Congrats go out to Long Island, South Dakota State, and Valpo for grabbing their league's autobids last night. Absolutely nothing else of significance happened. I, for one, can't wait to hear way too many stories about Nate Wolters as we wait for the real tournament to get going. Here's what's kicking off Wednesday.
Welcome back, Pac-12. After several years of crappy play and getting just 1-2 teams in the tournament, the Pac will likely have five teams receive bids this year. The teams are still mostly terrible, with the exception of UCLA who is talented but mind-boggling, and I am going to definitely take the UNDER on Pac-12 wins once the brackets are revealed and the lines come out, but it's at least a step back towards respectability.
FAVORITE: UCLA. Despite a rough start to the season that included an OT win versus UC-Irvine and a loss to Cal Poly the Bruins figured it out and won seven of their final nine games to take the conference regular season title. Good thing too, because they're easily the most talented team. Shabazz Muhammad is legitimately good enough to pull a Carmelo and take UCLA to the Final Four. The real problem is that Larry Drew is erratic enough to lead them to a first round loss.
SLEEPER: Washington. Tough to find a sleeper in a league this tightly bunched, but I'll go with Washington. Lorenzo Romar seems to get the Huskies to play well in March, and you can't go wrong rooting for circus ball.
W's PICK: Cal. They're annoying because they have Justin Cobbs, but they're also an NCAA Tournament team and one of few from the Pac-12 who I think might be able to make the Sweet 16 because of him. Cobbs and Allen Crabbe give the Bears two big-time scorers and assist guys and guards are gold when it comes to March basketball. They're ramping up as well, having won seven of their last eight heading to the tournament including wins over all four of the other NCAA bound Pac teams.
And as we speak about moving towards respectability we must also look at the other side of Two-Face and look at moving away from respectability and that's what's happened to the SEC. Outside of Florida these teams are awful. Missouri is the only other team who is solidly in the tournament last year and they've been horrendous and lost to a 15 seed last year and will probably be an early out again. Kentucky is down this year despite being talented because they aren't talented enough to overcome Calipari's inability to coach during a game and other than a rare decent year from Ole Miss every other program is in a major downward arc, with Mississippi State quite possibly the worst major conference team in history. I'm not kidding. They lost to Vanderbilt by 41. At home. Dontae Jones is rolling over in his grave.
FAVORITE: Florida. The Gators might be the heaviest favorite in any conference and that includes the smaller ones (maybe Davidson). Currently the #1 team on kenpom with a top 5 in both offensive and defensive efficiency, and enough depth and balance to survive a rough night from any of their players. That being said, it's a bit concerning that Florida is 0-5 in games with a final margin in the single digits this year, so if "not knowing how to win the close ones" is a real thing they could be in trouble. Then again, they have 24 wins this year and every single one was by at least 11 points so maybe it doesn't really matter.
SLEEPER: Arkansas. The Razorbacks should have been better than 10-8 in a down SEC, and they showed how good they can be when they basically ran Florida out of the gym in Fayetteville. They struggled this year with "can't win away from home"-itis, but at home they beat not only Florida but also Kentucky, Missouri, Tennessee, and Oklahoma - basically as the home team they were probably the second best team in the SEC. Unfortunately for them, the SEC Tournament isn't played in Arkansas so they're probably in trouble.
W's PICK: Ole Miss. The Rebels were looking good earlier this year at 17-2 and 6-0 in SEC play, but have limped down the stretch with a 5-6 finish that included ugly losses to South Carolina and Mississippi State that, along with a horrid non-conference schedule lacking any big wins, have them in rough shape to make the tournament. They benefit because Florida will gain very little with a win out and Billy Donovan knows it, where the Rebels need this more an anyone other than Tennessee.
SOUTHWESTERN ATHLETIC CONFERENCE
College basketball is crazy year after year, but if there's one thing you can always count on it's the SWAC being terrible. In the last 10 years they've ranked as the worst conference eight times (kenpom) and second to last the other two. Looking at their schools I can't remember a single one of them being remotely relevant in the NCAA Tournament - ever. This year Grambling went 0-27 and ranked dead last in both offensive and defensive efficiency, which I'm pretty sure means they're the worst team of all-time. Using kenpom's metrics, he would predict that Penn State would beat Grambling 82-48, the Gophers would win 92-44, and Florida (#1 team) would win 96-39. Hell, the second worst team in the country (New Orleans) would have a projected victory of 72-57. This is a stunningly bad team. It's almost admirable.
