Andy Lyons/Getty Images

SEC Tournament Preview and Postseason Awards

Leave a comment

The SEC has seen a resurgence this season as the league should have more than six NCAA tournament bids for the first time ever.

With as many as eight teams jockeying for NCAA tournament positioning (or to even get in at all, in some cases) the SEC is perhaps as deep in basketball as it has ever been.

Heading into the SEC Tournament this week in St. Louis, every team in the league has suffered at least five conference losses this season. That means every team in the bracket is beatable and nobody is a consensus favorite. We could see a number of unique scenarios and champions play out this week. You could even make the case that this is the most wide-open major conference tournament in the country.

Here’s a look at the 2018 SEC Tournament.

THE FAVORITE

It’s tough to pick a favorite in this event since so many teams look beatable, but Tennessee has perhaps the most favorable path. While all of the other teams with double byes face tough first opponents, the Volunteers handled both LSU and Mississippi State with 20-plus point wins during the regular season. Also the hottest team in the league with a four-game winning streak, Tennessee is playing very well on both sides of the ball — particularly on defense.

THE CONTENDERS

You can mark most of the teams in this bracket as contenders if it’s the right week. Auburn is the No. 1 seed after they shared the SEC’s regular season crown with Tennessee. The Tigers have been one the nation’s biggest surprises this season. Although the Tigers don’t have a lot of size on the interior, they’ve been able to make up for it with balanced scoring and scrappy perimeter play as Bryce Brown, Mustapha Heron and Jared Harper all had all-league seasons.

Florida is another intriguing contender. If Florida is making perimeter shots then they can compete with any team in the country. If the Gators are missing shots, they could be ousted in the first game. The Scottrade Center in St. Louis has strange rims and is known as a tough spot to shoot. Will that hurt Florida?

And you can never count out Kentucky when it comes to the SEC tournament. The Wildcats had won four straight games before a loss to Florida in the season finale as they’ve been sharing the ball much better the past few weeks. If Kentucky has multiple weapons rolling then they could easily make a run and win this event.

WHO NEEDS A WIN THE MOST?

If Alabama is going to make the NCAA tournament then they need a win (or two) in St. Louis this week. The Crimson Tide are squarely on the bubble after a five-game losing streak to end the regular season as they are limping into the SEC tournament. Alabama’s first opponent in the tournament, Texas A&M, just beat the Crimson Tide by two on Saturday, so these two teams should be quite familiar with each other.

WHO IS ON THE BUBBLE?

Besides for Alabama, the SEC looks pretty established when it comes to NCAA tournament projections. Of course, a couple of scenarios could change things. Texas A&M, Missouri and Arkansas should all feel pretty solid about getting in. A loss for any of them in the first game, however, could make Selection Sunday a little uncomfortable depending on how the week plays out. Teams like LSU and Mississippi State have been on the bubble in recent weeks, but they mostly look out of the picture entering the tournament — barring a miracle run. Since the Tigers and Bulldogs play each other first, one of those teams will immediately get sent to the NIT with a loss while the winner will have to probably make a finals run to even have a chance of getting in.

THE SLEEPER

Missouri is an intriguing team to watch this week for a number of different reasons. Already a dangerous team in their first season under head coach Cuonzo Martin, the Tigers could get a major boost if freshman Michael Porter Jr. returns to the rotation. The potential top-five pick would give the Tigers a major mismatch on the offensive end and a lot of size on the defensive end. Also keep in mind that Missouri will have a home court advantage by playing this one in St. Louis. Tigers fans can travel in numbers given the right situation, and with an NCAA tournament bid on the horizon, they could help Missouri quite a bit. The potential quarterfinal matchup with Kentucky would have an awesome atmosphere for a conference tournament.

PLAYER TO WATCH

Chris Chiozza, Florida. Most of the players in this SEC tournament field don’t have significant postseason experience. Which makes Chiozza, Florida’s senior point guard, a very dangerous player. Coming off an Elite Eight appearance last season after a memorable Sweet 16 buzzer-beater against Wisconsin, Chiozza is capable of controlling games and going on offensive bursts as a scorer or distributor. The Gators could be the favorite in this event if Chiozza is playing well.

