There may not be a mid-major conference that has more potential NBA talent than the Sun Belt. Georgia State and Louisiana-Lafayette have two guys that will get scouted plenty by NBA front office types. Western Kentucky has a couple of players as well. Even South Alabama, who didn’t even qualify for the conference tournament, has a player on their roster — Augustine Rubit — who will make a living playing basketball.
Perhaps what’s more notable about the Sun Belt tournament is that they are one of the few mid-major leagues that do it the right way. Only eight teams are invited. The top two seeds get a double-bye into the semifinals. The No. 3 and No. 4 seeds get a single-bye into the quarters. Reward the teams that won in the regular season.
The Panthers struggled early on this season, but turned things around when he coach Ron Hunter made the decision to move Ryan Harrow off the ball full time. Yes, Kentucky-transfer Ryan Harrow. He’s at Georgia State now, averaging 17.2 points and 4.4 assists, and he’s not even the best player on the team. R.J. Hunter, a 6-foot-5 shooting guard, is. GSU is loaded with perimeter talent, and it showed, and they finished 17-1 in league play.
The Ragin’ Cajuns finished third in the league this season, but they may have the best 1-2 punch in the conference. Elfrid Payton is a name most diehard fans will know, as he starred on the USA’s U-19 team this summer and averaged 19.3 points, 6.0 boards, 5.9 assists and 2.3 steals. Shawn Long’s numbers were equally impressive, as he averaged 19.2 points, 10.4 boards and 2.8 blocks.
Western Kentucky: The Hilltoppers finished second in the Sun Belt this season, led by T.J. Price and George Fant. They’ve won the last two Sun Belt tournament titles.
Troy: The Trojans finished eighth in the conference. But they are the only team to have beaten Georgia State in league play. So there’s that.
R.J. Hunter, Georgia State: The leading scorer on the conference’s best team. Hunter is the head coach’s son and a 6-foot-5 sharpshooter.
Ryan Harrow, Georgia State: Harrow was eligible immediately this season after transferring in from Kentucky, and he’s been terrific in his new surroundings.
Even though New Mexico State is the WAC’s top team, they aren’t walking into Orleans Arena with the No. 1 seed. That would be Utah Valley, the former member of the Great West Conference that joined the WAC when it imploded after the 2013 season. And while UVU recently beat the Aggies, Marvin Menzies’ team is the favorite to garner another NCAA autobid, which would mark the third tournament title for Menzies.
Daniel Mullings is the team’s key. He attempts the majority of the team’s shots — the only other Aggie with a comparable attempted shots percentage is DK Eldridge, and he doesn’t play as many minutes — and with the extended suspension of KC Ross-Miller (who’ll miss the WAC tournament following a late-February scuffle versus Utah Valley), Menzies will have to rely even more heavily on the WAC’s player of the year. The Aggies also have the conference’s most fascinating statistical footnote: though Ken Pomeroy ranks their effective height as tops in the nation, the team is dreadful at keeping WAC opponents off the glass. The Aggies haul roughly a third of teams’ misses, a mark bested by five other WAC squads.
And if they lose? Utah Valley
Should New Mexico State fail in their record-tying quest, the team most likely to scoop up the WAC title is Dick Hunsaker’s squad. This is a problem for the conference: NMSU has a potential to win an NCAA tournament game, whereas UVU’s prognosis is cloudier. The Wolverines’ efficiency margin isn’t great (plus-4), and since they struggle to score, the squad prefers to play at a slow pace and use their skills on the defensive glass as well as keeping opponents from converting on the perimeter to win conference games.
Idaho: The Vandals are riding a winning streak into tournament play, taking four of their past five, including a win over Grand Canyon (the team which would have been the favorite to challenge New Mexico State but is ineligible for the tourney). Of the teams playing at Orleans Arena, Idaho features the conference’s second best offense, and the team is led by Stephen Madison, who some have argued should have been the conference’s player of the year.
