Conference tourney previews (Part 2 of 2)

HoopsHD is getting prepared for the greatest month of the year with a 2-part preview of every single conference tourney in the nation. Jon Teitel kicked it off last week with his predictions for the 1st 13 conference tourneys (http://hoopshd.com/2019/03/04/conference-tourney-previews-part-1-of-2-4), and now he is ready to reveal his picks concerning the 19 other conference tourneys this week.

AAC tourney predicted champ: Houston (#1 seed)
Dates: March 14-17
Location: Memphis, TN
Last year’s tourney champ: Cincinnati (#1 seed)
Fun fact: 4 different champs in 5 years that tourney has existed
Seeding: 4 of past 5 champs were top-2 seed

Houston’s dominant season cannot be understated: 29-2 with a 4-PT loss at Temple and a 5-PT home loss to UCF. Coach Kelvin Sampson lost 2 senior starters from last year’s 27-win team in Rob Gray/Devin Davis but has not lost a step while leading the school to an outright conference title for the 1st time since the glory days of Phi Slamma Jamma. JR G Armoni Brooks came off the bench last year as conference 6th Man of the Year but joined the starting lineup this year and has partnered with Corey Davis to form 1 of the best backcourt tandems in the country.

ACC tourney predicted champ: Virginia (#1 seed)
Dates: March 12-16
Location: Charlotte, NC
Last year’s tourney champ: Virginia (#1 seed)
Fun fact: 6 different champs in past 7 years (after only Duke/North Carolina for previous 7 years)
Seeding: 13 of past 14 champs were top-3 seed

History says that a top-3 seed will win this tourney, and when each of the top-3 seeds are also top-5 teams in the nation then you have multiple #1 seeds in the NCAA tourney at stake as well. The X-factor is the right knee of Zion Williamson: when healthy he is 2-0 against Virginia (while the rest of the nation is 0-28 against the Cavaliers), but when injured his teammates came THIS CLOSE to losing at home to Wake Forest. Duke and UNC might get some home cooking in Charlotte but the defending ACC champ proved that it can win anywhere back in mid-February when it became 1 of 2 visiting teams to win in Chapel Hill this year. Coach Tony Bennett’s team has waited 12 long months to prove to everyone that they can win games in March, and with an adjusted offensive/defensive efficiency that are each top-3 in the nation they have shown they can get it done on both ends of the court.

A-10 tourney predicted champ: VCU (#1 seed)
Dates: March 13-17
Location: Brooklyn, NY
Last year’s tourney champ: Davidson (#3 seed)
Fun fact: 8 different champs in past 9 years
Seeding: each of past 5 champs were #3-5 seed

This tourney has not been kind to #1 seeds in the past but in this instance VCU is so far above the rest of the pack that it should be able to rewrite history. The Rams started 7-4 overall this season and lost consecutive conference road games in January, but have been perfect ever since then by winning 12 in a row to finish the regular season. Coach Mike Rhoades’ squad was perfectly mediocre in his 1st season as the head man in Richmond last year at 18-15, but they are peaking at the right time in year #2 thanks to a top-5 national ranking in adjusted defensive efficiency. If you doubt their coach’s ability to win games in March, may I remind you that this year marks the 25th anniversary of him winning the 1994 D-3 title as a player at Lebanon Valley. I do not know what is more amazing: that they are winning so much despite being 1 of the worst 3-PT shooting teams in the nation (30.6%) or that they are remaining so focused despite not having a single senior in the starting lineup.

Big East tourney predicted champ: Xavier (#4 seed)
Dates: March 13-16
Location: New York, NY
Last year’s tourney champ: Villanova (#2 seed)
Fun fact: Villanova has been in title game each of past 4 years (3 double-digits wins and 2-PT loss to Seton Hall)
Seeding: 7 of past 9 champs were not #1 seed

Butler finally won a Big East tourney game in 2018: stop the presses! Moving on, I cannot recall ever seeing both of the top-2 seeds in a conference tourney play worse down the stretch: #1 seed Villanova started conference play 10-0 before losing 5 straight road games over the past month (including a double-digit loss at Xavier on 2/24) and #2 seed Marquette squandering a 23-4 start through late-February by going 0-4 to finish the regular season. Therefore, let’s pick a team that lost 6 straight conference games in January/February before getting hot at the right time by winning 6 of its final 7 to capture the #4 seed. Coach Travis Steele has had some serious growing pains during his 1st year at head coach in Cincinnati, but few teams have had as many resume-boosters during the past month: home wins over Creighton/Villanova, road wins at Providence/Seton Hall, and a sweep of St. John’s (with both wins by double-digits). That being said, if Naji Marshall’s ankle injury keeps him off the floor then this could be a very quick trip to Madison Square Garden.

