Friday, March 6, 2009

Quick America East and West Coast Previews

I have been a very busy beaver the last few days. When I am not watching my little son on my shifts, I have been writing up a storm. So check this out and check the last few days of posts. You get a lot of conference previews and later this morning, it's the big kahuna of them all for this blog. C...A...A!

I watched a good part of the Radford - UNC Asheville game. High scoring, very entertaining with Radford winning. But I will say this, if Radford tries to play this style against VMI in the championship, they will lose. They need to do for forty minutes what Liberty did in the first half against VMI. Slow the pace down and disrupt the Keydets rhythm. Otherwise, you'll see forty minutes of what VMI did to Liberty in the second half.

Also as a note, there have not been really any major upsets so far in mid majors conference tournament, sans #3 Navy getting knocked off at home in overtime. So much for my dream scenario of all Armed Forces final in the Patriot League (it was just a dream scenario, I have American winning the tournament).

Later today starts the America East and West Coast Conference Tournaments. You get the wide spectrum of tournament venues. The first three rounds of the America East is being held on the campus of the University of Albany. The West Coast Conference Tournament is being held at the Orleans Casino in Las Vegas. Hmmm, Albany in March or Vegas in March? As much as I love the Catamounts, I will take the Strip.

The America East starts with the #8-#9 game as #8 Maine takes on #9 Hartford tomorrow. The winner gets #1 seed Binghamton Saturday evening. Saturday afternoon starts with the host team, #7 Albany taking on #2 Vermont, followed by #6 UMBC vs #3 Boston University. The other evening contest pits #4 New Hampshire vs. #5 Stony Brook (this is the second game in a tournament that involves two teams that Hofstra beat in the regular season - check the MAAC preview for the other).

Prediction - So chances are you will have Binghamton facing Stony Brook in the semis, just for the fact that it's difficult for a team like New Hampshire to sweep a season series from an equally talented Stony Brook team. Binghamton has struggled with Stony Brook winning both games by a combined total of nine points. The Bearcats will again struggle but again get by the Seawolves. Meanwhile Vermont should beat Albany. Even though they split the season series with the Great Danes, the Catamounts won at Albany 79-70 in early February. They will take on Boston University who should be able to handle UMBC. In the other semifinal, look for Vermont to move on. The Catamounts have had the Terriers number, sweeping the season series by an average of 21 points. EEK!

So, remember, the finals of the America East will be one week from Saturday on the highest remaining seed's home court. The game should be a matchup of the top two seeds; Binghamton and Vermont. The Bearcats swept the season series from the Catamounts, winning at Vermont in overtime 91-83. Then at home, Binghamton came back from a 23 point deficit to win 85-83.

The game should be high scoring with Binghamton having all five starters average in double digits in scoring led by guard D.J. Rivera at 20.3 points per game. Vermont counters with their trifecta of Mike Trimboli (16.8 ppg 4.9 assists per game), Mr. Highlight Marcus Blakely (15.7 ppg and 9.0 rebounds per game) and Colin McIntosh (13.2 ppg, 5.2 rebounds per game). As I noted before with Stony Brook-New Hampshire, its difficult for one team to sweep three games from another equally talented team. Vermont showed that they can play at Binghamton's home court. This time they won't let a big lead slip away. The Catamounts take the America East.

Meanwhile, the West Coast Conference Tournament starts tomorrow in the Orleans Casino. I really tried to convince my friends before the season started to go to this tournament. I was willing to give up covering the CAA for one season to see in person potentially again three WCC teams make the NCAA tournament. With just about all their players coming back, Gonzaga, St Mary's and San Diego had a legitimate chance of making it a trifecta again for the WCC. Alas, San Diego's Brandon Johnson got hurt in the beginning of the year and that sunk that thought. My friends decided they couldn't make it and then my son's surgery also came about. Thus I will be left to watching the semifinal games Sunday night on ESPN. Not a bad consolation prize.

