The Gophers play Nebraska in Lincoln, and although some of the pressure has been alleviated by the wins over Indiana and Penn State, which locked the Gophers into the NCAA Tournament, they can still close strong and get maybe as high as a 3 seed, or crash and end up around a 10. My hope is they get to a six to avoid the 1-2 seed in the second round if they advance, and I think two more wins would do it - whether the last two regular season games or one of them and a B10 tournament win - so this is still a pretty important game.
Since the last time the Gophers played Nebraska the Huskers have gone 2-5 with the two wins home games vs. Iowa and Penn State. In that time they've also played Ohio State and Michigan State at home, losing both by less than ten (7 and 9) so they're not exactly a juggernaut, but road games in the Big 10 are never easy even if Nebraska doesn't really have any impressive home upsets to point to.
Overall Nebraska is a pretty terrible team. They don't do anything particularly well other than take care of the basketball, are thoroughly mediocre on defense, and area terrible shooting team. You remember when the Gophers smoked them at Williams, right? The talent disparity between the two teams is glaring, and the only thing that kept Nebraska at all in the game (and the Gophers won by 19) was Ray Gallegos going coo-coo from three and scoring 30 points. Could that happen again but like, way more dramatic? I suppose, but Gallegos has only scored more than 11 points once in the seven games since then, everyone else on Nebraska sucks, and the Gophers look like they've finally figured things out again. If you're going to have a lull like the Gophers did, have it in the middle of the season, not the end. I choose to believe they're back.
Minnesota 70, Nebraska 53
Now on to Wednesday's tournaments.
Another pretty terrible conference like the Big South, but the one thing the A-Sun has going for it is two dominant teams in Mercer and Florida Gulf Coast who are both in the top two in the conference in both offensive and defensive efficiency. When you're dealing with a low major you can forget about having a balanced, deep league and you just have to hope you have a squad or two that is good enough to grab some name recognition by beating, or at least scaring, its first round NCAA foe. Both these teams have a least a chance.
FAVORITE: Mercer. The Bears take the one seed by a game over FGC, but I'm not sure they're the better team. The Bears have a nice non-conference win over Florida State, but FGC beat Miami. Both come in hot with Mercer finishing out at 9-1 and the Eagles at 9-2, and the Eagles won their last meeting last week by 3. This is one of those conference tournaments where if the favorites win out and Mercer meets FGC in the Final it will be worth your time to watch. Probably.
SLEEPER: North Florida. Well, probably not, but they do have Will Wilson, who you may remember as the point guard who never ever ever scores. You will be happy to know that Wilson, who played 31.5 minutes per game this year, upped his scoring average to 3.6 per game, a career high, while upping his assists to 6.1 per game. His total points this season were 112, nearly doubling his career point total which stood at 121 coming into the year. And he did, in fact, finally break double figures in a game this year notching 13 against Jacksonville so congratulations. Will Wilson, we salute you.
W's PICK: Florida Gulf Coast. The Eagles are just more tested, having played four tournament teams this year (Miami, Duke, Iowa State, VCU) while Mercer has just New Mexico. Granted that all happened a long time ago and is pretty much irrelevant, but like I said, it's awfully tough to separate these teams.
I know you're thinking whoopity-doo another terrible conference and you're right, but you're also sort of wrong too. This might be the best version of the Patriot League I can recall (although they're still ranked as just the 17th best conference by kenpom). Bucknell and Lehigh are top 100 teams with two others in the 100s and only Navy falling past #300. Might not sound like much, but it's a step in the right direction and you can see the difference finally allowing athletic scholarships can make.
FAVORITE: Bucknell. Unfortunately C.J. McCollum broke his foot in a game against VCU this winter (a game Lehigh lost by only four) so the Bison won the league crown and the #1 seed. That's not a slam on Bucknell, who are a very good team with wins over Purdue and LaSalle this season, it's just a bummer because most of the Lehigh team that beat Duke was back this year and McCollum is an amazing player. Even so, Bucknell's Mike Muscala is a stud as well who averaged a double-double while leading the conference in scoring and rebounding, and if the Bison get through they're absolutely a threat to steal a win in the tournament.
SLEEPER: Army. The Black Knights play at a pace considerably fast than anyone else in the Patriot and do so while shooting, and making, a ton of three pointers. That's the kind of team I like for a sleeper.
W's PICK: Bucknell. If McCollum returns from injury (even as of 3 days ago, the most recent article I could find, things are still up in the air) things get more interesting, but if he doesn't I expect Bucknell to run the table pretty easily.
Belmont moving in to the OVC was supposed to create a two-headed monster at the top of the conference with the Bruins and Murray State. The only problem was the Racers didn't hold up their end of the bargain, whiffing on their only real out of conference chance to get a big win against Colorado (and what a horrible schedule they put together) and going just 10-6 in conference. Belmont still has an outside chance at an at-large given good computer numbers and a 14-2 conference record but it's an outside shot at best and the OVC will most likely remain a one-bid league.
FAVORITE: Belmont. These guys have been relevant long enough that I can even tell you their two best players without looking it up - Ian Clark and Kerron Johnson - a pair of senior guards who have been this team's leaders forever. Their are three other upperclassmen starters as well and those five play the majority of the team's minutes and basically score all their points. They've been in the last two NCAA Tournaments but haven't broken through for a win yet. With that experience now could this be the year.
SLEEPER: Eastern Kentucky. Given Murray State's rough year and not even ranking in kenpom's Top 25 they might be a more appropriate sleeper than EKU - the team that finished with the second best record in the league and only team in the top 2 in both O and D efficiency in the OVC - but I'm pretty sure Murray is still the sexier pick since the media has bludgeoned us all over the head with them for years. The Colonels create a ton of turnovers but don't defend all that well, which is generally death to teams who play the Bruins. Still, they've probably got the best shot to knock them off.
