So we figure we’ll be done with these conference primers by Christmas 2008 Thanksgiving, which is about the time most people start keeping an eye on college hoops anyway. In the meantime, we thought we’d take a moment to recap the seventeen single bid conferences we’ve already reviewed. Keep in mind, our definition of a single bid league is a conference that does not regularly compete for multiple NCAA bids (even if they occasionally get multiple bids).
Some brief Single Bid Conference superlatives while we’re at this point:
Best Team. Davidson (#9 Seed NCAA)– this team has a shot at the Sweet 16 this year
Possible Spoiler. Louisiana-Monroe (Sun Belt) – everyone loves WKU in the Sun Belt, but ULM has an excellent team returning
Low Major All-Americans.
Stephen Curry (Davidson) – POY
Bo McCalebb (New Orleans)
Kyle Hines (UNC-Greensboro)
Jason Thompson (Rider)
Alex Harris (UCSB)
Hon. Mention – Courtney Pigram (ETSU), Arizona Reid (High Point), Courtney Lee (W. Kentucky), Tim Pollitz (Miami (OH))
Conference We Wish Were on TV More Often. America East. We dunno why, other than we’ve enjoyed watching teams like Albany, Vermont and BU over the past few years. Seems like a fun conference.
Conference We Wish Would Re-Organize (or Implode).Sun Belt. Despite a long and proud history, there are simply too many teams (13) located in too many places (from Denver to Miami). This conference has lost its bearings.
Conference Champ You Can Count on to Cover the Spread in NCAA Tourney 08 – Big West. Although Ivy league champs tend to stay close, Las Vegas knows that, so we like the Big West instead, where teams not named Long Beach St. have lost by an average of only 7 pts during the 2000s.
Conference Champ You Can Count on to NOT Cover the Spread in NCAA Tourney 08 – Summit. In its last nine first round games, the Summit champ has lost by an average of 22 pts.
And here’s how our Consensus Conference Picks are shaping up (RTC choice in red):
Since last time, we added the CBS Sportsline picks as well as the conference media days selections for each league. We had three more leagues came on with a full consensus (Patriot – Holy Cross; Sun Belt – W. Kentucky; Southern – Davidson) to join the OVC (Austin Peay), while the Big Sky (Montana) was only one vote short. The Big West (UCSB) and MAC (Kent St.) were solidly in one team’s corner, while the Summit (IUPUI) and Ivy (Cornell) weren’t far behind. We’re still not buying that Ivy selection of Cornell, though.
WYN2K. We went back and forth on where to rank the MAC because conveniently pigeonholing this league into low- or mid-major status is very difficult to do. Historically, the league hasn’t been more than a one-bid league (since 1985 the MAC has received two NCAA bids only five times), but it has consistently done well with the teams that it puts into March Madness, ranking among the top five conferences in terms of exceeding its expected number of NCAA wins (aka overachieving). Using historical measures of success by seed, the MAC (as an average #12.0 seed) should have won only 12.04 NCAA Tournament games over the last 23 years – instead it has won fifteen. So given this dichotomy in its character, we started looking at recent history to gain a deeper understanding of where the MAC should fall on the ladder. We’re probably going to upset the MAC folks out there, but ultimately we were swayed by the fact that the league has been a one-bid league with no first round wins (losing by an average of 8.8 pts) over the last four seasons (despite having a winning record of 192-186 against OOC opponents the last three years). That was enough to convince us to keep the MAC (for now) at the top of the low majors. But it was a very close call.
Predicted Champion. Kent St. (#12 seed NCAA). The Golden Flashes are our choice to win the MAC this year (again, shamelessly unoriginal). But what’s not to like with this team? They return all five starters from a team that went 12-4 in conference last year, and a program under the tutelage of Jim Christian who has never had an under-20 win season at the school (KSU has had nine straight 20 win seasons). No one player stands out offensively on this defensive-minded club (#22 nationally in defensive efficiency last year), but 6’7 forward Haminn Quaintance is the man shoring up the team D from the inside (#15 in stl% and #33 in blk% nationally). Kent St. has a difficult, but not insane (see: Miami (OH) for that), nonconference schedule, featuring games against mid-majors Xavier, St. Louis and George Mason at home, while going to Chapel Hill in early January to play UNC.
Others Considered. We like Western Michigan to win the West Division, but that doesn’t necessarily mean we think they’re the second-best team in the conference. Like Kent St., the Broncos also return all five starters, but the 2007 version of WMU simply (16-16) wasn’t as good as Kent St. (21-11). Their ultimate destiny may depend on the offseason development of the most excellently-named guard David Kool, last year’s MAC FrOY, a player who seems to do a little bit of everything. Last year’s miraculous champion Miami (OH) was also considered simply because they have Charlie Coles still at the helm and you know you’re going to get a hardnosed defensive team (#28 nationally in eFG% defense; MU didn’t allow a single opponent to score 70 pts last seaon) that tests itself with an extremely tough nonconference schedule every year – this year’s includes five NCAA teams, one NIT team + Cincinnati on the road. Akron getting left out of both the NCAA and the NIT last year despite 26 wins has to still sting coach Keith Dambrot. But if he’s to become vindicated with a MAC championship this year, he’ll have to do so without conference POY (and former Lebron HS teammates) Romeo Travis and team leader PG Dru Joyce. Can the Zips find point guard play to support another run? They do return five of the top 500 most efficient offensive players in the country (contributing to a #12 raw offensive efficiency), so there is a fair chance of another great season. Another team that is probably still a year away from competing for the MAC title but is worth watching is Central Michigan. CMU went from 4-24 in 2006 to 13-18 in 2007, and the pieces are beginning to align for former UCLA assistant coach and current head man Ernie Ziegler. He returns four starters including Giordan Watson, the leading returning scorer (18.8 ppg) in the MAC this season. Last year’s league regular season champ, Toledo, lost its top three scorers and is expected to drop off somewhat despite returning the league’s DPOY Kashif Payne.
