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The Dagger: College Basketball Blog

Interpretive Dance: Slighted Mountain West out to prove it wears big boy pants

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The ultra-competitive MWC wants your vote of confidence. (USAT)

Still recuperating from your midweek bar crawl? Are you nostril deep in term paper research? Have no fear, fellow bracketeers. As a companion to the Bracket Big Board, the I.D. is here to highlight all the college hardwood action from the week that was and preview the most pivotal matchups of the weekend. Unlike McLovin’s fake Hawaiian driver's license, there's nothing fake about this I.D. …

Groupthink is prevalent throughout college basketball. During the conference season, familiar schools quarrel like bratty brothers, but once teams enter the penultimate frame, friendly, almost loving attitudes take hold. For most, league affiliation runs very deep. Marquette backers bark for Hoyas. Oregon supporters cheer UCLA. And Ohio State zealots root on Michi ... Ok, maybe not entirely.

[Also: Syracuse apologizes for ‘mistakenly sent’ tweet about Boeheim’s future]

From division-to-division loyalties vary, but for those faithful to the Mountain West they are imprinted on the DNA.

Any outsider who ventures into The Pit, Moby or Aztec Bowl is not only enveloped by the warmth for local teams, but for the league as a whole. Often overshadowed by the Pac-12 and biases toward powerhouses east of the Mississippi, MWC fanciers feel they’re working toward a common cause – to gain the national respect the league rightfully deserves.

Only in existence since 2000, the little redheaded stepchild of the West is experiencing unprecedented success. Second only to the Big Ten in terms of RPI strength and with five representatives projected in the latest incarnation of the Bracket Big Board, four of which with an 8-seed or better, the MWC is holding its own against traditional giants. Still, skeptics question whether or not the league possesses a legitimate Final Four contender, which is warranted. Despite garnering several attractive seeds over the years, it’s compiled an uneventful 11-23 (32.4 win-percentage) record in Round 1 games. More disappointing, of those 34 appearances, none have extended beyond the Sweet Sixteen, though BYU and San Diego State reached the second weekend in 2011. Last year, however, among the conference’s five bids, only New Mexico survived the opening round.

The Mountain West’s unexciting history begs the obligatory question, ‘Will this be the year?’ In short, my odds of sealing the deal with Kate Upton may be better.

Essentially, the league is comprised of a handful of good, but not great teams. However, as brackteers know, any squad is one torrid shooting exhibition away from silencing even the harshest critics. Draw and execution will ultimately determine its fate.

Below is a rundown of just how far MWC teams, presently slated to lace-up a pair of dancing shoes, will go (in order of projected highest finish):

UNLV Runnin’ Rebels (REC: 23-7, RPI: 13, Vs. Top-50: 6-5, Proj. Seed: 5) – Armed to the teeth with talent, Dave Rice has put together an impressive team. Anthony Bennett is a sure-fire lottery pick. Anthony Marshall is a superb facilitator. And, when healthy, Mike Moser is a highly disruptive interior force. Questionable shot selection, turnovers and Moser's inconsistency have plagued the Rebels at times, but sound defensively and fast-paced, they're my favorite to advance the furthest in postseason play.

Boise State Broncos (REC: 20-9, RPI: 43, Vs. Top-50: 3-6, Proj. Seed: 12) – Close only counts in horseshoes and hand-grenades. Just ask the Broncos. Ahead of UNLV for much of the game Tuesday, the Broncos were caught red-handed, unable to steal a win at the Thomas & Mack. Despite the tough loss, they should dance. They have as many RPI top-100 victories as at-large locks Kansas State, NC State and Notre Dame. Assuming they sneak in, they may not wreck your bracket completely, but they have the makeup of a classic 12-over-5. Similar to Colorado State, defense is a premium, but Boise can flat-out shoot the rock from outside. Rainmaker Jeff Elorriaga has drilled nearly 46-percent from behind the arc. As a team, it has scored 39.4 percent of its money-balls, the 14th-best mark on the college hardwood. All it takes is one hot shooting night …

