San Diego St. and BYU on collision course, Vols' volatility and more
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You can hear the thumping getting louder each day, like the sound of a ball pounding on the floor as the dribbler gets closer. Two teams from a non-power conference on a collision course to a big game with enormous implications -- in the conference, in the polls, and most importantly, in the NCAA tournament bracket.
San Diego State and BYU will meet Saturday in San Diego. It is the second time they're playing this season, but if the hoop gods are kind to us it won't be the last, because that would mean they will meet again in the final of the Mountain West Conference tournament. BYU won the first meeting in Provo behind 43 points from The Jimmer. That was the Aztecs' only loss this season, while the Cougars have lost twice -- to UCLA in Anaheim and New Mexico on the road. It's not unusual that a team from outside the Big Six makes a mad dash to the top end of the rankings, but to have two teams do it from the same conference is truly a special treat. With the big game now just three days away, it's only fitting to begin the mailbag with a few queries about the Treasured Two.
Why won't the pollsters believe that BYU and SDSU are for real? The top four teams all lose last week, one of them for the second time in three games, and yet all stay ahead of BYU and SDSU. Is fourth or fifth the ceiling for these teams? Will the winner of this Saturday's mammoth game in San Diego be able to crack the top three?
-- Chris, Salt Lake City
Assuming that San Diego State and BYU don't get a lot of love in the polls this week, even though Nos. 1, 2, 3 and 4 ahead of them all lost, what more do they need to do in the eyes of voters to get some love? BYU, for example, has played 16 of 27 games away from Provo, and will end the regular season with a 14 (home)/17 (away/neutral) split. I doubt the teams ahead of them in the polls can boast that.
-- Kendall Hulet, Provo, Utah
What do San Diego St. and BYU need to do to get a No. 1 seed?
-- Shawn Hall, Las Vegas
Chris and Kendall have asked questions that are interesting but ultimately meaningless. Shawn's question is more significant, but the meaning is still vastly overstated. At the end of the day, the No. 1 seed is more of an honor than a tangible advantage. Yes, it gives a team a slightly better matchup in the first round, but from there the difference is marginal. And obviously the Nos. 1 and 2 seeds face each other in the regional final if they both advance that far, so who cares which is which?
Still, if you're San Diego State or BYU, the opportunity to garner that top seed will most likely not pass this way again. So I can understand why it would be so important. The answer, then, to Shawn's question is simple: Win the rest of their games. That is especially true of BYU, which lost those two games but still has seven top-50 wins over teams like Arizona, Utah State and UNLV (twice). San Diego State has a great shot at a 1 seed if it wins out because that would mean a) the Aztecs would likely have beaten BYU twice, and b) they will enter selection weekend as the only team in the country with just one loss. If that's the case, it will be all but impossible to keep them off the top line.
As I wrote in this week's Hoop Thoughts, the committee puts together the tournament based strictly on a team's performance. The polls, on the other hand, are a different matzoh ball. There are reams of data and several pages of principles and procedures provided to committee members, but not a word is given to people like myself to explain how we should vote in polls. All sorts of biases come into play, not just in terms of our opinions about teams but also what criteria we use. Based on this week's rankings, it's clear that many voters put a lot of weight on results from the previous week. On the other hand, I decided to base my vote more on overall body of work, which is why I went with Pittsburgh as my No. 1. Doesn't mean I'm right. It's just how I made my decision.
I would never make a hard and fast rule, but I can honestly say that unless the teams ranked ahead of them lose a couple more games, it's going to be hard for me to put San Diego State or BYU in my top five. Again, that's different than saying I wouldn't consider them for a No. 1 seed, but even with some power conferences (specifically the ACC) having down years, I do not believe those teams have played a comparable schedule. In terms of the poll, San Diego State is actually in a weaker position than BYU because its best wins outside the conference were over Saint Mary's at home and Gonzaga on the road.
Frankly, it's amazing to me that so much time is spent dissecting things that decide so little. Where a team is ranked in the polls, or whether it's a 1 seed or a 3, will not do much to determine whether it will ultimately play for a national championship. These questions do, however, make for great conversation in late February and early March. No matter who wins the big game on Saturday, that conversation is sure to kick into higher gear.
Now on to the rest of the 'Bag.
With the BracketBusters having concluded this weekend, who are some teams that you would not want to have to see come tournament time? The CAA looked really strong with their top three teams all winning, and I don't think I would want to see Old Dominion in the first or second round. What's your take?
-- Blake, Norfolk, Va.
My take is I like Blake's starting point. The CAA this year has been highly impressive, nobody more so than George Mason. The Patriots have reeled off 13 consecutive wins, including a riveting six-point win at Northern Iowa during the BracketBusters weekend. (And by the way, a tip of the hat to my friends at ESPN for another great BracketBusters. You can say what you want about that place, but they do an incredible job promoting college basketball.) This George Mason team will inevitably draw comparisons to the 2006 squad that reached the Final Four, but this edition is much more perimeter-oriented than that one was. The Patriots are ranked 13th in the nation in percentage of points they get on three-pointers and they have five players who are making better than 40 percent from behind the arc. That's a great formula for success in the tournament, because even if a couple of those guys have cold shooting nights it's unlikely that all five will.
Elsewhere in mid-majordom, I've been pimping -- er, pumping up -- Utah State all season, so I'll direct your attention to the Aggies' comeback win at Saint Mary's, which was punctuated by Brady Jardine's emphatic dunk in the final minute. Elsewhere, when I look for mid-major sleepers I like to see NCAA tournament experience, which is why I would not want to face Butler. The Bulldogs sputtered for the first three months of the season, but now have found their stride with six straight wins. If they do make the NCAA tournament, that late surge plus the good vibrations from last year will make them a very tough out.
Time it takes Oliver Purnell to resurrect DePaul. Go.
-- Ed, Chicago
Suffice to say, it will take a lot longer than it took Ed to write that question. I'd argue Purnell is already resurrecting DePaul. As I noted in this week's Hoop Thoughts, not only did the Blue Demons break their 24-game Big East losing streak with a win at Providence, but three of their last four losses have come by four points or less (including Saturday's two-point loss at home in overtime to Villanova). Both of the team's leading scorers are freshmen, and only one of the top six is a senior. Of course, given how bad they are, that may not be a good thing, but it should give Ed some hope that better days are ahead.
It's hard to glean a lot of optimism from Purnell's first recruiting class. Shane Larkin, a 5-foot-11 guard from Orlando, is the only high school senior ranked in the top 150 nationally by Rivals.com who has committed to DePaul. It is instructive, however, that Larkin hails from Florida, not Chicago. I just don't buy into the idea that just because you coach at DePaul you have to bring in kids from Chicago. On the contrary, often times it's better to bring in kids from outside the area because there are fewer distractions. Steve Lavin's top-rated class at St. John's is filled with kids from out west, not New York City. At any rate, to give Ed a specific answer, I think this program is so moribund that you can't fairly judge Purnell until he has been on the job for five full years. So settle in and enjoy the games, Ed. Check back with me in 2016.
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