The Other 26: Five Intriguing Championship Week StorylinesPosted by IRenko on March 9th, 2013
I. Renko is an RTC columnist. He will kick off each weekend during the season with his analysis of the 26 other non-power conferences. Follow him on Twitter @IRenkoHoops.
With regular season action having wound down, we’ll dispense with our standard format this week in favor of a streamlined focus on five key Championship Week storylines, along with, as always, our updated top 10 rankings. I joined the RTC Podblast crew on Wednesday for a full-fledged preview of TO26 conference tournament action, talking about the most exciting tournaments, the most anticipated matchups, potential bid stealers, and more. Rather than repeat myself, I’ll refer you to the sweet, dulcet sounds of my voice for more on those big picture topics, and instead offer five less obvious storylines to follow.
- Will Cinderella Show up Early? — If you love to cheer on Cinderella squads as they try to knock off highly-seeded favorites, there’s no need to wait for the Big Dance. The conference tournaments comprise more than two dozen Little Dances, in which a Cinderella run is as likely as it is later in March. Last year, Western Kentucky managed to snare the Sun Belt’s automatic bid, despite entering the postseason tournament with a #7 seed and an 11-18 record. Can anyone manage the feat this year? Already, we have a great underdog story brewing in the WCC, where Loyola Marymount, which went 1-15 in regular season conference play, has won two tournament games to secure a semifinal berth. It will take a true miracle to overcome their next obstacle — the number one team in the country, Gonzaga — but miracles are what March is for.
- Can New Mexico Secure a #2 Seed? — Gonzaga appears poised to plant the TO26 banner on the top seed line, but is it possible that another TO26 team could find itself just one line down? Our latest bracketology hands the Lobos a #2 seed, though many other projections predict a #3 seed. A run through the MW Tournament — on the heels of a two-loss regular season in what is the conference’s deepest, most competitive year in memory — would, one would hope, be enough to give the Lobos their highest seed in school history (they twice notched a #3 seed, including in 2010). And it would be the first time that two TO26 squads landed two of the top eight seeds since 2004, when St. Joseph’s and Gonzaga each managed the feat.
- Will Akron Regroup? — A week ago, Akron was riding a 19-game winning streak, was undefeated in MAC play, and was two games clear of Ohio in the East Division standings with three games left. The Zips fell last Saturday in a surprising 81-67 loss to Buffalo, in which they were torched by Javon McCrea for 28 points. But that was a mere bump in the road compared to what happened next. On Thursday, it was announced that junior point guard Alex Abreu had been indefinitely suspended after being arrested on felony charges of marijuana trafficking, and in their first game without him last night, the Zips fell at home to Kent State, 66-61. Worse than blowing their lead atop the East Division (if Ohio wins Saturday, the teams will end the regular season tied), the Zips are now limping into the postseason with little chance of an at-large bid and needing to win three straight MAC tournament games without Abreu to make good on their once-promising March prospects. How important is Abreu to this team? He’s third in scoring, at 10.3 points per game, and shoots a team-leading 39.4 percent from three-point range. But more than that, he is the facilitator that makes Akron’s offense go, notching six assists per game, for which he ranks in the top 20 nationally.
- Will Louisiana Tech or Denver Exit the WAC With a Conference Title? — Thirty-five years ago, the WAC was a conference that included teams like Arizona, New Mexico, Utah, and BYU. In the years since, multiple waves of conference realignment have forced the WAC to reinvent itself repeatedly. Each iteration of the league seems to be less impressive than the last, and the changes coming this offseason — when seven schools will leave the conference, to be replaced by six teams with mediocre pedigrees — will make the WAC weaker than it’s ever been. Among the departed will be the conference’s current two top teams, Louisiana Tech and Denver. They are currently separated by just a game at the top of the standings, after Denver knocked off third-place New Mexico State this week while Louisiana Tech suffered its first conference loss against the same opponent. They will meet Saturday evening with the regular season title on the line, in what may be a preview of a conference title match-up. The stakes will be high if they meet in the conference tournament; neither team is likely to secure an at-large bid, but both are good enough to make some noise in the Dance.
- Are the Ivies Headed for a Playoff? — Harvard entered last weekend with a one-game advantage on Princeton in the Ivy League race, but after getting swept on a road trip to Princeton and Penn, the Crimson exited the weekend with a one-game deficit. Princeton gave its newfound advantage right back on Friday night, falling at Yale, while Harvard rallied from a late deficit to beat Columbia. The Crimson close out league play on Saturday night, while Princeton has two games remaining, including the traditional season-ending rivalry game at Penn on Tuesday. If the two teams end up sharing the Ivy League championship, they’ll play their second one-game playoff in three years to decide who gets the league’s automatic bid to the Tournament. Princeton won the 2011 playoff game on a buzzer-beater.