UMKC: Kareem Richardson had quite a task for his first season in Kansas City. Not only did he have convince KC-area talent to stay home for college, but he also had to field a competitive team. He is making headway on the first assignment: Martez Harrison, who is a Kansas City native but prepped at Brewster Academy, was named the WAC freshman of the year and was the offense’s focal point. Richardson’s second goal has steadily progressed: four of their nine losses were by single-digits, and crucially for a team trying to make a statement during its first WAC tournament, the Kangaroos rarely commit a turnover (roughly 16 percent of their possessions result in a giveaway).
Stephen Madison, Idaho: The forward dropped 42 points in a loss to Utah Valley, and can single-handedly keep the Vandals’ offense churning. What Madison does very well, in particular, is get to the free throw line: he has attempted ten or more free throws in nearly half of Idaho’s 2014 contests.
Daniel Mullings, New Mexico State: The guard is best suited when he is able to penetrate the defense and create for himself, but without Ross-Miller, Mullings will now have to generate offense for the other Aggies.
Isiah Umipig, Seattle: The Cal State Fullerton transfer has emerged as one of the conference’s most electric scorers, but since he recently suffered his two worst games — both UMKC and Chicago State held him to single digits — he is bound for an offensive outburst.
Tshilidzi Nephawe, New Mexico State : After last year’s tournament, everyone knows Sim Bhullar, but the Aggie big to pay attention to is Nephawe. The 6-foot-10 senior is the WAC’s most improved player, earning all-second team recognition after three seasons of using less than 50 percent of NMSU’s minutes. Nephawe converted 55 percent of his twos this season, and as he possesses a soft touch from the field and the free throw line, has evolved into a consistent option for the Aggie backcourt.
CBT Prediction: According to Pomeroy’s WAC log5, more than 60 percent of his simulations point to New Mexico State as winning the league’s autobid, and we’d be surprised if the Aggies didn’t dance for the third straight season.
Weber State may be the nation’s unluckiest team. Over the course of the past five Big Sky conference tournaments, the Wildcats, which haven’t received lower than a three seed, have consistently lost to a team from Montana, and consequently found themselves outside of the bubble each of those five seasons. In fact, Randy Rahe’s squad hasn’t made the NCAA field since the 2006-07 season, but WSU is persistent, again reached the top of the Big Sky rankings, earning the top seed, an honor that means the team not only gets a first-round bye to then play the lowest-remaining seed for their first game, but also has home court advantage throughout the multi-day tournament. It would seem that Weber State would have a cake walk to the postseason, but the Wildcats may still miss out. This is arguably the closest league tournament field in recent years, and WSU could possibly face Montana or Northern Colorado, two teams who have beaten the Wildcats once this season, in their opening contest.
The Wildcats are stacked. Davion Berry was recently named the conference’s player of the year, sophomore center Joel Bolomboy was honored with a defensive player of the year nod, and Jeremy Senglin, who made 41 percent of his threes in his inaugural Wildcat season, was crowned the freshman of the year. Thanks to the squad’s proficiency from beyond the arc — other than Senglin, Berry and Jordan Richardson convert more than 35 of their attempts — Weber State’s effective field goal percentage tops the league. However, if the team is going to get through the tournament’s three days unscathed, their defense will have to propel them. It starts with Bolomboy, a 6-foot-9 big who needs to develop an offensive game before he can mentioned as one of the nation’s best forwards; Bolomboy has posted a stellar defensive rebounding percentage of 28 percent and when combined with his lack of fouls, it is very difficult to engineer additional possessions when Bolomboy is on the court. The rest of the team is equally as defensive minded — 1.03 OPPP, which leads the Big Sky.
