Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Wednesday's Tournament Previews

Pretty awesome night of hoops last night.  Kentucky, Kansas, and Villanova all rallied back from deficits to help preserve their high seeds (well Kentucky would be ok regardless), Iowa and Ole Miss probably punched their tournament tickets with road wins at Indiana (who is suddenly in a little bit of trouble) and Alabama, and NC State survived a maybe must win at Clemson.  On the downside, Texas A&M's loss at Florida doesn't kill it because Florida is still Florida at home, but it didn't help.  Both the top seeds advanced in the Atlantic Sun, which is a positive as well.

Four more tournaments kick off today, including day action in the Big South (take Longwood -2 and Gardner Webb -6 to win money), and there's a huge game for seeding in Louisville vs. Notre Dame.  Should be fun.  Here's your previews:

The American East hasn't done much in the tournament since Vermont knocked off Syracuse way back when (which was awesome), but a big part of that problem has been the regular season champ hasn't won the conference tournament and this is a clear one-bid league.  Each of the last three year's the regular season champ could have challenged a high seed, but got knocked off and two of those three years the American East representative was relegated to the First Four (they went 2-0).  The bad news this year is the conference doesn't look to have a powerhouse team, even if there's a clear favorite.

FAVORITE:  Albany.  The Great Danes blew through the league at 15-1 after representing winning the conference tournament each of the last two seasons, but I say they aren't a powerhouse because their kenpom ranking is outside the top 100 and not even in tops in the conference (that's Vermont).  That's not the definitive word, of course, and 15-1 is awfully impressive especially adding in a sweep of that Vermont team.  The Great Danes placed four players on the three All-Conference teams including two on the First Team and one who also made the All-Defensive team.  All four are either a junior or senior, so they'll be looking to win their third straight American East tournament.  I take it back, maybe this is a juggernaut.

SLEEPER:  Stony Brook.  The only team to beat Albany in league play this year, the Sea Wolves weren't slouches, finishing tied with Vermont for 2nd place after closing out the year on a six game winning streak.  The also have the conference's player of the year in Jameel Warney (second straight year), who also tacked on defensive player of the year.  He averaged 16.3 points per game (led conference), 11.4 rebounds per game (led conference and fifth in nation), and 2.4 blocks per game (led conference).  He's one of only 17 players averaging a double-double this year, and 20 double-doubles was best in the nation.  Wow.  DraftExpress ranks him as the 39th best junior in the country.  Yes, he's only a junior.  Feel like I should pay attention to this guy.

THE PICK:  Albany.  Despite the lowish kenpom number which I was all talking about and stuff earlier, further research leads to me to believe this team dwarfs most of the conference in talent.  They may not have a Warney, but four guys with big game experience, NCAA experience, and award winning talent should be enough to take this one.  Home court advantage throughout helps.

The Big South has managed to raise its profile this year, ranking 24th by kenpom, it's top conference ranking since 2005 back when Winthrop had Gregg Marshall and was a low major power.  Though there's no Winthropian power, there are five teams between 132 and 185 in kenpom's rankings, and seven teams finished with a record over .500 in league play.  Charleston Southern had a season opening win against Ole Miss, Gardner Webb knocked off both Purdue and Clemson, and the conference's top tier held it's own against similarly ranked teams (three teams have 20+ victories) to help raise the league up.  So, basically, it's going to be a complete mess to sort this one out.

FAVORITE:  High Point.  Charleston Southern actually won the #1 seed via tiebreaker, but High Point is ranked higher at kenpom but about 40 spots and Southern gets no special advantage (games are played at the Coastal Carolina home court) so High Point it is, especially since they lost the tie breaker after losing to Southern in a Triple OT road game.  The Panthers have impressive balance with four players averaging 9.8 points per game or better, including 3-time all league selection John Brown.

SLEEPER:  Gardner Webb.  There towards the bottom of that mix of 7 teams over .500, but it's hard to ignore any team who picked up early season wins over both Purdue and Clemson.  That early season promise maybe didn't hold up, but of their eight losses only one came to a sub-.500 conference team.  Serious concerns exist over the Bulldogs' defense, one of the worst in the country, and that they fell far enough in the conference standings to miss out on a first round bye (top 5 get a bye).  They like to chuck a whole bunch of threes, and making a bunch is how they managed those two big wins (14-25 vs. Purdue!).  They'll have to do that for four straight games to make up for that defense.

