Which Conference Is Tops? Pt. 2
Talk is cheap. What happens when the conferences duke it out?
The time for trash talking and planning are done. The rosters have been set, the players have been introduced; now it’s time for the teams to take the floor to determine which conference will reign supreme. Will the championship go to the alpha dogs of the ACC or the Big East, or will someone unexpected rise to the occasion? Will there be any significant upsets, or will everything play out according to seed? Let’s find out!
No. 9 Missouri Valley vs. No. 8 Atlantic 10
Venue: The Palestra
In this epic clash of mid-major powers is there any question that the legendary Palestra would make a perfect site for this opening round game? This game starts off looking like the games that were played back when the arena first opened; slow. Neither team is blessed with off the charts athleticism, although the A-10 has the advantage in this department. The home team jumps out to an early lead thanks to Chris Lowe’s ability to penetrate the lane and distribute to his teammates. After an Ahmad Nivins dunk followed up by a long 2 from Dionte Christmas, the MVC is down 16-4 at the under twelve break. Clevin Hannah gets into foul trouble due to Lowe’s quickness and is replaced by Booker Woodfox. The Creighton guard teams up with fellow Blue Jay P’Allen Stinnet and the two go to work, pulling their team within three points at the half.
The teams trade baskets for the opening few minutes of the second half, but the talent of the A-10 proves to be too much for the Missouri Valley. Derrick Brown and Nivins take over down low, with the Saint Joe’s big man posting a 24-point, 13-rebound effort.
Final: Atlantic 10 73 – Missouri Valley 61
No. 10 Conference USA vs. No. 7 Mountain West
Venue: Thomas & Mack Center
UNLV’s monstrous 18,500 seat arena is the home for our second game, and this one may be the most intriguing match up of the opening round. What more could you ask for? This game features a battle of 7-footers inside with Luke Nevill and Jerome Jordan, excellent perimeter shooting on the part of the MWC and tremendous overall scoring ability with the backcourt of C-USA.
The Mountain West comes out firing from deep and spreading the floor effectively. The trio of Lee Cummard, Lorrenzo Wade and Jimmer Fredette all hit a pair of 3s in the first half. Jordan does his best to body up the slightly taller Nevill, but the Utah big man relies on his soft touch to get a couple of nice finishes around the rim. The only thing that keeps C-USA within 10 at the half is their ability to capitalize on the turnover issues the MWC is dealing with.
The second half sees John Calipari’s dribble drive offense go into effect. Tyreke Evans is too strong for the Mountain West’s guards to contain him and Stefon Jackson goes to his bread and butter—a deadly pull up jumper. The three-man rotation of Jordan, Robert Dozier and Sean Taggart inside prevents the Mountain West from getting second chance opportunities. Led by 28 points from Jackson, C-USA pulls the first round upset and storms from behind for the win.
Final: Conference USA 84 – Mountain West 77
No. 11 Horizon League vs. No. 6 SEC
Venue: Rupp Arena
The legendary home of the Kentucky Wildcats proves a friendly home for the SEC squad which is far superior to the Horizon League despite being the smaller of the two teams. The game opens up with Nick Calathes pushing the tempo for the SEC and kicking to Jodie Meeks on the perimeter. Whatever Meeks doesn’t connect on from the outside, teammate Patrick Patterson and Tennessee’s Tyler Smith are there to clean up. A pair of 3 pointers in the final 30 seconds of the first half by Gordon Hayward keeps the deficit at a manageable 14 points, but that would be as close as it would get the rest of the way.
The second half opens with Marcus Thornton and Devan Downey picking up where Jodie Meeks left off. The game turns into a route with four SEC players reaching double figures, led by 22 from Thornton and 18 from Patterson.
Final: SEC 86 – Horizon League 60
No. 12 WAC vs. No. 5 Pac-10
Venue: Pauley Pavilion
The Pac-10 has a clear advantage in the backcourt in their opening round match up, with three All-American caliber players. The WAC’s frontcourt however has the potential for some match up problems with Luke Babbitt and Jeff Wilkinson having the ability to step away from the paint and shoot.
