The Pi-Rate Ratings

March 3, 2008

A PiRate Look at the NCAA Basketball Conference Tournaments–March 3, 2008

 

A PiRate Look at the NCAA Basketball Conference Tournaments

1st Update

It’s the beginning of the NCAA Conference Tournament season, a near fortnight of action leading up to Selection Sunday on March 16th.

The first conference tournament games begin tomorrow (Tuesday, March 4th) evening.  So let’s take a look at these early tournaments.

Before we start, as I predicted Friday morning, Cornell’s weekend sweep has clinched their first Ivy League title since 1988.  The Big Red is the first automatic qualifiers for the 2008 NCAA Tournament.  This Ivy League champion is unlike most in recent years; Cornell can run and shoot from both inside and outside.  They can score 80 points against a major conference opponent.  If they come out in their opening game and hit the trey, they could be primed for upsetting a better seed and advancing to the round of 32.

Tournaments Beginning Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Big South

1st Round games will be held at the higher seeds.  The semifinals will be held on the campus of UNC-Asheville, while the championship game will take place at the home of the higher remaining seed.

#7 Radford (5-9/10-19) at #2 Winthrop (10-4/19-11)

Winthrop swept Radford in the regular season winning 77-59 at Radford in January and 74-59 at Winthrop a little over two weeks ago.  Winthrop saw its chance of winning the regular season title go down the tubes when the Eagles fell at home to UNC-Asheville Saturday.  The Eagles lost four of their final nine games, so they may be ripe for an upset.  I just don’t think it will happen against Radford because the Highlanders are weak defensively, and a good pattern offense like Winthrop’s will repeatedly find the holes and exploit that weakness.  Look for Winthrop to advance to the semifinals.

#6 Coastal Carolina (6-8/13-14) at #3 High Point (8-6/16-13)

The underdog actually swept the host team this season.  Can CCU make it three out of three?  They sure can, but I favor High Point to win by about a 65% probability.  The Panthers only lost at home that one game against CCU, and you have to figure they will be primed to avenge this loss.  CCU won at High Point by hitting 12, 3-pointers (eight by star guard Jack Leasure).  The Panthers have a decided advantage inside, especially with senior forward Arizona Reid who routinely records double doubles.  Look for High Point to win and then upset Winthrop in the semifinals to advance to the Big South Championship Game on March 8.

#8 Charleston Southern (4-10/10-19) at #1 UNC-Asheville (10-4/21-8)

I expect the top-seeded Bulldogs to breeze to a 15-20 point win in this opening round game.  After a late season swoon that saw UNCA drop four straight games, the Bulldogs recovered to win their final three including a season finale win at Winthrop to complete the sweep and take the conference championship.  I expect UNCA to advance to the championship game, especially if their second round opponent is Liberty.  If they have to play VMI in the semifinals, it could be a bit tricky.  A game against High Point, with the lone NCAA bid on the line, would be a can’t miss contest.

#5 VMI (6-8/14-14) at #4 Liberty (7-7/15-15)

This will be the most interesting first round game, as most #4-5 matches are.  VMI is the nation’s top scoring team at 92 points per game, but the Keydets also give up the 87 points per game.  Liberty is a patient, slow-down team that does not want to get in a running game.  In conference tournament action, I like to favor the team that is more likely to come out loose and not play like their arm muscles are contracting as they shoot.  Therefore, I am going with the visiting Keydets to win this game and advance to the semifinals, where they will scare the daylights out of UNC-Asheville.  Remember, VMI made it to the championship game of this tournament last year with a little weaker team than this one.  If the Keydets can get 10 steals tomorrow, they will still be playing on Thursday.

Horizon League

Butler ran away with the regular season title and with an RPI rating around #20, the Bulldogs are safe as an at-large team if they fail to win the conference tournament.  They host the quarterfinal and semifinal rounds, and if they are in the finals, they will host that as well.

The Horizon League format is a little different than the normal 10-team bracket.  Seeds 3-10 play in the opening two rounds, while seeds 1-2 get byes to the semifinals. 

