For the past couple seasons I have been writing posts predicting every conference champion, to raucous fanfare across the country (perhaps a slight exaggeration). Being that this is my first time doing so for a national outfit, I am excited to see how many people think I hate their team and excited to be accused of being a homer for no less than 5-10 different teams. Let’s get to it.
(for the record these are regular season champions in case you are one of the people who believes the nonsense that a conference tournament championship is more noteworthy)
America East – Stony Brook
Vermont returns basically everyone, but Stony Brook won the league by three games last year, and finished the season with a KenPom rating of close to 50, which is very impressive for a team out of the America East. Helping Stony Brook’s cause further is the fact that potential contender Boston University is off to the Patriot League. More on them later. Maybe.
American – Louisville
I think this one might be a little closer than some people are giving the league credit for. Memphis has everyone back from a really talented team, and Connecticut flew under the radar in 2012-13 due to their mandated one year hiatus from the tournament. Ryan Boatright and Shabazz Napier give the Huskies one of the best backcourts in the country, but Louisville just defends too well for me to pick anyone else. It might come a little more down to the wire than people think, but the Cardinals should take it fairly easily.
Atlantic 10 – St. Louis
The Billikens won the league last year, and will likely have four Senior starters leading the show this year. They struggled a bit on offense last year, but their two leaders (Dwayne Evans and Jordair Jett) are back, so they’ll at least have continuity on their side. The Billikens also finished last year 8th in defense according to KenPom, and are as good as any team in the country at forcing opponents to pay at their speed (211th in tempo, 248th in offensive possession time).
Their main challenger (and the team I expect most people to pick to win the title) is VCU. The Rams have perhaps their most talented team ever, but the Billikens beat them twice last year, and scored 138 points in 122 possessions against the vaunted havoc defense. The Rams will probably be more talented than St. Louis, but they also have more to replace, so I am going with experience.
ACC – Duke
Syracuse is coming off a Final Four appearance, North Carolina always has talent, Pitt has one of the toughest environments in the country in which to play, Virginia might have the player of the year in the league, but Duke has all of those things (minus the final four appearance). The Blue Devils have to replace Mason Plumlee, Seth Curry and Ryan Kelly, no small task, but Quinn Cook is one of the more underrated players in the ACC, I expect Rasheed Sulaimon to step up and have a big Sophomore season, and Jabari Parker is probably the elite recruit with the highest basketball IQ.Duke struggled a bit on the defensive end, comparatively speaking, last year, but a lot of that probably had to do with the Kelly injury and I expect the Blue Devils to get back to being an elite (or near elite) defense that they have been for most of the last decade.
Atlantic Sun – Florida Gulf Coast
First year head coach Joe Dooley has inherited an Atlantic Sun team that went to the Sweet 16. Not a bad way to start. The Eagles lose just one Senior off last year’s team and bring back sensational point guard Brett Comer, who was second in the nation in assist rate last year. Though their thought of as a high flying, risk taking team (and some of that is true; they were 242nd in turnover rate last year) the Eagles actually got it done on defense last season, finishing 2nd in the league in PPP allowed and 2 pt% allowed, as well as first in turnovers forced.
Their main challenger will be Mercer, last year’s champ, who could put out an all Senior starting lineup, including four guys who saw a lot of playing time last season.
Big 12 – Kansas
It’s happened the last 9 years, so why not one more. True, the Jayhawks will be losing four all five starters from last year’s Big 12 champs, and only Perry Ellis and Naadir Tharpe saw any kind of consistent playing time, but they bring in Senior transfer Tarik Black, the #1 center in his high school class, and some Andrew Wiggins kid who I hear is supposed to be OK. The Jayhawks also have arguably the best coach in the country, and with lesser heralded but still able to contribute recruits like Frank Mason, Conner Frankamp and Brannen Greene, the Jayhawks have the bodies to be able to adapt on offense and play Bill Self’s consistently excellent defense.
Big East – Georgetown
Creighton moves into the Big East and behind Doug McDermott should have an excellent chance at winning the league, but I am going to go with the Hoyas. Georgetown, meanwhile, loses Otto Porter but brings back the next 8 guys in their rotation, and should get a full season from Greg Whittington, who had promising numbers before tearing his ACL last year. The Hoyas also welcome Reggie Cameron, a pretty underrated recruit, into the fold, and should eke out Creighton for being class of the Big East.
Big Sky – North Dakota
This is the one time people can accuse me of being biased. Yes, Montana won the league last year and returns a lot of talent. Yes, Weber State was right there, won 30 games, and is returning a lot of talent. Yes, those two were head and shoulders above the rest of the league. However, North Dakota brings back all of their starters, should have four Seniors in their starting lineup, have a player of the year candidate in Troy Huff, and most importantly, have me as an alum. So you can take it to the bank that North Dakota is winning the Big Sky this year.
