Monday, March 7, 2011
Champ Week: Setting Week 2
By Andy Katz ESPN.com
Championship Week is well under way. Here's what to look for in the second wave of conference tournaments:
Greensboro, N.C.1. The Tar Heels come screaming into the field after a stellar week, winning at Florida State on a last-possession 3-pointer from Harrison Barnes and then running away from Duke on Saturday night for the title. The top-seeded Tar Heels enter the ACC tournament with a chance to still improve their NCAA seeding with a good showing in Greensboro.
2. Carolina freshmen Barnes and Kendall Marshall should be a good watch, as both players mature on the court every day. Barnes and Marshall have seized the moment, taking control of this team.
3. Duke needs to play well here, not just for a possible No. 1 or 2 seed, but to have some momentum going into the NCAAs after failing to show any sort of second-half consistency on the road.
4. The mystery men will be Florida State's Chris Singleton and Duke's Kyrie Irving. There's no indication that either injured player will return this week but they'll both be on the bench, raising just enough suspicion.
5. The bubble is in full bloom in the ACC, with Boston College needing to beat Wake Forest and then perhaps Clemson for a bid; Virginia Tech needing to beat Georgia Tech and then perhaps Florida State for a bid; and Clemson possibly needing to beat Boston College and have a good showing in the semifinals. And if there is a potential spoiler in the bunch, it could be Virginia. The Cavaliers have done a tremendous job of causing havoc for other teams this season, and a possible quarterfinals matchup with UNC could be interesting, considering the Cavs nearly dropped the Tar Heels in Charlottesville.
Atlantic City, N.J.1. Xavier has the least to worry about of any A-10 team. The Musketeers want to win a title and keep momentum going, but they are safe and secure with their play of late.
2. The potential Temple-Richmond semifinal would match two of the more disciplined teams in the tournament. When these two teams are playing well they look like teams that could win an NCAA tourney game. The problem -- more so for Richmond -- is that it hasn't happened consistently.
3. The A-10 has three stars who haven't received enough national recognition: Xavier's Tu Holloway, Temple's Lavoy Allen and Richmond's Kevin Anderson.
4. Richmond will likely have its hands full with whichever team comes out of the 6-versus-11 game between Rhode Island and Saint Louis. Those two teams are wild cards, as both have the ability to play up to the competition.
5. Remember when Duquesne was a front-runner in the conference? The Dukes faded in the final month after an 8-0 start, and there's no guarantee they can get past a likely matchup with George Washington in the quarters.
Kansas City, Mo.1. Kansas is one of the hottest teams in the country right now, but the Jayhawks may have the hardest time winning their conference tournament. A possible semifinal against Kansas State looms, and then KU might need to figure out Texas in the title game.
2. All the bubble talk surrounds the first day, but it's hard to see how Nebraska (Oklahoma State), Colorado (Iowa State) and Baylor (Oklahoma) can get a bid with just one win in the conference tournament. The key day will likely be Thursday.
3. The rematches that might occur Thursday should be just as entertaining as the earlier meetings. Texas A&M-Missouri and Colorado-Kansas State played two of the better games this season in the Big 12.
4. This is a major week for Texas. The Longhorns returned to their winning ways at Baylor. They defended, scored when needed and looked like a team ready to challenge for a title again. Win this tournament and a No. 1 seed is within reach.
5. The most intriguing player in the tournament is Jacob Pullen of Kansas State. Pullen was a preseason first-team All-American. He has the ability to carry Kansas State far in Kansas City and in the NCAA tournament now that he's playing up to potential.
New York1. Marquette has the most to prove of any Big East team this week. The Golden Eagles did win at Connecticut, but couldn't beat Cincinnati at home and were barely competitive at Seton Hall. Marquette needs to beat Providence in the first round Tuesday. At that point, beating West Virginia in the second round would probably be just icing on the cake.
2. Who had Cincinnati (7) with a higher seed than Connecticut (9) and Villanova (10)? The Bearcats have had quite a turnaround this season -- not just from one year to the next but also from one point in the Big East season to the end.
3. Connecticut has one of the more difficult paths to the Big East title. After playing DePaul in the first round, the Huskies would have to beat Georgetown and then Pitt before likely facing St. John's or Syracuse. That's all before a final against possibly Notre Dame or Louisville.
4. The game that may draw the most intrigue is a possible quarterfinal matchup between St. John's and Syracuse at MSG. Syracuse rocked St. John's the first time the two teams played. Whoever wins this game would get a solid seed bump in the NCAAs.