#10 Detroit (3-15/7-22) at #3 Wright State (12-6/20-9)

Wright State had a tough time with Detroit when the Titans came to Dayton two weeks ago.  In fact, it took a last second shot for the Raiders to win.  After that game, which was the Raiders 11th straight win, Wright State dropped their final three games to be forced into playing in the opening round.  I don’t think the Raiders will come into this game ready to play, and it might allow Detroit to keep it close once again.  While I think the Raiders will eventually win, look for the Titans to be within striking distance in the final minutes.  Wright State will advance, but the Raiders might be returning home after the quarterfinals.

#7 UW-Green Bay (9-9/15-14) at #6 Valparaiso (9-9/19-12)

These teams have played each other twice with one game going to overtime.  In the 85 minutes of action, Valpo had two big runs, but UWGB controlled the action the rest of the time.  That’s how this game will be decided.  If Valpo goes on a quick run, outscoring The Phoenix by 10 points in three minutes or less, the Crusaders are going to win the game.  If UWGB can control the tempo, they will win.  It’s a dead tossup even with Valpo’s home court advantage.  The winner has an excellent shot at upsetting Wright State in the quarterfinal round, but little chance of unseating Cleveland State in the semis.

#9 Youngstown State (5-13/9-20) at #4 Illinois-Chicago (9-9/16-14)

Youngstown State mailed it in down the stretch, losing 11 of their last 13 games after being halfway decent up to then.  Illinois-Chicago showed a bit of improvement in February, and unless they just come out flat, the Flames should torch the Penguins.  Once they get past this game, they will be facing a quarterfinal opponent that is weaker than they are.  If they make it to the semifinal round, they will be facing Butler at Butler.  ‘Nuf Ced!

#8 Loyola (Chi.) (6-12/11-18) at #5 UW-Milwaukee (9-9/14-15)

UWM lost seven of their final nine games, but one of the two Panther wins came at home against Loyola.  The Ramblers lost six close games in the second half of the schedule, and they are capable of winning this game.  UWM probably has a 70% chance of winning, but I don’t see them going any farther in the tournament.

#1 Butler (16-2/27-3) and #2 Cleveland State (12-6/20-11) have byes until the semifinal round.

Ohio Valley

Opening round games are on the campuses of the higher-seeded teams.  The semifinals and finals will be held in Nashville, at the old Municipal Auditorium.  This is not on any member’s campus, although Tennessee State, UT-Martin, and Austin Peay will benefit from the close proximity to the Music City for their fans.

#8 Eastern Kentucky (10-10/14-15) at #1 Austin Peay (16-4/21-10)

After beating SE Missouri on February 9th, EKU had won seven of eight games to move to 10-5 in the league.  Then, the Colonels’ season fell apart.  They lost five of their final six games, with the one win coming out of conference.  With a shot at a number three seed in their grasps entering the final weekend, they fell at home to Austin Peay and Tennessee State.  Meanwhile, Austin Peay finished the regular season on a hot streak, winning eight of their final nine.  The Governors won all 10 league home games, but only by an average margin of 9.4 points per game.  I believe EKU will give APSU a good game but fall about six points short.  Look for the Governors to advance to Nashville as the odds-on favorite to win the championship.

#5 Samford (10-10/14-15) at #4 UT-Martin (11-9/16-15)

Here’s one time where I believe a #4-#5 contest will not be close.  Samford has the type of offense that gets easier to defend the more times you face it.  The Bulldogs only average 58.6 points per game, and they didn’t reach 50 either time they faced UTM this season (two losses).  UT-Martin has a player who can score as many points as Samford in this game.  Lester Hudson is a 6-3 guard who can score 35 points, pull down 10 rebounds, dish out 10 assists, and steal the ball 10 times in a game.  In fact, he’s the only player in NCAA Division I history to officially record a quadruple double in a game (I believe Oscar Robertson did this a couple of times when he played at Cincinnati 50 years ago, but assists and steals were not kept as official stats then).  Look for UT-Martin to win this game by a score of something like 70-55.  Then, the Skyhawks are going to prove to be trouble for Austin Peay in Nashville Friday night.

