BY MATTY D.
Avoiding any chance of being upset is a good thing. That’s especially true in college basketball. On a weekend when the Super Bowl is expected to feature a tight matchup between the Chiefs and Eagles, college basketball’s conference standings are tight as well. Many important conference tournaments in college hoops have bye games for its top teams. Here’s a glance at college basketball games for Super Bowl weekend, with an eye on what teams can capture those all-important byes.
Mountain West Offers High Ceiling and High Seeding
The team that climbs to the top of the Mountain West Conference this season will reach certain heights in the college hoops landscape. The Mountain West is the fourth best conference in college basketball this year. Therefore, the conference winner will get regional preference and a top 5 seed in the NCAA Tournament. There will also be a pack of hikers from the league who have a high ceiling. Conversely, someone in the middle of the pack will slip and suffer a dramatic fall. Right now San Diego State is the only team from the conference that is technically “ranked” in the Top 25. The veteran team is again loaded with experienced players who can contribute 6 points or more.
The second pack of teams from the conference is a force to be reckoned with. CBS Sports bracketology expert Jerry Palm has Nevada, Boise State and New Mexico all projected in the tournament on Super Bowl weekend. New Mexico just took a bad loss to Air Force on Friday night. The Lobos could be the character that slips from the rocks and falls out of the picture.
Two teams that could back-fill their position are Utah State and UNLV. Today they stand in the NET rankings at 33 and 82 respectively. UNLV is a current victim of how daunting this Mountain West conference actually is. However, when you watch them play, you recognize the high ceiling. The Runnin’ Rebels November matchup against another underrated conference team in Dayton was a good barameter for UNLVs’ potential. Former Oklahoma Sooner transfer Elijah Harmless led the way with 24 points. The Rebels have a fleet of skilled guards and a do-the-dirty work center in David Muoka who can compete with anyone at the rim.
On Saturday, UNLV gets an enormous chance to boost its tournament resume with a game at San Diego State. It’s unlikely that UNLV wins. It’s also unlikely that UNLV makes the NCAA tournament as an at large team. However, this game is a good litmus test to watch whether UNLV has its A game ready for the Mountain West Tournament. With six conference games remaining, it’s also unlikely that UNLV grabs a first round bye in the Mountain West Tournament. The Rebels were one slot short of that accomplishment last season. Right now they are four games behind Utah State in the loss column with six games left.
Big brands re-emerge in the Big East
There has been a bit of a Renaissance in the Big East. With exception of Georgetown, the big brand names remain relevant late in the season. College basketball fans were treated to a UCONN season where the Huskies were an AP Top 5 team. Sean Miller has returned to Xavier and immediately made them an AP Top 25 team. Although they are not a tournament team, even St. John’s is playing relevant basketball and perhaps looking at an NIT or a CBI bid.
However, the biggest mover right now is the Villanova Wildcats. This statement has caused a storm of debate on our Twitter page. However, with veteran guard Justin Moore back from an achilles tear in last year’s Big Dance, Villanova looks much better than its record shows.
The tournament committee is stubborn about a lot of things. One thing they have historically actually shown common sense about is judging a team that had a major injury. With Justin Moore back today from Achilles injury, Villanova is back in the tournament hunt as well.
Villanova was leading Creighton in Omaha on the game Justin Moore returned. They lost that one, but rebounded by beating up on Depaul. With an 11-13 record, they now play Seton Hall, Butler, Providence and Xavier next. That’s four winnable games and two Quad 1 opportunities. If they win five straight in this stretch, they will be 15-13 with an opportunity to avenge their loss against Crieghton to go to 16-13. Let’s assume they lose one more of their remaining Big East schedule. They would head into Madison Square Garden as a dangerous, experienced, battle-tested, ball security advocate in the Big East Tournament at 18-14. I don’t see the tournament committee keeping this group out of the Big Dance if they win 2 of 3 in the Big East Tournament in that scenario finishing at 20-15. That’s me. Or they could just win the Big East tournament.