Friday, March 06, 2009

JCCW championship week previews: America East, CAA, MAAC, WCC

Yes, it's a four-pack of mid-majory, previewy goodness today.


Location, etc.: First three rounds at Albany, championship game at campus of higher seed; all 9 teams involved, bottom two seeds play in for quarterfinals; championship Saturday March 14, 11 a.m., ESPN2.

The Favorite: Binghamton probably isn't the poster child the America East really wants, what with that whole New York Times article about how everyone involved with the basketball team is going to hell (I'm exaggerating ... but only slightly), but right now it looks like it's the poster child the AE is going to get. The Bearcats tied Vermont for the league title at 13-3, and by virtue of a sweep of the Catamounts will host the league title game should they advance that far. 6-4 transfer guard D.J. Rivera is one the league's best and most efficient scorers at 20 points a game and the Bearcats held opponents to a lower eFG than any other defense in the league. If they get through Albany, will anyone beat them on their homecourt?

The Contender: Well, Vermont very well might. The Catamounts lost both ends of the Binghamton series ... but over the two games the difference in regulation equaled all of two points. Both in terms of efficiency margin--where Vermont has the league's best offense and second-best defense--and Pomeroy's ratings, the Catamounts are the best team in the league, and it's not even close. In senior PG Mike Trimboli and two-time league POTY forward Marqus Blakely, Vermont has the best one-two punch in the conference ... if it wasn't for Binghamton holding that tiebreaker and home-court, Vermont would be a heavy favorite to take the bid.

The Darkhorse(s): Boston U. led the league race for stretches in January and February and, like Vermont, can boast better computer numbers than Binghamton; with three players 6-5 or taller in the starting lineup, the Terriers have serious size for this level. They buried Binghamton on the Bearcats' home court by 17, though Vermont also swept them with ease.

No one else seems like a threat to make much of an impact, but Stony Brook's 8-8 league record was a quantum leap forward for them and they've got the league's fourth-best Pomeroy mark.

Prediction: Sorry, Bearcats, but Vermont is just a much better team. The Catamounts should win a tense final.


Location, etc.: All games at Richmond Coliseum; All 12 teams involved, top four seeds get bye to quarterfinals; championship Monday, 7 p.m., ESPN2.

The Favorite: Take your pick amongst George Mason, Northeastern, or VCU, all of which have similar numbers and all of which finished within two games of each other. But the Patriots have a couple of things the others don't in coach Jim Larranaga, easily the league's best coach at getting the most out of his team in March, and the three-headed senior group led by guard John Vaughan--the last remaining holdover from the magic of '04--that's more March-experienced than any other group in the league. Kyle and Michael Litos both refer to GMU as the best all-around team in the league. Isn't that enough?

The Contender(s): It's close, but the numbers and the standings are in agreement (and in disagreement with the experts mentioned above): it's VCU that's the CAA's best team. When I've seen him, Duke-slaying senior PG Eric Maynor has tried to do a little too much ... much it doesn't mean he's not the best player in the league. Thanks in large part to Maynor, VCU both turned the ball over fewer times and forced more turnovers than any other team in CAA play. Northeastern posted the league's best nonconference win when they won at Providence, and the Huskies' patient, sharp-shooting offense (1st in "true" shooting percentage in the league) helped them to a 10-1 start. The Huskies faltered down the stretch--losing four of their last five CAA contests dropped them into a tie for third with Old Dominion--but if their slow style drags one of the other two favorites into a tight 55-54 kind of game, NU could shoot their way to the bid.

The Darkhorse: Old Dominion doesn't look so good by certain measurements, but after their 4-5 start, the Monarchs ripped off nine wins in their last 10 including wins over all three of the league leaders. In 6-10 center Gerald Lee, ODU will have arguably the best big man in the tourney.

Prediction: How awesome would a pair of semifinals matching up VCU vs. ODU and Mason vs. Northeastern? Unbelievably awesome. But in the end, Jim Larranaga is Jim Larranaga. I'll take George Mason.


Location, etc.: All games at Siena; all 10 teams included, bottom four playing into quarterfinals; championship Monday, 9 p.m., ESPN2.

The Favorite: Siena won last year's league and league tournament, won this year's league by two full games with a 16-2 record, and will be playing on the home court where they haven't lost yet this year. Also, they have the Player and Coach and Sixth Man of the year in the MAAC. Yeah, I think they're the favorites.

The Contender: Of course, in any other league of the MAAC's stature, Siena would be heavy favorites. But unfortunately for them they share a conference Niagara. The Purple Eagles have a backcourt and starting five (Benn! Egemonye! Lewis! Garrison!) every bit as experienced and potent as Siena's and have every bit as much approval from the computer ratings as the Saints. And, oh yeah, they destroyed the Saints at home last week. Siena vs. Niagara should be one of the--if not the--best-played and most competitive conference finals of all Championship Week. I'm already tingly with excitement, I swear.

The Darkhorse(s): Rider tripped up both the league heavies at home, beating Siena by 2 and Niagara by 3, but they'll be hard-pressed to repeat those accomplishments away from Lawrenceville--their efficiency margin in MAAC play was barely over zero. Still, if any team's going to screw up the dream final, it's these guys.

Prediction: If this tournament was being held on a neutral court, or even if Siena had shown the slightest bit of vulnerability at home, I'd take the Purps. But aside from a fluky-looking one-point win over Iona, Siena hasn't even been challenged in Albany since the New Year--including their 17-point drubbing of the Eagles. I expect the MAAC final to be a lot closer, but Siena should take it.


Location, etc.: All games in Las Vegas; all 8 teams included, in a bracket it's easier for me to just show you than try to explain; championship Monday, 9 p.m., ESPN.

The Favorite: Gonzaga wrapped up yet another perfect season in WCC play last week and has everything but the motivation: in Daye, Bouldin, Heyvelt, and Pargo, the Zags have more professional prospects in their starting lineup than most mid-major leagues have in their entire conferences. Their efficiency margin of +.28 is the largest one in the country, even more dominant than Memphis's in CUSA. Until we see Patty Mills healthy and back to normal, the Zags are the overwhelming favorite. Of course ...

The Contender: ... if Mills had stayed healthy, maybe we're talking right now about how St. Mary's is the WCC favorite. The Gaels--as you've no doubt heard by now--were just about whipping Gonzaga in Spokane when Mills broke his wrist. If Mills is his normal self, even the Zags don't have a trio of players as savvy and productive as Mills, Omar Samhan, and Diamon Simpson. It all rests of Mills's wrist, and if it's intact, even on paper the matchup is a toss-up.

The Darkhorse(s): Weird things have happened in the WCC tourney over the years where desperate also-rans have run into less desperate Gonzaga teams. So don't rule out long-downtrodden Portland, a solid No. 107 to Pomeroy and possessors of a better nonconference win--vs. Washington--than anything Gonzaga managed. Santa Clara will also have a chance at anyone in the field as long as man-mountain John Bryant--the nation's No. 1 defensive rebounder and arguably the nation's best rebounder, period--can avoid foul trouble.

Prediction: It's hard to really project what will happen with Mills, but with the tournament held on a neutral site and the bid meaning far, far more to the field than to Gonzaga, the hunch here is that the Zags won't take the bid ... leaving it to St. Mary's, who were competitive with Gonzaga even when they didn't have Mills's services.

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