Big Sky tourney predicted champ: Northern Colorado (#2 seed)
Dates: March 11-16
Location: Boise, ID
Last year’s tourney champ: Montana (#1 seed)
Fun fact: Montana has been in title game 7 times in past 9 years (4 wins and 3 losses by single digits)
Seeding: 7 of past 8 champs were #1 seed

Montana and Northern Colorado separated themselves from the rest of the league so it is likely that 1 of these 2 will win it all. Had I made this pick in late-February then Montana’s 10-game winning streak at the time would have been a no-brainer. However, the defending champ has dropped a pair of games since then (including a 2-PT loss at home to the Bears on 2/25), which raises at least an orange flag. Coach Jeff Linder lost 2018 CIT MVP Andre Spight off last year’s roster but still starts 3 juniors/1 senior.  That veteran leadership has paid dividends by winning 10 of their final 13 (with 1 loss by 3 PTS and 2 other losses in OT).

Big 10 tourney predicted champ: Wisconsin (#4 seed)
Dates: March 13-17
Location: Chicago, IL
Last year’s tourney champ: Michigan (#5 seed)
Fun fact: only 5 teams to play in title game during past 7 years are Michigan/Michigan State/Ohio State/Purdue/Wisconsin
Seeding: 5 of past 6 champs were not #1 seed

It is hard to pick against a team that swept Michigan but despite that fantastic feat I just do not trust the Spartans due to all of their recent injuries, especially in a conference tourney setting where they have to win multiple games in a row without any rest in between. Assuming the 13-loss Buckeyes do not have any more Wessons on the roster that we are unaware of, that leaves our options as Michigan/Purdue/Wisconsin. Charles Matthews has played poorly in 3 of the Wolverines’ 4 losses in which he did play (15 PTS combined against Wisconsin/Iowa/Michigan State) and even if he comes back from a right ankle injury I do not expect him to be at 100%. Carsen Edwards might be an All-American but in 10 games since the start of February he has shot 22-94 from behind the arc so the edge goes to Wisconsin. Their own All-American-caliber player (Ethan Happ) cannot make a 3 (1-16 in his college career) or a FT (73-156 this season) to save his life…but he is great at EVERYTHING else on a basketball court and 1 of the few things missing from his remarkable resume is a conference tourney title. Perhaps his cousin (2018 All-Star pitcher JA Happ) can pay to bring the whole family to Chicago after signing a 2-year/$34 million contract in December!

Big 12 tourney predicted champ: Kansas State (#2 seed)
Dates: March 13-16
Location: Kansas City, MO
Last year’s tourney champ: Kansas (#1 seed)
Fun fact: only 5 champs ever are Iowa State/Kansas/Missouri/Oklahoma/Oklahoma State
Seeding: each of 22 all-time champs were top-4 seed

Time for some new blood: now that we know Lagerald Vick will not be making a triumphant return to the court, I think that Kansas State or Texas Tech will finally put a Big 12 tourney trophy on their mantle for the 1st time. Since the Wildcats lost to the Red Raiders without Dean Wade in early-January but emerged victorious with him just 2½ weeks later I think that he will play a large role if they meet for a 3rd time this week in the title game (but he will only play a positive role IF his foot is feeling fine). The tourney remains in Kansas City for the 10th straight March, which gives Coach Bruce Weber’s team a semi-home-court advantage approximately 2 hours away from the Octagon of Doom. They start 2 seniors/2 juniors who all return from a team that beat Kentucky in the Sweet 16 last March so they have shown that they can play with the big boys.

