O26 Primers: Conference USA, Mountain West, Southland, SWAC and WAC TourneysPosted by KDoyle on March 9th, 2011
RTC’s Kevin Doyle, author of the weekly column, The Other 26, and the Patriot League Correspondent, will be providing conference tournament previews for all non-BCS conferences.
With three conference tournaments concluding last night, it is only appropriate that five more get underway today. Conference USA and the Southland Conference are two of the most balanced leagues in the nation, while the WAC and Mountain West were just the opposite as they were dominated at the top. The SWAC is always a bit of a mystery come Championship Week and tournament time, but Texas Southern is the class of the league this year and will no doubt do their best to bring respect to the league if they are fortunate enough to advance to the Dance.
The Favorite: UAB won the regular season title with a 12-4 record, but that means very little in the ultra competitive CUSA this season as five teams are just behind the Blazers. There is something to be said though about UAB’s strong play down the stretch and the steady play of Jamarr Sanders and Cameron Moore. These reasons alone amidst several injuries that Mike Davis‘ club has overcome makes UAB the slight favorite over the rest of the bunch.
Dark Horse: Southern Mississippi is one the teams that are nipping at UAB’s heels. Although they fell in their last three games of the regular season, Larry Eustachy’s squad proved throughout the year they can beat anyone in the conference. Having Gary Flowers roam around the pain never hurts either.
Who’s Hot: UAB has won their last four games and seven of eight heading into the tournament. As well as UAB is playing, it would be very easy for that to stop on a dime. Throughout each week during the conference schedule, it appeared that one team in CUSA was emerging as the top dog, but they would quickly fade. Can UAB keep their streak going all the way into the NCAA Tournament?
Player to Watch: Papa Dia, Southern Methodist’s senior forward all the way from Senegal, is enjoying the best season of his career as he is averaging 18.5 points and 9 rebounds a game. In each of the previous three seasons, SMU has been below .500; Dia and his teammates clearly have something to prove in this tournament.
First-Round Upset: Central Florida over East Carolina. UCF was the nation’s favorite story in the early going as they jumped out to a 14-0 record with wins over Florida, Miami (FL), and Princeton. The Knights then went onto lose eight straight games, thus proving that their early success was a fluke. Now, UCF has won five of seven games and if they can regain that success they had in those 14 games, a victory over East Carolina is absolutely within reach.
How’d They Fare? After going 7-9 in the conference, Houston caught fire in the tournament to surprise everyone by winning the title. In doing so, the Cougars stole a bid from a team on the bubble and earned a #13 seed in the Tournament where they lost to Maryland 89-77. UTEP—the team Houston beat to advance onward—was trounced by Butler as a #12 seed.
Interesting Fact: The last team to win an NCAA Tournament game hailing from Conference USA not named Memphis was Louisville in the 2005 Tournament. The ‘Ville advanced all the way to the Final Four that year where they lost to Illinois 57-52 in the semifinals. Both UAB and Cincinnati also won Tournament games that year.
Mountain West Conference
The Favorite: Jimmer Fredette is one of the most dominant players in the nation—there is little doubt about that—but BYU’s play without Brandon Davies has certainly taken a hit; this was exhibited in an 18-point defeat against New Mexico. Not even Jimmer can do it all by his lonesome. While BYU has beaten San Diego State twice this year, it is hard to see them doing it a third time as containing Billy White, Malcolm Thomas, and Kawhi Leonard becomes much more difficult now. I like the Aztecs.
Dark Horse: New Mexico has not been unable to build upon their wildly successful season last year that saw them capture a #3 seed in the NCAA Tournament, but the Lobos have a good deal of talent with Dairese Gary and freshman Kendall Williams that have the ability to go on a run in the MWC tournament. They ended the regular season by winning three straight games with one of these wins coming against BYU. If they can get past Colorado State in their first game, they will most likely do battle against BYU again.
Who’s Hot: UNLV has flown under the radar for much of the season with BYU and San Diego State stealing all of the headlines, but Lon Kruger’s squad concluded the regular season by winning five straight games.
Player to Watch: Jimmer is the obvious choice here, but since everyone in the country will already be watching him, here is another guy to keep tabs on: Andy Ogide. The transfer from Ole Miss has been a large part of Colorado State’s success this season as he is averaging 18 points and eight rebounds in Mountain West competition.
First-Round Upset: New Mexico over Colorado State. This would be an upset by seed only. The Lobos and Rams split their season series and New Mexico was just a game behind Colorado State in the MWC standings.
How’d They Fare? Since their inception as a conference back in 2000, the Mountain West had their most successful season last year as they placed four teams into the NCAA Tournament. While two of them were bounced in the first round and the other two failed to make it to the second weekend, it is impressive nonetheless to have four teams represent the MWC. For comparisons sake, the MWC placed as many teams if not more than the SEC (4), Atlantic 10 (3), Conference USA (2), and Pac-10 (2). As for the four Mountain West teams that danced last: #7 BYU defeated Florida and then lost to Kansas State, #8 UNLV lost to Northern Iowa, #3 New Mexico defeated Montana and then lost to Washington, and #11 San Diego State lost to Tennessee.
