By Marc Lawrence of Playbook.com — NCAA Conference Tournament Previews
PROJECTED FINAL FOUR: MICHIGAN STATE • INDIANA • MARYLAND • PURDUE
The Way We See It:
Once again this season the NCAA Tournament committee will have its hands full trying to decide which teams to leave home from the powerful Big Ten conference with as many as eight 20-win teams expected to crash the party (and that’s not including Northwestern). It’s been a long time between drinks of water since the Big Ten won a NCAA championship, but our feeling is MICHIGAN STATE has the chance to be the first team from this loop to cut down the nets in the Big Dance since they last did it in 2000. The Spartans certainly have all the attributes – read: No. 1 team in the land in Rebound Margin, Defensive Field Goal percentage and 3-Point Offensive Field Goal Percentage! It’s the Tom Izzo brand, and it works, with wins over Kansas, Louisville and the No. 1 seed in the Big Ten (Indiana) its no wonder this team is 5-0 SU against greater than .800 competition this season… INDIANA captured the regular season title but was bounced in the first round (as a No. 7 seed) by Maryland last year and is just 4-12 SU in this event since 2004. Its best weapon is a No. 3 ranked Offensive Field Goal shooting squad, but top seeds in this tourney are a mediocre 21-22 ATS all-time… Like the Hoosiers, MARYLAND, a team of straight shooters (No. 12 in the nation in Offensive Field Goal percentage), lost wind from their sails in dropping three of their final five games at press time. The Terps bring a 4-1-1 ATS conference tourney ledger of late in to this event but have struggled against quality opponents in conference tourney play, going 3-11 SU versus .735 or greater competition. WISCONSIN, last year’s champion, received stunning news when iconic head coach Bo Ryan called it quits in mid December. The Badgers got off to a rocky start under interim coach Greg Gard, losing four if its first five conference games by a total of 15 points, but have bounced back to win nine of their last ten games at press time including victories over Michigan State, Indiana and Maryland. They could be dangerous.
THE SLEEPER: MICHIGAN
As readers of the PLAYBOOK know, we’re big fans of John Beilein. His troops dominated .800 or less opposition this season (18-2 SU at press time) while Beilein is an outlandish 47-27 SU and 47-25-2 ATS in post-season games… Note: The Wolves have devoured No. 4-8 seeds in conference tourney play, going 9-4 SU and 11-2 ATS.
KEY TOURNEY BEST BET: PLAY ON MICHIGAN STATE WITH REVENGE.
It’s an oldie but goodie and once again we’ll take a leap of faith with Tom Rizzo not all that hard, actually – and back his troops with revenge in this affair. It would serve you well to note that the Spartans are 30-12 SU and 28-12-2 ATS with same season conference revenge since 2000, including 22-1 SU and 18-3-2 ATS when favored by four or more points, and 6-1-1- ATS in this tourney. Whew!
PROJECTED FINAL FOUR: KANSAS • WEST VIRGINIA • OKLAHOMA • IOWA STATE
The Way We See It:
With only two teams in the conference owning a losing record, its conceivable seven teams from this loop could receive invites to the Big Dance. However, unlike the three Big 12 teams that sported 30-win seasons two years ago, only KANSAS appears headed in that direction. The Jayhawks winners of 11 consecutive conference crowns – are once again the overwhelming choice to cut down the nets as they have reached the title game in this tourney 12 times since 1996. And when they do arrive to the championship game they’ve been like an annuity, going 9-2 SU and 8-3 ATS in their last eleven title games (lost to Iowa State in the finale last year). Bob Huggins’ WEST VIRGINIA squad gains the 2nd nod, thanks to a glass-cleaning machine that ranks No. 8 in the land in Rebound Margin. Yes we realize the Mountaineers have lost the money in each of their last nine conference tourney affairs, but Huggy Bear is 30-9 SU in these games when his team owns a win percentage of more than .666. He is also 8-2 SUATS in conference tourney versus No. 1 or No. 2 seeds. OKLAHOMA lived a good portion of the season in the pole position of the national polls before being toppled for good in early February. The Sooners, though, were just 3-10 ATS as conference favorites this season and area paltry 2-14 ATS in their last sixteen games in this tournament, going one-and-out three of the last four years. Yech. IOWA STATE, champs each of the past two seasons in this event, have the makings of making a deep run once again this campaign with a veteran team that’s been there and done that. The Cyclones chewed up sub .590 opposition this season (11-0 SU) and could be a finalist once again.
THE SLEEPER: BAYLOR
When it comes down to it its all about the completion for Baylor. The Bears devoured sub .750 opponents this season, winning 19 of 21 games on the scoreboard, while going 7-3-1 ATS in those games against the Big 12. An 18-11 ATS mark in this tourney this decade, including 13-5 ATS versus .750 or less opposition, says it all. You know what to do.
KEY TOURNEY BEST BET: PLAY ON the No. 2 seed in the semifinal round.
