Tuesday March 9th, 2010

The most poignant scenes of conference tournament season typically involve plucky clubs from small conferences that have played their way into a shot at NCAA tournament glory. Those moments can be magical, especially for the supporters of those schools, but they're not where the bulk of the NCAA tournament bracket is forged.

That shaping and fitting comes this week when the bigger boys take the stage. There will be dozens of games over the next six days that will heavily impact both the seeding and bubble pictures for the final bracket, plus there could be a bid thief or two to really mix things up.

Here's a primer to all of the major-conference tournament action:

Thursday, March 11-Sunday, March 14 (Greensboro Coliseum, Greensboro, N.C.)

The pick: Duke, in part because the event is in Greensboro and the Blue Devils rarely lose there (or home/neutral, in general). The other part is they have performed significantly better statistically in ACC play than any team other than Maryland, and Duke's league defense has been much better overall than the Terps'. According to statsheet.com, Duke is +0.18 PPP in ACC play and Maryland is second at +0.10.

Darkhorse: According to teamrankings.com, Duke or Maryland wins the event three out of every four times. Frankly, that feels a bit low given the season's stats, but I agree with their nominal third choice, which is Virginia Tech. The Hokies showed some road chops by winning at Georgia Tech and are playing a better quality of basketball at the moment than most of the other logical contenders.

Deep sleeper(s): None that are really intriguing. Not sure if Clemson qualifies. Georgia Tech has the most to play for, but after going 1-7 away in ACC play, it's hard to see them finding a way to go deep.

Player(s) to watch: Virginia Tech's Malcolm Delaney is an underhyped scoring machine for the Hokies who was a unanimous first-team all-ACC pick. Usually, as he goes, so goes VT. Georgia Tech needs more from big man Gani Lawal, who averaged just 11.5 points and 4.5 rebounds during Tech's 1-3 league finish. Maryland's Greivis Vasquez (who should be league player of the year) and Duke's Jon Scheyer and, maybe more importantly, Kyle Singler are other bellwethers.

Bubble/bracket games of note: Georgia Tech has a must-win 7-10 game against North Carolina in which it will be at a pronounced crowd disadvantage. The Jackets very well must also beat Maryland in a quarterfinal game should they handle the Heels. The rest of the league looks just about safe after Wake beat Clemson on Sunday night.

Tuesday, March 9-Saturday, March 13 (Madison Square Garden, New York, N.Y.)

The pick: Syracuse, the regular-season conference champ that rolled to a 15-3 league mark and is the best team in the conference. The Orange can't see Louisville, which swept them, until the title game. A quarterfinal against Georgetown could be sticky, but a potential semi against Villanova is a huge personnel mismatch (as seen in the game at Syracuse two weeks ago).

Darkhorse: Georgetown is talented enough to win the event, but inconsistent enough to lose to South Florida in its first game. The Bulls think they can make the NCAAs with another win or two and will be dangerous on Wednesday.

Deep sleeper(s): It could have been UConn, had the Huskies bothered to show up Tuesday against St. John's. Now that they're gone, it's time to watch Seton Hall, which spent 30 minutes pasting Providence before having to hold on for dear life in the first round. Now SHU gets Notre Dame and would then get Pitt, both of which Seton Hall beat this season at home.

Player(s) to watch: South Florida's Dominique Jones could be the key that unlocks the NCAA tournament for the Bulls. Also, watch for how Georgetown's Austin Freeman continues to come back from his health issues and which Samardo Samuels shows up for Louisville.

Bubble/bracket games of note: Wednesday's 8-9 game between South Florida and Georgetown is huge for USF. The 7-10 game between Seton Hall and Notre Dame could be a "win-and-in" for both teams while leaving the loser in very precarious shape. Syracuse appears locked in as a No. 1 seed for the NCAAs. Can West Virginia join the Orange with a BET title? Villanova is still fighting to stay on the 2-seed line.

Wednesday, March 10-Saturday, March 13 (Sprint Center, Kansas City, Mo.)