Big South – High Point
Last year Liberty won the conference tournament despite going 6-10 in league play, and Charleston Southern, who had the best KenPom rating by quite a bit, returns four starters, but I am taking High Point, who also returns a lot of talent, including Sophomore John Brown, who used 30% of the team’s possessions while on the floor and also was one of the best rebounders and foul drawers in the conference. In order to win the league though, the defense will have to get better: High Point was just 6th in the Big South in 2pt% allowed.
Big 10 – Michigan State
After being the best league in the country by a pretty good margin last year, I think the Big 10 will take a step back, at least in terms of elite teams. Indiana will have a fairly bare cupboard in terms of returning talent, Michigan loses by far their most important player, and I don’t see Ohio State scoring enough to be able to keep up.
The Spartans, meanwhile, will have a Senior point guard leading the show as well as Adreian Payne, whose name I might be able to spell without looking it up first by the time the season ends. More importantly, though, he had almost a 60% eFG and was the best rebounder on a team that quietly wasn’t the type of rebounding team people expect to see at Michigan State. Another player to watch is Branden Dawson, who is tremendously gifted, but has struggled a bit coming back from an ACL injury.
The other team who is worth watching is Wisconsin. They have three Seniors to replace, but Bo Ryan always does it somehow, and this year the Badgers might have the frontrunner for Big 10 player of the year in Sam Dekker. Though he didn’t get a lot of playing time, Dekker shot 57% from two and 39% from three last season, and is a 6’7” guard who can play both inside and outside. A guy with the efficiency we’ve come to expect at Wisconsin as well as the type of skills who will get NBA scouts to Madison is something we haven’t seen in awhile.
Big West – UC Irvine
Irvine and Long Beach State return the most talent in the league, and although Long Beach won the league last year, Irvine had a slightly higher KenPom rating and the 49ers lose their best and most important player, whereas Irvine was much more balanced last year and figures to be again this year. Irvine will need to score a bit more this year (losing a guy who made just 31% of his 229 threes will help that) but they were one of the better defensive teams among all mid majors last year, allowing opponents to shoot just 42.5% from inside the arc.
Colonial – Towson
In 2012, Towson went 1-31. Think about that. 1-31. Last year they vaulted all the way up to 18-13 and now the soothsayer to end all soothsayers (me) is picking them to win their conference. If Pat Skerry doesn’t have a better job after this year then a lot of schools are doing it wrong.
Last year Towson improved on offense dramatically, going from about .8 points per possession to just over a point per trip, and they did it by hitting the glass hard. They were the 6th best offensive rebounding team in the nation, grabbing just over 39% of their misses. They do lose their best offensive rebounder off last years team, but Sophomore Timajh Parker-Rivera, who had a 2nd best 11.5 offensive rebound rate in limited minutes, could fill those shoes.
Conference USA – UTEP
With Memphis gone to the Big East, this league becomes quite a tossup. I am taking the Miners, who lose less valuable pieces than Southern Miss and East Carolina, and I don’t think the rest of the league is good enough to make a push towards those teams. It’s the league that has done probably the most reshuffling out of any this year thanks to realignment, and it is much worse for it. Old Dominion and Middle Tennessee are solid programs, but they’re not really who I’d want headlining my league if I were pretending to be a big time league still.
Horizon – Wright State
Both Valparaiso and Detroit lost almost all of their talent (although with Bryce Drew I am still not willing to count out Valpo) but Wright State brings back everybody, that’s right, everybody, from a team that finished third in the league and had the conference’s best defense. They’ll also have a full year of Cole Darling, who missed the team’s final two months with an injury.
Ivy – Harvard
Harvard only brings back slightly fewer minutes than Wright State (Christian Webster, who used just 15% of the possessions while on the floor, graduates) and they’ll also bring back Kyle Casey, the team’s leading scorer from 2012 who was implicated in the Harvard cheating scandal. With him back, Siyani Chambers and Wesley Saunders, who played the 5th and 10th most minutes in the country respectively, will get some more rest against the dregs of the Ivy.
MAAC – Niagara
Despite not going to the NCAA tournament last year, the Purple Eagles won the league and, not losing anybody off last year’s team, should do so again. They were actually fourth in the league in terms of KenPom, but the teams around them lost so much more talent that it’s hard not to side with the Purps.
MAC – Akron
Akron lost just two league games last year, and only lost Zeke Marshall to graduation. The Zips led the league in defense and were 2nd in 2pt% allowed, and led the league in offensive rebounding. The Zips were both very good from two both on offense and on defense, finishing in the top 25 nationally in both categories, though oddly enough just 5th in 2pt offense in MAC conference play.
MEAC – Norfolk State
Ah, the injustices of giving the tournament winner the autobid. Last year Norfolk State went a perfect 16-0 in the conference. They then lost their first game of the conference tournament, and that was it. They lose one Senior starter, Rob Johnson, and a pair of roleplayers, but with last year fresh in their minds I think Norfolk State will be on a mission to make it to the NCAA tournament, and that will result in another regular season title (although, I suppose on the flip side, it could lead to them not caring about the regular season in preparation for the conference tournament).