Tuesday, March 12, 2013

March Madness, Part One (You know before it officially starts)

by The Rabbi, OTSL Video Editor 

This is my favorite time of the year, as we are as close as you can be to The Madness FINALLY beginning.  This week marks the peak swing for Conference Tourneys.  Even though a lot of people might say these tourneys invalidate a whole season's worth of work, I still enjoy what we are about to see.  The CRAZIEST week of the year.  

Now even though the little guys have finished up or are about to finish up, there are still eight big conference tournaments getting underway within the next 24 hours.  In those tourneys, you'll see a majority of the teams who will make an impact come next week when the major part of The Madness gets underway.  I'll let you know what these major teams are playing for this week, plus a lot more about these tournaments.  Let's get started:

MOUNTAIN WEST CONFERENCE (Tuesday-Saturday, Las Vegas)

Who's In:  New Mexico (never been a doubt, probably a Top 4 Seed), Colorado St. (would like to avoid the 8-9 game range and move up to a #6 or & #7 Seed), UNLV (been about as close to a Top 25 team all year as you can get, would like to move up to a #5 Seed), and San Diego St. (enough quality wins and opponents non-conference to overlook a mediocre 9-7 conference record).

On the Bubble:  Boise State. They're as close to in (same record as San Diego State), but have a much weaker non-conference slate, which means they have to do a tiny bit more to make it to the big dance.  

Matchups to watch:  Boise State vs. San Diego State (Thursday).  Two very close games between these two teams in the regular season (splitting home and home) means Boise State will need the tiebreaker.  If Boise can win two straight against the Aztecs (they won by four in the regular season finale on Saturday), there's going to be very little doubt that they are a tournament team unless...

Boise State/San Diego State vs. (most likely) New Mexico (Friday).  Either team gets blown out (and we're presumably moving New Mexico in here because we think they should get through their opening round), it leaves a bad lasting impression on the committee.  Some people on the tourney board may not have seen either team fully at many times this year (hello West Coast bias!), but they do watch conference tourneys.  Getting blown out in the game that leaves the final impression on the committee is not good for your cause.  It could cost the Broncos a Madness slot an may knock the Aztecs dangerously close to that "Last Four In" range.

Who wins?:  In a year with a very strong upper crust of those five teams (although New Mexico did win the conference by two games), I remind myself of the one thing I hate about this tourney:  IT'S A HOME TOURNEY FOR UNLV!  Top seeded Lobos lost earlier in the year in the Thomas and Mack Center, I unfortunately see another loss coming their way here.  UNLV will win this tourney.

BIG EAST CONFERENCE (Tuesday-Saturday, New York City)

Here it is.  College basketball purists have been fearing this, and after this year it will come to fruition.  This is the last tournament of the current incarnation of the Big East at The Garden.  When the Catholic schools play here in the near future, it won't be the same.  The moments will still be there though...sort of.

Who's in:  Louisville (has a 7-game winning streak, can close out a #1 seed with a tournament victory), Georgetown (can close out a #1 seed with a tournament victory), Marquette (sneaky good team looking to keep their Top 4 seed line after winning a share of the Big East regular season title), Pittsburgh (looking to break in to that Top 4 seed line after a shaky 2012), Syracuse (FREE-FALLING right now, losing 4 out of 5) and Notre Dame (lesser talent than years past, but still going to get a Top 6 seed here)

On the Bubble:  Cincinnati.  Widely regarded as a "lock" in some circles, they play Providence in the first round.  They lose there, whose to say Providence shouldn't get in after having the same conference record as Cincy and a better end to the season?  That said, as long as Cincy wins, the rest of their week should be for seeding.

Villanova.  Beating a very hot Georgetown pretty much locked up their bid, but they need to be a bit careful against a very scrappy St. John's team on Wendesday.  A loss there may make the committee remember this wasn't a very good 'Nova team before conference play.  A win against the Johnnies, and the next step for Villanova is making sure they avoid Dayton games on Tuesday and Wendesday.

Matchups to watch:  Semi-final #1 (Friday).  The possibilities are endless.  Georgetown should dispatch Cincy or Providence in their semifinal, and the likelyhood is they'll either play Syracuse or Pitt.  If it's G'Town/Syracuse, it will be their last game (we promise) as Big East foes.  If it's Pitt, they've played some tough battles with Georgetown and this would be the last one for a while, as I don't think they're going to schedule each other non-conference.

