wins and they were 17-3 and 6-1 and dreams of an NCAA bid, their first since 2002, appeared.  And then the bottom fell.  The Cowboys won just 5 the rest of the way against six losses and the at large dream disappeared.  They did lose leading scorer and rebounder Larry Nance Jr. for four games to injury but he's back now, and although Wyoming has gone just 1-3 since his return if they can refind that early season form they could make a run.

THE PICK:  Boise State.  Similar to Wyoming, Boise State started out well at 10-2 with losses to just Wisconsin and NC State.  Similar to Wyoming, they dealt with an injury to last season's leading scorer Anthony Drmic, only he was out for the season.  They had a mid-season hiccup, a four game losing streak that killed any at large chances, but since then they've been on fire, going 14-1 to close out the season.  The Broncos' second leading scorer last year, Derrick Marks, has completely put this team on his back, averaging over 20 points per game over this stretch, hitting 30 points three times.  Oh yeah, they also swept SDSU.  So there's that.


PAC 12:
Talk about a top heavy league.  Arizona and Utah are top 8 teams per kenpom, then next up is Stanford at #44 (though they seem to be tanking with a 2-5 close to the season).  The Wildcats and Utes are both Top 25 in the country in both offensive and defensive efficiency, and the only other team to reach Top 25 in either is Oregon State on defense.  Unfortunately, in my opinion, both those teams are super vulnerable.  Could be another bad year for the Pac 12.  Or Arizona could win the title.  What am I, Nostradamus?

FAVORITE:  Arizona.  So Arizona is 28-3 with a Top 11 mark in both O and D efficiency, so what's my problem?  I just haven't been impressed.  Nobody on the team seems to be a reliable bet to show up all the time.  Just look at their losses this year:  UNLV, Oregon State, and Arizona State.  Now way around it, those are all three bad losses.  Their top end play is as good as it gets with sweeps of Utah, Stanford, and Oregon with non-conference wins over Gonzaga and San Diego State, but how to explain those losses?

SLEEPER:  Oregon.  Tough to find a sleeper in such a top heavy conference with so many horrible teams at the bottom, but the Ducks stand out.  The closed the season 11-2 and mixed a win over Utah in there.  They had a shaky start to the season but looking back other than a disastrous trip out to Washington where they got swept their worst loss is to Michigan, so they've mainly taken care of business against bad teams.  Joseph Young is the type who can carry a team to a conference title on his own, and if he can't he'll certainly shoot enough to try.

THE PICK:  Arizona.  I can also completely see them flaming out in their first game, but who else am I going to pick?  I should probably trust Utah more than I do looking at their profile and advanced stats, but they just seem to be missing something.  Stanford is terrible now, and Oregon just has too many flaws.  UCLA is the only other team under consideration, but they've mostly spent the year beating bad and average teams and losing to good ones.  Then again, I suppose they need these games more than anyone else so maybe they'll win.  I don't know.


SOUTHEASTERN CONFERENCE:
There was a time, and I think it was true, where John Calipari was a pretty terrible coach.  He won because he could recruit, but to call him a great coach was a pretty big stretch.  When he won his first national title with that Kentucky team I thought "Man he's lucky.  All the best talent and they're all unselfish too.  He's lucky Anthony Davis and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist don't care about getting the ball."  Now, however, he's done it again with an even more talented group.  It's clear he's got a skill here.  You can boil down a coach to three basic pieces:  recruiting, roster management (including player development), and game planning.  Calipari has aced two of the three, and is probably average at the third.  Hard to argue he shouldn't be called a great coach at this point.

FAVORITE:  Kentucky.  Duh.  Besides the undefeated record, Kentucky finished #1 in both offensive and defensive efficiency in SEC play, and #1 and #8 in DE and OE in the entire country for the season.  Kenpom's top 5 players in the conference is made up of 4 Kentucky guys.  Yeah, they got pushed to OT by inferior foes in Ole Miss and Texas A&M, but that was back in early January.  Since then they've only had five of sixteen games end with a margin in single digits.  They're the most talented team in the country and they're peaking.  Great.

