Predictions for All Five Sunday Conference Championships
Welcome to Selection Sunday. With 27 conference championships already in the books, we only have five more automatic bids to hand out today in the following five leagues:
- IVY: Harvard at Penn -2 (12 p.m. ET | ESPN2)
- SEC: Kentucky vs Tennessee -1 (1 p.m. ET | ESPN)
- A10: Davidson vs Rhode Island -2.5 (1 p.m. ET | CBS)
- SUN BELT: UT Arlington vs Georgia State -1.5 (2 p.m. ET | ESPN2)
- AAC: Houston vs Cincinnati -4.5 (3:30 p.m. ET | CBS)
The first final tips at noon ET and the last at 3:30 p.m ET, which will take us into the bracket reveal. Teams on the bubble will nervously have their eyes on the A10 conference championship, as Davidson is the only team that could steal a potential bid today. Let’s kick things off at The Palestra with a look at the Ivy League championship.
Harvard at Penn (-2)
Time: 12 p.m. ET
Location: Philadelphia, PA
Season Series: Split
While Penn will benefit from playing on its home floor, Harvard’s biggest advantage will be with sophomore forward Seth Towns. As I mentioned in the Ivy League tournament preview, Penn can struggle defensively on the perimeter. Towns presents a similar matchup problem for the Quakers as he did against Yale. He can operate in the middle of the floor, which is essentially left uncontested in Penn head coach Steve Donahue’s defensive scheme.
In fact, an often wonky Harvard offense matches up well in several regards against Penn’s defense. Donahue rarely, if ever, doubles the post, which will allow sophomore forward Chris Lewis to work one-on-one. Since the Quakers play straight up man-to-man, rarely gambling for steals or blocks, Harvard can run its ball screen offense essentially uncontested. The Crimson scored 1.14 points per possession (ppp) in the two regular season meetings.
Penn, meanwhile, found major success at the rim this season against Harvard, the Ivy League’s best interior defense. The Quakers’ excellent ball movement often caught Lewis out of position inside. Harvard particularly had trouble guarding the mobility of Penn big man AJ Brodeur, who is coming off a monster performance against Yale. Interestingly, Donahue went with a smaller lineup when Penn beat Harvard this season. Big man Max Rothschild sat on the bench for large stretches, as the Quakers were having success off the dribble against the Crimson.
With Harvard’s offense playing at the same level as its defense of late, I’ll take the Crimson in a tight one.
THE PICK: Harvard +2
Kentucky (-1) vs Tennessee
Time: 1 p.m. ET
Location: St. Louis, MO
Season Series: Tennessee 2-0
If you’ve followed along with my season long top 20 power rankings, you know that I’m extremely bullish on the Vols. Tennessee is one of the most athletic and versatile teams in the nation. It also plays extremely aggressive defense, which exploited UK’s season-long turnover issues in a season sweep.
Tennessee is a top-50 defense nationally in terms of rim protection. Preventing UK’s athleticism from taking over at the rim is the primary objective when playing the Cats. While the Vols aren’t overwhelmingly big in the frontcourt, they make up for it with athleticism and activity. Tennessee also doesn’t allow teams to put the ball on the floor in the paint, which UK’s bigs tend to do.
Essentially, this game comes down to the fact that Tennessee’s defense is stout enough at the rim. That will force UK to hit jumpers, which is not its strong suit. Additionally, junior forward Admiral Schofield, while just 6-foot-5, is a matchup problem for the Cats. He can score with his back to the basket or facing the rim. He’s also an excellent passer from the middle of the floor, sucking in defenses around the free throw line and opening up the perimeter. Schofield should have a big day. It also sounds like Tennessee will avoid seeing forward Jarred Vanderbilt for the second time, as he’ll likely sit with an injury
THE PICK: Tennessee +1
Davidson vs Rhode Island (-2.5)
Time: 1 p.m. ET
Location: Washington, DC
Season Series: Split
As I mentioned in the intro, this is the game of the day for bubble teams across the country. Those teams should be VERY worried about Rhode Island’s chances to do them a solid, as Davidson’s motion offense is firing on all cylinders. The Wildcats have scored an absurd 1.40 ppp in their two A10 tourney games thus far. (Star forward Peyton Aldridge has shot a ridiculous 12-of-13 from 3).
