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Why You Need to Watch the Pac-10 Tournament

by - Published March 10, 2010 in Conference Notes

The Pacific 10 Conference is so feeble this season that even defending-tournament champion USC doesn’t want to be a part of this year’s tournament.

In reality, the Trojans can’t defend their championship because of a self-imposed sanction, but the idea of skipping the historically great league’s competition isn’t as absurd as you might think when considering the fall the Pac-10 has had this year. Regardless, the show must go on. Minus USC, nine hopefuls begin a journey at Staples Center today.

Hoping to lock up a dance ticket for a second consecutive season, regular-season champion and top-seeded Cal (21-9, 13-5 Pac-10) is the odds-on favorite to take the tournament due to its experienced squad and balance. Four of the Golden Bears’ starters are seniors, and they all average double-digit points (in order: guards Jerome Randle and Patrick Christopher and forwards Theo Robertson and Jamal Boykin). The Bears, winners of seven of their last eight games, will face the winner of tonight’s play-in game between No. 8 Oregon (15-15, 7-11) and No. 9 Washington State (16-14, 6-12)  (11 p.m. EST, FSN National).

Winner of six of its last seven games, No. 2 Arizona State (22-9, 12-6) might be the only Pac-10 team not named Cal that has secured itself an NCAA Tournament at-large bid even if it gets bounced out of the tourney early, which is unlikely. After dropping their first two Pac-10 games, the Sun Devils demolished then-No. 22 Washington to start a hot streak that saw them win 12 of their last 16 games, dominating every team but Cal, which won both regular-season meetings against ASU comfortably. The Sun Devils will take on the Landry Fields’ show, No. 7 Stanford (13-17, 7-11), on Thursday (9:18 EST, FSN).

The third-seeded Huskies repaid Arizona State when the Sun Devils came to Washington Feb. 6, knocking them around in a 79-56 win that was a shred of brilliance from the last Pac-10 team that still has a shot at an at-large bid. Led by senior forward Quincy Pondexter, who had a career-high 34 points against Oregon Thursday, Washington was ranked as high as tenth in the nation before entering a Pac-10 stretch in which it lost five of seven games. Pondexter didn’t let his Huskies lose many more games thereafter, though. Along with sidekick, sophomore guard Isaiah Thomas, Pondexter’s 20.2 points and 7.8 rebounds per game helped Washington go 9-2 in its last 11 regular-season games.

The bubble Huskies get No. 6 Oregon State on Thursday (11:40 EST, FSN). Washington is fresh off a Beaver-pounding session as its last game was an 82-70 win at Oregon State Saturday.

No. 4 Arizona is a mystery, a streaky team that can take down the best, as evidenced by its Jan. 31 win over Cal, or choke against the worst, shown in a Jan. 8 last-second loss to Washington State. The Wildcats (16-14, 10-8) had two different three-game losing streaks as well as a winning streak of four games. They’re streaking in the right direction as they enter the tournament, however, as they’ve come up victorious in their last three games, including a win against its Thursday tournament rival: No. 5 UCLA (13-17, 8-10).

The only thing the Bruins will have going in their favor Thursday (3 p.m. EST, FSN) is that they’ll be playing at home. Young talents Darren Collison and Jrue Holiday are in the NBA now — like every other young UCLA star, seemingly — and unable to help them, and Arizona swept the regular-season series from them. UCLA’s attack is balanced, but it won’t be enough. Home court is the wild card for the Bruins. At least they know the NBA won’t be taking any of their players this year.

The Staples Center crowd will be disappointed to see UCLA fall early as all the higher seeds will advance to the Friday semifinals, where Cal will down Arizona and the Huskies will mildly upset Arizona State. Then, in the Saturday final, Cal will prevail over Washington, securing itself a spot in the NCAA Tournament. Both Washington and Arizona State will receive at-large bids.

Lastly, all three conference representatives will lose in the NCAA Tournament’s first round, finally putting an end to a disappointing Pac-10 season.