Big West tourney predicted champ: UC-Irvine (#1 seed)
Dates: March 14-16
Location: Anaheim, CA
Last year’s tourney champ: Fullerton (#4 seed)
Fun fact: 8 different champs in past 8 years
Seeding: 5 of past 6 champs were not #1 seed

You cannot just pick #1 seeds across the board, but when the regular season champ wins 16 of 17 to finish the season then you should not fix what is unbroken. The Anteaters lost 17 games last season but 6’9” FR Collin Welp is growing up right before our eyes. He scored a career-high 19 PTS in just 18 minutes at Cal Poly last Thursday and with his 7’ father’s Christian’s genes he might be literally growing UP in the years ahead! Coach Russell Turner should have plenty of fans in attendance if they join him for the easy 15-mile drive north to the tourney in Anaheim, but if not then his team will still feel confident away from home due to road wins at Texas A&M/St. Mary’s in November. Speaking of height, if they need to guard a bigger opponent they can just call on 6’10” SR PF Jonathan Galloway, the 2-time-defending conference DPOY.

C-USA tourney predicted champ: Southern Miss (#4 seed)
Dates: March 13-16
Location: Frisco, TX
Last year’s tourney champ: Marshall (#4 seed)
Fun fact: 5 different champs in past 6 years
Seeding: 5 of past 7 champs were top-2 seed

We need to pick a couple of sleepers along the way, and after #1 seed ODU dropped back-to-back games against Southern Miss/UAB to finish the regular season this tourney seems wide open. Western Kentucky seemed like a fine choice until losing 3 of their final 5 games. Coach Doc Sadler went 9-22 just 2 years ago but won 8 of his past 10 to get a top-3 seed in March. Their best win last week was by 7 PTS at ODU, but their most impressive performance of the season was arguably a 4-PT December non-conference loss at Kansas State (after blowing a 16-PT lead with 16 minutes to go). They are short (with 3 starters standing 6’2” or less) but they are not inexperienced (as all 3 of those guys are seniors). The only thing worse than their FT shooting (65.6%)…is their opponents’ FT shooting (64.6%).

Ivy tourney predicted champ: Harvard (#1 seed)
Dates: March 16-17
Location: New Haven, CT
Last year’s tourney champ: Penn (#2 seed)
Fun fact: every single conference tourney MVP in history is still in the conference
Seeding: each of 2 all-time champs were #1 seed

You would think that a 20-win team playing on its home court would be a lock, but Yale lost 3 of its final 5 games (including 2 at home and a double-digit loss on the road) and its home-court “advantage” at Lee Amphitheater is 2nd-worst in the entire country. Even though Penn owned the Big 5 this year they were swept by both Harvard/Princeton so pump the brakes on my Quakers. This 1 seems like a rather easy pick: Harvard played 6 games against the other 3 teams who made this conference tourney….and won all 6 of them (although each of the last 4 were by single-digits). It is impossible to feel good about picking a team that was swept by a 15-loss Cornell team (not a typo: THEY WERE SWEPT BY CORNELL!!) but the return of Bryce Aiken in January has given them great hope: he is the team’s best FT shooter by far and even though he missed ½ the season he still ended up leading his squad with 40 3PM (including a season-high 6 of them in a 2-PT OT win at Columbia on Saturday to secure the top seed). This year marks the 15th anniversary of Coach Tommy Amaker’s 2004 NIT title at Michigan, and after making 4 straight NCAA tourneys in Cambridge from 2012-2015 he looks ready to return for the 1st time in 4 years.

MAC tourney predicted champ: Buffalo (#1 seed)
Dates: March 11-16
Location: Campus sites and Cleveland, OH
Last year’s tourney champ: Buffalo (#1 seed)
Fun fact: Buffalo has won tourney in 3 of past 4 years
Seeding: 6 of past 7 champs were top-3 seed

Toledo is an awesome team: 25 wins, top-30 in the country in FT%/3P%…yet they were swept by Buffalo by a combined 36 PTS. The Bulls are simply too good for the rest of this league: they are undefeated at home this year and their only 2 road losses in conference play were by a combined 6 PTS. Coach Nate Oats had the best season in school history last year with 27 wins including a butt-kicking of Arizona in the NCAA tourney: this year he has 28 wins (and counting) and should be favored against whomever he faces in the 1st round this week. They start 3 seniors and only allow 30% shooting from behind the arc so the best an opponent can hope for is a close game where Buffalo may fail from the FT line (68.9%). If the starters are not clicking they can still get a boost off the bench from SR PF Nick Perkins, the 2-time-defending conference 6th Man of the Year.

