Last-Second Predictions for Major Conference Tournaments

Scott HenryFeatured ColumnistMarch 10, 2014

Last-Second Predictions for Major Conference Tournaments

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    Nelson Chenault-USA TODAY Sports

    A handful of NCAA tournament bids have already been handed out, and more will be awarded over the next two days. The main-event events of championship week, however, begin on Wednesday.

    Seven of the eight major-conference tournamentsand with six teams in most bracket projections, including Bleacher Report's, the Atlantic 10 qualifiesstart on March 12, with the Big Ten getting underway on the 13th.

    Plenty of bubble intrigue lingers over these championships, but there are potential storylines even beyond the tournament implications. Let's take a look at one from each power-conference event.

    Stats and rankings accurate through games of March 9. KenPom.com links should be assumed to require subscription unless otherwise noted.

ACC: Miami Threatens the Semifinals

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    Phil Sears-USA TODAY Sports

    After last season's fairytale run to the top of the polls and a large senior class' subsequent departure, Miami fans knew they were in for a letdown. While this year's Hurricanes aren't bound for the Big Dance barring a miracle as large as Georgia winning the 2008 SEC title, the bracket sets up nicely for an attention-getting run at a semifinal berth.

    While the Hurricanes are responsible for both of Virginia Tech's conference wins, the tournament rematch should be a different story as long as the Canes aren't chucking up 34 three-pointers as they did last month. Miami scoring leader Rion Brown is averaging more than 19 points per game since the second VT loss, helping to erase memories of his 25.8 percent shooting in the two games against the Hokies.

    A second-round meeting with NC State should be a tight affair, as Brown and Wolfpack star T.J. Warren match up for a third time. The U defeated State by 15 in Raleigh, N.C., after losing a one-point heartbreaker in Coral Gables, Fla. Warren outscored Brown 47-40 in the two games, but his support was often shaky. Four other Miami players joined Brown in double figures in the second meetingagain, in Raleigh.

    Two wins would put Miami in the quarterfinals against Syracuse. The teams' two earlier meetings were played at a glacial pace, with each team struggling to decipher the opponent's zone defense. UM fell by only five points at the Carrier Dome, but only kept the rematch close via 9-of-17 shooting from long range. Syracuse won both meetings by owning the glass.

    With Syracuse getting star forward Jerami Grant back from injury, it's unlikely that Miami will have enough firepower to upset the Orange and reach the semis. The Hurricanes have, however, proven they can keep games close against Syracuse, and the struggling Orange are already under pressure to fight back up to a No. 2 NCAA seed. The game could be an eagerly watched one if it takes shape.

American: Cardinals Ready to Roll

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    Louisville was only denied the American's top seed by a coin flip. Oddly, it may have been the best thing that could have happened to the Cardinals. By taking the No. 2 spot, Louisville avoids a semifinal matchup with tournament host Memphis, a team that swept the Cards in the regular season.

    Of course, it may not matter where the game is played if Louisville forward Montrezl Harrell stays as hot as he has been recently. Over his last five games, the sophomore has averaged 21.2 points, 9.4 rebounds and 1.8 steals.

    That includes 25, 12 and three against Memphis, a game that the Tigers survived thanks to 13 percent three-point shooting by any Louisville player not named Harrell. Harrell's streak also includes wins over fellow AAC contenders Cincinnati, SMU and UConn.

    Provided Russ Smith, Luke Hancock et al. can contribute something more from the outside than they did against Memphis, the rest of the American will either have to step its game up or be quietly glad that Louisville's merely passing through on its way to the ACC.

Atlantic 10: Dayton Plays Its Way Home

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    Normally, NCAA selection rules frown on the idea of a team playing at its home arena. In the case of the Dayton Flyers, however, it may be unavoidable.

    Selection committee chairman Ron Wellman told The Associated Press last month, "We don't have a backup facility that we would go to" if the Flyers' resume warranted no more than one of the last four at-large spots.

    Several bracket projections, including those from CBS Sports and NBC Sports, have the Flyers above that particular fray, but other prognosticators such as SB Nation's Chris Dobbertean and B/R's Kerry Miller have them getting one last run on their home hardwood.

