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Conference Tournament Primer Two: The Jeromining

So, this is the second chapter of my Jerome picks. If you missed part one, it’s very long, but maybe the most insightful thing I’ve ever written. The picks also haven’t been great, but that's beside the point anyways.


American


My Pick: Houston


We start in alphabetical order and since I don’t want to go as long as I did last time, Houston is the #1 team in the country and nobody else is in this conference ranked. Memphis could steal this from them, they’re a very talented squad and have a 26-year-old in the starting lineup. 26. Playing college basketball. DeAndre Williams, aged 26, is a bucket, too. The duo of him and Kendric Davis is pretty electric.


Also, shoutout to Ron Hunter at Tulane. He’s done an excellent job there. Incredible season. Just not going to have the fairytale ending of beating Memphis and Houston to secure a bid to the Big Dance.

ACC


My Pick: Duke


Ugh. Just typing that out feels disgusting. But, in a conference that I don’t particularly like, I’m going to go dog hunting. One team has won six straight games, with their freshmen playing their best basketball of the season, and look pretty decent. Ugh. Disgusting. I hope this pick loses.


The sleeper pick would be N.C. State, good luck game-planning for those guards on short notice. I just think Duke’s length and athleticism get them by the Wolfpack in the final, gifting them the auto bid.


Also, Duke fans have been complaining about Scheyer all year, so this should shut them up for at least a week until they hopefully lose in Round One to The A-10 Champion.


Atlantic 10


My Pick: Dayton


This league is incredibly unpredictable. It’s a one-bid league this year, and I don’t like that at all. There is no dominant team. SLU and Dayton have both underperformed and VCU has two Q4 losses.


The non-conference was not kind, at all, to the Flyers. Dayton came up short against N.C. State, Wisconsin, BYU, UNLV and got thrashed by an ok Virginia Tech team.

But, this team has struggled with injuries. Guards Malachi Smith and Kobe Elvis have played 16 and 19 games, respectively. The team really hinges on how well those guards can play alongside star big man DaRon Holmes. With those guys getting healthy to end the season, the team has been better, winning five of their last seven (Smith missed their win over VCU).


George Mason is the wildcard here, they enter this tournament as winners of six straight and look to continue their solid stretch of play. They have a star too in big man Josh Oduro, who’s averaging 15.6PPG and 8 boards on the season.


Rounding out this conference, we have VCU with an elite defense as the #1 seed, St. Louis with star guard Yuri Collins who leads the nation in assists and Fordham’s somehow good again (how about those Rams), with the excellent guard pairing of Darius Quisenberry and Khalid Moore.


But, in the end, I trust the talent of this Dayton roster and believe that this team is dangerous and will prove how good they are.


Big East


My Pick: Rick Pitino

Ok, it’s actually UConn


Ahh, yes. My conference. The Big East. As good as it gets. Best conference in the country, playing in the World’s Most Famous Arena. It doesn’t get better than this.


The Top Four in this league (Marquette, Creighton, Xavier, UConn) have been very competitive. Throw in Providence and you have five. With Villanova looking better lately too, that’s six. Oh goodness, this tournament should be electric.


The bottom of the bracket can really open up, with Xavier not having Freemantle and Creighton only having five guys who play legit minutes. Could be room for a Villanova, but the Creighton draw on Thursday is a rough one. If you had Creighton after a grinder of a game against Seton Hall, maybe I can put you past them, but this team should be well-rested and has the pieces to end Villanova’s run.


Also, Marquette is just awesome. They’re very good. But, Marquette has a weak spot. You can kill them on the glass. And well, that’s exactly what UConn does. They can bully you inside and have the length to mess with Marquette’s wings.


I think UConn beats a slumping Providence team, then knocks off Marquette in a very competitive game late, before matching up with Creighton and just out-willing them. With Tristen Newton having more of a role in running this offense, everything has opened up and Newton has been excellent. UConn has won their last five games and frankly made it look easy in doing so.


Big Ten


My Pick: Indiana


I have no idea what I'm doing with this conference. I’m getting bonus points with a team that I believe is in the Top 15 nationally, with a legit star player in the conference in Trayce Jackson-Davis and a star freshman guard in Jalen Hood-Schifino. Anything can happen, so just give me the Hoosiers. I like their path, too. No need for an in-depth breakdown, it would just be a lot of words to say “idk Indiana's good, they're my pick.”


Big 12


My Pick: Kansas


Most Q1 wins in the country, and by a wide margin. Bill Self just wins games. This conference tournament is going to be incredible.


I think TCU is incredibly underrated with Mike Miles in the lineup. Like that’s a Final Four dark horse that nobody is talking about, give the Horned Frogs a decent draw and I like their chances over just about anyone.