MEAC tourney predicted champ: Norfolk State (#1 seed)
Dates: March 11-16
Location: Norfolk, VA
Last year’s tourney champ: NC Central (#6 seed)
Fun fact: only 2 champs in past 5 years are Hampton/NC Central
Seeding: each of past 5 champs were #1 or #6 seed

There are very few conference tourneys not played at campus sites that still offer a home-court advantage: this is 1 of them. I was leaning toward North Carolina A&T until they lost by 18 PTS in Norfolk on 2/18. 2019 MEAC COY Robert Jones lost to the Aggies in last year’s conference tourney but his Spartans appears ready to begin their revenge tour. A home loss to Howard in the regular season finale is certainly not the best way to enter postseason play, but with a starting lineup of 3 seniors/2 juniors I think it will serve as more of a wake-up call rather than a confidence wrecker.

MWC tourney predicted champ: Nevada (#1 seed)
Dates: March 13-16
Location: Las Vegas, NV
Last year’s tourney champ: San Diego State (#5 seed)
Fun fact: 5 different champs in past 5 years
Seeding: 6 of past 8 champs were top-2 seed

Fresno State is a nice little dark-horse pick but getting swept by Nevada was not encouraging. Utah State only has 3 conference losses this year but unfortunately they are to each of the other top-4 seeds. The Wolf Pack have lost 3 road games since New Year’s Day but they have 4 seniors in the starting lineup who are still unhappy about not winning the conference tourney last March. Coach Eric Musselman might be nervous if he had to play in someone else’s gym this week but a trip to Vegas should see him winning big. He also has plenty of award-winning seniors to rely on including Caleb Martin (2018 conference POY)/Cody Martin (2018 conference DPOY)/Jordan Caroline (2017 conference tourney MVP).

Pac-12 predicted champ: Oregon (#6 seed)
Dates: March 13-16
Location: Las Vegas, NV
Last year’s tourney champ: Arizona (#1 seed)
Fun fact: Arizona has won tourney in 3 of past 4 years
Seeding: each of past 5 champs were top-2 seed

2 things working against Washington: they lost to #2 seed ASU by double-digits in their only meeting all year, and they LOST AT CAL! On the other hand, they have the greatest all-around defender of our lifetime. Last week SR G Matisse Thybulle became the 1st player in the past 25 years to have a season with 100+ STL and 66+ BLK. The exciting part of playing in a terrible conference is that anyone can win it all. I assumed that Oregon’s chances of winning big in Vegas were damaged the same day that Bol Bol’s left foot was in December, but the Ducks seem to have righted the ship over the past 2 weeks by sweeping the Arizona schools at home and the Washington schools on the road. Coach Dana Altman has done a masterful job of combining transfers (SR G Ehab Amin, who led the nation with 3.4 SPG last year at Texas A&M CC), Final 4 veterans (JR PG Payton Pritchard, who started in a 1-PT loss to North Carolina 2 Aprils ago), and fabulous freshman (F Louis King, a 2018 McDonald’s All-American who has been a perfect 10-10 from the FT line during his past 5 games).

SEC predicted champ: Tennessee (#1 seed)
Dates: March 13-17
Location: Nashville, TN
Last year’s tourney champ: Kentucky (#4 seed)
Fun fact: Kentucky has been in 8 of past 9 title games (6 wins and 2 single-digit losses)
Seeding: 9 of past 10 champs were top-3 seed

A top-3 seed usually takes this title…but rarely does a top-3 seed suspend its coach the week before the conference tourney due to an FBI wiretap so LSU is not the pick. Kentucky beat Tennessee by 5 PTS in last year’s title game in St. Louis, but I think that the Vols will win the rematch with the tourney returning to Nashville. Coach Rick Barnes’ troops have looked rather beatable in their last 4 road games (3 losses and a 2-PT win) but they have not lost a single game in the state of Tennessee this season. It helps that Wildcat big man Reid Travis is still recovering from a sprained right knee, but helps even more that the Vols starting lineup of 3 juniors/2 seniors are eager to win the school’s 2nd conference tourney title since 1943. If you like basketball players named “Jordan” then Tennessee is the team for you because they have 2 of them: JR G Jordan Bowden/JR G Jordan Bone.

