Wednesday, February 25, 2009

A Bubble Team's Worst Nightmare

It happens every year. A major conference team comes out of nowhere in their conference tournament to make it to the championship and, in some cases, win the title. It also happens in some mid-major conferences that were expected to get one bid but then send two dancing because of upsets in the league tournaments.

The aforementioned situation is a nightmare for bubble teams hoping to get bids to the NCAA Tournament. When teams that are locks for the NCAA Tournament lose in their respective conference tournament and a mediocre team that gets hot at the right team either makes the championship or wins the automatic bid, teams on the fence become some of the most nervous people in the world. You hear the announcers every March:

"Well, [fill in bubble team of choice] has to root for [fill in league favorite] if they want a bid to the NCAA Tournament. If [fill in upstart team] pulls off yet another upset, it means that there is one fewer at-large bid for the bubble teams."

This year is not going to be any different. With all of the parity in many of the leagues across the country this season, there are several teams that could make Cinderella runs in their respective conference tournaments. In some leagues, these teams are in the lower half of the league and win an early game before getting on a run, and all of a sudden they look like the second coming of the UNLV teams from the early '90s. In other conferences, these Cinderella teams are just ones that have a decent chance to upset the heavy favorite and steal the automatic bid.

Who are the main candidates to pull a Georgia and make this kind of run in Championship Week 2009? Let's take a look at several conferences from around the country, and find teams that have the ability to win a few games in early March.

North Carolina State: With five teams looking like locks to go to the Dance, and four teams on the bubble, North Carolina State certainly looks like the best of the rest. The Wolfpack have knocked off Wake Forest and Miami (Fl.) in conference play this season, and played some other teams very close. Brandon Costner is difficult to defend and Ben McCauley has bounced back after a down year. Courtney Fells is the most potent scorer in the backcourt. NC State can shoot the ball, both inside and outside the arc, and it also offensive rebounds at a high rate. They also slow the pace of the game down and force teams into tough shots.

Big East
Seton Hall: It would be a cop out to pick one of the top 11 teams in the conference, since they are all in the mix for an NCAA Tournament bid. Obviously, Georgetown is a huge threat since the Hoyas are all but out of the at-large picture. However, to go with a true sleeper, I’m going to take a look at Seton Hall. The Pirates has wins over USC, Virginia Tech and Georgetown thus far and they have hung with some top Big East teams. Jeremy Hazell can flat-out score, while Eugene Harvey is quick and can get to the basket. Robert Mitchell creates match-up problems, and John Garcia has shown flashes down low. SHU can’t play defense, but it can score with anyone in the conference.

Big Ten
Michigan: After the Wolverines’ loss to Iowa in overtime, their at-large chances are pretty much done. However, don’t overlook them making a run in the conference tournament. They obviously have the talent to beat the top teams, as evidenced by wins over Duke, UCLA and Illinois. Sure, they are only 4-8 in their last 12, but they can turn it around. Manny Harris is one of the best players in the conference, and DeShawn Sims has developed into a go-to-guy down low. Surrounding those two are plenty of capable role players. Michigan takes care of the ball and defends the three-point line very well. If they get hot from deep, look out.

Big 12
Baylor: The Bears’ dropped yet another game last night, getting beat handily at Iowa State. At 4-9 in the Big 12, Baylor is no longer even on the bubble for the NCAA Tournament. This team has plenty of offensive talent, though – talent that can get hot and stay hot. Curtis Jerrells is a dynamic point guard who is tough to stay in front of, while Henry Dugat, Tweety Carter and LaceDarius Dunn are all double-figure scorers on the perimeter that can shoot it. Kevin Rogers is a solid performer up front. The Bears are the worst defensive team in the Big 12, but they can score in a hurry. With all the talent they possess, it’s not hard to envision a couple of wins.

Washington State: If you weren’t a believer in the Cougars being a potential threat in a couple of weeks at the conference tournament, Saturday should have changed your mind. Washington State went into UCLA and beat the Bruins – while scoring a season-high 82 points in the process. WSU had already beaten Arizona State this season. Taylor Rochestie can do-it-all at the point guard spot, and Klay Thompson is a stud freshman. Aron Baynes provides a consistent player down low. With the outstanding defense this team plays every night, and the slow-down pace they utilize, they can frustrate teams and pull multiple upsets.

