It’s going to be a long agonizing week for the Middle Tennessee St Blue Raiders after their upset loss at the hands of Florida International in the Sun Belt Conference semi-finals (more on this later). They were dominant in the regular season winning all but one conference games, but March is cruel as the Blue Raiders know all too well.
Last year they bowed out of the conference tournament in the quarterfinals after being the No. 1 seed as they lost to Arkansas St. They didn’t get in last season and their prospects are grim for this season. While they played a top-20 non-conference schedule they only have two top-100 wins and no top-50. The committee may reward them for challenging themselves out of conference, but it’s unlikely.
You feel bad for the Blue Raiders, but March is cruel and unusual punishment for a team of their kind. The punishment this week will be waiting.
We have some conference tournament finals that I didn’t get a chance to preview so here’s some predictions for some of tonight’s finals.
COLONIAL ATHLETIC ASSOCIATION: Sundays two semi-finals had fantastic finishes so both teams may be spent emotionally. Northeastern came from 24 down to beat George Mason while James Madison had some fortunate calls to preserve victory over Delaware. It’s going to be hard for the Huskies to beat a Virginia school in Richmond though and I expect the Dukes to go dancing for the first time since 1994.
SUN BELT: Neither Florida International nor Western Kentucky is supposed to be here. It’s the second year in a row the Hilltoppers shocked the world to reach the final while Richard Pitino has turned around Florida International in one year after Isaiah Thomas screwed that job up too. The Golden Panthers are a nice story, but the Hilltoppers are used to this and will go dancing again.
SOUTHERN: I watched Davidson go to Charleston earlier this season and put a beat down on the Cougars earlier this season. The margin may be closer, but the result will be the same. The gold standard of SoCon basketball is going dancing again.
METRO ATLANTIC ATHLETIC: Here is another tournament where the teams playing weren’t expected to be here. Iona is a solid program and has proven it can hang with good competition this season. Manhattan, on the other hand, is the beneficiary of getting to play the No. 7 seed in the semifinals. Iona has endured its share of heartbreak in this tournament the past few years, the Gaels will get the job done this time around.
We all so have some other tournaments getting started today.
MID-EASTERN ATHLETIC: It’s been an unusual year in the MEAC where two teams have been way ahead of the pack. Last year’s NCAA tournament darling Norfolk St finished undefeated in league play and North Carolina Central finished with only one loss. That loss didn’t come at the hands of the Spartans because the two didn’t play. They will in the title game and the Spartans will repeat.
MID-AMERICAN: Akron was threatening to run away with this league and was possibly heading towards locking up an at-large bid. Then came a surprising loss at Buffalo and the suspension of point guard Alex Abreu. Those unfortunate series of events leave the Ohio Bobcats as the clear favorites to repeat as MAC champions and go to the big dance.
On to the Bracket:
Good for Games played thru 3/10
Last Four In: Virginia, Boise St, Tennessee, La Salle
Last Four Out: Kentucky, Mississippi, Iowa, Middle Tennessee St
1.Indiana16.Florida International/Long Island Dayton, OH
8.Wichita St9.San Diego St
4.Oklahoma St13.Louisiana Tech
7.Memphis10.Colorado St Philadelphia
2.Georgetown15.Florida Gulf Coast(ASun)
1.Louisville16.Southern/Liberty(BSouth) Lexington, KY
METRO ATLANTIC ATHLETIC: Iona has been on my radar since I watch it go blow-for-blow with Purdue in November. This team can flatout score. This is one of the most dangerous mid-majors in the country as it has three pros on the roster. That being said, the Gaels don’t really care to much to play defense and that’s why a team like Loyola is a real threat. Despite that, I don’t think Iona will be denied this year.
COLONIAL ATHLETIC ASSOCIATION: Up until mid-February, people were talking about the down year in the CAA. Then came Bracketbusters where the CAA once again flexed its mid-major muscle. Drexel, Virginia Commonwealth, George Mason and Old Dominion all scored big wins leading many pundits to say this is a multi-bid league again. I’m not so sure of that but I do know that Drexel and VCU will play a classic championship game. That game will be won by Drexel.
SOUTHERN: Davidson served notice to the nation earlier this season when it beat Kansas. It followed that impressive win up with a 16-2 league record. The Wildcats have a solid RPI and is far and away the best team in this league, but I don’t have a good feeling about them winning the conference championship. There’s one team though, which has been knocking on the door and that’s the College of Charleston. The Cougars have won six of their last seven and they’ll carry that momentum into a SoCon championship.
SUN BELT: Middle Tennessee St put the nation on notice when it took UCLA apart in November. With only five losses, the Blue Raiders have done that to most of their opponents this season. This team is the class of the Sun Belt and, with the exception of Denver, has no peer. The Blue Raiders are going dancing.
