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.
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?
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.
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.
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.