Games to Watch. The MAC has a fair number of televised games this year, so you can actually watch some of these, as opposed to watching for them. Keep in mind the unbalanced sixteen-game schedule.
Kent St. @ Miami (OH) (01.17.08) & Miami (OH) @ Kent St. (03.04.08)
Central Michigan @ Western Michigan (01.22.08) ESPNU & Western Michigan @ Central Michigan (03.04.08)
ESPNU Bracketbusters (02.23.08)
MAC Championship Game (03.15.08) ESPN2
RPI Booster Games. Like the Big West, the MAC doesn’t play a lot of BCS teams, largely because they want home-and-homes and the higher profile schools aren’t willing to risk a loss when they get a Southland or Sun Belt team to take the one-game lump payment along with their whipping. Last year the league was 4-25 (.138) against BCS teams, and there are 21 such games on the schedule this year (along with quite a few mid-major games). Oh, and who does Ohio U. know at ESPN – they’re scheduled to be on the family of networks at least nine times this year!
New Mexico St. @ Ohio (11.09.07) ESPN FC
Western Michigan @ Oregon (11.10.07) ESPN FC
Vanderbilt @ Toledo (11.13.07)
Davidson @ Western Michigan (11.21.07)
Central Michigan @ Minnesota (11.24.07) ESPN 360
Eastern Michigan @ Notre Dame (12.01.07)
Miami (OH) @ Louisville (12.01.07) ESPN FC
Ohio @ Kansas (12.15.07) ESPN2
Western Michigan @ S. Illinois (12.18.07)
Kent St. @ UNC (01.02.08) ESPN
Odds of Multiple NCAA Bids. There’s always a reasonable shot for the MAC to get multiple bids, but we wouldn’t call those odds good this year. Looking at what happened to Akron last year suggests that the only team that would have a shot at an at-large would be Miami (OH) if they had a great record and lost in the conference tournament.
Neat-o Stat. There are three new and somewhat accomplished coaches coming into the MAC this season – Ricardo Patton (Northern Illinois), formerly of Colorado where he took the Buffs to 2 NCAAs and 4 NITs in eleven seasons; Louis Orr (Bowling Green), formerly of Seton Hall where he took the Pirates to 2 NCAAs and 1 NIT in five seasons; and Billy Taylor (Ball St.), formerly of Lehigh who is taking over from the troubled tenure of Ronny Thompson there.
64/65-Team Era. As we alluded to above, the MAC can make a reasonable case for inclusion into the mid-major category (we define a mid-major conference as one that consistently competes for and receives at-large NCAA bids, minus the BCS conferences). Despite overachieving when MAC teams make the NCAA Tourney with four teams making the Sweet 16 or better (Kent St. in 2002), it still only has had five years of multiple bids (two each time – 1985, 1986, 1995, 1998, 1999) in this era. And as you can see, none have occurred during the 2000s. For now, let’s enjoy the ending of last year’s MAC Championship game. Bedlam.
Final Thought. The conference is very balanced, as five different programs have tasted the NCAA over the last five years, and only twice has a school had the good fortune to go B2B in winning the conference crown (Ball St. – 1989 & 1990; Kent St. – 2001 & 2002). So it should be no surprise if someone besides Miami (OH) steps up and takes the title this year. Befitting a conference that has quality depth, we see no fewer than six teams that could make a legitimate run at the conference championship, and a couple more who could easily act the role of spoilers. As always, the MAC plays quality basketball and is worth catching when you get a chance.
As we get closer to “opening night,” teams have been going through their exhibition schedules with varying degrees of success. Well, actually, most of them are kicking the shit winning comfortably against their opponents except for Michigan State. Here’s a quick roundup of recent notable games:
WYN2K. As we continue our ascent up the conference ladder, we once again come to a league where the top clearly consists of mid-major quality programs, but the bottom of the conference weighs it down as a whole and keeps it from becoming a consistent multiple bid performer. As might be expected for a middling league, the Big West has split its OOC games over the past three seasons (142-155, .478), winning the games against the lower leagues and losing to those above (1-13 last year vs. BCS teams). So what we see again this year is a handful of teams near the top that could easily compete in the WAC or Horizon, and an equal number that might be better suited for the OVC or Atlantic Sun (geographical considerations notwithstanding). Yet due to its schizophrenic nature (representative of its Californian makeup, perhaps?), the Big West has only once in the last fourteen years received two bids (2005), and that was solely because upstart Utah St. defeated unbeaten juggernaut Pacific in the conference finals that year.
Predicted Champion. UC Santa Barbara (#13 seed NCAA)is our choice to represent the Big West this year (turns out we’re not very original). Besides being located in one of the most awe-inspiring landscapes the lower 48 has to offer, the Gauchos return four starters from a second-place club including likely POY guard Alex Harris (21.1 ppg, .458 3fg%) and all-conference forward Chris Devine (14.1 ppg, 6.6 rpg).These two, along with a sophomore backcourt (Justin Joyner and James Powell)that made the all-freshman team last year, hold down a formidable defense that has finished second in the league for six consecutive years. Throw in transfer center Nedim Pajevic from Weber St. and UCSB has all the pieces to win its first conference title in six years. The way we see it, the only hurdle against this team’s success are the tasty waves and a cool buzz down on the campus beach (h/t Jeff Spicoli).