SUMMIT LEAGUE: You’re 17-1 in league play and one of the best mid-majors in the nation. How are you rewarded – by playing the conference tournament on the homecourt of the second place team in the conference. That’s what Oral Roberts’ dilemma is as it prepares for the conference tournament hosted by South Dakota St. That South Dakota St team is responsible for Oral Roberts lone conference loss. On March 6, it’ll be responsible for Oral Roberts’ second conference loss.
BIG SKY: Weber St and Montana went toe-to-toe all season long in a conference race that wasn’t decided until the last game of the regular season. That game determined where the conference tournament would be played. Unfortunately for Weber St, they’re going to have to go through the regular season champion Montana on its home court. Not likely. The Grizzlies are going to the NCAA tournament.
Yesterday, all hell broke loose on the mid-major level. Number 1 seeds in the Colonial, Missouri Valley, Metro Atlantic Athletic, America East, and Sun Belt all lost.
In addition to that; College of Charleston had to come back from a double-digit second half deficit and Bucknell won with the aid of a no call to stave off disaster.
I say all of this to prove that’s its March and no one is safe. Not on the mid-major level. Not on the high-major level. Even Purdue lost to lowly Iowa on Saturday.
A lot of people, this time of the year, get extremely concerned with seeding, but that’s not nearly as important as playing well. Kansas was the No. 1 overall seed in the tournament last year and look how much that helped the Jayhawks in bowing out early in the Big Dance.
I know being a No. 1 seed is good and is helpful, but playing well helps even more. Last season, Butler and Michigan St both got to the Final Four as No. 5 seeds. The name of the game is not getting a high seed. It’s winning.
More Conference Tournament Previews:
MID-AMERICAN CONFERENCE: This was once again a sub par year in the MAC as failed to cracked the top-15 in Conference RPI. In fact, it sits at 20 with conferences such as the Northeast, Atlantic Sun and Ivy in front of it. Due to that fact, it’ll be another one-bid year for the conference, which magnifies the importance of the conference tournament. Kent St won the regular season title, but it was just by one game over Miami (Oh) and Western Michigan. Despite the one-game difference, I do expect the Golden Flashes to make it to the title game and reclaim the MAC championship.
SOUTHLAND: The Southland Conference has had some really good showings in the NCAA tournament in the past five years, but this doesn’t look like a year where that’s going to be the case. In fact, the winner of this tournament may be relegated to Dayton to play in one of the “First Four” games. McNeese St won the regular season title, but the difference between first and eighth place in this league is just three games. It’s going to be terribly difficult for the Cowboys to navigate this tournament successfully. Mike McConathy is the best tournament coach in this league and I expect him to lead his Northwestern St. ball club back to the NCAA tournament.
SOUTHWESTERN ATHLETIC: The SWAC has needed one team to be head and shoulders above the rest of the league and that’s exactly what happened this season. Texas Southern was on auto-pilot for most of the conference season finishing with a four-game cushion for the league title. The Tigers should enjoy the same kind of success in the conference tournament. I expect Texas Southern to dance.
BIG WEST: Long Beach St has had no peer in the Big West this season, running away with the conference title. In fact, outside of a minor blip at the end of January, the 49ers have been downright dominant in the 2011 calendar year. This team has won 15 of its last 17 with ten of those wins coming by double figures. There is no reason to believe that Long Beach St is going to forget how to win. The 49ers are the pick to win the Big West.
Today’s Bracket Projections:
Last Four In: Memphis, Colorado, Butler, Richmond
Last Four Out: Michigan, Virginia Commonwealth, Clemson, USC
Good for Games through 3/6
1.Ohio St16.McNeese St/Bethune-Cookman Cleveland
5.Texas A&M12.Harvard Tampa
6.Temple11.Georgia Washington, D.C.
7.Cincinnati10.Boston College Tulsa
1.Duke16.Boston U Charlotte
5.St. John’s12.Butler/Colorado Washington, D.C.
2.Notre Dame15.Northern Colorado SOUTHEAST
5.Kansas St12.Richmond/Memphis Tucson
4.San Diego St13.Belmont(ASun)
6.Connecticut11.Michigan St Tampa
2.North Carolina15.Long Island SOUTHWEST
1.Kansas16.Texas Southern/Middle Tennessee St Tulsa
5.West Virginia12.St. Mary’s Tucson
6.Arizona11.Florida St Denver
2.Purdue15.Long Beach St
PATRIOT LEAGUE: Bucknell and American are way ahead of the pack in this league. Bucknell ran through Patriot League competition with only one loss and American only three. Too bad for the Eagles, two of those losses came from the Bison. Nothing really to say here, but to expect part three with Bucknell winning again.