Why You Need to Watch the ACC Tournament

by - Published March 10, 2010 in Conference Notes

According to some, the ACC is wrapping up a down year. And based on teams in the polls, that’s true. But the conference figures to place as many as seven teams in the NCAA Tournament after what promises to be an intriguing conference tournament in Greensboro, N.C.

Duke and Maryland are the favorites to reach the conference championship game, and the Blue Devils and Terrapins would love to meet for a third time to determine conference superiority after they shared the regular-season title. Maryland asserted itself as the clear No. 2 team in the conference by knocking off Duke in College Park last week. Although the teams shared the regular-season title, Duke has a much stronger profile for the NCAA Tournament and will be competing for a No. 1 seed while the Terrapins likely can only move up to a No. 3 seed. However, considering Maryland’s bubble status about two months ago, that’s a significant rise.

Besides the Blue Devils and Terrapins, five other teams will look to solidify their NCAA Tournament résumés. Florida State, Wake Forest, Georgia Tech, Virginia Tech and Clemson figure to receive NCAA Tournament invitations, but they want to avoid losing early in the ACC tournament. Georgia Tech is in the most precarious position after losing five of seven games to end the season. One of their two wins in the final three weeks came against North Carolina, the Yellow Jackets’ opponent in the opening round. The Tar Heels are fresh off a spanking in Durham last weekend, and Georgia Tech might catch North Carolina in a funk after a disappointing season.

Although a loss by Georgia Tech might jeopardize the Jackets’ at-large status, Wake Forest, Clemson, Florida State and Virginia Tech can probably afford to lose their first games of the tournament. The Hokies and Seminoles earned opening-round byes. If Wake Forest gets past Miami, the Demon Deacons will meet Virginia Tech. Florida State awaits the winner of Clemson and North Carolina State.

If a team not named Duke or Maryland wins the ACC tournament, the conference championship would boost its NCAA Tournament seeding by one or two lines. That likely would mean the difference between a No. 8 or 9 seed and No. 6 or 7 seed. A surprising run to the championship would significantly lift the confidence of Wake Forest and Georgia Tech, which appeared to have peaked earlier in the season. If the Demon Deacons falter in the ACC tournament, they might start remembering last season’s disappointing end, when the team flamed out in the first round of the NCAA Tournament.

However, the rest of the field has a tough road ahead because the Blue Devils will be looking to defend its 2009 tournament title and earn a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament. Many experts think Duke has the inside track for the last top seed, but a loss before the championship game might give Purdue, Kansas State or a second Big East team a shot at a top spot. In addition, Duke might feel slighted that coach Mike Krzyzewski and Jon Scheyer were passed over for league honors in favor of Maryland’s Gary Williams and Greivis Vasquez. Look for Duke to play with the same passion and determination that the Blue Devils had Saturday against North Carolina.

Why You Need to Watch the Mountain West Tournament

by - Published March 9, 2010 in Conference Notes

With three Mountain West Conference teams cruising into the NCAA Tournament and a fourth hoping to come along for the ride, what happens in Vegas won’t stay in Vegas.

The most compelling storyline of the Mountain West tournament will be the performance of San Diego State. Ranked No. 36 in the RPI, the Aztecs are in desperate need of another quality win or two. Two quality wins would probably deliver San Diego State a conference championship and automatic bid. If the Aztecs get past Colorado State in the quarterfinals, they will likely face New Mexico, which they have beaten once this season. A second win against the Lobos would give them two wins against the RPI top 25, albeit against the same team.

If the Lobos can handle their business against Wyoming or Air Force and get past San Diego State or Colorado State, they will have a chance to play for the championship and the possibility of moving up in NCAA Tournament seeding. At 28-3, New Mexico has the opportunity to reach 31 wins if the Lobos win the conference championship. Of those 31 wins, eight of them would probably be against RPI top 50 teams, including at least four wins against the top 25. That’s the kind of profile that a No. 2 seed needs to have. Several Big East teams are in contention for No. 2 seeds, too, but they can’t all win in the Big East tournament. That helps the Lobos.

