Mountain West Superlatives and Tournament Preview

Posted by Andrew Murawa (@AMurawa) on March 11th, 2015

With the Mountain West Tournament tipping off today in Las Vegas, let’s get warmed up by offering our season superlatives and previewing what to expect this week in the desert.

Player of the Year

Derrick Marks, Senior, Boise State – Marks averaged better than 20 points per night in conference play, leading his Broncos to their first-ever Mountain West regular season title despite the loss of co-pilot Anthony Drmic prior to conference play. Turning into a prolific and efficient three-point threat in his senior campaign, Marks was not only the conference’s top scorer, but he did a little of everything for the Broncos — turning up his game defensively; acting as a valuable conduit for the team’s offense; performing as a locker room leader.

Derrick Marks' Game Blew Up In His Senior Year (AP Photo)

Derrick Marks’ Game Blew Up In His Senior Year (AP Photo)

All-Mountain West

First Team

  • G Derrick Marks, Sr, Boise State (19.6 PPG, 3.6 RPG, 3.0 APG, 1.9 SPG) – If you’re Player of the Year, you’re on the all-conference team, right?
  • G Marvelle Harris, Jr, Fresno State (16.8 PPG, 5.1 RPG, 3.8 RPG, 2.1 SPG) – Playing away from the spotlight in the California’s Central Valley, Harris was a versatile scorer for the Bulldogs.
  • F J.J. Avila, Sr, Colorado State (16.9 PPG, 7.5 RPG, 2.0 SPG, 57.5 eFG%) – The Rams’ leader in the frontcourt, a physical interior threat with a surprising skill set.
  • F Larry Nance Jr., Sr, Wyoming (16.1 PPG, 7.4 RPG, 2.4 APG, 1.2 BPG, 1.3 SPG, 53.4 eFG%) – For the second straight season, midseason health problems cost the versatile Cowboy a run at conference POY.
  • F Christian Wood, So, UNLV (15.2 PPG, 10.1 RPG, 2.8 BPG) – Eighteen double-doubles and an enhanced offensive game earn Wood a first-team spot despite a lack of team success.

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Conference Tourney Primers: Southland

Posted by Tommy Lemoine on March 11th, 2015

We’re in the midst of Championship Fortnight, so let’s gear up for the continuing action by breaking down each of the Other 26’s conference tournaments as they get under way.

Southland Tournament

Dates: March 11-14

Site: Merrell Center (Katy, TX)

southland

What to expect: This is Stephen F. Austin’s tournament to lose. Over the past two seasons, the Lumberjacks have gone 35-1 in Southland play and won 28 of those contests by double-figures, using sharp offensive ball movement and half-court pressure defense to make easy work of most challengers. Brad Underwood’s club has won seven games in a row since stumbling at Texas A&M-Corpus Christi in mid-February, including its title-clinching victory over second-place Sam Houston State last Saturday. That last win was not easy, however, and those Bearkats – statistically one of the best defensive teams in the country – could present another tough test on Saturday. Stephen F. Austin and Sam Houston State combined for a 32-4 conference record this season and are overwhelming favorites to reach the title game, especially since five of the league’s 13 teams are ineligible for postseason play and will not participate. Despite a tough final hurdle, expect Stephen F. Austin to reach the NCAA Tournament – and possibly do damage while there – for a second straight year.

Favorite: Stephen F. Austin. This year’s Lumberjacks are slightly more efficient and substantially more accurate than last year’s group, which beat VCU in the round of 64. Their effective field goal percentage (56.1% eFG) is the 10th best mark in college basketball and their offense as a whole ranks among the sport’s 30 most efficient, thanks largely to the success of Jacob Parker (48% 3FG) and Southland Player of the Year Thomas Walkup (126.8 ORtg). Stephen F. Austin has dominated the conference from start to finish and seems unlikely to slow down this week in Katy.

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BYU Season: A Possession Short?

Posted by Andrew Murawa on March 11th, 2015

Lesson number one that we’ve learned over the enlightened years of basketball analytics is that hoops is a game of possessions. Keeping possession, extending possessions, ending opponents’ possessions and making the most of every last possession can be the difference between a win and a loss. Maximizing your possessions makes all the difference. When the Selection Committee sits down to discuss the NCAA Tournament fates of teams around the country this week, a single possession otherwise forgotten to history may well be the difference between a dance and a disappointment.