New Mexico Lobos (REC: 26-4, RPI: 3, Vs. Top-50: 8-3, Proj. Seed: 2) – A gaudy record/RPI, sitting along atop the MWC and slated to earn a high NCAA seed – Steve Alford is in familiar territory. The Lobos are nasty defensively ranking ninth in the country in adjust defensive efficiency. Seven-footer Alex Kirk and interior neutralizer Cameron Bairstow have made it extremely difficult for opponents to score inside the arc. However, New Mexico is highly erratic offensively. Kendall Williams was unconscious against Colorado State, dropping 46 points. His followup line versus San Diego State: 1-for-6 from the floor, 8 points, 0-3 from three. And that's the Lobos in a nutshell. When splashing the cylinder with regularity, they're incredibly tough to overcome. But when shots aren't falling, they are upset prone. Don't be shocked if Cinderella stabs them with a stiletto.

San Diego State Aztecs (REC: 21-8, RPI: 31, Vs. Top-50: 4-6, Proj. Seed: 8) – Slashing, athletic and frenetic, the Aztecs are on pace to return to the dance for the third-straight year, but don't expect an appearance akin to its Sweet Sixteen run in 2011. Chase Tapley is a marvelous player converting nearly 40-percent from downtown, but his recent unsteadiness has fostered many questions. When on, he and Jamaal Franklin are quite the combo. As a whole, State is stifling defensively holding opponents to just 0.88points per possession. But inharmonious at times on the opposite end, particularly from three (33.1 3PT%) and at the charity stripe (67.2 FT%), it doesn't have the firepower needed to make a substantial run. If it emerges from its projected 8-9 game unscathed, it will likely be trampled by a No. 1.

Colorado State Rams (REC: 23-7, RPI: 15, Vs. Top-50: 3-6, Proj. Seed: 8) – Not long ago the Rams were soaring. Nearly flawless offensively in a half-court setting, they were hitting threes at will, pounding the glass and injecting energy not previously seen at the Moby. However, losers of three of their past five, largely due to a deteriorating D, they're no longer the dark-horse many pegged them to be. Pierce Hornug is the Dennis Rodman, in basketball not foreign diplomacy terms, of the MWC, who controls the glass like no one else, but if the Rams want to advance beyond the opening round for the first time since 1989, they must remedy their defensive issues, which is a stretch.

Rehearse your choreographed moves one last time. Get into costume. And press "play" on your boombox. It's time for an Interpretive Dance …

MARKET MADNESS

Here are this week’s biggest bracket bulls and bears:

DA BULLS (MOVING UP)

Louisville Cardinals (REC: 25-5, RPI: 4, SOS: 6, Current Seed: 2)
Comment: Whether under the direction of Denny Crum yesteryear or Rick Pitino today, the Cardinals are in familiar territory. As always, their crushing with defense. According to KenPom.com, they are the most unyielding team in the land, surrendering a mere 0.81 points per possession, well-below the 1.00 D-1 average. Whether employing man or zone, Louisville applies intense pressure on the ball, coaxing turnovers on a ridiculous 27.6 percent of opponent possessions. Additionally, it crashes the offensive glass with measurable gusto. Gorgui Dieng and Chane Behanan are quite the bouncy duo. On the season, the pair have accrued nearly seven second-chance opportunities per game. With Russ Smith executing at a highly efficient rate and Peyton Siva facilitating the offense beautifully (near 2:1 AST:TO ratio), the Cardinals might be the most underappreciated club in the country. Find their stroke from distance down the homestretch, and they will be unstoppable in single-elimination play. If Louisville pounds Notre Dame in the regular season finale – they'll be plenty motivated after the exhausting 5-OT loss in South Bend earlier this year – and makes a deep run in the BEast conference tourney, it will make a strong case for a No. 1 seed.