Auburn: Outside of LSU, no one in the SEC has shown they can be considered a favorite heading into the conference tournament. That could open the door for a surprise team to make a run, namely Auburn. The Tigers have won four of their last five, including a win over Tennessee. They are very solid defensively, forcing plenty of turnovers and defending the three-point line. Offensively, they have a variety of options. DeWayne Reed and Quantez Robertson give them a very solid backcourt that can handle, distribute and score. Tay Waller is a very good shooter and Rasheem Barrett can score. Plus, Korvotney Barber is one of the best big men in the league. Don’t sleep on this Auburn team.

Rhode Island: Xavier will be the favorite, with Dayton and Temple fighting for at-large bids. However, one team that has flown under the radar is Rhode Island. The Rams are just a game out of first place and have won eight of their last nine. Seven of their eight losses this season were by single-digits. Offensively, this team can do it all: shoot the three, score around the rim, get baskets in transition, offensive rebound, etc. Jimmy Baron is an outstanding three-point shooter, while Keith Cothran can also score. Marquis Jones is a solid point guard. Up front, Kaheim Seawright and Delroy James form a very good one-two punch.

Houston: This team is more than likely going to be a one-bid league, unless UAB can upset Memphis tomorrow and sneak in as an at-large. However, provided Memphis is the lone lock, Houston can scare a few bubble teams with a run in the tourney. The Cougars love to push the ball offensively and score in transition. They take outstanding care of the ball, though. Defensively, they are solid, forcing teams into tough shots in the half-court. Aubrey Coleman (yes, the head-stomper) is one of the best player in the league, and Kelvin Lewis can also fill it up. Marcus Cousin is a double-double threat down low, while Qa’rraan Calhoun is versatile.

Mountain West
Wyoming: The Mountain West is going to be one of the most exciting conference tournaments in the country. Outside of Utah, there are no other sure things. Four other teams will be fighting for at-large spots, including host UNLV, BYU, New Mexico and San Diego State. Therefore, that leaves just four potential sleepers. Out of that batch, it’s tough to ignore Wyoming – mainly because of its scoring prowess. Four players average at least 14 points per game, led by guard Brandon Ewing, one of the best non-BCS players in the country. Former Wichita State transfer Sean Ogirri can really shoot it, and Afam Muojeke is tough to guard. Tyson Johnson provides good production down low.

West Coast
Santa Clara: Gonzaga will go into the tournament as the prohibitive favorite, with Saint Mary’s playing for an at-large bid, hopefully with a healthy Patty Mills. Although one of those two will very likely win it, Santa Clara could throw a scare into them. Why? One reason: John Bryant. One of the most productive players in America, Bryant can put up a 20-20 and lead this team to a win. Plus, Kevin Foster and James Rahon are double-figure scorers who can shoot the ball and provide balance. The Broncos have won seven of their last nine, and five of their six league losses have come by a combined 14 points.

Other Teams to Keep an Eye On: Cleveland State (Horizon); Illinois State (Missouri Valley); Niagara (MAAC); The Citadel (Southern); Nevada (WAC)


  1. Hey Jeff,

    Great Blog and good information. I wanted to ask if you could post a shout about PocketBracket, which is an iPhone app we created for March Madness?

  2. Nice work, Jeff

    Wyoming has been a nice story this season, and Brandon Ewing is one of the best unknowns in college hoops; Wyoming, however, would have to knock off BYU, New Mexico, and either UNLV and Utah. That's asking a bit much for a team that's struggled away from home in the Mountain West.

    I understand that outside of the five teams scrapping for a bid there's not a whole lot to work with.

    I would include SDSU and UNM as teams that have to win the MWC tourney, and of those two, UNM has the better shot. SDSU will open against UNLV and then Utah. UNM will probably match up with Wyoming and BYU, who the local fans detest. Expect a big UNM contingent for that one.

    In the end, however, I see UNLV and BYU playing for the title for the third consecutive year, with the Rebels winning on their home court (not very fair, I admit, but as a Rebels fan, I'm happy).

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