2007 Championship Week Preview

by David Mihm | February 26th, 2007

Championship Week can never come soon enough, at least for bracket junkies like myself.  But take heart, fellow hoops fans—the 2007 edition is rapidly approaching.

In an ironic twist, Championship Week is a unique time in all of sports that sees even Goliaths (i.e. teams in BCS leagues) root for Davids

Why?  Because the more quality mid-majors that emerge victorious in their conference tournaments, the more bubble spots remain open for at-large contenders in the bigger leagues.

The pejorative media phrase you’re likely to hear right through Selection Sunday—“stealing bids” –refers to the fact that a team without a worthy at-large profile is somehow not entitled to compete in the NCAA Tournament despite getting on a hot streak to close the year.

In my view, Championship Week is the real BracketBuster.  Without playing a head-to-head game, teams that have played second-fiddle throughout the year (if they’ve played fiddle at all) can wreak havoc in leagues beyond their own on their way to becoming an upset conference champion.

This year, there are 15 potential multi-bid leagues where an upset champion might eliminate a previously-available at-large position.

Big South
Bubble Hero: Winthrop
Bubble Villain: High Point

The Big South Tournament begins tomorrow, so it seems a fitting place to start.

Winthrop is the clear favorite, having romped through the conference undefeated at 14-0.  Troublingly for major conference teams, Gregg Marshall’s Eagles picked up a Top 50 RPI road win at Missouri State in last week’s BracketBuster.  A loss in the Big South Final might just be good enough for the Eagles to snatch an at-large.

But High Point played Winthrop tough in both meetings this year, losing by just a point back in January, and taking an 11-point lead into halftime just a week ago.

Bubble Hero: Appalachian State
Bubble Villain: Davidson

As a number of commentators have joked, the best thing for the Southern Conference would be a triple-overtime Davidson victory over Appalachian State in the Tournament Final, because it would likely mean a two-bid year for the conference.

The Wildcats don’t quite have an at-large-worthy profile, despite plowing through the regular season at 17-1 (the one loss coming to App. State).

The Mountaineers have a number of quality wins out of conference (Virginia, Vanderbilt, VCU, Wichita State), but three bad losses to UNC Greensboro, Elon, and Furman in SoCon play.  A loss to Davidson in the Finals probably yields a 50/50 chance at an at-large.

Bubble Hero: Butler
Bubble Villains: Wright State, Loyola-Chi.

Butler is still looking solid for an at-large bid despite three losses in its last five D-I games.  Wright State and Loyola-Chi. already beat the Bulldogs earlier this month, and to see either one earn the Horizon’s automatic bid would not be much of a surprise.

Bubble Hero: Memphis
Bubble Villain: Southern Miss

It’s hard to imagine Memphis losing the CUSA Tournament, with an average margin of victory in league play of over 20 ppg.  But Southern Miss has played the Tigers as close as any team all year, losing by just three at Memphis on February 3rd.

Bubble Hero: Old Dominion
Bubble Villains: VCU, Hofstra

Despite a second-place CAA finish, Old Dominion is looking 50/50 for an at-large bid thanks in part to a surprising double-digit jump in RPI this week.

I’m not sure that VCU’s regular-season title is going to mean as much as George Mason’s last year, because the Patriots had a bit stronger non-conference profile.  But the CAA Tournament is in Richmond, so Jeff Capel’s Rams should have a decided home-court advantage when it comes to picking up the automatic bid.  Hofstra is loaded with talent and experience, and is hungry to make the NCAA Tournament after last year’s perceived snub.

Bubble Hero: Xavier
Bubble Villains: UMass, George Washington, Saint Louis

Xavier’s recent six-game win streak has the Musketeers well-positioned for an at-large bid should they fail to capture the A-10’s automatic.

But Travis Ford’s UMass Minutemen have been at or near the top of the league standings all year, and lost to Xavier by just six points in Cincinnati in the teams’ only meeting.

George Washington has righted its ship after losing four in a row, and should not be counted out in Atlantic City.  Nor should SLU, with potential NBA center Ian Vouyoukas.

