Kevin Olynyk

Predicting Every Conference Champion (Part 2)

If you missed part one of the series picking every champ, you can brush up on the first half (or so) of the alphabet here, but let’s waste no time getting to part two:

 

Missouri Valley – Wichita State

We’ll start with a (maybe) easy one. The Valley is one of my favorite conferences every season, but the drama could be taken out of it a bit this year with Creighton off to the Big East. Wichita State does lose three starters off last year’s final four team, but brings back Cleanthony Early, a heavy favorite for player of the year. A darkhorse pick is Indiana State, who finished second in the conference in two point offense and two point defense, and welcomes back every letter winner.

 

Mountain West – New Mexico

I outlined the MWC last week in my races to watch, so I’ll be a bit more brief here. Despite losing Tony Snell, New Mexico has both (probably) the most top heavy and deepest team in the league, and they’ll have a Senior leading the team at point guard, which is a big plus. Also look for Alex Kirk to have a big Junior season.

Northeast – Robert Morris

LIU-Brooklyn is the team everyone is most familiar with in this league, but when the Blackbirds lost Julian Boyd to yet another knee injury this month, their conference title hopes pretty much went with it.

After knocking off Kentucky in the NIT last year (no major feat, but noteworthy) the Colonials return all but two letterwinners, but they’ll have to replace Velton Jones, who had the fourth highest assist rate in the country last year. Though they struggled mightily at two point defense (and, perhaps defense in general) last year, Robert Morris did force the 14th most turnovers of any team in the country, and that pressure should be enough to help keep other NEC teams at bay.

 

Ohio Valley – Eastern Kentucky

Belmont won the league fairly easily last year, and has had a bit of a stranglehold over whichever conference its been in for the last three years, but I am picking Eastern Kentucky to end their reign here. Belmont loses arguably its three best players, whereas the Colonials lose just one letterwinner.

The biggest thing standing between Eastern Kentucky and the conference title is defense. The Colonials are awful at two point defense (55.3% allowed) and rebounding (38% off. reb. allowed), and they’ll have to hope that their turnovers (25.5%, 6th nationally) can save them. They were the 5th best team at shooting twos in the country last year and they were the 2nd best free throw shooting team in the country, so in close games they will be very tough to beat.

 

Pac 12 – Arizona

I think the Pac 12 is getting a little overrated this year, but it should be better than the last couple of years, which have been frankly a bit embarrassing for a BCS conference. Just to take the contenders one by one…

Oregon has some interesting transfers coming in, and had a nice year last year, but they lose their best player, and arguably the two next best guys after him.

Colorado has three top 150 recruits, and Tad Boyle is starting to build something there, but the Buffaloes lost Andre Roberson and Spencer Dinwiddie is going to have to assume too much of a load for an offense that already wasn’t very good.

Washington has maybe my favorite recruit in the Pac 12, Nigel Williams-Goss, as well as fellow top 100 ranked player Darin Johnson, but like Colorado they really struggled on offense last year and lose their most efficient offensive player.

Cal has probably the third best recruiting class in the league, but has no more Allen Crabbe and Justin Cobbs isn’t quite good enough to assume his role.

The Wildcats, meanwhile, welcome in Aaron Gordon, who is probably anywhere from the 3rd to 6th best Freshman in the country this year, but they do have to replace their point guard (again) and their defense will have to get better for them to win the league. Wing Rondae Jefferson, considered among the best defenders in the class of 2013, should help.

 

Patriot – Army

It’s been a long road for Army, who won just 3 games a decade ago, but after finishing 8-6 in the league last year, and just narrowly losing on Bucknell’s home court in the conference tourney, the Black Knights appear poised for a run. Army led the league in eFG, offensive rebounding, getting to the line, three point shooting and free throw shooting last year, and with Army losing just two Seniors, and with an already deep roster, they could be playing in March. And, let’s face it, if there’s a group of kids who deserves it, it’s this group.

 

SEC – Kentucky

I really like Florida this year, and despite the people who say Kentucky should waltz to not only the SEC title but national title as well, I wouldn’t be surprised to see the Gators holding one or both of those.

But, with the #1 ranked recruiting class coming into the year, Kentucky looks like the favorites for now. One thing holding me back on them is I am not a big fan of the Harrison twins, and while I don’t expect them to be bad or anything, I’m not sure they will be the transcendent guards a lot of people think they’ll be. Still, they’re deep and have a lot of top end talent, and while I think there is a good chance Florida’s Kasey Hill ends up the best Freshman guard in the league, I’m going to side with the majority and take Kentucky.

 

Southern – Elon

Davidson lost just one conference game last year, and should form a solid trio at the top with College of Charleston and Elon. In the end I’m taking the Phoenix, who don’t lose their best player, might have four Seniors in their starting lineup, and have a potential player of the year in Lucas Troutman.

 

Southland – Northwestern State

Last year’s NCAA tournament rep loses four Seniors who played regularly (and two starters) but they gave their bench the 4th most minutes of any team in the country last year, and that should help lessen the blow. This has always been a bit of a topsy turvy league (to wit: Lamar went to the 2012 NCAA tournament and responded by winning 3 games last year), but Northwestern State has been perhaps the most consistent program over the years.

 

SWAC – Southern

The 2013 SWAC season is famous for two things: first, Southern nearly being the first 16 seed to win an NCAA tournament game, and secondly, Grambling going the whole year without winning a game, finishing last in the Pomeroy ratings, as well as last in both offense and defense.

Southern was second in the league and the Pomeroy ratings last year, but with how good they were at taking care of the ball (20th nationally) and on defense (2nd nationally in 2 point defense), Southern should win the league in 2014. In fact, if Jeff Withey hadn’t been around, Southern probably would have had the best 2 point defense in the country. That’s tough to deal with in a league like the SWAC.

 

Summit – North Dakota State

The Bison bring back two potential player of the year candidates in Taylor Braun and Marshall Bjorklund. Bjorklund in particular is an interesting player, as he was very capable on the offensive glass, and his 66.7% eFG was 4th in the country last year. Chris Kading (in limited playing time, mind you) had the nation’s second best offensive rating as a Freshman.

 

Sun Belt – South Alabama

With Middle Tennessee State gone, this league looks to be South Alabama’s to lose. The Jaguars don’t lose anyone who played more than 20 minutes per game last year, and though they struggled a lot on offense they were second in the league in 2 pt defense and led the conference in shot blocking.

 

West Coast – Gonzaga

St. Marys has been a consistent challenger to the Zags lately, and BYU has provided another quality program. But it’s Gonzaga who are the WCC kings and despite having to replace Kelly Olynyk, they should comfortably win the league in 2014 behind Kevin Pangos and Gary Bell.

 

WAC – New Mexico State

The other conference that has undergone a massive reshuffling, it looks like the Aggies should be head and shoulders above the competition this year. Literally, in the case of Sophomore Sim Bhullar, who stands 7’5”. Bhullar, as you might imagine, scored efficiently, rebounded well, and blocked quite a few shots. If he can get his stamina up a bit then the Aggies should have no problem winning the conference.

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