Conference Final (Saturday).  If it's the Top 2 seeds, then Georgetown and Louisville are playing for a Top seed.  The Big East has been a dog fight this year, and almost all the teams who will make the tournament out of this group have experienced their ups and downs (the one's who won't make The Dance only experienced downs).  Having a #1 seed come out of the Big East would be a huge accomplishment for a conference going through a lot of turnover and turmoil this year.

Who wins?:  As much as I've loved the job that Peyton Siva and Russ Smith have been doing for the Cardinals, there just seems to be something that's clicking with the Hoyas (last week's loss to Villanova aside.)  I'll pick one of the Big East's most historic teams to carry on the legacy of the new Big East and go with Georgetown.

SOUTHEASTERN CONFERENCE (Wednesday-Sunday, Nashville)

This is the least top heavy conference (BY FAR), but the most intrigue is squarely on the bubble here, as there are 5-6 teams at least in the discussion there.  This is a big time "bid-stealer" league if there ever was one.

Who's in:  Florida (only team with a non-conference and conference record that's sparkling, is probably looking at a #3 seed regardless of performance this week in Nashville), Missouri (the bubble sucks, which is why they're in. Too much of a good non-conference start overlooks a disappointing 11-7 conference finish)

On the Bubble:  Tennessee.  They have a good resume, but still a few holes left.  The SEC is considered a weaker conference than any of its other Big 6 BCS neighbors, but Tennesee is the best of it's "rest".  They've won eight out of their last nine and have beaten every good team in the SEC:  Florida, Missouri, and Kentucky.  They just had a weak non-conference schedule and that puts them here.

Kentucky.  Don't be fooled, this is not the defending national champions here (those guys are all gone).  They've played like a good team through most of the year, but when star freshman Nerlens Noel went down, the Cats went 4-3.  They weren't playing like world beaters before the injury and surely not after it.  They weren't losing to Georgia and Arkansas afterwards.  Now, as the #2 seed, they won't play till Friday, but even a win in that first game won't give them a guaranteed spot.  More on that in a second.

Ole Miss.  With such HIGH expectations when the season started, all of a sudden Ole Miss became just another high mediocre major during the season with a less than stellar profile.  They didn't beat Kentucky or Florida, and their only major win was at home against Missouri.  The Rebels have a non-conference strength of schedule in the 100's.  Not good, but a finals appearance in this tournament can possibly get this team over the hump.

Alabama.  Still here based on the fact that they got the "double-bye" to the tournament.  But the Tide have lost to Dayton, Tulane, and Auburn; not exactly resume builders.  Then again, if enough teams lose, the Tide can sneak in with an SEC Final appearance.  But nothing more.  Anyone else wins this tournament, they will end up being a bid stealer.

Games to watch:  A possible Tennessee vs. Alabama Quarterfinal (Friday). It's one of those games where the loser will definitely be out, but the winner won't necessarily be in.  Tennessee has a lot more talent in Cuonzo Martin's second year, and I kind of feel like they are in with two wins in the tournament.  This would be their second.

Second Semifinal (Saturday). If form holds (and it usually doesn't) it would be Missouri or Ole Miss vs. Kentucky.  Kentucky is going to be the story of this tournament in their fight to defend their title.  If they get to this semifinal, all they'll have to do is win to get back in.  If Kentucky's status is "In", they can start fighting to get out of that First Four.

Who wins?:  Missouri has always been the most talented team of this bunch, but has never really shown it during the season.  This tournament is going to be a crapshoot here, so I'll go with the semi-dark horse #6 seed here, and go with Mizzou to get the automatic bid and improve their seeding.

PACIFIC-12 CONFERENCE (Wednesday-Saturday, Las Vegas)

The Pac-12 finally switched from the only place they've had their tourney (Los Angeles) to a place where a good amount of money can be made on their tourney (Las Vegas).  After last year's DISASTER of a tourney where the Pac-12 only got two schools in, this year's edition is definitely much better.

Who's in:  UCLA (won five out of their last six, have a great non-conference schedule, won regular season title), Arizona (thudded to a 4-4 finish, but started 20-2 which is good enough for me).

On the Bubble:  Colorado.  In most circles as a #10 seed on projections, the Buffaloes would have probably been a lock if they didn't lose to Oregon State this past Saturday.  Now, they have one more shot against Oregon State in the opening round of the tourney.  They win that, it'll be hard to leave them out of The Dance.

