Games of Sunday, March 16
Atlantic Coast Championship
Matchup: #3 Seed Clemson (24-8, 10-6) vs. #1 North Carolina (31-2, 14-2), 1:00 P.M. EST, ESPN
Rankings: Clemson, #14 in Pomeroy Ratings (3rd of 12 in ACC); North Carolina, #6 (2nd)
Pomeroy Prediction: North Carolina, 83-77 in 76 Possessions
Upset Possibility: 30%
Prospectus: The rubber match between Duke and North Carolina was obviously the expected championship matchup that everybody wanted to see, but based on this year's results the Tar Heels/Clemson pairing will provide for a better game. The Tigers, who snapped a streak of 22 straight losses to Duke yesterday with a 78-74 win over the Blue Devils, played two agonizing contests with North Carolina this season. The first was at home, a 90-88 overtime loss, and the second on Chapel Hill, a 103-93 double overtime defeat which dropped Clemson's all-time record at North Carolina to 0-53. In the first game, Clemson had a seven point lead with under four minutes to go in regulation, but squandered that and was defeated in the extra session by a final-second three pointer by guard Wayne Ellington, who scored a career high 36 points. Clemson did itself in by shooting 14-of-27 from the free throw line, an exceedingly poor percentage even by its own seasonal standards (62.5 percent). In the second game, the Tigers led by 15 with under 11 minutes to go in the game, and by nine points with three minutes left, but could not close out the Tar Heels, who were playing without sophomore point guard Ty Lawson. The Tigers shot just seven free throws in those 50 minutes, and made only one of them--both mind-boggling statistics, especially considering that the Tar Heels were 31-of-36 from the free throw line for the game. As mentioned in yesterday's preview, Clemson has not just been a bad free throw shooting team this season, it has been inept at even getting to the stripe--with Exhibit A in that department the double-OT loss at North Carolina--which is curious considering that the team does not take a high proportion of its field goals from three-point range, and because Clemson's offense is largely based upon outstanding offensive rebounding, and grabbing offensive rebounds often lead to getting hacked around the basket. The Tigers did a better job in the free throw department in yesterday's win over Duke, getting to the line at a rate of 40 (22 free throws against 55 field goal attempts), more than double their seasonal rate, and hitting 7-of-8 free throws in the final two minutes to fend off the Blue Devils' rally.
That win vaulted the Tigers into just their second appearance in the ACC championship game, with the first coming in 1962, when they lost to Wake Forest. Clemson is the only one of the conference's charter members--which besides the Tigers were Duke, Maryland, North Carolina, N.C. State, South Carolina, and Wake Forest--without an ACC championship. It will be facing a Tar Heels team which has won 16 titles, including last year's crown, tied with Duke for the most, and which has beaten Clemson eight straight times. Win or lose, the Tigers are a lock to get into the NCAA tournament for the eighth time in their history and first since 1998.
Matchup: #7 Seed Texas Arlington (20-11, 7-9) vs. #5 Northwestern St. (15-17, 9-7), 1:00, ESPN2
Rankings: Texas Arlington, #184 in Pomeroy Ratings (4th of 12 in Southland); Northwestern St., #257 (9th)
Pomeroy Prediction: Texas Arlington, 80-74 in 77 Possessions
Upset Possibility: 30%
Prospectus: The Southland tournament was extremely rude to the conference's best teams this season, as none of the top three finishers in the regular season have even made it to the title game. Stephen F. Austin, the No. 1 seed which was 24-4 overall and 13-3 in-conference entering the tourney, was knocked off 69-66 in the semifinals on Friday by Northwestern St. Lamar, which shared first place with Stephen F. Austin, fell in the first round to Texas Arlington 81-75, and Arlington also took out the conference's third-place team, Sam Houston St., in the semifinals by a score of 72-66. Both of these teams, therefore, are riding back-to-back tournament upsets heading into the final game. Northwestern St. won the Southland tournament two seasons ago, and again in 2001, the two times the Demons have been to the NCAA tournament. Two trips have been enough for them to make history, however--in 2001 Northwestern St. won the inaugural play-in game against Winthrop, and in 2006 beat No. 3 seed Iowa as a No. 14 seed. Texas Arlington, meanwhile, has never won the Southland tournament since it was instituted in 1981, and has never been to the NCAA tournament.