Southland predicted champ: Sam Houston State (#1 seed)
Dates: March 13-16
Location: Katy, TX
Last year’s tourney champ: Stephen F. Austin (#3 seed)
Fun fact: Stephen F. Austin has won tourney in 4 of past 5 years
Seeding: 4 of past 5 champs were #1 seed

Sorry Stephen F. Austin: I love your spunk but nobody can lose 2 starters for most of the season and expect to overcome such obstacles during crunch time. Abilene Christian must be the least-discussed 6-loss team in America: unfortunately, after dismissing starters Jalone Friday/BJ Maxwell last month they will soon become the least-discussed 7-loss team in America. The good news for the Wildcats is that they were 1 possession away from beating Sam Houston State twice this year: the bad news is that they are 0-2 against the Bearkats this year. Coach Jason Hooten has had a pair of embarrassing performances late in the season with a road loss at Lamar and (somehow) a home loss to an 18-loss Central Arkansas team. However, it will take more than that to ruffle a starting lineup of 4 seniors/1 junior that hopes to make the 3rd NCAA tourney appearance in school history. If it seems like that Delaney kid is all over the court then you are exactly half right: brothers Cam/Josh Delaney make up 40% of the starting lineup!

SWAC predicted champ: Prairie View A&M (#1 seed)
Dates: March 12-16
Location: Birmingham, AL
Last year’s tourney champ: Texas Southern (#3 seed)
Fun fact: only 2 champs in past 6 years are Southern/Texas Southern
Seeding: 5 of past 7 champs were top-2 seed

Texas Southern started 3-3 in conference play, then won 11 in a row (including a 5-PT win over Prairie View on 2/9) before a 10-PT home loss to Southern as they prepare to enter postseason play. The 2019 Panthers seem to be copying the 2018 Tigers’ successful strategy. Texas Southern went 0-13 in non-conference play last year, lost to Prairie View in conference play, then beat Prairie View in the conference tourney. This year Prairie View lost 11 straight non-conference games, lost to Texas Southern in conference play…and we shall see what happens this week. Coach Byron Smith has 3 juniors/2 seniors in his starting lineup and has won with defense because his offense is shaky at best: bottom-50 in the nation in 3P% and bottom-10 in the nation in height. To give you an idea of how long it has been since the Panthers were in the NCAA tourney, the leading scorer on the team that destroyed them by 58 PTS was: Paul Pierce!

Sun Belt predicted champ: Georgia State (#1 seed)
Dates: March 12-17
Location: New Orleans, LA
Last year’s tourney champ: Georgia State (#2 seed)
Fun fact: 5 different champs in past 6 years
Seeding: 7 of past 9 champs were not #1 seed

The #1 seed has a poor track record in this tourney, but Georgia State has swept both of the other top-3 seeds (Georgia Southern/Texas-Arlington) so they should be favored no matter who they end up facing. I keep waiting for the Panthers FT shooting (64.9%) to bite them in the butt, but since they are so good at 3-PT shooting (38.9%) they have been able to stay out of such situations for the most part (only 1 of their 9 losses all season finished as a 1-possession game). Coach Ron Hunter’s experience should carry the day: he has won this tourney twice in the past 4 years. If that does not work then he can look to guys who have succeeded in New Orleans before (D’Marcus Simonds, who was named conference tourney MVP last year in the Lakefront Arena) or guys whose relatives have succeeded in New Orleans before (SR G Devin Mitchell, whose cousin Desmond Howard was named Super Bowl MVP for the Packers in 1997 after a win over the Patriots in the Louisiana Superdome).

WAC predicted champ: New Mexico State (#1 seed)
Dates: March 13-16
Location: Las Vegas, NV
Last year’s tourney champ: New Mexico State (#1 seed)
Fun fact: New Mexico State has been in 10 of past 12 title games (8 wins and 2 other single-digit losses)
Seeding: 5 of past 7 champs were not #1 seed

Save your time/energy to make the difficult conference tourney picks: this is not 1 of them. New Mexico State gets to the title game almost every single year and then wins it a majority of the time: look it up. In his 2 years as head coach in Las Cruces, Chris Jans has gone 55-10 overall with only 3 of those 10 losses coming to conference foes. Now that Eli Chuha/Terrell Brown are back from their respective injuries they should be near-impossible to stop. If not, it seems like they find a new weapon every week: JR F Trevelin Queen scored a career-high 19 PTS in the regular season finale win over Cal Baptist, and Ivan the Unpronounceable-but-not-Terrible (6’8” Spanish big man Ivan Aurrecoechea) set a career-high with 3 STL in their road win at Chicago State the previous weekend.

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