Tuesday, March 03, 2009

JCCW Championship Week previews: the first three

Auburn content coming up next post, pinky swear.

Git r done, Done Ruthless.

"Championship Week" is quite a fine name as it goes, but if we're trying to encompass the entirety of the NCAA hoops postseason between now and Selection Sunday, it's time to start to calling it Championship Fortnight, because--wonder of wonders--that postseason is already here. The Ohio Valley, Horizon, and my former beloved the Big South all tip their conference tourneys off tonight, and by this time tomorrow 12 teams will no longer be playing basketball in the 2008-2009 season. Now, folks, it's real.

Over the next couple of days I'm going to be previewing every mid-major conference taking part in Championship Fortnight (the Ivy, you'll no doubt recall, abstains from such undignified, pagan rituals). For further resources, I suggest you check out Awful Announcing's Championship Week TV schedule and the Bracket Board's indispensable One Stop Shop for all the tourney brackets you'll need.

We'll start with the three leagues that start today.


Location, etc.: First round at campus of higher seed, semifinals at regular season champ, final at highest remaining seed; only top eight (of 9 eligible) advance to tourney; championship Saturday, 4 p.m., ESPN2.

The Favorite: VMI's gotten the lion's share of the league's media attention this season, what with the Kentucky upset, the Holmes twins features, and the "Loyola-Marymount circa the Bo Kimble days" pace. But it's Radford that's been the league's best team since conference play began, and not by a small margin: the Highlanders won the league by two games, own the BSC's best Pomeroy rating (after trailing far, far behind VMI and Liberty at the end of the nonconference slate), and boast the conference player of the year in Belarussian giant Artsiom Parakhouski. The 6-11, 260-pound monster averaged a 16-and-11 double-double, ranks in Pomeroy's top-50 in rebounding on both ends of the floor, and was most recently seen pouring in 39 on 15-of-19 shooting in Radford's meaningless season-ending loss to Liberty. (Oh, he also had 19 rebounds). As the top seed in the Big South, Radford will also get the bonus of playing on their home floor for as long as they stay alive.

The Contender: After winning at Rupp Arena and on the home floors of both Radford and Liberty (by a combined 52 points!), the prospect of navigating the Big South tourney away from Lexington won't bother VMI all that much. The Keydets won't last if it gets dragged down into even a moderately-paced game--at No. 16 in the country in positive luck, the Keydets are due to lose any close shaves, and their horrendous FG defense means it's turnovers-or-die on that end--but when both Holmeses and freshman Keith Gabriel are on, they're also the only team in the tournament that could run everyone else clean out of the gym.

The Darkhorse(s): Liberty boasts the league's second-best Pomeroy mark, the Freshman of the Year in Seth "Yes, I'm His Little Brother, Go Away" Curry, the conference's best top-to-bottom nonconference performance, and road wins at both VMI and Radford. They looked like a great sleeper bet right up until a week ago, when they played host to the Keydets and absorbed a 109-72 thrashing. Of course, they turned right around from that and won at Radford--making even boom-or-bust VMI the league's second-most schizophrenic team.

No one else here looks capable of making a title run, but don't be surprised if one of the also-rans pulls off a road stunner at one of the top three teams tonight--the Big South has seen a ton of quarterfinals upsets over the past few seasons.

The Prediction: When the top three teams in the league have gone a collective 0-6 against each other playing at home and the tournament host's three league losses all came at their own place, it's safe to say that home-court advantage doesn't carry a lot of weight. So I like whichever of VMI or Liberty can get hot to upset the Highlanders for the bid ... but which one will get hot? In Pomeroy and VMI's wretched, March-unfriendly defense I trust: the guess here is that Liberty rises to the big-game occasion the way they have all year (wins vs. Virginia, George Mason) and steals the title. (This, of course, dooms them to a loss against Gardner-Webb tonight.)


Location, etc.: Quarterfinals at campus of higher seed, semifinals/finals in Nashville; top 8 (of 10) advance to tourney; championship Saturday, 7 p.m., ESPN2.