#7 Tennessee Tech (10-10/13-18) at #2 Murray State (13-7/17-12)

Tennessee Tech finished their regular season by defeating Murray State in Cookeville.  Murray will be ready to get their revenge.  In the past, when a team has beaten a team and then has to play them the very next game, the other team usually wins.  The only team that regularly defeated a team twice in a row had the name “UCLA” on their uniform and had John Wooden coaching back in the days when the Pac-8 schedule frequently had the Bruins playing the same opponent in successive games.  I look for the Racers to get their revenge in a big way and advance to Nashville.  Once their, Murray State may be primed for an upset loss.  I just don’t think this Murray team has it all together.

#6 Tennessee State (10-10/13-16) at #3 Morehead State (12-8/15-14)

Morehead State finished the conference season losing four of their final seven games after being 9-4 and having a chance to win the league at one point.  The Eagles just beat Tennessee State in Morehead last week, and this time, the Tigers may be ready to pull off the upset.  TSU led Morehead by more than 20 points in the second half, before the Eagles came back with a late run to win.  I think the Tigers are going to remember that when they face off tomorrow night, and I expect the underdog to pull off the upset.  TSU finished the season winning three of their last four including a win over Austin Peay.  The Tigers are capable of cutting down the nets Saturday night.

Tournaments Beginning Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Atlantic Sun

This is the second tournament being played in Nashville this week.  Lipscomb will be hosting the A-Sun at Allen Arena.  The Bisons came on strong as the season concluded, and they are tough on their home floor.  Top-seed Belmont has to make all of a three-mile jaunt down Belmont Boulevard to play in this tournament, so the Bruins are still the heavy favorite to three-peat and face another Final Four contender in the opening round of the NCAA Tournament.

The A-Sun awards its top two seeds by giving them a day’s rest between the quarterfinal and semifinal round; of course, this assumes that they survive the first round.  The two weakest seeds also get a chance to rest if they can pull off a first round upset. 

Wednesday, March 5

#2 Jacksonville (12-4/16-12) vs. #7 Mercer (6-10/11-18)

Jacksonville narrowly edged the Bears both times they played this year.  The Dolphins blew a 17-point lead and had to hit a shot at the buzzer to win at Mercer, and then they blew a 13-point lead against Mercer in Jacksonville before getting hot and winning in overtime.  If the Dolphins get well ahead of Mercer, both teams will be thinking about the other two times.  My guess here is that Jacksonville will not get that big lead this time, and if Mercer makes a run, the Dolphins could be heading back to Florida early.  Give Mercer at least a 40-45% chance of winning this game.  The winner then gets a day off before facing the winner of the Stetson-Gardner-Webb game.

#1 Belmont (14-2/22-8) vs. #8 Campbell (5-11/10-19)

The eighth-seeded Fighting Camels were one of two teams to peg a loss on Belmont in the A-Sun.  Belmont exacted their revenge by slaughtering Campbell to clinch the regular season championship.  The Bruins enter the tournament riding a 10-game winning streak, and Coach Rick Byrd won’t allow his troops to overlook Campbell.  Look for a big Bruin win, by at least a dozen points.  Then, with a day off, they will have the upper hand in the semifinal game, even if the opponent is Lipscomb.  This Belmont team won at Cincinnati and at Alabama earlier this season, so they won’t be in awe of their first round opponent in the Big Dance if they win their third A-Sun title in a row.  This team has the capability of becoming the next Winthrop or Davidson.

Thursday, March 6

#3 Stetson (11-5/16-15) vs. #6 Gardner-Webb (9-7/15-15)

The number six seed in the Atlantic Sun Tournament won by 16 points at the probable number three seed in the Southeastern Conference.  Yes, Gardner-Webb destroyed Kentucky at Rupp Arena back in November.  The season went south from there, as the Bulldogs finished in the middle of the pack in the league.  Stetson lost at GW in their only meeting this season.  Stetson couldn’t throw it in the ocean in that game, and I don’t expect the Hatters to hit 34.5% of their shots this time around.  Look for a hard-fought close game that could come down to the last possession.  I expect the margin of victory to be less than five points.  Unfortunately for the winner, they will have to turn around and play the following day against a rested Jacksonville or Mercer. 