Others Considered. Should UCSB stumble just a bit, we like Cal Poly as next in line to pick up the pieces. Despite losing all-conference wing Derek Stockalper, the Mustangs return sufficient talent to build off of their season-ending 10-2 run (including the conference title game). Three other starters return, including all-conference guard Dawin Whiten and inside presence Titus Shelton (#96 nationally in blk%). The other team we like a lot in this league is Cal St. Fullerton, another second-place team from last season that returns three starters, but must deal with the loss of Bobby Brown, the school’s all-time leading scorer. The Titans are most excited about incoming transfer guard Josh Akognon, a lights-out shooter who led Washington St. in scoring during Dick Bennett’s last season there in 2006. As a sophomore, Akognon dropped 25 on UCLA’s vaunted defense in a half, so expectations are obviously high. Pacific had a rough year last season after a run of three straight NCAA Tourney appearances (49-3 in the Big West over that span), but they do return four of their top seven players and still carry a swagger that the rest of the league hasn’t quite forgotten yet. A core group of juniors led by Anthony Brown will spearhead the renaissance for head coach Bob Thomason, so they can’t be dismissed.
Games to Watch. The Big West is back to nine teams after two years at eight, so the round-robin schedule remains intact. Here are the key games to watch for:
UCSB @ Cal St. Fullerton (01.12.08) & Cal St. Fullerton @ UCSB (02.07.08)
Cal Poly @ Cal St. Fullerton (01.10.08) & Cal St. Fullerton @ Cal Poly (02.09.08)
UCSB @ Cal Poly (01.19.08) & Cal Poly @ UCSB (02.14.08)
ESPNU Bracketbusters (02.23.08)
Big West Championship Game (03.15.08) ESPN2
RPI Booster Games. The Big West doesn’t typically play a lot of games against BCS teams, and we’re not sure why that is (perhaps it has more to do with location than anything). Nevertheless, the league was 1-13 (.071) last year, with the sole victory coming from UC Irvine against South Carolina (67-52). Here are this year’s best opportunities for RPI enhancement:
Pacific @ Oregon (11.11.07) ESPN FC
UCSB @ Stanford (11.11.07)
Mississippi St. @ UC Irvine (11.22.07) ESPNU
Cal Poly @ Arizona St. (11.26.07)
UNLV @ UCSB (11.27.07)
Cal St. Fullerton @ Arizona (11.28.07)
Nevada @ Pacific (12.01.07) ESPN FC
UCSB @ UNC (12.22.07)
Cal Poly @ USC (12.22.07)
Odds of Multiple NCAA Bids. Not this year. While UCSB is very good, it’s not so good that it will dominate the league to the level necessary to ensure an at-large bid (as Pacific managed to do in 2005).
Neat-o Stat. Last year’s champion Long Beach St. galloped into the sunset with a conference regular season title as well as the tournament title before getting utterly shellacked 121-86 by Tennessee in last year’s first round matchup. Not only did the program lose its coach Larry Reynolds, it also lost its top nine scorers. The leading returning scorer is guard Artis Grant, who averaged all of 1.9 ppg last season in less than ten minutes of game time. Dan Monson, the architect of Gonzaga basketball in the late 1990s (of which Mark Few gets all the credit), took the job and according to one media report, he’s quite happy with the decision. He may have said that before he saw how thin his roster was going to be this year.
64/65-Team Era. The Big West’s record of 28-29 (.491) is extremely misleading due to the UNLV effect. UNLV was in this league from 1982-1996, and while there the Runnin’ Rebels ran off only 21 wins, 3 F4s and a national championship in 1990. The other seven wins during the era belong to UCSB (1990 – 1), New Mexico St. (1992 – 2; 1993 – 1), Utah St. (2001 – 1) and Pacific (2004 – 1; 2005 – 1). In more recent NCAA history, Pacific has owned the Big East in the NCAAs, beating #5 Providence 66-58 (2004), #9 Pittsburgh 79-71 (2005) and coming very close to beating #4 Boston College (Pacific lost 88-76 in 2OT) in the Eagles’ first year as a member of the ACC. Since 1994 the league has been a one-bid league with the one exception mentioned above in 2005, and its average seed has been a #12.9. If we omit Long Beach St.’s asskicking last year at the hands of Tennessee, we see that the league has performed admirably (if not successfully) in its first round games during this decade. We mentioned Pacific’s three games above, but in the Big West’s other five games its representative lost by an average of only 6.8 pts, showing that these teams play competitive basketball. For now, though, let’s reminisce about Bong Long Beach St.’s championship RTC at the Big West Championship.
Final Thought. The Big West is a league seemingly in continual flux. Every time it seems to be building a cache of solid programs at the top, one of them bolts for another conference (see: UNLV, New Mexico St., Utah St.). As a result, it can never quite get a good enough RPI rating to break through as an annual two-bid league. Regularly reaching into the lowest reaches of D1 to pick up the likes of UC Davis and UC Riverside just to have a full complement of teams only worsens the problem. Who will be next to go if a spot opens in the WCC or WAC – UCSB? Pacific? We shall see.
