Saturday, February 25, 2006

CMass Playoff Predictions -- Division III Girls

This will be of no interest to anyone but me, but I'm going to spend a lot of bandwidth on it anyway. Here are my not-long-awaited, not looked-forward-to predictions for the Division III CMass Girls Basketball Tournament.

This is without a doubt the strongest Division III group in years, if not in the history of the CMass Tournament. Five of the top six seeds are threats to win the tourney. In fact, those five teams are probably five of the eight best schools in the district at any division. Four of those six teams defeated Division I playoff teams in the last week. Before I pick the games, let's look at the top six teams.

1. Hopedale (19-1). Hopedale was the first name out of the hat among the three 19-1 teams and received the top seed. While they swept a difficult Dual Valley Conference at 12-0, they did not play may games out of Division III. Their one loss came to Division I Milford, a team that did not qualify for the playoffs. They were 8-0 against teams in this tournament, had two wins against conference rival Nipmuc, who qualified for the D-II tourney, and won two games against EMass playoff teams. They were 6-1 in D-I or D-II teams.

Hopedale beat us in our district playoff game last year, 64-39. It was a classic small conference-big conference tournament game, where the small team hangs around for a while and then gets steamrolled at the end. We were still within four points with 12 minutes left and then poof, we were down 20.

2. Ayer (19-1). Ayer's 19-1 record is in part the product of a weak schedule, however they have a couple of very impressive wins to their credit as well, including a victory over D-I playoff qualifier Tantasqua in last week's Mt. Wachusett Tournament small-school finals. They are 5-1 against teams in this tournament, including a split against No. 4 West Boylston. They only played four higher-division teams, winning all of them. Of those four opponents, only the aforementioned Tantasqua squad has qualified for the postseason.

We played Ayer twice this year, and were not remotely competitive with them. Last year's SLA team was able to stay close for a while (tied at the half) in our second game against essentially the same team that Ayer is fielding this season.

3. Quaboag (19-1). Quaboag is the strongest team in the bracket, falling to the three seed only because ties are broken randomly, not on strength of schedule or any other sort of competitive rationale. They have won the last three district titles and one state championship. Quaboag is 90-4 since the start of the 2002-03 season. Their only loss this season was to defending Division II state champion Hampshire. They have only played two games against teams in this tournament, beating #18 Bartlett both times. However, their lack of exposure to tourney opponents is because all of their 18 remaining games were against D-I or D-II teams.

Last week, Quaboag defeated defending WMass D-I champion Springfield Central and this year's #4 CMass Division I seed Leominster in back-to-back games. Including those games, they are 6-0 against D-I playoff teams.

SLA has never played Quaboag, thank God.

4. West Boylston (17-3). West Boylston has played in the CMass final four each of the last three years. They play in the Mid-Wach D with #2 Ayer, splitting the two games and a conference title with them, but have a stronger out of conference schedule. 12 of the Lions 20 games have come against playoff teams. West Boylston is 5-2 against other teams in this tournament, with a loss to #6 Lunenburg to go with the loss to Ayer. They are also 4-1 against tournament qualifiers in Divisions I and II.

West Boylston dropped SLA from their schedule after the 2004 season because they wanted to toughen up their non-conference schedule, and the 59-28 wins against us weren't doing the trick for them.

5. Parker (17-3). There is always at least one team that gets a high seed because they are the best team is a weak conference, and WCAC Champion Parker is it again. They did not play a Division I or II team this season, and were just 6-3 against teams in this tournament, losing twice to Ayer and once to Bromfield. Their only wins against tourney teams were sweeps of #7 Hudson Catholic, #8 Monty Tech, and #14 St. Mary's. They did add a victory over North Division IV Fenway Charter.

Parker beat us handily in both meetings, but every team we played that made the tourney can boast of that. More telling, they split with us last season and were a bit better team in 2005 than they are this year.

6. Lunenburg (16-4). The Blue Knights were a Division II finalist in 2005, and were moved down to Division III because of realignment in 2006. Instead of being one of the smallest D-II schools, they are the largest D-III school, and play nearly all upper division schools on their schedule. Three of their four losses are to Nashoba and Holy Name, two of the top six D-I schools in the district. The other loss is to St. Bernard's, which is ranked #2 in Division II.

They are 4-0 against teams in this tournament, with a sweep of #11 Narragansett (their first round opponent), and victories over #4 West Boylston and #15 Bromfield.

If I were to seed the top six based on who should win rather than on record, I would seed them:
  1. Quaboag
  2. Lunenburg
  3. West Boylston
  4. Hopedale
  5. Ayer
  6. Parker
In fact, Parker probably wouldn't even be #6, since I think there are probably three or four other teams better than they are, but I'm not going to break down everyone.