#4 East Tennessee (11-5/18-12) at #5 Lipscomb (9-7/15-15)

The host Bisons were 2-5 in the league and 8-13 overall in late January, but then they turned things around with a 7-2 finish down the stretch.  One of the two losses came at the hands of East Tennessee in Johnson City by three points.  The Buccaneers also won at Lipscomb in another close game, and they are now faced with the task of beating a hot team three times in one season and twice on their home floor.  ETSU Coach Murray Bartow has a tough assignment, and if he get his charges to pull off the hat trick, their reward will be facing a rested Belmont on short notice.  I doubt ETSU can get to the finals, but Lipscomb is capable of beating ETSU and Belmont back-to-back.  I think the Bisons will prevail, setting up a third “Battle of the Boulevard” Friday night.

Patriot League

The Patriot League Tournament is nothing more than playoffs, inasmuch as every game is played on the home floor of the higher seed rather than in one location.  In what was one of the better conference races, American emerged as the top seed.  This year, there is so much parity in this conference that the number eight seed Holy Cross Crusaders could easily win the tournament, even though they would have to win three games on the road.

#8 Holy Cross (5-9/15-13) at #1 American (10-4/18-11)

Last place HCU actually won at American earlier this season.  American will definitely not overlook the Crusaders.  HCU will try to shorten the game and have a minimum number of possessions, hoping that center Tim Clifford can use his inside prowess and pull off a repeat performance that led the Crusaders to the win over American.  In that game, Clifford connected on nine of 11 shots and finished with 24 points.  It may take an effort similar to that game, but it isn’t impossible.  Still, you have to favor the Eagles to win with a probability of 80-85%.

#5 Army (6-8/13-15) at #4 Lehigh (7-7/14-14)

This will be a game in the 50’s or low 60’s, and it should go down to the wire.  Lehigh won both regular season games by five points.  They blew a 16-point lead at home and saw Army cut 13 points off that lead in a matter of minutes.  At Army, the Cadets blew a 15-point lead.  I think Lehigh will win again, and it could easily be by five points yet again.

#7 Bucknell (6-8/11-18) at #2 Navy (9-5/16-13)

Navy had a chance to win the regular season title and couldn’t win at Colgate.  Now, the Midshipmen face a school they have had a tough time defeating in recent years.  When they edged Bucknell in Annapolis three weeks ago, it marked their only win over the Bison in four years.  This game will be close the entire way, and it will take a big effort by Navy’s big three of Greg Spink, Chris Harris, and Kaleo Kina.  The trio combined for 68 points in the win at Alumni Hall.

#6 Lafayette (6-8/15-14) at #3 Colgate (7-7/16-13)

Colgate finished the season as the Patriot League’s hottest team, and I believe the Raiders are the true team to beat in the conference tournament.  Lafayette was the coldest team down the stretch.  After starting Patriot League play 4-0, the Leopards lost eight of 10.  I can see no reason why these trends will change over the course of a couple days.  Look for Colgate to win by five to 10 points.

Sunbelt

This is a league where two teams could obtain NCAA bids, especially if someone can topple top-seed and host team South Alabama.  Western Kentucky is the one team that can do it, and USA beat them both times they played this year.  It will be hard to beat the Hilltoppers three times in a row, even in Mobile.  Western’s RPI is in the high 40’s, so it isn’t totally impossible for WKU to get an at-large bid.

The top three teams get first round byes, while teams 4-13 play on the campus of the better seed.  While WKU had the second best record, the West Division champion Arkansas-Little Rock gets the number two seed, while the Hilltoppers drop to number three.

#13 UL-Monroe (4-14/10-20) at #4 Middle Tennessee (11-7/14-14)

Middle Tennessee closed the season winning seven of their last 10 games including knocking off regular season champion South Alabama.  The Blue Raiders should advance to the quarterfinals with a win over ULM, but it won’t be easy.  The Warhawks thumped MTSU in Monroe, leading by double digits most of the game.  ULM lost their final four regular season games by an average margin of 14.5 points.  Look for the Blue Raiders to get revenge and advance to the quarterfinals where they will meet winner of Troy and UL-Lafayette.