X-FACTORS

Michael Porter Jr.’s health: We still aren’t sure if Porter Jr. will even play during the SEC tournament and how he will look if he does. If Porter is healthy and ready to go then it gives Missouri a chance to make a run in this event.
Kentucky’s balanced scoring: During Kentucky’s four-game winning streak towards the end of the season, they had at least five players in double-figures in all four wins. The Wildcats struggle to win games if one player has to take over. Kentucky’s success will largely be dictated by its collective efforts to score.  
Daniel Gafford: The Arkansas freshman big man has come on strong over the past several weeks as he’s a major factor at the rim on both ends of the floor. Gafford has more dunks this season than some SEC teams do and he’s also a rim protector that few in the SEC can match.

NBC SPORTS SEC POSTSEASON HONORS

PLAYER OF THE YEAR: Yante Maten, Georgia

COACH OF THE YEAR: Rick Barnes, Tennessee

FIRST TEAM ALL SEC

  • Bryce Brown, Auburn
  • Daryl Macon, Arkansas
  • Collin Sexton, Alabama
  • Yante Maten, Georgia
  • Grant Williams, Tennessee

SECOND TEAM ALL SEC

  • Mustapha Heron, Auburn
  • Jaylen Barford, Arkansas
  • Chris Chiozza, Florida
  • Kevin Knox, Kentucky
  • Kassius Robertson, Missouri

American Athletic Conference Tournament Preview and Postseason Awards

Peter Aiken/Getty Images
Leave a comment

Here’s the weird think about the American this year: The most intriguing part of what happens in this conference tournament has nothing to do with the actual tournament itself.

For starters, just about everyone is locked into their March future. We could see, say, Cincinnati jump up to a No. 2 seed or Wichita State climb onto the No. 3 seed line with a title — and who wouldn’t want to see the Shockers and the Bearcats go for Round 3 — but there is no one on the bubble and just three teams that are headed to the NCAA tournament. Cincinnati, as the No. 1 seed, will not play a tourney-bound team into the title game.

No, what makes this event interesting is figuring out which coaches we’ve seen the last of in their current digs.

The smoke surrounding Penny Hardaway’s move to Memphis seems to be getting thicker despite the fact that Tubby Smith finished the season strong and won 10 AAC games. Kevin Ollie, who won the 2014 National Title, could very much find himself on the way out as well. And then there is Fran Dunphy, the long-time Temple head coach that may find himself on the outs as well.

The American should not be as unintriguing as it is. The league is the butt of a lot of joke, but it is still a conference that includes programs like Memphis, UConn, Temple and SMU. Throw in Houston, Cincinnati and Wichita State, and there’s no reason they shouldn’t be getting five or six bids every season.

That’s why we’re talking about some of the better jobs in the conference opening.

We’ll see if they actually do.

THE FAVORITE

At this point, it has to be Cincinnati. The Bearcats won the league’s outright regular season title after going into Koch Arena and picking off Wichita State on Sunday. Mick Cronin’s club can just wear you down defensively, but what makes them so intriguing at this point in the year is that their best player, Jacob Evans, looks like he’s starting to figure out that he should play like he’s the best player.

THE CONTENDERS

There are only two other teams that I can see putting together a run to the tournament title: Wichita State and Houston. The Shockers have enough talent on the offensive end to beat just about anyone in the country if they decide to defend, but that has not been a guarantee at any point this season. One of the most shocking parts of this season is the lack of toughness that a Gregg Marshall team plays with. As far as the Cougars, they have the one guy from this league that I can see going all-Kemba Walker and carrying his team to a tournament title and a run in the NCAAs in Rob Gray, who has inherited the title of best top knot in college hoops from Kyle Guy.

 

WHO NEEDS A WIN THE MOST?

Other than Tubby Smith, Kevin Ollie and Fran Dunphy? I’ll go with the Bearcats just because they could find a way to get up to a No. 2 seed. But the lack of intrigue with this conference tournament is that most of the teams have their March fates pre-determined.

WHO IS ON THE BUBBLE?

No one. Literally no one.

THE SLEEPER

Frank Haith has actually done a pretty good job with a Tulsa team that lost a lot of talent from last year. There was some speculation earlier in the year that he was on the hot seat, but he shut those people up by finished 12-6 in the league, good for fourth in the conference. He could be looking at a trip to the NIT.

PLAYER TO WATCH

I mentioned it earlier, but Rob Gray is the one guy that I think has the ability to pull a Kemba or a Shabazz. He’s been one of the most underrated players in America for a couple of seasons now, and I would not put it past him to averaged 25 points and six assists in this event while picking off Wichita State and Cincinnati en route to a title. If that were to happen, I think that Houston might be able to climb as high as a No. 5 seed in the Big Dance.

