Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Conference Tournament Tidbits


A team like Lehigh could play NCAA
spoiler, if only the Mountain Hawks win
their conference tournament (AP).


For those who want full knowledge of teams that will be in the NCAA Tournament, below are tidbits about the conference tournaments you should care about. These previews should help as a teaser for the games in a few weeks. Detailed conference tournament previews will come next week.


ACC (Atlanta, March 8-11)Champion: North Carolina. The Tar Heels have arguably been performing “below expectations” all year. A team returning all starters from last year’s squad plus adding several blue chip recruits have not been dominating the college basketball scene as expected. Even though their record (26-4, 13-2) is nothing to frown at, this team had the makings to be one of the most dominant in history with stellar point guard play in Kendall Marshall, a dynamic wing presence in Harrison Barnes and the veteran big man Tyler Zeller. North Carolina still has these tools to win the ACC Tournament and still reach the Final Four, but will they be utilized? I think they will deliver when the pressure mounts. -Kyle Almekinder


Atlantic 10 (Atlantic City, March 6, 9-11) – Champion: Temple. The Atlantic 10 has been one of the most surprising and interesting conferences to watch this season. As an annual contender such as Temple continues to stay near the top of the standings, other contenders such as Dayton and Xavier (10-10 after the Crosstown Brawl) have faded. Teams from yesteryear such as Saint Louis, La Salle, and Massachusetts have risen in their place. I like the Owls to win the Atlantic 10 not only because their ability to weather their brutal conference schedule this year, but also their tremendous production from Ramone Moore (18.0 ppg), Khalif Wyatt (48.5% FG) and Juan Fernandez (42.4% 3pt FG). The strength of the Atlantic 10 this year would prove any team is worthy of the championship and I would not be surprised. -Kyle Almekinder


Big XII (Kansas City, March 7-10)Champion: Kansas. The Jayhawks and many of their fans considered this a ‘bridge’ year; four starters from last year’s team leaving (The Morris twins and Josh Selby to NBA and Brady Morningstar to graduation) along with several recruits becoming ineligible (Braeden Anderson transferred to Fresno State) had many wondering if Kansas’ run of seven-straight Big 12 titles would end. Post man Thomas Robinson, along with new starters in Elijah Johnson and transfer Jeff Withey, the Jayhawks have won yet another Big 12 crown, making it eight straight by winning an overtime thriller against second place and arch rival Missouri. Kansas has developed several other key pieces to fit around Robinson, including the aforementioned shot blocker Jeff Withey and wing Elijah Johnson. If Tyshawn Taylor can continue his recent success of point production and assists, it will take a herculean effort to keep Kansas from claiming another conference tournament title and a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament. -Kyle Almekinder

Big East (New York, March 6-10)Champion: Syracuse. The top four seeds of the Big East Tournament will be all be worthy of winning the automatic berth. Even the teams who have to play the “five games in five days” scenario (a la Connecticut in 2011) are still able to win the bid. Syracuse is the team with the most potential to win the tournament. Scoop Jardine, Dion Waiters and Fab Melo provide a plethora of points at a high percentage (47% FG leads Big East play) as well as a suffocating 2-3 zone defense that many teams are still trying to figure out. The Orange will win and earn another No. 1 seed in the Big Dance. -Kyle Almekinder

Big Ten (Indianapolis, March 8-11)Champion: Michigan State. Considered the strongest conference in the nation, the Big Ten features several ranked teams all year including two (Michigan State, Ohio State) vying for a one seed in the NCAA Tournament. (The Spartans remain in the best shape to earn a No. 1 seed, though it seems likely both teams will be on the No. 2 line on Selection Sunday). Wisconsin, Michigan and risen-from-the-dead Indiana have been steadily in the tournament mix all year long. Sophomore Jared Sullinger and senior Draymond Green have been in National Player of the Year talks all season with their outstanding bodies of work (Sullinger averaging 16.8 ppg and 39.3% 3pt FG, Green with 15.6 ppg and 40.2% 3pt FG). The end-of-season showdown on March 4th in East Lansing between the Buckeyes and the Spartans will prove to me who has the inside track for the Big Ten Tournament title. -Kyle Almekinder

Conference USA (Memphis, March 7-10) – Champion: Memphis. What’s not to like about Larry Eustachy’s second chance to coach at Southern Miss? The Golden Eagles have surprised many of us this year with a great record (24-6 overall, 11-4 in C-USA), but I think Josh Pastner gets the Tigers the auto bid to the dance. Memphis struggled at times but the stellar guard play of Joe Jackson and Will Barton has kept Memphis atop the C-USA standings. The strong non-conference schedule (Maui Invitational, Murray State and Louisville) combined with the home court advantage of the C-USA Tournament being at the FedEx Forum should aid the Tigers in their championship quest. -Kyle Almekinder

