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Bracketography Kicks off 2007

by David Mihm | January 8th, 2007

Selection Sunday is just nine weeks away (March 11), but it’s not too early to start analyzing teams as they jockey for positioning on the S-Curve of the Men’s Division I Basketball Committee. So let’s get started!

Save for a few juicy marquee matchups remaining (including Tennessee at Ohio State on Saturday), the non-conference season for 2006-2007 is in the books.  The college basketball landscape looks largely as it did at the start of the season.  But there were a few minor tremors, and one major disturbance, which surely registered on the Selection Committee’s collective radar screen. 

Here’s a look at teams that have made the most positive impressions on the Selection Committee with their non-conference bodies of work, one per conference.

Pac-10: UCLA

The Pac-10 is a conference full of pleasant surprises (see: Oregon, Washington State, USC), but no team in the nation performed better against a stronger non-conference slate than UCLA.  The Bruins dominated a strong field in Maui (Kentucky, Georgia Tech) before mowing down Big West favorite Long Beach State, Texas A&M, and Michigan back in Southern California.

Critics bemoaned the loss of Jordan Farmar before the season, but Darren Collison has provided an upgrade at the PG slot, particularly on defense.  Josh Shipp is back and healthy, and Michael Roll is enjoying a breakout year as a sixth-man.  And then there’s Arron Afflalo: arguably the best two-guard in the country.  The only real concern for the Bruins’ NCAA résumé will be their “Last 10” criterion.  UCLA goes on the road in five of their final seven overall, including trips to West Virginia, Arizona, and The Evergreen State.

SEC: Tennessee

Yes, folks, the neon orange sportcoat has made its way back national television.  Largely abandoned by Bruce Weber at Illinois, Bruce Pearl has embraced it with a passion, and sunglasses are advised for all future Vols games.

But there’s more to this team than its coach’s wardrobe.  Chris Lofton (my pick for the 2nd-best two-guard in the country) has picked up right where he left off in last year’s NCAA Tournament, averaging 22 ppg and 47% from three-point range.  Backcourt mate Dane Bradshaw hasn’t been bad either, with his gaudy 2.67-to-1 assist: turnover ratio.

After a disappointing Preseason NIT (which doesn’t look nearly as disappointing a month later) Tennessee matched Oklahoma State muscle-for-muscle in Nashville, emerging with a two-rebound advantage and a two-point victory.  The Vols backed it up five days later winning a thrilling six-digit game over Texas.  Add home wins over Memphis and Western Kentucky earlier in the month, and Tennessee is well on its way to another high seed in the NCAA’s…the difference this year is that they will have earned it.

ACC: Maryland

Gary Williams will be sweating a lot less in March this year.  (Actually, come to think of it, he probably won’t, but at least it won’t be for fear of missing the NCAA’s for a third consecutive year.)

No, the fear this year is all felt by opponents of The Turtle.  North Carolina has been the most dominant team in the ACC, Clemson has been more surprising, but Maryland has done the most with its non-conference slate.  The Terps picked up eight wins in a row to start the season, including one of the nation’s most impressive roadies: a six point victory in Champaign.  Also thrown in for good measure were home wins over likely conference champs Vermont and Winthrop, and solid wins at MSG over St. John’s and Michigan State.

The chemistry is finally there this year for the Terrapins, with freshmen Greivis Vasquez and Eric Hayes gelling well with upperclassmen D.J. Strawberry, James Gist, and Ekene Ibekwe.   

Big XII: Oklahoma State

One of the looming questions prior to the start of the season was how OSU, largely with last year’s underachieving roster intact, would respond to new coach Sean Sutton.  A few of us, including myself, wondered if they’d even be a part of the NCAA discussion.

Consider that question answered: through the non-conference season, Sean Sutton is on the short list for Coach of the Year.  The Cowboys put together three very impressive neutral court wins, as part of what might have been the smartest schedule in the country: Missouri State at South Padre Island, Syracuse at Madison Square Garden, and Pittsburgh at Oklahoma City.  OK, so the last one is barely neutral, but keep in mind OSU also lost by only two to Tennessee in Nashville.

OSU, behind JamesOn Curry (who still tries to take the game over a little too often) and Mario Boggan (among the most intense low post players in the country) looks to be a real contender in the stronger-than-expected Big XII.  We’ll know for sure after the result of the Cowboys’ visit to Lawrence on Wednesday.

Big East: Notre Dame

Anyone else write off Mike Brey’s club after its early-season loss to Butler?  I did.  I’ll admit it.  But in the thus-far-disappointing Big East, Notre Dame is one team that improved its standing based on the non-conference portion of its season.

I’m still not sure the Irish will survive the rugged Big East season without their share of blemishes, but ND owns a presumptive top-10 RPI win over Alabama, and won the only true road game on its schedule by seven at Maryland.  The competition wasn’t exactly stellar for Colin Falls & Co. closer to the holidays, but the margins of victory and point production certainly were.

