Three Small Conference Races To Watch

I’m not sure what I am going to call the non-BCS leagues when the BCS is no more. It almost has to be mid and low major by default even though I hate hate hate those distinctions. But I digress. While these leagues don’t have the eyeballs or the TV dollars that the Big 12 or ACC have, there is plenty of good basketball to witness, and plenty of good races to be had. Some of them, like the first conference we will profile, will be a bit anticlimactic as they should get multiple teams in the NCAA tournament, whereas others will merely be setting up for the conference tournament to see which  team gets into the NCAA tournament via the automatic bid. Either way they should all come down to the wire and be fun for college basketball fans to keep their eyes on.

1. Mountain West

Last year the Mountain West, how shall I put this, did a good job making themselves look good in the eyes of the RPI. While one game samples aren’t the best way to cross check the work of the RPI, the conference’s work in the NCAA tournament left a lot to be desired. Chief among these was New Mexico losing to Harvard in the first round of the NCAA tournament. 

Well I have potentially bad news: it looks like the same type of situation will present itself this year. Conference player of the year Kendall Williams is back for New Mexico and the Lobos should be the favorite to repeat as champs. Williams had an impressive 32.5% assist rate and just a 16.8% turnover rate. I am not a big NBA guy, but with his size (6’4”) and ability to distribute, he will probably be on some NBA radars after this year, especially if he improves his shooting.

The Lobos should also benefit from some improvement by Alex Kirk. Kirk was the best rebounder on the team last year and although he played only sparingly at the World University Games he still benefitted from going up against the likes of Cory Jefferson and Adreian Payne in practice.

Elsewhere in the league, look for Boise State to perhaps challenge for the conference crown. The Broncos return all five starters, including Anthony Dimric (54% from two, 39% from three) and Jeff Elorriaga, whose insistence on only taking good shots and ability to take care of the ball led him to lead the country in offensive rating last year. Another national leader is rising Senior Ryan Watkins, who led the nation in offensive rebounding. North Dakota native Joe Hanstad will provide some spark off the bench for the Broncos after missing part of last season with an injury.


2. Big Sky

For the last two years, the Big Sky has mostly been a race between Montana and Weber State, with Montana getting the automatic bid both years. But at the end of last year, a third possible challenger emerged when North Dakota took Weber State to the wire in the Big Sky semis, eventually losing by just two points. The team formerly known as the Fighting Sioux will likely start four Seniors and a Junior, and recently added transfer Chad Calcaterra, who at 6’10” will provide the team with some much needed size inside.

Both Montana and Weber State excel from the outside. Weber State might have a tougher single player  to replace with Scott Bamforth and his 103 made threes (and the 9th best offensive rating in the country) graduating. They lose Frank Otis as well, who was their second best rebounder and shot almost 65%.

Once again, the Big Sky’s biggest challenger will be North Dakota. UND should have four Senior starters, and if Troy Huff gets his two point accuracy up a bit, might have the front runner for league player of the year. Their big key however will be the play of Senior point guard Jamal Webb. Webb’s 26.4% assist rate should rank among the best in the league if he does it again this year, but he had an even higher turnover rate (27.6%). The good news for North Dakota fans, though, is that turnover rate plummeted in the final month of the season.


3. Patriot League

The Patriot League has always been one of my favorite leagues in the country, and it has produced some really good teams and players in recent years. Obviously CJ McCollum got most of the headlines thanks to Lehigh’s upset over Duke in 2012 and his 1st round selection in the NBA Draft, but Bucknell’s Mike Muscala was quietly one of the most productive players in the country last year.

Last year the league was basically Bucknell and Lehigh and then everyone else, but with McCollum and Muscala gone, the league should be wide open in 2013.

My biggest question for the league will be whether this is the year Army finally makes the NCAA tournament. The Black Knights lose their best player of last year’s team, but had four Freshmen among their biggest minutes getters, and still finished third in the league. Under Zach Spiker Army’s strategy has seemingly been to shoot as many threes as possible and so far it has been working fairly well. They shot 37% from three last year, 37th in the country, and it’s a big reason why they ranked 2nd in the Patriot League in scoring last year.

Army also, while being ranked 212th nationally in defense, showed a lot of signs of a team on the rise defensively. For one, they were third in the Patriot League in 2 point percentage allowed, and they managed to do a pretty good job on the defensive glass last year, especially considering their relative lack of size.

Somehow writing about the Patriot League turned into the Army section, but I’m OK with it because, as much as I’m not a rah rah flag waver, these are special young men (and women) who go through the academy and as much as anyone else in the country deserve to be rewarded with an NCAA tournament berth.