SLEEPER:  Florida.  Simply because it's hard for me to believe a Billy Donovan led Gator team could be this bad.  I mean their final record was 15-16, which means they aren't even eligible for the NIT.  Bizarre.  They can still play defense, just .907 points per possession, which ranks 9th in the country this year, and most of their losses have been extremely close so they're not too far from turning it around - only Kentucky has beaten them by double figures since mid-January.  A lot of bad luck for this team, maybe things tip here.

THE PICK:  Kentucky.  Duh.  Again.  It's going to take some extraordinary circumstances for Kentucky to lose this year.  The most interesting game for them will be in round 2, where they will probably face the best team they've played since Arkansas over a month ago.  The eight or nine seed will be someone along the lines of North Carolina State or Ohio State, and they'd be a second or third place team in the SEC.  I'm interested to see Kentucky against some top competition again, but I can't fathom not picking them to not only win the SEC Tournament, but the NCAA Tournament as well.


SOUTHLAND:
The Southland is not dissimilar to the Ohio Valley - there's a great team here, one that dominated the conference, in this case going 17-1.  A team that rates well at kenpom at #43 (Murray State is #77), and a team that has no chance at an at-large bid because of the weak conference competition and a bad non-conference schedule (though they do have a win over Memphis and an overtime loss to Northern Iowa).  Yes, Stephen F. Austin is essentially Murray State all over again - they can win a game or two in the NCAA Tournament, but they have no margin for error to get there.

FAVORITE:  Stephen F Austin.  The Lumberjacks are back again, once again dominating the Southland by playing pressing like crazy (#4 in creating turnovers this year), and passing (#4 in assist percentage) and shooting the ball well (#10 in eFG).  Last year they finished the regular season 29-2 and 18-0 in conference, won the conference tournament, and went on to beat VCU in an overtime thriller in round 1.  Hopefully they can get through again, because this could legitimately be a Sweet 16 team.  No lie.

SLEEPER:  Northwestern State.  Even though SFA swept Northwestern State this season, the Demons game looks like it could give the Lumberjacks fits.  They're the fastest team in the conference so SFA's pace won't throw them (though the majority of the conference is pretty fast anyway), they don't turn the ball over at all, so that could cut Austin's advantage down, and they're a super efficient scoring team so they could score enough points to keep up with the Lumberjacks.  Now, their defense is horrible so they'll have to score a ton to keep up with what SFA will put up, but still I'd rather see Northwestern State knocked off before they get a shot at Austin in the semifinals.

THE PICK:  Stephen F Austin.  We've already lost two potential giant killers in Iona and Murray State, please don't take our Lumberjacks away from us as well.  With two of their big scorers back from last year's team we need these guys back in the tournament - they're fun as hell.


SWAC:
Pretty much always the bottom ranked conference at kenpom year after year and usually with some teams not eligible for the post season because of ARP issues, this year the SWAC is the bottom ranked conference at kenpom and is dealing with some teams not being eligible for the postseason due to ARP issues.  There are 10 teams in this mess of a conference, and four of them - Southern, Arkansas Pine Bluff, Mississippi Valley State, and Grambling - are ineligible for post season play.  They all get to participate in the SWAC Tournament, though Southern, the second place team in the league, is the only one with much of a chance to win.  And then send the loser of the championship to the NCAAs.  Unless they're ineligible too.  Then I don't know what happens.  Just disband the SWAC already.

FAVORITE:  Texas Southern.  Last season the Tigers rode LaSalle and WVU  transfer Aaric Murray and  a few other transfers to a SWAC Ttile and a berth in the First Four (lost to Cal Poly).  This year, the returning Madarious Gibbs is joined by a handful of transfers, and despite a whole lot of roster turnover they're in position to make it back to the First Four.  Don't forget, Texas Southern hasn't just beaten up on their conference foes - they have wins this year over Michigan State and Kansas State.  I'm not sure how though.  They're terrible at everything.

SLEEPER:  Alabama State.  The Hornets were #2 in both offensive and defensive efficiency in SWAC play this year, while Texas Southern was #1 in offensive but #5 in defensive.  They did get swept by Texas Southern this year, but they pretty much handled everyone else.

THE PICK:  Texas Southern.  Their stat sheet looks horrible, but they have those wins over Michigan State and Kansas State and they did win the regular season crown.  Anything can happen with teams that are this bad, so sticking with the chalk makes sense.  Or just throw a dart, but make sure it doesn't hit an ineligible team.