But, in the end, I think Kansas knocks off TCU in the conference tournament final. This is Bill Self, with the conference’s best player in Jalen Wilson and the best set-up man in the country in DaJuan Harris. Should be an incredibly fun tournament and we’re going to be talking so much about these teams once the bracket is revealed, that I will save it all for then and move on.


Big West


My Pick: UCSB


Finally, some mid-major love. I won’t lie, this was a 50/50 between UCSB and UC Irvine, and I don’t have real strong reasoning here. I just think UCSB is the more talented team. That’s really it. They have a very good lead guard in Ajay Mitchell and a trio of tremendous transfers in Miles Norris, Andre Kelly and Josh Pierre-Louis (I know only Kelly transferred in this year, but an alliteration opportunity presented itself).


UC Irvine is legit, Coach Russ Turner knows how to put guys in winning positions and that’s just what he does. They handily knocked off Oregon earlier in the year and have a very solid 1-2 scoring punch in the backcourt with Dawson Baker and DJ Davis.


The lean is UCSB in a close, close game. Going to be watching this tournament with a keen eye, these are teams I don’t know enough about, yet.


C-USA


My Pick: North Texas


Florida Atlantic is a tournament team. They are awesome. They are so well-balanced, they move the ball incredibly well, they are very well-coached and they play the right way. And their defense? Swarming. You have to beat them one-on-one, as opponents are only averaging 8.2 assists per game against them, ranking fourth in the country. They force a ton of turnovers too, as their opponents assist to turnover ratio of .635 ranks third in the country. If you haven’t watched this team play, please find the time to do so. They are so much fun to watch.


But, they aren’t my pick… why?


Well, when I look at this conference, I see two very ready-bid stealers. First up, UAB. Jelly Walker is awesome. The nation learned in March last year just how good Walker is. Eric Gaines is a perfect backcourt partner for the high-scoring Walker. Gaines is an elite defender, an incredible athlete and someone who doesn’t need the ball in his hands to be effective.

They’re truly an awesome duo. They are entering the conference tournament on a conference-leading six-game win streak. These guys can steal a bid.


But my pick is the Mean Green Winning Machine out of Denton, Texas. Grant McCasland is one of the best coaches in the country. He has built an excellent culture at North Texas, a school that has never really had a thriving basketball program.


North Texas grinds games to an absolute halt, playing at the slowest pace in the country. They thrive on out-executing their opponents and have the players to do so. Defensively they are excellent, as they rank inside KenPom’s Top 30.


Guard Tylor Perry is one of the best players in the country that nobody talks about. After Javion Hamlet left Denton a program legend, leading the Mean Green to their only tournament win in program history, Perry just casually stepped up to the plate and has been absolutely excellent. Despite this team playing at such a slow pace, Perry averages 17PPG on very efficient shooting, including 42% from three. He’s the guy this team goes to with the game on the line to get a bucket, and he usually delivers.


This is a team I love. They’re very well-coached, they execute and they are a team you can depend on.


Ivy League


My Pick: Penn


This article from my colleague Chris Thedinga outlines a ton of my points that I was going to make, but goes more in-depth than I would’ve, and better than I could've. So check that out, but here’s my mini-version:


I don’t love this Yale team, I think they’re solid but don’t do anything that jumps off the page, I think Penn is just better than Princeton and Cornell is super hot and cold, and ended the season cold. Jordan Dingle is awesome, and guards win games in March. Give me the Quakers.


MAAC


My Pick: Iona


Did you really think I would pick against Rick Pitino? Really? No chance. Never. The trio of Walter Clayton, Nelly Junior Joseph and Daniss Jenkins will terrify any poor team they get matched up against. Rick Pitino against the World, I’ll take Pitino. He’s not losing this tournament two years in a row. Rick Pitino.


MAC


My Pick: Toledo


This is another conference tournament I’m very excited about. The top three in this league are all awesome, but in the end, I’m going with the #1 seed, Toledo.


Toledo has the eighth-ranked offense in the country according to KenPom. They score on everyone. Removing the opponent-adjusted factors and just going with raw offensive efficiency, they have the best offense in the country. They’re going to put up points and there’s nothing you can do about it. They have three guys all averaging over 15PPG, with PG RayJ Dennis leading the way, averaging 19.4PPG and nearly 6 assists per game.


As a team, Toledo shoots over 40% from three (second best in the country, only to Colgate) and is riding a fifteen-game winning streak entering the conference tournament.


Kent State has the best defense in this conference, ranking inside KenPom’s Top 40. They just knocked off the #3 seeded Akron a couple of days back and are led by star guard Sincere Carry, who’s averaging 17.4 points per game and just under five assists.


Lastly, Akron is the middleman. Both of these teams above have one end of the floor where they are excellent and another where they aren’t. Akron is good on both ends, but not great. Akron has a dynamic duo with Xavier Castenada and Enrique Freeman, with the two combining to average just under 38PPG.