Bubble Hero: Nevada
Bubble Villain: New Mexico State

Championship Week’s worst-kept secret: it would be a mild upset if regular-season champion Nevada won the WAC’s automatic bid.  The WAC Tournament is hosted in Las Cruces, N.M. this year, home of the NMSU Aggies.  Reggie Theus’ team was part of our bubble discussions a month ago, but has since fallen off the pace. They’ve already beaten the Wolf Pack once this year; can they pull it off again with everything on the line?

Missouri Valley
Bubble Heroes: Southern Illinois, Creighton
Bubble Villains: Northern Iowa, Wichita State, Bradley

Arch Madness should be every bit as exciting as last year.  Missouri State will be trying desperately to play its way in as an at-large team, should it fail to win the automatic bid.  A first-round exit must be avoided at all costs

But the real spoilers are the three Valley teams that started strong before fading late.  Of the three, I’ll take Northern Iowa to win The Valley’s automatic bid: the Panthers looked extremely competitive against Nevada and ended Bradley’s at-large hopes by winning in Peoria this week.

Bubble Heroes: Air Force, UNLV
Bubble Villain: San Diego State

The Aztecs have been one of the hottest under-the-radar teams in February, going 7-1 in their last eight games, including W’s over all three teams ahead of them in the conference standings.  They also beat a healthy Cal earlier in the year, and return a number of players from last year’s NCAA Tournament team.

The MWC has a better chance at four Tournament bids than the MVC.  Who’d have thunk it back in December?

Bubble Heroes: North Carolina, Virginia Tech, Duke, Boston College, Virginia
Bubble Villain: N.C. State

Don’t forget that BCS teams can also “steal” bids from other at-large contenders.  N.C. State swept Virginia Tech this year and beat UNC at home.  It wouldn’t be a complete shock to see the Wolfpack, now fully healthy, cut down the nets in St Pete.

Bubble Heroes: UCLA, Washington State, Oregon, Stanford, USC, Arizona
Bubble Villains: Washington, Cal

Hands-down, this year’s most exciting conference tournament will take place at the Staples Center.  The Pac-10’s top six teams have all locked up at-large bids, but Washington has started to look more competitive in recent games (despite going 0-2 in Oregon), and Cal’s star inside player DeVon Hardin may be back in uniform for the Golden Bears.  It could be a record seven-bid year for the Pac-10 if either team puts together four straight W’s.

Bubble Heroes: Florida, Tennessee, Vanderbilt, Kentucky
Bubble Villain: LSU

Look who showed up on the national radar this weekend with an upset of projected #1 seed Florida: the LSU Tigers.  Even without Big Baby Davis, the Bayou Bengals pulled off a shocking upset of the Gators in Baton Rouge.

LSU is not even a lock for the NIT at this point, but if last week’s game is any indication, this team could be getting hot at just the right time.

Big Ten
Bubble Heroes: Ohio State, Wisconsin, Michigan State, Indiana
Bubble Villain: Michigan

Will the Wolverines finally start to play with some desperation? The talent is certainly there…

Also watch for a potential at-large elimination game between Illinois and Purdue in the 4-5 opener.
Big East
Bubble Heroes: Georgetown, Pittsburgh, Marquette, Louisville
Bubble Villains: Providence, DePaul

Both the Friars and Blue Demons have beaten plenty of quality competition this year.  Can Herbert Hill, Sharaud Curry, or Sammy Mejia pull off a McNamar-esque run of four games in four days?

Bubble Heroes: Kansas, Texas A&M, Texas
Bubble Villain: Missouri

Mizzou had been red hot, prior to falling at Nebraska over the weekend.  Mike Anderson’s frenetic style is always a threat in a one-and-done situation, and the Tigers have already beaten several middle-tier conference foes this year (Texas Tech, Oklahoma State, Oklahoma).

The following conferences are destined to be one-bid leagues, no matter who wins the automatic bid, as no single member of the conference owns a worthy at-large profile:

(Regular-season champions already determined are shown in parentheses)America East (Vermont)
Atlantic Sun (East Tennessee St.)
Big Sky (Weber St.)
Big West
MAAC (Marist)
MCC (Oral Roberts)
MEAC (Delaware St.)
OVC (Austin Peay)
Sun Belt
SWAC (Miss. Valley St.)

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