Ohio State Buckeyes (REC: 22-7, RPI: 15, SOS: 14, Current Seed: 4)
Comment: Lambasted in this space just two weeks ago, the Buckeyes pulled off what many felt was near-to-impossible, beating Indiana in Bloomington on Senior Night. Consider this critic's mouth shut. Brutus deserves serious props. Not only did it undercut arguably the best team pound-for-pound in the league, it did it in resounding fashion, suffocating the high-powered Hoosiers late in the second half. Its timely victory filled the only void on its resume, a marquee road win. It also has the Buckeyes nipping at the heels of the Hoosiers with one game, a home clash against Illinois, to go. As discussed previously, OSU's primary weakness is rooted in the lack of secondary scoring options. DeShaun Thomas is a future NBA millionaire, but he can't carry his team alone. If Aaron Craft, who registered 36 points against Michigan State and Indiana, continues to contribute meaningful offensive numbers, the Buckeyes are a Sweet Sixteen team at a minimum. Defensively, they are very tenacious (No. 12 in D efficiency). Hold court against the Illini and win a game or two in the Big Ten tourney and they should sew up a No. 3 seed.

North Carolina Tar Heels (REC: 22-8, RPI: 19, SOS: 15, Current Seed: 7)
Comment: Not long ago, the Tar Heels' tournament hopes were hanging by a thread. Though they boasted a top-20 strength of schedule, their resume, as a whole, lacked meat. Outside a quality out-of-conference home triumph over UNLV, it didn't own another RPI Top-50 W. Riding a six-game win-streak and with 12 wins in the ACC, UNC, surprisingly, is still ordering off the vegan menu. Yes, its handling of Virginia in Chapel Hill February 16 was critical, but it doesn't possess a single marquee road victory (Maryland doesn't count), a black eye the Selection Committee will certainly punish them for. However, this is a club not to overlook. Roy Williams' shuffling of the starting lineup matched with P.J. Hairston's hot shooting from distance and Carolina's ramped up defense has it clicking. Over its current five-game win-streak it's netted 1.14 points per possession while conceding just 0.94 points per possession. With only a Tobacco Road showdown in the Dean Dome against Duke remaining, it's in strong position to finish the ACC regular season on a high note. Teams sitting on the No. 1 or No. 2 line beware. The Heels, a projected 7-8 seed, are a squad you don't want in your bracket.

Also Flaming: Villanova, Princeton

DA BEARS (MOVING DOWN)

Michigan State Spartans (REC: 22-7, RPI: 8, SOS: 5, Current Seed: 3)
Comment: When the pin is pulled on human grenade, Keith Appling, MSU fans duck for cover. His indigestible turnovers and late-game implosions are killing Sparty. Over his past four games he's accounted for 13 turnovers, six of which came in a hard-to-stomach loss at Michigan Sunday. Shockingly, it appears a Tom Izzo coached team may have peaked too early. Just a couple weeks ago, State was sitting comfortably on the No. 1 line. Now losers in three of its past four, it's becoming increasingly likely it will bottom out as a No. 3 seed, or possibly worse. If Appling can exude more judiciousness with the basketball and grit his teeth in high-leverage situations, the traditional powerhouse could again blaze a trail to the Mecca of College Basketball, the Final Four. Derrick Nix has steadily improved as the season has dragged on, Gary Harris can absolutely fill it up and Adreian Payne has transformed into one of the most versatile big men in the country. Nasty on defense and bruising in the post, Sparty possesses the characteristics needed to make a deep tourney run. Keep in mind it's one of nine teams that ranks inside the top-25 in offensive and defensive efficiency. Still, its success clearly hinges on the play of Appling. If he can find a rhythm in their final pair of home games (vs. Wisconsin and Northwestern), the Spartans will enter the dance with sharpened spears.

Syracuse Orange (REC: 23-7, RPI: 17, SOS: 12, Current Seed: 4)
Comment: Similar to Michigan State, the 'Cuse has fallen into a treacherous sinkhole over the past couple weeks. Once rated as high as No. 6 on the Bracket Big Board, it has tasted defeat in three consecutive games, all against top-level Big East competition (G'Town, at Marq, Louis). The Orange's latest drought is yet another indication why it may not survive the first weekend of the NCAA tournament. Big men like Gorgui Dieng, Otto Porter and Jamil Wilson have wrecked havoc on the 2-3 zone. Their ability to touch and swing the ball from just inside the key has opened up avenues and shooting lanes for their teammates and themselves. If matched against similar 'zone-busters' in the Dance, the Orange will likely turn into 64-ounce bottle of Tropicana in no time, especially if their offensive inadequacies continue. As mentioned before, Michael Carter-Williams might be the most overrated player in the country. His long, athletic frame and ability to score in variable ways is enticing, but his suspect shot selection and vulnerability to turnovers in pressure-packed situations are unappealing attributes. Couple that with Brandon Triche's massive slump (2-for-18 from three in last five games), and it's no wonder why Syracuse is 264th nationally in three-point percentage offense. Throw in its poor defense on the glass, and it's a team to easily avoid in your bracket picks. The Orange must exude maximum effort, win or lose, in their upcoming rematch against Georgetown.