The WCC features some of the best mid major players in the country. For Gonzaga, you have Jeremy Pargo, Matt Bouldin, Austin Daye and Josh Heytvelt. For St Mary's, you have the returning Patty Mills, Diamon "In the Rough" Simpson and Omar "Enter the Sandman" Samhan. But those two teams don't have all the talent. San Diego has center Gyno Pomare and guard Trumaine Johnson, holdovers from last year's NCAA tournament team that upset UConn in the first round. Portland has Nik Raivio, whose brother played at Gonzaga and whose dad is still the all time leading scorer at Portland. Portland also has the son of one of Anthony Terentieff's all time favorite players, Jack Sikma, Luke Sikma. Finally Santa Clara has Mr. Double Double John Bryant who averages 18 points and 14 rebounds per game. Also the Broncos feature the best freshman in the WCC, the sharp shooting Kevin Foster who I think will be a future West Coast Conference Player of the Year. I saw Foster absolutely torch St Mary's for 31 points in a one point loss to the Gaels earlier in the season.

Now the WCC tournament is kind of like the Horizon, only on steroids. You see, the top two teams get two byes and don't play until the semis. The third and fourth place teams each get a first round bye. The bottom four teams play each other in the first round starting Friday night. Then the second round occurs Saturday night, then the semis Sunday and the finals Monday night. Four consecutive days just like the MAAC and the CAA.

Now to be honest, this really hurts the top two teams. They have to sit around for two days while the other six teams get to play at least one game. Simply put, no wonder St Mary's got knocked off by San Diego in the semis last year (yes, having it on the Toreros home court didn't help matters either).

So in the first round, you have the #5 seed San Diego take on the #8 seed, Loyola Marymount, who has won three games all year. In the other bracket, it's #6 Pepperdine vs. #7 San Francisco.
Figure San Diego and USF. in a very slight upset, advance to the next round. San Diego will take on #4 Santa Clara, which figures to be a good game. They split the season series. I'll take the Broncos, with Bryant and Foster leading the way in this game. The other game will feature Portland disposing of either Pepperdine or USF (does it matter).

That gets us to the very interesting semis. Santa Clara is a decent team. They played a much better second game on their home court, an eight point loss, than the first one at Gonzaga, a 42 point crushing. The key for Santa Clara is Foster. If he is nailing threes, it opens it up for Bryant underneath. Foster can keep it close, but in the end Gonzaga's balanced scoring options will be too much for the Broncos.

In the other semifinal, you will see Portland take on St Mary's with the returning Patty Mills. How Mills is integrated into the offense in his first game back will be very interesting. The Gaels can't afford any dysfunctional play on offense because Portland can put the biscuit in the basket. The Pilots torched the Gaels 84-66 at home. The Gaels returned the favor winning 77-65 on their own court. My guess is that Mills will be rusty shooting wise, but his ball handling and distribution will be fine. That will get Simpson and Samhan open looks for layups and the Gaels move on.

Thus the final everyone anticipates on Monday. The Showdown on the Strip. The Gaels so desperately need to win the conference tournament because they are not getting any love as an at large consideration despite having beat Providence, San Diego State and Utah State. The Zags would love nothing more to win and cement their place back at the top of the WCC mountain. However, they don't need the win to make the tournament. Their non conference resume wins over Tennessee (twice), Maryland, Georgetown, and Oklahoma State are more than enough.

If the first half of the first Gonzaga- St Mary's game this season at Spokane is any indication, it should be a dandy. Mills played almost the entire first half before getting hurt and the Gaels were up 39-33 at the half. I think that's the indication of how the game will go. Mills was the difference maker in that half and he will be in this game. He blew by Pargo often in that first half. He will in this game. He will open it up for Samhan, Simpson, Wayne Hunter and Mickey McConnell. Pargo, Heytvelt, Bouldin and Daye will keep it close. It will be close, high scoring and fun. But the Gaels will win out and make the WCC a two bid conference.

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