One Possession Matters

One Possession Matters

Enter BYU. As the Cougars faded down the stretch against Gonzaga in the WCC Championship game last night in Las Vegas, the discussion turned to their NCAA Tournament resume: an RPI of 38; a big win at Gonzaga on the final weekend of the season; not a whole lot else. Dig a little deeper and you find that they played San Diego State to double-overtime on a neutral court and then two nights later played Purdue to a single-overtime on that same neutral court. Later in their non-conference slate, BYU lost at home to Utah by four points. Any one of those wins – three losses decided by four total possessions – could have been the difference between the Cougars leaving Orleans Arena on Tuesday night confident about their NCAA Tournament hopes or, as they actually did, mourning their way through a postgame press conference. Another few dashes of salt for that BYU wound – their four WCC losses came by a total of 27 points, with only their loss to Gonzaga in Provo coming by more than two possessions.

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Conference Tourney Primers: Conference USA

Posted by Tommy Lemoine on March 11th, 2015

We’re in the midst of Championship Fortnight, so let’s gear up for the continuing action by breaking down each of the Other 26’s conference tournaments as they get under way.

Conference USA Tournament

Dates: March 11-14

Site: Birmingham–Jefferson Convention Complex (Birmingham, AL)

cusa

What to expect: Old Dominion hit a rough patch midway through the conference slate before regrouping and ending the season on six-game winning streak that included a 19-point drubbing of Louisiana Tech. The Bulldogs, meanwhile – outright league champions – responded with a man-handling of UTEP and two easy home victories, sparked by the elevated play of Murray State transfer Erik McCree. Both teams could be on a collision course for the Conference USA championship game. Then again, navigating through a bracket filled with tough, physical teams won’t be easy. UTEP, the #2 seed, is equipped with the league’s best player, forward Vince Hunter, while UAB has the advantage of playing in its home town. Western Kentucky, Middle Tennessee State and even 14-17 Charlotte are talented  teams that should make life difficult. Expect a bruising few days in Birmingham.

Favorite: Louisiana Tech. This is a toss-up between Louisiana Tech and Old Dominion, but let’s give the Bulldogs the nod since their side of the bracket seems slightly more manageable. Michael White’s uptempo club boasts the conference’s best backcourt – Raheem Appleby and Alex Hamilton combine for 31 points per game and Kenneth ‘Speedy’ Smith leads the country in assists (7.5 APG) – along with its top shot-blocker, 6’10” center Michale Kyser (3.0 BPG). They thrive on full court pressure and transition offense and should play much better in a neutral court environment then they do on the road, where all seven of their losses took place.

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Conference Tourney Primers: SWAC

Posted by Tommy Lemoine on March 10th, 2015

We’re in the midst of Championship Fortnight, so let’s gear up for the continuing action by breaking down each of the Other 26’s conference tournaments as they get under way.

SWAC Tournament

Dates: March 10-14

Site: Toyota Center (Houston, TX)

(swac.org)

(swac.org)

What to expect: Second-seeded Alabama State and third-seeded Southern are both ineligible for postseason play this year, so should one of those two win the event – a distinct possibility – the next-highest finisher will claim the automatic NCAA Tournament bid. Then again, it might not matter. Texas Southern, which beat Michigan State and Kansas State back in non-conference play, looks poised to reach the Big Dance for a second straight year after winning the league title with relative ease. The transfer-laden Tigers are experienced, talented and have the benefit of playing in their own backyard (the Toyota Center is located just three miles from the Texas Southern campus). It’s hard to see Mike Davis’ club losing prior to the championship game, where it would likely meet the Hornets or Jaguars.

Favorite: Texas Southern. You don’t beat NCAA Tournament-caliber opponents like the Spartans and Wildcats without having quality talent on your roster, and that certainly holds true for Texas Southern. Marshall transfer Chris Thomas (12.3 PPG) is a former five-star recruit, Deverell Biggs (11.8 PPG) nearly averaged double-figures in his time at Nebraska. And Madarious Gibbs (14.1 PPG) is the SWAC Player of the Year. The Tigers have a lot to work with.

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Bracket Prep: Coastal Carolina, Northern Iowa & North Florida

Posted by Tommy Lemoine on March 9th, 2015

As we move through Championship Week, we’ll continue to bring you short reviews of each of the automatic qualifiers to help you fill out your bracket next week. Here’s what you need to know about the most recent bid winners:

Coastal Carolina

Coastal Carolina is going dancing for the second-straight season. (Jeff Blake-USA TODAY Sports)

Coastal Carolina is going dancing for the second-straight season. (Jeff Blake-USA TODAY Sports)

  • Big South Champion (22-10, 11-5)
  • RPI/Pomeroy/Sagarin = #144/#147/#151
  • Adjusted Scoring Margin = +2.4
  • Likely NCAA Seed: #16

Strength: Coastal does not have great size but it does have an excellent guard quartet which accounts for two-thirds of the team’s scoring. Josh Cameron, Warren Gillis, Elijah Wilson and Shivaughn Wiggins – a Mount St. Mary’s transfer – each averages between 10.3 and 12.9 points per game and is a capable outside shooter. Their quickness and dribble-penetration abilities create kickouts and plenty of free throw opportunities, where the Chanticleers shoot a healthy 70.3 percent on the season. Despite ranking 301st nationally in effective height, the Big South champs are also a top-50 offensive and defensive rebounding team.