The other favorite to contend for the Mountain West title is BYU, which is probably itching to avenge two regular-season losses by a combined six points to New Mexico. The first two games were so good that a third match up would be a fitting end to one of the best Mountain West seasons of all-time. A New Mexico/BYU championship game would come two weeks after their most recent battle in Utah, after which Lobos coach Steve Alford was reprimanded for calling BYU forward Jonathan Tavernari an expletive that rhymes with “crass mole” following a late-game confrontation between several Lobo and Cougar players. These teams just don’t like each other. And they are both poised to create problems in the NCAA Tournament, and they want to build as much momentum as possible entering the Big Dance.

However, UNLV could spoil that dream championship match up. The Rebels are hosting the tournament and have lost only three home games this season. Granted, one of those losses was to Utah, which UNLV will face in the quarterfinals. But UNLV already beat BYU once in Vegas and would love to solidify its NCAA Tournament status with another big win against the Cougars in the semifinals. The Rebels could move up to as high as a No. 6 seed in the NCAA Tournament if they protect their home court and win the conference championship.

The Mountain West tournament promises to deliver a couple of thrillers, and the home team figures to be a part of one or two of those.

Why You Need to Watch the Conference USA Tournament

by - Published March 9, 2010 in Conference Notes

For the Conference USA, Selection Sunday will be stressful regardless of which team wins the conference tournament and automatic bid.

UTEP enters the conference tournament on a 14-game winning streak and has not lost since dropping its only Conference USA game of the season at Houston Jan. 13. Despite a strong 24-5 record, the Miners have only three wins against the RPI top 50 — two against No. 40 UAB and one against No. 46 Memphis. The Miners cannot afford to lose in the quarterfinals against SMU or Central Florida. For UTEP to feel secure about its at-large chances, the Miners probably need to make it to the championship game.

Although the conference tournament favorite has more work to do, the No. 2 seed, UAB, might be in better position to earn an at-large bid if needed. The Blazers hope that the selection committee values its 23 wins, which include a home win against Butler, one of the RPI top 25 teams. UAB has 11 wins on the road or at neutral sites, and two more in the Conference USA tournament might be enough to book the Blazers a trip to the NCAA Tournament.

Memphis is in a similar position as UTEP with a gaudy record but few quality wins. The Tigers are 23-8 and have two wins against the RPI top 50 — but both of those came against UAB. Memphis came close to knocking off Kansas and Tennessee, but the Tigers came up short. And if they don’t win the automatic bid, their run toward an NCAA Tournament bid might likewise fall short.

The biggest wild card in the Conference USA tournament is Tulsa, which is hosting the tournament. Tulsa has lost only twice at home this season, but the Golden Hurricane has no wins against the top three teams in the conference. If Tulsa wants to live up to its lofty preseason expectations, the Golden Hurricane will need to knock off Rice and Marshall before likely facing UTEP in the semifinals and either Memphis or UAB in the championship game. It’s not inconceivable for the home team to win four games in four days, but it’s a lot to ask for a team that hasn’t posted more than two straight wins since mid-January.

Another sleeper to win the conference championship is Marshall. The Thundering Herd have received less press coverage than UTEP, UAB and Memphis. Besides a five-game losing streak in the middle of conference play, Marshall went 23-3 to start and end the season. Despite the record, Marshall lacks any quality wins and is not a viable at-large candidate. But the Thundering Herd have one of the most dominant defensive players in the nation in Hassan Whiteside, who averages 5.4 blocks per game. He adds 13.6 points and 9.2 rebounds per game to give the Thundering Herd a bona fide game-changer.

The Conference USA figures to place two teams in the NCAA Tournament if the favorites take care of business and reach the conference championship game. If a team seeded six or lower reaches the championship, the conference might slip back to being a one-bid conference yet again.