Results speak for them selves: since 2006 the No. 2 seed in this tourney is 7-0 SU and 6-1 ATS in semifinal games, including 5-0 SUATS the last five (see Iowa State over Oklahoma last year).
PROJECTED FINAL FOUR: ARIZONA • OREGON • UTAH • CALIFORNIA
The Way We See It:
If it appears the PAC-12 is down this season it’s because they are. Nine players from the conference were taken in the first round of the NBA draft the past two seasons, with ARIZONA leading the way with five. Nonetheless, because of relentless recruiting, the Wildcats depth runs deep and last year’s Elite Eight squad nabs the top spot in our Final Four once again this year. After 4 consecutive losses in title games, Zona finally climbed the ladder and cut down the nets in this event last year when they drilled Oregon, 80-52 in the championship game. Sean Miller’s troops destroyed .750 or less opposition this campaign (it’s a good thing the loop is down), winning 20 of 23 games at press time. That should get them back to the finals this year. OREGON brings a stellar 19-10 SUATS all-time mark in this tourney into this year’s event, including 9-0 SU and 8-1 ATS versus losing foes, and 4-0 ATS as favorites of 6 or more points. A 4-1 ATS dog log this season puts comfortably into just about any role in this affair. After misfiring early in February,UTAH closed like a freight train to conclude the regular season and is a prime player in this tournament. An 11-1 SU mark versus .590 foes this season, along with a 9-3 ATS record of late in conference tourneys makes the Utes ultra dangerous. CALIFORNIA has struggled in this tourney with a 2-6 SUATS record in its last eight games. The Bears were sent packing in a 22-point loss by Arizona as 18.5-point dogs last year and are just 2-10 ATS as tourney dogs but are vastly improved this year. A team no one will want to face n this event.
THE SLEEPER: OREGON STATE
The Beavers are another 5 returning starter entry that could do damage early in in this event. Head coach Wayne Tinkle’s troops have pissed themselves as dogs of more than 3 points under his lead (2-17 SU and 4-15 ATS) but have been competitive (11-3) against losing teams. That should carry them past the first round, and who knows what can happen thereafter.
KEY TOURNEY BEST BET: PLAY ON THE UNDERDOG IN THE CHAMPIONSHIP GAME
Despite a loss last year, the record of the dog in PAC 12 championship games is now 7-2 ATS the last eight years. With this group as tightly packed as can be, the points are certainly the play in this year’s title game as well.
PROJECTED FINAL FOUR: KENTUCKY • TEXAS A&M • VANDERBILT • LSU
The Way We See It:
With four new coaches roaming the sidelines, the SEC is down deeply from past editions (ESPN bracketologist Joe Lunardi has only four teams from the loop in this years March Madness tourney), it’s still KENTUCKY that garners all the praise. A sweep of last year’s conference tourney moved the Wildcats record to 51-11 SU and 40-20-2 ATS in this event since 1992. We’re not about to step in front of that, not with a coach in John Calipari that is 35-1 SU and 20-16 ATS as a No. 1 seed in conference tournament play in his career… TEXAS A&M hit a 0-4 SUATS wall early in February but managed to right itself with five straight season ending wins at press time to earn the runner-up position. The Aggies, though, will need to do better than they have in the past in this event (1-3 SUATS, going one-and-out each of the last two years). A refreshing 9-3 SU and 7-4-1 ATS mark versus .640 or greater opposition this season bodes well. A lot more was expected from VANDERBILT this campaign, a team with its top 8 scorers back from a 20-win team last season. In fact, many thought the Commodores would challenge Kentucky for supremacy in the SEC. Still, a late season surge holds promise, as does a 12-3 SU and 9-4 ATS mark versus sub .600 foes this season. LSU is led by 6-10 newcomer of the year, Ben Simmons soon to be a mainstay in the NBA. The Tigers, though, struggled away from home this campaign (3-9 SU and 2-10 ATS) and were sketchy at best against avenging foes (5-5 SU and 1-9 ATS). They will need a big run to impress the NCAA Tournament brass.
THE SLEEPER: SOUTH CAROLINA
The Gamecocks outplayed the preseason prognosticators that had them pegged as the 10th choice in this league. The rowdy roosters are 4-0 AST as favorites of 6 or more points in this tourney as well as 4-1 ATS as dogs of more than 8 points. The problem is head coach Frank Martin is just 6-16 SU and 7-14-1 ATS as a dog versus inferior foes and that will likely blow out the candle they’ve held with a surprising season this campaign.
KEY TOURNEY BEST BET: PLAY ON KENTUCKY IN THE SEMI OR FINAL ROUND
As alluded to above, John Calipari has dominated in conference tourney play, especially in Semi and Final round games where his teams smell the blood, going 27-5 SU and 23-9 ATS, including 26-1 SU and 20-8 ATS as a favorite. Enough said.