Weakness: Though the Chanticleers are fairly well-balanced and don’t have many glaring weaknesses, the vast majority of their losses came against opponents with an average possession length of 18 seconds of fewer – teams that like to get the ball and go. Squads that are able to get up the court before Coastal can set up its half-court defense – which often features numerous zone looks – seem to have the most success against Cliff Ellis’ bunch. The Chanticleers also ranked dead last in the conference (and 292nd nationally) in turnover percentage, which is only a bad thing as far as transition defense goes. Read the rest of this entry »

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Conference Tourney Primers: Mid-Eastern Athletic

Posted by Tommy Lemoine on March 9th, 2015

We’re in the midst of Championship Fortnight, so let’s gear up for the continuing action by breaking down each of the Other 26’s conference tournaments as they get under way.

MEAC Tournament

Dates: March 10-14

Site: Norfolk Scope (Norfolk, VA)

Meacreal

What to expect: Despite losing several key players from last year’s 28-6 unit, North Carolina Central reloaded with talented transfers and dominated the MEAC for the second straight season. Led by Lamar transplant Nimrod Hilliard (11.6 PPG, 6.4 APG) and big man Jordan Parks (14.9 PPG, 8.2 RPG), the Eagles have counterbalanced a slightly less efficient offensive attack with an even more dominant defense, holding opponents to a paltry 41.3 percent effective field goal percentage (third-best nationally) and just 54.7 points per game. The most credible challengers in Norfolk this week will be Norfolk State, Delaware State and Maryland-Eastern Shore – led by Mike Myers, who draws an incredible 9.1 fouls per 40 minutes of action. The Spartans, playing in their home town, probably have the best shot at ending North Carolina Central’s two-year run.

Favorite: North Carolina Central. The Eagles are the most experienced team in the country (per KenPom) and have not lost a MEAC contest since January 11, 2014. Only three conference opponents have scored more than a point per possession against their defense this season. LeVelle Moton’s crew is the clear favorite in Norfolk.

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Conference Tourney Primers: Mid-American

Posted by Tommy Lemoine on March 9th, 2015

We’re in the midst of Championship Fortnight, so let’s gear up for the continuing action by breaking down each of the Other 26’s conference tournaments as they get under way.

MAC Tournament

Dates: March 9, 11-14

Site: First round is at campus sites; second round, quarterfinals, semifinals and championship are at Quicken Loans Arena (Cleveland, OH)

MAC2

What to expect: The MAC’s week-by-week momentum shifted so many times this season that it became hard to keep up. But it was important to keep up, because in a tournament where the top four seeds receive double-byes, the top two seeds get triple-byes and everyone else is left facing an uphill climb, the standings matter than most. In the end, Central Michigan, Buffalo, Kent State and Toledo earned those top four spots – the Chippewas and Bulls with the triple-byes – while Bowling Green and Akron, both strong contenders throughout much of the season, were left having to win five games in six days. As a result, one of the well-rested teams will probably emerge as conference champion, but which one? Preseason favorite Toledo and three-point happy Central Michigan boast the league’s two most efficient offenses; Kent State features three senior guards to complement big man Jimmy Hall (15.5 PPG, 7.2 RPG); and Buffalo – with Justin Moss, the MAC’s best player (18.4 PPG, 9.3 RPG) – is peaking at just the right time.

Favorite: Buffalo. Just a few short weeks ago, Buffalo sat at 6-6 in conference play and looked destined for first- and second-round games in Cleveland. Since then the Bulls have reeled off six wins in a row, including Friday night’s dramatic, #2 seed clinching victory over Bowling Green. They are the league’s highest-ranked team in KenPom (#58), one of its least reliant on outside shooting, and possess an unmatched post presence in Moss.

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Belmont Returns to the Big Dance After a Year Away

Posted by David Changas on March 8th, 2015

There has been much discussion this season about the lack of scoring in college basketball and what needs to be done to fix the issue. It is a bit ironic, then, that the first automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament was earned on a Saturday night when Belmont won a fast-paced back-and-forth shootout in Nashville over Murray State to take the OVC Championship and return to the Big Dance for the first time since 2013. The 88-87 game featured a combined 26 made three-pointers and 12 lead changes, the last of which came when Belmont’s Taylor Barnette made a fall-away three with 3.2 seconds left that proved to be the game-winner. It was a thrilling finish to a thrilling tournament in which the final three games were decided by a total of five points.