Why You Need to Watch the Big 12 Tournament

by - Published March 9, 2010 in Conference Notes

The Big East has garnered plenty of praise this season, and many consider it to be the best conference in the country. But the Big 12 teams beg to differ.

The conference has the likely favorite to win the national championship in Kansas. Besides the Jayhawks, three others teams are legitimate threats to reach at least the Elite Eight: Kansas State, Baylor and Texas A&M. And that’s not counting Texas, which reached No. 1 in January after starting the season 17-0. Missouri and Oklahoma State also figure to be dangerous teams.

Although all seven of those teams have likely sealed their NCAA Tournament bids and the other five are nowhere near the bubble, the Big 12 tournament figures to offer plenty of intrigue. In the opening round on Wednesday, Oklahoma State and Oklahoma will play the rubber match of this season’s bedlam rivalry. Each team won at home, and now they will settle the season series on a neutral court in Kansas City, Mo.

The opening round also will be important for Texas, which ended the season 6-8 after reaching No. 1 in January. No. 11-seed Iowa State came up with its best game of the season last weekend when the Cyclones knocked off Kansas State in Manhattan. They will be riding into the Big 12 tournament with plenty of confidence, which might bode poorly for the sputtering Longhorns.

Among the top four seeds, No. 2 Kansas State probably has the most to gain in the Big 12 tournament. If the Wildcats can storm through Baylor and Kansas en route to a conference championship, they might be able to join the Jayhawks as a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament if teams like Duke and Purdue lose early in their conference tournaments. Meanwhile, Baylor and Texas A&M look to secure a top four seed in the NCAA Tournament with a strong showing in the conference tournament.

Why You Need to Watch the Atlantic 10 Tournament

by - Published March 8, 2010 in Conference Notes

The Atlantic 10 figures to get at least three teams into the NCAA Tournament, and a few other teams remain in the mix to earn an at-large bid if they deliver a strong performance in Atlantic City this week.

However, three of those bubble teams will need to take care of business at home Tuesday when the Atlantic 10 tournament opens at campus sites. Rhode Island, Charlotte and Dayton, seeded five through seven, respectively, will face teams likely playing their final game of the season if they don’t pull off the upset. So all three favorites will need to bring their best effort at home before they pack their bags for the boardwalk.

If the Atlantic 10’s bubble hopefuls get past the likes of Saint Joseph’s, Massachusetts and George Washington, they will face several dominant teams on the Jersey Shore. All four of the top seeds enter the conference tournament with fantastic finishes. Temple, the conference’s top seed, has won seven in a row and only lost to Charlotte and Richmond during the Atlantic 10 regular season. No. 2 Xavier also is on a seven-game winning streak and sports a 14-2 conference record. Dayton and Temple claim the Musketeers’ only two losses.

Richmond has its best team in years, and the Spiders won 10 of 11 games to close the regular season. The team’s three conferences losses came against Xavier, Charlotte and Saint Louis. The Billikens are the No. 4 seed and have won eight of their last 10 games. Saint Louis has the most losses of the four teams that earned a bye into the quarterfinals, including losses to Charlotte and George Washington.

Based on regular-season results, Charlotte would appear to be the underdog most likely to make a run to the conference championship because the 49ers have victories against three of the top four seeds. Interestingly, Dayton and Charlotte both have beaten the teams they would face in the quarterfinals in Atlantic City. If the Flyers and 49ers pull off the upset, they would meet in the semifinals in what could be a bubble elimination game.

Rhode Island faces one of the toughest roads to the NCAA Tournament because the Rams are 0-3 against Saint Louis and Temple, the two teams they would likely meet in the quarterfinals and semifinals. In addition, Rhode Island has sputtered in recent weeks, losing five of seven games, including bad losses to St. Bonaventure and Massachusetts.