And if they lose? Northern Colorado
The Bears are the team to watch during the Big Sky tournament. They beat Northern Arizona, the conference’s hottest team, twice during league play, have defeated Montana twice (once in overtime), and split with Weber State. They haven’t shown any propensity for defense — only Southern Utah has allowed more points per possession in league play — but BJ Hill’s team is fun to watch operate within the arc. UNC grabs a high rate of their own misses, and spend most offensive possessions converting twos, making 55 percent of their attempts.
Montana: This squad isn’t reminiscent of Montana teams of yesteryear (they are uncharacteristically poor on defense), but the Grizzlies have to be included as a title candidate since Kareem Jamar is still on the squad. The senior’s last Big Sky tournament go-around, the guard again had an outstanding season, upping his offensive rating to 116 and drawing two more fouls per 40 minutes than a year ago. Jamar will have to carry Montana if the team is to make a tourney run.
Northern Arizona: Jack Murphy is easily the conference’s coach of the year. A year after finishing well below .500, the Lumberjacks posted a 15-16 record and garnered the Big Sky’s No. 3 seed. Some even consider NAU as the favorite to take the league’s title. The team has won their last four games, a streak which included victories over Weber State and Montana. Quinton Upshur, a transfer from VMI, has provided offensive balance to a team that lost both Gabe Rogers and Dewayne Russell after the 2013 season.
Davion Berry, Weber State: After a strong junior year, the 6-foot-4 Berry needed to prove he could both run a team’s offense while still providing a scoring punch, and he succeeded in both areas, boosting his assist rate to nearly 30 percent and becoming more efficient within and beyond the arc while attempting fewer shots.
Derrick Barden, Northern Colorado: Though he stands just 6-foot-5, Barden is UNC’s best frontcourt option. As an unabashed fan of undersized bigs, watching Barden dislodge larger opponents is enjoyable, and the ex-juco forward is skilled converting on the interior (61 percent around the bucket).
Troy Huff, North Dakota: The senior rarely gets a break. He is such a high usage player, attempting more than 30 percent of the team’s shots in each of his four seasons, but what is most impressive about the 6-foot-5 Huff is his ability to get to the free throw stripe at a higher clip in 2014. He has attempted over 200 free throws, and is drawing two more fouls per 40 minutes than last year.
Kareem Jamar, Montana: A sentimental favorite. Jamar is still playing at a high level, and has been crucial to Montana’s past two NCAA tourney teams.
CBT Prediction: It’s a toss up between Northern Arizona and Northern Colorado, and unfortunately for fans of the Big Sky, the two teams play each other in the opening round. NoCo, though, has the offense and experience to earn the league’s automatic bid.
I’m not sure there is a conference in the country where there is more at stake in the conference tournament.
Even with Sunday’s loss at Nebraska, Wisconsin has a chance to play their was into a No. 1 seed if they can win the conference tournament. Michigan probably can’t be a No. 1 seed, but winning the league tournament should lock them into a No. 2 seed. And neither of those teams have the highest ceiling of anyone in the conference. That would be Michigan State, who is a national title contender if they can get their act together. Iowa is also trying to figure their issues out, as the Hawkeyes look like a top 15 team and play like a No. 8 seed.
Then you get to the bubble, where both Nebraska and Minnesota have their NCAA tournament hopes pinned on their performance this week.
The Huskers are probably in a better spot than the Gophers. If Nebraska, who gets a first round bye, lucks out and gets Ohio State in the quarterfinals, they are probably going to get in whether or not they win that game. Minnesota, on the other hand, probably needs to win at least two games if they want to dance. They are on the outside looking in as of today, and beating Penn State isn’t going to change that.
Despite losing Trey Burke and Tim Hardaway Jr. to the draft, and with Mitch McGary biding his time on the bench with a back injury, John Beilein somehow managed to do something that he wasn’t able to do last season: win the outright Big Ten regular season title. That’s what happens when Nik Stauskas turns into an all-american and Caris LeVert puts together an all-Big Ten caliber campaign. I’m not sure there is a pair of wing players that were better in conference play than those two.
