Conference Season Begins

As teams close out the first part of their season and prepare for conference play in their respective conferences, I share who my favorites are to win each conference and who can expect to challenge for the top spot.

America East

The Vermont Catamounts are quietly putting together a solid campaign.  The Albany Great Danes are the most likely to push Vermont and end up stealing their spot in the tournament come March.

American Athletic

The AAC has been disappointing this year and that’s an understatement. The only threat to make noise in the tournament is a tough Cincinatti team. Most other teams in the conference fall into the middle to low tier when comparing them to other major conferences. The biggest challenger to the Bearcats is SMU. After having one of the best records and not going to the tournament due to serving NCAA violations, SMU can be the second best team to make the tournament.

Atlantic 10

This conference is always so interesting as it can produce a wide range of tournament berths from year to year. The Dayton Flyers are my favorite, but it will be a close race to the top with the likes of Rhode Island, VCU, and even Davidson. Dark horses to challenge the top contenders are St. Bonaventure and La Salle. My top 6 is any variation from these teams, but I expect Dayton and Rhode Island to vie for the top spot.

ACC

Oh the ACC…I honestly believe there is a better chance for a 4-way tie for first than an outright winner.  Duke, Virginia, Louisville, and North Carolina, I think, end up in a tie for first place at the conclusion of conference play.  I think Duke has the better players out of those four teams which would give them edge, if they figure out how to play together.  Since introducing the three stellar freshman to the floor, Duke has struggled somewhat.  Grayson Allen is a major distraction to the team and I think has a negative effect as Duke transitions into conference play.  His actions and how he carries himself seem more isolating than anything.  I believe the ACC has the potential to send 8 or 9 teams to the NCAA tournament with the final conference standings projected as follows:

  1. Duke
  2. North Carolina
  3. Virginia
  4. Louisville
  5. Notre Dame
  6. Clemson
  7. Florida State
  8. Virginia Tech
  9. Miami FL
  10. Syracuse
  11. Wake Forest
  12. Pittsburgh
  13. NC State
  14. Georgia Tech
  15. Boston College

Atlantic Sun

I have Florida Gulf Coast is the favorite to win this one-bid league.  I don’t see any team challenging FGCU for the bid to the NCAA tournament unless a major upset occurs in the conference tournament.

Big 12

This is a very tough choice to make, mainly because I don’t want to pick against history. Kansas has won the regular season title 12 straight years.  I’d love to pick Kansas to win because they are so consistent during the regular season. They will have a strong challenge from West Virginia.  The Mountaineers are slightly more efficient in Ken Pomeroy’s ratings.  I’m excited to watch their matchups when they play each other.  Baylor has a legitimate chance to make some noise based on their body of work early in the season.  I don’t foresee other teams in this conference finishing in the top 3, but I do think the Big 12 sends at least 5 or 6 teams to the tournament.

Big East

The Villanova Wildcats are the favorite to win the Big East this year. It won’t come easy due to the upper half of the conference playing very well. Creighton has been the dark horse to this point, with an unexpected, yet impressive, undefeated non-conference. The Blue Jays issues will be on the defensive end, as they aren’t as efficient in protecting the rim as Butler, Xavier, Providence, or Villanova. Expect Villanova to be pushed in games against Xavier, Creighton, and Butler. Butler is still looking for their first win over Villanova – January 4th at Hinkle Fieldhouse is their best opportunity this year.

Final standings

  1. Villanova
  2. Creighton
  3. Butler
  4. Xavier
  5. Marquette
  6. Seton Hall
  7. Providence
  8. Georgetown
  9. St. John’s
  10. DePaul

Big Sky

This is an odd conference to try and predict.  The most efficient team on offense in the conference is almost the least efficient on defense (and in the nation).  That title belongs to Eastern Washington.  Because of that, I see them finishing in the middle of the pack in their conference.  North Dakota is my favorite to win this conference and they will feel pressure from both Weber State and Montana to become conference champions.

Big South

I see the Big South as a horse race between Winthrop and UNC Asheville.  I think UNC Asheville has the edge in this race, but we’ll see how that prediction holds through conference play.

Big Ten

The Big Ten will be fun this year mainly from the state of Indiana perspective because both Indiana and Purdue have great opportunities to win.  However, throw in the Wisconsin Badgers into that mix to win the conference.  I give Wisconsin a slight edge to win out, but both the Hoosiers and Boilermakers will be nipping at the heels of the Badgers.