The pick: Kansas. No reason to go against the best team in the conference (and the country). The Jayhawks nearly went undefeated in the regular season and don't have to play at Gallagher-Iba again. Plus, the Jayhawks, as the 1-seed, get a primo draw in what's essentially a seven-team league. They have the only "easy" quarterfinal and K-State, Baylor, Texas and Oklahoma State are all on the other side of the bracket. KU would likely face Texas A&M or Missouri in a semifinal.

Darkhorse: Texas A&M, which is in the better side of the bracket, would be favored to beat Missouri in the quarters and gave Kansas everything it wanted in College Station in February.

Deep sleeper(s): There isn't one. The chance of a team outside the top seven winning it, according to teamrankings.com, is 0.32 percent, or roughly once every 300 times. Oklahoma State would be the least likely winner of the top seven, but the Cowboys' draw is not favorable.

Player(s) to watch: If you haven't seen much of Big 12 Player of the Year James Anderson, tune in, because he's a treat to watch. The ongoing evolution of Kansas' Xavier Henry could be important for the next tournament on tap. Baylor's LaceDarius Dunn may be the Bears' best player, but the most important could be Ekpe Udoh, who provides an interior anchor. Oh, yeah, and KU's Sherron Collins is really good.

Bubble/bracket games of note: Oklahoma State can't be thrilled to draw Oklahoma in a first-round "nothing to gain/a lot to lose" matchup. The Cowboys probably are OK regardless, but a loss there wouldn't be a great idea. Beyond that, K-State, Baylor and Texas A&M are playing for protected seeding of various calibers. Baylor-Texas is a loaded potential quarterfinal.

Thursday, March 11-Sunday, March 14 (Conseco Fieldhouse, Indianapolis, Ind.)

The pick: Flip a couple of coins and go with Ohio State, although Michigan State could have the semifinal break of drawing hobbled Purdue. With Evan Turner, the Buckeyes have been the most consistently good team in the league. Any of the top four could win it, though, with a couple of good days.

Darkhorse: There's no real evidence any outsider can win this. While teamrankings.com gives "the field" a six percent chance of taking the auto bid, that actually feels high.

Deep sleeper(s): None, unless you want to consider Penn State beating Minnesota in the 6-11 game as a sleeper pick. The Nittany Lions have been flat-out unlucky statistically this season.

Player(s) to watch: The notables are very notable ... Ohio State's Evan Turner, Michigan State's Kalin Lucas, Purdue's Robbie Hummel ... oh wait. Make that Purdue's E'Twaun Moore, Illinois' Demitri McCamey and Wisconsin's Trevon Hughes and Jon Leuer. It will be very interesting to see how Illinois and McCamey come out after Sunday's sideline tempest with coach Bruce Weber.

Bubble/bracket games of note: Illinois now almost certainly has to win its quarterfinal against Wisconsin to make the NCAAs. Minnesota may need the auto bid, but the Gophers need to at least make the final. Ohio State is in play for the final 1-seed in the NCAAs. Purdue is looking to impress and hold on to a high seed without Hummel. Michigan State and Wisconsin are jousting for seeding and potential placement in the Milwaukee subregional.

Wednesday, March 10-Saturday, March 13 (Staples Center, Los Angeles, Calif.)

The pick: Washington. There will be upsets in some of these events, so why not roll the dice on the Huskies, who are peaking at the right time in a league where no one has stood out all season. They just won three in a row on the road to improve their mood away from Hec Ed. They also have the second best efficiency margin in league play (+0.08 PPP) after Cal's +0.12.

Darkhorse: It would have been USC, but the Trojans are not eligible. From the remaining options, what about Arizona? The Wildcats are fourth in the league in PPP margin and beat Washington and Cal at home this season.