    The Atlantic 10 tournament doesn't seem to set up well for Dayton to boost its CV all that much. Its second round matchup would be against either George Mason or Fordham, neither of which constitutes a helpful victory.

    In the quarterfinals, the Flyers face a third meeting with St. Joseph's. The Hawks swept the first two games, shooting 58 percent from the floor in a 26-point stomping the second time around. With SJU also looking at a double-digit seed, that game will be pivotal for both teams as they try to guard against potential bid thieves.

    Expect Dayton to stay in range of those First Four games and wait for the postgame press conference if the Flyers win on their court. Watch to see if the losing coach diplomatically tap dances around the question of unfair home-court advantage or if he charges in with guns blazing. That may be the most entertaining viewing of the tournament's first two days.

Big 12: Bedlam Gets a 3rd Round

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    Oklahoma State's season went off the rails in rather spectacular fashion, but the Cowboys appear to have collected themselves just in time. Their odyssey in the Big 12 tournament will begin in Round 1 with an opponent that symbolizes both the potential death and rebirth of their NCAA dreams: Texas Tech.

    Marcus Smart served his three-game suspension for shoving a Texas Tech fan, and the rest seems to have done him some good. Since returning, Smart has averaged 19.8 points, 5.2 rebounds, 6.4 assists and 4.4 steals in five games. He started off hot with 16 points, 10 assists and six thefts against that same Texas Tech squad.

    A win there would match the Pokes up with a Kansas team that it very nearly swept. Those two games were contested with KU freshman Joel Embiid in the lineup. But the Kansas City Star's Rustin Dodd has reported that Embiid will miss the conference tournament with a back problem, and may be out beyond that.

    Should OSU survive the Jayhawks, a chance at revenge on Iowa State could await. The Cyclones swept the Cowboys but needed a combined four overtimes to win by a total margin of five points.

    Oklahoma State's in-state rivals from Norman could be waiting in the final. The second-seeded Sooners have a much more hospitable path than regular-season champion Kansas.

    Barring TCU building a time machine and suiting up in-prime icons Kurt Thomas and Lee Nailon, Oklahoma will be facing Baylor in the second round. The Bears are another team that has righted its ship, but the Sooners dominated their second meeting to complete a sweep. Struggling Texas or West Virginia would await in the semis, forming the last obstacle to OU's third battle with State.

    In a conference that has laid justifiable claim to being the best in America this season, it only makes sense for the tournament to twist and turn. That could very well include crowning the No. 8 seed the champion.

Big East: Settling for Two Bids

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    Four losses in seven games have landed the Xavier Musketeers on the always-unpleasant bubble headed into the Big East tournament. On the opposite side of the league's bracket, Providence and St. John's go head-to-head in an encounter that may essentially constitute a play-in game. Either way, the Big East could get four teams into the NCAA tournament or end up with only two.

    Two bids may be more likely, and for that, the conference can blame Marquette coach Buzz Williams.

    Marquette matches up with Xavier in the quarterfinals. A loss to the Golden Eagles and their 85th-ranked RPI would drop the Musketeers to 8-9 against the top 100, closing a resume that already has XU in a First Four game, according to tournament aggregation site BracketMatrix.com.

    Losing the potential for a second straight victory over Creighton hurts even worse than the loss to Marquette, leaving Xavier coach Chris Mack and his team with nothing more to do except sweat out Selection Sunday.

    Ken Pomeroy has Xavier listed as a 57 percent favorite against Marquette, but betting against Buzz Williams frequently becomes a fool's errandsee last year's trip to the Elite Eight.

    Meanwhile, back to BracketMatrix: Providence, Georgetown and St. John's are all among the first seven teams out. As said above: play-in game.

Big Ten: Huskers Come Up Just Short

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    Nebraska coach Tim Miles is seen above in the midst of celebrating a major win for his program, knocking off Wisconsin in the regular-season finale. The Huskers are on everyone's bubble after rolling to an 11-7 record in the Big Ten, locking up the fourth seed and the resultant bye in the conference tournament.