 

NBC SPORTS AMERICAN POSTSEASON HONORS

PLAYER OF THE YEAR: Gary Clark, Cincinnati

COACH OF THE YEAR: Kelvin Sampson, Houston

FIRST TEAM ALL-AAC

  • Landry Shamet, Wichita State
  • Rob Gray, Houston
  • Jacob Evans, Cincinnati
  • Gary Clary, Cincinnati
  • Shaq Morris, Wichita State

SECOND TEAM ALL-AAC

  • Jalen Adams, UConn
  • Shake Milton, SMU
  • AJ Davis, UCF
  • Melvin Frazier, Tulane
  • Junior Etou, Tulsa

Pac-12 Tournament Preview and Postseason Awards

Getty Images
Leave a comment

In what has been a tumultuous season for the Pac-12, beginning with the still-ongoing FBI probe and some misbehavior in China, the league’s 12 teams meet in Las Vegas to determine who will earn the automatic bid to the NCAA tournament.

Arizona, the preseason favorite, won the conference by two games and after an eventful week will arrive at T-Mobile Arena at full strength. Sean Miller’s Wildcats will be favored to win the tournament for the third time in the last four years, but it won’t be easy due to the desperation many teams will be playing with.

UCLA, USC and Washington still have varying amounts of work to do depending upon who’s doing the prognosticating, Arizona State may need wins when it comes to their NCAA tournament seeding, and then there are dangerous teams such as Stanford, Utah and Oregon that need the automatic bid if they’re to play in the Big Dance.

That should all make for an entertaining four days in Las Vegas. Here’s a look at the 2018 Pac-12 Tournament.

THE FAVORITE

It’s Arizona. The Wildcats went 15-3 in conference play, which is quite the achievement given the turmoil surrounding the program. Sean Miller and Allonzo Trier are back after missing both games of the Oregon trip for far different reasons, and in DeAndre Ayton the Wildcats have the conference’s best talent. Add in the likes of Rawle Alkins and Dusan Ristic, and this group has the pieces needed to win three games in as many days. Arizona may not defend as well as past Miller-coached teams have, but the Wildcats are still the best that the Pac-12 has to offer.

THE CONTENDERS

There will be no shortage of contenders in Las Vegas, beginning with UCLA and USC. While the Bruins are the four-seed this week, they’ve got one of the conference’s best players in point guard Aaron Holiday and contributors such as Thomas Welsh and Kris Wilkes aren’t slouches, either. The key for UCLA will be the health of Jaylen Hands, who missed Saturday’s win at USC with a sprained ankle. The Bruins can win without Hands, but to play three games in as many days they’ll need all hands on deck.

As for USC, the Trojans are still a force to be reckoned with despite losing Bennie Boatwright to a season-ending knee injury last month. Jordan McLaughlin and Chimezie Metu form one of the conference’s best inside/out tandems, and the Trojans have talented options throughout the rotation. And it should also be noted that USC finished conference play second in defensive efficiency (conference games only) per Ken Pomeroy’s numbers. Utah, which surprised more than a few people by finishing third, and a Stanford team that’s whole after seeing multiple players miss time due to injury, should not be ignored either.

WHO NEEDS A WIN THE MOST?

Both L.A. schools are in a position where they would be well-served to pick up at least one win in Las Vegas. But the pick here is Washington, which will begin its tournament with Oregon State in Wednesday’s first round. Mike Hopkins’ Huskies have wins over Kansas (in Kansas City) and Arizona that will certainly help their cause, and with just one Quadrant 3/4 loss (at Oregon State in double overtime) they’ve avoided the kinds of losses that stick out in a negative way. Taking care of the Beavers would set up a matchup with USC, a team the Huskies beat in Los Angeles during the opening weekend of conference play.

WHO IS ON THE BUBBLE?

The L.A. schools and Washington enter this tournament on the bubble, and as mentioned above the Huskies begin with a matchup against Oregon State that would be damaging to their profile should they lose. Both UCLA and USC have first round byes, and should the games play out according to seed the Bruins would draw a tough matchup in Stanford while the Trojans would get Washington. Arizona State should be safely in the field, but taking care of Colorado and at the very least showing well against Arizona would likely ensure that they’ll wear home uniforms in the first round of the NCAA tournament.