Georgetown’s #1 vote replaces Kansas’s single #1 vote (from the coaches poll)
Variance is minimal – the biggest difference is NC State (#21 AP; #24 Coaches)
The only different teams in the Top 25? K-State is #25 in the AP, Villanova #25 in the Coaches (each is #26 in the other poll)
Mining the OTR shows a few differences of opinion:
Huggins’ WVU squad got 20 media votes but nary a single coaches vote
Mizzou (8) and Vandy (6) are a couple of the other notables that received some media love but none from the coaches; on the other side of things, Bradley (7) and Utah (4) were the top vote-getters from the coaches that got nada from the media
Nothing else too exciting that we didn’t already mention in the Coaches Poll review, although we still think USC and NC State are incredibly overrated
WYN2K. The Southern Conference has a reputation as a league on the rise, and deservedly so. After stellar regular seasons in 2006-07 from division winners Davidson and Appalachian St., including five wins over BCS schools among the league members (the highest total wins among the conferences we’ve rated thus far), the league has its sights on breaking into mid-major territory. If this is to ultimately happen, it will likely be led by Davidson, who with spectacular sophomore guard Stephen Curry, will challenge itself with several elite OOC games this season. Even though the league has been a one-bid conference throughout the 64/65 team era, last year Appalachian St. was very close to earning an at-large NCAA bid before ultimately settling for an NIT berth. And with the name cachet of Bobby Cremins bringing in exceptional recruits at College of Charleston, this league could be knocking on the door for two bids sooner rather than later.
Predicted Champion. Davidson (#9 seed NCAA) is the clear choice here. Davidson returns all five starters from the team that pushed extremely talented and athletic Maryland in the NCAA first round last year (down only four after the last tv timeout), including the aforementioned Curry, who had sick numbers for a freshman guard (22 ppg, 5 rpg, 3 apg, 2 spg, .408 3fg%, .855 ft%) including a run of 26.1 ppg the last ten games. But this is no one-man show. Aside from excellent point guard Jason Richards (#2 nationally in total assists), post men Thomas Sander and Boris Meno also both had outstanding seasons manning the inside, clearing boards and playing tough defense. Coach Bob McKillop also adds two significant recruits – Aaron Bond, who received some Burger Boy consideration last year; and his son, Brendan McKillop, who turned down ACC teams Virginia Tech and NC State to play for his pops. Knowing that Davidson needs a high RPI to offset any chance of being left at the altar should the Wildcats stumble in the conference tourney, McKillop has beefed up the OOC schedule considerably, setting up made-for-tv games with local bullies UNC and Duke in Charlotte and a trip to Raleigh to play NC State. Another road trip will include a game vs. UCLA at the Wooden Classic. All four of those teams are ranked in the Top 25.
Others Considered. We don’t expect another team to push Davidson like Appalachian St. did last season, but if Davidson gets lackadaisical or suffers a significant injury, we’d expect UNC-Greensboro to be next in line. Believe it or not, Curry didn’t win conference POY last year, and it’s not a sure thing that he will this year either. This is due to the fact that UNCG has a 6’6, 230 lb. Sir Charles clone named Kyle Hines returning in the post. Hines has scored in double figures in fifty straight games, and the last time a team went single coverage on him, he dropped 38 on their heads. Although #2 scorer Ricky Hickman is gone, UNCG returns a trio of talented sophomore wing scorers who all showed promise of bright futures. Appalachian St. is another team to watch despite losing three key seniors. The key is that two post men, Donte Minter (who should be healthy this year) and Jeremy Clayton, are returning, and in a league of little size, this could carry them a long way. One concern is the loss of heady PG DJ Thompson, who led the team’s uptempo attack, along with two other guards that saw significant time. Georgia Southern is another team on our radar, simply because they have an all-conference performer in the post (Louis Graham – #18 nationally in defReb%) and at the point guard position (Dwayne Foreman – #32 nationally in asstRate). And although College of Charleston lost three starters and a transfer from a 13-5 team, Bobby Cremins brought in the best recruiting class the league has seen in some time, and we should keep an eye on his team for that reason alone.
Games to Watch. The SoCon is going to a 20-game round robin conference schedule this season, which is the largest we’ve ever seen. Next year when the league expands to twelve teams with the addition of Samford, we suspect there will be a push by league coaches to return to a more reasonable sixteen game schedule. But for this year, it guarantees that Davidson will have to visit every road arena to test its mettle.
Davidson @ Appalachian St. (11.26.07) & Appalachian St. @ Davidson (02.27.08)
UNCG @ Appalachian St. (01.12.08) & Appalachian St. @ UNCG (02.16.08)
Southern Conference Championship Game (03.10.08) ESPN2
RPI Booster Games. We alluded to it above, but the SoCon went 5-38 (.118) against BCS teams last year (Appalachian St. – 2; Davidson – 1; Furman – 1; Wofford – 1). The number will be reduced this year, thanks to the additional conference games, but we expect a similar showing.
UNCG @ Georgia Tech (11.09.07)
Western Carolina @ Cincinnati (11.10.07)
Davidson vs. UNC (Charlotte) (11.14.07) ESPN
College of Charleston @ Arkansas (11.15.07) ESPNU
Chattanooga @ S. Illinois (11.22.07) ESPNU
Wichita St. @ Appalachian St. (11.28.07)
Davidson vs. Duke (Charlotte) (12.01.07) ESPNU
Tennessee @ Chattanooga (12.04.07) ESPNU
Davidson @ UCLA (12.08.07)
Georgia Southern @ Florida (12.15.07)
Western Carolina @ Illinois (12.17.07)
Odds of Multiple NCAA Bids. This one is interesting, because if Davidson performs well against the ACC trio + UCLA, has a great SoCon record (like 18-2), yet loses in the conference tourney, we believe that this will be a two-team league.
Neat-o Stat. The Citadel must be one of the most historically horrific basketball programs in the NCAA. It joined the Southern Conference in 1937, and has yet to see its first NCAA or NIT bid. Pat Conroy wrote of his losing season there in the 60s, and not much has changed since. His cousin, Ed Conroy, will begin his second season at the school with what he calls the youngest team in America – 15 freshmen (incl. redshirts), one sophomore, one junior and one senior. Good luck, Ed, you’re going to need it.