The game opens with the WAC setting the tempo early. Nevada’s Armon Johnson prevents Darren Collison from getting out and running in the open floor with solid defense. In it’s half court set, the visitors are able to get Babbitt and Wilkinson plenty of open looks away from the paint as Jordan Hill and Jeff Pendergraph struggle to defend on the perimeter. It’s a good one at the break with the WAC clinging to a four-point lead.
Ben Howland decides to role the dice and starts Jerome Randle in place of James Harden in the second half for a little more quickness in the backcourt. The move pays off and the WAC has trouble keeping up with both Randle and Collison. The Pac-10 pushes ahead late in the game with an 8-0 run sparked by a pair of fast breaks caused by pressure defense. The home team holds on for a close win as Collison proves his worth as a clutch shooter, hitting 4-4 free throws in the final minute.
Final: Pac-10 77 – WAC 72
No. 5 Pac-10 vs. No. 4 Big 12
Venue: Allen Fieldhouse
The famed Kansas arena is the location of a fantastic game that features close to 10 players who could hear their name called on draft night in the future and a pair of coaches with Final Four experience.
The first half is all about post play, an area that the Big 12 dominates. POY candidate Blake Griffin teams with the ultra talented Craig Brackens to dominate the Pac-10 bigs, totaling 27 points and 15 rebounds combined in the first half. Darren Collison is hot from the perimeter though and Chase Budinger is proving too quick for Damion James off the dribble, so at the half the Big 12 lead is only six.
The tide switches in the early part of the second half, though. As has been the case in the past when he faces other physically imposing post players, Blake Griffin gets into a bit of foul trouble with Arizona’s Jordan Hill playing aggressively on the block. With Cole Aldrich coming in as a replacement, the Pac-10 frontcourt players are more of a factor and force the Big 12 perimeter defenders to stay closer to home rather than pressing out on the wing. With the additional space, Collison uses his lighting quick release to continue pumping in shots from beyond the arc. James Harden gets going as well, using his silky smooth dribble drive game to get into the lane and pull up from mid-range. Damion James keeps the Big 12 close with his tireless work on the offensive glass, but without Griffin in the middle, the offense isn’t as imposing.
Griffin finally checks back in at the under 8 timeout, but by then the Pac-10 is in too much of a rhythm pushing the tempo offensively. A highlight reel dunk by Budinger at the 1:40 mark shuts the door on the Big 12.
Final: Pac-10 93 – Big 12 82
No. 6 SEC vs. No. 3 Big East
Venue: Madison Square Garden
The Big East chooses the site of its conference tournament for this quarterfinal game. The home team has a clear advantage in the frontcourt and what they give up in size in the backcourt, they more than make up for with quickness and athleticism.
The SEC comes out with Jodie Meeks firing from deep again, hitting a couple of early 3s to give his team the lead. When he cools off though, the tide starts to turn. The SEC can’t get anything going in the lane thanks to Hasheem Thabeet who blocks a handful of shots and alters plenty more. On the offensive side, the trio of Jonny Flynn, Jerel McNeal and Terrence Williams prove to be a nightmare for the SEC backcourt defenders. Flynn wreaks havoc in the open floor, pushing the tempo every chance he gets and letting his teammates finish for him. When the first unit starts to get winded, they are quickly replaced by two more athletic specimens in Sam Young and Earl Clark who pick up the slack.
Forced to shoot the majority of its shots from the outside against the lengthy and athletic perimeter defenders of the Big East, the SEC struggles to put points on the board. The Big East is able to put it on cruise control for the final few minutes of the game with a win in hand.