Whew.  That was a lot.  I'm tired.



Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Tuesday's Tourney - The Grandest of them All.

Three more teams grabbed bids last night:  Wofford, Manhattan, and Northeastern.  Wofford was the #1 seed and will probably end up somewhere around that 12th seed spot with a legit chance at an upset, depending on the matchup.  Northeastern was a top team in their conference but is most likely going to have to face a #2 seed, and the #2s are very strong this year.  Manhattan cost us Iona.

See, both Manhattan and Iona are super fun teams that like to play circus ball, which means entertainment so on some level we should be happy with either of them.  However, Iona probably would have been like a 14 seed or so, and would have ended up playing someone at least somewhat vulnerable like a Maryland or an Oklahoma (and Iona/Oklahoma would be super fun).  Manhattan, on the other hand, will most likely, unless lots of conference tournaments go sideways, end up in the First Four, so even if they get passed someone like Texas Southern they'll end up playing a one seed, who will probably stomp a hole in them.  Once again, Conference Tournaments are super fun but are also the worst.

Only one tournament gets going today;

ATLANTIC COAST CONFERENCE:
Conference realignment has torn the Big East apart and strengthened the ACC, no doubt.  That makes it easy to mourn the Big East Tournament, but I kinda miss the old ACC Tournament as well.  Growing up the Big Ten didn't have a tournament, the ACC was on TV all the time, the programs were really good, and their style of play was a blast so I fell in love with the ACC Tournament.  That super cool court in Greensboro, Randolph Childress destroying everybody, Fire and Ice, and some serious Duke vs. Maryland battles.  It makes me feel like some cranky old man, but I really wish the ACC was the same (and the Big East).  But I now I'm not a cranky old man, because I like lots of other changes.  Not like my friend The Bear.  He hates everything that ever changes.

FAVORITE:  Virginia.  I keep doubting the Cavaliers (well, for the last two years when they've been good) and they keep proving me wrong.  A 28-2 record is no joke, especially going through the ACC where they only lost in close games to Duke and Louisville, both of whom will likely be top 5 seeds in the NCAA Tournament.  The loss of Justin Anderson has them extra vulnerable since he was their one ace shooter and more of the offense will fall to Malcolm Brogdon, but this team does it with defense anyway, so they should be fine.  That defense is amazing.

SLEEPER:  Syracuse.  They can't go to the NCAA Tournament anyway so their motivation might be suspect, and the whole NCAA hammering them thing may make them even more ready to crawl under a rock and be done with this season, but it also could do that thing where it makes a team band together and try harder or whatever they always show us in movies.  They still play great defense, and though the offense has been challenged at best this year what if Trevor Cooney decides "hey you know what? I'm going to mix it up and actually make a bunch of shots now."?  It could happen.  Probably not.  North Carolina State.

THE PICK:  Duke.  Duke is rolling.  After some early conference jitters where they went 3-3 for a stretch, the Blue Devils have rolled off eleven straight included a sweep of the Tar Heels, a 30-point stomping of Notre Dame, and a road win at Virginia - that's impressive.  Jahlil Okafor may have hit a bit of a freshman wall but he's still a beast to deal with, Tyus Jones (sorry) has simply been amazing running that team, and Quinn Cook has transformed himself from offensive afterthought to big time scorer.  They're ready to run the ACC table here.  And they're still perfectly flawed enough to be upset early in the NCAA Tournament.  Win/win.


One billion conference tournaments start tomorrow.  I better get started.

Monday, March 9, 2015

Weekend Wrap and Monday's Tournaments

Man what an awesome weekend of basketball.  Not the Gopher game of course, which sucked as usual, but the rest of the nation (and the Fargo Moorhead Acro Team nailed it, as usual).  Four bids were won - North Florida (called it!), Belmont, Coastal Carolina (called it!), and Northern Iowa - and the league that is usually the first to know who they're sending to the Dance, the Ivy, won't know until Saturday this year.  That's because Yale, who just had to win against lowly Dartmouth to lock up the regular season title and NCAA bid, lost on a buzzer beater creating a tie with Yale.  Seriously, it's Harvard and Yale in a one game playoff for an NCAA bid.  How awesome is that?