64/65-Team Era. The SoCon has been a one-bid league throughout this era, and it will probably remain so this year (unless Davidson lays an egg in the conference tourney). The conference record (3-23, .115) reflects the success of two Tennessee teams, one of which is no longer in the league. In 1992, #14 ETSU defeated #3 Arizona 87-80 in one of Lute Olson’s earlier tankjobs, and in 1997, #14 UT-Chattanooga went to the Sweet 16 by defeating #3 Georgia (the year prior to Tubby Smith winning the NCAA title at Kentucky) 73-70, and #6 Illinois 75-63. Since then the conference (as an average #13.6 seed) has lost ten straight first round games by an average of 13.0 pts – not too encouraging. Still, the last four years show improvement, as the league representative has only lost by an average of 9.8 pts. Below is a nice clip of Curry dropping three of his thirty against Maryland.
Final Thought. This league is all about Davidson this year. The MSM will remember the Wildcats’ performance against Maryland in the NCAA Tournament and pundits like Dickie V. will be touting Curry as a PTPer all season long. Even if Davidson merely pulls one upset against the four ranked teams it plays in the pre-conference schedule, that’ll be enough to entice everyone to claim it as their Cinderella come March. But there are other good teams in this conference, so Davidson shouldn’t be reading its press clippings too closely. Several other teams could surprise much as Davidson did last year, and the level of talent entering the league is rising. It should make for a very fun SoCon season this time around.
WYN2K. Someone in PR at the Mid-Continent Conference decided that the league needed to be rebranded to effectively portray the goals and ideals of its member institutions. Hence, the Summit, which immediately reminds us of the orange and white monstrosity court at the University of Tennessee, but which league commish Tom Douple stated, represents “the top in athletics and academics.” Good luck with that, Tom. In the spirit of change, the league’s most well-known school (at least for hoops), Valparaiso, left for the Horizon League, while it added three new members – Indiana/Purdue-Fort Wayne (IPFW – shouldn’t it be IUPUFW?), North Dakota St., and South Dakota St. Of the three, only IPFW will be eligible for the league championship this season, as the Dakota schools will have to wait until 2008-09.
Predicted Champion. Oakland (#14 seed NCAA). We see four teams with championship credentials in this league, but Oakland stands out to us as the team most ready to take over the top spot from Oral Roberts. The small school from suburban Detroit (not California) returns three starters from a squad that finished second in both the regular season and tournament, and played ORU very tough in its last two meetings (Oakland won by 1 pt at home, but lost in the MCC championship game by 4 pts). Despite losing all-MCC player Vova Severovas, the Golden Grizzlies will have a superb backcourt led by Eric Kangas, an exceptional shooter who made 109 threes while shooting 43% from deep last year. Oakland is also expecting a big contribution from Rutgers transfer Dan Waterstradt, a 6’10 forward who possesses size and ability that most big men at this level do not have. We also like Oakland in close games – last year it’s ft% (76.9%) was third in the nation.
Others Considered. We’re not sure who will be the second-best team in the Summit, so we copped out and predicted a three-way tie among the next tier of teams – Oral Roberts, North Dakota St., and IUPUI. IUPUI is the media/coaches pick to win the league, with three of its top four scorers returning as well as guard George Hill, the presumptive best player in the league who had a broken foot that kept him out of action last season. Our main concern with IUPUI is whether Hill will be able to seamlessly transition into the backcourt after a productive first season from guards Austin Montgomery and Gary Patterson, the top two vote-getters for newcomer of the year. If things are rosy, IUPUI could make a run at the title. Another team we considered was North Dakota St., an independent last season who ran off twenty wins (20-8) including a win at Marquette (64-60) and near-misses vs. Texas Tech (81-85) and Kansas St. (81-83). NDSU isn’t eligible for the league title, but it returns four starters and seven of its top eight scorers. Wouldn’t it be interesting if they ended up with the league’s regular season crown? We’d be remiss if we didn’t also consider two-time defending league champion Oral Roberts as well. Scott Sutton returns a lot of players, but we can’t overlook the two he lost – Caleb Green and Ken Tutt, who combined for six all-conference selections, three POY awards (all Green), and scored over 4500 pts (!!!) for the program. If ORU’s depth, and there is plenty of that, can overcome the loss of those two stalwarts, we might just see the Golden Eagles in March again this year.
Games to Watch. The Summit will play a true round-robin of 18 games each, so there will be ample opportunity for each team to distinguish itself against the other good teams.
IUPUI @ Oral Roberts (01.17.08) & Oral Roberts @ IUPUI (02.16.08)
Oral Roberts @ Oakland (01.12.08) & Oakland @ Oral Roberts (02.07.08)
The Summit Championship Game (03.11.08) ESPN
RPI Booster Games. The Summit loves its Big 12 and Big 10 teams. Last year the league went 2-22 (.083) against BCS teams, with Oral Roberts pulling one of the biggest early-season shockers of last year (ORU 78, #3 Kansas 71) as well as defeating Seton Hall 76-74. There are some good opportunities this year, and several of them will be televised:
North Dakota St. @ Florida (11.09.07)
IUPUI @ Marquette (11.10.07) ESPN FC
UMKC @ Kansas (11.11.07) ESPN FC
Oral Roberts @ Texas A&M (11.13.07) ESPNU
Oakland @ Michigan St. (11.24.07)
Texas Tech @ Centenary (12.01.07) ESPN FC
North Dakota St. @ Minnesota (12.03.07)
Wichita St. @ UMKC (12.15.07)
Oral Roberts @ Oklahoma St. (12.20.07) ESPN2
Oregon @ Oakland (12.22.07) ESPNU
Odds of Multiple NCAA Bids. Still none, although we wish they’d let NDSU into the Summit League Tournament just to see what might happen if they won.