Final: Big East 78 – SEC 62
No. 10 Conference USA vs. No. 2 Big Ten
Venue: Breslin Center
Michigan State’s sprawling 14,759 seat basketball palace plays host to our next game. From the early going, it’s fairly obvious that that Conference USA has the quicker and more athletic squad, but the Big Ten makes things tough by slowing down the tempo and spreading the floor. Left with one-on-one match ups, Talor Battle and Evan Turner are able to penetrate and create in the first half, each scoring in double figures by halftime. C-USA dominates the battle on the boards though with the size and length that Jerome Jordan and Robert Dozier provide.
In the second half, Big Ten guards Kalin Lucas E’Twaun Moore begin to struggle with turnovers, as they have from time to time this year. C-USA is able to capitalize on the mistakes and starts to force a more up and down tempo. Tyreke Evans has a field day in the open floor using his superior athleticism to attack the basket and finish at will. With the bigs still winning the battle on the boards, the Big Ten is forced to try and keep up with the fast pace of the game and gets out run.
Final: Conference USA 74 – Big Ten 6
No. 8 Atlantic 10 vs. No. 1 ACC
Venue: Cameron Indoor Stadium
What? A Roy Williams coached team playing in enemy territory? The lifelong Tar Heel is willing to swallow his pride if it means giving his team a little more of an advantage with the rabid ACC fans right on top of the overmatched Atlantic 10.
The superior athleticism of the ACC takes over from the games opening tip. Ty Lawson is a one man fast break and when he doesn’t go to the rack himself, he has the option to kick out to Jeff Teague or lob it up for high flying Gerald Henderson. In the instances when the A-10 forces Williams’s crew to slow down the tempo, the outstanding perimeter shooting of the ACC lights it up from downtown and leaves Tyler Hansbrough all alone inside.
The game proves to be fairly open and shut for the ACC. Hansbrough gets Ahmad Nivins in foul trouble early and goes for 22 while his teammate Lawson doles out 9 assists compared to just 2 turnovers. Jack McClinton, Jeff Teague and Kyle Singler each connect twice from beyond the arc.
Final: ACC 90 – Atlantic 10 77
No. 10 Conference USA vs. No. 3 Big East
Venue: Madison Square Garden
The first semi-final game is the best match up of physical attributes this tournament has produced. Once again there is a battle of 7-footers inside and both rosters are loaded with superior scorers and athletes.
Conference USA finds plenty of success early on in what proves to be an up tempo game. With both Hasheem Thabeet and DeJuan Blair on the floor the Big East is too slow to consistently keep up with John Calipari’s crew in transition. Robert Dozier is the fastest open floor frontcourt player on either team and takes advantage, beating his defender up the floor several times for easy baskets. Jerel McNeal draws the assignment of covering Tyreke Evans, but struggles early due to the size he is giving up to the highly touted freshman. The gritty play of Terrence Williams keeps the Big East within striking distance at the half, only trailing by 8.
Rick Pittino decides to make some changes in the line up for the second half, replacing Blair with his own Earl Clark, allowing the Big East to keep pace more in transition. The tremendous length of Clark and Thabeet starts to make things very difficult for C-USA around the rim and they are forced to rely more on their perimeter game. With Clark on the floor now, the Big East is much more dangerous when they choose to run with the ball, now sporting four players capable of handling the rock while on the run. Jonny Flynn proves to be clutch for the umpteenth time this season by connecting on a three-pointer to put the Big East ahead by 2 with less than three minutes to go. That proves to be the winning basket, as the trio of starting backcourt players hits their free throws down the stretch in a come from behind win.
Final: Big East 84 – Conference USA 80
No. 5 Pac-10 vs. No. 1 ACC
Venue: Cameron Indoor Stadium
It’s east-versus-west in this exhilarating second semi-final match up. The similarities between these two squads are striking. Both teams feature lightning quick points guards, sweet shooting 2s, super athletic small forwards and formidable big men.
The first half is an offensive slugfest, each team taking the others best shot and trading baskets. There are no less than half a dozen 6-0 runs in the opening 20 minutes with both Ty Lawson and Darren Collison wracking up the assists. As expected in a game of this style, Chase Budinger and Gerald Henderson are having the most success as they are able to get out in the open floor and use their freakish vertical leaping abilities to finish fast break after fast break.
