Wednesday's Conference Tournament Primer

March 7th, 2012

Day two of the Big East Championship features four teams looking to improve their chances of reaching the NCAA tournament, with the biggest game of the day being the first. Nine-seed Connecticut, who opener their tournament with an 81-67 win over DePaul on Tuesday, takes on eight-seed West Virginia with the winner likely locking up a tournament berth. These two teams met once during the regular season, a 64-57 UConn victory at the XL Center on January 9th, and with so much change over the nearly two months since that game there may not be a whole lot to take from it.  

But there is rebounding, something the Mountaineers did extremely well in defeat and had they not gone cold in the second half Bob Huggins' team likely wins the game. WVU grabbed 20 offensive rebounds in the Januar meeting...twenty. The Mountaineers have been a very good team at hitting the offensive glass for most of Huggins' tenure at his alma mater, with the big men expected to give maximum effort in that department. This season West Virginia averages 14.7 offensive rebounds per game, which works out to the Mountaineers grabbing 40.7% of their misses per

Kevin Jones, who led the Big East in both scoring and rebounding this season, has led the way and maybe he uses the slight of not being a unanimous All-Big East selection as motivation (this is the injustice Mountaineer fans should be upset about as opposed to the Player of the Year award). UConn clearly will try to account for Jones with their stable of big men, but if Deniz Kilicli brings the effort as well it will be tough for the Husky big men from a toughness standpoint. Roscoe Smith has played well of late and at this point is a key figure in the rotation, while getting the likes of Andre Drummond and Alex Oriakhi to play well on a consistent basis has remained an issue. 

Guard play will be critical as well, especially with the Mountaineers calling on freshman guards Gary Browne and Jabarie Hinds in addition to senior Truck Bryant. Bryant needs to consistently make sound decisions if WVU is to be successful, and the same can be said for UConn's Jeremy Lamb and Shabazz Napier. The guards who play smarter will lead the winning team in this one.

Also on the bubble "stage" are Seton Hall and USF, with both teams likely needing wins albeit for different reasons. The Pirates looked to be a safe bet for the Field of 68 before dropping games to Rutgers and DePaul, so a win over Louisville would do a great deal for their hopes. USF simply needs to keep playing, as their unbalanced league slate has devalued their 12 league wins in the eyes of many. 

Big East - Second Round
#8 West Virginia vs. #9 Connecticut, Noon (ESPN)
#5 Georgetown vs. #13 Pittsburgh, 2:00 p.m. (ESPN)
#7 Louisville vs. #10 Seton Hall, 7:00 p.m. (ESPN)
#6 USF vs. #14 Villanova, 9:00 p.m. (ESPN) 

Big 12 - First Round
#8 Oklahoma vs. #9 Texas A&M, 7:00 p.m. (Big 12 Network)
#7 Oklahoma State vs. #10 Texas Tech, 9:30 p.m. (Big 12 Network)

Not a whole lot to see here, other than the fact that the two winners will move on to face Kansas and Missouri on Thursday. Oklahoma likely has the most to gain from today's action, as a win would guarantee a .500 (or better) finish and put them in line for a postseason berth in Lon Kruger's first season. The extra game and practice action can do a great deal for the Sooners, almost akin to what bowl practices can do for college football teams. The other three will need to win the conference tournament to either guarantee a .500 finish (Oklahoma State) or go to the postseason. 

Big Sky - Title Game
#2 Weber State at #1 Montana, 9:00 p.m. (ESPN2)  

The two best teams in the Big Sky all season long meet in Missoula with the winner getting the NCAA berth and the loser headed to the NIT. Weber State and Montana split the regular season series, with the home team winning both by double digits. The backcourt battle could be the best in the country on today's schedule, with Weber State's Damian Lillard and Scott Bamforth battling Montana's Will Cherry and Kareem Jamar. One area to watch tonight will be offensive rebounding, something the Wildcats have done well in both meetings. If Darin Mahoney and Kyle Tresnak can control the boards once again they can win in Missoula, and with the Grizzlies not being the best rebounding team that's definitely possible. Unlike the first two meetings, look for the rubber match to go right down to the wire.  

Conference USA - First Round
#7 Rice vs. #10 East Carolina, 1:00 p.m. (CSS)
#6 Marshall vs. #11 SMU, 3:30 p.m. (CSS)
#8 UTEP vs. #9 Houston, 7:30 p.m. (CSS)
#5 UAB vs. #12 Tulane, 10:00 p.m. (CSS)

Similar to the Big 12's first round there's not much to see in Memphis in regards to who will make the NCAA tournament out of Conference USA (Memphis, who will reach the Sweet 16, is a lock. Who joins them?). UAB, Marshall, Rice and Houston are all playing for postseason berths, with the Thundering Herd having the best shot at finding somewhere to play next week. The other three all need multiple wins to ensure finishing .500 or better, and outside of the Herd (led by DeAndre Kane and Damier Pitts) and UAB (Cameron Moore is a player) it's tough to find any team capable of making a run to either Friday or Saturday. 