5. Notre Dame coach Mike Brey said he challenged his team to make it to Saturday's final, since they've never played in the Big East championship game. Do that and the Irish could join Pitt as a No. 1 seed in the NCAAs.
A Montana-Northern Colorado final is what should happen. The Big Sky has a legit shot at being a first-round pest in the NCAAs. Remember that Montana won at UCLA earlier this season. The Grizzlies have to beat Weber State first, while Northern Colorado needs to get past pesky Northern Arizona. UNC's Devon Beitzel can score 20-plus and will be tough to stop in this foursome. The Big Sky winner is usually a tough out in the NCAAs.
Indianapolis1. The first round of the Big Ten doesn't look right. There's no way anyone would have predicted that Minnesota would play in an 8-9 matchup or that Michigan State would be in a 7-10 game.
2. Michigan coach John Beilein has done a tremendous job of getting the Wolverines to the fourth seed in the Big Ten tournament. He won't get coach of the year with Thad Matta (OSU), Matt Painter (Purdue) and Bo Ryan (Wisconsin) ahead of him, but he deserves kudos.
3. If Michigan State were to go on a Big Ten tournament run, the Spartans would have to beat Purdue and then likely Wisconsin before likely facing Ohio State for the title. How about that gauntlet?
4. Ohio State should walk to the final with either a spiraling Minnesota or Northwestern and then Michigan and Illinois vying to play the Buckeyes in the semifinal. The bottom part of the bracket is more difficult, with Purdue, Wisconsin and Michigan State.
5. This tournament has multiple players who could go on a roll: Wisconsin's Jordan Taylor, Ohio State's Jared Sullinger and Jon Diebler, and Purdue's JaJuan Johnson and E'Twaun Moore.
The Big West has moved its tournament from the Anaheim Convention Center to the Honda Center in Anaheim for a more big-time feel. What would do wonders for this conference is if the top team -- Long Beach State -- won so it could be trouble in the first round of the NCAAs. The 49ers are clearly the best team. If they can play up to their potential, it would be quite a redemptive weekend for Dan Monson, who would be back in the NCAAs after being run out of Minnesota.
El Paso, Texas1. Mike Davis has done a tremendous job dealing with injuries at UAB this season, as it emerged as the regular-season champ. But winning this title will test the Blazers. The road to a title is marked with potholes, with sneaky-good East Carolina or Central Florida in the quarters, possibly Southern Miss or Memphis in the semis and then maybe host UTEP in the final.
2. There doesn't appear to be a bubble team in the mix, but the aforementioned upper part of the bracket is loaded with spoilers that could make the NCAA selection committee pause about whether to admit one other C-USA team with UAB if the Blazers win the title.
3. UTEP may be the No. 3 seed, but the bottom part of the bracket is easier with ECU, UCF, UAB, Memphis and Southern Miss at the top.
4. Hosting the conference tournament doesn't guarantee a final appearance, but the fan base in El Paso is second only to Memphis in this league in passion and will no doubt make it tough for UTEP opponents.
5. Memphis is young, inexperienced and a disappointment in the league with losses to Rice, SMU and ECU. But the Tigers can eliminate plenty of the bitter taste from the season by winning this weekend.
Kent State is the favorite and Western Michigan earned the No. 2 seed. It's a shame this has become a one-bid league. There was a time when the MAC was filled with potential Big Ten players and teams that could win a few games in the NCAA tournament. Ohio stunned the league last season by winning the tournament and then shocked Georgetown in the first round. This league is wide open enough that a team like Ohio could pull off a similar run.
Getting fresh faces in the NCAAs is always a plus. Bethune-Cookman enters the MEAC tournament as the top seed. The problem for the MEAC is that it has had years in which a wild card like Coppin State has won the event. For the conference to put its best foot forward, it would be best served if Bethune won.
Las Vegas1. The story of the tournament will be how BYU plays more meaningful games without Brandon Davies, and how much Jimmer Fredette can dominate. BYU will play the winner of Wyoming-TCU in the quarterfinals and then will have a tough game against either Colorado State or New Mexico in a semifinal.
2. How big was that San Diego State loss to BYU last week? It meant the Aztecs are the 2-seed and likely headed for a semifinal matchup with No. 3 UNLV on the Runnin' Rebels' home court. The selection committee will look at that as a road game for the Aztecs, and a win means they'll get even more praise/power rating points.