Northwestern St. won the only game this season between these two, by a score of 86-82 at home in Natchitoches, LA on January 5. That game played out at a fast 74 possession pace, and this rematch could be even quicker than that--Northwestern St. has averaged 74.9 possessions per 40 minutes, the eighth most in the country, while Texas Arlington clocks in at 71.1/40, which ranks in the top 50. Today's rematch should feature lower offensive efficiencies than each squad put up in the first game--both teams scored over 1.10 points per possession--because both the Demons and Mavericks have better defenses than offenses.
Big 12 Championship
Matchup: #2 Seed Kansas (30-3, 13-3) vs. #1 Texas (28-5, 13-3), 3:00, ESPN
Rankings: Texas, #1 in Pomeroy Ratings (1st of 12 in Big 12); Texas, #9 (2nd)
Pomeroy Prediction: Kansas, 76-65 in 67 Possessions
Upset Possibility: 14%
Prospectus: This is the third straight year Kansas is facing Texas in the Big 12 championship game. Kansas won 80-68 in 2006 as a two seed over the No. 1 seeded Longhorns, and last year won again as the No. 1 seed 88-84 in overtime over third seeded Texas. The Longhorns will be playing in their fifth straight Big 12 title game, and remarkably Texas has lost each of the previous four, falling to Oklahoma St. in both 2004 and 2005 before running into the Jayhawks. The Longhorns also lost the championship game in 2001, to Oklahoma, and have therefore yet to win the Big 12 tourney since it began in 1997. They face an uphill battle this year, as well, despite the fact that they are the No. 1 seed and that they beat the Jayhawks during the regular season. Kansas is the most dominant team in the country by efficiency margin, with a +0.30 differential between points scored and allowed per possession overall, and +0.24 in conference play. Texas's efficiency margin against conference foes during the regular season was +0.09 (although the Longhorns did play a tougher schedule than Kansas). Additionally, while this afternoon's title game will be played at a supposedly neutral site, at the Sprint Center in Kansas City, the proximity of the venue to Kansas has resulted in crowds packed with Jayhawks fans.
If Kansas has a weakness on offense, it is that the team is not particularly adept at getting to the free throw line (or converting while there), and the Jayhawks were held to 14 attempts in their 72-69 loss in Austin on February 11--half as many free throws as Texas shot--by a Longhorns defense that ranks in the top 50 in lowering opponent free throw rate. If you want to get even more picky, you can point to Kansas' three-point field goal percentage allowed (33.6), which still ranks in the top 100 but is the worst aspect of a Jayhawks defense that is second in the country by adjusted efficiency. Texas took advantage of that to the tune of 8-of-20 from long range in its big upset victory, while Kansas shot just 4-of-17 from deep. Whichever team wins this rematch will put itself in position to be rewarded with a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament by the selection committee later in the day, and, as John Gasaway reminded us recently, seeding matters above all else come NCAA tournament time--even efficiency margin.
Big Ten Championship
Matchup: #10 Seed Illinois (16-18, 5-13) vs. #1 Wisconsin (28-4, 16-2), 3:30, CBS
Rankings: Illinois, #37 in Pomeroy Ratings (6th of 11 in Big Ten); Wisconsin, #3 (1st)
Pomeroy Prediction: Wisconsin, 60-51 in 59 Possessions
Upset Possibility: 15%
Prospectus: The improbable Big Ten tournament run of Illinois continued yesterday with a 54-50, 54 possession win over Minnesota in the semifinals, the slowest-paced game of the season for the Fighting Illini. Illinois will likely experience another low-possession defensive battle in the final, as the Fighting Illini are essentially a watered-down version of their championship game opponent, Wisconsin. Both teams play at a very slow pace and have a strong defense with a weaker offense, and the Fighting Illini and Badgers are even similar dimensionally, as each ranks in the nation's top 25 in Effective Height. Wisconsin, which got by Michigan St. 65-63 yesterday, beat the Fighting Illini twice during the regular season, winning 70-60 at home and 71-57 on the road. The Badgers put up a combined 1.13 points per possession and shot well over 50 eFG% from the floor in those games against an Illinois defense that ranks in the nation's top 25 in both adjusted efficiency and eFG% allowed. Sophomore guard Trevon Hughes was particularly effective against the Fighting Illini, as he led the Badgers in scoring in both games, tallying 40 points combined on 67 eFG% shooting.