Belmont can celebrate another return to the NCAA Tournament  (USA Today Images)

Belmont can celebrate another return to the NCAA Tournament (USA Today Images)

At the end of the day, though, a familiar face left with the hardware. Belmont lost in last year’s OVC championship game to Eastern Kentucky, but it had avenged that loss on Friday night to reach the final. Unlike last year, though, the Bruins were not expected to earn the league’s automatic bid. Murray State came into Saturday riding a 25-game winning streak, rolling through OVC play with a perfect 16-0 record. Though it is widely believed that the Racers now have no realistic shot at an at-large bid, they feature a future NBA guard in Cameron Payne who averages over 20 points and five assists per game. Belmont coach Rick Byrd knew that pulling off this upset would be a tall order. “I was prepared to say I’m proud to say we made eight of 10 conference championship games over the past 10 years, and at halftime I was really prepared to say something like that, because the last 10 minutes of the first half, it looked like men and boys,” Byrd said after the game, referring to a dominant 30-10 run the Racers put together over the last 10:06 of the first frame.

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Conference Tourney Primers: Summit League

Posted by Tommy Lemoine on March 7th, 2015

We’re in the midst of Championship Fortnight, so let’s gear up for the continuing action by breaking down each of the Other 26’s conference tournaments as they get under way.

Summit League Tournament

Dates: March 7-10

Site: Denny Sanford PREMIER Center (Sioux Falls, SD)

summitWhat to expect: South Dakota State or North Dakota State has won this tournament for three years running, a streak likely to continue in Sioux Falls after each team went 12-4 and split the regular season crown. Then again, both teams also just lost their respective Summit League finales by 16 points apiece – troubling outcomes heading into this weekend. In addition to the Jackrabbits and Bison, both IPFW and Oral Roberts are talented enough to go the distance, while Denver and South Dakota – teams which combined for three wins against the league co-champs – could play spoiler. The preseason favorite Mastodons look especially dangerous after winning eight of their final 10 games following a 1-5 start.

Favorite: South Dakota State. KenPom ranks South Dakota State 60 spots higher than any other team in the conference, thanks largely to its eight Summit victories by 15 or more points. The Jackrabbits are the most well-balanced team in the league, boast its top big man – talented and well-traveled forward Cody Larson – and reside just one hour north of Sioux Falls. There should be a lot of blue and yellow in the stands.

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Conference Tourney Primers: West Coast

Posted by Tommy Lemoine on March 6th, 2015

We’re in the midst of Championship Fortnight, so let’s gear up for the continuing action by breaking down each of the Other 26’s conference tournaments as they get under way.

West Coast Tournament

Dates: March 6-7, 9-10

Site: Orleans Arena (Las Vegas, NV)

wccWhat to expect: Gonzaga looked well on its way to in-conference perfection and possibly a #1 seed in the NCAA Tournament before BYU spoiled things last Saturday. That should only make the Bulldogs angry this weekend in Las Vegas. Expect the league champs to reach their 18th-straight West Coast Conference title game – where they will probably meet the Cougars for a third time – and make a statement heading into Selection Sunday. As for that BYU team… with numerous outlets projecting it among the ‘last four in’ and ‘last four out’, the Cougars can ill afford to stumble prior to the championship game. Their postseason hopes could come down to a semifinal tilt with Saint Mary’s on Monday – not an easy task, considering the teams’ regular season split.

Favorite: Gonzaga. The Zags went 29-2 during the regular season, rank among the top 10 nationally by most polls and metrics, and largely breezed through their WCC schedule. On a neutral floor, this is a no-brainer.

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Conference Tourney Primers: Southern

Posted by Tommy Lemoine on March 6th, 2015

We’re in the midst of Championship Fortnight, so let’s gear up for the continuing action by breaking down each of the Other 26’s conference tournaments as they get under way.

Southern Tournament

Dates: March 6-9

Site: U.S. Cellular Center (Asheville, NC)

socon

What to expect: Wofford has the conference’s best player – guard Karl Cochran – and lost just twice in league play, but watch out for Chattanooga. The Mocs exploited the Terriers’ lack of interior size in their first two meetings, including a 10-point road victory in February. If those two meet up in the title game, the regular season champs could have their hands full. Mercer is capable of emerging from the bottom half of the bracket and East Tennessee State can be dangerous if outside shots are falling (the Bucs attempt 25 three-pointers per game), but it’s hard to envision anyone besides Wofford or Chattanooga winning this event.

Favorite: Wofford. With Davidson no longer around, Wofford is in excellent position to reach its third NCAA Tournament since 2011 and establish itself as the conference’s premier program (if it hasn’t already). This year’s team – while undersized – locks down defensively and features good balance, with five players averaging between 7.7 and 15.0 points per game. In their upset victory at North Carolina State in December, the Terriers held the Wolfpack (a top-40 offense) to just 54 points on 0.90 points per possession.

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