Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Conference Tournament Countdown: Southland, Big Ten, ACC, and SEC Conference

[Editor's Note: SportsJudge continues it's breakdown of all 30 conference tournaments leading up to March Madness with tonight's preview of the Southland, Big Ten, ACC, and SEC Championships.]

Southland (previewed by Brian Doyle)

The Southland Conference has four teams that are likely to compete for the conference championship: Sam Houston St., Stephen F. Austin, Nicholls St., and Texas A&M Corpus Christi.

On one side of the bracket, the #2 seed Nicholls St. is likely to meet #3 seed Sam Houston St. in the tournament semi-finals. In their lone meeting this season, Nicholls St. eeked out a one point win at Sam Houston St., with leading scorer Ryan Bathie (15 points per game) putting up 19 points against Sam Houston, but it was Justin Payne’s last second drive and layup that gave Nicholls St. the win. Nicholls St. finished conference play with an 11-2 record in their last 13 games and look for them to use that momentum to carry them into the conference championship game. Sam Houston St. finished the conference season with a mediocre 5-3 record and have proven inconsistent of late.

On the other side of the bracket look for Stephen F. Austin to take care of Texas A&M CC. A&M CC finished conference play with a 3-4 record, and Stephen F. Austin, led by Matt Kingsley and Josh Alexander’s combined 30 points per game, should take care of A&M CC and face Nicholls St. in the finals.

Stephen F. Austin, as the top seed and with a formidable offensive duo in Kingsley and Alexander should take care of Nicholls St. in the championship game. The two teams split the season series, with Nicholls St. keeping Alexander to 2 points in their win. That situation is unlikely to repeat itself come the end of this week.

Brian Doyle: Stephen F. Austin
Mike Colligan: Stephen F. Austin
Kevin Fenstermacher: Stephen F. Austin

Big Ten (previewed by Brian Doyle)

Michigan St. is the clear favorite in the Big 10 tournament, but with a league full of teams that can beat each other at any given time, on any given day, and especially in a tournament format, it’s probably more likely than not that Michigan St. won’t end up as the conference tournament champion. As the Big 10 teams descend upon Conseco Field House in Indianapolis on Thursday, the top 3 seeds, Michigan St., Illinois, and Purdue all have first round byes and await the winners from 3 games on Thursday afternoon. Let’s have a look at the teams with the greatest chance of coming out on top by the end of the week.

Michigan St. started the season off slowly, getting shellacked against UNC and losing to Maryland before bouncing back with wins against Texas and Minnesota in their first conference game. Michigan won the Big Ten easily, by four games over Illinois and Purdue, both of whom they have proven they can beat, especially late in the season. They’re led in scoring by Kalin Lucas but Raymar Morgan appears to be a key to the team’s success; Michigan St. is 18-1 when Morgan plays 20 or more minutes. With an outside shot at a #1 seed in the NCAA Tournament, State may have a lot to play for in this tournament; they’re certainly the team to beat.

Purdue has limped into the conference tournament, losing 3 of their last 4 games of the regular season. The Boilermakers do have three players that are averaging double digits in scoring, including Robbie Hummel, who was the Big Ten preseason pick player of the year, who needs to step up much more than he has so far this season. Much like Purdue, Illinois was sluggish towards the end of the regular season, finishing 2-3 in their last five games. Also much like Purdue, Illinois spreads their scoring across their team, with four players averaging in double digits, and another averaging 9.9 points per game. Depending on which version of these teams show up, they could face Michigan St. in the championship, or very well could be upset before reaching the semi-finals.

Penn St. and Michigan are two teams that need to make runs in this tournament, and both teams are capable of doing so, proving that they can play with the best teams in the conference, and in the country. Michigan is led by Manny Harris and DeShawn Sims, but flying under the radar is freshman Stu Douglass, who has proven that he can show up in big games, like when took over Michigan’s offense in their close loss to UConn in February in Storrs. If Douglass, a threat from behind the arc, breaks out Michigan has a chance to make a serious run in this tournament, a run that they need to make to strengthen their bid for an NCAA Tournament at-large bid.

Meanwhile, Penn St. seems to make no sense whatsoever, beating Illinois twice this season, including a 38-33 win in Champaign, and no, the game wasn’t called at halftime. But Penn St. seems to follow up these quality wins with losses to teams like Iowa, the team they lost to in their final regular season game. I wouldn’t be surprised at all to see a Michigan – Penn St. semifinal, while unlikely, the Big Ten has had all kinds of parity this season outside of Michigan St. Similarly, I don’t see Wisconsin or Ohio St. getting past Michigan St. on their side of the bracket. When a tournament is unpredictable and this one, the best way to go is either with the best team, or the worst team, just because well…why not? This year I’m going with the best team, Michigan St., who have proven so far this year that they are a level above the rest of the Big Ten field.