#12 Troy (4-14/11-18) at #5 UL-Lafayette (11-7/15-14)

ULL finished the season as hot as anybody in the league.  The Ragin’ Cagins won five of their final six and played great defense, yielding just 60.7 points per game in that stretch.  Additionally, ULL possessed an excellent inside game while they were moving up in the standings.  You have to consider them a dark horse candidate for winning the tournament.  Troy hasn’t much of a chance in this game.  They don’t match up well against ULL and will be dominated inside the paint.  A ULL-MTSU quarterfinal match would be a great battle.

#11 Arkansas State (5-13/10-19) at #6 North Texas (10-8/19-10)

Arkansas State will bow out quickly in this game.  The Indians are already looking ahead to the future and the possibility that Nolan Richardson could become their next coach.  Meanwhile, North Texas won five of six to close the season on a run.  The Mean Green pegged a loss on South Alabama, and out of conference, UNT defeated Oklahoma State and New Mexico State.  This team can not only win the conference tournament, they can win in the Big Dance.  Look for a big North Texas win and a date against Western Kentucky in the next round.

#10 Florida Int’l (6-12/9-19) at #7 Florida Atlantic (8-10/14-17)

FAU was 1-7 in Sunbelt play before finishing 7-3 in the final five weeks, averaging 82.5 points per game.  Two of those three losses came to the big two, WKU and USA.  The other loss, though, came at the hands of their arch-rival and opening round opponent, FIU.  In fact, the Golden Panthers defeated the Owls both times this year.  Look for FAU to get some revenge and win the one that really counts.  The winner of this game will play Arkansas-Little Rock in the next round.  FAU has the talent to win that game and advance to the semifinals, but they have to get past their nemesis first.

#9 Denver (7-11/11-18) at #8 New Orleans (8-10/18-12)

UNO was 14-5 at one point this year with wins over North Carolina State, Tulane, and Lamar.  Then, they swooned.  The Privateers lost seven of their last 11 games.  One of those wins was a six-point defeat of Denver in Denver.  The Pioneers lost their final six games after being in contention in the West Division halfway through the conference schedule.  In a battle of teams headed nowhere, look for UNO to win unimpressively and then flop in their next game against top seed South Alabama.

Tournaments Beginning Thursday, March 6, 2008

Missouri Valley

The Valley had the eighth best RPI among the conferences this year, so you have to figure that more than one member will find a spot in the Field of 65.  Drake is a lock, while Illinois State is squarely on the bubble.   Southern Illinois and Creighton are long shots for at-large consideration, but they are talented enough to win this year’s Arch Madness.

# 8 Indiana St. (8-10/14-15)  vs. # 9 Wichita St. (4-14/11-19) 

These are two teams headed in the same direction, but unfortunately, its’ the wrong direction.  Neither team looked impressive down the stretch.  They hooked up in Terre Haute two weeks ago, and Wichita State led by 20 with less than 15 minutes to play.  ISU went on a 23-3 run in the next six minutes to tie the game and went on to win by 10 in overtime.  Look for Wichita State to keep this game close all the way and have a chance to get a bit of revenge with an upset over the Sycamores.  The winner gets top-seed Drake, a team that has not been playing their best ball at the end of the season.

# 7 Missouri State (8-10/16-15)  vs. # 10 Evansville (3-15/9-20)

Can a team that not only was blown out by another team, they had the score doubled against them, turn around and beat that same team 19 days later?  Missouri State beat Evansville 76-38 on February 19, and the Bears beat the Purple Aces by 19 earlier in the season.  Sure, it can be hard to beat a team three times in a row, but then again North Carolina could play New Jersey Institute of Technology 30 times a year and win all 30.  Look for the Bears to win by double digits for the third time and advance to face Illinois State in the next round, where they will be sent packing.

# 4 Creighton (10-8/20-9) vs. # 5 Bradley (9-9/17-14) will play Friday in the second round with the winner facing the winner of Drake and either Indiana State or Wichita State.

# 3 Southern Illinois (11-7/17-13) vs. # 6 UNI (9-9/17-13) will play Friday in the second round with the winner facing the winner of the Illinois State and either Missouri State or Evansville.

I look for the champion of this conference to come from the #2-3-7-10 bracket.  I expect Illinois State and Southern Illinois to face off in the semifinals with the winner cutting down the nets the following night.

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