Tuesday, February 28, 2006

The Most Wonderful Time of the Year

We're finally here - the start of a 5-week long personal holiday (though I don't actually get to stop working) that carries spring forth out of winter. It captivates the hearts and minds of people all across the country, who get the chance to believe in their team again, root for the underdog, and just watch a lot of good basketball. Over the next week and a half, the real March Madness takes place - over 300 teams in 31 conferences are playing for a shot at the big dance, and for all but about 20 teams, it's win or go home. I highly, highly encourage people to watch mid-major and minor conference championship games - the energy is always high, the games are usually close, and the basketball is good quality; last year one of the top 5 games I watched all year was the Mid-Con championship that Oakland won in a dramatic upset, my roommates and I were captivated and actually started cheering when Oakland hit the game winning basket. So with that in mind, a little conference tourney preview time. Here's the skinny on the three tourneys starting today:

Big South - This season was supposed to be all about Winthrop. To a certain extent, it was - they went 13-3 and grabbed the top seed, which is huge because the Big South plays entirely at conference sites, so they get home court all the way. But the one team in the conference that beat them at home this year also happens to be the hottest team right now, riding a ten-game win streak into the two seed. The Coastal Carolina Chanticleers have had a terrific renaissance this year under the guide of Buzz Peterson and the hot shooting hand of Jack Leasure. If anyone can knock off the Eagles, it'll be them - should be a heck of a championship game. Also, if Birmingham Southern wins their first round game, and Coastal wins 2, the Big South will have 3 20-win teams, which is terrific for the conference.

Horizon - UW-Milwaukee looked like they would run away with the Horizon before hitting a couple bumps at the end of the year, but they still held on to the top seed. This tournament is designed to protect the top seeds - UWM and #2 Butler get two round byes, and #3 UW-GB gets a free pass to the quarters. During conference play, there was a lot of parity (the 3-7 seeds all finished with a .500 conference record), and the same should hold true in the tournament - close games and upsets. By the numbers, Butler has the slightest of edges (they're 5 places ahead of UWM in the Pythagorean winning percentage, which predicts a team's winning percentage against an average schedule, based on their offensive and defensive numbers), and their style could cause trouble - they're the 5th slowest team in the country, but the execute extremely well in the slow-down, with a 113.0 ORtg. If they're going to win, they'll have to do it on UWM's home court.

Ohio Valley - The other Valley takes only 8 of the 11 teams in the conference tourney, and 7 of them had winning records in conference, so this should be a pretty tight affair. Murray State (featuring UVA transfer Keith Jenifer in his senior year) looks to be head and shoulders above the rest of the conference, but the 4-5 (Jacksonville St v. Eastern Kentucky) and 3-6 (Tennessee Tech v. Austin Peay) games tonight should be great. To Southeast Missouri St, Eastern Illinois, and Morehead State, better luck next year.

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