Contenders: The Big West is as balanced as it can possibly get--seven of the league's nine teams finished within three games of league champs Cal St. Northridge and those same top 8 teams all finished with overall records somewhere between Pacific's 17-11 and UC-Davis's 12-18. Combine that balance with the tournament being held at its usual neutral court in Anaheim, and you you can expect some big seeding surprises. Defense-driven Northridge has a surprisingly good Pomeroy mark for a 15-13 mid-major, ranking 107th, but Pacific isn't too far behind them at 109 and it's the Tigers who have the conference's best offense and are a shade hotter, having won three in a row including a seven-point home win over the Matadors. Either one would likely be this year's best bet for the 16-over-1 miracle, though they'll have to get past second-seeded Long Beach. The 49ers have a bye into the semifinals after tying Pacific for third in the league standings, but ranked fourth in league efficiency margin (and at a hardly-inspiring 0) behind the two favorites and +.01 UC-Santa Barbara. The final should come down to Pacific and Northridge.
Prediction: After their two close losses to Pacific in the regular season (one in OT), Northridge proves how hard it is to beat a team three times, taking advantage of their bye to pull away from Pacific late.
Contenders: Seriously, what the hell happened to the MAC this year? Preseason favorites Miami lost their starting point guard in the nonconference slate and it seems like the entire league never recovered, with team after team spitting the bit in the conference race and a disastrous BracketBusters outing confirming what had been suspected all along: this is the worst MAC pretty much ever. But at least it should make for a wildly conference tournament, as Akron and Toledo proved in grand style yesterday in the opening round games. That may be an ill omen for Akron, though: the Zips were arguably the league's most consistent team down the stretch and own the league's best defense and efficiency margin, but winning three more games in three days after slogging past the awful Rockets in overtime looks ... unlikely. Miami still has the conference's best Pomeroy mark, but lost four of their last six with one of the wins coming at home against Bowling Green. Those same Falcons aren't much to look at by the numbers, but they claimed the top seed in the tournament via tiebreaker after grabbing road wins over Akron and Buffalo and a home win over Kent St. down the stretch. Speaking of Buffalo and Kent St., they'll meet tomorrow in a quarterfinal despite having two of the four best efficiency marks in the league. Both have looked like the best team in the conference at times and the Bulls (along with Miami) are the MAC's best hope for avoiding a 15 or 16 seed. Winner gets an overseed Ball St. team in the semifinals and should make the final.
Prediction: Kent didn't look particularly inspiring against Northern Illinois yesterday, so I'll take Buffalo--the conference's best team on the boards--to eliminate the Golden Flashes, surge to the final, and take out whichever of Bowling Green or Miami survives the top half of the bracket.
Contenders: As in 2008, there aren't so much "contenders" as there are Morgan St. and everybody else. Todd Bozeman's Bears rolled through the conference with ease, posting a 13-3 record and winning the title by three games. The question isn't really who might oust the Bears as much as if anyone can when we're talking about a league champ who was .13 better than the next-best team on your average possession. Then again, the top seed has only won this tourney once in the last five years. A few teams Morgan will need to watch out for include Hampton, who went only 8-8 in conference play but had the MEAC's second-best defense and somehow swept Morgan to hand the Bears two of those three conference losses; second-place South Carolina St., who recovered from a mid-season five-game losing streak to win 10 of their final 12; and Norfolk St., who had the second-best offensive performance in league play and only lost by four when they traveled to Morgan in January.
Prediction: After blowing it last year, the second time should be the charm for Morgan St..
Contenders: Actually, in this league, it would be easier to say which of the eight teams that made the field isn't a contender, because five of the eight will arrive at the Katy, TX Merrill Center with legitimate designs on bringing home a bid. Starting at the top of the divisional standings gives us two sides of a coin: Stephen F. Austin has the nation's sixth-best defense according to Pomeroy, but averages only .92 points a possession; Sam Houston St. claimed the league's best efficiency margin behind a Southland-best 1.10 points-a-possession, but only five other teams in the 12-team offensively-challenged league had a worse defense. Nicholls St. and Texas A&M-Corpus Christi went a combined 23-9 on their way to the second and fourth seeds, respectively, though Pomeroy (thumbs down) and their efficiency margins disagree on how dangerous they are. (Speaking of dangerous, the EM calls Southeastern Louisiana, the No. 8 seed and SF Austin's first-round opponent, the fifth-best team in the league. Caution, Lumberjacks!) If you're buying what Pomeroy's selling, though, you also have to pay attention to UT-Arlington: the Mavericks have the third-best mark in the conference in his system, though that 13-point home loss to TAMU-CC to wrap up the season looks pretty foreboding.
Prediction: I'd love to see what a defense-INSANE team like Austin would do in the tournament--if they got matched up with Illinois they could take a crack at bettering that 38-33 thing--but I don't trust their offense to score enough to maneuver through a difficult three-game tournament. I'll take Sam Houston St. instead.
Contenders: Start with Alabama St., who ran away and hid from the bulk of a league that typically stays competitive and balanced into its final few games. The Hornets finished at 16-2, clinched with two games to play, and as you might expect carried the stats-based rankings by a pretty wide margin. It would be a Gonzaga/Memphis/
Prediction: On the one hand, Alabama St. was the first team since Mississippi Valley St. in 2004 to win 16 SWAC games and has the far easier road to the final with Prairie View safely in the other semifinal. Then again 1) that 2004 MVSU team lost their first-round game by a point 2) the Hornets were also the 2008 regular season SWAC champs with a not-so-shabby 15-3 record, and went down in the semifinals 3) over their two games, they outscored Jackson St. by all of three points. So they're not exactly the sort of favorite you want to be the house one. That said, as with Morgan, I think the lessons learned at last year's tournament will come into play at this year's, and the Hornets will go on to the NCAAs as the strongest SWAC representative since the '99 Alcorn St. team that scared Stanford in the first round.
Contenders: Man, I'm not sure if I can remember another mid-major that went 27-4 overall, 14-2 in its conference, and won its league by three games that no one thought would actually win its conference's automatic bid. But that's the case for Utah St., who looked a bit like they'd been wearing the emperor's clothes when they lost to a Mills-less St. Mary's team in BracketBusters and dropped back-to-back WAC roadies at Boise St. and Nevada. Worse, none of those three losses was even in single digits. And so the Aggies come to Reno bringing the nation's 12th-best offense and not an ounce of respect. The consensus favorite is, in fact, tourney host Nevada, who in their final five games of the year beat both the Aggies and newly crowned Colonial champ VCU at home and--even more impressively--took down Boise St. on the road. The Wolf Pack were easily the WAC's second-best team both in the standings and according to the computers. Playing at home, it'll be a surprise if they don't grab the bid. They'll even have the easier semifinal as Boise and New Mexico St.--both of whom had their moments in the regular season, including NMSU's road win in Reno--are both in USU's half of the bracket after weaker Idaho squeezed into the third seed via tiebreaker. The Aggies are going to have to earn it, that's for sure.
Prediction: Utah St. deserves the bid, but after watching them flounder over the past few weeks on the road, I don't have any faith they'll pull it out. I think they'll squeak past NMSU in the semi, but Nevada isn't going to let the bid get away on their home floor.