Wednesday, December 17

College Basketball Notebook: Tough Games Early can be the Difference

The message has been sent by the selection committee and the schools have heard it. Schools from big conferences can no longer depend on their performance in-conference alone to get into the tournament or receive a favorable seed. After certain BCS conference teams have been left out of the big dance, this season has featured some tough early season match-ups between highly ranked opponents. Whether it is in a tournament, a highly contested match-up on a neutral court, or a visit to an opponent's tough home floor teams are loading up their pre-conference schedule with quality games so they their resume is undeniable come tourney time.

A View from the Top

According to Vegas, if you pay attention to that sort of thing, North Carolina is listed as a 36.4% chance to win it all. The only other team in double digits is UCONN at 11.1%. No matter what percentages you go by, Carolina is the clear-cut favorite to win the tournament. The closest any opponent has come to the Tar Heels was 15 and that was in their first game against Penn. UNC has passed the century mark 4 times and pretty much look unstoppable at 9-0. Although any team will put some soft opponents on their schedule to not completely batter themselves down before conference play and to give some of the schools from smaller conferences exposure in the "guarantee games", the Tarheels have faced quality competition. The problem for those teams and is that they have not given Carolina any competition. The Tarheels participated in the Maui Invitational where they beat Oregon by 29 and then thumped no. 12 Notre Dame 102-87 in the final. North Carolina also went to Ford Field to face Michigan State it what was supposed to be a showdown of two top ten teams, but it was not close with the Heels winning 98-63. It is not the hardest of schedules but UNC is pretty much a lock for a 1 seed in the region of their choice as long as they do not lose too many games but at this rate they may not lose at all.

The Orange Have Left New York

Perhaps the most telling example of the trend of schools seeking tougher schedules lies in the northeast. Since I can remember Syracuse was annually ridiculed for not leaving the confines of the Empire state throughout the entire pre-conference schedule. They would relie on their success in the Big East to justify their tournament invite, but after failing to reach the dance two years in a row even after respectable performances in-conference the Orange got proactive. They participated in the CBE Classic in Kansas City where they beat Florida who was ranked at the time and then defeated a then-ranked Kansas team. The win vaulted the Orange into the rankings. The Orange lost the other night on a ridiculous 60-foot shot to Cleveland State, but they must put that behind them as they travel to Memphis to take on the Tigers this Saturday. The Eric Devendorf situation is no help either but if the Orange come down to being a bubble team again this year, these pre-conference games outside the Carrier Dome and MSG will get them in.

Pearl is Volunteering

Bruce Pearl has done wonders for the Tennessee men's basketball program. The last two years he has brought the Vols to the Sweet 16 and they very well could make the trip there again. Pearl has shown he is not afraid of playing competition anywhere and anyplace. This includes games from tourney teams from smaller conferences that made a splash last year by playing at Siena and against Belmont. In a tournament in Orlando the Vols beat Georgetown and then fell to Gonzaga, two teams currently in the top 15. The other UT loss was at Temple last Saturday, certinaly not one of the nation's top teams but their name still carries weight and the fact that Tennessee went on the road helps as well. The Vols rebounded by beating no. 24 Marquette last night. With the January 24 meeting with Memphis thrown into the mix, there is no doubt the Vols will be respected for their schedule come March.

Some Good News in Michigan

Many think Michigan is on the right path, at least as far as basketball is concerned. One thing that is for sure is that John Beilein has some big quality wins on his schedule this year. Wins against UCLA and Duke are big boosts to the resume and one of their two losses has been at Maryland, not a highly ranked opponent but one from the ACC nonetheless. The Wolverines also visit UCONN on February 7th to increase they strength of schedule. If UM gets in the 17-20 win neighborhood, these games could get them into their first NCAA tourney in ten years.

Sooners Rising Up

Oklahoma coach Jeff Capel and the rest of Sooner nation were glad when Blake Griffin returned to school this year and he has come up big in their big non-conference games. Games against Davidson, UAB, USC, Purdue, and a fairly tough VCU team will assure the Sooners get a decent seed placement if they weather the Big XII.

Davidson Not Relaxing

One of the reasons that Davidson their exciting run to the Elite 8 last year was the fact that they played tough compeition early. Games against North Carolina, Duke and UCLA helped toughen the team mentally and helped secure a ten seed in the tournament. This year coach Bob McKillop has followed the same philosophy with games at Oklahoma, N.C. State, West Virgnia, at Purdue, and at Duke. The Wildats lone loss was at Oklahoma by 4 points. With Stephen Curry leading the way, Davidson should receive possibly a single digit seed in the tourney. The strong schedule only helps their cause.

X-Men Gaining Reputation

Xavier has made the NCAA tournament 7 of the last 8 years and in 2 of those years they reached the Elite 8. Coach Sean Miller has not only continued what Thad Motta started there, he has built on it. Xavier plays in an upper-middle A-10 so the Musketeers have taken it upon themselves to play some of the big conference teams early on. Missouri and Virginia Tech early may not seem big now, but by the end of the year thsoe could be quality wins. After dispatching their rival Cincinnati last Saturday, the X-men play Duke this Saturday and then follow it up with a game at always tough Butler on the 23rd. Xavier was one win away from the Final Four last year and I expect them to be another strong darkhorse for Detroit this year.

There are plenty more teams that have put the strong opponents on their schedule in the hopes that it might give them the edge in fighting for a tournament spot and when you look at the teams that may fall short, the tournament committee has repeatedly gone with who they played in the pre-conference and strength of schedule to tip the scales in one team's favor. Another result of this trend in college basketball is that we get great match-ups early in the season. This Saturday really exemplifies that, just take a look at the slate of game this weekend:

#2 UCONN @ #8 Gonzaga
#19 Michigan State @ #5 Texas
#6 Duke @ #7 Xavier
#11 Syracuse @ #23 Memphis
#22 Davidson @ #13 Purdue

Should be great to see how these teams match-up. It may be a long way from March, but teams' identities are formed along the journey of the season and in these type of games. Football is king this time of year, but that does not mean you cannot watch some great college basketball on the side. These games deserve recognition and if the fans are not all watching, the tournament committee at least should be.

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