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March 3, 2009

SCS.comWell March is here and that can only mean one thing, March Madness. It is time for coaches to spend an extra hour in the office studying opponents, players to shoot an extra free throw at the end of practice, and for fans to lose a couple hours of sleep each night waiting on that west coast score. The latter certainly applies to those fans of teams desperately hanging onto the bubble. If you find your team as one of the last teams in the tournament, teams like Gonzaga, Memphis, and Butler become as important as your Arizona Wildcats or Providence Friars that you follow loyally. Here is a look at the teams who could play spoiler in their respective conferences and steal a bid from the last few bubble teams:

Atlantic Ten: Temple

Rewind one year, Xavier was the odds on favorite to win the Atlantic Ten Tournament and receive the conference’s automatic bid. The Musketeers were already a lock for the dance thanks to a stellar regular season; however it was Temple that left Atlantic City with the invitation to the big dance. Winning the championship was the only way the Owls could reach the NCAA Tournament and by doing so made the conference a three bid league. Bubble teams throughout the country cringed and will more than likely do so again should Xavier or Dayton not leave A.C. with the trophy.

One reason Temple can turn the switch on when they head to Jersey is their explosive scoring guard Dionte Christmas. Christmas nets about 20 each game, but certainly has the ability to go for 30 or more on any given occasion. Joining Christmas is Lavoy Allen, who is emerging as one of the more dominant post players in the Atlantic Ten and keeps improving. Should Allen assert himself on the offensive end like he does when the Owls are successful and Christmas finds himself in a groove, Temple has as good of a chance as any to win the Atlantic Ten Torunament.

Horizon: Green Bay & Cleveland State

With a RPI of 18 and 25 wins on the season, Butler is headed for the NCAA Tournament regardless of what it does in its conference tournament. There will however be a whole slew of teams cheering on Butler to save a bid, perhaps their own. The enemy for bubble teams will be Green Bay, the team that has already beaten Butler once and has five double digit scorers. But they are not the only threats in the Horizon Conference as Cleveland State seems to be a thorn in Butler’s side. The Vikings fell twice to Butler, but both were hard-fought two point losses in games that could have gone either way.

The players to keep an eye on will be Green Bay’s Ryan Tillema and J’Nathan Bullock of Cleveland State. Bullock is a pleasure to watch as his 6’5 frame contributes just less than 16 points and 7 rebounds per game. Butler seems to get in trouble when their opponent can get to the basket much like both Cleveland State and Green Bay has been able to do to them this season. Bullock almost seems to clear the path for the Vikings’ trio of guard to work in the paint, while Green bay also has three guard who can shoot, but also put the ball on the floor.

West Coast: Saint Mary’s

Are the Gaels in or out? Do they need to win the WCC Tournament to garner a berth? To hedge their bets, they may want to keep their fate out of the committee’s hands. Saint Mary’s finished the season at 24-5 with a RPI in the mid-fifties, a classic bubble scenario. But there is one caveat, as all but one loss has come with perhaps the best point guard in the country injured. Patty Mills broke his hand against Gonzaga and watched as his team lost the lead and eventually the game, to make matters worse, they went on to lose three of their next four games. Eventually they rebounded to rattle off five straight wins to close the year including a monster win over Utah State.

Much like Butler, Gonzaga is heading to the NCAA Tournament regardless of what happens in the West Coast Conference Tournament. Their stiffest competition will come from Saint Mary’s who might be able to seal a bid just by reaching the finals and giving Gonzaga a tough game. But they will want to win the automatic bid just to be on the safe side. Joining Mills in Omar Sahman in the post and the slasher Diamon Simpson, whose free throw shooting may determine the Gaels’ fate down the stretch.

Mountain West: New Mexico

The Lobos could finish the regular season with 21 wins in one of the country’s better conferences and not even be considered for an at-large berth thanks to a RPI hovering around 70, but they certainly will be a factor in the Mountain West Tournament. They have knocked off BYU, UNLV, and San Diego State with a shot at Utah coming up this week. All of those teams are competing for at-large bids and New Mexico can spoil their season. What makes the Lobos even more dangerous is that they are hot, winning 10 of their last 13 games. Also, they are battle tested playing twelve games against the RPI top 100.

With four double-digit scorers, new Mexico does not have to rely on one player and can afford to be aggressive on the defensive end and not be overly concerned with a player getting in foul trouble. In fact, their most important players for a lengthy run in the Mountain West Tournament could be its third and fourth leading scorers, Chad Toppert and Roman Martinez. Martinez nets just less than 11 points per game and Toppert comes just over 11 per game, but if these two are dialed in from long range, their opponent better beware.

Missouri Valley: Wichita State

Sure they are only .500 overall and 8-10 in conference play, but they are the hottest team in the Missouri Valley outside of Creighton. As of right now, many pundits have Creighton in the tournament regardless of whether or not they win the conference title. However, they are treading rough water and will not want to leave anything to chance. But bubble teams throughout the land will certainly be rooting for the Blue Jays since they are the only team in the conference worthy of an at-large berth.

Wichita State will look to pull off the shocker, pardon the poor pun, and garner the automatic bid. After a sluggish start to the season, they have won 10 out of 13 games and seem to be on the rise compared to the majority of the conference, especially near the top. More importantly the good fortune seemed to have started in mid-January after they knocked off Creighton, so they do know the Blue Jays can be beat. This is a conference tournament that looks to be primed for loads of upsets which is unfortunate for bubble teams of all kinds.

Odds & Ends

Teams such as Davidson and Utah State will provide interesting scenarios. Both seemed like solid at-large candidates a month ago, but may have played themselves out any chance for the bid. However, they are not completely eliminated should things break right, especially Utah State. Teams on the bubble almost have to root for Davidson and Utah State just in case they do somehow get an at-large bid, stranger things have happened. However, these are two teams that no one wants to run into come tournament time, especially Davidson. Assuming Stephen Curry is healthy, this is a team that is coming off of an Elite Eight run last season and if Curry gets hot, can beat anyone that takes the court with them.

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