Virginia Cavaliers (REC: 20-9, RPI: 63, SOS: 123, Current Seed: 11)
Comment: Just when you think a brother can trust the Cavs, they drop a gigantic deuce on their resume. On mountain high after nearly trampling Coach K to death (So the HOFer says) in the wake of its Duke dispatching, Virginia hopped on a plane, flew to Boston and promptly lost to a sub-.500 BC team. What a creative way of stymieing momentum. Again with one foot on a sticky trap, it is nowhere near a lock to make the field. It has a plaguing seven losses against teams ranked outside the RPI top-100, setbacks that could dash its at-large hopes. However, point-man Jontel Evans was unavailable in two of those defeats, the most egregious being a neutral court L to a five-win Old Dominion team. As the Committee has done numerous times before, it does take key player injuries into account when scrubbing the bracket. Also working for Virginia is its strong computer-generated support from auxiliary measurements such as KenPom and Sagarin, tools Committee Chair Mike Bobinski follows closely. In those ratings the Cavs are a top-30 team, more than worthy of at-large consideration. Provided they win out (at Florida State, vs. Maryland) and finish with 12 wins in ACC play, they should be dancing. Drop either, however, and Tony Bennett better apply an extra layer of Right Guard on Selection Sunday.

[Also: Villanova’s roller coaster regular season ends with a huge victory]

Also Laming: Indiana, Illinois, California, Minnesota

SOWING THE SEEDS

This segment sifts through the bountiful weekend slate to highlight five titanic games that will bear the greatest impact on a team's "Bracket Big Board" standing

1. Missouri at Tennessee
Laurence Bowers is ballin' once again. Over his past two games, he's totaled 50 points and 21 rebounds. In a scale-tipping game for the Vols, the forward's performance will ultimately determine the winner, and possibly Tennessee's NCAA tournament fate. The Vols' Jarnell Stokes must command the paint, prevent second-chance opportunities and contain Bowers. Do, and his club will likely cement its position as an at-large. Don't, and a deep SEC tourney run will become a necessity. In times of desperation, advantage home team.

Prediction: Tennessee 74 Missouri 71

2. Indiana at Michigan
Just days ago the Hoosiers were almost assured of a No. 1 seed. After a head-scratching home loss at the hands of Ohio State, that standing is now in jeopardy. Michigan played arguably its best defensive game of the season against rival State, despite surrendering a stupid 17 offensive rebounds while going 0-for-12 from three. If it can again turn up the heat and apply pressure, it should get revenge on the visitor. Trey Burke, who shouldn't drop out of the Wooden conversation, is playing his tail off. And IU has struggled mightily at times closing out games. If the Hoosiers go down, it could slide to a No. 2. Crazy.

Prediction: Michigan 71 Indiana 70

3. Florida at Kentucky
Will the 'Cats go out like Custer? Their monumental clash with SEC frontrunner Florida is their last stand. Improbably win, and they will likely bounce someone, possibly conference compadre Tennessee, from the field. Lose, and an NIT appearance is inevitable. With Will Yeguete back in the fold, the Gators are again at full-strength. His defensive presence is cumbersome for foes. Factor in Florida's speed, three-point marksmanship and ability to coax turnovers, and it looks like the 'Cats are cooked.

Prediction: Florida 72 Kentucky 66

4. San Diego State at Boise State
Boise, though blessed with a strong resume, is still Bubblicious, enhancing the stakes in a crucial matchup with the Aztecs. As stated above, the Broncos are lethal from three. Shooting nearly 40-percent beyond the arc as a team, it's imperative Steve Fisher's club to extend defense and hustle in transition. Boise is a defensive pushover ranking No. 99 nationally in adjusted defensive efficiency, but with so many marbles on the line it will go all Doritos Locos at Taco Bell Arena.