Perhaps the biggest difference between Michigan now and Michigan four months ago has been the play of Derrick Walton at the point. He’s not Trey Burke, at least not yet, but as his confidence has grown, his ability to handle the rigors of running an offense at this level of basketball has increased exponentially. He’s become more than just the guy that dribbles the ball up the court. He’s a player, and with defenses keying on Stauskas and LeVert, that makes a major difference.
And if they lose?: Michigan State Spartans
I’m going to ride the Spartan bandwagon until the season is over. All the proof I needed was in that second half against Iowa, when Keith Appling finally played like Keith Appling and Michigan State beat the brakes off the Hawkeyes for 20 minutes. That’s the key to any and all success Michigan State will have this month. Appling just isn’t right right now. I don’t know if it’s the wrist injury itself, the fact that sitting out has killed his conditioning or if it is as simple as Appling’s confidence being in the gutter. Whatever the case may be, if he can find the form that he had in that second half against Iowa, Sparty will be awesome once again. And if he can’t? It won’t be a great month in East Lansing.
Wisconsin Badgers: Outside of the three-week stretch when the Badgers lost five out of six games, they’ve been nearly unbeatable, with their only loss coming at Nebraska on the final day of the regular season. Wisconsin has quite a bit on the line in this tournament. Win it all, and they could be the last No. 1 seed.
Ohio State Buckeyes: Ohio State is as tough as anyone defensively. Their issue is the ability to score the ball. On the nights that guys like Lenzelle Smith and Shannon Scott are scoring, the Buckeyes can beat anyone in the league. On the nights they aren’t, the Buckeyes can lose to anyone. Such is life.
Sleeper: Iowa Hawkeyes
On paper, Iowa looks like one of the best teams in the league. They’re talented, they’re deep and they have two of the best players in the conference in Roy Devyn Marble and Aaron White. But they haven’t been able to win close games against elite competition all season long, and they haven’t played a lick of defense for the better part of a month. So which team shows up in Indy?
Deeper Sleeper: Nebraska Cornhuskers
Tim Miles has done a tremendous job with this Nebraska program, but the question I have about them is whether or not they can beat teams away from home. They did win at Michigan State, but so did Illinois. The Huskers are good — they are the fourth seed after all — so it will be interesting to see what they can do this week.
Studs you haven’t heard about:
Terran Petteway, Nebraska: Petteway is the best player on the Huskers. He’s fun to watch because he has a penchant for hitting ridiculously tough shots in critical moments. And his hair is awesome.
Yogi Ferrell, Indiana: Indiana has struggled this season, but it’s not Ferrell’s fault. He’s had a terrific sophomore campaign.
Frank Kaminsky, Wisconsin: Kaminsky is the latest in a long line of talented Wisconsin big men. His ability to score in the post and be a threat in pick-and-pop actions makes him perfect for Wisconsin’s swing offense.
Caris LeVert, Michigan: Nik Stauskas gets all the attention for the Wolverines, but LeVert is actually the most improved player on the roster. He may be the team’s most indispensable player as well.
CBT Prediction: Michigan State over Michigan
Best [name of league] Tournament Memory:
2014 Big West Tournament Preview: UC Irvine, UCSB lead the way in Anaheim
The top eight teams in the Big West descend upon the Honda Center in Anaheim, and even with the regular season champion going 13-3 in league play this shapes up to be a highly competitive three days. UC Irvine, the preseason pick to win the Big West, rode their stingy defense to the top of the conference pecking order but they didn’t lack for challengers either. UCSB finished a game back in the standings, with Long Beach State (10-6) and Hawaii (9-7) also finishing above .500. And with the lower-seeded teams also posing a threat, don’t be surprised if one of the top four teams fall in the quarterfinals.