This game is a rematch of both the 2004 and 2005 Big Ten championship games. In 2004 No. 2 seed Wisconsin beat No. 1 seed Illinois 70-53, and in 2005 the No. 1 seed Fighting Illini took down the No. 2 seed Badgers 54-43. Wisconsin also lost in the title game last season to Ohio St. after bouncing the Fighting Illini in the semifinals. Since the Big Ten tournament began in 1998, the lowest seed to win the title was No. 6 Iowa in 2001. Illinois also made a surprising run to the title game in 1999, as an 11 seed, but was cut down in the final 67-50 by top seed Michigan St. Illinois has made the NCAA tournament in each of the eight seasons since missing out that year, but will need a championship win over the Badgers today in order to keep that streak going.
Matchup: #6-East Georgia (16-16, 4-12) vs. #2-West Seed Arkansas (22-10, 9-7), 3:30, ESPN2
Rankings: Georgia, #97 in Pomeroy Ratings (11th of 12 in SEC); Arkansas, #36 (3rd )
Pomeroy Prediction: Arkansas, 69-64 in 68 Possessions
Upset Possibility: 29%
Prospectus: Georgia coach Dennis Felton "vehemently disagreed" with the decision that the winner of the Georgia/Kentucky quarterfinal, moved from Friday to Saturday because of the weather-related closing of the Georgia Dome, would play two games in one day on Saturday, stating that it was "basically eliminating our chances" of winning the tournament championship. After a wild day produced a pair of wins for the Bulldogs over favored opponents, however, Georgia still has a crack at that championship, as it advanced to play Arkansas today for an unlikely SEC tournament title and berth in the NCAA tournament. The Bulldogs, playing at the Alexander Memorial Coliseum in Atlanta on the campus of Georgia Tech, beat Kentucky in the early afternoon, 60-56 in overtime, and then came back to stun Mississippi St. last night, 64-60, completing one of the more remarkable performances in recent college basketball history. Both games were defensive struggles, as no team in either got its raw shooting percentage above 40, but freshman guard Zac Swansey hit a three-pointer to put Georgia ahead with under two seconds left in overtime against Kentucky, and senior guard Sundiata Gaines scored 36 points combined in the two games on 71 eFG% shooting, to help the Bulldogs gain the doubleheader sweep.
Arkansas, meanwhile, pulled out a 92-91 victory over top seed Tennessee on what will go down as a memorable day in the annals of SEC hoops. The Razorbacks out-rebounded the Volunteers, which led to three more field goal attempts than Tennessee, and those extra looks, along with the play of senior forward Charles Thomas--who scored 24 points on 65 eFG% shooting and had 10 rebounds--provided the differential. Arkansas will now face the surging Bulldogs, who beat the Razorbacks in their only meeting of the regular season, 82-69 in Athens on January 19. Bulldogs junior guard Billy Humphrey hit 4-of-6 threes and scored 24 points in that one, and Georgia's strong perimeter defense held Arkansas to 2-of-13 shooting from downtown. Both of these teams have won only one SEC tournament in their respective histories--Arkansas in 2000, and Georgia in 1983. While Arkansas will make the NCAA tournament regardless of today's outcome, the Bulldogs are playing for their first berth since 2002. The last time Georgia played in the SEC championship game was 1997, when the Bulldogs lost to Kentucky.
Caleb Peiffer is a contributor to Basketball Prospectus. He can be reached here.