Neat-o Stat. By most objective measures, Western Illinois was one of the worst teams in America last year. Its record was 7-23 and its offensive and defensive efficiencies were among the bottom fifty. However, it was also one of the unluckiest teams in America, losing two more games than would be expected by its overall statistical profile and losing eight games by four points or less, the most such instances in the nation.
64/65-Team Era. The history of the league shows that the MCC has had a tendency for one team to dominate for a while before ceding its power to another. From 1987-1990, Southwest Missouri St. won four consecutive NCAA bids. After a few years of several teams winning the league, Valparaiso started its run of seven NCAA bids in nine years in 1996. The last two years Oral Roberts has been winning the bids, with a great shot at a third straight this season. Over the 23-year era, the league has a solid low-major record of 8-23 (.258) in the NCAA Tournament, including two trips to the Sweet 16 (1986 – #14 Cleveland St.; 1998 – #13 Valparaiso). Unfortunately, in the nine years since that Bryce Drew-led run by Valpo, the league has lost its first round game (avg: #15.0 seed) by an average of 21.7 pts (excluding the 2005 PiG, where Oakland, with a 13-19 overall record, defeated Alabama A&M 79-69). Speaking of young Mr. Drew…
Note: video cannot be embedded, so double-click on the YouTube logo above to get it to play.
Final Thought. Notwithstanding the name change, the Summit appears to be a league in transition. Oral Roberts has already shown a commitment toward building a serious program by keeping Scott Sutton on board with a seven-year contract extension. Oakland and IUPUI have also shown signs of long-term progress, and a newcomer like North Dakota St. is well positioned to be competitive in the league immediately. Last year the league earned its highest computer rankings (mid-teens) of the last decade and even with the loss of Valpo, the conference should have enough talent in its top half to keep it among the best of the low majors.
WYN2K. The Big Sky is a league where what you see is typically what you get. It consistently rates in the lower teens in the computer rankings, and its record vs. OOC opponents the last three years is 109-173 (.387), but make no mistake, this is a one-bid conference every year. A typical Big Sky year goes something like this – its league champion is a team that didn’t win it the year prior (only one repeat champion in the last 13 yrs – Montana – 2005 & 2006), it usually gets an NCAA seed in the range of #13-#15, and its NCAA stay is typically short-lived (3-23 in the 64/65 team era, .115). Every 6-8 yrs, a Big Sky team will pull an upset and win one NCAA game. Stir, mix and repeat. This high-scoring league (#3 nationally at 74.5 ppg) is characterized by top-heaviness where several teams have mid-level D1 profiles, while the bottom teams are often very bad (ranking in the bottom fifty teams nationally).
Predicted Champion. Montana (#14 seed NCAA). We’re going with the media pick of Montana here. The Grizzlies return four starters from a 10-6 team, including quality big men Andrew Strait (#43 nationally in eFG%, 61.1%) and Jordan Hasquet, both of whom were all-conference performers last year. They also bring back last year’s Big Sky ROY, guard Cameron Rundles, who shot a ridiculous 47.8% from three last year. One area of concern is that the Grizzlies give up a whopping 42.1% against the three-ball (negating Rundles’ effectiveness!) last year. Nevertheless, with a solid inside/outside game, a little better three-point defense, and the experience garnered in Montana’s back-to-back NCAA appearances in 2005 and 2006, we feel that Montana is the team to beat.
Others Considered. This is not to say that we think Montana will run away with the title, because Weber St. is in good position to defend its tournament crown. They lost their best player and conference POY David Patten to graduation, but they return a solid complement of players, including seven of their top nine scorers and three starters from last season. All-conference guard Juan Pablo Silveira runs the show for a very good shooting team (#34 nationally in eFG%, 53.8%), both from two (52.1%) and three (38.7%). Our only concern with this squad is their apparent lack of experienced size, an area where Montana should have an advantage. Portland St. is another team that could make a run at the conference crown with a roster that returns three starters (including the superb backcourt of Dupree Lucas and Deonte Huff) from a 9-7 team that gave Weber St. all itwanted in the semis of last year’s conference tourney (losing by three). Last year’s regular season co-champ Northern Arizona is set to take a step back with the loss of its top three scorers, all of which were all-conference selections last year. Still, the Lumberjacks have an excellent coach in Mike Adras and they have made the last three conference tournament finals, so they can’t completely be counted out.
Games to Watch. The key games to watch will be the home-and-homes between the three primary contenders listed above – Montana, Weber St., and Portland St. Gotta love conferences with true round robins.
Weber St. @ Montana (01.20.08) ESPN FC & Montana @ Weber St. (02.21.08)
Montana @ Portland St. (01.31.08) & Portland St. @ Montana (03.01.08)
Portland St. @ Weber St. (01.10.08) & Weber St. @ Portland St. (02.16.07)
Big Sky Championship Game (03.12.08) ESPN2
RPI Booster Games. The Big Sky plays a steady diet of Pac-10 and Big 10 teams in addition to several strong mid-majors, and this year is no different. Last year the league went 3-21 against BCS teams, with Northern Arizona (defeated Arizona St. 75-71), Montana (defeated Minnesota 72-65), and Portland St. (defeated Arizona St. 71-67) pulling the victories. Some of this year’s best opportunities:
Portland St. @ UCLA (11.09.07)
Sacramento St. @ Kansas St. (11.09.07)
Montana @ Gonzaga (11.11.07)
Northern Arizona @ Arizona (11.13.07)
Northern Arizona @ Kansas (11.21.07)
Montana @ Washington St. (11.23.07)
Weber St. @ Illinois (12.01.07)
Weber St. @ BYU (12.05.07)
Sacramento St. @ Marquette (12.15.07)
Montana St. @ Arizona St. (12.18.07)
Odds of Multiple NCAA Bids. None. 23 years, 23 bids.