Deep sleeper(s): Can't get much deeper (or more asleep) than Washington State, which somehow managed to fade to a last-place finish. That said, Washington State certainly can get past Oregon in the 8-9 game and that would put the Cougars against Cal, a team they have played very tough twice this season. An upset there, and the Arizona-UCLA winner is in the soft side of the semis. Stranger things have happened...

Player(s) to watch: If Wazzu makes any noise, it will be because of Klay Thompson. Cal's Jerome Randle and Washington's Quincy Pondexter are obvious stars. The biggest X-factor may be Arizona State's Rihards Kuksiks, who can explode from the arc on occasion. He dropped 27 on Washington earlier this season, but struggled badly in both Cal games.

Bubble/bracket games of note: The potential Arizona State-Washington semifinal is an NCAA elimination bout. The winner of that game will have to see where things stand and who the final opponent is to gauge the chances of an at-large with a title-game loss. Cal would be wise to keep winning, as well. No one should be higher than an 8- or 9-seed in the NCAAs. See SEC 2009, but worse.

Thursday, March 11-Sunday, March 14 (Bridgestone Arena, Nashville, Tenn.)

The pick: If actual money was at stake, Kentucky's the choice. For the sake of something different, take Vanderbilt. Vandy has the far easier draw, staying away from Tennessee and Mississippi in addition to being on the other side from Kentucky. Also, the tournament is in Nashville. Vandy lost by a deuce at home to Kentucky a couple weeks ago, so the 'Dores know they can play with the Cats.

Darkhorse: From a quality standpoint, it's Mississippi, which quietly has found some form and has the guard play to make things very difficult on you. The Rebels went 0-4 against the top of the East division, but the losses were by two (in OT), three, four and 10.

Unfortunately, Ole Miss has a really rough draw, starting with a possible quarterfinal against Tennessee, so the team poised to make more noise may be Florida. Yes, the Gators easily could find a way to lose their first-round game, but they're drawn with Mississippi State in the quarters and then potentially Vandy instead of Tennessee or Kentucky in the semis.

Deep sleeper: Not sure there's really one here, but rolling the dice with Arkansas making a hailstorm of 3s for a weekend isn't the worst choice. The Hogs also are on the weaker side of the bracket.

Player(s) to watch: If there's a last-second shot to be taken and it's not John Wall, it's Florida's Chandler Parsons. If it's a last-second shot-block needed, it's all-time NCAA leader Jarvis Varnado from Mississippi State. And if it's 15 3s in a row you need, it's Arkansas' 3-point sniper Rotnei Clarke. Vandy's Jermaine Beal and Kentucky's DeMarcus Cousins should be significant forces, as well.

Bubble/bracket games of note: A possible Florida-Mississippi State quarterfinal is a clear NCAA elimination game. Mississippi also likely needs to beat Tennessee (assuming the Vols win their opener) in the quarters to have any real at-large hopes. Kentucky is going to be a 1-seed in the NCAAs, so Vandy and Tennessee are the only teams playing solely for seed/location.

Tuesday, March 9, Friday March, 12-Sunday, March 14 (First round on campus; Boardwalk Hall, Atlantic City, N.J.)

The pick: Xavier. Logic says favor top-seeded Temple, with the easier side of the bracket, the experience of having won the last two A-10 tourneys and the short trip/local crowd in Atlantic City. The Musketeers, though, have the league's most efficient offense and a better overall efficiency margin than the Owls.

Darkhorse: Rhode Island. The Rams have a very reasonable draw, getting No. 4-seed Saint Louis after brushing aside Saint Joe's in the first round. In the semis, they'd likely face Temple, which URI took to OT at home.

Deep sleeper: This one's easy: Dayton. All season, the Flyers won blowouts and lost close games, leading to an 8-8 league mark with a +0.10 PPP margin. By comparison, Richmond went 13-3 with a +0.11 margin and Saint Louis was 11-5 with a +0.03. If Dayton can find three days where it puts it all together and/or executes in the final two minutes, the Flyers could steal the auto-bid. As the 7-seed, the potential to have to beat all three heavyweights -- Xavier, then Richmond, then Temple -- is there, but Dayton's just as talented as those teams.