While the Gauchos didn’t win the conference’s regular season title, Bob Williams’ team is the pick to grab the automatic bid. One reason is their efficiency on both ends of the floor, as in conference games UCSB ranked second in adjusted offensive efficiency and third in adjusted defensive efficiency per Ken Pomeroy’s numbers. This is a group that was tested during non-conference play, picking up convincing wins over UNLV (road) and California while also dropping an eight-point decision at Colorado. Big man Alan Williams (21.6 ppg, 11.6 rpg) is one of the nation’s best, and both Michael Bryson (11.3 ppg) and Kyle Boswell (10.7 ppg) have been quality secondary scoring options.
And if they lose? UC Irvine
Russell Turner’s Anteaters were the preseason pick to win the Big West and they made good on that promise, with their defense being the biggest reason why. Irvine was the league’s most efficient defensive team in conference play, limiting teams to 28.7% shooting from beyond the arc and 37.7% inside of it with 7-foot-6 center Mamadou Ndiaye and forward Will Davis II being key figures on that end of the floor. Davis, Luke Nelson and Chris McNealy have all been capable scoring options, but UC Irvine’s had issues with turnovers (eighth in turnover rate) and foul shooting (ninth at 65.3%) in conference play. Those issues clearly didn’t cost them the regular season title, but in a one-and-done scenario that may not be the case.
Long Beach State: Dan Monson’s team finished the regular season with an overall record of 14-16 but they won ten games in Big West play, which shouldn’t be a surprise given the 49ers’ penchant for playing brutally difficult non-conference schedules.
Hawaii: The Warriors may have the best front court tandem in the Big West, with both Isaac Fotu and Christian Standhardinger earning first team All-Big West honors.
Alan Williams (UCSB): Williams is a player much of the nation should be well-aware of by now. He’s pretty much a guarantee to go for 20 points and ten rebounds…at least.
Mike Caffey (Long Beach State): A two-time first team All-Big West selection, Caffey led the 49ers in both scoring (16.2 ppg) and assists (4.3 apg).
Stephen Maxwell (Cal-State Northridge): Reggie Theus landed a very good player in Maxwell when he was hired last spring, with the forward averaging 17.9 points and 9.0 rebounds per contest.
Michael Williams (Cal-State Fullerton): Averaging 17.6 points and 4.1 rebounds per contest, the guard has reached double figures in every game he’s played this season.
CBT Prediction: Look for their balance on both ends of the floor to land UCSB the Big West’s automatic bid.
After three incredibly lean seasons, the Pac-12 has looked more formidable for much of the 2013-14 season. For some that may not be easy to see, as there’s just one conference team (No. 4 Arizona) ranked in the national polls. But the conference has improved, as evidenced by just how much is on the line in Las Vegas. The top three seeds, Arizona, UCLA and Arizona State, will certainly hear their names called on Selection Sunday and Oregon’s well on its way after knocking off the Wildcats last Saturday.
The question that will be asked quite often at the MGM Grand Garden Arena: how much work do the Pac-12 bubble teams have to do in order to ensure themselves of a spot in the NCAA tournament? Fans of California, Colorado and Stanford will ask this question, and it’s anyone guess what the right answer is. And they won’t be alone in this mission, as Utah can earn another shot at Arizona with a win over Washington in the first round. Larry Krystkowiak’s team reached the semifinals of last year’s event and played the Wildcats tough in both meetings, but thanks to their non-conference strength of schedule the Utes have the steepest climb of the Pac-12’s bubble teams.
Outside of Arizona, which will be a one-seed in the NCAA tournament, there’s a lot to be decided in Las Vegas. And even though these teams aren’t in the at-large discussion, both Washington (C.J. Wilcox) and Oregon State (Roberto Nelson) have guards capable of getting scalding hot from the field. Instead of hoping to get two or three teams into the NCAA tournament field as they have in recent years, the Pac-12 finds itself working to get (at least) half of its teams into the Big Dance. And that will make for an incredible four days at the MGM Grand Garden Arena.