THE PICK:  Coastal Carolina.  Home court comes into play once again, but the Chanticleers are legit at 12-6 in the conference with a sweep of High Point, a non-conference win over Auburn, and competitive games vs. UCLA and Ole Miss.  Just last year the Chanticleers came into the Conference Tournament without the #1 seed and won it on their own floor before falling by 11 to Virginia.  Most of that same team is back.

Both of the last two years Robert Morris has been the regular season champ, #1 seed, and clear best team in the conference.  Both of the last two years, Robert Morris got upset by Mount St. Mary's in the tournament and didn't get to go the NCAAs. Both of the last two years the NEC rep failed to advance past the First Four.  Not exactly how it's supposed to go.  Morris lost their grip on the #1 seed, but they'll still be in the mix.

FAVORITE:  St. Francis (NY).  The Terriers 15-3 NEC record put them a comfortable three games past RMU and Bryant, though splits with those two teams probably make St. Francis less of a prohibitive favorite than a 3 game margin usually would.  They have the likely conference player of the year in forward Jalen Cannon, and he's teamed up with an excellent guard in Brent Jones to give a nice inside/outside punch.  The Terriers regular season finale was a loss to Bryant in which Cannon played just 10 minutes though, however it looks like a coach's decision rather than an injury or anything.  Still weird.

SLEEPER:  Mount St. Mary's.  Considering they knock off the #1 seed every year, why not?  They finished fourth in the NEC at 11-7, boast the league's #1 defense in conference play this year, and own a win over both Bryant and St. Francis NY this season.  They're actually a really terrible offensive team who is completely reliant on the 3-ball even though they shoot just 33% as a team, but let's be honest pretty much every team in this conference is terrible on either side of the ball.  Whoever gets hot, wins.

THE PICK:  Robert Morris.  I've already spent far too long trying to look for a compelling reason to pick anyone, so I'm going Robert Morris because after missing out two straight years they deserve a shot which it turns out is not how they actually decide these things but I'm rolling with it.  Also if you go to their leaders page on ESPN and look at their top two scorers, rebounders, and assisters it encompasses four different guys.  This means they are balanced.  The End.

For a good long while, back in the Popeye Jones days, Murray State pretty much dominated the Ohio Valley.  That success continued into the 2000s with the Racers making the NCAA Tournament five times including first round victories over Vanderbilt in 2010 and Colorado State in 2012.  Then Belmont moved over from the Atlantic Sun, won two straight regular season titles and one conference tournament title (Eastern Kentucky won last year) and Murray State was out of the limelight.  Well, they're back.

FAVORITE:  Murray State.  Steamrolled through the league at 16-0, but are battle tested as well with a couple of overtime wins and a handful of other close games.  The Racers are 26-4 overall and would be a possible at large team if they either had a better overall non-conference schedule (#258, barf) or had managed to grab a marquee type win though really their only chance was a road game at Xavier (lost by 19) since the schedule really was truly horrid.  Sophomore guard Cameron Payne won the OVC Player of the Year award and is young enough and good enough to end up in Popeye Jones/Isaiah Canaan territory.  Take a point guard like that (20.2 points, 5.7 assists per game) and team him up with a big man who also made OVC All-First Team (Jarvis Williams, 15.4 points, 8.3 rebs per game) and that's how you go undefeated.

SLEEPER:  Tennessee-Martin.  They finished second in the OVC East to Murray State at 10-6, and though the Skyhawks weren't one of the teams to take the Racers to OT they did play them tight twice - a three point loss on the road and a six point loss at home.  They also boast a killer offense who can shoot the lights out, and two second team all conference guards.  Guards in March are key, which makes Mister Jennings alma mater a danger.

THE PICK:  Murray State.  How could I not?  There are some conferences where it's like, who really cares who wins.  Then there are others like the OVC, where there is one team that needs to win to get in, and if they do get in they can cause some bracket damage.  That's what makes things fun, and that's why I'm picking Murray State.  The tournament needs this.

More tomorrow.

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