Prediction: Boise State 67 San Diego State 64

5. VCU at Temple
The Bracket Big Board community has openly eviscerated yours truly over VCU's alleged low seeding (No. 9). Haters, here's the deal: The Commonwealth don't have the SOS profile of a top-6 seed. Period. However, a road win against a Temple team that should Dance, would apply makeup to that eyesore. But that may not happen. The Owls have turned over the rock on just 16.1-percent of their possessions. If VCU's 'havoc,' which has forced the most turnovers in the country, can't take hold, transition opportunities/points will be few and far between. The Rams will be incredibly dangerous in the tourney, but they may end the A-10 regular season on a sour note.

Prediction: Temple 76 VCU 72

Last week: 3-2
Year to date: 15-10

[Also: Miami’s third loss in four games diminishes its hope of a No. 1 seed]

Other Notable Games: Syracuse at Georgetown, Duke at North Carolina, Kansas State at Oklahoma State, La Salle at St. Louis, Illinois at Ohio State, Maryland at Virginia, Kansas at Baylor, Notre Dame at Louisville

MID-MAJOR HALL OF FAME

What underrated player earned his bust?

Colt Ryan, Evansville, G/F – It's only appropriate a kid with the same name as the Old West's most famous revolver is a premier shooter. The catalyst in the Purple Aces four-game surge, he's totaled a mind-blowing 112 points, swishing 12 threes over that span. On the year, he's recorded 20 or more points 17 times. Netting over 40-percent of his trey-bombs, 89.4-percent from the charity stripe and active on defense, he deserves more national recognition. Next to Doug McDermott and Nate Wolters, Ryan is arguably the best mid-major contributor in the country. As stated earlier this week, 'Arch Madness' may be nuttier than its already insane self. Though Creighton and Wichita State will enter it as favorites, Evansville, thanks to Ryan's torrid shooting, is more than capable of cutting down the nets.

HIGH-MAJOR WALK OF SHAME

What high-profiled player took a long, embarrassing walk home?

Cashmere Wright, Cincinnati, G – Consider this a conference season underachievement award. To say the iron has been unkind for everyone's favorite shooting sweater would be the understatement of the century. Over the past several games, Wright has laid enough bricks to travel to Oz and back. He dropped three bombs in five attempts against Louisville, but prior to that his efforts from distance were deplorable going 14-for-71. His uneven play is the primary reason why the Bearcats are one of the worst offenses in the projected field. They rank No. 250 or worse in several offensive categories, including effective field-goal percentage, two-point percentage and three-point percentage. Wright is a terrific on-the-ball defender, but he must find his long-distance stroke if the Bearcats want to make noise in the tourney.

BRACKET RACKET

Each week, per your tweets, the Noise will attempt to get inside the mind of Selection Committee chairman Mike Bobinski.

Penn, also among Philly's Big Five, is highly offended. John, I strongly suggest you apologize immediately. Don't and the Ivy Leaguers are bound to enforce legal action. Trust me. You don't want to be on the bad side of any Quaker, even Mr. Oats, as tolerable and accepting as they are ...

Sans the silliness, Temple, 'Nova and La Salle should do the Harlem Shake in short order. St. Joe's, however, will be banished to the NIT unless it captures the A-10 tourney crown. The Wildcats were in a precarious position entering Wednesday night, but they cemented their case with a colossal win over Georgetown. No team in college basketball has as many RPI top-15 wins. None. Couple that with a challenging strength of schedule and it should land on the 9-10 line Selection Sunday.

Temple and underrated La Salle will likely be slotted similarly. The Explorers, a surprising 10-4 in A-10 action, defeated fellow Philadelphian 'Nova in non-conference play and won at VCU. Cool off St. Louis this weekend and they're rubber-stamped. As for the Owls, they've played a top-50 schedule and have upended 'Nova and La Salle. Squash VCU on Sunday and they too will cut rug in the very near future.

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