    Miles' bunch has won 10 of 12 after a 1-5 start in conference play, but examine those wins just a bit more closely. Of those 10 wins, Michigan State and Wisconsin are the only victims expected to reach the field of 68. Wins over Minnesota and Illinois, plus a sweep of Indiana, help in that those teams rank between 51 and 100 in the RPI, but the Gophers are the only ones with any serious chance of an at-large selection.

    The first game for the Huskers will be against either the maddeningly inconsistent Ohio State Buckeyes or the Big Ten doormats from Purdue. A second win over OSU would render the entire discussion moot and put Nebraska firmly in the field. The Buckeyes lost by six in Lincoln, Neb., but that was vengeance for a 31-point smacking in Columbus, Ohio.

    On the flip side, losing to Ohio State would cost Nebraska any more room for improvement, while losing to Purdue (RPI: 139) for a second time this season would be its fourth in the 101-200 range. One more bad loss would see the Huskersand their 86th-ranked non-conference RPIbooted out of the field like a teenager throwing spitballs in math class.

Pac-12: The Bracket Gets a Quack Attack

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    Like Oklahoma State, Baylor and Ohio State, the Oregon Ducks have pulled together a season that once looked like it was careening off a cliff. After a 3-8 conference start, Oregon has rattled off seven straight wins, including consecutive takedowns of Arizona State and Arizona in a five-day span.

    In-state rival Oregon State and UCLA definitely stand in the way of the Ducks' crossing to the semifinals, and both were also part of that win streak. UCLA did a great job of slowing Oregon's still-efficient offense, holding it to 38.1 percent from the floor, but the Ducks grew some teeth on the glass and shot a conference season-high 39 free throws.

    The winner of Arizona State vs. Stanford or Washington State winner would be next up for Oregon, and Stanford came one missed Dominic Artis layup from losing to the Ducks themselves. Even if it's Arizona waiting in the finals, getting that far would likely see the Ducks seeded higher in the NCAA tournament than they were in the Pac-12.

    Five of Oregon's last six losses have come by four points or less. 10-8 was 17 points away from being 15-3. If hyper-efficient scorers Joseph Young and Jason Calliste are hittingand they've combined for more than 30 points per game during the win streakdon't bet the mortgage against the Ducks, because that'll make it hard to pay your bills.

SEC: Tennessee Volunteers for a Trip to Dayton

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    Randy Sartin-USA TODAY Sports

    While it's true the Tennessee Volunteers haven't beaten a single Southeastern Conference team that's likely to get selected for the NCAA tournament, that has something to do with the fact that only two teamsFlorida and Kentuckyare truly worthy of bids in this epically sad season of SEC hoops.

    How about a blind resume comparison for the Vols? All the cool kids are doing it:

    CategoryTennesseeTeam B
    RPI4441
    NCRPI6186
    SOS2527
    NCSOS4396
    W-L vs. RPI 1-1007-78-8
    W-L vs. RPI 101+12-411-3
    Pomeroy rank1347

    Team B puked on its shoes after Christmas, enduring a five-game losing streak, while Tennessee has never lost more than twice in a row. Granted, four of Team B's five losses in that streak were against teams that have been mortal locks for the tournament for months now.

    Team B has since taken down three tournament teams in its conference slate, while UT has come up short against Florida and Kentucky.

    But look at that Pomeroy ranking. Tennessee's offense and defense are both ranked (free link) in KenPom's top 30, and that's an exclusive club. The others in it: Wichita State, Florida, Villanova, Louisville, Virginia and Syracuse. They're all in the tournament with a lot of room to spare.

    Oh, and to pay off the tease: Team B is everybody's favorite feel-good bubble story, Nebraska.

    Tennessee's talent is indisputable, with both Jarnell Stokes and Jordan McRae definite All-SEC selections. Its execution and coaching, however, have come under serious fire, with fans clamoring for Cuonzo Martin's ouster and the return of Bruce Pearl.

    The execution must improve just to get the Vols to Dayton, because their conference has done them no favors. Only a semifinal win over Florida can improve their standing now.

    For more from Scott, including links to his new podcast, check out The Back Iron.