3. If San Diego State can win the tournament, the Aztecs should book an advantageous seed in Tucson and ultimately Anaheim if the Aztecs can win the first two games.
4. New Mexico is on a roll of late and could be a sleeper to steal a bid. That would mean the Lobos have to knock off Colorado State and BYU and then win again in the final. But the Lobos are more than capable of winning three games in three days. They are the only MWC team to beat BYU -- and have done so twice.
5. UNLV should be in the field of 68, but the Runnin' Rebels could certainly improve their seeding by at least getting to the final -- beating Air Force and then likely San Diego State.
Los Angeles1. Washington-Washington State is the most intriguing matchup. The Huskies lost at home to Wazzu last week and then, after beating UCLA, fell to USC at home, too. Washington's profile is thin and a third loss to Wazzu in the quarterfinals should cause some serious concern from the selection committee.
2. If Klay Thompson is playing for Washington State after being suspended for marijuana possession, the Cougars become a sleeper team to win the tournament.
3. Arizona won the Pac-10 regular season, but it won't have a walk to the final. Beating USC or California in a possible semifinal should be a grind. The Trojans will try to cut the court in half, and if it's Cal, the Bears know how to push Arizona since they went to triple overtime in the Bay Area.
4. UCLA could improve its seeding a few lines if it can win this tournament. The Bruins still have two of the better nonconference wins in the Pac-10, with victories over BYU and St. John's.
5. USC is quietly lurking in the bid chase. This team did beat Texas at home and won at Tennessee. The Trojans won at Washington on Saturday and have previously beaten UCLA and Arizona. If USC is to earn an at-large berth, it will have to be earned, and that means knocking off Cal and Arizona to get to a final. Do that and the Trojans will be on the board for a bid.
Atlanta1. The SEC does itself a disservice by allowing the second team in the SEC West this season to get a bye. Mississippi State has no business receiving a bye, while Vanderbilt, Georgia and Tennessee all play on the first day after finishing third through fifth in the SEC East. The Bulldogs did have a 9-7 record, the same as Vanderbilt and Georgia and one better than Tennessee. But it's safe to say the Bulldogs had an easier path to get there, schedule-wise.
2. Alabama against Georgia in the quarterfinals is the ultimate bubble game. You could make the argument that UGA -- assuming it beats Auburn in the first round -- is in the field no matter what happens in this game, but it would certainly do wonders for the cause if the Bulldogs won. Alabama needs more work to feel secure.
3. The unbalanced seeding in this tournament has created an imbalance in the bracket and put top seed Florida at a major disadvantage. The Gators may have to beat Tennessee and then Vanderbilt to get to the final. Kentucky, the East No. 2, doesn't have close to the same kind of competition at the top of the bracket, with either Ole Miss or South Carolina in the first game and likely Georgia or Alabama in the semis.
4. Kentucky can really help its seeding with an SEC tournament title, while it's possible that Florida might be close to its peak in terms of seeding. UK could use a few more quality wins to impress the committee.
5. The wild cards remain Vandy and Tennessee, which are on the same side of the bracket. These are two teams that have shown they can play with any team in the country, but also two that frequently lose because they simply can't seem to close out games. No one should be surprised if this pair was able to win more games in the NCAA tourney than the SEC one.
The Southland has failed to distinguish itself this season. Even if top seed McNeese State wins the conference tournament, the Southland is still likely facing a Dayton date with one of the First Four, 16-seeded games. If a team other than McNeese wins, the likelihood of a Dayton trip goes up even more.
If top seed Texas Southern were to win the SWAC tournament, will it justify the team's ridiculous schedule to start the season? The Tigers were on the road for 12 of their first 14 games. Texas Southern did win at Oregon State amid that run, but it was so long ago it's hard to point to that as any indication that the Tigers could be trouble in the first round. Texas Southern won the league by four games. Now it has to win three more. This is the sort of example that kind of makes me wish the dominant regular-season champ didn't have to prove itself again to represent the league on the national stage.
The WAC went to a new format that sends the top two seeds to the semifinals, so Utah State and Boise State will need just two wins for the title. Utah State simply has to win this tournament. If the Aggies don't (and that would likely mean losing to Idaho again in the semis or New Mexico State/Boise State in the final), it would be hard for some to justify an at-large bid for USU. Its record is outstanding, but there's just not much there in terms of decent wins.