The bad news of course is that Murray State lost on a semi-miraculous shot in the OVC Final against Belmont, and despite an undefeated conference season and a gaudy record they pretty much have no shot at getting in since they played absolutely nobody and have zero good wins they can point at.  It sucks but that's the risk you take with that kind of schedule.

Two tournaments kick off today, with a ton more getting going on Wednesday.  It's the most wonderful time of the year.

MID-AMERICAN:
I know a few teams in the MAC had some pretty big aspirations this season, including being in the at large hunt - Toledo, Akron, and Kent State.  Unfortunately, that didn't really work out for anybody.  Kent State did finish in a tie at the top of the east with Buffalo at 12-6, but Akron was 3 games back and Toledo finished a game behind Central Michigan in the West.  Those kind of records in a down year for the MAC (other than Eastern Michigan's win over Michigan the conferences only notable wins were over big conference bottom feeders USC, Northwestern, and DePaul) aren't getting anyone an at-large bid.

FAVORITE:  Central Michigan.  The Chippewa snagged the one seed, and swept Toledo and Buffalo along the way (0-2 vs. Kent State and Bowling Green though) which gives them one of the invaluable byes directly into the semi-finals.  They're also almost completely reliant on the 3-pointer, with 41% of their points this year coming from behind the line (4th highest in the country) so they're pretty ripe for an upset like in their season closing loss to Western Michigan when they shot 4-21.  Of course, this also means if they do make the tournament they could upset somebody as well.

SLEEPER:  Toledo.  Big aspirations this year were reflected in a non-conference schedule that included games against VCU (lost by 9), Oregon (lost by 10), and Duke (lost by 17).  Not only were the Rockets unable to get one of those big wins, but the conference season kind of got away from them as well, finishing just 11-7 and closing with two losses to Central and Eastern Michigan.  They've still got plenty of talent, especially on offense where they ranked #2 in the MAC and have four double digit scorers led by Julius Brown (16p and 4a per game).  In a conference that's mostly a crapshoot, a lot of offense is a good start.

THE PICK:  Buffalo.  I just mentioned how the conference is a crapshoot, and it is, and in this kind of situation it doesn't make sense to pick a team without one of the byes to the semis since there's no standout upset pick.  I'm going with the Bulls.  Most teams in the MAC are standouts on one side of the ball and are weak on the other.  Buffalo ranks as the #3 offense and #4 defense, the only MAC team in the top 4 in both.  They also closed the season on a 6 game winning streak which included wins over Akron, at Kent State, and a sweep of Bowling Green and they have maybe the conference's best player in Justin Moss.


MID-EASTERN ATLANTIC:
The MEAC, as in most years, is simply terrible.  Their representative almost always ends up playing in the play-in round - I was going to look it up but screw it, just trust me.  Not last year, however, and maybe not this year if the favorite can continue to run the table.

FAVORITE:  North Carolina Central.  Last season the Eagles went 25-5 in the regular season with a 15-1 MEAC record and stomped through the conference tournament on their way to a #14 seed and a date with Iowa State.  The managed to hang with the Cyclones for the first half before the wheels kind of came off, but it was a pretty good showing for a MEAC team (and on the heels of another, Norfolk State, knocking off Duke the year before had the conference looking good).  This year the Eagles are again on a terror, having gone 24-6 with a 16-0 conference season.

SLEEPER:  Maryland Eastern Shore.  This geographically specific college was one of the few teams to put up a fight against UNCC, losing by just five in their only meeting against the Eagles, and they crushed second place Norfolk State by 18 on their way to an 11-5 third place finish.  They hit a pretty astonishing 42% from 3 in conference play with three guys who hit 57 or more on the season, all of whom were at 40% or better.  That's a lot of weapons, and if some combination get hot they could run the table here.

THE PICK:  North Carolina Central.  I can't come up with a single reason to not pick these guys.  In MEAC played they scored a conference best 1.13 points per possession while allowing just 0.87 points per possession, also a conference best.  The best way to beat a team this dominant (in conference) is to hit a bunch of threes, but UNCC is really good at defending them.  They only have two guys back from last year's team, but this might be a better version of last year's team.

Friday, March 6, 2015

A Whole Bunch of Weekend Tournaments

Well I guess the Gophers at least made it somewhat competitive.  Some other stuff happened around the country too.  Whatever.