California.  Also in most circles as a likely Madness team, though they ruined an amount of momentum by losing at home to Stanford this past weekend.  However, in an improved Pac-12 this year, the Golden Bears were a moment away from clinching a share of the regular season conference title.  That should be enough to get them in but they still want to get out of that "Last Four In" range.  

Oregon.  They've been a Top 25 team until the past month when the Ducks quacked back to the pack (see what I did there?).  They have only one really good road victory since February and they did lose three out of their last five towards the end of the year.  They should be in, but they can't afford a Quarterfinal loss to Washington or Washington State, which could hurt their chances even more.  Again, they should be in, but not 100% as of yet.

Arizona State.  RPI of 90, but again, Conference Tournament week is HUGE in terms of the NCAA Committee's perception of you.  The Sun Devils need a very solid run here; a Finals appearance could cement their chances of making The Dance.  Most likely though, they would be a bid-stealer if they win.

Matchups to Watch:  Arizona vs.Colorado Quarterfinal (Thursday).  This would be a rematch (if Colorado wins Wednesday) of last year's final if it were to go down.  The two also had a memorable game earlier this year where Colorado looked like they made a game winning shot, but after a long deliberation it got waved off (which led to their coach wanting basketball to abolish all replay).  Colorado easily won the rematch in February and if the Buffaloes could win in this spot they can get much higher NCAA seeding.

Pac-12 Second Semifinal (Friday).  However, if Arizona wins that Quarterfinal, they may set up another matchup with UCLA.  Arizona, which went into the league season as the favorites, then lost both of their games to the Bruins.  This would be big for Arizona to catapult them into Top 4 seeding range if they can beat the Pac-12 regular season champs.

Winner?:  UCLA.  They are clicking at the right time right now.  Only Cal is a tiny bit hotter than the Bruins in this conference, but those high expectations that were set for UCLA's young team at the beginning of the season are starting to be met.  I'm giving the Bruins the title here.

BIG-12 CONFERENCE (Wednesday-Sunday, Kansas City, MO)

Who's In:  Kansas (pretty much a #2 seed if they win the tourney; too much needs to happen for them to get a #1), Kansas State (amazing season in Bruce Weber's first year, probably a #4 seed), Oklahoma State (played like the second best team in the conference; right now they project as a #3 seed, but might go as high as a #2 seed with a conference title).

On the Bubble:  Oklahoma.  VERY close to being in, but lost last Saturday to TCU, one of the worst teams in the country.  Even still, they look semi-safe right now.  They cannot afford one more loss though, which we'll get into a second, or the very bland resume of the Sooners (no bad losses, and 2-4 against those three "In" teams) will get a second look, and that could also put Oklahoma in the "Last Four In" group.

Iowa State.  They've had some of the most heartbreaking losses in this field.  They are 2-4 against those three "In" teams I keep mentioning, but unlike Oklahoma, all six of those games were by single digits and both losses to Kansas were in overtime (although there are a lot of fans in Ames that would say they had the second game against Kansas stolen from them).  However, they also have two BAD losses during the year to Texas and Texas Tech and BYU is their only great non-conference victory.  They still have work to do.

Baylor.  Yeah, this was the team ranked preseason Top 10 and made the Elite Eight last year.  But the Bears come into the conference tourney winning only three out of their last 11.  The only reason they're even on this list is because of the shellacking they gave Kansas over the weekend in Waco.  Baylor needs at last a finals appearance in the conference tourney to make the NCAA's.  Anything else and they'll be watching March Madness at home.

Matchups to Watch:  Oklahoma vs.Iowa State Quarterfinal (Thursday).  As I've mentioned before, both have tournament profiles that look the same, but Iowa State has played just a little more excitable.  They split during the regular season, each winning on the others court by double digits.  The winner here probably avoids the First Four in Dayton and can try to sneak out of that 8-9 game range, which would make their second round matchup much harder.

Baylor vs. Oklahoma State Quarterfinal (Thursday).  I'm excited for this one.  Oklahoma State won by two in OT when these two last played on the 6th of February.  Baylor NEEDS this game for any NCAA Tournament consideration, while Oklahoma State (who is kind of in the same position Baylor should be in) would love to knock them off.

Winner:  Kansas.  Can never go against the old guard especially when they are the most talented team in the conference.  Even though Kansas has had some hiccups in this year (see TCU), the Jayhawks still have enough talent to get over the speed bumps they had this season.  I think the Jayhawks prevail.

Part 2, previewing the remaining three conferences will come tomorrow.  Enjoy the madness, everyone.

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