THE SLEEPER

Stanford as the 5-seed may classify as a sleeper, and it should be noted that with Reid Travis leading the way this is a group with the talent needed to make a run in Las Vegas. With Travis, Michael Humphrey and Dorian Pickens the Cardinal don’t lack for experience, and they’ve also got some young talented contributors as well with Daejon Davis and Oscar da Silva being two of the noteworthy underclassmen. Also, Arizona State as the 9-seed makes the Sun Devils a candidate for sleeper status. Bobby Hurley’s backcourt ranks among the best in the country, with Tra Holder leading the way, and they’ve got some big wins to their credit. But in order to make a run, the Sun Devils will have to tighten things up defensively and on the glass.

PLAYER TO WATCH

Aaron Holiday, UCLA. Ayton is the league’s best player and could very well be the first player selected in this summer’s NBA Draft. But given the stakes, not to mention the way in which he’s played throughout the season, Holiday is the one to watch. After ending the regular season with a 34-point, seven-assist, five-rebound masterclass against USC, Holiday is more than capable of carrying the Bruins on a run that would ensure them of an NCAA tournament bid.

X-FACTORS

Arizona vs. Everybody. While the Wildcats won the regular season title, this has not been a smooth run by any stretch of the imagination. This team’s mindset going in, especially if they can properly turn the outside noise into positive fuel, will be something worth keeping an eye on.
Oregon. The Ducks don’t lack for talent, and it could be argued that their portion of the bracket (Washington State, then Utah if they win) sets up well for a run. But it should be noted that the Ducks lost to Wazzu in Pullman last week.
Utah’s defense. The Runnin’ Utes finished seventh in the conference in defensive efficiency (league games only), but they have been better on that end of the floor. And with first team all-conference guard Justin Bibbins and a quality big man in David Collette leading the way, if they can continue that progress it wouldn’t be a shock if Utah managed to reach Saturday night’s final.

NBC SPORTS PAC-12 POSTSEASON HONORS

PLAYER OF THE YEAR: DeAndre Ayton, Arizona

COACH OF THE YEAR: Mike Hopkins, Washington

FIRST TEAM ALL PAC-12

  • Tra Holder, Arizona State
  • Aaron Holiday, UCLA
  • Allonzo Trier, Arizona
  • Chimezie Metu, USC
  • DeAndre Ayton, Arizona

SECOND TEAM ALL PAC-12

  • Justin Bibbins, Utah
  • Jordan McLaughlin, USC
  • Tres Tinkle, Oregon State
  • Mathysse Thybulle, Washington
  • Reid Travis, Stanford

Big 12 Tournament Preview and Postseason Awards

Photo by John Weast/Getty Images
Leave a comment

While the final standings of the Big 12 may have been predictable, the conference’s tournament is going to be anything but. When a league is projected to get up to 80 percent of its members into the NCAA tournament, “anything is possible” isn’t a cliche or tired slogan, it’s honestly a reality.

Kansas won its 14th-straight Big 12 regular season title, setting the standard for dominance in this recent era, but the Jayhawks did it this season without an overwhelming talent or athletic advantage that has so often been the mark of Bill Self’s teams. In fact, there was a fleeting moment when it looked like the Jayhawks’ streak may come to an end. It was a moment, albeit a silly one.

The story of the Big 12 tournament is that there are legitimately nine teams that conceivably could be the last one standing at the Sprint Center in Kansas City, and the 10th-place team, Iowa State, has been beset by injuries but the Cyclones have won three of the last four Big 12 tournaments, boast a fanbase that invades Kansas City and have three wins over ranked teams themselves.

So the question becomes not only who will win the Big 12 tournament, but how many teams will the league get into the Big Dance? If it’s eight, that will set a record for highest percentage of a conference’s teams earning bids ever. Things may have to break just right – and if they break perfectly maybe we’re talking about nine – that might be the most likely scenario, not just a long-shot one.

It’s the Big 12. Who knows what’s going to happen?

 

THE FAVORITE

Despite having perhaps his weakest and most ill-fitting roster, Bill Self got the Jayhawks on top of the heap once again, even giving them enough leeway that dropping a second game to Oklahoma State in the regular-season finale didn’t hurt them. Kansas may not look like one of heavy national title contenders – despite being in line for a one-seed – in the eyes of most, but there’s pretty convincing argument that this is the most impressive of the Jayhawks’ 14 titles, especially when you consider the strength of the rest of the league

Still, the Jayhawks are vulnerable on a number of fronts. The defense can be beat, they’re 3-point dependent and Self has struggled to motivate some of his players at different times this season, complaining about effort and focus.

They’re the favorite, but not an overwhelming one.