The Favorite: There's not much to decide between Murray St. and Tennessee-Martin, but when the latter has the league crown (by a game) and arguably the best player and best nickname in all mid-majordom in Lester "Done Ruthless" Hudson, they've got to be the favorite. Hudson, as you probably know, is an absolute machine--points, assists, steals, boards, arean organ-playing, etc. Though the Skyhawks also have their own budding Jason Richards to Hudson's Curry in junior Delrico Lane, who leads the team in dimes and racked up 17 in Martin's final two regular-season games.

The Contender: Murray St. started their OVC slate at 3-4 but finished it on a 10-1 tear in which the only loss was a three-point drop at Austin Peay. Included in that streak was a decisive 74-59 home win over Martin, far and away the worst defeat of the Skyhawk's conference season. Boasting the league's best defense at .93 points a possession, the league's No.1 Pomeory rating by a smidge (129 to 132), and more momentum than any team in the field, the Racers have every right to think they're actually the team to beat.

Darkhorse(s): While the rest of the league has fallen far off the pace of the front-runners in terms of computer ratings and per-possession efficiency, Austin Peay took the tournament's second seed after tying Murray in the OVC standings and after leading the league for much of the season Morehead State finished only two games behind Martin. But with both those teams faltering down the stretch--Morehead has lost four in a row, while Peay lost five of eight before closing with two of the league's bottom three teams--it's more likely the top two will be challenged by hard-rising Tennessee St., winners of six straight since their controversial coaching change, or Eastern Kentucky, owners of both the league's best offense according to Pomeroy and nonconference wins over MAC contenders Akron and Ohio.

Prediction: From here, it looks like the Skyhawks and Racers are on a collision course for what should be a championship game to rival the OVC's other recent classics.* Sizing the two teams up makes it look like an utter coinflip--meaning I'll take the team with the future NBA player going 40 full minutes with the bid on the line. Give me Martin.


Location, etc. All 10 teams included; top two seeds get byes into semifinals, other eight teams play two rounds to fill other two semifinal slots; first round on campus at higher seed, second round and semifinals at No. 1 seed, championship at highest remaining seed (No, it doesn't get any more complicated than this--ed.); championship Tuesday, 9 p.m., ESPN

The Favorite: I don't really have to write any more about Butler, do I? I'll just say this--even in a league as deep as the Horizon, the Bulldogs were a full half-point per-possession better in conference play than anyone else in the league.

The Contender(s): Take your pick, folks. UW-Green Bay, who beat Butler by 9 at home on Jan. 22 and has the league's best offense by a mile? Cleveland St., who were within four points of sweeping the Bulldogs and can match anyone in the conference pound-for-pound? Or Wright St., the best defenders in a league chock-ful of them, allowing just .90 points-per-defensive possession in league play? All three are in Pomeroy's top 100 and all three could walk away with the bid if they can just find a little offense (in Cleveland or Wright's cases) or a little defense (in UWGB's).

The Darkhorse: Past the very-similarly-profiled teams above, there's not much, but Illinois-Chicago did beat Northern Iowa and Vanderbilt out-of-conference, so there's some talent (and danger for likely second-round for Cleveland) there.

Prediction: This league was the opposite of the Big South--none of the Wright-Cleveland-UWGB triumvirate won a road game either at each other or at Butler. But it doesn't mean it can't be done--witness lowly Loyola-Chicago's win at Hinkle Fieldhouse, or Cleveland's brave assault on the Butler fortress last Saturday. The guess here is that end-of-season desperation will give one of the chasers just enough of an edge to trip up the bid-assured Bulldogs. So which one? I don't think it's Wright--just not enough offense there. Of the other two, it's Cleveland who's just a shade hotter--although it's thanks in part to a cushy schedule, the Vikes had won eight straight until that two-point loss at Hinkle. I think the next time, Cleveland St. gets over the top and makes the HL a two-bid league.

All times are EST, by the way.

*The OVC has been decided by buzzer-beaters twice this decade already--so why can't I find anything on YouTube? Someone somewhere is asleep at the wheel.

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