Player(s) to watch: There are a lot of good ones in this league. League Player of the Year Kevin Anderson and backcourt mate David Gonzalvez are the engines that make Richmond run. Xavier's Jordan Crawford is a star. Dayton's Chris Wright is an NBA athlete in an evolving player. Temple's Lavoy Allen is an underhyped double-double force for the Owls.

Bubble/bracket games of note: The top three are playing for protected seeding and location in the NCAAs. The quarterfinal round also will feature Dayton-Xavier and Rhode Island-Saint Louis, with both games having huge bubble implications. Richmond also gets a potential break, drawing UMass rather than Charlotte in its quarterfinal after the Minutemen surprised the 49ers in Charlotte Tuesday night.

Wednesday, March 10-Saturday, March 13 (Thomas & Mack Center, Las Vegas, Nev.)

The pick: BYU. This goes against conventional wisdom, which notes that New Mexico beat the Cougars twice, won the league, had the better nonconference wins and avoids tourney host UNLV until the final. I'll counter with noting that BYU's league efficiency margin (+0.22 PPP) was double New Mexico's. The Lobos actually tied with San Diego State at +0.11 in the double round-robin and were behind UNLV's +0.15. In layman's terms, New Mexico was (statistically) lucky to win the league, and did so in part because BYU's Jimmer Fredette was incapacitated for the showdown in Provo. Both teams are excellent, though.

(Sneaky subplot: Host team UNLV drew Utah, a team that swept the Rebels in the regular season, in the quarterfinals. It's exceedingly possible that BYU would draw Utah, not the Rebels, in a semi.)

Darkhorse: San Diego State. The Aztecs are pushing to be the league's fourth team in the NCAAs and have played well against New Mexico, the likely semifinal opponent. SDSU won by 10 at home and lost by two in OT in Albuquerque.

Deep sleeper(s): None. It would be shocking if anyone other than the top four won this thing. It's fairly likely all four top teams will make the semifinals.

Player(s) to watch: BYU's Jimmer Fredette is the best player in the conference, but BYU's ultimate upside might depend on Jonathan Tavernari's stroke. Then again, New Mexico's Darington Hobson is one of the best players that doesn't get a ton of national love. Tre'Von Willis is the go-to guy for the homestanding Rebels.

Bubble/bracket games of note: San Diego State-New Mexico could be an NCAA elimination game for the Aztecs. It doesn't appear that BYU could pass New Mexico for West priority in the NCAAs, but winning the tournament is the only possible path there. UNLV looks set to dance, but it would be nice if the Rebels would beat Utah once in three tries this season.

Thursday, March 11-Saturday, March 13 (Lawlor Events Center, Reno, Nev.)

The pick: Utah State. The Aggies are the best team in the conference and have won 15 straight to close out the season. They also avoid host Nevada until the final and draw the softer semifinal pairing.

Darkhorse: Nevada, the tournament host. At home during the regular season, the Wolf Pack beat New Mexico State and Louisiana Tech and lost to Utah State in overtime. That was their only conference loss at home.

Deep sleeper: Louisiana Tech has the athletes to create a stir if the Bulldogs capture their best form for a couple of days. They crushed potential semifinal foe Utah State in Ruston, La. and lost by six in a tough game in Logan, Utah.

Player(s) to watch: The league's best player is Nevada's Luke Babbitt. Tai Wesley is nominally Utah State's most crucial piece. Kyle Gibson and Magnum Rolle provide a high-major-quality 1-2 punch for Louisiana Tech. Jahmar Young and Jonathan Gibson comprise a potent scoring backcourt for New Mexico State. Fresno State forward Paul George has NBA potential (and is shooting an incredible 90.6 percent from the line).

Bubble/bracket games of note: From a bubble standpoint, it's how deep can Utah State get. If the Aggies make the finals, they probably will have done enough, but nothing's ever certain in this league.

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