THE CONTENDERS

If Keenan Evans doesn’t get hurt, we very well could be talking about Texas Tech as the team that finally ended Kansas’ reign. After looking like a potential Big 12 player of the year, a toe injury sapped Evans’ ability to the point where a player who was routinely putting up 30 a night suddenly couldn’t even crack double-digits. It’s not surprising the Red Raiders lost four-straight – and a potential conference crown – with Evans on the mend.

Evans, after missing a game against West Virginia, returned over the weekend and got 23 against TCU, signalling he may be ready to go this week and keep Kansas from winning another Big 12 title this season.

The other frontrunner here has to be Bob Huggins and West Virginia. The Mountaineers had a late-January lull, but have otherwise been solid. They don’t make a ton of shots, but here’s betting their style of play can wear down opponents in a game-a-day format.

WHO NEEDS A WIN THE MOST?

It’s easily Oklahoma. Sure, Kansas State, Baylor and Oklahoma State could all use a dub, but the Sooners would be toying with an epic and embarrassing collapse if they lose in the first round and somehow find themselves outside the Field of 68. This is a team that spent much of the season’s first two months looking like a Final Four contender while Trae Young carved up the country.

Now the Sooners are hanging on for dear life having lost seven of their last nine and Young looking completely human. They could lose to Oklahoma State on Wednesday and still sneak in, but they’ve got the most to lose should they falter.

WHO IS ON THE BUBBLE?

The Sooners’ spot is tenuous while Kansas State and Baylor both have to be thinking that one win in Kansas City ought to get them in the field. Oklahoma State probably will need a couple wins to counteract a non-conference schedule that features a win over Florida State and not a whole lot else. The good news for the Cowboys is it looks like they just might have the Jayhawks’ number should the two teams meet in Thursday’s quarterfinal.

THE SLEEPER

When Jaylen Fisher went down to injury, it was a major blow to TCU, but the Horned Frogs come to KC playing good ball. They fell to Texas Tech in the finale in Lubbock, but had won four-straight before that. Their offense is absolutely elite with plenty of shooters around Vlad Brodziansky, who can step out and stroke it himself. TCU’s defense may be suspect, but the way they can spread you out and fill it up makes them a sneaky pick to be hoisting a trophy Saturday night.

PLAYER TO WATCH

I know you’re probably tired of hearing and reading about him, but no player has more at stake at the Sprint Center than Trae Young. It wasn’t so long ago that you couldn’t mention his name without quickly comparing him to Steph Curry, and it was just a few weeks back when his lead in the national player of the year race looked insurmountable.

Young’s legacy as a college player will be decided in the next couple weeks. Well, it could be if the Sooners’ season doesn’t end Wednesday night. Whatever struggles Young has had the last few weeks – and he was right when he said he gets guarded like no other player in the country – he can quiet all his critics with one monster month of March.

X-FACTORS

– Teams are going to key on Devonte Graham and Svi Mykhailiuk and surround Udoka Azubuike, so Kansas is going to need to get contributions from Malik Newman. If Newman can provide some pop offensively, Kansas will be in good shape.

– How healthy is Mo Bamba? The Texas freshman is dealing with a toe injury that coach Shaka Smart said makes him questionable heading into play this week. The Longhorns may not need Bamba to get past Iowa State in their opener, but if they have designs on making a serious run this week, they’re going to need their man in the middle. When he’s on his game and playing at his best, he has the ability to completely change the dynamic of a game.

– Try making sense of Baylor. The Bears opened Big 12 play with 2-7 mark before reeling off five-straight to get back in to the NCAA tournament conversation. Now, though, Scott Drew’s team has lost three of its last four. The team that won five straight can win this thing. The team that started and finished the Big 12 slate could easily go out Thursday.

NBC SPORTS BIG 12 HONORS

PLAYER OF THE YEAR: Devonte Graham, Kansas

COACH OF THE YEAR: Bill Self, Kansas

FIRST TEAM ALL-BIG 12

  • Devonte Graham, Kansas
  • Trae Young, Oklahoma
  • Keenan Evans, Texas Tech
  • Jevon Carter, West Virginia
  • Mohamed Bamba, Texas

SECOND TEAM ALL-BIG 12

  • Dean Wade, Kansas State
  • Sagaba Konate, West Virginia
  • Svi Mykhailiuk, Kansas
  • Manu Lecomte, Baylor
  • Barry Brown, Kansas State

Big East Tournament Preview and Postseason Awards

AP Photo
Leave a comment

For the first time since it reconstituted as a new league, the Big East has a champion other than Villanova. Xavier ended the Wildcats’ four-year run atop the conference despite getting swept by Jay Wright’s program in their two meetings this season, finishing one-up on ‘Nova with a 15-3 league record.

