O26 Storylines: Saint Louis, Gonzaga, Vermont and More…Posted by Adam Stillman on February 28th, 2014
Selection Sunday is right around the corner. Conference tournaments begin in just three days. Let’s take a look at the storylines surrounding the O26 conferences as we head into the stretch run of the regular season.
Was Saint Louis Exposed on Thursday night?
The Billikens have been playing with fire for far too long. They were finally burned on Thursday night, dropping a shocking home game against Atlantic 10 cellar-dweller Duquesne. Saint Louis won its previous six games by single digits, with two coming by one possession and two more coming in overtime to George Mason. Saint Louis is still in prime position to win the A-10, needing only a single win in its last three games — at VCU, vs. Dayton, at Massachusetts — to secure the top seed in the A-10 Tournament. But Thursday’s result is certainly worrisome. SLU’s best wins are against VCU, George Washington and Saint Joseph’s. Those three teams might be NCAA Tournament teams, but the rest of its resume is hardly impressive. The Bills still have the fourth-ranked defense, according to Ken Pomeroy, allowing just 89.5 points per 100 possessions. But their offense is a huge concern, coming in at 169th at 105 points per 100 possessions. Jim Crews’ team still has three tough games remaining, and it could see its #10 national ranking and possible #4/#5 seed turn into a date in the #8/#9 game if it’s not careful.Is Gonzaga Safe?
There was some chatter about Gonzaga not being a lock for the NCAAs after consecutive losses to BYU and San Diego last week. After all, the Bulldogs also had a bad loss to Portland, while their best win came against a take-your-pick choice of Arkansas, BYU or West Virginia. Yet the Zags sealed up another WCC regular season title with a road win at Pacific on Thursday night. At 24-6 and with a #29 RPI, there is no way Gonzaga misses the Big Dance at this point. Not with teams like Minnesota, Tennessee and Providence still projected in the field by ESPN‘s Joe Lunardi. Gonzaga closes out the season with a road game Saturday at Saint Mary’s before WCC Tournament play begins next week in Las Vegas. Gonzaga will get a bye into the semifinals and a likely date with Saint Mary’s again. While two straight losses would make the Zags sweat a bit through Selection Sunday, I don’t think there’s any way they miss out at this point. The bubble, as usual, is just way too weak.
Can Harvard Breathe a Little Better Now?
Crimson fans might have been a bit panicked during last Saturday’s game at Princeton. Harvard trailed by 12 in a place where they hadn’t won since 1989; they were tied in the league standings with Yale at 8-1; and those pesky Bulldogs already owned a win at Harvard. Then Harvard stormed back to win and Yale followed that up with a 16-point loss Sunday at Columbia. Harvard now holds a one-game edge over Yale with four games to play, although the Crimson still have to visit the Bulldogs on March 7. That game will likely decide the league title. A Yale win would even the standings but would give the Bulldogs the head-to-head sweep, meaning the league title and the NCAA Tournament’s automatic bid. A Harvard victory would all but end the race. KenPom projects Harvard to win its remaining four contests, including a 69 percent chance at taking down Yale in New Haven. In fact, KenPom gives Harvard its worst odds the rest of the way in a season-ending March 8 game at Brown, as the Crimson are just 68 percent favorites. With all the talent on Harvard’s roster, the Crimson should be able to handle Yale on the road and earn the league’s automatic bid. But will the pressure trip them up?
Are Toledo’s 15 Minutes of Fame Over?
Remember back in late December when Toledo was one of the last seven undefeated teams in the nation? The Rockets were 12-0 and garnering national attention. Then came a 10-point defeat at Kansas, and while that ended any unrealistic hopes of an unbeaten year, the Rockets acquitted themselves well enough to be considered a legitimate at-large threat. Those good times might be over. Toledo is 23-5 overall and 11-4 in a mediocre MAC. Heck, the Rockets aren’t even first in their own division. That honor goes to Western Michigan at 12-3. Toledo is coming off a humbling loss at Northern Illinois, a team that’s below .500 overall and in MAC play. The Rockets host Western Michigan on Saturday and are projected to win their remaining three games by KenPom, but any at-large hopes are long gone and the Rockets may not even be the favorites to win their conference tournament at this point. While Toledo certainly could win the MAC’s automatic bid in Cleveland, the way things are going right now, it doesn’t seem like it’ll be much of a threat if or when it gets to the NCAA Tournament.
Could Vermont be a March Cinderella Again?
Vermont has certainly played this role before. Remember the 2005 NCAA Tournament when the Catamounts, as a #13 seed, upset fourth-seeded Syracuse? If not, click here. Well, Vermont may not have Tom Brennan roaming the sidelines, but it looks like a force to be reckoned with once again. The Catamounts clinched the America East regular season title with a dominant 69-53 win against second-place Stony Brook on Thursday night. And while the early rounds of the conference tournament are at third-place Albany, which won the America East Tournament last year, Vermont owns a season sweep of the Great Danes and would then host a potential title game against Stony Brook. Vermont is 20-9 overall and 14-1 in league play to go along with some cringe-worthy losses to Bryant and Wagner. But this is also a team that took Duke to the wire at Cameron Indoor Stadium in late November before falling, 91-90. Give this experienced squad — 11th oldest in the country according to KenPom — a shot against a giant on a neutral court, well, the slipper might just fit, again.