MISSOURI VALLEY: I’m used to seeing multiple bids come from this league, but the trend of it being one-bid the past few seasons has to be troubling for commissioner Doug Elgin. Despite this, there are still teams in this conference who can win a game in the NCAA tournament. The Missouri St. Bears finished in first with the Wichita St. Shockers one game behind. The two teams were the most consistent all year and appear to be on a collision course. In round three, expect the Shockers to come out on top.
NORTHEAST: Long Island’s uptempo style has led it to an impressive 16-2 league record. In fact, the Blackbirds have only loss once in the 2011 calendar year. Given the fact that this tournament is played entirely on home courts give them an extra advantage. The Blackbirds should expect a challenge from the tournament-tested Robert Morris Colonials, but this team is head and shoulders above the rest of the league and will make their way to the NCAA tournament.
COLONIAL ATHLETIC ASSOCIATION: This one should be interesting. After back-to-back losses to Hofstra and Old Dominion, George Mason ran off 15 wins in-a-row to put a stamp on an at-large bid. Old Dominion, by virtue of stellar play in the non-conference did the same. The question right now goes to the hunger of both teams and I believe both may already know they’re dancing. One team however, isn’t going to be dancing without an automatic bid and I expect it to come out firing on all cylinders. Virginia Commonwealth, at home in Richmond, will “steal” a bid and punch its ticket to the NCAA tournament.
METRO ATLANTIC ATHLETIC: After its impressive showing in BracketBusters, the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference (MAAC) became one of the most intriguing leagues in the country. The conference tournament is usually entertaining and this year should be no different. Fairfield finished in first in the regular season, but show kinks in the armor in losses to Rider and Iona, the two teams that tied for second. Iona, by virtue of being hot at the right time seems to be surging towards a NCAA bid, which it’ll get.
SOUTHERN: College of Charleston was cruising through league play until the last week of the regular season where it lost its final two games. That brought into a tie for the South Division and league title with defending champion Wofford. Although Charleston has a win over Tennessee and an almost win at Maryland, I think its going to be tough for it to navigate through this tournament. Chattanooga and Wofford will meet for round 3 with Wofford making a repeat trip to the NCAA tournament.
WEST COAST: St. Mary’s and Gonzaga both have at-large hopes with Gonzaga’s chances being a tad bit better at the moment. Given that the tournament is set up to give top two teams an advantage expect to see the two class programs in the conference go at it one more time. It will be a heavyweight slugfest in Vegas with St. Mary’s getting an automatic bid ensuring two WCC teams go dancing.
AMERICA EAST: Vermont and Boston University have been the two best teams in league play, but neither is perfect. Maine had a run at the both of them and should be in the mix this weekend in Hartford. However, I still believe that Vermont and Boston will get through a tough tournament to meet for all the marbles once again. Boston will not be able to finish Vermont for a third time and the Vermont Catamounts will go dancing.
METRO ATLANTIC ATHLETIC: For the past three years, Siena has been rolling through the MAAC like a warm knife through hot butter. The Saints once again coasted to the regular season title with a 17-1 record. They have shown vulnerabilities though. Not all of the Saints wins have been dominant and some have been downright close. Fairfield has a legitimate shot at pulling off the upset, but I don’t see it. The Saints seem to be extremely focused in their last two games and playing on their home floor will be a huge advantage. I expect Siena to go dancing again.
SOUTHERN: This will be one of the more competitive conference tournaments in the country. The SoCon has wins over schools from the Big East, ACC, SEC, and Atlantic 10 this season. Those wins came from Appalachian St., Western Carolina, College of Charleston and Wofford. Throw in Davidson and there will be some high-quality hoops in Charlotte this weekend. In the end, you have to go with the team that’s lost only one game this calendar year. I expect Wofford to make its first trip to the Big Dance.
WEST COAST: Once again, Gonzaga has proven to be the class of this league. It’s amazing to see the Bulldogs have the success they’ve had given the losses they sustain in the offseason. Despite that, Gonzaga has proven to be beatable this season and, over its record 11-year run, in the WCC tournament. Saint Mary’s and Portland are extremely capable of winning this tournament. There is a high probability of the two meeting in the semi-finals, a game in which Portland will win on their way to the WCC tournament title.
AMERICA EAST: The top four teams in the America East are separated by two games. Stony Brook, Vermont, Maine and Boston University are all capable of going dancing. However, there’s one team who clearly has the number of the other three. In its six meetings with Vermont, Maine and BU; Stony Brook has a 5-1 record. They’ve won 10 out of 11 and are looking very strong. The loss to New Hampshire is a bit alarming, but it was the last game of the season and Stony Brook had nothing left to play for. The Seawolves do now and they’ll be going dancing.