Sean Miller’s team finished three games ahead of the pack, and their defense was a big reason why. The nation’s best defense from an efficiency standpoint, Arizona limited conference foes to 39.5% shooting from the field and 33.0% shooting from beyond the arc. Simply put there are times when the Wildcats simply decide that the opponent isn’t scoring, no matter how hard they try. With their length, athleticism and effort, Arizona’s controlled multiple games in which they haven’t put up eye-popping offensive numbers.
As for that offense, this was the area in which Arizona had the biggest adjustment to make in the aftermath of Brandon Ashley’s season-ending injury but they were still third in the conference in offensive efficiency. T.J. McConnell has been a great fit at the point, combining with Pac-12 Player of the Year Nick Johnson to form one of the nation’s best perimeter tandems. Aaron Gordon and Kaleb Tarczewski lead the way in the front court, and Arizona’s ability to hit the offensive glass (35.1% offensive rebounding percentage) factored into their efficiency rating. If Johnson and Gabe York can hit perimeter shots at a decent clip, look out.
And if they lose?: Oregon
Shocked to see the 7-seed in this spot, huh? Well, that position on the bracket says more about Oregon’s 3-8 start to conference play than their current seven-game win streak. Dana Altman seems to have a perimeter rotation he’s comfortable with, as Johnathan Loyd, Joseph Young and Jason Calliste have emerged as the primary options. In the front court Elgin Cook’s earned more playing time and Mike Moser’s playing his best basketball of the season. They’ll have to win four games in as many days to repeat as tournament champions, but given the way Oregon’s playing right now it wouldn’t be a surprise if the Ducks pulled it off.
UCLA: With first team All-Pac-12 selections Jordan Adams and Kyle Anderson being the headlines, Steve Alford has more than enough perimeter talent to win this event. The question is the front court, with the Wear twins (David and Travis) and Tony Parker needing to be consistent on both ends. This trio doesn’t have to be world-beaters, but UCLA can’t afford to have all three struggling if they’re to win the title.
Arizona State: Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year Jordan Bachynski and first team All-Pac-12 guard Jahii Carson have led the way all season long for the Sun Devils, who are the three-seed in the tournament. And if Jermaine Marshall and Shaquielle McKissic can continue to give Herb Sendek quality minutes, Arizona State can win three straight games.
The Golden Bears lost three straight before beating Colorado in overtime on Saturday, providing Mike Montgomery’s team with a much-needed confidence boost before the conference tournament. Justin Cobbs will lead the way, and if their young guards (Jabari Bird and Jordan Mathews) can be productive in supplementary roles, Cal will be a team to keep an eye on.
Deeper Sleeper: Colorado
Tad Boyle’s Buffaloes had some major adjustments to make when Spencer Dinwiddie was lost for the season with a torn ACL in January. The two players who have stepped up the most in his absence are guard Askia Booker and forward Josh Scott, with the latter earning first-team All-Pac-12 honors. If Xavier Johnson can consistently produce on the offensive end, Colorado can make some noise in Vegas.
Studs you haven’t heard about:
Josh Huestis, Stanford: Dwight Powell was the first team All-Pac-12 selection but it’s the versatile Huestis who is one of the league’s best defenders.
Delon Wright, Utah: Wright is one of the most versatile players around, as he led the Utes in points and assists and is second on the team in rebounds.
DaVonte’ Lacy, Washington State: The Cougars’ lack of team success is one reason why Lacy doesn’t receive more attention. He’s averaging 19.1 points and 4.3 rebounds per game.
Roberto Nelson, Oregon State: A first team All-Pac-12 performer, Nelson’s scoring a conference-best 20.6 points per game along with 3.7 assists and 3.6 rebounds per game.
CBT Prediction: No. 4 Arizona wins its first conference tournament title since 2002.
Best Pac-10/12 Tournament Memory: Isaiah Thomas + Gus Johnson = Magic (2011)