We’re sure to see plenty of bright green ties (and matching highlighters) from former coach Digger Phelps in ’07.  But the Irish won’t need any luck this year to make this year’s NCAA Tournament – they have a solid non-conference resume to fall back on.

Big Ten: Wisconsin

News flash: Wisconsin really is the fourth-best team in the country—the voters actually do have it right!  I didn’t believe it either at first, but it’s time to give Bo Ryan, Alando Tucker, and Kammron Taylor, and the rest of the Badgers some serious respect.  Home wins over Winthrop, Florida State, and Pittsburgh, and road wins at Marquette and Georgia have been more than enough to earn that respect.

The Badgers have built one of the nation’s elite programs (yes, elite) based on the defensive foundation laid by Dick Bennett that led them to the 2000 Final Four.  But they’ve also added an offense since Bennett’s departure, largely courtesy of Tucker’s uncanny ability to create his own shot and Taylor’s command of respect from opposing defenses that opens up scoring for everyone else.  Brian Butch is enjoying by far his most productive season inside and all-name swingman Joe Krabbenhoft combines with Tucker to create big-time matchup problems for Badgers opponents.

The only downside for Wisconsin is its brutal Big Ten schedule.  The Badgers don’t get any benefit from the conference’s down year, playing Michigan State and Ohio State twice, and traveling to both Assembly Halls without return dates at the Kohl Center.  But depending on what happens in other conferences, the Badgers have a legitimate chance to remain on the #1 seed line on Selection Sunday.

MVC: Missouri State

The answer to everyone’s favorite Bracket trivia question (highest RPI team ever to be left out of the NCAA Tournament: Missouri State in 2006) is doing its best to make sure it doesn’t give the Selection Committee any wiggle room in March 2007.

While I disagreed with the Committee’s decision to leave 23rd-ranked Missouri State out of last year’s Tournament, it had some merit – the Bears really didn’t have a signature non-conference win.  Well, this year, a two-pointer over Wisconsin on a neutral court (South Padre Island) is just such a win.  Provided they back it up with a solid MVC showing, beating Wisconsin single-handedly ensures the Bears will hear their own names called on March 11, rather than hearing fans calling the Selection Committee names on their behalf.

But oh, what might have been for the Bears. Missouri State was just four points away from a perfect non-conference season, losing by just three to Oklahoma State in the South Padre Championship and by one at in-state rival SLU—a loss that looked a lot better before the Billikens essentially blew their entire season at St. Bonaventure last week.

Blake Ahearn has essentially carried the team on his back thus far, a strategy which will take its toll in Valley play.  To be sure, MoState will need a 12-6 record in conference play (at least) to feel secure about its chances, but the Bubble should be kinder this year than last.

MWC: UNLV

All of you who head to Vegas for the NCAA Tournament may hear some cheers for the hometown team this March—and not just from fellow gamblers hoping UNLV will cover the spread.  Yes, the Runnin’ Rebels are back.

In early December, UNLV notched one of the best true road wins in the country this year: a nine-pointer over its more prestigious brother, Nevada—a win I’m guessing went unnoticed by just about everyone.  Lon Kruger’s troops also defeated Hawaii twice in a weird, in-season, non-conference home-and-home.

Wink Adams, Wendell White, and coach’s son Kevin Kruger form a formidable three-headed monster in the backcourt, a combination that was on full display in UNLV’s spoiling of Bobby Knight’s first party in Lubbock—their only nationally-televised game of the year.  The Rebs followed that performance with a 16-point shelling of would-be NCAA contender Houston.

Take note now: The Mountain West is really strong this year.  UNLV, Air Force, New Mexico, and San Diego State have all been impressive in the early-going.  I don’t see it being a four-bid conference, but two at-large selections, in addition to the automatic bid, are not out of the question.  And don’t be afraid to pick any of these teams in your office pool – especially if they’re matched up in Spokane or Sacramento against a team from the East Coast.

Biggest National Impact: Butler

And then there’s the biggest surprise since, well, it’s really only since George Mason, I guess.  But still, it’s a big surprise: Butler!

The Bulldogs almost pulled off a Hoosier State sweep in their non-conference schedule, beating Notre Dame, Indiana, Valpo, Purdue, and Evansville, but fell at Indiana State.  Still, add the three quality wins in that bunch to Tennessee and Gonzaga at MSG, along with a home win over Kent State the next day(!) and you have the recipe for an at-large bid, and a high seed at that.

A.J. Graves of Switz City, Indiana…must be right down the road from Hickory…has brought some serious magic to Hinkle Fieldhouse that can’t help but make you think of Jimmy Chitwood and the rest of the Hoosiers.  The Bulldogs are going to take everyone’s best shot in the underrated Horizon League, a la Gonzaga in the WCC.  But if they can get through league play with no more than two “bad” losses (i.e. teams not named Loyola-IL), the Bulldogs will indeed be celebrating on Selection Sunday.

Hopefully these summaries catch you up on some of the more surprising names and seeds in this week’s bracket.  Next week, we’ll look at powerhouse teams that will need to rely heavily on their conference portfolios to earn the NCAA Tournament seeds their fans have come to expect.

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