FAVORITE: Southern. They finished in second place behind Texas Southern, but Texas Southern is ineligible for the postseason because of NCAA violations. Additionally the team who tied with Southern for second, Arkansas-Pine Bluff, is ineligible for the post-season due to low APR scores as is Mississippi Valley State. So basically these schools all suck at basketball and at academics and cheating. Are we sure these are even colleges?
SLEEPER: Jackson State. Ok I lied when I said Florida or Davidson might be the heaviest favorite because it's clearly Southern. With the only other two teams on their level banned from tournament play there really is no dark horse because Southern should walk. They're ranked 163rd at kenpom and the next best eligible team is #312. I picked Jackson as my sleeper simply because they're the only other team who finished at .500 or better who will be playing in this thing.
W's PICK: Southern. It doesn't matter because they're going to get blown out by whomever they play (if they get through the First Four) but they should at least have fun destroying teams in getting there.
Similar to the SWAC the Southland is pretty terrible and is every year, but the difference is the Southland occasionally develops a respectable team (and will more often since Oral Roberts moved there this year for financial/geographic reasons). This is one of those years with Stephen F. Austin actually looking like a pretty decent squad (they beat Oklahoma and Long Beach). They will try to continue the Southland's first round tradition of kind of scaring teams but then fading away in the second half, although I still thank baby santa jesus for this moment, which I believe to be the most linked video on this blog:
FAVORITE: Stephen F. Austin. The Lumberjacks are actually an outstanding defensive team - as in the 6th best team in the country in defensive efficiency. And they're really well rounded on that side of the ball as well - the defend the two and the three well, don't allow offensive rebounds or commit many fouls and they cause a bunch of turnovers. Unfortunately their offense is brutal.
SLEEPER: Northwestern State. Not only are the Demons awesome because of what they did to Iowa, but they're also awesome because they not only score the most points of any team per game in the NCAA but they also play the fastest pace of any team in the NCAA. You know how fun it would be to watch them play somebody like North Carolina? God that would be fun.
W's PICK: Northwestern State. SFA would actually have a much better chance of scoring an upset with their super slow pace and tough defense, but seriously if I wanted to watch that kind of basketball I'd just move to Wisconsin. The Demons would at least be fun - mostly for the other team and their fans - but what can I say I'm a sucker for circus ball and NW State fits the bill. I'm kind of excited for them already, so they better not let me down or there'll be hell to pay. Hell.
It's Memphis and everybody else. Again. Memphis, who you might remember the Gophers actually beat, rolled through conference play on the way to a 16-0 record and have locked up their at-large bid. What this means, since this is Memphis and Josh Pastner, is that they'll likely lose focus and interest in the conference tournament and somebody else will have a chance to win it. The only question is if anybody is actually good enough to do so, even with the Tigers chasing butterflies or whatever.
FAVORITE: Memphis. When it comes to talent the Tigers are on a completely different level than everybody else. The only other team who can play there way to a possible at-large is Southern Miss and they finished four games behind Memphis in the standings and the lost to the Tigers by 13 and 16 in their two meetings. Maybe Memphis is the biggest favorite of anybody in any conference tournament. This stuff is hard.
SLEEPER: Houston. If I had to pick a non-Memphis or Southern Miss team to win this I'd go with UTEP, but Houston is a better "sleeper" since they're a middle of the pack squad who comes in a bit hot after winning their final three regular season games. Normally you'd say that's not a big deal since it's only three games, but for a team this young (top four scorers are all freshmen or sophomores) with some real talent (at least one Rivals Top 150 recruit has signed with the Cougars each of the last two years) this could be a sign of them coming together and figuring it out. Probably not, but maybe.
W's PICK: Memphis. Honestly there are only a couple teams Memphis will even to try to beat in this tournament, and none of them are very good and this thing is so wide open they might all lose early. Good thing Memphis is finally leaving that shitty conference because it's just getting worse and worse. Probably time to shut 'er down.