Neat-o Stat. Eastern Washington’sRodney Stuckey (the 15th overall pick in the 2007 NBA Draft) was probably the best player to have ever played in the Big Sky conference, despite only playing at EWU for two seasons. He won the conference ROY and POY in 2006, becoming the first player to ever do so in the same year. Yet, while his numbers were sick last year (24.6 ppg, 5.5 apg, 4.7 rpg, 2.4 spg, incl. nine 30+ pt games), there is some question about his leadership abilities, as his team was mediocre throughout his tenure there (26-29) and EWU didn’t even make the Big Sky conference tourney in 2007 (the top six conference teams make the tourney).
64/65-Team Era. As stated above, the Big Sky is 3-23 (.115) during this era, with each of the three wins spaced out somewhat evenly – 1995 (#14 Weber St. defeated #3 Michigan St. 79-72), 1999 (#14 Weber St. defeated #3 UNC 76-74), and 2006 (#12 Montana defeated #5 Nevada 87-79). Both Weber St. teams were close to reaching the Sweet 16 (losing by two to #6 Georgetown in 1995 and by eight in OT to #6 Florida in 1999), but no Big Sky team has reached that goal in the 64/65 team era. Unfortunately, with the notable exception of Montana in 2006, the general rule has been that the Big Sky representative has gotten ripped by an average of 18.0 points in the last six appearances. But why focus on the negative? We couldn’t find any footage of probably the Big Sky’s greatest moment – Harold “The Show” Arceneaux carrying Weber St. to victory over UNC in 1999, but we instead found this clip of a Rex Chapman clone named Kral French who played for Montana St. back in the 80s throwing down some of the most disgusting dunks you’ll see from a white guy.
Final Thought. We have to admit we don’t know much about the Big Sky other than its location in the lonely expanse between the Pacific Northwest and the Great Plains. But our mind’s eye suggests that places such as Dahlberg Arena (Montana), the Dee Events Center (Weber St.) and Worthington Arena (Montana St.) would be no fun for many visiting teams to play in. The word “pit” comes to mind. A quick review of 2007 records shows that those three teams were 32-13 at home last year. Yeah, just as we thought. Maybe that’s why no BCS teams visit those arenas.
UNC is #1, yet UCLA garnered more first-place votes (12-10).
9 of the top 10 match the online Blogpoll – the one difference is that coaches like Indiana more than Marquette. Fwiw, so do we. (come on blogpollers! We should represent the non-MSM contrarian voice!)
Did the coaches go with the “name” programs over Calipari’s squad at #1? Interesting that the bloggers voted Memphis a solid #1 while UNC/UCLA were left behind.
Only one coach agreed with us that Kansas is preseason #1 (Bill Self?), although we aren’t predicting KU to win it all.
Buy:Oregon (mighty mite Tajuan Porter!), Gonzaga (magic mushroomania), Texas (hey mr. DJ put that record on…), S. Illinois (you sexy mother Falker!), Davidson (spicy Curry), VCU (Eric Maynor alone is worth more than five votes).
Sell:Duke (anxiously awaiting the Brian Zoubek experiment), USC (Young+Pruitt > Mayo+Jefferson), NC State (folks, they were 5-11 in the ACC last year!!), Alabama (no Steele = no chance).
Conference breakdown (top 25, all 54 teams receiving votes): Pac-10 (6, 8), Big East (5, 8), ACC (3, 6), Big 12 (3, 5), SEC (3, 6), Big 10 (2, 5), MVC (1, 2), CUSA (1, 1), WCC (1, 1), Colonial (0, 3), WAC (0, 3), A10 (0, 2), Mountain West (0, 2), Horizon (0, 1), Southern (0, 1).
Word to the Colonial and WAC with three teams each receiving votes even though none are in the Top 25.
Is there any value in this meaningless poll whatsoever? Some. Last year the top 6 (and 8 of the top 10) in the preseason coaches poll finished in the top 11 of the final poll (before the NCAA Tournament), and every team in the final top 11 had been ranked somewhere in the top 25 before the season started. Additionally, all four F4 teams were ranked in last year’s preseason top 8 (#1 Florida, #4 Ohio St., #5 UCLA, #8 Georgetown).
Only six of the preseason top 25 last year didn’t make the NCAA Tournament (#7 LSU, #12 Alabama, #16 Washington, #18 Connecticut, #20 Syracuse, #23 Creighton), so that’s fair evidence that the coaches (at least last year) have a bit of a clue. Note we said only a bit.
WYN2K. The Sun Belt is a league that has seen better days in the eyes of the basketball world. In the 80s and early 90s, the conference was a top ten league that regularly sent multiple teams to the NCAA Tournament (10 times from 1980-95), peaking at four bids in 1986. Since 1995, however, the league has been exclusively a one-bid conference, as its corresponding seed average has dropped from a #10.9 (1985 to present), to a #12.6 (1995 to present), to a #13.8 seed in the last five years. In other words, the Sun Belt is trending downward (and league officials know it). What was once a proud mid-major league is now clearly a low-major (albeit near the top of that heap), despite its relatively robust 167-208 (.445) record against OOC opponents in the last three years. Some of this may be attributable to a loss of league identity, as the conference expanded away from its mid-South roots and has swelled to thirteen schools that span three time zones in locations that often have very little in common with each other (i.e., Boca Raton, FL, Bowling Green, KY, and Denver, CO).
