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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.