Now as those to teams head into the conference tournament, the question becomes can both of them secure a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament? As things stand now, it looks as though both are incredibly well positioned to do just that, but they made need a third matchup in the title game to wrap up a pair of top seeds for the league.

While there is plenty of intrigue at the top of the league, there’s plenty at stake elsewhere as well. Creighton, Butler and Seton Hall all can help their own causes as all three have the profile of an 8/9 seed. Providence may not feel great about its spot unless it can win its opening-round tilt against the Jayhawks. Then there’s Marquette, which appears to be lingering right around the cutline heading into the season’s final week.

There is a lot at stake at Madison Square Garden this week, and St. John’s, Georgetown and DePaul have all proven capable as potential spoilers, setting the action up to be among the most compelling tournaments across the country.

THE FAVORITE

Yes, the Musketeers were the regular-season champs, but you’ve got to peg Villanova as the team to beat here. Three of the Wildcats’ four losses came away from home and the fourth is simply inexplicable as they fell to St. John’s at the Wells Fargo Center. Probably best to chalk that last one up to statistical variance.

‘Nova has a potential player of the year in Jalen Brunson, a player who thrives under pressure and in the clutch. Brunson is simply one of the best players in the country playing arguably the most important position for postseason success. Put him and Jay Wright together and it just feels downright silly to bet against Villanova. Let’s not also forget that the Wildcats topped Chris Mack’s team four-straight times dating back to last year.

We haven’t even mentioned Mikal Bridges or the strong supporting cast around he and Brunson, so despite Xavier’s strength and the potential landmines that other conference contenders potentially pose, VIllanova is the easy pick here.

THE CONTENDERS

Xavier is the clear second choice here behind the Wildcats. Mack’s group may have lost twice to Villanova, but their only other stumble along the very treacherous Big East path was a loss at Providence. They haven’t been susceptible to the slip-ups that ultimately cost Villanova another regular-season title. Veteran and talented guard play is always at a premium in win-or-go-home scenarios, and X has that in spades with Trevon Bluiett and JP Macura, both of whom are dudes you’d want in your corner with the season on the line. The offense is legit, but can the defense get enough stops over three-straight games?

Beyond the two headliners, Creighton and Seton Hall are potentially serious threats for a crown. If the Bluejays get hot, they can shoot their way to a title on the strength of Marcus Foster, Khyri Thomas and a cast of role players all capable of filling it up. For the Pirates, they’ll go as far as Desi Rodriguez and Angel Delgado will take them, which could be pretty darn far.

WHO NEEDS A WIN THE MOST?

While Providence would probably feel better with a win, it’s Marquette without a doubt here. The Golden Eagles are either in the First Four or the outside looking in, depending on which bracketologist you ask. A win against DePaul might night move the needle a whole lot, but a loss certainly will and not in the direction Steve Wojciechowski wants it to. If they can get past the Blue Demons and score an upset against Villanova, that should more than do it.

WHO IS ON THE BUBBLE?

Certainly Marquette is, but Ed Cooley’s team isn’t going to want to leave the Big Apple without a win. Providence could probably survive a loss to Creighton in the quarterfinals, but then you’re probably looking at either the First Four or forcing the committee to make a decision about you, neither of which are places a team wants to be. Unless Providence moves on to Friday or Saturday, it’s probably going to be a tense Sunday.

THE SLEEPER

Butler tied for sixth in the Big East standings, but their KenPom ranking of 24 is the third-best in the league. They’re not really elite anywhere, but they’re balanced and strong across the board. It may be LaVall Jordan’s first year at the helm in Indianapolis, but the Bulldogs have a winning pedigree and shouldn’t be discounted simply because of their 9-9 league record.

Butler has already knocked Villanova off once this season, so the Wildcats aren’t going to be an insurmountable obstacle in Friday’s semifinals. And, honestly, it won’t take much more than Kelan Martin, who is averaging 21.2 points per game, to raise his level of play for three days for Butler to find itself cutting down nets at the Garden. MSG seems to bring the best out of the best, and Martin very well could be the one to answer that call.

PLAYER TO WATCH

Martin and Brunson, as previously mentioned, are great candidates here, but let’s focus instead for a moment on Mikal Bridges. The 6-foot-6 junior is averaging 17.6 points, 5.5 rebounds and 2.1 assists per game while shooting 51.1 percent from the floor and 42 percent from distance. When that’s the second-best player on your team, you’re doing all right.