COLONIAL CONFERENCE:
The CAA used to be maybe the premier mid-major conference, but alignment can be a bitch and losses of VCU, George Mason, and Old Dominion (all in the top 4 all-time for CAA championships) will do that to you.  There's not a whole lot to love here.  Northeastern beat Florida State and Richmond, while James Madison also beat Richmond.  That's about the list of notable non-conference victories.  You're also looking at four teams tied at the top of the conference at 12-6 so yeah, another crap shoot.

FAVORITE:  William & Mary.  The Tribe grab the #1 seed via tiebreakers, and although Northeastern has a slightly better kenpom rating it's not really that big a deal because I have no idea about this conference anyway.  They also went 5-1 against the three other teams they tied with (which was probably the tie breaker) which really just means they lost to a whole bunch of bad teams.  The Tribe also boast a big time scorer in Marcus Thornton (no not that one.  Or that one) at 19.4ppg, and a guy who I can only assume will be Defensive Player of the Year in Terry Tarpey considering he led the CAA in rebounding (8.4pg), blocks (1.4pg), and steals (1.8pg).  Damn that's impressive.

SLEEPER:  Hofstra.  They finished just behind the mishmash at the top at 10-8 in conference play, and the Pride most interest me because they can score.  They play at an insane tempo, don't turn the ball over, and are a great shooting team all of which means POINTS.  They are 16th in the country in points per game this year, and if you take out the teams which helped their averages beating up on a bunch of bottom feeder teams, while Hofstra is a bottom feeder team (or maybe middle, if I'm feeling generous) the Pride get into the top 10.  Anybody who can score like that has a chance to get hot, and hot is deadly in March.  Also wouldn't hurt to consider playing a little bit of defense.

THE PICK:  Hofstra.  When the conference is as jumbled as this, it seems to best to me to find something that stands out about someone.  Northeastern has those two "good" wins, but closed the season on a troubling skid.  William & Mary went 5-1 against the other top teams, but have the worst defense in the conference.  Delaware has the league's leading scorer but is a mess in every other way, and Wilmington can play D but can't score.  I considered James Madison, who finished out the year winning six of seven, but only one of those wins was against a good team.  Hofstra, along with that offense, tightened up the defense in conference play and is one of only two conference teams (along with Northeastern) to finish in the top 3 in the CAA in both offensive and defensive efficiency in conference play.  Good enough.


SOUTHERN CONFERENCE:
When you take the Davidson out of the SoCon, you weaken the SoCon, who ranks as a bottom nine conference this season per kenpom.  You also make things more competitive and weirder since you don't have one time gallivanting around dominating everyone with all their fancy three pointers.  Three teams ended up with double digit conference wins this year, and two of them enter the conference tournament with 20+ wins on the season overall.

FAVORITE:  Wofford.  The Terriers have been the best non-Davidson SoCon team over the years, making the NCAA Tournament three of the last five seasons and they're in the drivers seat again this year after going 16-2.  They didn't just beat up on conference foes either, as they picked up nice wins over Iona and North Carolina State in the early season.  If not for a terrible loss to Citadel and maybe one other good win they could have been a bubble team.  Leading scorer Karl Cochran (15ppg) was just named SoCon player of the year, and when the Gophers played Wofford last year I featured him as a great chucker.  He's still taking a silly amount of his team's shots (33%) but his shooting and assist levels have reach a point where I can't really call him a chucker anymore.  Just a volume shooter.

SLEEPER:  Chattanooga.  I don't know if it really counts as a sleeper when a team finished 15-3 and one game back, but outside of Wofford, Nooga, and Mercer the rest of this conference is horrendous.  I like Chattanooga because they can control the paint.  Actually their advanced numbers say they don't really control the paint, but they do have two guys who finished in the top 5 in the conference in rebounding, one of which who finished first in blocked shots with 3.3 per game, so it sure sounds like they could control the paint.  One thing they actually are is battle tested, having played four overtimes this year, going 3-1.  They also finished out on a six game win streak.

THE PICK:  Wofford.  No, they're no Davidson, but they're awfully hard to pick against.  The Terriers were in the top 2 in conference play in nearly every metric, and the only team in the top 3 in both offensive and defensive efficiency.  They're the second best shooting team and the hardest team to make baskets against.  Their top competition has serious flaws, and the Terriers have plenty of tournament experience.  Lotta pro-Wofford reasons piling up.