If the top two teams meet in the Atlantic 10 championship game, Atlantic City might bear witness to an epic match up. Xavier lost a tight battle in Philadelphia in the teams’ only meeting during the regular season, and the Musketeers would be looking for revenge on a fairly neutral court. In that battle for first place in January, Xavier rallied from an eight-point first-half deficit to claim a one-point lead when Jordan Crawford hit a three-pointer midway through the second half. The Owls answered immediately with a three-pointer from Juan Fernandez, who sparked an 11-2 decisive run.

The Atlantic 10 has enjoyed one of its best seasons in recent years, with six legitimate NCAA Tournament contenders. However, late-season struggles will likely limit the conference to three or four tournament bids, with the others likely to receive NIT invitations. But first, 12 Atlantic 10 teams prepare for four days of intense basketball that will decide their post-season destinies.

Why You Need to Watch the Big East Tournament

by - Published March 8, 2010 in Conference Notes

With all 16 teams participating in the conference tournament, the Big East has created a five-day marathon that is only one round short of matching the length of the NCAA Tournament. Starting Tuesday, several Big East bubble teams will hope to work their way through the Big East tournament en route to the NCAA Tournament.

While South Florida, Connecticut, Cincinnati and Seton Hall tip off Tuesday in hopes of avoiding a devastating opening-round loss, half the conference will sit back and watch. Of those eight teams waiting until later in the week to play, Syracuse, Pittsburgh, West Virginia, Marquette, Georgetown and Louisville will be playing only to improve their NCAA Tournament seeds. Notre Dame also has a bye in the opening round and will want to avoid a loss to Seton Hall or Providence Wednesday to feel better about its at-large prospects. However, a late-season resurgence probably has the Fighting Irish in the Big Dance.

Connecticut and Cincinnati have 14 losses apiece entering the Big East tournament. Since the NCAA Tournament expanded to 64 teams in 1985, no at-large team has had more than 14 losses. Unless the selection committee makes history this season, the Huskies and Bearcats will need to win five games in five days to reach the NCAA Tournament. Connecticut seems better poised to make a miraculous run because they are 2-1 against their first three opponents, with the only loss being a two-point game against Marquette. If the Huskies were to reach the Big East semifinals, they could find themselves in a Big East tournament rematch with top-seeded Syracuse. Last season, the two teams played one of the best conference tournament games of all time in a six-overtime epic won by the Orange.

South Florida and Seton Hall are in slightly better position entering the tournament because they probably can claim an at-large bid with three wins. That’s not an easy task for either team. However, the Bulls draw the Big East’s worst team, DePaul, which has won only one conference game this season. In the second round, South Florida would get Georgetown, whom the Bulls have already beaten once this season. A run to the quarterfinals would give South Florida three wins against the RPI top 25 and 21 wins.

The Pirates enter the Big East tournament with one of the most explosive players in the nation, Jeremy Hazell. The Harlem native averages 21.2 points per game and will be looking to light up the scoreboard in his hometown. Seton Hall will enter the tournament with a lot of confidence because the Pirates have wins against each of the first three teams they would play. Seton Hall won at Providence by a dozen Saturday and will look to repeat that performance Tuesday. If the Pirates win, they will look for a second win against Notre Dame en route to a critical quarterfinal match up against Pittsburgh. If Seton Hall can find a way into the semifinals by beating Pitt for the second time this season, the Pirates would have four wins against the RPI top 50 and 21 wins.

Although Seton Hall and South Florida have the talent to make a run, their NCAA Tournament hopes remain dicey. Most likely, those teams need to reach the Big East championship game to leapfrog bubble teams like Illinois, Florida and Mississippi. And they must hope that teams like Butler and Utah State can make their respective conferences one-bid leagues.

With so many teams playing for their NCAA Tournament lives, the Big East tournament will feature nonstop drama. And with several elite teams likely to meet, the match ups could resemble Sweet 16 pairings as early as the Big East tournament quarterfinals. Because Syracuse, Villanova, West Virginia and Pittsburgh are all legitimate Final Four contenders, we could easily see a national championship or national semifinal preview at some point in the Big East tournament.

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