Now on to the picks...

Preliminary Round Games
#15 Bromfield over #18 Bartlett. Bromfield frequently comes from the middle or bottom of the pack and sneaks into the final four. Last year, they went to the semis as a 14 seed.

#16 Whitinsville Christian over #17 Sutton. Sutton swept both low scoring games in the regular season. Whitinsville is tough at home, though and has otherwise scored without trouble. They won't lose a third time.

First Round Games
#1 Hopedale over #16 Whitinsville Christian. WCS beat Hopedale three times last year. Hopedale returned the favor with three wins so far this year. This is a tough matchup for Hopedale as they are forced to play in their conference, but they should come out of it with a tough win. This will be the best first-round game of the eight.

#2 Ayer over #15 Bromfield. Another of four first round match-ups where the two teams faced each other at least twice in league play. Ayer won each of the first two. They were upset by Bromfield in the quarters last year and denied a chance to go to WPI. The avenge that loss in this game.

#3 Quaboag over #14 St. Mary's. Of all the bad draws, this is the worst possible draw for St. Mary's. As the #2 team from the WCAC, they weren't going to win a first round game against any of the top 6, but this is just brutal. Ayer is a great defensive team, but isn't so good on offense that they will obliterate an opponent. Hopedale is a great shooting team, but might give up a few points. Quaboag might be the best team in the district at any level. See above. St. Mary's will do well to keep the margin under 50.

#4 West Boylston over #13 Assabet Valley. Assabet did a nice job to get back to the districts after a number of years away, and they will be happy with that. This could also be a brutal game, should West Boylston want it to be.

#5 Parker over #12 Keefe Tech. A great draw for Parker. Had Lunenburg moved into the #5 spot and forced Parker into #6, they would have had trouble with Narragansett, but Parker defeated both of the CAC teams ahead of Keefe Tech and their full-court press will be too much for this CAC team too.

#6 Lunenburg over #11 Narragansett. Lunenburg won the first two meetings easily, and will cruise again.

#7 Hudson Catholic over #10 Valley Tech. Hudson Catholic is a good defensive team and relies on their two inside scorers for the few points they need to win. They should not have trouble here, although the final score may be closer than the game.

#8 North Brookfield over #9 Monty Tech. This is a terrible match-up for Monty Tech. Tech plays a straight zone on defense with a diamond-and-one press, and North Brookfield is a run-and-gun team who can blow through the press and will shoot 25+ three-point shots against the zone. Unless they are terribly cold from the field, North Brookfield should have a huge lead at the half and win easily.

Quarterfinal Games
#1 Hopedale over #8 North Brookfield. Another matchup of conference rivals. North Brookfield will get up and down the floor with Hopedale, but isn't good enough defensively and can't quite outscore Hopedale. This will probably be a pretty good game, and Hopedale will win it.

#2 Ayer over #7 Hudson Catholic. Hudson Catholic's low-scoring style plays right into the hands of Ayer's swarming half-court matchup zone. HC may not score 20 points in the easy Ayer victory.

#3 Quaboag over #6 Lunenburg. This may be the best game in the entire tournament, and one could make the argument (as I did above) that these are the two best teams in the tourney. This could be a great game, but Quaboag is better. I expect that the winner of this game will be the district champions.

#4 West Boylston over #5 Parker. Parker's full-court press will be ineffective against WB's guards, and if they can't press, they will have a hard time scoring against an experienced front line. This should be an easy victory for the Lions.

Semifinal Games
#4 West Boylston over #1 Hopedale. This could be a classic game. West Boylston has been to the final four three years in a row, and that experience means something against a team going to WPI for the first time. Hopedale's best players are sophomores and they will probably be the odds-on favorite to win it all in 2007, but WB is a little better this year.

#3 Quaboag over #2 Ayer. The Cougars are quite a bit better than anyone Ayer has faced, and are patient enough offensively to counter Ayer's match-up zone. Quaboag will swing the ball from side to side until the forward steps out to cover the wing, leaving an O'Keefe with a one-on-one matchup against a center for an easy two. And they will do it over and over and over. And there is nothing anyone can do about it.

#3 Quaboag over #4 West Boylston. Quaboag has eliminated the Lions each of the last two years, and will do so again. WB has done everything it can to prepare for this game by toughening their schedule and playing up all year. But Quaboag has been doing that too in order to prepare for the states. WB will barely be in it at halftime, and won't be able to put together a run in the second half, losing by 15 or so to the now four-time district champs.
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