Thursday, March 08, 2007

Belly buttons, excuses, and ...

Opinions. Everyone who follows college hoops at all’s got one these days. (They also have Winthrop pegged as their tournament sleeper. All of them.) Opinions on who gets in, who should get in, who’s got a Sweet 16 run in them, who’s got a Final Four run in them, whether South Carolina will get a chance for their unprecedented third consecutive NIT championship … it’s just one giant water cooler in college hoop these days. (As an aside, I’m going to watch every minute I can of the NBA playoffs. But the hot topics in NBA-land right now? Next year’s free-agent class and the top centers of all time. What a brutal ass-kicking. The Association needs to cut its regular season in half, honestly.)

The JCCW’s got ‘em too, of course. Here they are, with just three days to go to Selection Sunday:

Missouri St. had their chances. An underrated method of evaluating NCAA candidacies is a team’s record against teams in the at-large field. (Well, I don’t know if it’s underrated. I don’t know if it gets discussed by the Committee or not. But it should be.) The Bears’ 12-6 record in the MoVal is costume jewelry--looks nice, but with Bradley’s and Wichita’s demise none of those 12 wins is over a serious at-large candidate. Following the Bears’ (admittedly terrific) neutral-court win over Wisconsin in November, they’ve had six chances against at-large quality teams, three at home and one on a neutral court—and lost every one of them. Twice to SIU, thrice to Creighton, once to Winthrop. Much as I would love to see another MVC team at the expense of mediocrities like Purdue or Florida St., especially after the Bears got the snub from the Worst Committee Ever last season, those teams have taken advantage of at least one or two of their opportunities. The Bears haven't. They're toast.

This is the best Championship Week in memory. Can’t say “Best C-Week Ever,” since I don’t really remember the ones from my junior high years well enough. But the Big South, OVC, Horizon, MAAC, Mid-Con, Colonial, and NEC have all produced outstanding games while the Sun Belt, MoVal, SoCon, and Big Sky have been competitive or slightly better than that. The Atlantic Sun (boo!) has tossed up the only clunker, and that was just because Belmont was so hot they could have thrown a camel through the eye of a needle, figuratively speaking. And Holy Cross-Bucknell is next up. It’s only going to get better.

Neither Purdue nor Illinois deserve bids. Drexel does. The best wins RPI-wise for both the Big 10’s bubble boys are identical—Indiana and Michigan St., neither of which is nearly as good as beating, oh, either Creighton or Villanova on the road. Sure, Purdue has also beaten Virginia (and Illinois) so they’re a notch ahead of the Illini, but Drexel will see those wins (both at home) with a road win over Syracuse and raise them with road wins over Hofstra, St. Joseph’s, and a half-dozen other decent teams. Bottom line: Drexel has six road wins over the RPI top 100. Purdue and Illinois have zero combined. It’s not even close.

For whatever reason, the NIT auto-bid policy has resulted in better tourney performance from mid-major favorites. No clue why this is the case—maybe the NIT bid removes the slightest bit of win-or-you-get-jack pressure?—but it is. Since the NIT decided last season to award auto-bids to any regular-season champ that didn’t make the NCAAs, precisely two mid-major conferences have sent less than their most dangerous team or an equally dangerous team to the Tournament. Those conferences are the 2006 MEAC, won by play-in fodder Hampton, and this year’s MAAC, which saw Marist go down in the semis. (You could make a case for this year’s Sun Belt, won by the five-seed North Texas, but regular season champ South Alabama was in total collapse by the end.) The upshot is that solid teams like 2006 Oral Roberts ends up as a 16 and 2007 Weber State—regular-season and tournament champs of the RPI No. 24 conference—can get projected into the play-in game. And the up-upshot is that a team like Northwestern St. can bring the long-thought extinct 14-over-3 upset back into the tourney. So, yeah, the JCCW’s more than a little pleased with this development.

No one knows how good Butler is anymore. On the one hand: Butler went 3-4 in their final seven DI games and won one of those three in overtime on some questionable calls. It’s not exactly a record that screams “future NCAA success.” On the other hand: three of those four losses came down to the wire, and they came to a) a very good and well-coached Wright St. team on the road b) the RPI No. 6 team in the country c) a decent Loyola-IL team with arguably the conference’s best player, again on the road d) Wright St. again, again on the road. None of those come close to being “bad losses”—in fact, taken individually, each falls under the category of “perfectly explainable losses.” So is Butler an overrated, tired, peaked-too-early bust waiting to happen? Or are they the same team that rose as high as a 3-seed in bracket projections, just with an ill-timed stretch of bad luck and feeling a target on their back that won't be there next week? Who knows? We won’t until the Tournament, and anyone who tells you they know otherwise is lying.

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