Interesting Fact: BYU will be making their fifth consecutive appearance in the NCAA Tournament this year. The next best streak of any other MWC team is Utah with four straight.
The Favorite: The Southland is a real crapshoot this year. Although McNeese State finished the regular season in sole possession of first place with an 11-5 record, there are 10 teams in the conference with records between 7-9 and 11-5—balance and parity. I still think though that McNeese State prevails and gets back to the Tournament for the first time since 2002.
Dark Horse: Southeastern Louisiana has won three straight games and swept the season series with McNeese State and Northwestern State—two of the top teams in the Eastern side of the Southland Conference.
Who’s Hot: Sam Houston State carries a great deal of momentum heading into the tournament as they have won eight of their last ten games.
Player to Watch: Devin Gibson has been a staple in the Texas-San Antonio rotation since Day 1 and his solid play has continued into his senior season. Gibson can fill up the box score better than anyone in the conference s he averages 16.3 points a game and better than five rebounds and five assists a contest. Gibson, who will square off against Northwestern State in the first round, went off for 20/10/7 in UTSA’s last meeting with the Demons.
First-Round Upset: Southeastern Louisiana over Texas State. The Lions are playing well, and Texas State is not. At this juncture of the season, I almost always like the team that is peaking and playing with confidence.
How’d They Fare? With less than three minutes remaining, 14th seeded Sam Houston State was tied with Baylor at 55, but they could not make the big plays down the stretch and eventually succumbed to the Bears. The win for SHS would have been their first Tournament victory in school history.
Interesting Fact: Dating back to the 1986 NCAA Tournament, the Southland Conference has two Tournament victories—both have come by Northwestern State.
Shall we relive this miracle?
Yes, we should.
Southwestern Athletic Conference
The Favorite: Texas Southern has breezed through the SWAC—save for two blemishes against Mississippi Valley State and Alabama State—and has to be considered the favorite entering the conference tournament. Don’t be surprised though if they struggled against their first round opponent Arkansas Pine Bluff as they beat the Golden Lions by an average of five points in both meetings.
Dark Horse: After beginning the season with a 1-12 record, Mississippi Valley State appeared to be a bottom feeder in the SWAC, but they were able to right the ship. The Delta Devils has proven they can play with the best as they have already beaten Texas Southern.
Who’s Hot: Who else but Texas Southern? The Tigers, as previously alluded to, went 16-2 in the conference; the next best team was 12-6.
Player to Watch: It is no surprise that the player to keep an eye on dons the jersey from the top team in the league, and was also the Player of the Year in the SWAC. Obviously, I am referring to Texas Southern’s senior forward Travele Jones who is averaging 16 points and seven rebounds.
First-Round Upset: Prairie View A&M over Jackson State. Jackson State ended their regular season o a sour note losing two of their last three, while 10-21 Prairie View won their last two. Trant Simpson and the Panthers may have just enough in them to pull the upset, but I wouldn’t expect much more than that.
How’d They Fare? Arkansas-Pine Bluff disposed of Winthrop easily in the Play-in game, but then was trounced by eventual National Champion Duke 73-44.
Interesting Fact: The SWAC representative has not received above a #16 seed in the NCAA Tournament since the 1999 Tournament when Alcorn State was a #15 seed.
Western Athletic Conference
The Favorite: It is still a mystery to me how Utah State lost to Idaho, but even with that loss the Aggies are obviously the runaway favorite to win the WAC. Utah State has a 15-1 record in the conference, and the team with the next best record is Boise State at 10-6.
Dark Horse: New Mexico State advanced to the Dance last year as a #12 seed, but have not experienced similar success this season thus far. Although their record is below .500 and they lost four of their last five games to conclude the regular season, New Mexico State lost to Utah State by 10 points in the first meeting and four in the second. Maybe third time will be a charm.
Who’s Hot: Utah State. No explanation needed.
Player to Watch: Keep an eye on Adrian Oliver of San Jose State as the senior transfer from Washington may very well be playing his last game as a collegiate basketball player against Hawaii. Oliver does not receive a whole lot of recognition, but his 24.3 points a game ranks third nationally and is tops in the WAC by more than five points.
First-Round Upset: San Jose State over Hawaii. For the sole reason that I do not believe Adrian Oliver is content with exiting in the first round. If Oliver and his running mate Justin Graham have big nights, they can get past Hawaii.
How’d They Fare? New Mexico State and Utah State both were 12 seeds in the Tournament and came up empty-handed in the first round.
Interesting Fact: Although Utah State has been the face of the conference in recent years, Nevada has actually had much more success in the NCAA Tournament. Since 2004, Nevada’s record is an even 4-4, while Utah State’s is 0-4. (It should be noted that in the Aggies’ 2005 appearance, they were a member of the Big West.)
There is only one more Other 26 conference that kicks off their tournament and that is the Big West which will get things going on Thursday and wrap up on Saturday at the Anaheim Convocation Center.