Final Standings

  1. Wisconsin
  2. Indiana
  3. Purdue
  4. Michigan
  5. Northwestern
  6. Minnesota
  7. Maryland
  8. Ohio State
  9. Michigan State
  10. Illinois
  11. Iowa
  12. Nebraska
  13. Rutgers
  14. Penn State

Big West

There’s not much to say here.  This is a bad conference and Long Beach State has not lived up to its darling, upset minded projection assigned to them at the beginning of the season.  I think they end up winning the conference, but I also wouldn’t be surprised if UC Irvine claims that crown as they have the best defense in the league.

Colonial Athletic Association

This will be a fun conference to follow over the conference season.  UNC Wilmington should win the regular season title with some distance between them and second place.  This conference does include Northeastern, the team that has won at Connecticut, Vermont, Michigan State, and Oakland.  Vermont and Oakland will vie for a conference championship.  I’m curious to see how Northeastern’s conference play pans out.

Conference USA

Conference USA is another odd study in which it may be tough to choose an absolute winner.  I think the favorite to pick is Middle Tennessee.  They have pushed themselves in non-conference play and play relatively efficient basketball on both offense and defense compared to other teams in their league.  It will be a tight race for second if teams don’t beat Middle Tennessee.  Old Dominion, Louisiana Tech, Rice, and Marshall all have legitimate chances at snagging the 2 seed when the conference tournament begins.  How they acquire it will be interesting.  Old Dominion is horrific on offense, but nearly compensate because they have such a great defense. Marshall can expect to be in most games because they run the floor and have a large number of possessions each game.  Louisiana Tech has a balanced team on offense and defense, it is just less efficient than Middle Tennessee is.  Rice is the opposite of Old Dominion.  They have an efficient offense and an abysmal defense.

Horizon League

The Horizon League is another conference with a two team race to win the conference.  Valparaiso and Oakland will be the two teams to beat.  I think Valparaiso wins the regular season with Oakland close behind.

Ivy League

Expectations have changed for the Ivy League this year since having aspirations of sending two teams to the tournament to begin the season. The Princeton Tigers are my favorite to win the conference and automatic bid. The closest challenger is Yale and has a decent shot if they can beat Princeton head-to-head.

MAAC

Monmouth doesn’t get snubbed this year as they dominate their conference.  I expect them to beat decent competition from Iona and Siena to make it to the tournament, a place they should have been last year as well.

Mid-American

In the MAC East Division, I have Akron winning the division over Ohio.  In the MAC West Division, it should be a tighter race between Central Michigan, Eastern Michigan, and Toledo.  I think Eastern Michigan wins the West Division because they take care of the ball better, match each of the offenses well to those two teams, and have a better defense.

MEAC

This is a bad conference and the only inkling of goodness that comes from this conference is North Carolina Central’s average defensive efficiency.  Because the teams in this conference are so bad, I wouldn’t be surprised if most of them finish within a game of .500 and North Carolina Central “runs away” from the rest of the pack because they don’t play as poorly as the other teams.

Missouri Valley

Loyola Chicago has really impressed and surprised me this year.  They are my dark horse to win the conference, but Wichita State is my favorite.  The Shockers have fallen off a bit in my opinion, but I think they beat out Illinois State for the conference.  I really would like to see Loyola do well. Northern Iowa also seems to have fallen off a bit as well.  Is the MVC losing some of its oomph?

Mountain West

The Mountain West should be fun this year.  After reviewing numbers from Ken Pomeroy’s website, I’ve found that a team with a more potent offense than a stingy defense tends to be the winner in a game.  If this is true, Nevada has the upper hand over San Diego State.  SDSU hasn’t produced like they have in recent years and I would expect Nevada to take this conference, albeit in a very tight race.

Northeast

This is another conference where each team is mostly bad and that will result in a lot of teams at or within 1 game of .500.  Two teams that will duke it out are Wagner and Mount St. Mary’s.  Both teams have poor records right now, but will end up with winning records after beating up their conference foes.

Ohio Valley

Ah, the Ohio Valley.  This will be fun because in the East Division, there will be a fun race to follow between ever-present Belmont and up and coming Tennessee State.  I think Belmont wins out because they have better offensive firepower.  In the West Division, Murray State is my favorite to win with UT-Martin as a possible option to knock Murray State out of the 1 seed for their division.