Brian Doyle: Michigan St.
Mike Colligan: Purdue
Kevin Fenstermacher: Purdue

ACC (previewed by Kevin Fenstermacher)

The ever-popular Atlantic Coast Conference is about ready to get its conference tournament started this year, and all the drama of the Duke UNC rivalry is prevalent. There is also the re-emergence of another top ACC team in Wake Forest. The perennial wrong side of the bubble team performing finally performing to its potential in Florida State. Another legendary coach, Gary Williams, with his team on the outside looking in along with three other squads (Miami and Virginia Tech) who probably need a conference championship to make the NCAA Tournament, and I have even mentioned one of the most entertaining teams in the country to watch, the Clemson Tigers. Oh yea, and Boston College should be in the tourney as well. The ACC is year in and year out one of the best conferences in college basketball (even though I feel nobody touches the Big East over the past two years).

There are many teams who need to make a stand to use this tournament as a stepping stone to get into the tournament. Unfortunately for them, the ACC has some very strong teams at the top that I don’t believe these teams will be able surpass. I am counting BC, Maryland, Va Tech, and Miami all out of the NCAAs. Maryland and Miami have the best shot, but there are so many teams on the bubble that are just as viable, it is tough to tell what is going to happen. But then again, that is why they have the conference tournaments. It is the last chance for these teams to bolster their resume and get one of the last spots into March Madness.

As to who will win the ACC Tournament it is quite simple in most minds. North Carolina is the best team in the conference. They have the most talent and one of the best coaches in the college game. They have willing and determined seniors along with young talented players around them. However, there are two things holding UNC back right now. The injuries to point guard Ty Lawson and that they really don’t have a very deep bench. I think Lawson’s injury will affect them on both accounts (his level of play and the thin bench needing more playing time.) For these reasons I think UNC won’t hold up throughout the entire tournament.

The other contenders are Duke, Wake Forest, Clemson, Florida State, and Boston College. I will rule out four for you right now. Duke is too reliant on Gerald Henderson and Kyle Singler. I know Scheyer has put up points as well this year, but he disappeared during a stretch this season. I don’t think Henderson and Singler, as good as they are, can carry this team on their back. Wake Forest is an outstanding team. They are very talented, but at the same time very inconsistent. They have followed up big wins with losses to lesser competition on multiple occasions this season and the same could easily happen in the tournament. Florida State is still Florida State, so they will try and lose their first game of the conference tournament to see if they can get back on the bubble and miss out on yet another tournament. They are a lock so don’t worry about that, but they will try… Boston College just doesn’t have the talent for the ACC Tourney push. That leaves one team left.

The Clemson Tigers.

They are so entertaining to watch I can’t pick against them. Their full court press and all out hustle on every play is something that I love and want to see more and more of. K.C. Rivers is the combo guard that seems to be able to do anything on the court. Terrence Oglesby has such range and an unconscious trigger that you never know when he is going to unload a bomb from beyond the arc. You can’t leave him open. Trevor Booker is easily my favorite player in the ACC (yes, if you are wondering I am playing favorites). I’m not a Clemson fan, I just want to make that clear. I just like the way this team plays and think they have the makeup of a surprise team to go deep in the NCAAs and win the ACC. Trevor Booker’s dunk on Kyle Singler and Brian Zoubek in the 74-47 thrashing of Duke is my background to my computer at work. I hope you all saw that play. He has thrown it down with authority on multiple occasions this season.

I know this team has struggled since the before mentioned beating of the Blue Devils, but there is no better time than the revival of the Tigers than now.

Mike Colligan: Wake Forest
Brian Doyle: Wake Forest
Kevin Fenstermacher: Clemson

SEC (previewed by Kevin Fenstermacher)

The SEC is having a down year this year and could see as few as two teams in the NCAA tournament. Florida and South Carolina are hanging on the bubble and only LSU and Tennessee are locks heading into the SEC Tournament. There are a lot of teams that have very similar resumes and conference records, but nobody has stood out the season (besides LSU).

I wonder if Billy Donovan wishes he was in Orlando right now. His team hasn’t performed up to expectations this season and is right in the bubble mix, a place he isn’t too used to. Nick Calathes is one of the best point guards in the conference and has a great blend of skills to his game.

South Carolina has some very strong wins this season, which is why I feel they will make the tournament. A 10-6 conference record in the SEC still looks good even if the conference is having a down year. Devan Downey leads the team in scoring with over 20 a game and can go off at any time.

Tennessee should get a middle seed in the big dance this year (around a 6 or 7). The reason they are so high with just a 19-11 record in the pathetic SEC this year is because they played one of the toughest non-conference schedules in all of college hoops. They faced off against Siena, Temple, Georgetown, Gonzaga, Marquette, and Kansas. 4 of those teams are in the NCAA Tournament and Temple has a very strong chance of being in as well.

LSU wasn’t thought as the powerhouse of the SEC, but here they are on top with a 13-3 conference record and regular season championship. Marcus Thornton has been very versatile for the Tigers scoring inside and out. He can drive on you and get dirty inside getting rebounds or he can stop and pop with what at time seems to be endless range. They should be a team to keep an eye on later in March and should walk away as both regular season and conference tourney champs of the SEC.

Mike Colligan: LSU
Brian Doyle: Tennessee
Kevin Fenstermacher: LSU

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