WEST COAST CONFERENCE:
Just like every year in the WCC it comes down to Gonzaga being in, one team being on the bubble (this year it's BYU), and then a whole bunch of spoiler teams out to ruin some other team's day.  This tournament became a lot less important for BYU after they won at Gonzaga last week.  Instead of maybe needing to win it, they probably just need to avoid a bad loss in their opener against either Santa Clara or Loyola Marymount, two teams they swept, and they might still end up ok if they lose that one anyway.  Win that one and then beat St. Mary's?  In, and good, because the Haws/Collinsworth combo rules.

FAVORITE:  Gonzaga.  Everyone always complains that Gonzaga is always overseeded because they don't play anyone, and then usually Gonzaga goes out and gets upset earlier than their seed should dictate.  I could sit here and go through the usual arguments:  tough non-conference schedule, great RPI and kenpom numbers, wins over SMU, Georgia, St. John's, UCLA, Memphis, and BYU with their only losses that BYU one and an overtime loss on the road at Arizona, and they're point to a good if not great team.  But you can make that same argument every year, and every year the same results.  One of these years, Gonzaga is going to have to prove it.

SLEEPER:  Pepperdine.  Not just because Rico Tucker went there, but because of their defense and slow it down tempo could throw a team like Gonzaga off.  It certainly worked against BYU earlier this year, where Pepperdine slowed the game down and shut off the three point line and it worked to the tune of a 67-61 victory.  The only other team to hold BYU under 70 points this season was defensive juggernaut Utah, so that's an impressive feat.  Look at the Waves 10-8 WCC record this year and they swept BYU, split with St. Mary's, and lost by 2 at home and 8 on the road versus Gonzaga.  Their 3-point stifling defense clearly can throw good teams for a loop (#1 in 3pt defense in the country at just 26% allowed) and it could work here, if they can manage to not get upset along the way.

THE PICK:  Gonzaga.  Their nearest contenders, BYU and St. Mary's, have some major flaws, while Gonzaga pretty much appears to be a mostly unstoppable machine (BYU loss notwithstanding), just like every year.  Considering they've won this tournament the last two years, and three of the last four, might as well stick with them.


SUMMIT LEAGUE:
The Summit is a total mess.  First, they have nine teams which is like, come on.  Now it's fine this year because Omaha is still in their transition phase, thus ineligible for the NCAA Tournament thus ineligible for the Summit Tournament.  To add to that, seven of the league's nine teams won between 6 and 12 games.  According to kenpom, however, there is a clear favorite.

FAVORITE:  South Dakota State.  The Jackrabbits, well known to most Gopher fans, rank 108th by kenpom, over 50 spots higher than their closest competition (NDSU).  The tournament is played in South Dakota (though in Sioux Falls, where USD is not located).  They have two of kenpom's top 5 players in the conference in Cody Larson and Deondre Parks, who can both do a little bit of everything.  Tops in both offensive and defensive efficiency in league play, and by a wide margin, in an average game SDSU would outscore their Summit opponents by 17 points.  Granted that number is skewed by some huge blowouts, but it's still impressive.

SLEEPER:  IP-Fort Wayne.  The Mastodons (for real) have a sweet name and went 9-7 in Summit play, but what makes them interesting is a sleeper is that they have a win over each of the three teams ahead of them.  Plus, Mastodons.

THE PICK:  North Dakota State.  Pretty sure this will come down to SDSU vs. NDSU as god has decried, with both teams raining three balls from the sky as they are inclined to do.  If that happens I'm pretty sure SDSU will win since the Bison can't guard against the three at all.  The reason I'm going with NDSU is I don't like how the bracket sets up for the Jackrabbits.  If South Dakota beats Fort Wayne, and they'll likely be favored by 3 or so and have some kind of home court advantage, they'll get SDSU next.  The same Jackrabbit squad they just beat by 16 in Sioux Falls Vermillion.  Good chance SDSU doesn't even reach the championship.


Outside the conference tournaments there is just a ton of relevant action.  I started to list games but I had like, 5 of the first 10 listed and who has that kind of time?  Just hunker down and watch.