Predicted Champion.Western Kentucky (#13 seed NCAA). Darrin Horn’s Hilltoppers have been a bit of a hard luck team over the past few seasons, averaging 20.5 wins over his four year tenure and winning one regular season championship, but having no NCAA appearances to show for it. Guards Courtney Lee, Tyrone Brazelton and TyRogers comprise a returning perimeter corps that is among the most experienced and talented in the league, and three other significant contributors return from a 22-11 (12-6) team. If WKU is to slip up, it will probably be because of its sometimes porous defense that has a tendency to give up easy baskets (allowing an eFG% of 52.6% – #272 nationally) and foul a lot (43.2 FTAs given up per game – #284 nationally). We believe this is the year that the Toppers get it done. Check the nasty follow dunk from C-Lee below.
Others Considered. Should WKU falter, the next best teams we see are Louisiana-Monroe and Florida Atlantic. Monroe returns all five starters from an 11-7 team that lost in overtime in the conference finals against North Texas last year. They were nearly unbeatable at home (14-0) and seemed to win all the close games (5-0 in games decided by <6 pts in conference) last year. Because of this, they were considered one of the “luckiest” teams in America last year (#10 via Pomeroy), earning 2.7 wins more than expected by their overall profile. Notwithstanding their luck, we’re just not comfortable picking a team that has nobody taller than 6’8 on their roster. Florida Atlantic is another team that returns substantial experience including the league’s best big man Carlos Monroe, a burly 6’8, 245 lb. beast who shot nearly 60% from the field and pulled down over a quarter (25.8%, #18 nationally) of his team’s defensive boards last year. The Owls also finished strong, winning six of their last seven games and pestering WKU in a tough quarterfinal matchup in the conference tourney before bowing out. New Orleans is also intriguing simply because the Privateers have a new coach in former Cal assistant and Bob Knight disciple Joe Pasternack, but they also have the league’s best player in Bo McCalebb, a Wooden Award candidate who averaged mind-numbing numbers last year (25 ppg, 6.8 rpg, 3.3 apg, 2.0 spg). Did we mention that he was the team’s leading rebounder as a 6’0 guard? There are three other starters returning from a 9-9 team that was #4 nationally in 3fg% (41.4%), #5 nationally in stl% (7.1%) and #11 nationally in to% (17.0%). The Privateers shoot well, take care of the ball, and have a fantastic player – if any team was going to make a huge improvement with a new coach, it would be this team. Quick note: last year’s regular season and tourney champs simply lost too much to be considered as a contender this year – South Alabama lost three starters and its head coach, John Pelphrey, while North Texas lost its top two scorers.
Games to Watch. The top of this league should be exciting to watch this year, as there are several excellent players (Courtney Lee, Bo McCalebb, Carlos Monroe) who could singlehandedly influence the conference race. With the unbalanced schedule in this league, New Orleans appears to be the most likely beneficiary (only three games against the other three, two at home).
RPI Booster Games. Given its location (spanning 2000+ miles from Denver to Miami), the Sun Belt takes on a full complement of SEC and Big 12 teams every year. Last year the league was 2-30 (.063) against BCS teams (WKU 70, Georgia 67; Ark-Little Rock 67, Minnesota 66), and there are a similar amount of games scheduled this year. Here are some highlights.
Louisiana-Monroe @ Kansas (11.09.07)
Florida Atlantic @ Boston College (11.12.07)
South Alabama @ Mississippi (11.13.07)
New Orleans @ NC State (11.18.07)
WKU @ Gonzaga (11.22.07)
Nebraska @ WKU (12.05.07)
Middle Tennessee St. @ Memphis (12.05.07)
Mississippi St. @ South Alabama (12.15.07)
WKU @ Southern Illinois (12.22.07)
Louisiana-Monroe @ Arkansas (12.29.07)
Odds of Multiple NCAA Bids. We’re a long way removed from the Sun Belt’s glory years, so none this year.
Neat-o Stat. Joe Scott is returning to Colorado to take over as head coach at Denver, just a few clicks down the road from where he revitalized the Air Force program in the early 2000s. What should we make of this guy? Using the Princeton offense that he learned under Pete Carril in the 80s as a player and 90s as an assistant, he successfully built the Air Force Academy into a Mountain West champion and NCAA Tournament team in 2004. So how do we explain how he went back to Princeton in 2005 and orchestrated two (out of three) terrible seasons and an overall record of 18-24 in the Ivy League (2-12 in 2007) during his time there? He has yeoman’s work ahead of him, as Denver ranked in the bottom five teams nationally in defensive efficiency (#330) and four other defensive statistics, as well as in the bottom dozen two-point fg% (42.8%) teams in America. Work on layup drills, perhaps?
64/65-Team Era. The Sun Belt is 11-32 (.256) in the NCAA Tourney during this era, but due to the severe drop in league cachet over the last ten to fifteen years, those numbers are somewhat skewed for present consideration, especially when you consider that the league’s last NCAA victory was in 1995 (#8 WKU defeated #9 Michigan 82-76). Despite ten trips to the second round (most trips: WKU with 4), only one team has broken through to the Sweet 16, Ralph Willard’s #7 Western Kentucky squad in 1993. In fact, that Hilltopper team was an overtime loss away (Florida St. 81, WKU 78) from meeting Rick Pitino’s Kentucky team in the elite eight.
Final Thought. We’d love to be able to say that the Sun Belt contains solid mid-major material at the top, but recent history belies that position as only once in the last four years has a Sun Belt team so much as tested its first round NCAA opponent (2005: Louisville 68, Louisiana-Lafayette 62). The other three years the Sun Belt team got blitzed by an average of 16.7 pts, and we’re not sure we see a way for this league to turn things around. It’s uncertain if there’s been any talk to this effect, but perhaps going the WAC/Mountain West route and drafting a few more teams, only to split into two leagues, is the way to re-focus itself.