URI’s perimeter shooting was scuffling coming into the A10 tournament. However, the Rams exploded for 14-of-31 shooting from deep against St. Joseph’s sagging man-to-man and 2-3 zone looks. That followed an 11-of-22 shooting performance from beyond the arc against VCU, which also went to a zone. Rhody is 25-of-53 from 3 in DC after hitting just 9-of-53 in two losses to close out the regular season. Talk about 3-point variance. One of those miserable shooting performances came against Davidson’s 2-3 zone.
Besides the Rams suddenly becoming the hottest shooting team in the country, they’ve also suddenly become mediocre defensively. After a solid performance against VCU, St. Joe’s torched URI for 1.33 ppp yesterday. That doesn’t bode well against Davidson’s outstanding motion offense. The Rams will likely have to continue to hit 3s at what’s essentially an unsustainable level against Davidson’s zone. The Wildcats will score at will regardless.
THE PICK: Davidson +3
UT Arlington vs Georgia State (-1.5)
Time: 2 p.m. ET
Location: New Orleans, LA
Season Series: Split
I wrote in my Sun Belt tourney preview that UTA was a team to be feared in New Orleans. The Mavs are a senior-laden team that has come up short in March as the favorite in the past. UTA has always had the physical tools to be the best team in the league (and one of the best mid-major teams in the country). However, the Mavs are often not all there mentally, and lack on-court cohesiveness. It appears they’ve finally come together for a final tournament push after knocking off top seed ULL yesterday. (Although the Cajuns were shorthanded without Jakeenan Gant).
Against Georgia State, it’s usually about how you matchup against head coach Ron Hunter’s infamous trapping 1-3-1 matchup zone. However, I think this game will be more about how GSU matches up against UTA’s morphing ball-line/3-2 zone defense.
UTA had success on offense in the season split against the Panthers, scoring 1.09 ppp. The Mavs sped up the Panthers, who typically play stout transition defense. Both games were played in the mid 70s possession wise, which is nearly 10 more possessions than GSU typically averages.
Georgia State point guard D’Marcus Simonds torched UTA in the first meeting, but the Mavs turned him into a jump shooter in the second meeting by limiting his penetration. Head coach Scott Cross will certainly live with 4-of-10 3-point shooting from Simonds rather than the 12-of-23 from two that Simonds shot in the Georgia State win.
Fouls and free throws could be a major factor in this game. The Sun Belt refs called an extremely tight game against GSU’s aggressive zone yesterday. The Panthers were whistled for 27 fouls and Simonds fouled out after just 28 minutes, which nearly cost GSU a spot in the title game. In UTA’s regular season win over the Panthers, the Mavs out-shot GSU 34 to 18 at the stripe (GSU hit just 6-of-18). I’m certain Hunter will remind the refs how one-sided the whistle was yesterday. How the game is being called early could determine which team goes dancing.
Ultimately, UTA is the more talented team so +1.5 offers value in what should be a very tight game.
THE PICK: UT Arlington +1.5
Houston vs Cincinnati (-4.5)
Time: 3:30 p.m. ET
Location: Orlando, FL
Season Series: Split
The final game of the regular season is an interesting one. I think Cincinnati is a Final Four team, while Houston is a sleeper that could make a deep run itself.
I loved Kelvin Sampson’s description of Cincinnati prior to the second meeting in Houston:
(Cincinnati is) not a hard team to prepare for,” Sampson said after Houston thumped Tulane by 31 on Sunday. “They’re just a monster to play against. It’s not like they try to trick you with all this fancy stuff. They just line up and—they got about a 100 mile per hour fastball and it’s got movement on it. They say ‘hit it.’
Houston won that second meeting with its defense to get the season series split. Houston doesn’t have the length in the frontcourt to match up with Cincy, so Sampson effectively walled off the paint. The goal was to force the Bearcats into jumpers, but Cincy preferred to drive right into a packed lane to draw contact. It did have some success doing so (in the loss), as Cincy got to the line 32 times.
But Houston’s offense had its own issues. Sampson runs his ubiquitous 1-4 high ball screen motion through guard Rob Gray. However, since Cincy’s length and athleticism allows them to switch on every screen, Gray was effectively neutralized in both meetings. Houston was competitive in the first meeting and victorious in the second on the strength of Corey Davis’ perimeter shooting. If he can’t continue hitting a high clip from the outside, I’m not sure Houston how Houston will score enough to take the rubber match.
THE PICK: Cincinnati -4.5
Editor’s note: The opinion on these games is from the individual writer and is based on his research, analysis and perspective. It is independent of, and may not always match with, the algorithm-driven Best Bets from Sports Insights
Top photo: Cincinnati’s Jacob Evans; credit: USA TODAY Sports