Bridges has been on a tear lately, too, scoring at least 20 points in four of his last five games. The Wildcats won all four games when he hit that mark and lost the one in which he didn’t. If Bridges keeps filling it up, look for Villanova to keep winning.

X-FACTORS

– Villanova has lost to both St. John’s and Providence this season, begging the question of just how vulnerable might they be in the early rounds of this tournament? They conceivably could see both those teams in the tournament’s opening two days. Were those games flukes and ‘Nova will bulldoze its way to Saturday, or were those sneaky matchup issues waiting to jump up and get them once more?

– Xavier’s defense is fine. Really, it is. But it’s not exactly good, either. The Musketeers don’t force turnovers or a ton of misses, though they do clean the glass. If an opponent can free up shooters consistently, they could shoot Xavier out of the Garden.

– Marcus Foster generates a lot of buzz for his offense for Creighton, but Khyri Thomas may be the better offensive player. He’s certainly the more efficient. While having a much lower usage rate that his teammate, Thomas shoots 43.1 percent from 3-point range and 63.6 percent from inside the arc. With defenses focused on Foster, Thomas is more than capable of winning games for Creighton.

NBC SPORTS BIG EAST HONORS

PLAYER OF THE YEAR: Jalen Brunson, VIllanova

COACH OF THE YEAR: Chris Mack, Xavier

FIRST TEAM ALL-BIG EAST

  • Jalen Brunson, Villanova
  • Mikal Bridges, Villanova
  • Kelan Martin, Butler
  • Trevon Bluiett, Xavier
  • Marcus Foster, Creighton

SECOND TEAM ALL-BIG EAST

  • Khyri Thomas, Creighton
  • Shamorie Ponds, St. John’s
  • Angel Delgado, Seton Hall
  • Desi Rodriguez, Seton Hall
  • Markus Howard, Marquette

Mountain West Tournament Preview and Postseason Awards

Ethan Miller/Getty Images
Leave a comment

The goal of the Mountain West in recent years has been to get back to the days earlier this decade in which the conference could count on multiple teams going to the NCAA tournament. There’s still work to be done in this regard, as the 11 teams will arrive in Las Vegas knowing that only regular season champion Nevada is well positioned to hear its name called on Selection Sunday.

Despite seeing multiple players suffer injuries throughout the course of the season, Eric Musselman’s Wolf Pack won the Mountain West by two games. Led offensively by twins Caleb and Cody Martin, forward Jordan Caroline and guard Kendall Stephens, Nevada may not be that deep but the team doesn’t lack for talent or experience either.

That being said Nevada won’t lack for challenges in Las Vegas, especially with Fresno State and San Diego State on their side of the bracket. Leading the way on the bottom half of the bracket is two-seed Boise State, which has some work to do in order to ensure itself of an NCAA tournament bid.

Here’s a look at the 2018 Mountain West Tournament, an event that’s been won by the top seed twice in the last five seasons.

THE FAVORITE

Even with Saturday’s loss to San Diego State in the regular season finale, Nevada has earned the label of favorites heading into the tournament. Boasting a 15-3 league record, the Wolf Pack had the Mountain West’s most efficient offense and defensively led the conference in both effective field goal and three-point percentage defense. Nevada’s top four scorers, led by Caleb Martin at 19.5 points per game, have combined to account for nearly 65 points per game on the season. And without Lindsey Drew, who went down with a ruptured Achilles last month, the Martin twins, Caroline and Stephens have even more on their plates.

But if a Josh Hall, who chipped in with ten points in Nevada’s win at UNLV on February 28, or Hallice Cook can step forward this week that would bode well for the Wolf Pack. What also helps this team is the fact that they take care of the basketball, as their 9.1 turnovers per game were by far the least in the Mountain West. That being said, they’ve got a tough half of the bracket to navigate.

THE CONTENDERS

Boise State leads this list, due in large part to the presence of senior guard Chandler Hutchison. Averaging 19.5 points, 7.6 rebounds and 3.5 assists per game, Hutchison leads the Broncos in all three statistical categories. While Leon Rice certainly has other options he can call upon offensively, led by Christian Sengfelder and Justinian Jessup (who’s shooting 46.7 percent from three), when a big play needs to be made it’s Hutchison who will have the ball in his hands.