MAC - Second Round
#12 Northern Illinois vs. #8 Western Michigan, 7:00 p.m. (STO)
#7 Toledo vs. #11 Central Michigan, 9:30 p.m. (STO)  

The winners of tonight's action in Cleveland move on to battle Ohio and Kent State on Thursday night in the newly recorfigured MAC tournament, and for the Huskies and Chippewas to reach this point is a surprise in itself. NIU takes on a Western Michigan team that swept the regular season series, with the game in Kalamazoo being the closer of the two. CMU looks to be in better shape from a competitive standpoint in their matchup with Toledo, as the Chips lost to the Rockets by just five in their second meeting. Rian Pearson leads the way for the Rockets, and if CMU finds away to neutralize him they've got a shot at the win. 

MEAC - Opening Round/Quarterfinals
# 1 Savannah State vs. #8 Hampton, 6:00 p.m.
# 2 Norfolk State vs. #10 Howard, 8:00 p.m.  

The top two seeds begin their march towards the MEAC's automatic bid, and both Savannah State and Norfolk State will be favored to get to the semifinals. Horace Broadnax's Tigers won the regular season title outright, quite the achievement for a team not only picked to finish 11th in the preseason poll but also in its first season as a full Division I (and MEAC) member. NSU, who many expected to win the league, finished a game out of first and has the MEAC's best player in forward Kyle O'Quinn. Hampton may be able to give Savannah State some trouble and the same goes for Howard, but both favorites should move on. 

NEC - Title Game
#3 Robert Morris at #1 LIU Brooklyn, 7:00 p.m. (ESPN2)  

The NEC delivers a rematch of last season's title game, a battle that went right down to the wire with the home team (LIU Brooklyn) winning by a basket. The rematch should be just as close, with Velton Jones leading the Colonials and forwards Julian Boyd and Jamal Olasewere pacing the Blackbirds. LIU has to rebound, something they haven't always done consistently this season, if they're to defend their home floor and make a return trip to the Big Dance. RMU has done a solid job defensively of late, and that will be the ticket for them if they're to win an NEC title on the road for the second time in three seasons. 

Pac-12 - First Round
#8 Washington State vs. # 9 Oregon State, 3:10 p.m. (FSN)
# 5 UCLA vs. # 12 USC, 5:40 p.m. (FSN)
# 7 Stanford vs. # 10 Arizona State, 9:10 p.m. (FSN)
# 6 Colorado vs. # 11 Utah, 11:40 p.m. (FSN)  

The Pac-12 is essentially a tournament where one could toss two NCAA bids in the middle of the Staples Center and let all 12 teams fight to the death for them. The resumes are that bad, and without any true separation there isn't a clear favorite either. Colorado and Utah kick off their first Pac-12 tournament experiences and the Buffs will be favored to beat the Utes in the final game of the day. But a sleeper to grab the automatic berth may lie in the second game, as UCLA is coming off of a home sweep of the Washington schools as they brushed off the Sports Illustrated article that painted the program in a negative light. If Joshua Smith can stay on the floor and be a factor, there's no reason why the Bruins can't win the tournament. Oregon State and Stanford could also make a run, with the Cardinal likely being the better choice despite the presence of OSU's Jared Cunningham. 

Patriot - Title Game
#2 Lehigh at #1 Bucknell, 7:00 p.m. (CBS SN)

The road team won both meetings during the regular season, with a C.J. McCollum dagger giving the Mountain Hawks the win in the second meeting. McCollum and Bucknell's Mike Muscala were the two best players in the Patriot League this season, with McCollum winning Player of the Year. But the key for the Mountain Hawks may be to make sure that Joe Willman doesn't have a big night alongside Muscala. Willman averaged 10.8 points per game and was a Second Team All-Patriot League selection, as was guard Cameron Ayers. Inside for Lehigh Gabe Knutson and Holden Grenier have both played well this season, providing good frontcourt scoring to balance out what McCollum brings to the table.  

Southland - Quarterfinals
# 2 Stephen F. Austin vs. # 7 Sam Houston St, 1:00 p.m.
# 3 Lamar vs. # 6 Northwestern St., 3:30 p.m.
# 1 UT Arlington vs. # 8 Nicholls St., 6:00 p.m.
# 4 McNeese St. vs. # 5 UTSA, 8:30 p.m. 

The Southland tournament gets going today (there's an off day between the semifinals and title game), and regular season champ UT-Arlington enters as the favorite. LaMarcus Reed III was one of the leaders for a team that lost just one game in conference play, but they won't go unchallenged in Katy either. Reigning tournament champion UTSA returned a number of key players from last season's team, most notable Melvin Johnson III and reserve Kannor Burrage leading the way. Pat Knight's Lamar Cardinals are another possible winner, provided seniors like Mike James take the reins from a leadership standpoint. Look for there to be an upset or two on our way to the championship. 

SWAC -Quarterfinals
#2 Texas Southern vs. #7 Alabama A&M, 1:30 p.m. (SWAC TV)
#1 Mississippi Valley State vs. #8 Jackson State, 9:00 p.m. (SWAC TV)  

MIssissippi Valley State begins tournament play with Jackson State, and while they ran through the SWAC without much fuss, the Delta Devils' overall record will make them a 16-seed should they get the automatic bid. Paul Crosby, Terrence Joyner and company have taken nearly a third of their shots from beyond the arc this season, and if those shots are falling MVSU is a tough team to beat. Jackson State played them close in both meetings, so the question for tonight is whether or not they have enough to get over the hump. Texas Southern gets the two-seed due to Southern's ineligibility, and they swept Alabama A&M during the regular season with both wins by double digits.