If you had doubts about last year’s Shocker team, you would be forgiven. The Missouri Valley Conference has typically been a pretty solid conference, but it seems to take Larry Bird to make one of their teams actual contenders. Or so the thought went. The Shockers were only an 8 seed, which really is one of the worst draws of the tournament. They had a great record at 26-8, but hadn’t even won their conference.* Nobody outside the conference had really seen them play. There were reasons to think it was just another solid mid-major team.
*Creighton took the crown that year. They then promptly jumped into the “new” Big East, like Butler did. But, unlike Butler, which has really struggled this season, Creighton is sitting atop their new home, just a half game ahead of Villanova. It should probably also be added that the Blue Jays smacked the Wildcats around this year, so it looks as if Creighton would be a good bet to win this year’s Big East crown. Somewhat related, what should we call this for the Big East? Clearly it has a direct lineage to the Big East we used to be familiar with, but it would be dishonest not to acknowledge the big shake up, right? So, what is this season? The Re-Inaugural Season? I don’t know. Something for others to sort out, I suppose.
This year, there’s no excuse. They totally earned their spot in the Final Four last year. If you don’t remember, the Shockers absolutely crushed Pitt and (a resurgent) La Salle. Gonzaga and Ohio State gave them tougher games, but neither of them really felt particularly in doubt. If you want to point out that the Shockers drew two other mid-majors along the way in Gonzaga and La Salle, that’s fine, but don’t forget that Gonzaga was a one seed and La Salle had already knocked off two major conference teams in Kansas State and Ole Miss. It wasn’t like the Shockers played teams like Maryland-Eastern Shore and Lamar the whole way. Add to that Louisville got easily their biggest challenge in the tournament out of Wichita State, and you just can’t question that the Shockers were legit last year.
What is there to question this year? The only thing I can think of is that the Missouri Valley is clearly not as tough of a conference as it typically is. But, you know, it’s still awfully tough to go undefeated. Butler never managed it during those last few seasons in the Horizon League, and the MVC is a few steps up from that. Yeah, they lost a few players, as does every college team, but quite a few are still on the roster. These guys know how to win.
Has their schedule been murder’s row? No, not all. Outside the conference, their best games were Saint Louis,* Tennessee, and BYU. Saint Louis only has two losses, the Volunteers and Cougars each have ten. Alabama is an SEC team, but they don’t even have a winning record, so I won’t include them. So, yeah, is their schedule great? No, it’s not. But the fact of the matter is they’ve won each one of those games, and that’s tough. I don’t care who you play. They obviously showed they can play last year. Why would you doubt they could do it again this year?
*I don’t understand why the school is so insistent that “Saint” is spelled out, but I’ll abide.
So, in the interest of padding this out, if we’re conceding that the Shockers are taking a one, who else would get one? Sitting here today, I would have to also give a nod to Syracuse. Sure, losing to Boston College isn’t great, but it’s still only one loss. Those two seem like mortal locks as of today. That, to me, leaves two spots to four teams, all with two losses: Saint Louis, Florida, and Arizona. You could make an argument for Cincinnati (three losses) or San Diego State (two losses), but I just don’t think it’s a strong argument.
Most fans would probably look at that list and decide it’s Arizona and Florida without a second thought. But, I don’t know. I suppose it would depend on how you look at the Atlantic 10. It’s similar to the MVC in that it’s undeniably not great. But I don’t feel like it’s a bad league at all. VCU is still a very good team. Then you have a run of good-but-not-overwhelming teams like St. Joe, George Washington, and Richmond. But, Saint Louis has very solid losses. I don’t know if you can call either a let down. One is to the aforementioned Shockers, which was only a five point game. The other was a neutral floor loss to a Wisconsin team that looked like world-beaters at the time. It would be hard for me to pass the Billikens up for a top seed.
So what do the other teams look like? Florida also lost to that same Wisconsin team, along with a one-point road loss to a very good Connecticut team. It’s hard to argue those losses, but I also really wonder if the SEC is really all that much better than the A10. In football, obviously, there’s no question. In basketball, though? Who else would you really fear other than Kentucky? This year especially feels like a down year for a conference that is not particularly strong in basketball. That leaves Arizona. The Pac-12 certainly feels like the strongest conference out of the bunch. And, perhaps tellingly, both of their losses have come in conference. One in double overtime at Arizona State, the other on the road to Cal by two points. Those are also both awfully strong resumes.
So how would I go? I think I would very slightly lean towards Florida and Arizona, but boy is it ever slight. I feel a bit stronger about Arizona than the others. But if you gave me Saint Louis over Florida, I wouldn’t bat an eye one bit.
A bit more explanation on who I didn’t consider. San Diego State is damaged by the same argument I had for Wichita State. They had their chance to show their stuff in the tournament last year. They were promptly stomped by Florida Gulf Coast. I would consider a three-loss Cincinnati team ahead of the Aztecs mostly for that reason. Cincy doesn’t have a bad resume at all. They’ve already beat Louisville once, and the American is a fairly strong league. But it doesn’t feel as strong to me as the A10, and certainly not the Pac-12. And their losses are not good. They were pretty well stomped by Xavier and SMU to go along with a fairly handy loss to New Mexico. Now, they should be a high seed, but not a one.
And, because it’s me, Purdue has answered the bell so far in the “don’t lose another game until the Big Ten tournament” challenge to make the big dance. But they need some quality wins if they want a prayer. Tonight would be one of those quality wins if they can beat Michigan State. And, well, it’s certainly possible. Michigan State is a banged up team and could possibly be without a stud in Keith Appling. I mean, they just lost at home to Nebraska, it isn’t a stretch to think Purdue could pull this one out in Mackey. Especially if they play the kind of inspired ball they played against the Hoosiers. And, hey, just like they needed to put on a show for Joe Barry Carroll last Saturday, you would think they would want to make a nice showing for Big Dog, too, right?
Here’s to hoping!