Colonial (Richmond, VA, March 2-5)Champion: Virginia Commonwealth. In the last six years, the Colonial Athletic Conference has sent only one less team to the Final Four than the Pac-12. Both George Mason and Virginia Commonwealth (played in the First Four) made it to the Promised Land in 2006 and 2011, respectively. The Rams, led by returning starter Bradford Burgess and savvy coach Shaka Smart, have the experience and momentum on their side. Surprise team Drexel Dragons are riding a 17-game win streak and are on a collision course with the Rams. In end, I think the Rams take another CAA title back to Richmond. -Kyle Almekinder
Horizon (@ higher seeds/Valparaiso, February 28-March 6)Champion: Valparaiso. The Crusaders aren't the least likely conference champion this season, but they're pretty close. With Butler's back-to-back NCAA Runner-up finishes, Detroit's loaded roster and even Cleveland State expected to be bubblicious, Valpo was an afterthought. So much for projecting records, huh? Valpo won the regular season title by two games over Cleveland State while Detroit, Milwaukee and Butler all finished three games back. This is a one-bid league yet again and any of the five teams could win it. Butler has as good of a chance as any, but if the Bulldogs weren’t back-to-back National runner-ups I doubt we’d be giving them much of a chance. With a double bye, both Valpo and Cleveland State are in good positions to nab the bid. Don’t sleep on Detroit, the most talented team in the league but also the most inconsistent. The Crusaders swept Cleveland State, Detroit and Butler this season. Their only loss to a top-5 Horizon League team was a two-point home loss to Milwaukee in late December. Valpo hasn’t lost at home since and I wouldn’t expect them to. The team that’ll give them the best game would be Detroit, but the Titans need to beat Youngstown State in the quarterfinals and Cleveland State – which they failed to do in two meetings this year – in the semifinals to get the much-desired rematch. -Chris Mackinder
Missouri Valley (St. Louis, March 1-4)Champion: Wichita State. The Missouri Valley Conference, once a premier mid-major conference that annually sent multiple bids to the tournament, has lost some of its luster. Since 2008, the Valley has only sent one team to the Tournament per year. With the re-emergence of Creighton and Wichita State, the conference looks to be much stronger than previous years. Only these two clubs, however, have flirted with claiming the MVC’s top prize. Creighton’s National Player of the Year contender Doug McDermott provides over 23 points per game as a sophomore. Wichita State can score in a plethora of ways, specifically Joe Ragland and Garrett Stutz who both shoot 56% from the field. The teams split the regular season meetings but I think Wichita State comes out of the weaker side of Arch Madness to win the auto bid. -Kyle Almekinder
Mountain West (Las Vegas, March 8-10)Champion: UNLV. It seems as if the Sin City Runnin’ Rebels have returned to form; they have posted their sixth-straight 20 win season en route to another NCAA Tournament berth. Although UNLV has suffered a few hiccups along the way (albeit no real bad losses), they are still just a game behind conference leaders are still tied atop the MWC with fellow likely tournament teams San Diego State and New Mexico. UNLV’s most stellar win was ‘at home’ over North Carolina in the Las Vegas Classic Finals. Since, they have endured a brutal conference slate with their only losses coming on the road. Mike Moser and Chace Stanback should keep UNLV riding high into the NCAA Tournament with the MWC Tournament title. -Kyle Almekinder

Ohio Valley (Nashville, February 29, March 1-3)Champion: Murray State. There’s no argument that one of the best mid-major teams this year has been the Murray State Racers; the Racers were the nation’s last team to lose, a tough four-point home defeat to Tennessee State on February 9 ended their 23-0 mark. Nevertheless, the Racers have since closed out the OVC regular season (including a non-conference BracketBuster win versus Saint Mary’s) atop the standings with a 28-1 record (15-1 in the OVC) and look to clinch the Ohio Valley auto bid this week. Guard Isaiah Canaan has been the catalyst for Murray State. His 48.7% FG shooting has helped Murray State to their outstanding record and, even with a surprise hiccup in the OVC semis or finals, a NCAA Tournament berth. -Kyle Almekinder

Patriot (@ high seeds, February 29-March 7)Champion: Lehigh. It seems like the same old story in the Patriot League these days. Bucknell wins the regular season title and is poised to win the tournament title. The Bison built a big lead in the conference, starting 10-0, before needing to stave off second-place Lehigh late. It was two weeks ago that Lehigh won at Bucknell, causing the Bison to sweat the final few weeks of the regular season. Lehigh is a potent offensive team, especially from 3-point range. C.J. McCollum is one of the best mid-major players you’ve never heard of and March Madness would be a great place for him. Lehigh's numbers don't jump out at you - an eFG% of 47.1, a 3-point% of 34.8 are both middle-of-the-road numbers. The Mountain Hawks, however, are one of the nation's best teams at defending the 2-point shot. At 44.4%, Lehigh is ranked 38th in the country defending the opposition inside the arc. Here’s another interesting note: Lehigh is the only team to play at Michigan State this year and not lose by double digits (Lehigh lost 90-81). This is a good team, folks, and would be a scrappy 3-point shooting team. No joke, a Lehigh-Syracuse 1 vs. 16 game would be extremely entertaining. -Chris Mackinder

SEC (New Orleans, March 8-11)Champion: Kentucky. Kentucky has maintained its stranglehold on the SEC since conference play began. The conference tournament should not be any different. Those teams in the Wildcats' footsteps with lurking questions their NCAA seeding, or even a berth itself, will have to use the SEC Tournament as a springboard into the Big Dance. Florida, Mississippi State, Vanderbilt, and possibly Arkansas or Tennessee will need to impress the committee with quality conference wins. Knocking Kentucky off their SEC Tournament Championship perch could do just that for the teams in question. The Wildcats might be more worried about extended stay hotels in New Orleans with their quest of an eighth title not far away. -Kyle Almekinder

West Coast (Las Vegas, February 29-March 5)Champion: Gonzaga. Gonzaga saw its 11-year conference title winning streak come to an end this year as Saint Mary’s bested the Bulldogs with a 14-2 record. Gonzaga may have lost the battle, but I like the Zags to win the war. Head coach Mark Few has led the Bulldogs to all 11 of the school's conference titles and has won all 11 of the past 13 WCC crowns. I have a feeling he will outsmart Randy Bennett for another one, making it 12 of 14, and garnering an automatic spot in the Big Dance. -Kyle Almekinder

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