After Boise State, New Mexico and San Diego State both deserve mention. Paul Weir led the Lobos to a 12-6 record in league play, and after being stuck on the bench his first two seasons in Albuquerque Anthony Mathis has emerged as the team’s leading scorer. And UNM capped the regular season with a win over Fresno State. As for the Aztecs, after getting blown out by Nevada on February 10 Brian Dutcher’s team won its last six to finish the regular season. SDSU is balanced offensively, with Malik Pope leading four double-figure scorers, and freshman Jalen McDaniels is going to be a star in this league.

WHO NEEDS A WIN THE MOST?

Boise State. With Nevada due to pick up an at-large bid if it doesn’t win the tournament, that leaves the Broncos as the only other team in the Mountain West that has a shot at reaching the NCAA tournament if they don’t win the automatic bid. But that would likely require Boise State reaching Saturday’s title game, at minimum. A win over Utah State or Colorado State in the quarters won’t do much for their resume, and neither would a semifinal win over New Mexico/Wyoming/San Jose State. And it should be noted that if Nevada isn’t the opponent in the final, a close loss could spell doom for Boise State there as well.

WHO IS ON THE BUBBLE?

Boise State. Ranked 41st in the NCAA’s most recent RPI update, Boise State enters the Mountain West tournament with two Quadrant 1 (Loyola-Chicago and Oregon) and four Quadrant 2 wins to its credit. The RPI likes Boise State more than other metrics, which have the Broncos ranked in the fifties with the exception of the KPI (61). Getting to the final may not be good enough, especially if the opponent in that game isn’t Nevada. Why risk it? Just win the whole damn thing and sleep easy Saturday night.

THE SLEEPER

Given the fact that they aren’t listed with the contenders above, Fresno State would be the best choice here. However, this is a group that is now playing without guard Jaron Hopkins as he suffered a right foot injury in a loss at Wyoming on February 24. Hopkins accounted for 20 points and five assists in the Bulldogs’ home win over San Diego State, their quarterfinal opponent, back on February 6. While many like to parrot the phrase “it’s hard to beat a team three times in the same season,” that’s been proven to be false.

Matchups matter, and Fresno State has some guys who can cause trouble in Deshon Taylor and Bryson Williams. The Bulldogs can account for the loss of Hopkins, especially with the time off between the end of the regular season and the start of the conference tournament. The bigger concern regarding Fresno State is the way that San Diego State is playing of late. As for any other sleepers, Wyoming is a team worth monitoring with Justin James and Hayden Dalton leading the way for Allen Edwards’ team. With San Jose State being the opponent in their tournament opener, Wyoming will likely face New Mexico for the third time this season in the quarters (UNM won both meetings).

PLAYER TO WATCH

Caleb Martin, Nevada. Martin, one of the top transfers in the country, is averaging 19.5 points, 5.3 rebounds and 2.5 assists per game on the season, shooting 47.3 percent from the field, 43.1 percent from three and 75.4 percent from the foul line. Martin going off over the course of three days, especially when he’s scored 20 points or more in 17 games this season, would surprise no one. And frankly, he’s a fun player to watch.

X-FACTORS

– Does Nevada’s lack of depth catch up with it due to the quick turnarounds? Three games in as many days could be a tough ask for the Wolf Pack, but the versatility of the players available should help matters.

– UNLV’s mindset. The Runnin’ Rebels lost five straight to end the regular season, with four of the losses being by double digits. There’s enough talent on this roster to cause some trouble, but given the beating they took at the hands of rival Nevada at Thomas & Mack on February 28 (101-75) who knows what this team will be thinking if the teams meet for a third time on Thursday.

– San Diego State’s defense. Long known for its commitment on that end of the floor, during a stretch in which it went 2-6 SDSU allowed 77 points or more in seven of those games (losing six). The Aztecs have defended better during the current six-game win streak, and if that carries over into Las Vegas maybe they make a run.

NBC SPORTS MOUNTAIN WEST POSTSEASON HONORS

PLAYER OF THE YEAR: Chandler Hutchison, Boise State

COACH OF THE YEAR: Eric Musselman, Nevada

FIRST TEAM ALL-MOUNTAIN WEST

  • Justin James, Wyoming
  • Chandler Hutchison, Boise State
  • Caleb Martin, Nevada
  • Hayden Dalton, Wyoming
  • Jordan Carolina, Nevada

SECOND TEAM ALL-MOUNTAIN WEST

  • Sam Merrill, Utah State
  • Deshon Taylor, Fresno State
  • Cody Martin, Nevada
  • Shakur Juiston, UNLV
  • Brandon McCoy, UNLV