W's PICK: Belmont. I feel like I'm picking a lot of favorites, but that's kind of how it works in these conferences. Also, to answer my earlier rhetorical question, no it's not the year. Belmont won't win an NCAA Tournament game again.
WEST COAST CONFERENCE
A pretty uninteresting conference tournament but in an interesting way. There are two possible NCAA teams here: Gonzaga (locked in, possible #1 seed) and St. Mary's (right on the bubble). What St. Mary's could really use is another quality win, but the only way to get one at this point in the WCC is to beat Gonzaga. However, because of their seeds, beating Gonzaga is only possible in the WCC Tournament Final, which would put the Gaels in automatically. So either St. Mary's wins their way in, or they've already done enough to get the invite. Uninteresting in an interesting way, which is what I said if you had been paying attention.
FAVORITE: Gonzaga. Although the WCC is far better than a lot of other conferences I have or will be previewing (ranking 10th) there might not be a more prohibitive favorite in any conference than Gonzaga. The Zags are in line for a possible #1 seed, are 16-0 in conference play, and rank as the #4 team in the country according to kenpom. Sure, St. Mary's (rank #19), BYU (#71), and Santa Clara (#87) are quality teams with their eyes on the upset, but Gonzaga has crushed all three of these teams this year.
SLEEPER: San Francisco. It's not easy to pick a sleeper here when the top four just beat up on each other and killed everyone else (between the four good teams only three of their losses came to other teams) so I'll go with the team that picked up one of those (over BYU) and has an interesting statistical profile. The Dons, who are coached by Rex Walters which feels relevant for some reason, hit 40.2% of their three pointers this year, good for 9th best in the nation. So that's something. Although the way the WCC sets things up it's almost guaranteed to be either Gonzaga or St. Mary's coming out of here.
W's PICK: St. Mary's. This isn't an indictment of Gonzaga, because I do think they're a Final Four contender who deserves a one seed, but St. Mary's is going to be playing as if their lives depend on it in this game - and their tournament lives very well might. I think they're flying under the radar a bit, especially since Gonzaga swept them, and I don't want to have to stop watching Matthew Dellavedova yet. If loving that floppy haired little muppet is wrong I don't want to be right.
You want to talk about a conference only a mother could love, let's go with the NEC. They're consistently ranked in the bottom quartile for conference strength, and if you look at the list of teams I don't know that they've ever even been close in an NCAA Tournament game, much less won one. There are a handful of other conferences who can never rise out of the bottom of the barrel as a whole, but outside of the SWAC I can recall each one of those conferences at least being competitive with many of them actually winning games here and there. Not so the NEC. Where have you gone, Charles Jones?
FAVORITE: Robert Morris. The closest thing the NEC puts out as a power program, the Colonials have missed the NCAA Tournament each of the last two seasons despite winning at least 12 conference games each year and advancing to the NEC Tournament Championship game. Both years they lost to LIU-Brooklyn, which is once again a viable scenario this season. Also researching that led me to the box score that reminded me that Robert Morris took Villanova to overtime as a 15 seed three years ago which just goes to show that I don't know what the hell I'm talking about.
SLEEPER: Bryant. "Who?" is what your asking and I don't blame you. As far back as 2008 Bryant was still in D-II before starting to transition to Division I. Four terrible years later (20 total wins including 2 last year) here are the Bulldogs in their first season eligible for the NCAA Tournament and sitting at 12-6 in the conference (good for a number 2 seed). Cool story, bro.
W's PICK: Bryant. It's too good of a story, although if they do make it and it gets crammed down our throats like everything else ESPN latches on too I'm going to regret rooting for this to happen. The Bulldogs aren't just a novelty - they rank #1 in the NEC in offensive efficiency and have two 17+ ppg scorers who cover you on the perimeter and in the paint with three other 9+ point scorers. They probably play too crappy on the defensive side to threaten anybody in the NCAA Tournament but as far as the NEC goes? It's in play. Sorry Robert Morris, maybe fourth time is the charm?
As far as Tuesday's results, Arkansas - a pretty big longshot as it stood - got crushed by Missouri which should take them out of the running for an at-large. Southern Miss lost by just four to Marshall, but that pretty much kilt them as well. Notre Dame probably sealed it with a win over St. Johns, while Iowa kept the dream alive by beating Illinois (who is probably safe either way). In the big elimination game between Ole Miss and Alabama the Rebels took care of business, beating Bama by four in a game they basically controlled from the tip so they're still alive, while Memphis locked up their bid, if they hadn't already, by taking down UTEP on the road. Meanwhile Boise State looked every bit a tournament team at UNLV, but because they didn't get the win they remain an absolutely difficult read. Just looking at season results and eye test they seem legit, but are about as hard on the bubble as possible. Interesting team to watch.
Wednesday's action features a nice mix of teams who really could use a big win - Villanova (vs. Georgetown), Iowa State (vs. Oklahoma State), Maryland (vs. UNC) - can lock up a bid with a win - Oklahoma (@ WVU), Cal (vs. Stanford), San Diego State (vs. Air Force), Minnesota (@ Nebraska) - and team's on shaky ground who can't afford a loss to an inferior opponent - Temple (@ Fordham), LaSalle (vs. G. Washington), and VCU (vs. Richmond). In other words, there's a ton going on that could shift a whole bunch of teams a whole bunch of lines. Should be fun night. I'll spend it watching the Gophers instead.