After the half, things start to slow down and surprisingly, the Pac-10 starts to inch ahead. While the ACC may have a bit more versatility across the board, they are getting beat up inside by the Pac-10 trio of Jordan Hill, Jeff Pendergraph and Jon Brockman. While Tyler Hansbrough can hold his own defensively on the block, Kyle Singler doesn’t have the upper body strength to keep from getting backed down. As was the case in their previous win over the Big 12, when the perimeter defenders start to double down on the low post, Darren Collison is able to get open looks from the outside and connect.
The ACC makes a strong push in the final few minutes of the game, but ultimately as is the case with Roy Williams’s Carolina teams at times, the offense simply wasn’t good enough to compensate for the defense in this game. It’s a close one, but the Pac-10 is steady at the charity stripe down the stretch to advance to the finals.
Final: Pac-10 79 – ACC 75
No. 5 Pac-10 vs. No. 3 Big East
Venue: Hinkle Fieldhouse
The Pac-10 vying for the best conference in the country? C’mon, what’s a college basketball tournament without a little bit of a Cinderella story.
With another east-versus-west battle and this being the championship game it only seems appropriate to play at a neutral location, one that is close to the middle ground for these two squads. So with that in mind, what place could be better than the legendary Hinkle Fieldhouse, scene of the championship game in the movie Hoosiers?
As has been the case throughout the entire tournament, Hasheem Thabeet has a clear size advantage when he walks to the center circle for the opening tip. This time he has a good five inches on Arizona’s Jordan Hill who draws the responsibility of containing the future NBA center on this night. Thabeet controls the opening tip and the Big East controls the early portion of the game.
Perhaps worn out from the additional game they had to play to get here, the Pac-10 is sluggish early on and Jonny Flynn takes full advantage, picking up a pair of fast break buckets early and tossing an alley-oop to the high flying Terrence Williams. The lead is 11 for the Big East at the under 12 timeout. Coming out of the break, Jeff Pendergraph starts to make his presence felt for the first time in this tournament. Working the two man game with teammate James Harden, Pendergraph is able to connect on several elbow jumpers over the reach of the shorter DeJuan Blair. Thabeet picks up two quick fouls with five minutes to go and is quickly pulled for Luke Harangody. With the shot blocking menace now riding the pine, the Pac-10 guards are able to penetrate and finish around the rim more and, importantly, get Jordan Hill going. The Big East lead is cut to five at the half.
Rick Pittino decides to make some changes at the half as he has in the past, and again elects to bring in Earl Clark in place of Blair. The transition game starts clicking again for the Big East as it did in the first half, but with the super athletic Clark in the game now, Pittino goes into a full court press on defense. The pressure works and Terrence Williams and Clark intercept passes on back-to-back possessions that result in a 3 for McNeal and a lob inside to Thabeet. The Big East is able to push the lead back to 12 before Ben Howland calls timeout.
The Pac-10 attempts to make one final push by getting James Harden and Budinger the basketball in isolation situations, but Thabeet is a constant presence in the middle, thwarting most of their shots attempts in the lane. Jerel McNeal locks down Collison in the second half, not allowing him to attempt a single shot from the perimeter and forcing 3 turnovers in the final 20 minutes.
Final: Big East 81 – Pac-10 72
(Click bracket to enlarge)
So there you have it. When left to the devices of the players, the Big East manages to come out on top thanks to the tremendous combination of size and athleticism that the conference boasts; of course having defenders like Jerel McNeal and Hasheem Thabeet played a major role in the outcome of this tournament. It also became clear that certain conferences that may have received lower seeds due to the lack of top-tier teams still are loaded with big-time players. If nothing else, this feast of individual college talent should whet your appetite for the impending NCAA Tournament, which is fast approaching.