College Basketball Handicapping: Motivation Big Factor in Conference Clashes
by Trevor Whenham - 03/10/2009
When it comes to handicapping conference tournaments, one of the more useful factors can be desperation. For some teams the tournaments aren't about anything beyond pride - their tournament berth and probably their seeding are secure. Other teams, though, need wins at the tournaments to get themselves off of the bubble and into the 65-team field. In some cases, those teams can crumble under the pressure. More often, though, teams can use that pressure as fuel for better-than-expected play. Here's a look at six teams that have backed themselves into the corner, and which could come out fighting:
Maryland Terrapins, ACC - Maryland played one of the most exciting and impressive games I saw all season when they beat North Carolina in overtime last month. Greivis Vasquez had a triple-double and was as good as a player can be. If you evaluate this team based on that performance, or when they beat up on Michigan State, then you would assume that this team is a tournament lock. The problem, though, is that they have the incredible ability to look just as bad in many games as they looked good in those big wins. They lost three of their last four games after the North Carolina win to finish the ACC schedule at 7-9 and give themselves a real uphill battle. To get off the bubble and into consideration they would have to dispose of North Carolina State in the first round of the tournament, and then upset Wake Forest in the second round. That's a tall order, but they have the talent to pull it off.
Providence Friars, Big East - Providence is stuck in a very competitive, brutally deep conference, but they have come through it surprisingly well. They wound up at 10-8 in Big East play, and they had huge wins over Pitt and Syracuse. Their big problem, though, is that they were blown out badly on the road more than once, losing to UConn by 33, West Virginia by 27, Louisville by 18, and Villanova by 17. That left them with just 18 wins, and a RPI of 71. They need to improve, and that would likely take at least two tournament wins. The first one should be easy - DePaul upset Cincinnati, so Providence faces the weak DePaul squad next. After that, Louisville looms, though. That's a tall task, but a win there would certainly get the Friars noticed by the selection committee.
Northwestern Wildcats, Big Ten - The Wildcats have never played in the tournament. That is hard to believe, but true. They have a decent chance at breaking that streak of futility, but they have some real work to do. They finished the conference at 8-10, so they realistically probably need at least three wins to move on. That means that they would have to win over a Minnesota team they beat at home before getting blown out on the road. Next up would be Michigan State, a team the Wildcats impressively beat in East Lansing. Finally, they would face the winner of Ohio State and Wisconsin. The Wildcats have one win against each team this year. It's a big task for the Wildcats, but they finished well, and they will be extremely motivated.
Oklahoma State Cowboys, Big 12 - Oklahoma State is in better shape than the teams above them on this list because they have an RPI of 25 and a strength of schedule that ranks sixth. A conference record of just 9-7 that lacks a win over a serious conference contender has them poised on the brink, though. A win over Iowa State in the first round would likely be enough to get them in, though they could remove any doubt with a strong showing against rivals Oklahoma in the second round.
Arizona Wildcats, Pac-10 - The Wildcats are on the brink and need to help themselves to get in - where have we heard that before? That has become an all-too-familiar refrain for this team lately despite their longest-in-the-nation streak of tournament appearances. This team should not be in the position they are in with the power trio of Chase Budinger, Nic Wise, and Jordan Hill. A slump down the stretch dropped them to just 9-9 in the conference, though, so they need more to get in. Unfortunately for them, those wins won't be easy to find. They open up against Arizona State. The Sun Devils won both meetings, but only by a combined eight points, so Arizona has a chance. A win there would earn a likely semifinal pairing with Washington, a team Arizona split with during the season. Arizona would be in good position with one win, and very secure with two.
Florida Gators, SEC - The Gators aren't far removed from a boatload of glory, but this team is far removed from those stacked championship squads. They have the record and RPI to at least be on the bubble, but they are terrible on the road and don't have any particularly impressive wins outside of Washington, so they still need to do some work. They start their tournament run with a game against Arkansas, and a win there would earn them a shot at Auburn. They likely need to win both games to secure a spot in the dance. It's certainly not out of the question - they beat both teams in the regular season.