MEAC


My Pick: North Carolina Central


This conference was tough. The smart pick is probably the three-seeded Norfolk State, who you can get bonus points for in this contest. They have a very solid offense and the conference’s player of the year in Joe Bryant.


But, I also like this Howard team. I love Howard’s point guard Elijah Hawkins, he’s incredibly underrated. He’s very quick, puts guys in the right spots and has lightning-fast hands. Oh, did I mention he’s top 15 nationally in assists and shooting 48.5% from three?

Howard’s also a much better team with Steve Settle in the lineup, not many MEAC teams have a legit 6’10” wing who can stretch the floor. He missed three of their last four games, before returning against Norfolk State. He adds another dimension to this Howard offense, as he’s just a matchup nightmare for teams in this league.


But I went with North Carolina Central. I really like Coach LeVelle Moton. I think he’s an excellent coach, and there’s a reason this Central defense has been great in conference play. They have an excellent group of players, headlined by their trio of Justin Wright, Brendan Medley-Bacon and Kris Monroe. I trust Coach Moton to win in this setting, and I buy his defense. Though, I will not be surprised or angry if Howard is able to take this bid.


Mountain West


My Pick: Utah State


The analytics absolutely love this team and this offense. This is a legit league, and well I want more teams to make the tournament so that’s probably part of the reason why I picked Utah State. I like Coach Ryan Odom, I thought he did an excellent job at UMBC and has set himself up for success in Logan.


They have a plethora of legit scoring options, with five guys averaging over 10PPG. They move the ball so incredibly well, ranking inside the top 10 nationally in assist rate, and also shoot incredibly well from three-point range, ranking seventh in the country.


Plus, Utah State and Sam Merrill gave us our only March moment of 2020 and I will always love them for that.

San Diego State and Boise State both defend at an incredibly high level and are teams I can trust to make runs. I will like both of those schools come NCAA Tournament time, they’re both very smart and experienced teams that you can trust to play a smart game, and not make stupid mistakes.


Pac-12


My Pick: Arizona


I really like this Arizona team. This one came down to Arizona vs UCLA, and UCLA just won over the weekend, so Arizona took it for me in this tournament. These are two incredibly legit teams with high-level experience who will be looking to make a Final Four, so if they do meet in the Championship Game, it will be incredible theater.


Arizona has five guys averaging over 10PPG, led by a perennial First Team All-American in Azuolas Tubelis, who’s averaging nearly 20 points per game and nine rebounds, truly having one of the most underappreciated seasons I can remember. He’s just incredible and has flown too far under the radar.


SEC


My Pick: Kentucky


Remember how UK fans were calling for Calipari’s head a month or so ago?


Well, with the Brandon Miller situation, and the injury to Zakai Ziegler, Kentucky’s road to an SEC Title is now wide open.


Not only that though, but Kentucky has also been playing much better in the past month, they’ve won five of their last six games, with their only loss coming at the buzzer. There are still some flaws with this team, but man their freshman have really emerged, with Cason Wallace and Chris Livingston playing some of their best basketball of the season. Also, Antonio Reeves just casually put up 37 points over Arkansas and I feel like nobody talked about it. Just a light 37, no big deal. So yeah, this is another team that’s peaking at the right time, and someone I’m willing to buy into.

Southland


My Pick: Texas A&M CC


These next three conferences I know incredibly little about, so we’ll just quickfire these.


Texas A&M Corpus Christi has played the best offense and defense in conference play scoring to KenPom and have won ten of their last eleven games. They are an excellent free-throw shooting team and have three players averaging between 13 and 16 points per game.


SWAC


My Pick: Grambling


KenPom has Grambling listed as the best team in this conference by nearly 60 spots. They beat Vanderbilt and Colorado earlier in the season and have the 81-ranked defense in the country, easily the best unit in this conference.


They're one of two teams in this league to have a top 5 ranked offense and defense in conference play, along with Southern. Grambling has easily the best defense and the second-best offense, whereas Southern is the fourth-best offensively and the third-best defensively.


WAC


My Pick: Sam Houston State


I have the most familiarity with this league, of these last three. This league did some weird reinvention of seeding to put the Bearkats at #1, I don’t know why but I think it really helps them. Sam Houston’s defense ranks inside the Top 15, which makes it the best unit in the conference. I would say by a wide margin, but Utah Valley is another excellent defense, ranking at 35 on KenPom.


Sam Houston was able to knock off both Oklahoma and Utah earlier in the season, proving that they can compete with just about anyone. They have won seven straight, and 12 of their last 13 games, showing that they are also peaking at the right time. This team is really good, and Qua Grant is a legit lead guard who can cause problems.


There is some legit talent across this league, and it wouldn’t surprise me if this is a good conference to go dog hunting in or one that could have an incredibly exciting conference tournament.




So, those are the perfect picks. There’s only one note that I can end this long piece on.


Rick. Pitino.



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