Pac 12

I can’t wait to see how this conference pans out this year.  There are promising teams that haven’t been relevant in a while from the Pac 12.  UCLA is my favorite to win the league, replacing Arizona from my original choice.  Arizona doesn’t seem to have found their identity due in large part to injuries.  I think Arizona, Oregon, and USC give UCLA good competition, but it’s hard to beat a team that is so efficient and fast paced every time they take the floor.  My dark horse for the Pac 12 is Colorado.

Patriot League

Remember, last year, when Holy Cross finished ninth in the conference and won 4 straight away games to earn the bid for the NCAA tournament?  I don’t expect most to remember.  Those are the stories I love about college basketball.  I don’t think it will happen again in this conference for a long time (but boy I hope I’m wrong).  This will be a fun conference to watch because Lehigh, Bucknell, and even Boston has a chance to win this conference.  I think Lehigh and Bucknell are more consistent teams and eventually Lehigh wins the conference.

SEC

Amazingly, the SEC only sent 3 teams to the tournament last year: Kentucky, Texas A&M, and an undeserved Vanderbilt team.  This year, I think the conference can send 5 teams – Kentucky, Florida, South Carolina, Texas A&M, and possibly Arkansas.  Here’s how I see the SEC standings at the conclusion of the regular season.

  1. Kentucky
  2. Florida
  3. South Carolina
  4. Texas A&M
  5. Arkansas
  6. Georgia
  7. Tennessee
  8. Vanderbilt
  9. LSU
  10. Auburn
  11. Mississippi
  12. Alabama
  13. Mississippi State
  14. Missouri

Southern

There are two very good teams that can be dangerous to play in the tournament should either get there in March.  This conference is, yet again, a two team race to the top between Chattanooga and East Tennessee State.  I think Chattanooga wins the conference with ETSU finishing second.

Southland

Stephen F. Austin’s reign as the dominant team in the Southland Conference has come to an end.  At one point, the Lumberjacks had compiled an outrageous 69-3 conference record over a 3 year period.  Unfortunately, there is not a real replacement as Sam Houston State looks the most promising to win the conference.

SWAC

On Ken Pomeroy’s standings, the SWAC ranks as the worst league.  I think Texas Southern has the best opportunity to win the conference due to them having the “best” offense compared to their conference opponents.  Their current record would lead you to think otherwise as they sit at 4 wins to 9 losses.  However, knowing that two of their conference opponents are currently winless and the rest don’t have more than 3 or 4 wins, they won’t have much trouble.

Sunbelt

It is fun to see this conference doing so well.  The top 5 or 6 teams have the capability to win on any night regardless of who they play during conference play.  This is the same conference that sent RJ Hunter and his father into the tournament that took down 3 seeded Baylor and gave Xavier a good scare.  It’s the same conference that sent Little Rock to the tournament and took down 5 seeded Purdue in double overtime.  This year, I’m most impressed with UT-Arlington.  I think they win the conference with Georgia State, Little Rock, and Louisiana Lafayette fighting for 2nd place.

Summit

My favorite to win the Summit this year is Fort Wayne.  Their closest competition is IUPUI and North Dakota State.  The Summit League tends to have some great matchups.  I had a blog post in early November that included a player to watch, Mike Daum.  He plays for South Dakota State, a team that has a decent offense, but they are abysmal on defense.  I’m disappointed in how their season has panned out and don’t expect much from them in conference play.

West Coast

The West Coast Conference has been dominated by Gonzaga.  However, St. Mary’s, and BYU have taken turns closing the gap to Gonzaga over the past few seasons.  St. Mary’s has a legitimate chance to win the WCC this year, but it will require them to beat Gonzaga.  Their home loss to UT-Arlington is a bit concerning because St. Mary’s wasn’t really in contention to win for a majority of the game.  I think Gonzaga ultimately wins the conference, but St. Mary’s puts up a good fight and that both make the tournament this year.

WAC

I see three possible teams winning this conference: New Mexico State, Cal State Bakersfield, or Grand Canyon.  I never thought I would list the third candidate, but here I am!  Grand Canyon is a decent team and, having only been in Division 1 since the 2013-2014 season, its impressive work by Dan Majerle to lead the team to a 27-7 record last season.  They are on pace for another great year and will push the others for that automatic bid in March.  I think New Mexico State wins the conference, but Grand Canyon stays with them until the end.

 

Well, I’ll monitor the landscape of each conference and can’t wait to see how things change over the next three months!  I hope to see some unexpected teams turn their season around and challenge at the top.

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